The Girl Who Orbited the Sun

by Dee Pad

First published

When a newly-crowned Twilight Sparkle finds an old book hidden away in the royal archives, she discovers a piece of her mentor's past she had never been told about. And the more she read, the more questions arose. Just who was Sunset Shimmer?

Overwhelmed by her new duties as a princess, a newly-crowned Twilight Sparkle seeks solace within the quiet confines of Canterlot Castle's royal archives, where she discovers a book she'd never seen before. Within its pages was a story about both Princess Celestia and Starswirl the Bearded, as well as a mare that Twilight had never heard of.

Details of their lives, their history, and their relationships puzzle, intrigue, and even worry Twilight. The more she read, the more curious she became and the more questions that arose. But there was only one question to which she truly sought the answer:

Who was Sunset Shimmer?

Chapter 1 - Enlightened

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 1: Enlightened

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Twilight Sparkle let out an exasperated groan, the only sound that could be heard in the expansive halls of Canterlot Castle aside from her muffled hoofsteps on the plush, red carpets stretching the length of the corridors. Each step was heavy and labored as she trudged somewhat aimlessly through the castle, her body feeling drained both physically and mentally. Strands of stray hair hung from her mane and in front of her face, though the lavender mare made no attempt to brush them aside, or straighten them out.

What was more was the weight she felt upon her head. The golden crown that sat atop her scalp felt far heavier than it had any right to be given its manageable size, but in her current state of exhaustion, it may as well have been made of solid lead. But she knew that weight wasn't so much coming from the crown's materials as it was that which it represented.

After completing an unfinished spell started by one of her greatest inspirations, Starswirl the Bearded, her close friend and mentor, Princess Celestia, had deemed her worthy of being crowned as a new princess of Equestria. All manner of emotions had bombarded Twilight in that moment; gratitude; elation; shock; confusion; uncertainty... Twilight was overwhelmed, but more than anything, she trusted the judgment of her teacher and accepted the title graciously.

Or rather, former teacher. Her coronation had served a secondary purpose as her graduation from Celestia's tutelage, leaving Twilight wondering where she would go from here. Although, that path may have already been decided for her. She had just spent the better part of the last week or so in Canterlot, getting the run-down from Celestia, Princess Luna, and even her sister-in-law Princess Cadance on the duties and responsibilities that came with being a princess.

And there were a lot.

Twilight had practically grown up in Canterlot Castle, and Princess Celestia was almost like a second mother to her, so she thought she had a good idea of what went into being a princess. Boy, was she wrong. As it turned out, there was quite a lot that she didn't know about. She was only now beginning to realize just how much work Princess Celestia must have had to deal with when she wasn't teaching her. And now there was so much being thrust upon her all at once. She didn't even know what exactly she was the princess of yet, and she was already being inundated by the responsibilities and changes being introduced to her life.

Nevermind the two new, feathered appendages jutting out of her midsection. That was another beast entirely.

After several minutes of wandering, Twilight finally managed to muster up the energy to lift her head. She stared at the wall ahead of her, finding that she had wound up in front of the entrance to the royal archives. The tall, purple double doors would have towered over even Princess Celestia, but they were somehow inviting as opposed to intimidating. Twilight stood there and pondered how things worked out; it must have been her subconscious that lead her here. Having spent so much of her childhood in Canterlot Castle and being as introverted as she once was, Twilight had spent many an hour secluded within the royal archives. It was her preferred way to pass the time and escape from whatever trivial problems a child or teenager might think is the worst thing that could ever happen.

This was her sanctuary.

For what must have been the thousandth time, Twilight opened the grandiose doors, the creak of the hinges practically the archives way of greeting her at this point. Given that she had lived in Ponyville for a good while now, Twilight couldn't visit the royal archive as regularly anymore, so returning now, at such a stressful time for her, was like taking her medicine. The moment she set hoof inside, she felt her worries and insecurities already begin to melt away.

The room was enormous, the ceiling easily reaching several dozen feet, and the bookshelves reaching almost as high. Those shelves spanned the entire length of the spacious room, and one could barely see the ends of them looking down the long aisles between them. It was like something out of a dream. Any other person would describe the archive as having "countless" books and tomes, but Twilight, as intimately familiar as she was with this place, knew that there were exactly twenty-six thousand five hundred seventy-two books registered in the directory, ranging from classic epics from famous poets, to encyclopedias of all manner of topics, modern works of literature, and even research papers from renowned historians—Twilight's personal go-to reads. Books from all over the world adorned these shelves, and for every book written in a foreign language, there was a second version translated into Ponish.

And not a single tome within the library has not been introduced to Twilight Sparkle. As shocking as it may seem to somepony who doesn't know her personally, Twilight has read each and every book archived within Canterlot Castle—some multiple times. But as she wandered down one of the many aisles, sizing up the bookcases on either side of her, a latent curiosity awoke within her. As said, it had been some time since she was here, and as such it was certainly possible that some new additions have been made to the expansive collection. So, to take her mind off of her present stresses, Twilight decided to engage in a sort of "egg hunt" to see if she could possibly find something she hadn't read before. It would have been easier to simply use the directory, but where's the fun in that?

It didn't take long for Twilight to peruse the first few aisles. The books were sorted neatly on the shelves, and it appeared that none had been removed as far as she could tell. And every book was exactly where she remembered them being so far, indicating that there had been no reorganizing to accommodate new additions.

Equestria's newest princess let out a long sigh. As she systematically traveled down the aisles, she was beginning to accept the fact that there was nothing new to find. It was sort of depressing to her that even with over twenty thousand books, the archives no longer had any new knowledge to share with her.

Twilight's gait had become less and less enthused with each aisle, and now she had reached the last. She was headed down toward the back left corner of the royal archives, the more lonely sections of the library, as few patrons bothered to travel so far out of the way. It was just as well; this particular section was mostly old, outdated textbooks from years ago, the only relevant information they had to share being the evident differences between modern day and the days gone by. This section's neglected state was visible via the much more noticeable and thicker layers of dust that had collected on the shelves. Twilight had a mind to find whomever it was that was in charge of maintaining the archives and giving them a stern talking-to. Perhaps that could be her first order as a princess: proper care for these tomes that had taught her so much.

Disappointed that she had found nothing of interest, Twilight was prepared to turn around and simply look for an old favorite or something to distract her until the other princesses inevitably found her to force-feed her more responsibility.

However, before she turned back, Twilight noticed something amiss. In the very back corner of the aisle where the leftmost shelf met the back wall, she saw the panel on the bottom of the bookcase appeared to be slightly loose. Not so much that it warranted immediate repair, but enough to arouse suspicion from the analytical mare. Out of curiosity, Twilight leaned down to inspect the misaligned board. It did not appear as though the weight of the bookshelf had caused a deformity, nor was the board rotten or damaged. Rather, it appeared as though the panel had at some point been removed and replaced, but whoever did so didn't do so properly.

And, of course, Twilight could not in all good conscious leave without righting this asymmetrical wrong. If she didn't straighten this out, it would gnaw at the back of her mind until it was fixed. She didn't exactly fancy herself a handymare, but how hard could it be to simply remove a couple of nails? She was pretty skilled with magic, to put it mildly, so it shouldn't prove too difficult to use her magic in place of a hammer.

With gentle application, Twilight grabbed hold of one of the nails holding the panel against the leg of the bookshelf, slowly and carefully drawing it out of its hole. The last thing she wanted was to haphazardly jerk the thing out and potentially cause the whole bookshelf to collapse and domino the rest of the shelves—that would be another headache she didn't need right now. When the first nail popped out, Twilight took a moment to make sure the structural integrity of the shelf was okay. Satisfied that the bookshelf was holding its own weight just fine, she turned her eyes on the nail held within her pink aura. Curiously, the nail was quite rusty, indicating that they were quite old, especially for ones used indoors and in a place as immaculate as Canterlot Castle. If the panel had indeed been removed, it must have been done so a very long time ago—decades, maybe centuries. And it was now that Twilight realized that if she was going to fix this problem, she'd probably have to get some new nails, but she'd come this far already, so she may as well just remove the panel while she was there.

Doing the same as she did the first nail, Twilight removed the remaining ones and plucked the board loose. The wood was also rather old, which was more noticeable now that she could see the back of it. It was likely that Celestia and Luna had people to touch up the finish on the shelves every so often to maintain their clean outward appearance, but the inside seemed like it had been wearing down gradually over the years. She might have to bring it up with the princesses to see about having entirely new bookshelves built for the archives at some point.

But now that the board had been removed, Twilight noticed the empty space behind it. Not at all out of the ordinary for a piece of furniture like this, but it almost looked like it could have been a secret compartment of some sort. Of course, she knew otherwise, it was simply her imagination that spawned such a whimsical thought, but it was that same child-like whimsy that prompted her to peek into the space beneath the shelf anyway.

And it was a good thing she did.

As it turned out, the space was not, in fact, empty. Although extremely dusty and riddled with cobwebs, by the pink light of her horn, Twilight spotted something within: a book. Her heart skipped a beat. Was it possible that this book had gone lost and forgotten for who knows how many years? Was it possible that there was actually a book in this library that she hadn't yet read? Lost research; the magnum opus of a famous writer; a guide to translating long-forgotten languages? Twilight's mind began to race with the limitless possibilities of what this old tome might contain.

Wasting no more time theorizing, Twilight grabbed the book with her magic and freed it from its wooden prison, bathing it in light once more after an indeterminate number of years. It had collected so much dust that the cover wasn't even visible. Twilight blew at the obscuring dust, though immediately regretted it as she began to cough and hack when the dust cloud enveloped her head and invaded her mouth and nostrils.

After waving away the free-floating dust, Twilight began to look the mysterious book over. It was most definitely old, and, unsurprisingly, in rather poor shape. Some pages were loose and were sticking out slightly, and the leather cover had deteriorated greatly, though not enough to make the cover unreadable.

Or rather, it would have been readable, were there anything to read upon it. Curiously, the cover was blank, the faded, black leather showing no signs of ever having a title or art drawn into it, deepening the mystery of its contents.

Which meant there was only one way to find out what it was...

Twilight's legs moved faster than she was perhaps even expecting herself, nearly tripping over her own hooves as she excitedly hurried back down the aisle and back to the front of the room, picking one of the reading tables near the entrance of the royal archives, and planting her posterior onto a chair. She lay the book on the table, but hesitated to open it, simply staring at it for several moments. Twilight was almost more intrigued by the mystery around this unknown book than its actual contents, but she knew she was going to open it anyway; her natural curiosity wouldn't be held back. But it almost felt wrong to not set the mood perfectly. She contemplated getting a cup of tea and a snack, or setting a candle for a more atmospheric experience.

And now Twilight was beginning to realize she was thinking about this book the way somepony would think about a person they were going on a date with, prompting the lavender alicorn to blush slightly and instinctively glance around to make sure there was nopony else in the empty library to witness the eager drops of sweat on her brow.

Taking a deep breath to compose herself, Twilight shifted her attitude to be more pragmatic as opposed to indulgent. It was important to learn what this book contained, for the sake of whatever subject to which it pertained. To that end, Twilight finally opened the book, her goal at the moment to identify the subject matter within.

Strangely, the inside cover showed no signs of a title either, or even an author. It was both frustrating and exciting to Twilight, as the lack of information could lead to deeper study and research to discover the origins of this book, but that would have to wait for the time being. Flipping through several pages, Twilight did a quick scan of the book. Her eyes widened slightly as she browsed, her interest and intrigue growing still. It appeared to be a novel of some sort. Admittedly, Twilight was a touch disappointed by that, as she was secretly hoping to have stumbled upon long lost knowledge that could change the way they saw... something; her imagination hadn't quite had a chance to fill that blank. But, on the bright side, this meant that this could potentially be a nice little book to curl up with in bed or something, and Twilight was looking forward to learning what story it had to tell.

That being said, as she continued to glance over the early pages of the book, she saw that it appeared to not be a work of fiction, as a couple of names she recognized came up frequently, the most notable of which being the renowned unicorn wizard and one of Twilight's biggest inspirations, Starswirl the Bearded, as well as her own mentor, Princess Celestia. Was this perhaps some sort of biography? Twilight was prepared to lose her mind if this book contained some unknown chapter of the lives of her two idols.

What was even more curious is that the story seemed to focus not so much on Starswirl or Princess Celestia—although they appeared to be pivotal characters—but on a young, unicorn filly.

Twilight raised a curious eyebrow at the name of this filly, uttering it to herself quietly. "'Sunset Shimmer'?"

She had never heard that name before, but she seemed to have some connection with both Starswirl and Princess Celestia. It almost sounded like this story might have been some sort of self-insert work of fan fiction written by somepony who idolized the two as much as Twilight did.

Nevertheless, Twilight's interest was piqued. She probably didn't have a lot of time before the other alicorn princesses found her, but perhaps she could get a chapter or two read before then. She shifted in her seat to make sure she was comfortable and flipped back to the story's first page. She still wished she had a cup of tea to enjoy along with it, but alas...

And with that, Twilight began reading...

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

The morning sun had begun to rise over Canterlot, signaling to the town's inhabitants that it was time to remove themselves from their beds and prepare for the day ahead. Mornings in Canterlot had a tendency to be somewhat hectic and noisy, as the people who lived there were always busy with something or other. Whether it was to go to their jobs, or simply the desire to socialize with the other early birds, conversation came second after the sun, the air within the posh town full of warmth and gossip.

But for one pony, there was another goal entirely. A unicorn stallion sat within his abode located near Canterlot's town square—a rather unfortunate location for somepony like he, who enjoyed studying quietly. Fortunately, it was not his studies that had him awake this morning.

The stallion finished his cup of coffee, sighing as he savored the last of the dark roast and giving his short, white beard and slow stroke with his hoof. He looked to the empty chair beside him at the kitchen table. The seat had been pushed out abruptly and not properly pushed back, and a plate was left at its spot with nothing but crumbs and half-eaten toast crust upon it, alongside an empty glass with only a few drops of orange juice pooled on the bottom.

The stallion grinned, and rose from his seat, the white aura of his magic enveloping the plate, glass, and his coffee mug, as well as the other chair to push it back in. He dumped the leftovers on the plate into the trash can by the counter, and lay the dishes in the sink, rinsing them off briefly—he would wash them properly later, as he would be a little busy for the moment.

The unicorn stallion took a moment to stare out the window over the kitchen sink, gazing through his light blue eyes in the direction of the rising sun. The rays felt warm against his grey coat, like a gentle caress from his muzzle to his cutie mark: a five-pointed star flanked by two smaller stars. Just seeing that bright beacon of light was always enough to raise anypony's spirits. Not that his spirits needed raising, but it was still always comforting to look at. Besides, he foresaw some potentially stressful mornings ahead of him, especially considering he wasn't used to getting up so early. And starting today, early mornings were going to have to become routine.

The stallion was about to exit the kitchen and make for the bathroom, but hesitated when he heard the pitter-patter of tiny hooves hurrying down the hall. Turning the corner to enter the kitchen was a small, unicorn filly, her coat a soft amber color like the evening sunset, and her wavy mane and tail like passionate flames with their red and yellow streaks. Though she lacked a cutie mark, it was her cute, energetic smile that lit up the room, her bright, teal eyes staring enthusiastically up at the adult.

"All ready, Sunset?" the stallion asked with a grin, his low voice belying his young age.

The filly nodded fervently, the smile never leaving her face. "Uh-huh. I brushed my teeth, combed my mane, and washed my face." She then skipped eagerly over to the front door of the house, trotting in place impatiently. "Come on, Dad, let's go!"

The stallion raised an eyebrow with a smirk. "Is there something we're forgetting, young lady?"

Sunset paused for a moment. Her father discreetly pointed to his own back. Though there was nothing upon his back, the filly's eyes widened as she caught his meaning. As quickly as her little legs could carry her, she galloped to her bedroom and returned in a flash, a pair of filly-sized saddlebags held in her mouth.

The stallion chuckled at her exuberance as he neatly secured the bags on his daughter's back. And as he watched her once more race for the door, he couldn't help but reminisce about when he was her age, doing exactly as she was preparing to do. "Alright, then. Let's go."

The father and daughter duo stepped outside into the warm embrace of the sun's rays. They were immediately inundated by the chatter and clacking of hooves on the stone streets as the residents of Canterlot were making their daily commute. On top of that, the town always seemed like it was under some sort of construction, with new buildings seemingly popping up overnight. Sunset's father claims that Canterlot has grown at least twice as large since she was born.

Regardless, the commotion did nothing to deter the excitable filly as she bounded through the circular town square, not weighed down in the slightest by the contents of her saddlebags. She took a moment to stop at the water fountain in the middle of the square, the stone statue of a nondescript mare pouring a steady stream of crystal-clear water from a jar into the shallow pool below. Sunset gazed into the water while waiting for her father to catch up, seeing a few stray, golden bits that residents had thrown into it, but she was more preoccupied by the toothy grin of her reflection staring back at her.

"Come now, Sunset. We shouldn't dawdle," the filly's father said to urge her back onto the road as he caught up.

Sunset hurried over to his side as he passed the fountain, flashing a silly grin up at him. "I should be saying that to you, slowpoke."

The stallion chuckled quietly, but didn't argue with her. He knew she was excited. She'd been looking forward to this day for the past few months, getting more and more impatient with each passing day; he was surprised she even managed to get any sleep last night.

Thankfully it wouldn't take long to reach their destination. Sunset knew exactly where they were supposed to go and had committed the path there to memory in preparation for this day. The two crossed a small, stone bridge arching over a stream that flowed down the tall cliff side that Canterlot was built upon. On the other side of that bridge was the grounds of a local schoolhouse. It wasn't a particularly large building, and only had one floor, but the deep purple color of its exterior in conjunction with the many beds of colorful flowers planted outside made the area look very vibrant, especially in comparison to the other buildings in Canterlot, which were mostly white with some gold or purple trim. The schoolhouse was positioned in a quaint little nook on the mountain side, a sheer, stone wall both behind and on the left side, while the right side was open and overlooked Canterlot Valley, making for a rather breathtaking view. A playground was set up on the left side by the cliff face, with swings, slides, and a tetherball pole for the students to use during recess.

Sunset stood beaming upon the small bridge to the schoolhouse. As said, she was intimately familiar with the location, having walked the path there numerous times over the recent weeks, but it was still a little hard to believe that the day had finally come. And that disbelief was assuaged by the presence of many other ponies gathered in front of the schoolhouse. She was far from the only foal there, and many other fillies and colts were loitering and playing around the garden with their parents.

"Well? Are you coming?"

The sound of her father's voice snapped Sunset out of her trance, not having realized that he was already halfway across the school's garden. She rushed to catch up with him, eager to begin her first day of kindergarten.

Sunset's father lead her toward the entrance of the schoolhouse, which was rather crowded by conversing adults. Brushing past several ponies, Sunset and her father managed to find their way to the front where a bespectacled, middle-aged, unicorn mare with a soft yellow coat and a dull brown mane tied in a bun was standing with a sheet of paper. She took one look at the stallion and filly and offered a gentle smile.

"Hello, Mr. Starswirl. And you, too, little Sunset Shimmer," the mare greeted kindly. She noted the big, goofy smile on the little one's face. "Excited for your first day of school, are we?"

Sunset simply answered with rapid nods.

"It'll be a relief for you to take her off my hooves for a while, Mrs. Honeysuckle," Starswirl joked, giving his daughter a playful rub on the head.

Mrs. Honeysuckle waved the remark off with a giggle. "Oh, I can't imagine she's that much trouble. She was such a peach when we last met." She held up the paper in her magical grasp and used a quill to check Sunset's name on the attendance sheet, then smiled down at the filly. "We're just about ready to start class, so if want to go inside, go right ahead."

Sunset looked up at her father expectantly, and he responded by tenderly placing a hoof on her shoulder. "Now, you be a good filly for Mrs. Honeysuckle, alright? I don't want to hear later that you've been a troublemaker."

The filly grinned. She knew her father didn't really expect her to make trouble, so she saw no need to defend herself. She stood up on her hind legs to wrap her little hooves around her dad's neck for a hug. "I won't. I'll be a good student."

Starswirl returned the hug, trying to fight back a bittersweet tear. Sunset had always been a smart filly, but as a father, he still couldn't help but worry about her now that she was off to school. He just had to trust her. Breaking off the hug, he gazed straight into her bright, teal eyes. "Have fun, dear. I'll see you later this afternoon."

The stallion slowly started on his way back home, looking over his shoulder to see his little girl waving to him.

"Bye, Daddy!" she called out with a smile.

He smiled back, giving a wave of his own as he left her in the care of her new teacher.

Mrs. Honeysuckle gently ushered Sunset into the schoolhouse. "Alright, find a seat, Sunset. I have to round up the rest of the students before we can start."

Sunset nodded and stepped inside the modestly-sized schoolhouse. There was only one classroom in the building, but it was rather spacious and heavily decorated. There were enough desks and chairs to seat twenty-five foals, though judging by the amount of fillies and colts both inside and outside the school, some seats would go unoccupied. The teacher's desk was located on the far right from the entrance, the large blackboard behind it taking up almost the entire right wall. The other walls were plastered with a hodgepodge of friendly and colorful posters, as well as various arts and crafts made by past students. Crude crayon drawings made up the bulk of the art, but there were several wooden crafts made out of sticks and decorated with cotton balls and fabric arranged on tables on the left side of the room, mostly in the barely discernible shapes of ponies or other animals. Not exactly what one would call "inspired," but certainly not terrible for kindergartners, and Mrs. Honeysuckle must have liked them quite a bit to keep them on display.

After having a quick look at her surroundings, Sunset finally decided to find a seat. She was rather pleased to find that, in the five rows of five seats, the middle seat in the front row was empty. The eager filly wasted no time dropping her saddlebags next to her desk and planting her blank flank front and center, giving herself the optimal view of both the blackboard and the teacher when she was ready to start.

While she was waiting for that, however, Sunset glanced over her shoulder at the other students that had also already found seats. Most of them were sitting further back, leaving the first and second rows of desks totally vacant, with the exception of Sunset. That was a little confusing to the young filly; wouldn't it be easier to see the blackboard and hear the teacher if they were sitting closer to them?

Sunset's attention then turned to the door, where Mrs. Honeysuckle was now standing, guiding the rest of the foals into the building while their parents waved goodbye from outside. The remaining students all took their seats, and Sunset's eyes were drawn to the seat on her right by the sound of a loud thump. A pegasus colt with a silver coat and short, dark grey mane had clumsily dropped his saddlebags, spilling its contents onto the floor. A couple of the other students giggled at his accident while Mrs. Honeysuckle came over to help him clean up his belongings. He then took his seat, only casting a brief, side-long glance at the amber-coated filly sitting to his left. Sunset hadn't laughed at him, but the clearly-nervous colt still blushed with embarrassment anyway and quickly looked away.

"Is everypony seated?" Mrs. Honeysuckle asked, looking around the room to make sure all students were present and paying attention. Satisfied that she had their eyes, she smiled and continued. "Very good. Welcome to your first day of kindergarten, children. I am your teacher, Mrs. Honeysuckle." Taking a piece of white chalk with her magic, she wrote her name on the blackboard. "Now, I know that some of you may have heard older kids calling school 'lame' or 'boring,' but I want to prove to all of you that school can be fun, as well as informative."

Sunset couldn't help but grin at the teacher's declaration. She was somepony who found learning fun all on its own, so the idea that somepony could make it more fun was exciting to her.

"Now then..." Mrs. Honeysuckle walked behind her large desk at the head of the room, looking over some papers she had laid out. "I have several different subjects for us to go over on our first day, as well as some fun activities to help flex our creative muscles. We're going to start with a little history lesson—" She was interrupted by a chorus of groans from several unenthused students, but was undeterred. "—followed by outdoor activities that focus on teamwork and friendship."

The notion of getting to play outside seemed to quell some of the concerns in the room, the disapproving grimaces being replaced by interested grins. Sunset, however, was actually more intrigued by the history lesson than the activities. She'd always been good with reading and fundamental mathematics, and her father often boasted about how smart she was for a filly her age, but she wasn't quite at a level yet where she was reading history books.

"Why don't we start with the founding of our fair, little town, hm? Does anypony know how Canterlot was founded?"

Mrs. Honeysuckle waited for a few moments to see if any of the children had a response, or even a guess. Sunset listened intently for the answer; as learned as she was, even she hadn't heard about the history of her hometown.

Not receiving any replies, Mrs. Honeysuckle continued. "Well, I'm sure you all know that our humble home was built to be Equestria's capitol city. As such, it's always expanding, and new buildings are always under construction. The formation of this town was first suggested by Princess Celestia almost one hundred years ago, and it was her desire to make Canterlot a shining beacon that overlooked all of Equestria. Which is why it was built high up on this mountainside. In fact, at some point—" Mrs. Honeysuckle stopped herself short, noticing that the amber filly in the front row had raised her hoof. "Yes, Sunset? Do you have a question?"

Lowering her hoof again, Sunset asked her question with curiosity. "Who's Princess Celestia?"

The entire schoolhouse fell silent. Sunset suddenly felt as though she had asked something taboo, and several of the other children were staring at her like she had something on her face. Even Mrs. Honeysuckle seemed to be taken aback by the question.

"You don't know who Princess Celestia is?" the teacher inferred, a little puzzled by this. Sunset shrunk down in her seat, feeling a little ashamed now. Seeing the filly's reaction, Mrs. Honeysuckle put on a smile again to help ease her discomfort, as well as seeing an opportunity. "Is there anypony else who doesn't know about Princess Celestia? It's okay, you can tell me if you don't. It's not a problem."

Sunset took a discreet peek over her shoulder. Though hesitantly, three other students raised their hooves, making Sunset feel a little better knowing she wasn't alone; she was just the only one who hadn't been ashamed enough to ask.

The teacher grinned widely. "I see. Change of plans, then. We'll put the history of Canterlot on the shelf for now, and instead learn a little more about Princess Celestia. How does that sound?"

There were many voices of agreement from the students, and even those who supposedly knew about her already appeared to be interested as well. This was exciting for Sunset, since if even the students who seemed so disinterested before were eager to hear about Princess Celestia, then this must be an especially fascinating subject.

Mrs. Honeysuckle began by walking over to the wall where several of the crayon drawings were adhered to the wall. She pointed to one drawing in particular that seemed to depict a tall unicorn with pegasus wings, and a mane and tail colored with a mixture of pink, cyan, light green, and purple. And now that her attention was drawn to it, Sunset noticed that that same pony seemed to be the subject of many of these drawings.

"Princess Celestia is one of the rulers of Equestria, along with her younger sister Princess Luna. Celestia is what is known as an alicorn, which is like an earth pony, a pegasus, and a unicorn all rolled into one. As such, her magic is very powerful, and she and her sister have protected our kingdom from villains and disasters for countless years, even before there was a kingdom to speak of," the teacher explained.

One colt in the second row raised his hoof. "How old is she, then?"

The teacher chuckled with amusement. "You should know it's impolite to ask a lady's age. But truth be told, nopony truly knows how old she is. Most people believe she's around a thousand years old, while others say she's even older. Some even believe she's as old as time itself."

Sunset's eyes widened in wonderment, becoming more and more fascinated with every word.

"Yet even so, Princess Celestia is the picture of beauty and grace, and as powerful as she is, her heart is the purest in all the land. Everypony knows of her boundless kindness and gentle-hearted demeanor, which is one of the many reasons why she's so respected, and why she's been our princess for... well, pretty much ever."

Having mentioned the princess's power a couple of times already, Sunset's curiosity was piqued and she raised her hoof to ask a question. "How powerful is her magic?"

Mrs. Honeysuckle smiled. She was wondering when somepony would ask that. To answer, she walked across the room to the window near the entrance, pointing outside at the glowing, golden orb hovering above the horizon. "See the sun out there? Have you ever wondered what causes the sun to rise each morning? Well, that's Princess Celestia's doing."

Sunset felt her chest tighten, her eyes widening even further. Her heart practically stopped when she heard that. Sunset had been told a few times in the past that she was a gifted unicorn, being more skilled with her magic than other foals her age, but she knew that she was nowhere near the level of her father, who was a well respected pony in the field of magic. But to hear that there was somepony out there who was so powerful as to be able to move the sun itself was astonishing and unbelievable to her.

Sunset wanted to learn more. She needed to learn more.

"She raises the sun every morning?!"

Mrs. Honeysuckle nodded. "That's right."

Sunset raised her hoof again. "What time does she raise it?"

"Well, at approximately six a.m. Though it differs depending on the season."

Sunset kept her hoof in the air. "Has there ever been a day where she didn't raise the sun?"

"Not to my knowledge, no."

"What would happen if she didn't raise the sun?"

"Oh, um... I suppose it would just stay night until she did, that's all."

"Does she—"

"Okay! Er, I think that's enough history for now," Mrs. Honeysuckle told the class with an unsteady smile, clearly feeling a tad exasperated with the onslaught of questions. She took a short moment to discreetly compose herself, addressing the class in a voice more appropriate for indoors. "Why don't we move on to our first activity of the day, hm? Everypony head outside and I'll be out in a minute to explain what we're doing."

All of the students hopped out of their chairs enthusiastically, eager to spend some time outdoors. However, Sunset was a little disappointed. It felt like the lesson had been cut short, and she was looking forward to learning more about this Princess Celestia, but it looked like she'd have to wait until another time.

The amber unicorn followed the other children outside. The other foals were quick to hurry to the playground amenities, trying to get in as much playtime as they could before Mrs. Honeysuckle caught up. Sunset, however, had no interest in horseplay at the moment. After their unfortunately brief first lesson, Sunset only had one thing on her mind.

Instead of joining the other foals, Sunset wandered over toward the cliff side overlooking Canterlot Valley. A short fence had been built half a dozen feet away from the sheer edge to keep the children safe, and Sunset approached it, standing on her hind legs and leaning on the wooden fence. As full of wonder and intrigue as her bright, teal eyes were, she couldn't quite keep them as wide as her body wanted. Her attention was directed at the rising sun as it gradually lifted higher above the horizon. For the entirety of her comparatively short life, she'd never viewed the sun the way she did now, knowing now that it wasn't just a simple daily occurrence. There was somepony responsible for raising the sun: Princess Celestia. Just thinking of her name sent a shiver down her little spine. The thought that there existed a pony who was not only centuries old, but powerful enough to move the very sun itself was unfathomable. What she wouldn't give to meet her...

"Um, hi."

At the sound of the pensive voice, Sunset glanced over her shoulder to find a colt standing behind her. It was the same silver pegasus that was sitting next to her in class.

"My name's Halberd," he said, a smile managing to work its way through his nervous expression.

"Oh, hi," Sunset greeted halfheartedly before turning her gaze back to the horizon.

The colt looked a bit discouraged by her dismissive tone, but was also confused considering she seemed pretty talkative in class. "Um... What's your name?"

"Hm?" The unicorn filly glanced back again, somehow surprised that the colt was still there. "Oh, it's Sunset."

And again, she looked out over the valley.

Halberd could definitely tell that the girl's mind was elsewhere, so he tried not to take offense to her attitude. However, he had approached her for a reason. "M-Mrs. Honeysuckle says we're all supposed to find a partner, soooo... Do you wanna be partners?"

Prompted by the request, Sunset turned toward the other children. Mrs. Honeysuckle had come outside and was watching all the students as they frolicked around the garden. The other foals seemed to all be hanging out in pairs now, apparently having found their partners, so it was no wonder that this colt had come to her; they were the only two left without a buddy. The filly shrugged indifferently. "I guess..."

Halberd expected her to hop off of the fence she was leaning on and join him, but once more, she shifted her attention back toward the distance. He noted how she was squinting, her eyes even starting to water a little. "You know you're not supposed to stare directly at the sun, right? It could hurt your eyes."

With the topic of discussion shifted, Halberd now had Sunset's attention, a wide grin spreading across her lips. "I can't help it," she said enthusiastically. "I never knew somepony like Princess Celestia existed. She can move the sun! Don't you think that's incredible?!"

Halberd hopped up against the fence alongside her, looking in the sun's general direction, but taking his own advice and not straight at it. "I guess I never really thought about it. I've known about Princess Celestia for as long as I can remember. We've got pictures of her in our house. But now that I think about it, it is pretty awesome, controlling a big ball of fire like that."

"Can somepony like that really be real?" Sunset wondered whimsically.

"Sure she's real," the colt reassured. "She even lives pretty close to here."

Sunset's ears perked up and her eyes widened drastically, giving Halberd an incredulous stare. "What?"

"Yeah, look."

The pegasus pointed out to the distance, to the left of where they were staring at the sun. Down the mountainside and far past Canterlot Valley there was a lush, green forest. From the far edge of that forest, Sunset saw several stone towers jutting up above the treetops. Sunset had seen that structure many times in the past, but never really paid it much heed.

"That's her castle over there."

The filly was stunned silent, gazing with her mouth agape at the distant structure. She was starting to mentally kick herself for never asking her father about the building before. So many opportunities she could have had to learn about the existence of such an amazing pony wasted. "Sh-She lives right there?"

Halberd nodded. "Mm-hm. Actually, my big brother works there as a royal guard, and when I grow up, I'm gonna be a royal guard, too."

Sunset grabbed the colt by the shoulders, the hysterical look in her eyes scaring him a little. "Have you met her?!"

"M-Me? N-No, but my brother has since he, uh, you know, works there... Like I said..."

Sunset leaned back on the fence, taking a long breath to steady herself and staring at the castle. "A pony like that lives so close to us? I... I wanna meet her."

"Sunset! Halberd!"

The two foals turned around at the beckoning voice of their teacher.

"Come along now, you two! We're about to start!" Mrs. Honeysuckle called to them, gesturing them over.

Not wanting to get in trouble on their first day of school, Sunset and Halberd began making their way over to join the other students. The filly, however, paused for a moment, casting one more brief glance through the fence toward the distance castle spires, having to tear her eyes away from it so she could get back to her schoolwork. But she wondered how she was going to be able to focus on school knowing what she now knew.

***** ***** *****

Starswirl sat at the kitchen table, enjoying a light afternoon snack of coffee and oatmeal biscuits. He was browsing through the day's mail that he had retrieved when he returned home after dropping his daughter off at school. It was mostly bills and notices, as was the usual. However, there was one piece of mail of interest, and was currently what he was mulling over. Not that there was much to mull over; he was quite happy and a little excited to have received it, which was why he kept coming back to it since he'd first opened it that morning.

But he wouldn't be able to fixate on it much longer. The sound of hoofsteps on the stone steps outside diverted his attention, and the front door suddenly flew open, making way for a smiling and bouncing young filly.

"Hi, Daddy~!" Sunset greeted in a chipper, singsong tone.

Starswirl grinned fondly at his daughter, turning in his chair to face her. "Welcome home, sweetheart. Did you enjoy your first day of school?"

Though seemingly impossible, the question elicited an even bigger smile from the filly. "It was awesome! Mrs. Honeysuckle taught us about Princess Celestia! She's an... an ali-... Um..."

"Alicorn."

"Yeah, an alicorn! And she rules all of Equestria! And she's protected Equestria from all kinds of bad people! And she's powerful enough to move the sun! She's raises the sun every. Single. Morning! She's so cool! And she's just lives in that castle over there! How come you never told me about her?!"

Starswirl quirked an eyebrow. "Have I never? Hm... I suppose I thought it was common enough knowledge that you'd stumble upon books about her yourself, or at the very least heard about her through word of mouth."

Sunset puffed out her little, amber cheeks in frustration. "No, I never heard of her before today."

The stallion chuckled quietly. "And I suppose you enjoyed learning about her, then?"

The filly's pout vanished in an instant, replaced once more by a big, toothy grin. "Of course I did! How could I not enjoy learning about such an amazing pony?!"

"Too true. She is quite an astonishing person," Starswirl agreed with a nod. "So, what else did you learn at school today?"

Sunset eagerly opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, her teal eyes drifting to the floor as she thought. "Um... I-I... don't remember..."

Starswirl's eyes widened, surprised and confused. He'd never known his daughter to be inattentive or disinterested in learning. "You don't remember? Sunset, I've raised you better than that. I don't want to have to talk with your teacher about you not paying attention in class."

"I couldn't help it!" Sunset blurted defensively. "Mrs. Honeysuckle taught us about Princess Celestia first thing! After that, I couldn't think about anything else!" She stared up at her father, her bright eyes giving him that guilt-ridden and ashamed look, like a puppy who knew they were in trouble. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I promise I'll pay better attention tomorrow."

Her father stared back into her shimmering eyes, sensing the genuine disappointment she felt in herself. He gave her a reassuring smile and a pat on the head. "Alright. I trust you. But I can't say I blame you. Princess Celestia is the object of many a person's fascination, and you seem to be quite smitten yourself."

Sunset nodded enthusiastically. "Have you ever met her, Dad?"

Starswirl shook his head. "Unfortunately, no, I haven't."

The filly's ears drooped a little, a touch of disappointment and longing in her crestfallen expression. "Mm... I really wanna meet her."

Seeing the dejected look in his daughter's eyes, Starswirl turned to the letter that he'd been repeatedly looking over throughout the day. While there was a moment of hesitation, a small smile eventually creased his lips. "Well, just because I haven't met her yet doesn't mean I can't at some point."

Sunset's mood immediately shifted, a twinkling sparkle of hope in her bright, teal eyes. "What? What do you mean?"

"You know I've been sending applications to many different institutes in the field of magical studies and research, right?"

"Mm-hm."

Her father lifted the letter with his white aura. "Well, this is one of the responses I've gotten. It's from the royal castle."

Sunset's ear twitched. "You applied to work at the castle?"

He nodded. "I did. And I got this response in the mail this morning. Princess Celestia herself wants to speak to me about the job."

The filly's mouth dropped open, her eyes widening dramatically. "Y-You're gonna meet Princess Celestia?"

Starswirl couldn't keep the smile off his own face seeing the wonderment in his daughter's expression. "That's right." He could tell by her expression that there was a question she wanted to ask, but wasn't voicing it because she was worried it wasn't appropriate. Instead, her father spoke her mind for her. "Did you want to go with me, Sunset?"

The filly practically exploded with excitement. "Yes!" she exclaimed, her short, little legs propelling her several feet into the air and began bouncing around the house like a rubber ball.

"Now, hold on, young lady."

Sunset came to an abrupt stop, her chest tightening with a twinge of worry that there was some caveat to the offer.

"A trip to the castle is a very big privilege," he explained more tersely. "I'm not even entirely certain if I'm allowed to take you with me. So if want to come with me and meet the princess, you have to promise to be on your best behavior. Understand?"

Sunset nodded fervently, willing to accept any and all responsibility for a chance to meet Princess Celestia.

"And you have to pay attention in class from now on. My interview is in a week, and if I hear from Mrs. Honeysuckle that you've been daydreaming when you should be learning, no castle."

"Uh-huh, I promise."

Starswirl grinned at her enthusiasm. Even though he'd never needed to actually convince his daughter to learn before, he couldn't exactly say he blamed her. He was pretty excited himself. "Alright, then. Now, why don't you go get cleaned up and I'll start on dinner."

Without another word, Sunset bounded off to her bedroom to drop off her bags and wash up in the bathroom. Even though she made that promise to her father, she could only imagine how much harder it was going to be to concentrate in class thinking about how she was going to meet the princess.

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

"There you are, Twilight."

The lavender alicorn's head jerked up suddenly, as though she'd just been awoken from a dream. Twilight Sparkle quickly glanced around, gradually remembering where she was and what she was doing. It was a common occurrence for her to zone out whenever she found herself lost in a book, but something about this time felt... different.

Following the sound of the voice that had snapped her from her trance, she found Princess Celestia standing between the large, double doors of the library's entryway, the majestic, alabaster alicorn wearing a rather amused smirk.

"I should have known to look here first," Celestia said with a quiet giggle as she walked over to the table Twilight sat at, her glorious, multi-colored mane and tail swaying gently behind her. "This always was your safe haven whenever you needed to cool off."

Twilight instinctively rose from her chair, her cheeks flushing red with embarrassment as though she were a child who'd just been caught with her hoof in the cookie jar. "P-Princess, I... I'm sorry I ran off like that. It... probably doesn't fill you with confidence to see the new princess you appointed duck out so suddenly, huh?"

Celestia gave her a sympathetic smile. "It's entirely understandable. Perhaps we did drop a lot on your plate all at once. But you can't say this isn't partially your fault. You do have a tendency to push yourself a little too hard. If you needed a break so badly, all you had to do was ask."

Twilight's blush deepened, but was accompanied by a small smile of her own. "You're probably right."

With that addressed, Celestia let her curiosity take over, looking to the rather tattered tome open on the table. "What are you reading? I thought you'd have read every book in here more than once already."

"Oh, well, actually I think this book may have been lost a long time ago. I found it hidden away underneath one of the bookshelves. There's no sign of a title, or even an author." She glanced up at Celestia. "Can I ask you a question?"

Celestia quirked an eyebrow. "Of course. What is it?"

Twilight looked straight into the soft, pink eyes of her mentor with an expression of morbid curiosity. "Who's Sunset Shimmer?"

At the mention of the name, the room somehow managed to fall into a void of silence deeper than it was already. Celestia's jaw hung open slightly, her pupils narrowing, and, if it were possible, her pristine, white face would have become even paler. She looked as though she'd seen a ghost.

"Wh-... Where did you hear that name?" Celestia asked shakily, her voice barely above a whisper.

Twilight's curiosity rose further, overshadowing her notice of the change in her mentor's expression. She held the book up with her magic. "This book seems to be about her. Do you know who she is?"

Celestia's eyes shifted down at the book, staring at it like it was something that shouldn't be here. "Y-Yes, I do, but—"

"You do? So then, do you know who wrote this book?"

The taller alicorn hesitated briefly, and without her mind's say-so, her mouth answered. "I... I wrote it..."

Twilight's eyes widened with wonder and amazement. "You wrote it?! Wow, I had no idea you were a writer, Princess!"

"I-I..." Celestia tried to compose herself, swallowing nervously before asking a question of her own. "How much have you read?"

"Not much yet, but I'm quite interested. Are the events of the story true? Did Starswirl the Bearded actually have a daughter?"

"Yes, it's true, but—"

"How come I've never heard of her?"

"W-Well, I—"

"Did you know her personally?"

"I—"

"Can you tell me more about her? I mean, after I finish reading—"

"Twilight!"

Twilight was startled by Celestia's sudden outburst. There was an almost panicked look in the ivory alicorn's eyes.

Celestia slowly held out her hoof, speaking quietly in an effort to steady her nerves, though her extended hoof was shaking slightly. "Twilight, you must give me that book."

The studious mare raised an eyebrow. Under normal circumstances, Twilight would have been more than happy to oblige the request, but Celestia's expression and her uncharacteristically terse tone of voice suggested to Twilight that something was wrong. "Wh-Why?"

Celestia's panic only increased further when Twilight questioned her, fearful that her trusted protégé was actually going to disobey her. "Just... please do as I say and give me the book."

Again, Twilight hesitated. She glanced at the book, then back to Celestia. She didn't know what was going on, but it was obvious that there was something in this book that Celestia didn't want her to see. "Princess, what's wrong? Whatever it is, you can tell me."

Celestia bit her lip, tearing her eyes away from Twilight for a moment. "No, I can't... Twilight, you can't read that book."

"But why n—"

Celestia stomped her hoof on the floor, the soft carpet doing little to absorb the force of the impact as the bookshelves shuddered around them. "Twilight! Do as I say and give me that book! That is an order!"

Twilight took a step back. She had seen Celestia upset before, but never enough for her to raise her voice so high. The furious expression on her face made her look alien, unrecognizable. Celestia had never "ordered" Twilight to do anything before. And now, she was scared. Not scared of Celestia, but of what she was hiding. For her to so adamantly insist she relinquish the book must have meant that there was something very important within its pages. Perhaps something dark... Twilight had trusted, respected, and idolized Princess Celestia unconditionally her whole life, but knowing that she might have some deep, dark secret tucked away in the ragged pages of this tome put a crack in that trust. What could be so bad that she would speak this way to her most faithful student?

And that was a question to which Twilight needed an answer.

In an instant, Twilight's horn lit up, letting loose a blinding flash of light. Princess Celestia instinctively turned away, shielding her eyes with her hoof. But when she opened them again, Twilight was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the book. Celestia simply stood there, motionless, frightened and confused by the situation. Twilight had never disobeyed her before, and she didn't know how to deal with it. She hung her head in defeat, letting out a somber and disappointed sigh. It was obvious that Twilight had simply teleported home, book in tow, but there was no point in pursuing her; she clearly had no intention of giving up the book. She could only hope now that Twilight's conscious would catch up with her and change her mind.

"Oh, Twilight... Please don't do this to yourself..."

Chapter 2 - Starstruck

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 2: Starstruck

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One would expect libraries to be quiet, and such was the case with Ponyville's Golden Oaks Library. However, today the library seemed particularly quiet, and that was likely due to the fact that this library doubled as a home for two of the town's residents, and one of those residents—a certain lavender alicorn—was currently absent. The other—a small, purple dragon—remained there, making sure the place was tidy and orderly.

Spike stood at the top of a tall ladder, reorganizing the top shelf of one of the bookshelves carved into the walls of the giant, hollowed-out oak tree the library was built into. Under normal circumstances, the dragon wouldn't really want to spend his alone time cooped up inside doing chores, but considering Twilight had other, more pressing obligations at the moment, it had to be done. Spike had originally gone to Canterlot with Twilight to provide support with her new duties as a princess, but it was at her own request that he return to Ponyville, insisting that she could handle it. He knew exactly what that meant: it meant that she was going to get in over her head and likely suffer a stress-induced panic attack; he'd seen it time and time again. But she did have a point. She'd been gone for a week now, and if he'd stayed with her, the library would have been completely unattended. They might consider it their house, but it was still a public library which occasionally had patrons looking for books to check out, so it made sense for somepony to hold down the fort—or rather, somedragon.

Spike looked over his shoulder, viewing the library's foyer from his vantage point on the ladder. The whole room was cluttered with books, stacks of them piled up on the round, wooden table in the middle of the room, and even more still on the floor. It looked like he'd inadvertently constructed a castle made of tomes and textbooks with how many towering spires of leather backs and hard covers he'd stacked up. Spike had gotten used to Twilight's insistence about a monthly reorganization, but this was the first time he'd had to do it by himself. It made him realize just how little he actually contributed during those times, as Twilight could effortlessly manage it herself using her magic and her uncanny organizational skills and memory. Spike had to lug each book up and down the ladder two or three at a time to re-stack the top shelves. And he wasn't anywhere near done yet. He'd only just finished the first set of shelves by the front door, and they extended around the entire perimeter of the cylindrical room, even having a few shelves carved into the side of the staircase to the second floor.

Spike breathed a weary sigh. He knew he could have just waited until Twilight came home to do the monthly reorganization, but he figured, what with how busy she probably was herself, that he'd have a surprise waiting for her for when she got back. He was starting to regret that decision and was contemplating just asking some of his friends to help out. Regardless, he was determined to see this endeavor through to the end, but right now, he figured he'd take a little snack break.

Grabbing the sides of the ladder, Spike slid back down to the floor. But as he made his way to raid the pantry, there was a sudden flash of light in front of him, and he smacked straight into something that hadn't been there a moment ago, getting knocked backward onto his rear. Looking up at the obstruction, Spike was surprised to see Twilight suddenly standing before him.

The dragon gave Twilight a pleasant and cheery smile as he stood back up. "Hey, Twilight, you're finally home! Welcome back! Are you all done learning how to be a princess, or what?"

Twilight briefly looked down at the short reptile, but didn't return his amicable smile. Spike could tell that something was wrong. For one, she didn't usually make a habit of teleporting into the house. But her posture and her expression were unusual; her new wings were held out to the side, half limp—a pose Spike had come to recognize from knowing Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as a sign of nervousness, or uneasiness. She was biting her lip, and her violet eyes were wide, but her pupils had narrowed to the size of pinpricks, looking as though she hadn't yet figured out where she was.

Looking at her with growing concern, Spike asked, "Uh, Twilight? You okay?"

Twilight's gaze shifted around the room rapidly before falling back on Spike. "I, uh... I might be in trouble."

The young dragon gulped. "Wh-What kind of trouble? What happened?"

With her pink, magical aura, the alicorn held a tattered, old book in front of her. "I... borrowed this book from Princess Celestia... Without permission."

Spike's muscles suddenly relaxed, and he let out a quiet groan. "You mean you stole it."

"I'm gonna give it back!" she argued defensively. Her eyes then shifted away. "Eventually..."

"You're so on edge because you took one of Princess Celestia's books? How's that a big deal? I'm sure she would've let you borrow it if you'd asked anyway."

A worried and guilty look appeared on Twilight's face, her ears flattening against her head. "No, she wouldn't have. In fact, she seemed pretty insistent that I not read it."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "And you took it anyway? Why?"

Twilight could understand why Spike would feel that she had made the wrong choice. As bookish as she was, she'd certainly put a request from Princess Celestia before her own hobbies under normal circumstances. But these were definitely not normal circumstances. "You should have seen her, Spike. When she saw me with this book, it was like she became a completely different person. I've never seen her like that before. She seemed... almost afraid. And furious when I hesitated."

That was just as surprising to Spike as it was to Twilight. "Really? That doesn't sound like Princess Celestia. What's so important about that book that she'd act like that?"

Twilight looked at the worn, blank cover of the ancient tome, her eyes staring with deep concern, but also curiosity. "That's what I want to find out."

"Whoa, whoa, hold up! You're not serious, are you?!" Spike said, throwing his claws up in disbelief. "You say she acted like that and you still decided to just take it?"

"Spike, you don't understand. Princess Celestia has never kept secrets from me. At least, I didn't think she did. I have to know what she's hiding."

Her draconic assistant knit his brow, giving the newly crowned princess a reprimanding glower. "What's gotten into you? Since when do you make a habit of invading people's privacy? You know, just because you're a princess now yourself doesn't give you the right to go snooping into other people's stuff. Everypony has things they don't want other people to know. It might just be something embarrassing that's she's worried might get out."

Twilight shook her head adamantly. "If you saw how she reacted, you'd know that there has to be more to it than that. I'm worried, Spike. I don't know what secrets this book holds, but after seeing Celestia like that, I'm... a little afraid. What if it's something sinister?"

Spike gave her a half-lidded, bemused glare. "Do you honestly believe that?" he deadpanned.

"But what if it is?! Princess Celestia is perhaps the most trusted person in all of Equestria. If anypony could get away with secretly being a villain, it's her!"

Spike's expression and tone didn't change at all. "Again, do you honestly believe that?"

Twilight blushed a little, breaking eye contact. "Well... No, not really."

The dragon breathed an exasperated sigh, running a claw down his face. "Look, maybe it's not too late. Just pop back over to Canterlot, apologize to Princess Celestia, and give her the book back. She knows how you are when you get your hooves on a new book. I'm sure she'll forgive you."

The alicorn lowered her head, breathing a sigh of her own. However, it was not a sigh of defeat in the face of Spike's level-headed suggestion, but one of remorseful insistence. "You don't get it, Spike," she muttered, her voice quiet and somber. "Even if I were to give the book back now, how am I supposed to look at her the same way again knowing that she's hiding something from me? This is obviously something far more serious than an embarrassing anecdote." Twilight stared at Spike, looking as though she were on the verge of tears. "For the first time in my life, I feel like I can't trust her. And that scares me. My heart already feels like it's being ripped in half. I'm not even sure I know her anymore."

Spike stayed quiet for a moment, giving the lavender mare a pitying and sympathetic look. "You know things are bad when I have to be the voice of reason..."

Twilight opened her eyes again, her violet irises pleading with her assistant. "I have to read this book. It's the only way I can have any peace of mind."

The dragon put his claws on his hips, a defeated groan escaping his scaly lips. It was obvious that no amount of arguing was going to change her mind. "Fine, whatever. But I'm washing my claws of this whole situation, got it? I'm not getting in trouble just because you got a little too nosy."

Twilight managed a small smile. She didn't feel great about what she had decided, but to her, this felt like the only real option. "I'll take full responsibility for the repercussions."

With that settled, Twilight headed for the stairs, making her way up to her bedroom. Spike didn't feel good about all this, but now that the conversation was over, he took another look around the room at all the books still piled up everywhere. He hastily extended a claw. "Wait! Can you help with the—" But Twilight had already shut the upstairs door behind her, leaving the little dragon to begrudgingly finish his chores alone. "This must be serious if she didn't even realize it was reorganization day."

Upstairs, Twilight hurried to the bedroom. When she closed the door behind her, she finally took a moment to let herself breathe. She fell back onto her haunches, leaning her head against the wooden door with a sigh. Her eyes drifted down to the book still within her magical grasp. She had been hoping that this book would help ease her stress, but now it was only serving to exacerbate it. What exactly had she stumbled upon, she wondered. Why was Princess Celestia so protective of this book? Could Spike have been on to something when he suggested that Celestia may have just been embarrassed? Apparently, she was the author of the book; perhaps she was simply self-conscious about somepony else reading it. But that still left many questions lingering in Twilight's mind. What reason would she have had to write about Starswirl the Bearded and the daughter Twilight never even knew he had? The princess had confirmed herself that it was a chronicle of true events—though perhaps in her flustered state she hadn't meant to—which only proved to arouse Twilight's curiosity further and suggest that there was something about her mentor that she'd been hiding for all these years. Yet if this book was the only evidence of such, why not simply destroy it instead of hiding it away? And why hide it in such a strange location? Then again, perhaps she had simply lost it, or, judging by its hiding place, was stolen and hidden away by somepony else, though Twilight couldn't think of any reason why a potential thief would do such a thing.

Twilight could sit there for hours questioning and speculating, but theories alone do not provide answers. Research provided answers, and since it was clear that she wouldn't get any answers from the book's author, she would have to consult the tome itself.

The alicorn slowly rose from the floor and pensively sauntered toward her bed, her eyes fixed on the book. She definitely felt conflicted about this. She knew this book held some sort of secret about one of the most respected and influential people in the world, and knowing that had fractured the unwavering trust Twilight had in her mentor. But conversely, by reading this book she'd be betraying Celestia's trust in her.

The lavender mare shook her head, climbing onto her neatly-made bed and laying the book on the sheets in front of her. No, she had to read it. She couldn't just think about this from her own perspective, and the relationship between herself and Celestia; Twilight needed to consider how the information in this book would affect Equestria as a whole. While she didn't believe with one hundred percent certainty that the book contained anything diabolical, the fact that the notion existed at all was cause for concern and warranted investigation.

At least, that's what Twilight had to tell herself in order to willingly put her relationship with Celestia in jeopardy...

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

"Daddy."

Starswirl rolled over to turn away from the whispering voice in his ear.

"Dad."

The stallion pulled the bed sheets over his head, groaning with displeasure.

"Dad! Wake up! It's almost time!"

The filly's excited voice was like a fly buzzing in his ear, but once she had foregone trying to be polite by softly whispering, it was more like having his eardrums shaken by the shriek of an ornery cockatrice. "Go back to bed, Sunset..." Starswirl grumbled sleepily, his own voice muffled slightly by the covers held tightly over his face.

"Come on! If you don't get up now, we're gonna miss it!" Sunset insisted, bouncing up and down on the mattress in a deliberate attempt to annoy her father into getting up.

Starswirl poked his head back out, turning to his hyperactive daughter with his brow knit in irritation. "Sunset, you've watched it every morning for the past week. You can go one day without seeing it."

Sunset curled her bottom lip outward in a grumpy pout. "Hmph. Fine. I'm gonna watch it by myself, then."

Once more, the stallion rolled over onto his side, satisfied that she'd at least given up on bothering him. "Good. But don't complain about being tired later."

In a huff, the little filly hopped off of her father's bed and hurried back to her own bedroom. Of late, Sunset's room had become a little more decorated. The normally blank, white walls now featured several pictures that she'd managed to find of Princess Celestia and pinned them to the walls, even having a Celestia-themed calendar next to her bed. It was safe to say, based on her bedroom alone, that she had become a fan of the princess. She even went so far as to start a ritual that she participated in every morning, which was why she had tried to wake her father.

Sunset hopped up onto her own bed and over to the window on the wall beside it. With a quick flourish of her cyan-colored magic, she pulled open the violet curtains, and peered intently into the darkness outside. It was still quite early in the morning, and the sky was still black and peppered with twinkling stars. Sunset glanced over her shoulder at the clock on her bedside table. She had originally set the clock's alarm to wake her at quarter to six, but found that her own excitement was an alarm all on its own, instinctively waking her at half past five. The time currently was five fifty-nine a.m. Sunset's grouchy pout was quickly overtaken by an eager grin, turning her sights back out into the night.

Less than a minute left...

The filly's gaze was transfixed, refusing to be distracted by anything for fear that she'd miss it. She kneaded her hooves into the soft bed sheets underneath her, too excited to remain still. She was counting the seconds in her head, though her own impatience resulting in her counting a little too fast, only causing her to become even more impatient when nothing had happened yet. She was tempted to glance back at the clock again to see how close the second hand was to the twelve.

But before she could, her eyes caught sight of something. The darkness of the night was disturbed, a soft, orange glow emanating from the distant horizon. The light steadily pushed away the black of the sky, and the stars began to go back into hiding.

"She's doing it..." Sunset muttered quietly to herself, a beaming smile reaching ear to ear.

Before long, the source of the warm light came into view: the curved edge of the iridescent orb began to emerge from between the hills in the distance past Canterlot Valley. The brilliant light filled the filly with endless wonder and amazement. A part of her almost wished it were a little dimmer so she didn't have to squint, but mentally reprimanded herself for thinking such a thing; that brightness was a part of its beauty, and to diminish it would be to take away from its sheer majesty.

Sunset's fiery tail swished happily as she watched the sun rise again. No matter how often she saw it, it never became less stimulating, even if she'd only started actively watching it at the beginning of that week. The sunrise never looked so glorious as it did now that she knew why it rose. She found it so mesmerizing, and was overcome by the thought that, just a relatively short distance away, Princess Celestia was lifting the sun at this very moment. Sunset practically trembled at the thought.

Her father, on the other hoof, didn't feel quite so enthused. Ever since Sunset learned who Princess Celestia was, she had insisted on getting up extra early in the morning in order to watch the sunrise. She was treating it like a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it happened every morning, and he was paying for it. He wasn't quite looking forward to having to rise early in order to prepare his daughter for school, but now he was forced to suffer waking even before the crack of dawn. If any good was coming from this, it was that Sunset's eagerness to rise early meant she also went to bed early.

But even though today was a quiet Saturday, that didn't mean Starswirl would get to sleep in. Even if Sunset had decided to not watch the sunrise for whatever reason, he was intending to wake up early anyway, though not quite this early.

Starswirl managed to get a couple more hours of rest out of the morning after Sunset's excitement had died down and she went back to bed herself. At the stroke of eight, the stallion finally rose from bed, briefly grooming his beard before heading out to the kitchen to fix himself and his daughter a quick breakfast of daisy and cucumber sandwiches with a glass of apple juice.

Of course, Sunset was eager to rise as usual. Even though she had no school today, there was something else on the agenda that she was excited about. True to her promise she had made to her father, Sunset had managed to concentrate on her school lessons and homework throughout the week after an unfortunate first day. Starswirl had had a small chat with Mrs. Honeysuckle and she confirmed that his daughter had been a model student all week, though had a tendency to derail lessons by frequently asking questions about Princess Celestia. Regardless, Starswirl was going to hold up his end of the bargain and bring Sunset along to the Castle of the Two Sisters when he went to conduct his interview with Princess Celestia.

And Sunset could hardly believe it. For every minute that passed as she ate her breakfast, brushed her teeth, and even after boarding the carriage that would bring them to the castle, Sunset had to mentally reaffirm that what was happening was real and not just a lucid dream. The excitable filly spent the whole ride staring out the window, gazing at the majestic castle in the distance as they traveled down the mountainside, across the rolling, green plains south of Canterlot, until the castle disappeared behind a curtain of thick treetops as they entered the beautiful forest that their destination was located within. But every now and then, Sunset would catch a glimpse of the towering, stone spires through the leafy canopy, getting closer every brief sighting she managed to get.

And before long, it was time. Approaching the end of the path at the edge of the far end of the forest, their carriage came to a stop, and Starswirl and Sunset exited the vehicle. The filly craned her neck skyward, her eyes widening in wonder and disbelief. From a distance, the castle looked rather unremarkable—at least, to the average pony—but now that she was seeing it up close, Sunset could observe and marvel at the beauty and detail in the masonry. While the stone walls were a rather bland grey, the outside of the castle was decorated with regal banners depicting the radiant sun and crescent moon. The tall towers stretching up from the building were capped with conical peaks painted a vibrant purple, and the entire castle was built perfectly symmetrical without a single brick out of place. Sunset likened the enormous structure against the blue of the morning sky to something from a fairy tale, still unsure if she was actually awake, even in the presence of its glorious shape.

Starswirl silently nudged his daughter along with a smile. It seemed like she'd been zoning out a lot lately, entranced by things she'd seen everyday, but now saw them in a new light. He was surprised her jaw hadn't been dislocated from how often it had dropped in awe and wonder over the past week.

Though they reached the edge of the forest, there was still a short distance to walk to the castle. The forest ended at the edge of a shallow ravine, and an elegant, stone bridge spanned its expanse, decorated in a similar manner as the castle. Trotting across the bridge felt like traveling through a portal to another world for Sunset. The grass literally looked greener on the other side, no doubt a result of the expert groundskeeping by the castle staff. In fact, a groundskeeper was currently busy watering the various colorful flowerbeds around the front of the castle, and stopped for a moment to give a cheery wave to the two visitors walking the dirt path to the castle entrance. The brief interaction alleviated the one concern that Sunset had about coming here; she was worried that the staff at the castle might be stuffy and stuck up, but the groundskeeper's genuine smile put that worry to rest pretty quickly.

Starswirl and Sunset approached the entrance of the castle, a short set of stairs leading up to the immense, purple double doors, the left door emblazoned with an image of a crescent moon, while the right depicted a bright sun, which Sunset had come to recognize as Princess Celestia's cutie mark. Seeing the giant gateway looming before her, Sunset had yet another moment of disbelief, an excited shiver running down her spine.

Two stallions stood stationed at the entryway, one a pegasus with a steel-grey coat and white mane with a golden streak, the other a unicorn with a blue coat and black mane. Both were outfitted in golden armor and held long spears with one hoof. The unicorn, posted on the right under the image of the sun on the door, stood even and unmoving, his spear held firmly and straight. In contrast, the pegasus, standing on the left, looked more relaxed. His front hooves were crossed and his spear rested against his shoulder.

Starswirl approached the two guards, offering a friendly smile and a nod to them. Only the pegasus smiled back, however, while the unicorn guard's expression remained stoic. Seeing the bearded stallion, the unicorn guard removed a scroll and quill that were strapped to his withers and unfurled the paper.

"Name?" he asked tersely.

"Starswirl. I have an interview scheduled with Princess Celestia," Starswirl responded.

After briefly scanning the parchment, the guard nodded and replaced the scroll. "Her Highness is expecting you."

With a flourish of his magic, the unicorn guard opened the doors slightly, gesturing for Starswirl to enter. Sunset eagerly followed behind her father, but was suddenly blocked when a spear extended in front of her, eliciting a startled yelp from the filly as she took a frightened step back.

"Halt." The unicorn guard commanded sternly. "Who are you?"

Sunset stared up at the guard, finding her legs quivering a little under his judgmental glower. Her father had mentioned that he wasn't sure if she'd be allowed in the castle, but the excitement over the prospect of meeting the princess had pushed that thought from her mind. Now that that exact situation had reared its ugly head, Sunset didn't know what to do. Was she just supposed to wait outside until her dad was finished his interview? Did this mean she wouldn't get to meet Princess Celestia after all?

The pegasus guard stepped over, pushing the unicorn's spear out of Sunset's way. "Geez, Scabbard, ease up. She's just a little girl."

The unicorn—evidently named Scabbard—gave his colleague a reprimanding glare. "We can't let anypony in without authorization. Everypony needs an appointment, those are the rules."

The pegasus rolled his eyes. "You really need to get that stick out of your butt, dude. She's an adorable, little filly. She wouldn't cause any trouble, would she?" he said, giving Sunset a reassuring grin.

The filly felt a little more comfortable having one of the guards defend her, prompting her to smile back.

"Lance, you've heard about Discord. Equestria's enemies could be capable of just about anything, even disguising themselves as seemingly harmless fillies," Scabbard argued.

Lance turned to the bearded stallion who had been watching the discussion take place. "This your daughter, Mr. Starswirl?"

Starswirl hurried over to Sunset's side, feeling guilty that he had made a promise he wasn't sure he could keep. "I'm terribly sorry, Sirs. It's just that she's become quite an enthusiast of Princess Celestia as of late. I thought I'd give her the chance to meet her new idol. I didn't want to cause any trouble."

Lance gave Starswirl a smile and a dismissive wave. "Nah, it's fine."

Scabbard continued to glare at his fellow soldier. "Lance, if she's not on the list, she doesn't get in."

The pegasus shook his head and breathed an exasperated sigh. He outstretched his wing, using the dexterous feathers to snatch the scroll off of Scabbard's belt. This elicited an even more irate look from the unicorn, but he retaliated with a defiant glance of his own. Lance unfurled the scroll, then grinned down at Sunset. "What's your name, pretty lady?"

"S-Sunset Shimmer," the filly stammered. Even though Lance's friendly tone helped put her at ease, she was still a little worried considering she knew it was just her father's name on the list.

Lance looked at the parchment, scanning it with a look of mock professionalism. "Sunset, Sunset... Hmm..." Then, with his other wing, he used the quill he'd taken to scribble something on the paper, smiling again when he was finished. "Well, would you look at that? Your name's here after all," he said in a triumphant voice, giving his coworker a sidelong smirk as he thrust the scroll and quill back to him. Lance then gave Sunset a respectful bow, stepping out of the way and gesturing to the entrance. "The princess is expecting you, m'lady."

Sunset looked up at her father with an elated and expectant grin, and Starswirl simply replied with a grin of his own and an accepting shrug before leading his daughter inside the castle walls.

Scabbard let out a disgruntled moan as he closed the doors behind their visitors, giving the pegasus another disapproving glare. "Your nonchalant attitude is gonna get you in some hot water one of these days."

Lance shrugged indifferently, his smile persisting knowing that he'd done a favor for a sweet, little filly. "That doesn't sound like your problem. You need to learn how to relax a little."

With the doors shut behind them, the moment had finally arrived. Sunset was standing in the halls of the Castle of the Two Sisters, and, as expected, she was utterly awestruck. As a descriptor, "grand" was an understatement. The entry hall alone was larger than any residential home in Canterlot, stretching upwards one hundred feet and held up with many marble columns lined up on either side of the hall. The columns were all decorated with a banner like the ones on the exterior of the castle, the ones on the right side bearing the mark of the golden sun, while the ones of the left bearing the silver crescent moon, much like the doors. Though much like the dull grey of the exterior walls, the interior colors were not as regal as one would imagine, being a very subdued brown for the most part, although it did make the place feel like an ancient palace, which it very well may have been.

But as magnificent as the entry hall was in its vastness, it was rather empty, with only the aforementioned columns and banners being of any note, along with the plush, red carpet leading from the entrance to the far side of the hall. There was yet another pair of doors at the end of the room, their design similar to the first set they'd passed through, though somewhat smaller. As they approached the second set of doors, Starswirl stopped, looking his daughter in the eye with a stern expression.

"Now, Sunset, I know you're excited about this, but remember: this is the princess of all of Equestria we're talking about here. You need to be on your best behavior, understand? You were lucky to even get in here in the first place thanks to that nice guard—whom you did not thank, by the way. So, just try to be ladylike, do not say anything rude, do not ask questions out of turn, and use your indoor voice. Is that clear?"

Sunset was admittedly made a little nervous by the warning. It was taking all of her willpower just to contain herself now, so she had no idea if she'd be able to maintain even this level of composure in front of the princess. But just that thought going through her head had flipped a switch in her brain. This was it. She was just moments away from realizing her week-long dream.

The filly nodded to her father, and he smiled at her. Lighting up his horn with his white aura, Starswirl opened the doors. They swung open almost painfully slowly, accompanied by the low creaks of the hinges and clacking of the latch, and revealed the grandiose throne room of the castle. The walls were the same tone of brown as the entry hall, but light managed to stream in from the high windows on either side, and the walls were lined with currently unlit sconces used to illuminate the room during the night; useful, as there was a pair of doors—one left and one right—that lead into the throne room from somewhere else in the castle. A similar carpet as the one in the entry hall was present here as well, though much wider, reaching almost to the walls, and the center showed an image of the sun and moon much like the banners, but the sun was positioned within the crescent of the moon.

At the far end of the room were the centerpieces of the throne room, that obviously being the thrones. Two thrones sat elevated upon raised platforms with a set of approximately a dozen steps leading up to them. Following the theme set by the rest of the castle, the throne on the right was a radiant gold, while the left throne was a regal midnight blue. Peculiarly, there was a small, arched bridge adjoining the two platforms, and the railing was decorated with an etching of two alicorns. The entire back wall behind the thrones was adorned with a large, ornate tapestry; though its color was a similar brown to the walls, just slightly lighter, it featured dark purple trim, star shapes sewn into it, and was cut in a way that framed the two thrones elegantly. Finally, hanging above each throne was a matching banner, again, like all the other banners, depicting images of the sun and moon, but were much more brightly colored, matching the gold and blue of the thrones.

As amazing as the throne room would look to somepony seeing it for the first time, it was something else that had Sunset Shimmer entranced, her eyes wide with wonder and amazement, and her breath caught in her throat. She had had doubts ever since hearing about her a week ago, a lingering paranoia that everything she'd learned was some sort of elaborate prank that everypony in Canterlot was pulling on her. But now, finally, she knew it was real.

Three ponies stood conversing at the base of the thrones' platforms. Two of them appeared to simply be castle staff: The first was a unicorn stallion with a thin mustache, his tan-colored coat covered by a formal, black vest and his black mane tied in a ponytail. The second was a unicorn mare with a subdued, pink coat, most of which was adequately covered by a typical black maid's uniform with white trim, while her pale green mane was tied in a bun.

But it was the third that had really caught Sunset's eyes.

Towering over the other two ponies was a tall, lithe mare, her coat a more pristine white than a fresh blanket of snow. She had not only a horn that dwarfed that of any unicorn Sunset had ever seen, but a pair of grand, majestic, white wings with not a feather out of place. Her mane and tail may have been her most puzzling and intriguing feature: not only were they long and beautiful, but they appeared to gently wave and flow of their own accord, even without the aid of a breeze, and they were comprised of four layered colors of pink, cyan, light green, and purple. Upon the hooves at the ends of her long, slender legs were fancy, golden shoes, and around her neck and covering her chest was an ornate, gold plate with a bright, purple jewel embedded into it. Atop her head was her golden tiara, adorned with a similar purple jewel, and a sure symbol of her regal status. But if none of that was good enough, it was the mark upon her flank that sealed the deal. The shape of the iridescent sun could be seen all over the castle and was always used in any media that was associated with her. It was irrefutable proof of this mare's identity.

This was Princess Celestia.

There was no mistaking it. She was real. Sunset could now see her with her own eyes, and no crude crayon drawing or picture in a textbook could ever do justice to the sheer beauty and majesty of the mare that stood before her.

Hearing the throne room door open, the tall alicorn's attention was diverted from her conversation with the two well-dressed ponies. The princess briefly addressed the two standing beside her, though from across the room Sunset and Starswirl couldn't make out what she'd said. The mare nodded in response, then turned to exit the throne room through the door on the right wall, past the golden throne. The stallion remained by the alicorn's side.

Princess Celestia once more turned her attention to the stallion and filly who had just arrived, offering a welcoming smile from across the room. Starswirl took that as his cue to approach, making his way over until he and his daughter were mere feet away.

Sunset hadn't even realized that she just walked across the throne room and now stood in close proximity to the object of her recent obsession. Sunset's eyes were transfixed on the glorious alicorn. From this close up, the filly could gaze up into the princess's tender eyes, practically able to see her reflection in her beautiful pink irises.

"You must be Mr. Starswirl," Celestia inferred with a friendly smile, the melodious timbre of her voice giving Sunset Shimmer goosebumps.

Starswirl bowed courteously in the princess's presence. "That's right. It's an honor to finally meet you, Your Majesty."

It was then that Celestia's eyes fell onto the amber filly standing beside the bearded stallion. Sunset felt her heart skip a beat when their gazes met. The alicorn tilted her head, staring at the filly curiously. "And who is this?"

Starswirl straightened up again, gently placing his hoof upon Sunset's back and giving the princess a slightly apologetic look. "This is my daughter. I'm sorry I didn't ask in advance if she could come, but she was just so excited by the prospect of meeting you."

There was a moment in Sunset's mind where she worried that Princess Celestia would be upset with her father for bringing her along, but thankfully the alicorn instead flashed an amicable smile.

"Is that so?" Celestia said with a quiet giggle. "Well, I'm always open to meet my loyal subjects." She leaned her long, graceful neck down closer to the filly. "What's your name, my little pony?"

Sunset's mouth opened, but no words came out, earning a raised eyebrow from her father and the princess. The filly's mind was overwhelmed in the presence of Princess Celestia, her voice caught in her throat.

Celestia lifted her head back again, raising a hoof to her mouth in mild concern, but chuckled softly. "Oh, dear. Seems somepony has a touch of stage fright."

"I'm terribly sorry, Princess," Starswirl apologized. "You'll have to excuse her manners. She's been very eager for this day, she doesn't seem to know how to process it now that it's here."

"No need to apologize," Celestia replied sweetly. "She's not the first pony to be rendered speechless in front of me. As much as I hate to say it, my status does occasionally intimidate people. Let's just give her a moment to compose herself. You're here about your application, are you not, Mr. Starswirl?"

The stallion nodded. "I am. And I must admit, I'm a touch nervous."

The princess offered another comforting smile. "You have no need to be nervous. But perhaps we should discuss this in private." Celestia gestured to a door to her left, the passage near the platform to her golden throne that the maid had gone through earlier, and began leading Starswirl towards it.

"S-Sunset Shimmer!"

Celestia halted in her tracks suddenly, caught off guard by the unexpected outburst from the formerly quiet filly. "Beg your pardon?" she addressed the filly in a surprised tone.

Sunset was visibly trembling, but now had a more determined look in her teal eyes, not wanting to miss the opportunity to talk to the princess of Equestria. "M-My name is Sunset Shimmer," she introduced shakily, though at a much more acceptable volume.

The alicorn turned back, giving the filly a friendly grin. "Well, then, it's very nice to meet you, Sunset Shimmer. And might I add that that is quite a lovely name."

The filly smiled widely, her tail swishing about happily at having received a compliment from Princess Celestia.

Seeing that the jitters his daughter had been experiencing had seemingly vanished, Starswirl smiled fondly at how happy Sunset looked to finally be meeting the princess. "She only just learned you existed earlier this week and she's been utterly enamored with you ever since."

Celestia raised an eyebrow in mock surprise, grinning behind her hoof. "Oh? But I'm just a boring princess. Surely she can't find me that interesting."

"No! You're amazing!" Sunset quickly and enthusiastically corrected. "And I have so many questions I wanna ask you!"

Her father leaned down to her, speaking quietly. "Now, Sunset, Princess Celestia is a busy mare. I'm sure she doesn't have time—"

"Oh, I can answer a few simple questions," Celestia said with a grin and a dismissive wave, earning a discreet eye roll from the stallion that had been standing by quietly. Seeing his reaction, the princess amended her claim slightly. "Although perhaps we should keep it brief. Your father and I need to have an important discussion, and I have other appointments scheduled for later. So, let's see how many of your questions I can answer."

Without wasting another moment, Sunset began blurting out her questionnaire. "So you really move the sun?"

"Yes."

"Did you really save Equestria from bad people?"

"On occasion, yes."

"Did you really found Canterlot?"

"Yes."

"Did you build this castle?"

"With some help, yes."

"Are you the most powerful pony in the world?"

"Hmm... You know, I'm not sure."

"Are you really thousands of years old?"

"Princess." The conversation was brought to a halt by the mustachioed stallion. He removed a pocket watch from his vest, more as a silent warning than anything else.

Celestia offered an apologetic smile to the filly. "I'm sorry, but it looks like we're out of time. I'd be happy to answer more of your questions another time, Sunset Shimmer. Mr. Starswirl, shall we?" she said, gesturing for the bearded stallion to follow her out of the throne room.

Starswirl nodded and started following behind her. However, he paused momentarily to look back at his daughter, who was just left standing there in the middle of the throne room next to the well-dressed unicorn.

Celestia, noticing her guest's plight, called back to her attendant. "Quill, keep Ms. Shimmer company in the meantime, will you?"

The mustachioed stallion—apparently named Quill, matching his cutie mark of a feather pen and piece of parchment—seemed taken aback by the impromptu request. "What? H-How would I do that exactly, Your Highness?"

Celestia simply gave a dismissive shrug and a grin. "Just show her around the castle or something. We won't be long."

"B-But—" However, he couldn't get any more than that out before she and Starswirl disappeared behind the wooden door. Quill let out a quiet breath through his nose, looking down at the little filly. She was beaming up at him excitedly, clearly titillated by the idea of exploring the castle. He admittedly felt a little bad about having to cut her conversation with the princess short, seeing as she seemed so eager to meet her. Not wanting to make a bad impression on the filly, Quill gave Sunset a small smile. "Very well. If you'll follow me, Ms. Shimmer..."

Quill then lead the excited filly to the door opposite of where Celestia and Starswirl had gone.

***** ***** *****

Princess Celestia had lead Starswirl down a couple of decadent hallways, giving the stallion a short tour of his own before guiding him to the location where they would conduct his interview. The room in question was actually rather homely, not quite the sort of space Starswirl had expected to find in a royal castle. It looked like a small, cozy sitting room, only a touch bigger than Starswirl's living room at home. There was a rather sizable, brick fireplace built into the wall, though it didn't seem as though it had been used lately as there was a notable absence of ashes, or even burn marks. Aside from that, there wasn't really anything too noteworthy in the room; there was a single, average-sized window on the wall opposite the fireplace that looked out towards the gardens surrounding the castle, and a round coffee table in the center of the room with a pair of plush cushions to sit upon.

Oddly, somepony was already present. It was the same unicorn mare in the maid's uniform that was briefly present when Starswirl and Sunset had entered the throne room. The closer proximity allowed for a small glimpse of the mare's cutie mark peeking out from underneath her black skirt: a porcelain saucer with a bundle of red berries upon it. Seeing that the princess had arrived with her guest, she flashed a cute smile and quietly turned to the coffee table. Upon the table was a silver platter holding a teapot, two teacups, a small pitcher of cream, and a bowl of sugar cubes. The mare promptly poured up two cups of tea, dropping two sugar cubes and a sizable serving of cream into one and giving it a brief stir with a small spoon, but left the other as is.

The alicorn gestured to the coffee table. "Have a seat, Mr. Starswirl."

Heeding her request, Starswirl sat down on one of the two cushions, while Celestia sat on the other, opposite the stallion. The alicorn, using her soft, golden aura, brought the teacup that the servant had prepared with sugar and cream to her mouth, taking a dainty sip.

"How would like your tea, sir?" the maid asked in a quiet, gentle voice.

"Oh, well, to be honest, I'm not much of a tea-drinker," Starswirl admitted awkwardly.

The comment seemed to concern the maid, who shrunk back slightly. "O-Oh! I-I'm terribly sorry. I can prepare some coffee if you'd prefer."

Starswirl gave a dismissive flick of his hoof, not wanting to put the poor mare out. "No, no, that's alright. A cup of tea will be fine, I just don't drink it often enough to have a preference over how it's prepared."

The mare breathed a discreet, relieved sigh before putting her sweet smile back on. "Then might I recommend the standard one cream, two sugars?"

"Sounds fine," Starswirl agreed with a nod.

The maid set to preparing his tea with a smile. Once she was done, she simply stood there, staring at Starswirl expectantly and making the stallion feel a touch awkward.

"That'll be all, Rosehip, thank you," said Celestia with a grin.

The unicorn mare seemed caught off guard by the princess's voice. "Huh? O-Oh, sorry. Um, enjoy your tea." With that, she gave Celestia and Starswirl a respectful bow, the princess acknowledging with a nod and a smile, before exiting the room.

Starswirl gave the princess an unsure grin. "She seems... nice."

"She's new," Celestia stated bluntly. "She's still adjusting to things around here and tends to try a little too hard. She makes a wonderful cup of tea, though." She punctuated that by taking another sip from her cup.

"I mean no offense to her, but I would have thought the royal sisters would prefer their staff to exude professionalism."

The alicorn smiled with mild amusement. "You would think. However, I prefer that our staff be more... grounded. It makes our castle—and by extension, my sister and I—appear more welcoming if the people working here are just, you know, normal people. At least, that's my hope. I can't say one way or another if that's how our subjects actually view us considering we're all the way out here by ourselves, and we don't get to interact with them as often as we'd like. In any case, I hope adding you to our staff will aid in that goal."

"Assuming this interview goes well," Starswirl added with just a touch of pessimism.

Celestia gently laid her cup on its saucer, looking the unicorn straight in the eye. "Mr. Starswirl, I think you misunderstand. This 'interview' is merely a formality. If want this job, it is yours."

Starswirl's eyes widened in shock and surprise. "Are... Are you serious?"

The princess nodded with a grin. "Both Luna and I are avid readers, and we've stumbled upon some of your research papers. I arranged this meeting so that I could meet you and get to know you a little better. Admittedly, my motivation may have been self-serving; I'm quite a fan of your work, Mr. Starswirl."

A bashful blush tinged the stallion's grey muzzle. To hear such a thing from a princess was incredibly humbling, and he had difficulty devising the words to express himself. "I... I am honored you think so highly of my work, Your Majesty. Thank you."

"I must say, the work you've accomplished for a stallion in his twenties is rather impressive. Transfiguration; dimensional calibration; time travel. It's all very intriguing," Celestia complimented with eager enthusiasm.

"Bear in mind that much of that is merely theoretical as of right now," Starswirl argued modestly.

"For now..." the princess added with an optimistic smirk. "You're one of the few unicorns I've heard of to have successfully performed a teleportation spell. For a humble citizen such as yourself to make such strides in the field of magic is nothing short of astounding. Now, imagine how much progress you could make with the funds and resources we could offer you here at the castle."

Starswirl blinked, taking a few seconds to silently absorb the extremely generous offer. After a brief moment of contemplation, he managed a light chuckle. "I suppose most people would call me a fool if I were to decline an offer like that, especially after receiving such praise. Though I can't help but think that with all the power you princesses have at your disposal, you could make leaps and bounds in the field, as well, far quicker than any average unicorn."

Celestia shrugged her shoulders slightly, taking another sip of tea. "Perhaps. But we're far too busy with running a kingdom to indulge in research. Which is why we're looking to employ great minds such as yourself."

"Well then, I can't very well turn down an opportunity to make such advancements, can I?" Starswirl laughed. "We all have to do our part, after all."

"Then allow me to be the first to congratulate you. Welcome aboard, Mr. Starswirl," Celestia said with a chipper smile.

Starswirl bowed his head graciously. "I greatly appreciate it, Your Majesty. And I'm sure Sunset will be ecstatic to hear that her father will be working alongside her new hero."

The alicorn blushed and giggled at the title he'd given her. "'Hero'? That may be a bit much, don't you think?"

"Not at all. The way she talks about you, despite only having met you today, you'd think she'd been a fan of yours since she was born. It's been like discovering you has ignited a fire within her. I'm not sure I've ever seen her quite this excited about anything before."

"She must be quite a hoofful for you and her mother, I assume," Celestia chuckled.

A tense silence then fell over the room. The air felt as though it had suddenly become thicker. Celestia noticed how Starswirl's smile had fallen and he broke eye contact. The princess felt guilt starting to gnaw at the back of her mind, realizing that she must have brought up a touchy subject.

"Oh, dear... Don't tell me her mother's..."

"Not dead, no," Starswirl spoke up. "Sorry if my expression read that way. I didn't mean to worry you."

Celestia breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "Oh, I see. Divorced, then, I presume."

The stallion shook his head. "No, we were never married."

The princess was starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable with the sudden change of topic. Admittedly, she was curious, but obviously, for the sake of her new employee's privacy, didn't really want to pry. "I see... If it's a sensitive subject, we can drop it right now if you wish."

For a moment, Starswirl stared into Celestia's remorseful and sympathetic eyes. He considered listening to her and simply letting them both be on their way, but something about the compassionate way she stared back at him made him feel a little more at ease. "I suppose if I'm going to be working here at the castle, it's important that we get to know one another a little better, don't you agree?"

Celestia smiled amicably, yet awkwardly. "While I do like to socialize with my staff, I don't really try to dig into their personal lives."

Starswirl waved off her concern with a dismissive flick of his hoof, folding his forelegs on the coffee table. "I feel like this is a subject that'll wind up coming up some time or another, so I may as well divulge. Besides, if I can feel comfortable talking about this to anypony, it'd be you, Princess."

The alicorn grinned humbly. Again, she wanted to tell him that he didn't have to say anything, but at this point, they would just wind up going in considerate circles until one of them gave in. And given her curiosity, she figured she may as well be the one to cave and hear what he had to say. "If you so choose. But remember that you have the right to stop at any time."

Starswirl simply nodded in response, thinking about the best way to start. "Sunset's never met her mother. She was abandoned shortly after she was born."

Celestia's eyes widened in realization. "Oh. You adopted her?"

The stallion shook his head, but grinned proudly. "No, no, she is most certainly my daughter. Her mother was a mare by the name of Scarlet Nettle. We went to school in Manehattan together, though we did not know one another personally until our senior year of high school. We weren't exactly two people you would associate with one another. As you might imagine, I was a rather introverted bookworm in those days, always with my muzzle buried in my textbooks. Scarlet, on the other hoof, was a social butterfly, and as beautiful as one to boot. She was the object of every stallion's affection at our school, and the center of her 'clique.' All that is to say she was far out of my league."

"Unfortunately, she knew exactly how desirable she was, and was one who would take advantage of her good looks to get what she wanted. So when she discovered that her poor grades meant she was in danger of not graduating, she had to devise a way to fix that. But, of course, her first thought was not to simply buckle down and hit the books. That's when she approached me. I would have been happy to tutor her if that's what she wanted, but instead, she feigned romantic interest and began flirting and attempting to seduce me. And I'm... a little ashamed to admit that it worked."

Celestia hummed in thought as she stared at Starswirl. "I'm surprised a stallion as keen as yourself would fall for such obvious advances, no offense."

"Bear in mind I was a hormonal teenager at the time," Starswirl explained. "The most attractive and sought-after mare in school came up to a geeky bookworm like me and asked me out. I didn't question it, I just accepted. Of course, there was always a part of me that knew she was only using me to copy my schoolwork, and there were occasions where I had contemplated breaking it off with her. But she must have been very desperate to ensure that she graduated and went to some rather... extreme lengths to keep me around, let's say that." A slight tint of red tinged his cheeks and he coughed awkwardly into his hoof.

"Anyway, as expected, once final exams were over, I never heard from her again," Starswirl continued with a sigh. "She didn't so much as give me a thank you, a goodbye, or even the courtesy of a proper breakup. And then I went about my life, having learned my lesson about not letting people like her walk all over me, and moved on to university. That is, until approximately eleven months later..."

Celestia's ears drooped slightly, her mouth curling into a sympathetic frown. Starswirl looked as though he was reminiscing quite deeply, almost as if he had forgotten that he was in the princess's presence.

"One morning, there was a knock on the door of my loft, and when I went to answer it, there was nopony there... Just a small basket with a tiny, infant filly sleeping soundly inside of it."

"That's horrible," Celestia commented. "How could a mother simply abandon her child like that?"

"I like to think that it was for the best," the stallion said. "Scarlet was not exactly a person I would consider responsible, or a good role model. Leaving the foal with me may have been the right thing for her to do."

"Seeing how little Sunset turned out, I think you're right," the alicorn agreed, though with a slight scowl as she thought about the filly's mother.

"Perhaps this is simply me being optimistic, but I also like to think that this was not a malicious or selfish act. I believe Scarlet was thinking of her baby's well being, and simply felt as though the responsibility was too much for her to handle and she wasn't ready to raise a foal. I might take grievance with being taken advantage of, but I certainly don't hate Scarlet for leaving her child with me." Starswirl smiled fondly. "It may have been unexpected, and it did take some time to adjust to being a parent, but Sunset is the most important thing in the world to me. I honestly can't imagine my life without her. In that way, I wish I could thank Scarlet for bestowing such a joyous gift upon me."

Celestia gave a pleased smile, as well, but there was a question on her mind. "How exactly do you know that she's Scarlet's daughter? What if another parent simply left their child on a random doorstep?"

Starswirl chuckled at the question. "Truthfully, I asked myself that question, too. But the timing lined up, being eleven months later, and there were more convenient places to leave her than a second story loft." His voice suddenly became quieter, though his smile didn't completely fade. "On top of that, I could tell just by looking at her. Sunset is the spitting image of her mother."

With that answered, it begged another question, though this one may have been a touch more sensitive. "Forgive me for asking this, but based on how you described her, do you know if Scarlet wasn't seeing other men behind your back? Is it possible that you may not be Sunset's biological father?"

Starswirl shrugged, but looked as though he'd expected the question. "While I've always suspected she was unfaithful, I can't prove it one way or the other. That being said, I have consulted a doctor and had the necessary tests done. Sunset is my daughter. There is no doubt about that."

Celestia gave the stallion a concerned look. "Does Sunset know about all of this? About her mother?"

The unicorn simply nodded. "She does. Of course a young filly raised by her single father is going to wonder where her mother is. She's a smart, little girl, so I gave it to her straight, though leaving out the more adult-oriented details."

"And how did she take it?"

"Surprisingly well. She seemed pretty disappointed to hear that her mother wasn't a good person, but that just seemed to make her appreciate me even more. I remember her telling me that she didn't need a mom as long she had me."

Celestia grinned at him, holding a hoof to her chest. "Aww, what a little sweetheart." The alicorn went to take a sip from her teacup, but pulled it away and winced slightly as soon as the liquid hit her lips. "Oh, it's gone cold."

Starswirl rose from his cushion with an embarrassed blush. "Oh, my, seems my story went on a little long. I didn't even get to taste my tea," he said, though with no hint of disappointment.

Celestia stood up as well, making her way toward the door. "Yes, I suppose we should wrap this up and find your daughter so you two can return home."

"Thank you for your time, Your Majesty. I'm honored to be at your service," Starswirl said with a grateful and respectful bow.

"And thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life. You didn't have to tell me all of that, but I have even stronger respect for you now knowing the difficulties you've had to endure."

The stallion smiled bashfully. "That's very kind of you to say." To be gentlemanly, he opened the door for the princess, who graciously accepted his kindness and stepped back out into the halls of the castle, Starswirl following behind her as they started back to the throne room.

Celestia looked down at Starswirl once more. "Oh, and if we run into Rosehip, just tell her you enjoyed your tea. I have a feeling she wants to hear that."

Starswirl laughed light-heartedly at the request. "Will do."

***** ***** *****

Sunset was practically over the moon with joy, bouncing and skipping through the castle's corridors. Though all of the halls looked basically the same, the stopping points along her tour were particularly exciting for the filly. Just knowing that she was inside the home of Princess Celestia was enough for a persistent, toothy grin to plaster her face. The princess's attendant, Quill, had kindly guided her around, attempting to maintain a hospitable smile during his difficulty keeping up with the rambunctious filly. He had shown her only a few notable rooms in the castle so far, and speculated that they'd have no time to see everything before Starswirl was finished with his interview. So far, Sunset had only seen the fancy kitchen, spacious and decadent dining hall, and a brief glimpse of the statue garden outside, though they did not enter the garden proper. Sunset had requested to see Princess Celestia's personal chambers, but, of course, Quill had to respectfully deny the request, only mentioning that they were located at the top of the tower of the castle's right wing, matching the building's motif of sun-themed decorations being to the right in most rooms.

At this time, they had seen almost everything there was to see on the ground floor of the castle, and Quill had no intention on bringing the filly to the upper floors. However, there was still one room they were about to stop by on their way back to the throne room. Sunset had already come to a stop in front of it, waiting for Quill to catch up.

The mustachioed unicorn, using his sea green magic, removed a handkerchief from his vest's breast pocket, wiping a few beads of sweat from his forehead. "I must say, you're giving me quite a workout, young lady. Even the princesses don't run me this ragged," he said with a hearty chuckle.

"I wanna see everything I can before I have to go home!" the filly exclaimed impatiently. "So, what's in here?"

Replacing the handkerchief back into his pocket, Quill grasped the doorknobs of the double doors with his magic. "This..." he started, pausing for dramatic effect as he swung the door open. "...is the royal archives."

Sunset's teal eyes lit up in wonder. The circular room was packed to the brim with books, with shelves curving around the perimeter, a second floor walkway giving access to the higher shelves, and even a large statue of a sun and crescent moon erected in the center of the circular room.

"Woooow..." the amazed filly breathed. Her previous energy having been placated by her desire to simply take it all in. "There's gotta hundreds of books in here."

"Thousands, actually," Quill corrected with a smirk. "And ever-growing. If there's ever a book that takes the princesses' fancy, chances are a copy will find itself on one of these shelves."

Sunset looked up at the stallion with an eager and hopeful grin. "Can I read one? Pretty please?"

As much as it broke his heart to say no to such an enthusiastic face, Quill lightly shook his head. "Unfortunately, I don't think we have time to read anything. In fact, I think we should head back to the throne room now. I suspect Princess Celestia and your father will be done with their interview by now."

Sunset's ears folded back in slight disappointment, but she understood. She was happy to have simply seen such a wondrous room, on top of all the other things Quill had so kindly shown her.

The two stepped back out into the hall to make their way back to the throne room. However, Quill immediately halted in his tracks as he stared down the hallway. Sunset followed his gaze, spotting exactly what he was looking at. The filly's eyes widened in surprise and curiosity.

Walking towards them from the other end of the hall was a mare, but not like any mare Sunset had ever seen. She was taller than even the average stallion, though not nearly as tall as Celestia. However, she appeared to be an alicorn herself, sporting a long horn and a pair of wings that were currently folded against her sides. In stark contrast to Princess Celestia, this alicorn had a deep midnight blue coat and the metal regalia she wore was pitch black with a crescent moon on it, though her fancy shoes were silver. Most notably, however, was her mane and tail, which, like Celestia, ebbed and flowed of its own accord, but was a brilliant blue in color with a light purple fringe, resembling the sky at dusk.

As the blue alicorn approached, Sunset noted the lack of a smile on her face as she had seen on Princess Celestia. Something about this mare's expression made the filly feel uneasy, and she instinctively backed up to hide behind Quill until she got a feel for this mysterious alicorn, first noticing her unusual cutie mark; as opposed to a deep blue like the rest of her coat, her flanks were covered with a pitch black splotch with an image of a crescent moon upon them. Sunset couldn't tell if the coloration was a part of the cutie mark, or if the color was natural.

Once the mare was before the two, Quill bowed his head respectfully. "Your Highness," was all he said in greeting.

The mare nodded to acknowledge him, though her neutral expression did not change. "Quill." It didn't take long for her gaze to fall upon the amber filly attempting to hide behind Quill's hind legs. "Who is this?"

Sunset practically flinched at the alicorn's voice. Her question was more inquisitive than curious, and she even narrowed her eyes slightly as she stared down her muzzle at the filly.

Quill looked back, only now noticing that Sunset had been trying to conceal herself. "Oh, this is Sunset Shimmer. I was just showing her around the castle."

The alicorn lifted her nose slightly, looking somewhat displeased. "Oh? Are we giving tours now? Our castle is not a museum, Quill."

"It was at your sister's request, M'lady," Quill explained. "The filly's father is the one who applied for the research position, and I'm simply occupying her while Princess Celestia conducts the interview."

The explanation seemed to do nothing to quell the mare's displeasure, grimacing a little. "And he thought it appropriate to bring his daughter to a job interview? Doth he think we hath a daycare on the premises?"

"He said that she wished to meet Princess Celestia. Apparently she's been quite an enthusiast of your sister as of late."

The mare rolled her blue eyes. "And her fan club doth grow larger still..." she grumbled under her breath.

Having not quite heard her, Sunset finally emerged from behind the stallion. "What?"

The alicorn shook her head. "Nothing," she dismissed, but a small smile finally managed to appear on her face. "But We suppose if thou came to meet Celestia, then thou shouldst be equally eager to meet Us."

Sunset raised an eyebrow, tilting her head in confusion. "Um... Who are you?"

The mare's smile vanished in an instant, her mouth dropping open as though insulted by the question. "Who...? Dost thou not know who We are?"

The filly shook her head, that uneasy feeling falling over her again as she shrunk back slightly.

The alicorn scowled at Sunset's ignorance, leaning in toward the small unicorn. "Thou claimest to be an enthusiast of Our sister, but hath no knowledge of Us?" With every word, the mare seemed to grow more agitated and insulted, causing Sunset to draw back. "Then listen, and listen well, little one..." She straightened up again, spreading her large, blue wings outward, and holding her head high with a stern and indignant look upon her face. "We are Princess Luna, ruler of the night," she proclaimed, her voice strong and echoed through the hall. "And thou wouldst do well to remember that name, young filly."

And that was all she said before being on her way, brushing past the two unicorns with her grand, velvety wings still outstretched.

Now that she had introduced herself, Sunset did find the name familiar. She knew that Princess Celestia had a sister, and thinking back on it, the name "Princess Luna" sounded familiar to her, likely having come up in the filly's research of Princess Celestia.

Once the alicorn was out of sight and out of earshot, Sunset voiced her opinion of this new alicorn. "She's kinda scary."

"Don't take it personally," Quill said with a grin. "She's not much of a morning person. In fact, it's a little unusual to see her up and about at this hour. She's probably just a little tired and is heading to bed after a long night." He ushered Sunset along with a hoof to take her mind off of Luna and back on track. "Come along. Your father's probably waiting for you."

Sunset listened to the stallion, turning herself back on track toward the throne room. However, the whole walk back, she couldn't help but think about Princess Luna. That was Princess Celestia's sister? Though they were both alicorns and both possessed radiant beauty, in terms of demeanor they may as well have been worlds apart. The phrase "Like day and night" came to mind, aptly enough, and Sunset found herself wondering how well the two sisters got along.

Before long, they had made it back to the throne room, and just as Quill had said, both Sunset's father and Princess Celestia were already there waiting.

Once Starswirl saw his daughter again, he flashed her a cheery grin as she hurried over to his side. "Ah, there you are," he said with a hearty laugh. "We were beginning to wonder if you'd run ahead of Mr. Quill and gotten yourself lost."

Sunset puffed out her cheeks and pouted sourly, insulted by her father's lack of faith in her. "Of course not. Princess Celestia said to go with Mr. Quill, so I did. I'm a good girl," she insisted, looking more at Celestia than her father.

Starswirl chuckled, giving the filly's red and yellow mane a playful tousle and putting a smile back on her face. "Yes, you are."

"Apologies for our lateness," Quill said, bowing slightly. "We had a brief run-in with your sister, Your Highness, that's all."

"Oh, is that so?" Celestia responded with a somewhat awkward grin and a quiet giggle. "Well, then, allow me to apologize in her stead. I take she was her 'usual self' this morning."

She received a nod and a slight shrug from Quill.

"She's always a little grouchy in the morning," Celestia explained. "She's typically up all night wandering the halls by herself, so her people skills might be a little... lacking. Don't think less of her for it. If you were to meet her at night, she's actually a very calm and thoughtful person, trust me."

Hearing that from Princess Celestia was all Sunset needed to have her concerns quelled. If she said Princess Luna was a nice person, then Sunset believed her.

But the filly's eyes turned back to her father, interested and hopeful about the smile on his bearded face. "So? Did you talk to Princess Celestia, Daddy?"

He nodded in response. "I did indeed. We had a lovely chat, and I hope to get to speak with her more in the future."

Sunset's eyes widened, her face beaming. "Does that mean...?!"

Starswirl chuckled inwardly. "I start work on Monday."

The filly leapt into the air with an exuberant squeal. "Eeee! My Daddy's gonna work with Princess Celestia! This is the best day of my life!"

Celestia stifled an amused giggle as she watched the energetic filly bound around her father. "Of course, you're welcome to visit anytime you wish, as well, my little pony."

Sunset came to an immediate stop, staring up into the princess's comforting, pink eyes. "I am?"

The alicorn nodded with a smile. "I'll make sure your name is permanently added to our appointment list. After all, our little interview had to be cut short."

The filly squealed again, though this time refrained from joyously bouncing around out of respect for the princess.

Starswirl placed a hoof gently on his daughter's back, urging her with him as he prepared to leave. "Alright, I think we've taken up enough of the princess's time, Sunset. Let's head home."

Although a little disappointed that their trip had been so brief, Sunset still smiled back at Celestia, happy simply to have met the pony that she was almost convinced was just a myth until about half an hour ago. "Thank you, Princess!" she shouted from across the throne room as she and her father approached the door. "I'll come back soon! I've got a lot of questions I wanna ask you!"

"And I'll be happy to answer them," the alicorn replied.

"Oh, and thank you for showing me the castle, Mr. Quill!"

Quill was a little caught off guard by the filly's politeness, sans the yelling. "Oh, well, you're quite welcome."

With that, Starswirl and his daughter disappeared as the door shut behind them.

Quill once more removed the handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his forehead, letting out a slightly exhausted breath. "Well, there's certainly no end to her energy. She's quite an interesting, little filly."

Celestia nodded quietly, staring in the young unicorn's general direction. "Yes, she certainly is."

Chapter 3 - Dawn

View Online

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 3: Dawn

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As Sunset Shimmer sat at her desk, she found that she couldn't stop fidgeting, lightly swinging her hind legs and humming quietly as she did her schoolwork. She had skipped and hopped all the way to school that morning, almost bumping into several ponies on the street as though her mind was someplace else and not focused on the road. A big, goofy grin dimpled her amber cheeks from the moment she woke up, and persisted even now as they were approaching noon.

It had been two days since her trip to the Castle of the Two Sisters, but even now Sunset was still riding her high from finally meeting Princess Celestia in person. It had been all she ever dreamed it to be and more, even if her conversation with the glorious alicorn was brief. She had spent her Sunday unable to sit still at all, prancing about Canterlot's town square as her own house wasn't big enough to contain her enthusiasm.

But the promise she had made to her father was still in effect. Although Princess Celestia had granted her permission to visit the castle anytime, Starswirl wanted to make sure that his daughter didn't lose sight of what was important: her education. As such, she had to maintain good behavior and attentiveness in class, because even permission from the princess of Equestria didn't supersede her dad's. But it wasn't like Sunset could just up and go to the castle willy-nilly. She still had to spend most of her day in school, and then return home to do her homework. And if she wanted to continue insisting on watching the sunrise every morning, she needed to hit the sack early every night, leaving no time to visit the princess. That made the weekend the only reasonable time to go.

But an entire week may as well have been an eternity to an excited filly like her.

Still, though, as painful as the wait may have been, Sunset still couldn't keep the smile off her face, and she suspected it would only grow larger as the week went on and the weekend crept tantalizingly closer. It was only Monday yet, and her cheeks were already starting to hurt a little. But nothing could keep the grin away; she was just too happy, parading her exuberance around with her throughout the day as she did her math problems, and even into lunch time, carrying her smiling face outside along with her lunch box—Celestia-themed, of course—as she sat on a bench out in the schoolyard.

Sunset had deliberately chosen a bench that gave her the best view of the horizon, specifically the castle beyond the distant Everfree Forest. Although she would rather point herself towards Princess Celestia's incandescent star, it was currently hovering directly above her, as it was noon now, and as beautiful as it was, she wasn't about to injury her neck staring up at it. But she was satisfied by her chosen view. While the Castle of the Two Sisters didn't look like much from a distance—just stone spires jutting up from behind the sea of trees—knowing what it looked like up close and on the inside gave Sunset a newfound appreciation of the marvelous structure.

The unicorn filly popped open her lunch box, removing a daisy and cucumber sandwich wrapped in foil, and a small juice box of orange juice, sticking a straw into its top and taking a quick sip before unwrapping her sandwich.

"Hey."

Sunset had been about to take her first bite of her sandwich, but was interrupted by a quiet voice beside her. Her classmate, Halberd, had sat down next to her, a friendly, yet sheepish, grin on his face, and a sandwich and juice box of his own on the bench in front of him, though his was apple juice. Sunset had been so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn't even noticed him sit down, let alone unpack his lunch.

"Oh, hi," Sunset greeted, though her halfhearted tone belied the smile that had been on her face before he spoke up.

"My brother told me you got to meet Princess Celestia," Halberd said, striking up conversation.

As happy as she was to simply eat in peace and lost in thoughts, Halberd had said the magic word to grab Sunset's attention. "Your brother?"

"Yeah. Lance. He said you and your dad were at the castle on Saturday."

Sunset's smile returned at the mention of the name. "Oh, yeah, Lance! He was really nice. He's your brother?"

Halberd nodded proudly. "Yup. So your dad's working at the castle now, too, huh?"

Now it was Sunset's turn to nod proudly, though her expression was filled with much more restrained joy than Halberd's small grin, even with a mouthful of food as she took an enthusiastic bite of her sandwich. "Mm-hm," she mumbled through stuffed cheeks before swallowing. "Today's his first day of work. It was so cool to see a chariot show up at our door to take him to the castle! I can't wait to go visit the princess again!"

"Did you like her?"

Sunset stared at the pegasus colt as though the question was the most absurd thing she'd ever heard. "What do you mean? Of course I liked her! She's incredible! She's pretty, and friendly, and sophisticated, and just... so cool!"

Halberd laughed at her response. "Yeah, that's pretty much what my brother told me. I hope I get to meet her someday soon. Maybe I'll ask Lance to take me with him to work like your dad did for you."

Sunset giggled with an eager grin, bouncing slightly on her seat. "I can't wait to go back. Princess Celestia said I can visit the castle anytime I want."

"Wow, really?" Halberd responded with an impressed and ever-so-slightly jealous smile. "She must like you a lot."

Sunset blushed deeply at the thought of it, a silly, bashful grin spreading across her cheeks. "N-Nah, she probably treats all of her subjects like that. I'm not special or anything, I was just lucky to get to meet her."

The somewhat short conversation came to an end after that. The two foals needed to focus on eating their lunches before they had to return to class. It certainly didn't feel like it was very long until Mrs. Honeysuckle came outside to call her students back to the classroom, and they all hurried back inside with their empty lunchboxes and returned to their seats.

It always seemed to take a few extra minutes for the children to actually simmer down, still feeling a little playful and energetic from the time out on the playground, but the teacher was happy to let them take that time to wind down today, rather than try in vain to get them to focus their attention to the front of the room. Oddly, Mrs. Honeysuckle had drawn the curtains over the windows and was waiting by the door of the one-room schoolhouse with a rather excited grin on her face. The display certainly looked a bit odd, and Sunset Shimmer took notice of the teacher's bizarre behavior, quirking an eyebrow at her as she discreetly poked her head out the door repeatedly as if looking for something.

Any conversations that were still in progress between the students were suddenly brought to a jarring halt by the sound of the door slamming shut. The children all stared straight at Mrs. Honeysuckle, who blushed with an embarrassed grin, having shut the door a little harder than intended.

"Oops, sorry about that," she apologized as she briskly trotted in front of her desk.

There was no mistaking the excitement in both her voice and her expression. The students could tell that something was up, but they all waited silently for their teacher to reveal what it was.

"Alright, listen up, everypony. For today's history lesson, I have something very, very, very special in store for you all," Mrs. Honeysuckle announced gleefully. "We have a guest speaker visiting to talk some more about our fair town of Canterlot. And who better to teach about Canterlot than its very own founder?!"

Sunset's eyes shot wide open, making the connection in her head immediately and her heart rate suddenly skyrocketing.

The teacher gestured towards the door with a flourish of her hoof and an ecstatic smile. "Kids, it is my great honor to introduce to you all our kind and gentle ruler, Princess Celestia!"

The door opened, and just as promised, the graceful, slender form of the tall, ivory alicorn stepped into the room, having to lower her head slightly to avoid bumping her long horn on the door frame.

Sunset Shimmer shot up, standing on her seat with her front hooves on her desk and tail wagging excitedly. "Princess!" she shouted exuberantly, unable to contain her emotions for this very unexpected meeting.

While under normal circumstances the amber filly would have received some raised eyebrows from her classmates, many of them had similar reactions to seeing the princess enter their modest, little school, their voices speaking out again in pleasant surprise.

An amused and friendly smile spread across Celestia's muzzle as she took her place in front of the class with the teacher, tickled to see the litany of amazed smiles staring back at her. "Good afternoon, everypony," she greeted warmly, though having to increase the volume of her voice a smidge above its usual to ensure the raucous room of foals could hear her.

The whole class returned her greeting enthusiastically, but one filly's voice blatantly overpowered the rest.

"Hi, Princess!" Sunset bellowed, far louder than was necessary for a pony in the front row.

Mrs. Honeysuckle took a step forward, gesturing for the class to calm down. "Now, settle down, everypony. The princess can't talk if you're all talking over her," she instructed, though her suppressed excitement was still evident on her face. Eager to listen to the princess, the class did as they were told and went quiet. All except one filly, that is. "Sunset, take your seat please."

The amber filly finally managed to tear her eyes away from the alicorn in their presence and realized that she was still standing on her chair. With a slight blush, she quietly sat back down, turning her elated smile back on Princess Celestia.

"You certainly have a class full of well-behaved students, Mrs. Honeysuckle," Celestia commented.

"As if they'd risk being troublemakers in your presence, Your Highness," the teacher chuckled.

The alicorn looked out over the smiling faces of the students. "Now, then, where should we begin?"

"Well, I've taught them about Canterlot's purpose as Equestria's capitol and its history," the teacher informed her. "Why don't you talk to them about future plans for their home town?"

Celestia nodded. "That sounds good. Well, I'm sure they are all aware of the constant construction Canterlot has been undergoing for a long time, but I intend to have Canterlot expand well beyond the humble town it is now. My hope is that Canterlot will one day be a grand, beautiful city overlooking the countryside; a shining jewel that anypony in our fair kingdom can look up at and find comfort and ease. In fact, we have plans to eventually start construction on a second castle right here in Canterlot."

The students began to murmur again, clearly intrigued by the idea of the princesses living in their midst. But none were more excited by this news than Sunset Shimmer. "Does that mean you're gonna move here?!" the filly blurted out suddenly.

"Sunset, raise your hoof if you have a question," Mrs. Honeysuckle quickly corrected.

Celestia, however, was unfazed by the interruption and happily answered the question. "At some point, yes. My sister and I agreed that it would make sense to rule our kingdom from its capitol rather than from a dusty, old castle out in the middle of nowhere," she informed. "We want to be closer with our beloved subjects, so this is the conclusion we've reached to achieve that. However, that won't be for a number of years yet; we're still making the plans for now, but construction is expected to start sometime within the next couple of years. Until then, Canterlot is going to continue to expand and we're going to make sure it's a place that people from all over the world will want to visit."

"Anypony would wanna visit if you were here, Princess," Sunset complimented with a cute smile.

"Oh, well, that's very kind of you, Sunset Shimmer," Celestia responded with a grateful smile.

Sitting next to Sunset, Halberd was distracted by the sound of stifled snickers. Glancing back he noticed the two foals seated behind himself and Sunset quietly giggling and pointing at the unicorn filly behind her back, though Sunset hadn't seemed to take heed. One of them even appeared to be discreetly doodling something on a piece of paper, though Halberd didn't want to interrupt the princess by tattling on them and decided to let it go for now, turning his attention forward once more.

Celestia continued from there. "Now, you're probably all going to notice your town changing a lot over the years, but just know that it's all for the better. Luna and I are thinking of all of you, and only want to make life more convenient, more comfortable, and even more fun for all of you." She paused for a moment, her smile finally fading as she looked somewhat uncertain. "Um..." She grinned awkwardly. "Well, I'm not exactly sure what else to say. That's our plans for the future of your town, but I think we need to fill more time here. Is there anything any of you would like to hear about?"

One colt raised his hoof, but didn't wait for permission to speak. "Tell us about how you beat Discord!"

The request spurred a flurry of supportive voices, all just as eager to hear about it.

Celestia was a little caught off guard by the enthusiastic request. "Oh, well, I don't know if that's on subject..." She looked to Mrs. Honeysuckle for approval.

The teacher gave the princess a smile. Her expression was almost indiscernible from the children's. "I mean, it is part of your history."

The alabaster alicorn shrugged and smiled. "Well, in that case, I suppose I can oblige."

***** ***** *****

After class had wrapped up and Mrs. Honeysuckle dismissed her students for the day, Sunset Shimmer was quick to throw on her schoolbags and eager to get back home. There was always a chorus of loud and energetic students hurrying down the streets of Canterlot in the afternoon as they returned home from school, but today the adult passersby noticed a particular energy within them, all bounding around and play fighting as if acting out some sort of choreographed show. Of course, hearing the tale of how Princess Celestia and Princess Luna defeated the spirit of chaos Discord had gotten all the students quite riled up and were playfully reenacting the battle as they had heard it described, though throwing in their own brand of childish whimsy.

Though Sunset didn't frolic and play with the other children—wanting to get home and tell her father all about her day and the astounding surprise she had received—she was still quite charged herself, having to physically hold herself back from skipping and hopping all the way home. One of her saddlebags was looking rather stuffed, but not with books. It was something she wanted to take great care of before getting home as it was rather fragile. She had been hoping to gift it to Princess Celestia, but unfortunately the princess couldn't stick around for the remainder of the day and had to leave to attend other business after giving her "history lesson."

Even though Sunset was disappointed that her reunion with the princess was brief, she still greatly enjoyed it. Her "lesson" clearly hadn't gone how she intended and it simply devolved into storytelling, not that any of the students minded, of course, least of all Sunset Shimmer. But Celestia herself seemed to have fun simply regaling stories of her past to a room of attentive foals. By the time she had reached the climax of her story, she was physically reenacting specific scenes and actions, and appeared to be having a ball while doing it, which only served to bolster the class's already overactive imaginations. But really, Sunset just enjoyed seeing how down-to-earth her idol actually was, practically acting like a child herself once she really started getting into it.

Sunset had a lot to tell her father about, and she was just now approaching the front door of her house. She didn't even wait to reach it before she starting calling out to her dad from outside. "Daddy! I'm home!" she shouted through the door, fumbling to properly turn the knob in her excitement. "You'll never guess who showed up at school today!"

The door finally managed to open and the filly skidded inside toward the dining room, but she went no further. The peppy grin on her face vanished when her jaw dropped open in shock at who she saw sitting at their dinner table. Of course, there was her father, casually sipping from a cup of hot coffee, but sitting across from him was the smiling face of the same alicorn she had been privileged enough to see earlier.

"How many guesses do I get?" Starswirl joked with a chuckle.

"Princess..." the filly uttered in quiet disbelief.

"Hello again, Sunset Shimmer," the alicorn greeted curtly.

"P-Princess Celestia is in my house." A wide grin spread across Sunset's amber cheeks and she let out a suppressed squeal of excitement. "This is so amazing!"

"I'm sorry I couldn't speak to you and your classmates longer, but I had actually come to Canterlot to speak to your father," Celestia explained.

"About what?" asked the young filly curiously.

"Mostly just work related stuff. It's all rather boring, I assure you," the princess told her.

"Sunset, why don't you go put your things in your room and join the princess and I, hm?" Starswirl suggested.

The suggestion made Sunset remember something, and she removed her schoolbags. "Oh, I almost forgot! I made something for you, Princess."

"Oh?" Celestia's ears perked up and she tilted her head curiously, watching as the small unicorn opened one of her bags that had looked stuffed to bursting.

Carefully, Sunset removed a round object. It appeared to be a paper-mâché sphere painted bright orange and yellow, with little triangles of construction paper glued around the circumference. The glue and paint still looked to be a touch wet, staining the little filly's hooves as she held it up for Princess Celestia, though the mess didn't seem to bother her, smiling proudly at the princess as she presented her creation.

"What is this?" Celestia asked, intrigued by the object.

"It's the sun!" Sunset chirped. "I made it for you after you left, and I wanted to give it to you."

The alicorn held a hoof to her chest, touched by the child's generosity and creativity. She gently took hold of the gift with her golden magic, observing it more closely. Though the paint job was a little erratic and messy, and several globs of white glue stuck out on its surface, she smiled graciously at the filly's display of thoughtfulness. "Oh, my, it's just lovely, Sunset. Thank you so much."

Starswirl, on the other hoof, was a little less impressed when he saw the mess that the paper-mâché sun had made of his daughter's schoolbags. "You could have carried it home with your magic instead of putting it in your bag, Sunset. Look at the mess you've made."

Sunset ignored her father, her attention focused entirely on the grateful face of the princess.

"I'll treasure this always, I promise," Celestia assured the filly. The crafted sun then vanished in a small flash of gold magic.

"What did you do with it?" Sunset asked, wondering where her gift had gone.

"I sent it back to my chambers in the castle. It's safe, don't worry. I'll take good care of it."

A satisfied grin graced the filly's lips, her tail swishing happily at the thought of her gift having made Princess Celestia happy.

The mood was somewhat interrupted by the sound of an exasperated sigh coming from the lone stallion in the room. "Yes, it's a very sweet gift, but now you have to clean your bags, Sunset. Empty them out and leave them in the bathroom. We can wash them later."

Finally heeding her father's words, Sunset nodded. "Okay." She started making her way to her room, but had already begun removing items from the bags as she walked. However, before she had even made it out of the dining room, she paused, raising a confused eyebrow as she stared into her bag. "Huh?"

"Something wrong, dear?" her father inquired.

Sunset placed her bags down again, removing a piece of paper from the bag that her paper-mâché sun had not been stored in and thus was clean.

Celestia leaned forward slightly to see what it was, noticing that something appeared to be drawn on it. "Is that something you drew, Sunset?"

The filly shook her head. "No, this isn't mine."

Sunset placed the paper on the kitchen table, allowing Starswirl and Celestia to look at it. It appeared to be a rather simple crayon drawing of a small, amber unicorn, and a tall, white alicorn with a colorful mane. The words "Princesses pet" were written at the top.

"Well, that's not very nice," Starswirl said with a slight scowl. "One of the other students must have snuck that into your bags."

"She was quite involved during my talk with the class," Celestia said with a sympathetic frown. "The other students must have thought she was trying to suck up to me. I'm sorry, Sunset."

"Why?"

The two adults stared quizzically at the filly. Sunset was grinning back at the them like there was no problem at all. Starswirl raised an eyebrow. "Well, they obviously made it to make fun of you."

"I like it," Sunset chirped with a smile.

Celestia and Starswirl looked at the drawing again. It was true that there was nothing inherently offensive about it aside from the words, but even that was more tame than it could have been. While the drawing was basic, the images of Sunset and Celestia on the paper weren't insulting.

"I'm gonna put it in my room," Sunset proclaimed. But first, she retrieved a pencil from her bags with her cyan aura and scratched out the second "e" in "Princesses," replacing it with an apostrophe to correct the grammar. She then hurried off to her room with the drawing and the rest of her things.

Starswirl and Celestia shared silent glances, the former shrugging, while the latter giggled quietly at his unusual daughter.

It didn't take long for the giddy filly to rush back to the kitchen to join her father and their illustrious guest, quickly hopping onto a chair and grinning up at the princess. It was only now that Sunset noticed a distinct lack of anything on the table, and gave her father a flabbergasted look. "Dad, how come there's no snacks for the princess?"

"I offered some to her, but she politely declined," the bearded stallion answered.

Sunset looked back up at the alicorn. "Are you sure, Princess? I could get you something, if you want."

Even though Celestia had turned down the offer from the filly's father, she couldn't help but notice the pleading look in Sunset's teal eyes and couldn't bring herself to say no. "Well, since you're offering, Sunset, I suppose I can't refuse."

Sunset immediately hopped off of her chair and hurried over to the refrigerator. She didn't take long to pick something out and return to the table, obviously having something specific in mind when she made the offer. Sunset placed a small plate on the dinner table, upon it was a single slice of cheesecake slathered in blueberry jam. "I was gonna save this for my dessert after supper today, but I want you to have it, Princess."

Celestia was taken aback slightly by the selfless offering. She had been expecting biscuits, or muffins, not a delectable slice of cheesecake. "Really? Oh, I don't think I could take a nice, young filly's dessert away from her."

Sunset pushed the plate closer to the alicorn with a smile. "It's okay, I don't mind. It's my way of saying thank you for letting me see the castle the other day."

The princess smiled fondly down at the happy unicorn. She really was unlike anypony she'd met before. "Still, I'd feel bad. So how about this?" Using her golden aura, Celestia fashioned a knife with her magic, cutting the slice of cake perfectly down the middle. "Now we can share it."

Sunset's grin widened at the idea of sharing her dessert with the princess. She quickly retrieved a pair of forks and offered one to the princess.

"Although, it is close to suppertime," Celestia pointed out. "Perhaps your father wouldn't want you to spoil your meal by eating dessert first."

Sunset looked expectantly at her father for approval. Oddly, Starswirl noticed a similar look on Celestia's face. He let out a sigh, but smiled softly. "It's fine, go ahead."

Without another second wasted, Sunset dug in eagerly, taking an enthusiastic bite. Celestia did much the same, taking a rather large mouthful of cheesecake, the generous serving of blueberries staining her ivory lips purple. The alicorn moaned with satisfaction as she chewed, savoring the texture and flavor before swallowing. "Oh, my, that is heavenly. Did you make this, Starswirl?"

"Me? Oh, no, I can't really bake," the stallion replied with an awkward grin. "I bought this from the bakery down the street."

Celestia enjoyed another tasty bite. "Mmm... I'll have to pay them a visit sometime. You know, with all the expansions being made to Canterlot, I'm hoping to have an entire street lined with an assortment of restaurants with similarly delicious food. I wonder if I can convince their chef to work at the castle..."

It didn't take long for the princess to finish off her cake. Sunset, as well as her father, were a little mesmerized by just how voraciously Celestia ate her snack. For a mare that carried herself and spoke with the utmost poise and sophistication, her table manners were shockingly lacking. Seeing the mess of purple blueberry jam smeared on the princess's muzzle, Starswirl discreetly placed some napkins on the table, which Celestia accepted without shame, cleaning the mess in a much more dainty fashion than she had made it.

The alicorn breathed a satisfied sigh. "Ahh, that was divine. Thank you very much for sharing it with me, Sunset."

"You're welcome," the filly chirped cheerily.

Celestia cleared her throat, her expression shifting to become a little more professional. "It seems we got a little off topic. My apologies, Mr. Starswirl."

The stallion waved it off with a grin. "No worries. But was there something else we needed to discuss?"

"Actually, yes. I wanted to make a suggestion."

Starswirl leaned forward onto the table, listening closely. "And what might that be?"

"Our castle has a wing specifically to house our staff, and there's plenty of space available. I'd like to offer you one of the rooms in the staff quarters to make your own."

The stallion's eyes widened a little. "Princess, are you asking me to move to the castle?"

Sunset's ears twitched and she sat up straight in her chair suddenly, but she didn't say anything, simply wanting to let the conversation play out to make sure they were reading the situation correctly.

"Not necessarily, but you may if you wish," Celestia elaborated. "As I said, we have plenty of room to accommodate you, and several members of our staff have made a permanent home there. I've just noticed that academic types such as yourself have a tendency to pull all-nighters, and I know I would sleep better at night knowing that you had a bed to sleep in in case you got caught up in your research and lost track of time."

Starswirl closed his eyes, humming in thought. Sunset was practically trembling in her impatience, waiting for her father to give the answer she wanted to hear.

"That is a very generous offer, but I'm not sure if I want to go through all the trouble," he responded.

Sunset's ears drooped, but again, said nothing.

Celestia nodded. "I understand, but I'd like to urge you to reconsider, or at least take some time to think about it. The royal archives would be available to you around the clock, and you wouldn't need to rely on my soldiers when you commute to and from work."

"That's not entirely the issue," Starswirl said quietly, his eyes shifting to his daughter who had been staring at him expectantly.

Sunset felt her heart sink a little at her father's implication that she was the reason they couldn't move to the castle. "Me? Did I do something wrong?"

The heartbroken look on his daughter's face caused Starswirl to jump to her defense quickly. "No, no, of course not, sweetie. It's just that you have to attend school. It would be much more convenient if you could just walk to school and back rather than relying on a chariot to bring you."

Sunset stood up on her chair, looking almost desperate. "I don't mind! It doesn't take long!"

"And what about your classmates? Wouldn't you rather spend your after school time playing with them rather than being way out there in the castle?"

Sunset blinked uncomprehendingly. "I... I haven't really spent any time playing with my classmates at all. I always come straight home after school."

Starswirl paused a moment. How had he not realized that before? Was she not making any friends at school?

"If I might make another suggestion..."

The stallion turned his attention back to the princess.

"I very much wish for you to accept my offer. But, ultimately, the decision is yours. I just want you to know that I want to help you with your research whenever I can, but I can't do that if you aren't there. I want to be a part of your amazing work, Mr. Starswirl, and I want to witness any discoveries you make first hoof. I know my reasoning sounds selfish, but I simply feel that we can all benefit from this in some way, and if need be, I would even hire a private tutor for Sunset. To that end, I'd like to suggest that you and your daughter spend this weekend at our castle as a sort of trial run, and we'll see how it goes from there. How does that sound?"

Sunset stared at her father with hopeful optimism in her wide eyes.

Starswirl hummed in thought once more, but reluctantly relented. "I suppose we can do that much. But I make no promises."

The answer, as uncertain as it may have sounded, made Sunset beam widely, smiling ecstatically at Celestia. "I get to stay at the castle! It'll be like a royal slumber party!"

Celestia giggled with amusement. "Let's not go overboard. I can't really party like I used to anymore." She then stood up, preparing to take her leave of the house. "In any case, thank you for your consideration, Mr. Starswirl. And we can still discuss this further during your stay to try and work this out in a way that makes everypony happy. I'll be heading home now."

Sunset hopped down from her chair and rushed over to the door, opening it for the princess. "Thank you for visiting, Princess. It was really nice to see you again."

The alicorn smiled amicably. "And thank you for having me. And for the gift. And for sharing your cake. You're a very generous little filly. I look forward to seeing you again this weekend."

"Me, too!" Sunset practically squealed.

Celestia looked over her shoulder to Starswirl. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, Mr. Starswirl."

The bearded unicorn nodded and smiled. "Have a nice day, Your Majesty."

Celestia stepped outside, shutting the door behind her.

The moment the door latch clicked, Sunset let out a long, elated squeal, hopping in place in her excitement. "I'm gonna stay at the castle! This is so cool!"

"Don't get your hopes up too high, Sunset," her father warned as he got up from the table. "We're just testing the waters for Princess Celestia's sake. Your education is first and foremost to me, and where we are right now is the best place for that."

Sunset's excitement died down quickly. "But the princess said she could hire a tutor."

"The princess shouldn't need to do anything she doesn't have to. But more importantly, I'm a little concerned; Sunset, are you making any friends at school?"

"Um... Well, there's this boy I talk to sometimes."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow, curious, but skeptical. "A boy?"

Sunset nodded, grinning a little. "Uh-huh. He's Lance's little brother. Remember? The guard at the castle?"

Starswirl was pleasantly surprised to hear that, any concern he had quieting down a little. "Is that right? Well, that's a nice, little coincidence. Alright, I'll try to be a little more open minded for your sake. I just needed to make sure you were doing alright at school." He then turned toward the pantry in then kitchen. "Now then, why don't we get started on supper. That is, assuming you didn't ruin your appetite by eating dessert first," he said with a sly smirk.

Sunset shook her head with a cute grin. "Nope, I'm starving!"

***** ***** *****

As if one week of agonizing impatience weren't enough for Sunset Shimmer, now she had had to endure two. First having to wait out the days until her first visit to the Castle of the Two Sisters and her first meeting with Princess Celestia, and now having to do the same again for her second visit. Thankfully, Starswirl was saved his daughter's overwhelming exuberance this time since the wonder and awe she felt the first time had been somewhat placated. The filly still grinned widely as they crossed the bridge to the castle, for her excitement now was due to the knowledge that they would be spending the entire weekend there.

Sunset had just been released from school not an hour ago, and now she and her father were already at the castle within the Friday afternoon. They had brought supplies with them this time, however, with a couple of suitcases containing anything they felt they needed. Sunset had mostly her schoolbooks, as she still had to do her homework while staying at the castle. Starswirl had much the same, along with a healthy supply of parchment and ink for which to record his research.

It didn't matter if it was her second time seeing it, the castle still looked majestic to Sunset, perhaps even more so now. Having met Princess Celestia and seen what a kindhearted person she was, the castle felt much more inviting. And to compound that, the father and daughter saw a couple of familiar faces as they approached the large double doors of the entrance.

Seeing who had arrived, the pegasus on the left flashed a friendly smile. "Hey, look who it is. Little miss V.I.P.," Lance greeted with a hearty chuckle. "Welcome back, kiddo."

Sunset eagerly hopped up the short set of stairs to the door, smiling up at the pegasus. "Hi!" As peppy as she was to see the friendly guard again, her attention quickly shifted to her right, where the other guard was standing by quietly. Sunset's smile faded slightly. "Um, hello," she greeted him somewhat meekly.

Lance cast a warning gaze at his coworker, and Scabbard let out a sigh. He stared down at Sunset with an apologetic look in his eyes. "Hi. Look, I want to apologize for the way I acted last time we met. I didn't mean to scare you or anything, I was just trying to do my job. You understand, right?"

Hearing Scabbard's heartfelt apology caused Sunset's grin to return, and she gave him a nod. "That's okay. You guys gotta protect the princess from bad people."

Lance laughed at the filly. "I'm pretty sure the princesses can take care of themselves if the past is any indication. We're basically here just to stop trespassers, thieves, and vandalism. So, I hear Princess Celestia has invited you to spend the weekend at the castle. Must be exciting for a big fan like you, huh, little lady?"

"She hasn't stopped talking about it all week," Starswirl told him with a slight sigh of exasperation.

"I wanna stay at the castle forever!" Sunset exclaimed with a beaming smile. Her lips then curled into a grumpy pout. "But Daddy says it's not very convenient."

"Well, when you're a pegasus like me, it's not such a big deal," Lance said with a shrug.

"Do you live here at the castle, then?" asked Starswirl.

Lance shook his head. "Nah. I've got family in Canterlot, and I don't wanna be away from them too long." He tilted his head to the armored unicorn next to him. "Scabbard lives here, though."

Sunset looked up at the unicorn curiously. "You do? What's it like?"

Scabbard simply shrugged. "If I'm being perfectly honest, it's a little boring. But my family lives in Manehattan, so it's a bit more out of the way for me to visit them."

"Do you have anything you do to pass the time?" inquired Starswirl.

"Combat practice in the barracks mostly, though I can't imagine I'll ever need to make practical use of those skills."

"That's it? You just practice with your spear all day?" Sunset said.

Scabbard's blue cheeks turned a slight hint of red and he broke eye contact awkwardly. "Well, no. I have... hobbies..."

Sunset leaned forward. "Like what?"

"He whittles."

Scabbard gave Lance an icy glare, but that didn't deter the amused smirk on the face of the armored pegasus.

Sunset tilted her head in confusion. "What's that?"

"He carves little sculptures out of pieces of wood. His room's full of 'em," Lance elaborated, his smirk growing wider as he relished his comrade's embarrassment.

The amber filly smiled up at him, too, but bearing no hint of derision. "Really? That's cool! I like arts and crafts! I made a paper-mâché sun for Princess Celestia. Can you show me your sculptures sometime?"

Scabbard's embarrassed blush only grew deeper despite Sunset's supposed interest. It was mostly Lance's stifled snickering that had gotten to him. "I believe the princess is waiting for you," he interrupted defensively. "You should be on your way before she wonders where you are." The unicorn guard promptly opened the doors, more so to just bring the conversation to an end than anything.

Starswirl and Sunset started inside, the stallion giving the two soldiers his regards, while Sunset gave an enthusiastic goodbye as the doors closed behind them. The filly wasted no time hurrying ahead of her father through the entry hall, so eager to see Princess Celestia again that she left her suitcase behind. She practically bust down the doors to the throne room as she skipped across the plush, red carpet on the floor.

"Princess! We're here!" she shouted excitedly, her voice echoing throughout the spacious throne room.

However, Sunset's beaming smile dropped almost immediately. Contrary to her assumptions, Princess Celestia was not present. Instead, her sister Princess Luna was standing at the base of the two thrones, alongside Quill. The blue alicorn had turned in the filly's direction with a rather displeased grimace in response to her inappropriate shouting.

Starswirl caught up to his daughter with both of their suitcases in tow, and guided the somewhat stunned filly the rest of the way down the throne room, whispering quietly to her. "Sunset, I know you're excited, but this is the princesses' castle; you need to behave yourself."

Sunset's ears drooped a little, but mostly because Princess Luna was still scowling slightly at her. She shied away when she and her father stopped in front of the princess, almost tempted to hide away behind her dad to escape Luna's judgmental gaze.

"I apologize for her behavior, Your Highness," Starswirl said to the princess with a small bow. "She's just very excited. You know how children are."

Luna closed her eyes as she let out a long, tired sigh, the scowl leaving her face. "Not as well as We should, perhaps, but We understand. We, too, must apologize if We seem out of sorts. It is far past Our bedtime."

"I was going to ask about that," Starswirl said inquisitively. "What are you doing up at this hour, Your Majesty? Shouldn't you be resting?"

Luna raised a hoof to her mouth, seemingly stifling a sleepy yawn, but not wanting her company to witness such an undignified act. "Our sister wished for Us to greet our two guests before turning in for the day. We suppose she hath no problem if the moon were to rise later than usual tonight as a result," she muttered.

"Where's Princess Celestia, then?" Sunset asked.

"Ensuring thy quarters are in order and adequately prepared for thy stay," the moon princess answered. "She will be joining us shortly."

Starswirl couldn't help but notice how Luna's eyelids had been slowly drifting shut as she spoke, only to jerk open again. "You don't have to wait here for our sake, Princess. You should head to bed."

Luna nodded as though she had been waiting for him to say as such. "Then We will not argue. Quill, inform Our sister that We've taken to Our chambers for the day." She gave a curt nod to Starswirl. "Good afternoon, Mr. Starswirl." She then glanced down at the little filly beside him. "Do try to keep the noise down whilst thou art here, if thou wouldst. Otherwise, enjoy thy stay."

"Um, goodnight. Er, good afternoon, I mean," Sunset bid the princess as she turned to leave through the door left of the thrones.

However, just before Luna reached the door, it opened for her, making way for her sister as the taller alicorn finally arrived. The midnight blue princess stared up at Celestia with tired, half-lidded eyes. "Ah, thou'rt here. Good."

Celestia looked past her sister to see that Starswirl and Sunset had arrived already, the filly waving frantically with a toothy smile. The sun princess leaned down slightly, speaking quietly to her sister. "Luna, you weren't about to just leave them here, were you? I asked you to keep them company until I got here."

Luna furrowed her weary brow, insulted by her sister's assumption. "Of course not. Starswirl insisted We get Our much deserved rest, so We art obliging. And perhaps next time thou shouldst leave the preparations to the staff so that thou need not keep Us awake at such an hour."

Celestia breathed a small, apologetic sigh. "You're right, I'm sorry. If you want, I can raise the moon for you tonight so you can get some extra rest."

Luna turned her nose up at the offer with a huff. "Thou wouldst like that, wouldn'st thou? No, We can handle it Ourselves, thank thee very much."

With that, Luna pushed past her sister and disappeared into the hall beyond the door, leaving Celestia to simply shake her head. The ivory alicorn then looked back over to her two guests. Starswirl and Sunset were looking in her direction rather curiously. She hoped they hadn't heard the two sisters' brief, but uncomfortable conversation. Celestia put on a welcoming smile, walking over to greet her guests as warmly as she could.

"Welcome. I'm sorry if my sister was in a foul mood. It may have been a mistake to keep her up this long," Celestia said, her pink eyes looking a little regretful despite her smile.

Starswirl waved off her apology. "It's no problem. She needs her rest as much as anypony."

"Do you talk to Princess Luna when you're at work, Dad?" Sunset asked her father.

"Not really, but I do occasionally bump into her when I arrive in the morning as she's on her way to bed. We usually do nothing more than exchange greetings in the hall."

"I've said this before, but she doesn't get to talk to people very often," Celestia reiterated. "She hasn't even had much of a chance to learn the names of all of our employees." She glanced down at Sunset, giving the filly a grin. "I know she hasn't really made a great first impression for you, Sunset, so if you run into her during your stay here, why not make an effort to talk to her a little? It might help her come out of her shell."

Although the notion of speaking one on one with the grumpy alicorn wasn't all too appealing to the amber filly, Sunset couldn't bring herself to refuse a request from Princess Celestia. She gave the princess an enthusiastic smile. "Okay."

"Now then..." Celestia continued, clearing her throat. "Let's get back on topic; we've finished preparing your chambers for the weekend. If you'll come with me..."

Celestia, as well as Quill, started heading toward the door that Celestia had come through, entering the inner halls of the castle. Starswirl was already fairly familiar with the castle's layout after working there for a week now, but given the expansiveness of the building, there were some areas even he had not seen yet. And even though Sunset had only visited the castle once, she had committed everything she'd seen to memory, already knowing what was through each door they passed in the halls.

However, neither one of them knew much about the staff quarters, as they had no reason to go there before now. Celestia and Quill had lead the two guests toward the west rear wing of the castle, though it looked no different than the other halls they'd been walking through. There were a series of hallways lined up parallel with one another, with several rooms situated on both sides of each hall. Presumably, each room was the living quarters of one of the castle's staff—or potential living quarters, as it was obvious that not all of the rooms had an occupant. All in all, with the exception of the tall, decadent hallways, the staff wing of the castle was reminiscent of a simple apartment building.

Celestia guided Starswirl and Sunset down one of the several halls, directing them to a pair of rooms adjacent to one another. "These will be your rooms. Make yourselves at home, and if there's anything you need, just inform one of the attendants, like Quill."

Sunset eagerly opened the door they were currently in front of, dragging her suitcase in behind her as though she were fully prepared to make this space her own. The room was rather spacious, as was perhaps expected given the rest of the castle. The most noteworthy feature of the room was the rather large, queen-sized bed, far bigger than was necessary for one person, especially for a small filly like Sunset Shimmer. But even looking at it she could tell it was incredibly comfy, and the thick, dark purple blankets looked like they'd provide ample warmth during the night. To test her theory, Sunset immediately hopped up onto the bed and practically sank into the soft, cushy blankets and the plush mattress. She imagined this must have been what it was like for pegasi when they stood on clouds.

Aside from the bed, the room was pretty typical for a bedroom one would find in an average citizen's home. There was a modestly sized writing desk at the right side of the room, and a vanity and wardrobe on the left for the occupants to store their belongings. There were lanterns on the walls for illuminating the room, as the close proximity of the many rooms didn't allow for windows.

Overall, Sunset felt pretty cozy in the room already, and hopped off of the bed to beam up at Princess Celestia gratefully. "This is great! Thank you, Princess!"

"You're very welcome," Celestia responded with a smile of her own.

"I presume all the rooms look much the same," Starswirl inferred.

Celestia nodded. "Yes, though those who make their homes here have personalized their chambers a little, and you're free to do the same if you wish. If there's anything you don't really like, you can feel free to rearrange or make any additions you feel are necessary to make your room feel more like home."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Starswirl interjected. "I'd like to discuss this more before we start treating this place like home."

"Even so, I only want you to be comfortable during your stay." Once she said that, Celestia noticed an odd look of uncertainty on Sunset's face as the filly continued to look around the room. "Is something wrong, Sunset?"

"There's no windows..." she said simply with a hint of disappointment. She looked up at the princess again. "I like to get up early and look out my bedroom window to watch the sunrise."

The alicorn felt a little bad for the filly, though also looked at her somewhat curiously. "Do you really get up early every morning just to watch as I raise the sun?"

Sunset nodded with a cute grin.

Celestia smiled fondly at the amber unicorn's devotion to what was to the princess a simple morning routine. "My, I'm not sure I've ever met a subject quite so loyal. I knew my subjects always thought the sunrise was beautiful, but to actually go out of your way to watch it every morning? I'm flattered."

Sunset's tail swished about happily. It sounded a little strange to her that more people didn't show that level of appreciation to such an amazing pony, but knowing that she had made the princess feel good was a satisfying feeling for herself.

A thoughtful look appeared on the alicorn's face, humming to herself as she contemplated something. "You know, I feel bad that you won't be able to partake in your morning routine. How about this: tomorrow morning, before dawn, why don't you come to my chambers and you can watch me raise the sun in person?"

Sunset's teal eyes widened considerably, twinkling in wonder at the mere thought of it. She had had dreams of this very scenario, so it was difficult to determine whether or not she was actually awake at this moment. "R-Really?"

Starswirl let out a quiet groan. "Your Highness, you don't have to do that. She can go one weekend without watching the sunrise."

"I want her stay here to be memorable," Celestia argued. "Plus, I did say I want you two to be comfortable, so you shouldn't have to make sacrifices you don't need to. Quill, once Sunset gets settled in, why don't you show her the way to my chambers so she can find her way there tomorrow morning?"

Quill bowed in response. "Of course."

"Now then, I need to be off for the moment," the alicorn informed them. "Once you both get situated, you can feel free to visit the dining hall. The chef's are preparing supper as we speak."

"We'll do that. Thank you," Starswirl said with a nod before heading to his room next door to his daughter's.

"Thank you, Princess!" chirped Sunset as the princess made her way back down the hall.

***** ***** *****

With their things unpacked and their rooms prepared, Sunset and Starswirl were ready for their weekend at the castle. However, it was evident that both of their views on their stay there were very different. Starswirl had seen that his daughter was fully ready to move into the castle, not that he was surprised; she was still a child and as smart as she was, it was still difficult for her to view things in the long term. While living at the castle sounded extravagant, they would be giving up a lot in order to do that. Starswirl was viewing their stay more like a weekend at a five-star hotel, with servants prepared to meet their every whim, despite the fact that these people were in fact the bearded unicorn's coworkers. Celestia appeared to be going out of her way to influence Starswirl's decision, and he fully intended to address that when he and the princess sat down to further discuss the matter. He had briefly contemplated bringing it up during supper, but decided it wouldn't be the best time to do so.

Normally, the dining hall was only used by the princesses themselves, despite its enormous size, the long table easily capable of seating upwards to thirty ponies. Its size was meant to accommodate diplomatic meetings between Equestria's princesses and foreign representatives of other kingdoms and countries, and the castle staff didn't normally eat there, instead having their own less fancy mess hall close to the staff quarters wing of the castle.

But today, Starswirl was not at the castle as an employee, but as a guest—at least, that's how Princess Celestia was playing it off. This further exemplified Starswirl's speculation that she was attempting to sway his decision, as the entire purpose of this stay was to convince him to move to the castle as an employee who would be on hoof at all times. So it wasn't as though eating in the illustrious dining hall would be a regular occurrence even if Starswirl had decided to live there.

So, as expected, the spacious dining hall was rather empty. Even as far as decorations went, the only real noteworthy piece was the large, golden chandelier hanging above the table, and the several windows along the right wall, allowing the sunlight to stream through during the day and giving a picturesque view of the statue garden outside. But aside from that, the people present were Princess Celestia, Starswirl, and Sunset—even Quill had left to have his supper in the mess hall with the rest of the staff.

And it was Sunset that was the reason why Starswirl chose not to discuss things at the moment. This topic was one he wished to talk about in private with the princess, as it was obvious what Sunset's opinion was on the matter.

So, for the time being, they sat and enjoyed their supper, occupying only the seats at the end of the table, Celestia at the head, while Starswirl and Sunset sat beside one another on her left. The castle's chefs had prepared a meal that was, for all intents and purposes, rather mundane by royal standards; various types of salads and sandwiches, with a few options for soups. However, the dessert lineup was notably more fanciful, with cakes, brownies, pudding, and pies all laid out before them. Starswirl had heard through the grapevine that Princess Celestia had a bit of a sweet tooth, and he was all but certain of that now. And he couldn't help but notice that the first thing that the princess offered to Sunset for dessert was cheesecake.

The amber filly must have eaten her weight in food during the meal, with Princess Celestia finding her appetite quite entertaining. But eventually, Sunset had reached the limit of what her little tummy could hold, sitting back in her chair and rubbing her full belly with a satisfied sigh.

"That was all so tasty," Sunset remarked with a grin. "Do you eat stuff like this everyday, Princess?"

"No, not everyday," Celestia chuckled. "My dietitian would never let me indulge this much all the time. Otherwise, I'd be a lot pudgier. But given that I have some special guests today, I figured it'd be nice to schedule a cheat day," she said with a wink.

"Oh, that's probably a good thing," Sunset said with an exhausted moan. "I don't think I could eat like this all the time. I can barely move."

Starswirl turned to his daughter, seeing an opportunity. "Then why don't you try going for a walk around the castle to help it digest?"

Sunset let out a labored groan as she practically rolled off of her chair. "'Kay."

"Just ask Quill to accompany you so you don't get lost, alright?" suggested Celestia.

Sunset flashed a cute smile up at the princess and nodded. "Mm-hm. Thank you for the food, Princess." And with that, the filly waddled her way out of the dining room, leaving Starswirl and Celestia alone.

With the filly out of the room, Celestia cleaned her mouth with a napkin and let out a quiet sigh. She looked in Starswirl's direction, her friendly smile having faded. He was staring back at her with a somewhat serious expression on his face. "I suppose you'd prefer to talk about this now rather than later."

"I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I think we need to get this out of the way before things go too far."

Celestia quirked an eyebrow. "Too far? Whatever do you mean?"

Starswirl gestured to what remained of their sizable supper spread on the table. "The veritable cornucopia of delicious desserts, inviting Sunset to watch you raise the sun... Pardon me for assuming, Your Majesty, but if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to turn my own daughter against me."

The alicorn blushed slightly with an embarrassed smile. "Am I that transparent? I'm very sorry, Mr. Starswirl, but I truly want to do anything in my power to convince you that staying here is best for everypony involved. Admittedly, I feel a little guilty about 'weaponizing' your daughter to that end, but I just find it so difficult to say no to the precious, little thing. Seeing her smile is such a warming feeling."

Starswirl nodded, a fond grin on his face. "Yes, I know that feeling well."

"You have to understand that Sunset is in much the same position that I am, as well."

"Hm? How's that?" the stallion asked in confusion.

"Just as she is a fan of mine, I, too, am a fan of yours," Celestia reminded him. "As I've said, I've read all of your research papers and theses with great interest. I consider myself somewhat of an enthusiast on the subject of magic studies. In fact, were I not a princess and had I the time, I'd probably pursue the same career as you."

Once more, Starswirl felt humbled by the princess's words. "Well, you can probably do better things for Equestria as its princess, so you shouldn't feel as though you're missing out."

"Whether or not things would be 'better' isn't the point. The things I can do for my kingdom as its ruler are not the same as those I could do as a scholar, like you. Can you imagine how much Equestria—no, the whole world could change if your theories were to bear fruit? We could travel between dimensions and through time; stuff we've only ever seen in stories!"

"Even so, I've merely laid the ground work for such research," Starswirl argued modestly. "I doubt I'll live long enough to see my theories develop to such a degree."

"Which is why I want you here," Celestia continued, her demeanor becoming more and more fervent. "To make these advances as soon as possible. And I want to be a part of it. Like I said, I don't have time to fully devote myself to research, but if you're here, I can help you whenever I do get a little bit of free time. I have knowledge of ancient magicks and spells that could be a great boon to you and your studies."

Starswirl could see the enthusiasm in Celestia's bright, pink eyes. She was right when she had said that she and Sunset were similar; at the moment, she looked much the same as his daughter did whenever she talked about Celestia.

Which lead to his next counterpoint...

Starswirl let out a sigh. "That's all well and good, but remember: I also had another reason to decline."

Celestia leaned forward with a determined expression. "Mr. Starswirl, Sunset does not need to make any sacrifices. I've already thought this over since we last spoke, and I talked to my soldiers. Sunset would have a vehicle to and from Canterlot whenever she might need it. I've had several of my guards come forward who are willing to help her, and even act as an escort when her school closes for the day so that she may remain in Canterlot and play with her friends for as long as she pleases before returning to the castle."

The stallion sat in silence for a few long moments, closing his eyes in contemplation and leaving the princess to wait with bated breath for his response. Finally, he exhaled deeply from his nostrils, opening his eyes once more as he looked at Celestia, grateful, but still clearly uncertain. "Your Highness, the lengths you are willing to go for Sunset and I are commendable, but with all due respect, she is my daughter, not yours. And, ultimately, I will decide what I think is best for her. Perhaps if she were a little older, I'd be more inclined to accept your generous offer, but alas..."

Celestia's ears folded back. Starswirl hadn't known the princess long, but he'd never seen such a dejected look on her face before. It was quite clear how strongly she felt about all this. He felt guilty about having to refuse a request from Princess Celestia, one of the highest authorities in the entire world, but he had to think about this from his standpoint as a parent. Still, seeing such an expression on her normally unblemished face made him feel as though he should say something to at least lift her spirits.

"That being said..."

The alicorn's ears perked up again, looking to Starswirl with a glimmer of hopeful optimism in her eyes.

"We've only just arrived here, really. You still have the whole weekend to change my mind."

Celestia managed a smile. Seeing the slight smirk on Starswirl's lips, she felt that what she'd said had had some kind of impact, and he was at least still somewhat open to the idea. It was just a matter of figuring out what she had to do to sweeten the deal. However, for the time being she decided it best to not push the issue. The discussion felt as though it had come to a natural conclusion—or rather, a metaphorical pin had been put in it for the time being. Rather than continue to harass Starswirl about the subject, Celestia figured it best to return to her task as his host, and continue to make him feel welcome and comfortable, and, in time, perhaps she could finally sway him.

"I suppose you'll want to locate Sunset now," Celestia inferred.

Starswirl rose from his chair, sighing, but with a smile. "Yes, no doubt she's providing trouble for Quill, or one of the guards. Best to reign her in now before she gets too out of control. Oh, and Princess?" He gestured to the food on the table once more. "You don't need to do all of this anymore. You shouldn't give Sunset and I special treatment. But thank you regardless."

Celestia grinned. "Duly noted. And you're very welcome."

***** ***** *****

With how expansive and spacious the Castle of the Two Sisters was, it was no surprise that the place was very quiet most of the time. Its vastness far exceeded what was necessary given the number of ponies who worked or lived there. Even during the day, when everypony was busy with their work, it was rare to actually bump into anypony in the halls. That being said, if there were to be any noise in the grand corridors of the castle, those sounds would carry throughout the whole room like an echo chamber. It was a little intimidating to first time visitors, but it also gave those who walked the castle's halls a sense of just how grand the structure was, its size proportional to its importance.

But during the night, it was an entirely different feeling altogether.

With the halls no longer illuminated by the bright light of the sun through the windows, the dark corridors looked like endless voids into the unknown abyss. Every hoofstep, even upon the soft, velvety carpets, seemed to boom no matter how lightly one stepped. Every hall had sconces built into the walls, but not every hall's sconces had been lit to penetrate the darkness. Anything could be hiding behind the veil of blackness, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting pony that was carelessly wandering at night.

This was what was going through the head of little Sunset Shimmer tonight. Princess Celestia had invited her to witness the sunrise, and the anxious filly was eager and intent on doing so. Quill had kindly shown her the way to Celestia's chambers the day before, but the path there felt even longer now that she had to walk there in the dark, her only source of vision being the magical, cyan glow of her horn. She had been offered an escort to her destination, but Sunset had declined, having quickly committed the path to the princess's room to memory and confident that she could get there by herself. But now that she was on her way, that confidence had wavered under the curtain of night. With no sunlight to guide her, she had to rely on her own willpower and bravery to see her to her destination.

Still, she knew where she was going. Princess Celestia's chambers were located at the very top of the spire on the castle's east wing, and if Sunset was recalling the path there correctly, she should be approaching the spire soon. Quill had not actually taken her up the spire, but since there was nowhere else to go from there, there wasn't really any point; once she made it to the spire, all she had to do was climb the staircase to the top.

Sunset had made it to where Quill's guidance had come to an end. In front of her was an archway leading into a breezeway towards the spire. The short, enclosed hall had a few windows, allowing for Sunset to peer outside into the night sky. The stars were pretty bright tonight, and the full moon glowed with an otherworldly light. Sunset knew that Princess Luna was awake. It was her understanding that Luna often simply wandered the halls of the castle at night, but Sunset had not encountered her. Perhaps she didn't often traipse through the castle's east wing, or, more likely, the sheer size of the castle made it improbable that they would happen to bump into one another.

Taking her eyes away from the moon, Sunset approached the door at the end of the short, connecting breezeway and stepped through into Celestia's spire. It certainly wasn't anything fancy; just a spiral staircase going up the perimeter of the tower. There were no decorations, or anything like that. Sunset had expected there to be at least an image of Celestia's cutie mark, like with everything else belonging to her, but then again, what use did the alicorn princess have for stairs when she could simply fly to her chambers whenever she wanted, or even just teleport herself there? There was likely no need to doll up the stairway.

Even so, the inside of the tower was well lit, the sconces in the structure flickering with gentle flames, unlike the halls of the castle proper. Celestia was expecting company after all. And with an actual source of light that wasn't her own, Sunset managed a small grin, hurrying up the spiral staircase to the top. It was a longer trek than she had anticipated. She knew the tower looked tall from the outside, but having to actually climb it made it feel twice as big. By the time the filly had reached the top, her eager pace had slowed, and she had to stop and catch her breath.

But once she had reached her destination, she was happy to take a moment to enjoy it. Unlike the unimpressive stairway, at the top was an extravagant, purple doorway bearing the mark of the sun that the amber unicorn had seen emblazoned all over the castle, with white accents that resembled swirling clouds. Sunset felt as though she were about to step into the gateway to paradise; a land of pure bliss and happiness where stress and worry were nonexistent.

That being said, that didn't stop Sunset from feeling stressed. These were the personal chambers of Princess Celestia. She was about to be privy to something that very few ponies could ever dream of witnessing. She was understandably nervous.

But Sunset swallowed her apprehension, and slowly and carefully pushed the door open. She did not enter the room beyond, but merely poked her head in.

Despite it still being night, the room was illuminated somewhat by the soft glow of the moon through a pair of glass doors on the left side of the room. Straight ahead of Sunset, opposite the entrance, was a bed, covered in dark purple sheets and a similarly colored awning hanging above. However, the bed was far bigger than even the queen size beds in the rooms of the staff quarters, but that was to be expected; Celestia was certainly taller than the average pony, so it made sense that she'd have a larger bed to accommodate her larger size. The thing is, it was even bigger than it reasonably needed to be, easily capable of fitting three Celestias, with room to spare.

But that was of little concern to Sunset. What did matter was the form underneath the blankets.

Having heard the door creak open, the long, graceful neck of Princess Celestia lifted her head from her pillow, glancing sleepily toward the entrance of her room to see a tiny, unicorn filly peeking from her doorway. Sunset was caught off guard by the alicorn's appearance. Her colorful aurora of a mane that normally flowed gently and smoothly was hanging limp around her face and neck, the colors looking a little duller than usual, and not just because of the lack of light in the room.

Regardless of the somnolent look in her pink eyes, Celestia managed a warm smile upon seeing the filly. "Oh, Sunset, good morning." She glanced to her bedside table at the sun-shaped clock; it was still only half past five. "You're a little early, but come in."

Sunset did as she was told, quietly closing the door behind her. She didn't say anything, as her slight nervousness was still present, especially now that she realized that she had awoken the princess prematurely. On top of that, she had to watch Celestia rise from her bed. Not only was it unusual to see her mane and tail in such an unceremonious state, but this was also the first time Sunset had seen Celestia without her golden regalia. It almost felt indecent for her to witness the princess looking like this.

However, such feelings were quickly laid to rest. Celestia had climbed out of bed and fixed the sheets, then proceeded to stretch her long legs and majestic wings. Then, with the golden aura of her horn, Celestia's mane and tail suddenly began to glow and shimmer with light, restoring them to their normal, effervescent beauty as they flowed in the absence of wind. Seeing her return to this more recognizable state, Sunset finally managed a smile again, staring up fondly at the princess.

Celestia lit her horn up once more, and the glass lamps on the walls of her bedroom began to glow with light, giving Sunset a full view of the now illuminated chamber.

The walls were blindingly white, something that was easy to see even without the light, but much more apparent with it. The floor was entirely covered with light purple carpet, and felt even softer than the ones in the castle's halls, and, like almost everything else Celestia-related, was emblazoned with a large image of a sun in the center. Overall, the room was laid out similarly to the rooms in the staff quarters. To the left of the entrance was a vanity and a large wardrobe, the latter of which was notably bigger than those of the staff quarters; Sunset imagined that it was packed with many elegant and fancy dresses for formal occasions. Over on the right wall was a writing desk, larger, of course, to accommodate Celestia's taller stature. But beside it was a bookshelf filled with tomes. Sunset had to wonder if these were merely copies of Celestia's favorite books from the royal archives, or if they were books that the princess had squirreled away for herself. And to the left of those fixtures was another door. Sunset could only assume that it was Princess Celestia's private bathroom. Although she was curious to see it, out of respect for the alicorn's privacy, she said nothing about it.

One interesting aspect of the room were the shelves along the back wall, flanking Celestia's bed. They contained all sorts of strange items that Sunset could only presume were souvenirs from foreign lands. But what caught her eye most was the paper-mâché sun that Sunset had gifted to the princess earlier that week. The filly's smile widened slightly upon seeing it up there with all of Celestia's other treasures, even if the paint and glue had stained the shelf it was on a little.

Finally, Sunset's gaze was directed toward where the source of the moonlight was coming from: the glass doors on the left side wall. A set of transparent, white curtains hung in front of them, but the view outside was visible regardless, with the starry sky hovering over the stone balcony outside.

Celestia walked over to the glass doors, pulling the curtains aside with her magic and opening the doors to the balcony. The two ponies were immediately caressed by the cool, early morning breeze wafting into the bed chambers. The alicorn turned back to Sunset, and with a slight tilt of her head, gestured for the filly to follow her outside.

Sunset did as instructed and stepped out onto the balcony with the princess. She approached the railing and stood on her hind legs to lean against it, looking out into the dark of the night. Even with the soft light of the moon overhead, it was still difficult to see much within the darkness. Sunset could barely see the edge of the Everfree Forest below them, but from this vantage point she could imagine how beautiful the countryside must look.

"We've still got some time before I need to raise the sun," Celestia pointed out, breaking the calm silence. She glanced down at the young unicorn. "I believe I promised to answer any remaining questions you had about me. Would you like to pick up where we left off, Sunset?"

Sunset stared up at the princess, hopping back down on all fours. It was odd to not see the filly smiling at Celestia in her presence, but there was a curious look on her face. "Have you been raising the sun forever?"

Celestia couldn't help but chuckle quietly at the question. She figured this would be where Sunset wanted to start. "Forever is a long time, my little pony. But, no, not forever. Believe it or not, there were ponies who raised the sun and moon long before Luna and I."

Sunset's eyes widened slightly, her curiosity growing. "Really? How come I've never heard of them?"

Celestia stared wistfully out into the starry horizon. "Because that was a very, very, very long time ago. So long in fact that history has all but forgotten about them."

"Who were they?"

Celestia grinned down at Sunset with a giggle. "Why, our parents, of course."

Sunset smiled back with intrigue. She had to admit that it made sense, but that also immediately dispelled any theories about Celestia and Luna being as old as time itself. "What were they like?"

Celestia closed her eyes. While the alicorn still smiled softly, it was a forlorn smile. "They were wonderful people, kind and strong. They were role models for my sister and I."

"And probably for their subjects, too, right?"

Celestia shook her head, but continued smiling. "They had no subjects."

Sunset tilted her head in confusion.

"They were not rulers. In fact, there was not even a kingdom to speak of back then. The kingdom of Equestria was established by Luna and I long after our parents passed away."

Sunset's ears folded back sympathetically. Though she was sad to hear that they were gone, it wasn't as though she expected differently; if they were still around, they'd certainly be well known. "So you and your sister took over moving the sun and moon after they were gone?"

"Well, our mom and dad trained us how to do it long in advance. As long as the lifespan of an alicorn is, we are not immortal, and our lives will one day come to an end like any other. Our parents prepared us for that. Our mother taught us about the sun, and our father taught us about the moon."

Sunset stared up at the full moon in the sky. "Who was around to move the sun and moon before your parents?"

"Nopony."

The filly whipped her head up to stare at Celestia incredulously.

"Our parents created the sun and moon. However, the two celestial orbs you see everyday and every night are not the same sun and moon they created."

That only served to baffle Sunset further.

"Our parents didn't just teach us how to move the sun and moon, but also how to create our own. You see, our lives our tied to them by our magic; when their creator dies, so, too, does the celestial body they created. Therefore, it was necessary for Luna and I to learn to create our own, because the ones that existed would disappear when our parents passed away. And one day, we will need to find ourselves successors, as well, though I suspect I still have a good number of years left in me yet; I don't plan on going anywhere any time soon."

Sunset stared in amazement at Celestia. As if she didn't already have all the respect in the world for her, now she learns that Celestia actually created the sun she watched every morning. But that in and of itself raised another question. "Could I create my own sun, too?"

Celestia chuckled at the notion, giving the filly a regretful smile. "Let's not get in over our heads. It takes an incredible amount of magic to create a celestial body, not to mention years of training. No ordinary unicorn could manage such a thing, even if they trained their entire life."

That was a little disappointing for Sunset to hear, but it didn't bother her too much. If it were that easy to make a sun, Celestia wouldn't be such a noteworthy individual. It only served to make the princess more incredible. "Do you think I could at least move the sun someday?"

The alicorn again gave Sunset a soft smile. "I'm sorry, but I don't think that's likely either."

"But what if something happens and you can't raise the sun one morning?"

"Well, there have been occasions where I was feeling under the weather and couldn't muster the strength to do it. But in those cases I just call upon Luna to do it in my stead, and I could do the same with her and move the moon if need be."

"So you don't have to be the creator to move them, then?"

Celestia could hear the hopeful optimism in the filly's voice. "It still takes an immense amount of magical power to accomplish such a task. Even the world's most talented unicorns, like your father, wouldn't be strong enough to even budge the sun. But I'll tell you what: the next time I'm unable to raise the sun, due to sickness, or whatever ill may befall me, I'll ask for your help. How does that sound?"

Sunset beamed up at the princess, her fiery tail swishing eagerly. She never thought she'd find herself wishing for the princess to catch a cold. "You'll let me raise the sun?!"

"You can try," Celestia specified. "But try not to get your hopes up too high. The only people who I've ever known to be capable of moving the sun and moon are Luna and myself, and our parents, of course."

The unicorn suppressed an elated squeal. But as exciting as the prospect was, she had another question on her mind. "Do you miss your parents?" Sunset asked.

Celestia nodded, but her smile faded, a remorseful frown blemishing her otherwise perfect face. "Of course I do. But it was such a long time ago that I scarcely even remember what they looked like. But I do hear their voices in my dreams sometimes, clear as day. I am afraid that one day, as my age starts to take its toll, my memory of them will end up leaving me entirely. I wish I had had the forethought to write down everything I knew about them before the details started slipping my mind, so I'd always have someway to remember them."

Sunset remained quiet. It was evident that Celestia was reminiscing about her parents—or at least trying—and Sunset didn't want to interrupt her.

However, that would wind up out of her control when the peaceful silence surrounding the balcony was shattered by the noisy chimes of Celestia's alarm clock inside her bedroom. With a quick flourish of her magic, Celestia shut the alarm off and grinned once more down at the filly beside her. "Won't be long now. I think you have time for one more quick question."

Sunset took a second to ponder her options before settling on one that was plaguing her since this conversation started. "How old are you?"

Celestia couldn't help but laugh boisterously at the rather childish question, casting a sly smirk down at the unicorn. "I can't tell you that. I have to maintain some level of mystery, don't I?"

Sunset smiled in amusement at the look on the princess's face. "You don't even know, do you?"

The alicorn snickered, blushing with slight embarrassment. "You start to lose count after the first few thousand years." Celestia then turned her gaze out toward the dark horizon. "It's time. Are you ready?"

Sunset's excitement came back in full force as she leaned against the balcony railing once more, waiting for the grand event to take place. Starswirl had voiced his opinion to her the night before, admitting that he didn't quite understand why she was getting so worked up about something that Princess Celestia does literally every single morning. It shouldn't have been anything special. But Sunset knew better. After learning everything she has about Princess Celestia and her relationship with the sun, Sunset knew there was nothing more important to Equestria as a whole than the sunrise. The sun bestowed life to the land, and by extension, so did Celestia. To even the princess herself, this may have felt like a simple morning routine, but in reality, it was a gift that she shared with the world everyday.

And today, Sunset would receive that gift in person.

Sunset watched as Princess Celestia's horn lit up with its golden aura, prompting the filly to follow her gaze out into the distant sky. She immediately noticed that the moon had suddenly vanished, and assumed that Princess Luna must have moved it while they were conversing to make way for the sunrise. The wait felt excruciating, even more so than when she usually watched the sunrise by herself. Her little legs were trembling, and her heart rate jumped up in anticipation.

And then, it happened.

A soft, amber light began to penetrate the darkness on the horizon, steadily spreading outwards and upwards, pushing back the veil and forcing the stars back into hiding for the day. The light began to illuminate the verdant landscape, silhouetting the tall mountains around Canterlot Valley and casting its warm and comforting light upon Sunset's hometown jutting out of the mountainside some distance away. The Everfree Forest below them began to come to life, the green canopy shimmering with the morning dew and a chorus of birds singing as they were awoken by the light.

Sunset managed to tear her teal eyes away from the stunning view to take another look at the majestic alicorn standing beside her. It felt like a dream; Celestia standing right next to her as she performed the morning sunrise, glorious wings outstretched and horn alight with glimmering, golden magic. She felt as though she were in the presence of an otherworldly being, one with the power to quell all fear and doubt and provide warmth and security to those around her.

The amber filly turned toward the horizon once more, and her eyes widened with wonder. The light had grown brighter, and the curved edge of Celestia's incandescent creation began to emerge from its slumber to grace the world with its glow. Sunset's heart raced faster, her eyes transfixed and unblinking despite the bright light of the sun beaming at her. Her hind legs suddenly felt weak, and her vision began to become unfocused.

Celestia smiled softly as she stared out at her sun. It was an odd feeling to have an audience to witness her raising the sun, but was somehow gratifying to know there were those who had such respect for what was to her a simple morning ritual. The sun had made it most of the way above the horizon now, far enough that it didn't really need her help anymore beyond this point. Celestia let her magic dissipate, letting a short, satisfied breath out through her nostrils.

Suddenly, Celestia was startled by the soft sound of something dropping onto the balcony. She quickly glanced down to find the young filly beside her collapsed onto her side, unconscious, and Celestia went into a frightened panic.

"Sunset!"

***** ***** *****

The little filly moaned quietly as her eyelids cracked open slowly. She stirred slightly, as if not yet fully awake, her brain still trying to turn back on. She felt warm. Something heavy, yet comfortable, lay on top of her, and she felt cozy where she was. A part of her wanted to shut her eyes and get some more sleep.

"Sunset? Are you alright, sweetie?"

Upon hearing the voice, the filly made another effort to open her eyes, rubbing them with her amber hooves. "Daddy?"

Finally, her tired, teal eyes adjusted, and she turned slightly to her left. The blurry shape of a unicorn's head came into focus, revealing her bearded father watching over her from the bedside.

However, despite her somnolent state, Sunset was quick to realize that she was not laying in her own bed, nor the one she had slept in last night; it was far bigger, inordinately so for a little filly of her size, and the blankets upon her were much thicker and heavier.

Starswirl managed a relieved smile to see his daughter seemed to be okay. "Time to get up, sleepyhead. It's morning."

Sunset instinctively pulled the covers closer to herself, groaning in displeasure, something Starswirl had not seen the little early bird do for a couple of weeks now. But it didn't take long for Sunset to catch on to that thought herself and she shot upright suddenly. However, she wobbled slightly, still feeling a touch lightheaded, which wasn't helped by her jerky movement. "D-Did I miss it?" she said with worry in her voice.

"No, of course not."

Sunset turned to her right at the sound of the second familiar voice. The angelic form of an alicorn stood beside the bed, silhouetted by the sunlight streaming in through the balcony's glass doors. It was finally coming back to her. She had been watching Princess Celestia raise the sun. She saw the sun come up over the horizon, but then things got fuzzy, and then she woke up in bed; Princess Celestia's bed, as she was now realizing.

"What happened?" the confused filly asked.

"The doctor said you got a little overstimulated and fainted," her father answered. "Nothing serious."

"I have to apologize, Mr. Starswirl," Celestia said with a remorseful frown. "I didn't know she would have such an extreme reaction."

"I wouldn't expect you to," the stallion said with a dismissive grin. "Sunset got a bit too excited for her own good."

"I really fainted from watching the sunrise?" Sunset repeated, finding it hard to believe herself.

Celestia nodded. "You did. I must say, I know my subjects revere me highly, but I've never heard of any of them being so excited by a simple sunrise that they pass out."

Sunset put on a big smile as she looked up at the princess. "But that's just how amazing you are, Princess! That's why I watch it every morning, 'cause I know how important it is, and how important you are!"

The alicorn's ivory cheeks were tinted pink by a bashful blush. "That's very kind of you to say, Sunset. But you really don't have to put yourself out just to watch the sunrise every morning. There's no harm in sleeping in every once in a while."

Sunset tilted her head slightly, confused by her logic. "There is if you sleep in."

Celestia was a little caught off guard by that response.

"You can't sleep in because then the sun won't rise. That's your responsibility. So if you have to get up early every morning, then I wanna get up early every morning. Because I wanna be just like you."

Princess Celestia stood speechless for a few moments, her mouth hanging open slightly as if she wanted to say something but couldn't find the words. While she was used to receiving praise from her subjects, foals as young as Sunset didn't often think about the bigger picture in such a way and often took things for granted. And as she stared into Sunset's determined, teal eyes, she could tell there was something different about this filly; something special.

From the other side of the bed, Starswirl observed as his devoted, little girl spoke to the princess. Time and again he'd told Sunset to mind her manners around the princess and not speak out of turn. But here she was, talking to Celestia as though she'd known the alicorn her whole life, yet he couldn't bring himself to reprimand her. His daughter spoke with purpose. It was clear to him now that she had a dream and was determined to see it through, for better or worse. And, as her father, it was his job to support her when she needed it, and also reign her in if she got in over her head.

And to that end, he made a decision on the spot.

"Alright, Sunset, it's time to go," the bearded stallion said calmly.

The filly stared at her father, puzzled by the statement. "Huh? Go where?"

"Back to Canterlot."

Sunset felt her chest tighten worriedly. She threw the princess's bed sheets off of herself and hurried to catch up to her father before he made it to the door, cutting him off. "Why?! We were supposed to stay for the weekend! We still have one more night!"

Starswirl smirked down at the panicked child, not feeling much remorse since he had already anticipated her next response. "We'll have more time than that. We're going home to pack up our things."

Sunset's narrowed pupils widened again, her ears perking up as she pieced the meaning of his words together.

Celestia took a step over toward the pair. "Are you sure you don't need more time to think about this, Mr. Starswirl? This is a big decision," she asked, though her relieved smile belied her considerate tone.

"As I said, Your Highness, my daughter is the most important thing to me," Starswirl reiterated. "And you are the most important thing to her."

Celestia took a moment to observe the look on Starswirl's face. Though he was reluctant to accept her offer initially, he now suddenly seemed satisfied with his decision, his proud smile strong and unwavering. She smiled herself. Celestia couldn't help but envy him. To put his own wants and needs to the wayside in favor of his child's must have been truly rewarding to make sacrifices like this. She was starting to wish she had some way to attain that level of satisfaction.

Sunset started eagerly tugging on her father's foreleg, a big grin plastered on her face. "Come on! We gotta get home! I've got a lot of stuff I need to pack!"

"Alright, alright, I'm coming," Starswirl laughed as he was dragged out the door.

Princess Celestia, now left to herself within her quiet bed chambers, let out a soft sigh. She turned towards her balcony, stepping outside into the cool, morning air. The alicorn stared off into the horizon where her sun was comfortably sitting as it started its journey across the sky for the day. She rarely saw the sunrise as anything worth noting in her day-to-day, but something about today felt special, and she was pretty sure she knew what it was.

Perhaps the satisfaction she coveted wasn't so out of reach after all.

Chapter 4 - Solar Flare

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 4: Solar Flare

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A loud, high-pitched whistle rang through the Golden Oaks Library, a sound that was synonymous with the morning in pretty much any household. Steam billowed forth from the kettle on the stove, and the short dragon who was manning the kitchen hopped up onto a stool to reach it, removing it from the burner and turning the stove top off. The noise and the steam slowly died down, along with the low bubbling from within the kettle. Spike already had a pair of mugs prepared, teabags sitting at the bottom; ginseng for himself, and earl grey for Twilight.

Who was still in bed...

Spike huffed audibly as he looked at the clock on the stove. It was almost noon already. Twilight wasn't exactly what one would call a "morning person," but she still made it a point to get up at a reasonable hour every morning. Considering she was a mare who scheduled pretty much every aspect of her life, it was unusual for her to sleep in like this, especially now that she was a princess and had a lot of new things to get used to, not the least of which was learning how to fly straight with her new wings.

But if Spike were about to ask himself how much longer she could spend in bed, he didn't need to anymore. The sound of the kettle whistling must have been bothersome enough to wake the sleeping alicorn, as heavy hoofsteps could be heard clomping on the wooden floor above, not to mention some muffled grumbling.

After a surprisingly slow couple of minutes, the kitchen door finally opened to make way for one exhausted-looking, lavender alicorn. Twilight must have taken a step per second to make it downstairs as slowly as she did, and stomping as though weights had been strapped to her fetlocks. Her deep purple mane was a mess, there were bags under her eyes, and, most notably, there was a very crooked grimace on her muzzle.

Spike contemplated making a snarky quip about her disheveled appearance, but thought better of it. He knew she was going through a tough time right now, and in the short time that he had been with her in Canterlot recently, he had heard her complain a few times about how hard it was to get comfortable in bed with the two new appendages sprouting from her back. So, instead, Spike simply poured up the two cups of tea and placed them on the kitchen table with the cream and sugar.

Besides, he knew there was probably something else entirely on her mind right now.

"Morning, Twilight," Spike greeted, though not too enthusiastically. Given the expression on Twilight's face right now, she was likely in no mood to deal with a condescendingly chipper dragon this morning. He also figured he'd just come out and say what was on his mind. "You don't look like you slept very well."

"Try 'not at all,'" Twilight replied with a sigh as she sat at the table and prepared her tea.

Spike took a silent moment to observe her. She was stirring her tea rather slowly and much more than it reasonably needed. The grimace had left her face somewhat, leaving her looking lost in thought. The dragon had a feeling he knew what was up. "Were you up all night reading Princess Celestia's book?"

"Not all night. You know me, Spike; I could have finished that book by now if I read all night."

"You mean you haven't? I thought you wanted to get to the bottom of whatever secret was in there?"

"I do, but..." Twilight hesitated slightly, the spoon in her mug clinking against the side as she let it go. "To be honest, I'm scared. I've been taking my time because I'm worried about what I might discover."

"So I guess that means you haven't read enough to find out what that secret is yet," Spike surmised.

The alicorn shook her head. "No..." She dropped a couple of extra sugar cubes into her tea, stirring them around until they dissolved like the rest, and then took a quick sip. Her mood seemed to visibly lift slightly in that instant, though Spike doubted it was from the sugar alone. "But I think I may have found out why Celestia wrote the book in the first place."

Spike's brow rose in interest. "Really? Why?"

Twilight raised an eyebrow herself at the dragon. "I thought you didn't want to get involved in this."

Her reptilian assistant shrugged in response. "Who am I kidding? I've always gotta get myself roped into your problems, why should this be any different? Besides, you're gonna need somepony to bail you out when Princess Celestia locks you up in the dungeon for stealing her book."

As real as that threat may have felt to Twilight, she couldn't help but smirk at the dragon's loyalty. She stared back down at her tea as she thought about what she knew about the book. "I don't think I mentioned it to you, but it's about a filly named Sunset Shimmer, who was apparently Starswirl the Bearded's daughter."

Spike tilted his head in confusion. "I didn't know Starswirl the Bearded had a daughter."

"Neither did I, which is just another reason why I need to find out why Princess Celestia wrote a book about her. Which brings me to my theory: Sunset Shimmer must have been somepony very important to Celestia. I think she wrote the book as a way to always remember her."

"Seems logical enough," Spike commented. "But if she was so important, how come no pony's ever heard of her? And why be so defensive about people reading the book?"

"Exactly. See? Now that you know the premise, you want to know, too, right?"

Spike groaned a little knowing he had essentially gotten caught in the same trap as Twilight. "Yeah, I guess you got me there. So what are you gonna do now?"

Twilight took another sip of her tea, a resolute look on her face. "I'm going to take a shower, then get back to reading that book."

"You sure you don't want to take a break from it and get some rest?" Spike suggested.

"Even if I wanted to, considering how 'well' I slept last night, that probably wouldn't do me any good. Besides, I need to get this thing read before Princess Celestia gets impatient enough to come take it back by force."

"Which makes you wonder why she hasn't already," said Spike.

Twilight shrugged, getting up from her chair and making for the door with her mug of tea held in her pink aura. "Maybe she's given up and figures I might as well read it. Though I'm still not going back to the castle anytime soon just in case."

"Well, just hurry up and finish it, then. I know I said I'd have your back, but now I'm kinda nervous, too."

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

To most people, Monday was a day of the week that was dreaded more than others; the weekend was over, any relaxation was to come to an end, and everypony had to return to their weekly routines, whether it was adults groggily shuffling off to work, or pouting foals heading back to school.

But one young filly couldn't be happier.

Sunset Shimmer skipped gleefully along the Canterlot streets, her little hooves clipping and clopping against the cobblestone. The smile on her face was almost as bright as the sun rising above the horizon, and she hummed a cheery tune as she made her way to school.

"You're in a good mood."

Sunset slowed her pace slightly to look over her shoulder at the armored, pegasus stallion following her. "I get to ride a royal chariot to school! Do you know how cool that is?!"

Lance grinned at her upbeat attitude. "Can't really say I do. I'm not usually the one riding it."

True to Princess Celestia's promise, now that Starswirl and Sunset were living at the Castle of the Two Sisters, the princess needed to arrange for a chariot and a soldier to ferry the filly to and from school every weekday. Of course, a pegasus would be required, and it seemed like the obvious choice to pick Lance seeing as he was already acquainted with the little unicorn. Neither one had any objections to the arrangement, and Lance was more than happy to take up a job that didn't involve standing at the front door all day.

Although, Sunset and her father hadn't quite fully moved into the castle yet. They had spent most of their weekend either packing and moving their things from their house in Canterlot to the castle, or getting acquainted with the castle itself—the latter more for the filly's sake. As such, Starswirl didn't quite feel like he was really "living" there just yet. Sunset, on the other hoof, was already making herself at home, having hung her many Celestia-themed posters all over the walls of her new bedroom. She had dropped any sentimentality she may have had for her old house pretty quickly, not giving it a second thought as she trotted merrily to school.

"You know, we could've landed closer to your school, Sunset," Lance remarked as the two traipsed through Canterlot.

"I might not live here anymore, but I still enjoy walking to school," Sunset told him with a peppy grin.

"So, what's gonna happen to your old house anyway? Is your dad selling it?"

"Oh, he already sold it. Princess Celestia bought it."

"Really?" Lance responded in surprise.

Sunset nodded. "Mm-hm. She said if we ever wanna move back here, we can just buy it back. But I'd rather just live at the castle," she said with a giddy hop.

Lance grimaced a bit in jealousy. "Hm, that's quite a paycheck for one week of work..." he mumbled.

"Why don't you just sell your house and move to the castle, too?" the filly suggested innocently.

"Because I'm not the only one living there."

"So? They can move in, too."

The soldier couldn't help but smirk at Sunset's childish naïveté. "It's not that simple, kiddo. Whether you realize it or not, you and your dad are a special case. It's just the two of you, and you can't stay home alone. You're a package deal. As spacious as the castle is, there's not enough room to house every employee's entire family. Plus, the princess likes you."

Sunset stopped in her tracks, staring up at the pegasus wide-eyed. "Did... Did she say that?"

"Hm? Oh, I don't know if she's said it out loud, but she definitely seems to enjoy your company," Lance elaborated. He grinned down at the filly. "Can't say I blame her. Your are pretty adorable, and your enthusiasm is kinda contagious."

The unicorn smiled cutely at the compliment, blushing a little. "She did say I can try to raise the sun next time she's sick and can't do it herself."

The pegasus raised an eyebrow. "Really? Is that even possible for a little filly like you?"

The doubt in Lance's voice didn't bother Sunset in the slightest, and she shrugged in response. "I don't know. Princess Celestia said I probably couldn't, but she promised I can try anyway."

"Well, wasn't that kind of her," Lance laughed. "See? You've definitely made an impression on her already."

Again, Sunset grinned. But she went silent for a moment afterward before asking Lance a question. "How often does Princess Celestia get sick?"

Lance gave the filly a surprised smirk. "What, you're not actually hoping she does, are you?"

"No, of course not!" she blurted out defensively. "I'm just... curious, that's all."

The stallion continued to smirk knowingly, but obliged the little unicorn. "Well, I can't really say for sure, but I can tell you that she hasn't missed a day since I became a guard at the castle. She takes good care of herself. She might've made you a promise, but she might not actually need to follow through for a long time. So it's probably best that you not expect it to happen anytime soon."

"Oh. Okay." Sunset was a little disappointed to hear that, but like she said, she wasn't hoping for Princess Celestia to become ill. But she could at least hope that maybe some other kind of circumstances—something that doesn't endanger the princess's health—could provide an opportunity for her in the near future.

By now, the schoolhouse had come into view. Classes weren't to start for a few minutes yet, so most of the students that had already arrived were frolicking around the playground while Mrs. Honeysuckle stood by the door to keep an eye on them.

One silver, pegasus colt saw Sunset hurrying across the short bridge over the narrow creek in front of the school, and made to greet her, but was pleasantly surprised to see the armored adult that accompanied her. "Lance? What're you doing here?" Halberd asked his older brother.

"Escorting this young lady to school," he answered with a prideful smirk.

Halberd lifted an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Daddy and I are living at the castle now!" Sunset chirped, still riding the excitement of the notion.

The colt smiled widely in amazement. "Whoa, really?! That's awesome!"

"Yep, she's a lucky, little filly," Lance commented, eliciting another perky grin from Sunset. "Anyway, I'll be hanging around town until school's out, and remember: you don't have to go straight back to the castle. You can stick around Canterlot for a while. Just saying," he reminded her with a hopeful grin, clearly preferring to spend his time in town as opposed to being on guard duty at the castle.

Sunset acknowledged his suggestion, but with a rather dismissive and unenthusiastic shrug. "I know. Okay, see you after school, Lance!" And with that, she hurried off to the classroom to take her seat.

With the filly gone, Lance cast a sly smirk down at his little brother. "You didn't tell me you were friends with her, Hal. What's wrong? Embarrassed?"

"Huh? Wh-Why would I be embarrassed?" the colt responded, unable to keep the deep blush off of his sliver cheeks.

Lance's smirk only widened, chuckling knowingly and giving his brother a firm, encouraging pat on the back. "Nevermind. But if you ever need any... 'advice,' don't be afraid to ask your big bro, got it?"

Halberd stared at Lance with a slightly uncomprehending look. "Uh, sure. Anyway, I guess I'll see you later," he said as he, too, made his way to the classroom.

With his charge dropped off at her destination, Lance turned back towards the town proper. "Now then, one of the perks of this task: I get to have lunch at home."

***** ***** *****

Sunset stretched out in her bed, letting out a long moan before letting her muscles relax again and pulling her blankets closer against her neck. Her new bed was unbelievably comfortable, putting her old bed at her house in Canterlot to shame. It took no time at all for her to adjust to her new surroundings. If her father were to suddenly decide that they were moving back home, Sunset would probably have several sleepless nights trying to get used to her comparatively stiff mattress and thin sheets.

She's had absolutely no complaints about living in the Castle of the Two Sisters. While she and her father could still cook their own meals if they so desired, the castle's chefs were always on call to prepare meals for anypony—princess or employee—at all hours of the day. Sunset had access to most of the castle's facilities, though some were still restricted, mainly the soldiers' barracks, and she was only allowed in the princesses' chambers if given permission. But the most important facility was fully open to her, that being the royal archives. She and her father had been living at the castle for a week at this point, and Sunset had already borrowed over a dozen books from the archives, currently stacked up on the desk in her room. They were mostly history texts, but specifically ones detailing Equestria's founding and anything to do with Princess Celestia's past, learning about the feats she's accomplished and the villains she's defeated. Needless to say, she felt more at home in the castle than she ever did back in Canterlot.

As comfortable as she was in her bed, Sunset was awake. Not that she hadn't slept soundly, but her internal clock had woken her up as it does every morning. The sleepy filly opened her teal eyes and peered over at the clock on her nightstand. It was still on half past five in the morning. Princess Celestia wouldn't be raising the sun for another half an hour, so Sunset was fine with getting a few more winks. It was just a little unfortunate that she had to go out into the hall to find a window so she could watch the spectacle take place, but such was the sacrifice she had to make.

The small unicorn closed her eyes again, snuggling deeper into the soft pillow. However, she was suddenly jarred from her somnolent state by a light knock at her door, prompting her to sit upright in her bed.

"Ms. Shimmer?" a voice beckoned from the hall.

Sunset recognized Quill's voice instantly, rubbing her tired eyes. "Uh, come in."

The door opened quietly, and the mustachioed stallion peered inside. "I'm sorry if I woke you."

"That's okay," she said with a sleepy yawn. "What's wrong?"

As she asked the question, the door to the adjacent room opened as well, and Starswirl stepped out into the hall to find Quill standing at the threshold to his daughter's room. "Quill? Is something the matter?"

"Princess Celestia wants to talk to Sunset," he answered.

Upon hearing that, Sunset's sleepiness dissipated quickly. She threw off her sheets and hopped off the bed, staring expectantly at Quill. "Really?!"

"At this hour?" Starswirl questioned. "What for?"

Quill simply shrugged, a rather uncomprehending look on his own face. "I'm not sure, but the princess says she's not feeling well this morning and told me to fetch Sunset."

The filly's eyes widened considerably, realizing immediately what this summons was about. Without even waiting for any further explanation, Sunset took off down the halls to quickly make her way to Princess Celestia's chambers. Her sudden reaction only served to confuse Quill further.

Starswirl shook his head and let out a sigh at his daughter's behavior. "That girl, I swear..."

"Do you know what this is about, Starswirl?" asked a puzzled Quill.

"I do. May I go with her?"

"I don't see why not."

Starswirl nodded, making to follow his daughter, though at a much more casual pace. Out of curiosity, Quill decided to join him to see what exactly was going on.

Sunset was making a beeline for Princess Celestia's tower, nearly losing her balance as she haphazardly rounded corners in the halls. She rushed through the connecting breezeway, galloping up the stairs with a toothy grin so wide her cheeks could barely contain it. Once she reached the top, she was prepared to barge straight through the decadent doorway in her excitement. However, she managed to restrain herself, thinking of the repercussions. Princess Celestia was sick; she couldn't just bust in with a big grin on her face. Lance had told her some time ago that she rarely ever gets sick, so this could actually be pretty serious. As excited as she was to get her chance at raising the sun, now she was worried about the princess's health. Sunset gently knocked on the door, not wanting to startle Celestia when she wasn't feeling well.

"Come in," came the quiet voice of the princess from within.

Sunset slowly opened the door, peeking in to see that the room was illuminated by the lamps on the wall, and Princess Celestia was laying in bed, casting a soft, welcoming smile toward the filly. She certainly didn't look like her usual self. Although Sunset had witnessed the princess in an ungroomed state before, this morning she appeared more disheveled. She appeared tired, as though she couldn't even muster the energy to fully open her eyes, let alone raise the sun. Her colorful mane had become very pale, to the point where the colors were barely discernible. And if that wasn't enough to tip one off to her lack of wellness, she had a box of tissues sitting next to her, at the ready in case she needed it. Despite her condition, though, Celestia still managed to smile.

Concerned for the princess, Sunset hurried over to her bedside, placing her front hooves on the mattress and leaning closer compassionately. "Are you okay, Princess? Quill said you're sick."

Celestia nodded weakly. "Indeed. It doesn't happen often, but illness does take me on occasion. But you needn't worry too much, Sunset; it's just a common cold. I'll be fine."

At that moment, the door opened again, and Starswirl and Quill stepped inside to assess the situation.

"Are you sure?" Sunset asked. "If there's anything you need, I can get it for you. Do you want tea? Something to eat? When I'm sick, Daddy makes me marmalade toast."

Celestia chuckled quietly at the filly's eagerness to help. "While that does sound lovely, I have staff that can handle that." Her smile shifted slightly, becoming a small smirk. "But I do have another task you can try your hoof at."

Sunset's smile immediately returned. Now that any concerns over the princess's health had been quelled, she could continue being excited over the real reason she had rushed to Celestia's chambers and the reason she was summoned.

"Even though it is merely a cold, it is still debilitating enough to keep me from my duties," the alicorn explained. "So, I'm going to need somepony to raise the sun in my stead this morning."

Sunset let out a high-pitched squeal, beaming widely.

But before things could go any further, Starswirl stepped forward. "Excuse me, You Majesty, and please pardon the intrusion, but is this overly necessary? Sunset's just a filly. Not that I don't want her to think that she can do anything she puts her mind to, but don't you think this is a rather monumental task for somepony her age?"

"But where's the harm in letting her try?" Celestia retorted. "I've already made it abundantly clear that she likely won't be able to do it, yet she's still quite excited to make an attempt. Why not let her give it a shot? You've said yourself that she's a talented filly for her age, so who knows? She might surprise you."

Receiving a pleading stare from his daughter, Starswirl let out a sigh as he gave his beard a slow stroke. "I suppose... However, it's a little early yet, isn't it?" he said, pointing to the clock on the princess's bedside table, which still showed it to be twenty minutes to six.

Celestia simply shrugged. "Well, in case she isn't able to do it, we don't want the sunrise to be late. So we'd still have time to inform my sister so she can raise it on time. And if Sunset happens to succeed, well, the sun rises a little early. I don't think too many people would complain about that."

"Please, Daddy," Sunset begged with wide, guilt-inducing eyes.

Starswirl rolled his eyes. "I was never going to tell you not to do it, I just want you to promise you won't get dejected if you can't do it."

The filly smiled cheerily at her father. "All I wanna do is try."

"Then you better hurry," the princess urged her. "We don't have a lot of time."

"Oh, right!" Sunset skipped over to the glass doors, using her cyan magic to pull aside the transparent curtains, whisk open the doors, and hop out onto the balcony.

Starswirl and Quill walked closer to the door, though remained inside as they watched Sunset lean against the railing and stare out at the dark horizon.

With an eager smile, Sunset gazed toward the mountains in the distance from where she knew the sun normally rose. The exact spot was difficult to see through the dark of night, but she'd watched the sunrise so many times at this point, she pretty much knew where it was by heart. It was an odd feeling to her, knowing there was no way she could possibly raise the sun, but still being so excited to be given the opportunity to try. But she couldn't hesitate any longer; she had a job to do, and she had to do it on time. Sunset focused her magic into her horn, lighting it up as bright as she could with cyan light. She wasn't even sure how she was supposed to raise the sun—if it was a specific spell, or something like that—so Sunset was just going to try pouring as much magic as she could into it and hoping something happened, clenching her eyes shut and tensing her entire body.

Starswirl observed as the cyan light illuminated the balcony. He knew his daughter was talented with magic for a unicorn her age; perhaps not capable of performing complicated spells yet, but being much more articulate and precise with her levitation spell, and capable of using it to lift many objects at once, or heavier objects that would prove a challenge to other unicorn foals. But the sun? That was certainly a little out of her league.

And that's why it was surprising to see the sky over the horizon steadily shift color.

Starswirl's jaw dropped slightly. The sun's orange glow began to extend up from between the mountains, and the stars began to vanish in the presence of the morning light. Starswirl couldn't believe his eyes. It was inconceivable. As talented as his daughter was, and as supportive as he was of her and everything she wanted to do, he never believed for a second that she could actually raise the sun. Something was off. This couldn't be possible.

The bearded stallion turned back to the bedridden alicorn for an explanation. However, he didn't even need to say a word. Princess Celestia's horn was aglow with golden light, and upon being caught by the filly's father, she lifted a hoof to her mouth with a quiet, "Shh," accompanied by a sly wink.

Starswirl let out his breath. While he had the explanation he wanted, we wasn't sure how he felt about it, but let the rest of the process take its course.

Sunset's horn was starting to tingle almost painfully. She had never focused so much magic for this long before, and she was starting to get worn out, feeling the sweat beginning to form on her forehead. She couldn't take it much longer, and thought it best to take a break and catch her breath. The light dissipated from her horn, and she let out a long breath that she had been holding the entire time and finally opened her eyes again. And they opened even wider when her sight was met by the amber glow of the sun hovering above the horizon. Her teal eyes sparkled with wonder and amazement, her mouth widening into perhaps the biggest smile she's ever worn.

"I did it!" she exclaimed loudly as she bounded back into the bedroom. She leapt against her father's chest, hugging him tightly. "Daddy, I did it! I raised the sun! Did you see?!"

Starswirl hesitated slightly. As much as he wanted to tell her the truth, he couldn't bring himself to rain on her parade. She was a smart filly, so once her excitement over her "accomplishment" died down, he expected that she'd figure it out on her own, so he gave her a congratulatory grin instead. "Yes, well done, Sunset. You certainly put me in my place."

"That's incredible," Quill uttered in disbelief, clearly having not witnessed the truth behind the sunrise as Starswirl had. "Your father wasn't kidding when he said you were talented."

Sunset hopped over to the princess's bed, beaming ecstatically. "I did it, Princess! I really did it!"

Celestia gave the filly a look of mock surprise. "I can see that. Color me impressed. I think you have a bright future ahead of you, my little pony. And thank you for your assistance. I greatly appreciate it."

"I'm gonna go tell Lance!" Sunset declared, not waiting a moment longer to rush out of the room to brag about her success.

With Sunset out of the room, Starswirl looked to the princess with a concerned and disapproving expression. "I'm not sure how I feel about you deceiving my daughter, Your Highness."

Quill raised an eyebrow, but quickly made the connection. "Wait, that was you, Princess?"

The alicorn sat up in her bed, using her magic to return her mane back to its more recognizable radiance. She gave the bearded unicorn an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Mr. Starswirl, but I just wanted to make her day. I'll be sure to apologize to her personally when she figures it out."

"I still don't like it," Starswirl grumbled. "I just hope she isn't too disappointed when she realizes." And with that, he took his leave, as well.

Quill looked to the princess once more. "So does this mean you won't be taking the day off, Your Majesty?"

Celestia nestled back into her bed comfortably. "If Sunset saw me up and about, she'd know I tricked her. Besides, I could go for breakfast in bed. Just be sure to let Luna know about my 'condition,'" she said with a wink.

Quill stood there for a moment saying nothing, a little puzzled by the princess's decision to just spend a day in bed without reason. But it wasn't really his place to argue with her choices, so he bowed respectfully. "Very well. I'll have the chefs send up your breakfast."

***** ***** *****

"Lance!"

Sunset's voice passed through the entry doors of the castle before the filly herself did, but she followed quickly afterward with an ecstatic grin.

"Guess what I—huh?" Sunset paused briefly and looked around the area at the castle's entrance. She spotted only Scabbard standing there. "Where's Lance?"

Scabbard quirked an eyebrow, unaccustomed to seeing the little unicorn quite this energetic this early in the morning. "Today's his day off. Why?"

Sunset's smile returned in full force. It didn't really matter if Lance wasn't there, she just needed to gush to somepony. "I wanted to show him what I did!"

"And what would that be?" the stallion asked curiously.

Sunset fervently pointed toward the morning sun, barely able to keep herself from bouncing in place. "That! I raised the sun!"

Scabbard looked out at the horizon, but didn't really bat an eye, looking back at the filly skeptically. "I have a hard time believing that."

Sunset knit her brow, insulted by his doubt. "But I did! Just ask Princess Celestia!"

"And how exactly is a little filly like you powerful enough to raise the sun?"

Sunset hesitated slightly, the question making her stop to consider that, but remaining insistent. "I don't know, but I did. Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with power. Maybe it's technique. Have you ever tried to raise the sun?"

"No, of course not. Why would I?"

"Just to see if you could!"

Scabbard's skepticism persisted. He didn't believe for a second that Sunset raised the sun on her own. "So why haven't you tried it before now?"

"Because that's Princess Celestia's duty," she stated matter-of-factly. "I only did it now because she let me."

Admittedly, Scabbard was getting a little tired of this topic already, discreetly rolling his eyes. "Alright, fine. You raised the sun. Great job."

Sunset grinned proudly, oblivious to the blue unicorn's disingenuous tone and just happy to think about accomplishing what she did. "Thanks!"

"What is all this commotion?"

The two unicorns turned their heads up to see Princess Luna fluttering down towards them, landing gracefully on the entrance steps.

"Oh, good morning, Your Highness," Scabbard greeted with a respectful bow.

The alicorn gave the two a stern glare. "It is not enough that Our sister sees fit to cut Our night short, but any attempt at rest is now disturbed by this noise. Thou'rt so loud We can hear thee from Our chambers," she complained, looking specifically at Sunset.

"Apologies, Your Majesty, but Sunset is just a little excited this morning," Scabbard explained in the filly's defense.

"And about what precisely wouldst thou be so eager as to speak at such volume?" the princess asked grouchily.

Despite the grumpy glower she was receiving from the alicorn, Sunset still wore her chipper smile. "Because Princess Celestia let me raise the sun!"

Luna's expression didn't change, but one of her eyebrows lifted slowly. "Beg thy pardon? Thou raised Our sister's sun? Thou shouldst know little fillies shouldn't tell lies."

"I'm not lying!" Sunset blurted out defensively, tired of all the skepticism she was receiving. "Just ask her! She was there! She saw me do it!"

"And why wouldst Our sister allow thee to do such a thing?" Luna interrogated.

"Because she has a cold and can't do it herself."

For a brief moment, Luna's eyes widened in slight concern. However, considering the topic of conversation, the alicorn continued to scrutinize. "A cold? Our sister hast not been ill with any sort of malady in decades. While We wouldst not be surprised if a rambunctious foal running rampant in our castle hath dragged germs in with her, We find it hard to believe that Celestia would succumb to illness so easily."

Sunset tilted her head slightly. While normally she might be insulted that Luna was blaming her for Celestia's cold, she was more concerned with what she was insinuating. "What do you mean?"

"We mean that Our sister hath tricked thee."

Sunset was taken aback by the accusation, offended in her idol's stead. "Tricked me? Princess Celestia would never do that!"

Luna breathed a sympathetic sigh. "Thou hast not known Celestia as long as We hath. Our sister hath a somewhat mischievous side, though her japes art typically tame and harmless."

The filly scowled at the alicorn defiantly. "No! Princess Celestia wouldn't lie to me! Why would she try to make me think I could raise the sun? That'd just be cruel! She wouldn't joke about something like that, would she?"

"We cannot tell one way or the other why she'd do such a thing, but We see no other explanation," Luna argued. "A filly like thee could not ever hope to raise the sun on thine own."

"You're wrong!"

Luna found herself flinching at the small unicorn's outburst. Sunset's face had contorted into a furious glower, baring her teeth at the princess of the night.

"Princess Celestia is the kindest, most respected pony in Equestria! You're just jealous that she asked me instead of you!"

Before Luna could retaliate, Sunset stomped off angrily, galloping back into the castle and slamming the door behind her.

Scabbard cast a cautious glance at the princess, expecting Sunset's behavior to have further angered the alicorn. However, while her brow was knit in frustration, she appeared surprisingly calm. It usually didn't take much to offend Princess Luna, and Scabbard had never heard or seen anypony talk to her the way Sunset just had, so to see her still remain so reserved was unexpected. "Your Highness? Are you alright? You shouldn't let her words get to you; she's just a filly, she doesn't know what she's saying."

"It is not her that concerns Us," was all Luna said in response before lifting off and flying around to the east side of the castle.

The midnight blue alicorn flew up towards the castle's east spire, where her sister's chambers were. She gracefully touched down on the balcony of the tower, peering through the glass doors. Her sister was sitting up in bed, her pillows positioned behind her while she lay propped up against the headboard. Quill was present as well, leaving a tray of food on the sun princess's bed for her, but then promptly took his leave and exited the room. Just as well, Luna thought; she'd prefer this conversation be private.

The moon princess gently rapped on the glass door, distracting her sister before she could take a bite of her breakfast. Celestia was more than a little surprised to see Luna staring back at her—although "scowling" may have been a more accurate term.

Luna simply let herself in, not bothering to wait for permission to enter; she was going to say her piece one way or the other. "Good morning, Sister," she greeted, though the pleasantry was dripping with judgment.

"Oh, L-Luna, this is a lovely surprise," Celestia greeted back, though her friendly smile was rather forced and awkward.

Luna cast a look of mock curiosity at the tray on Celestia's bed. Her sister's breakfast consisted of a couple of slices of toast smeared with raspberry jam, a bowl of oatmeal, a chocolate chip muffin, and a glass of orange juice. "Breakfast in bed? Art we treating ourselves this morning?" she inquired, her judgmental tone persisting.

Celestia's ivory cheeks flushed red with slight shame, though she secretly hoped it helped the case she wanted to make. "Oh, yes, I..." She faked a cough into her hoof. "I'm not feeling well this morning, so you should probably keep your distance."

Luna raised her eyebrow suspiciously. "Thou'rt ill? And thou still raised the sun? Surely thou should hath asked Us to aid thee."

Celestia let out a defeated sigh, leaning back against her pillows and seeing no point it keeping up the act. "I'm guessing you're not here to console me, then. So, did you come by to lecture me about raising the sun early, or is there something else you need?"

"Lying is not becoming of a princess, Celestia," Luna started in a reprimanding tone. "Thou art in a position of great power, and trust is a very important quality for us to practice."

Celestia stared at the stoic expression in her sister's authoritative eyes. "I suppose you bumped into Sunset Shimmer."

Luna nodded. "Indeed. She seemed quite elated by the notion that she hath raised the sun."

The alabaster alicorn let herself sink down into her bed slightly, feeling a little ashamed of herself. "Was she upset when she found out?"

"She was upset, most assuredly, but not by the revelation that it wasn't her doing. Rather, she was offended by the very idea that thou wouldst lie to her, and rejected the notion entirely."

Celestia's eyes widened in surprise, but, admittedly, found herself feeling a little relieved. "So she still thinks she did it?"

Luna narrowed her eyes at her sister, stepping closer to the bed. "Celestia, what hast gotten into thou? Lying to thy subjects and finding enjoyment in it? This goest far and beyond thine usual jests. Thou hast a following of loyal citizens who hath not but the utmost respect for thee, and this is how thou treat them, with deception?"

"Luna, it was a harmless, white lie," Celestia argued defensively. "All I wanted to do was put a smile on her face."

"There art many other methods by which to do that," Luna told her.

Celestia glowered slightly at the lecture she was receiving. "And what would you know about putting smiles on people's faces?"

Luna's jaw hung open slightly, feeling the cut of that one in her chest. However, she grit her teeth and chose not to respond in kind given that she was supposed to be the prosecutor in this argument. "That is a low blow, Sister."

The ivory alicorn's expression quickly became remorseful, her ears folding back regretfully. "You're right, that was uncalled for. I'm sorry, Luna."

"Truthfully, We art not the one to which thou shouldst be apologizing. That filly now believes she can raise the sun. It won't be long before she discovers how untrue that is, and her heart will be broken to find out that thou lied to her."

"Sunset is a smart girl, Luna, and more mature than she seems despite her whimsical personality. I don't see the harm in letting her believe what she wants to believe for now."

Luna simply sighed in resignation, and gave a small shrug as she turned back toward the balcony doors. "Perhaps so. After all, thou were right before: thou wouldst know better how to make our subjects smile. Enjoy thy day off, 'Celie.'"

Celestia huffed at her sister as she prepared to leave, taking a bite of her toast. "Don't talk down to me by calling me 'Celie,' 'Lulu.'"

Luna simply rolled her eyes, stepping out onto the balcony again and taking off back to her own chambers to turn in for the day.

With her sister gone, Celestia let her toast drop back down onto her plate, letting out a deep sigh. She was starting to feel a little guilty about lying to Sunset Shimmer, with both Starswirl and her own sister being opposed to it. But she knew how smart Sunset was, and that little filly respected her more than anything. Just because Sunset thought she could raise the sun didn't mean she was going to try to do it all the time. Sunset knew better than that and would know that there would be repercussions to such a thing. Still though, Celestia was beginning to think that it might be best if she had a little talk with Sunset about it anyway, if only to assuage the concerns of Starswirl and Luna.

***** ***** *****

The halls of the castle were rather quiet, though that was fairly normal for most days. But Princess Celestia couldn't help but feel like the silence was thicker than usual; more tense. Of course, she knew why. Another day had dawned on Equestria, and the ivory alicorn was up and about with purpose this morning, though her pace was slow and apprehensive. She was seeking out Sunset Shimmer to discuss the events of the previous morning, a conversation she was not exactly looking forward to having. She would have spoken to the filly yesterday, but considering that she was supposed to be "sick," it wouldn't have been difficult for Sunset to see past her ruse if she had seen the princess out of bed. Or rather, that's what she told herself...

Celestia breathed a long sigh. Luna's lecture had stuck with her throughout the day and even disturbed her sleep last night. She was feeling a touch guilty about all of this and needed to lift that weight from her mind. She had a feeling she knew where Sunset was on this Sunday morning; a place where she spent much of her free time at the castle. The alicorn had arrived at her destination, looking up at the symbol of an open book over the doorway. Celestia took a deep breath before entering the royal archives.

Just as she suspected, the amber filly was seated at one of the reading tables, her back to the door with her nose in a book. Celestia approached cautiously, still a tad apprehensive. But it didn't take long for Sunset to detect the presence of another pony in the room. She glanced over her shoulder to see who it was, and smiled with pleasant surprise to see Princess Celestia, hopping off of her chair to greet her with a chipper tone.

"Princess! Good morning!" Sunset chirped. However, her smile faded for a brief moment and she stared up in mild concern. "Are you feeling better today?"

"Hm? Oh, er, yes, much better. Thank you," Celestia answered with a somewhat awkward smile.

Satisfied by the response, Sunset grinned back again, hopping back onto her chair. "Are you looking for a book? We can study together."

The princess hesitated momentarily, debating in her head one more time whether or not she wanted to do this. She knew that if she were to put this off, it would only make it potentially harder, so, ultimately, she elected to just swallow the pill and get it over with. "Well, no. Actually, I came here to find you." She sat down next to the filly, who was looking up at her curiously. "I want to talk about yesterday morning."

"About me raising the sun?"

Celestia paused briefly, but nodded. "Yes. Sunset, how do you feel about what happened?"

The unicorn beamed at the mere thought of it. "It was amazing! I actually raised the sun, even though you said I probably couldn't!"

Seeing the excited and proud smile on her face was only proving to make this more difficult for the alicorn, building on her guilt. However, she was still going to try and spare the filly's feelings if at all possible. It was just a matter of finding the right way to do so. "So, what do you intend to do now that you know you can raise the sun?"

Sunset tilted her head, puzzled by the question, but also curious about it, taking a moment to think it over. "I don't know. Am I supposed to do something?"

"Well, you told me that you wanted to raise the sun someday, and that you wanted to be just like me. Do you still want that? Is that still something you strive for?"

Sunset shifted in her chair slightly, staring down at her hooves with uncertainty. "I don't know. I've actually been thinking about it a lot since yesterday. I thought raising the sun would be a big deal for me—and it was, of course; it was one of the greatest feelings of my life—but I thought it would at least be significant enough to get me my cutie mark, but..." She glanced down at her still blank flank. "It didn't..."

Celestia gazed sympathetically at Sunset. She knew how important a cutie mark was for a foal her age, and that was something the princess had not taken into consideration. "And what do you think that means?"

Sunset stared up into Celestia's eyes. She did not smile, but her expression exhibited certainty and, oddly, acceptance. "Just because I can raise the sun, doesn't mean I'm supposed to. Maybe there's something else I'm meant to do."

The alicorn smiled softly at the filly, admittedly feeling quite relieved to hear her say that. "That's very mature of you, Sunset."

The filly grinned back cutely. "Raising the sun is your duty. I don't want to take that away."

Celestia smirked with amusement. "Are you saying that you could very well take my throne if you had a mind to?"

Sunset immediately regretted her wording, backpedaling hastily. "What?! N-No! I would never do that! I-I don't know if I could handle being a ruler anyway. It seems like a lot of pressure."

"It's certainly not easy," Celestia said with a quiet giggle. However, her mirth subsided rather quickly, as she wanted to make absolutely certain that this matter was settled. "Sunset, I would like to request something of you."

"Hm? What is it?"

"As you said, just because you can raise the sun, doesn't mean you should. It is not an ability to be taken lightly, and if the people of Equestria were to suddenly see the sun moving at weird times or in strange ways, they may become concerned. So I would like to ask that you not attempt to raise the sun again unless I absolute need you to do so. Do you understand?"

The filly grinned and nodded. "Mm-hm."

Celestia smiled back. "Good." She gently brushed a hoof over Sunset's fiery mane. "You're a good filly, Sunset. Your father is lucky to have such a smart and mature daughter."

Finally feeling that weight being lifted, Celestia stood to take her leave and let Sunset return to her studies. It felt good to have reached a conclusion where everypony could be happy. Sure, Celestia was still perpetuating a small lie, but as long as Sunset kept her promise, it shouldn't cause any problems. The alicorn stepped back out into the hall, closing the door to the royal archives behind her.

"Well?"

Celestia was a little caught off guard by the voice, turning to her right to find Starswirl standing there expectantly.

"How did your chat go, Princess?" he asked, though somewhat skeptically.

Celestia smiled at him confidently as she proceeded down the hall, Starswirl following alongside her. "You'll be pleased to hear that we've reached an agreement."

The stallion quirked an eyebrow. "An agreement? Not exactly the answer I was expecting. You did tell her the truth, did you not?"

"The truth can be painful sometimes, and I admit that I probably shouldn't have deceived her as I did," Celestia said remorsefully. "At the time, I only wanted to make her smile, not thinking of the consequences that could follow. That was an error in judgment on my part."

Her admission only served to baffle and concern Starswirl further. "So what did you tell her?"

"I simply had her promise not to try and raise the sun again, an arrangement she was more than willing to accept. So, her feelings are spared, and my own guilt is assuaged."

Starswirl let out a long sigh as he shook his head. "It has never been more clear that you are not a parent," he muttered under his breath.

"I'm sorry?"

"Nothing. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have errands to run in Canterlot. I'll be back in an hour or so if you need me."

The pair turned the corner at the end of the hall, heading toward the throne room. However, the hall was not left empty. On the opposite end, a second alicorn princess watched as her sister disappeared down the hall, then began making her way to the royal archives herself.

Just as Celestia had, Princess Luna found Sunset Shimmer engrossed in a thick book, humming a cheery tune to herself. She wasted no time addressing the filly as she approached. "Were thou speaking to Our sister?" she asked.

Sunset turned and looked up, a little surprised to see the midnight blue alicorn standing beside her. Luna's presence also quickly soured the little unicorn's peppy mood, grimacing slightly, but turning her eyes back to her book. "Yeah."

"About what?" Luna inquired, though she already had an idea as to what the answer was.

Sunset turned to the princess once more, her expression somewhat haughty as she attempted to turn her nose up at Luna despite the alicorn's higher elevation. "She told me I have to be responsible now that I can raise the sun."

Now it was Luna's turn to grimace, however, not due to the filly's attitude, but rather disappointment in her own sister for perpetuating her lie. "Unbelievable," she groaned.

"What?"

Luna stared sternly at Sunset, determined to rectify her sister's mistake. "If Celestia cannot work up the nerve to tell thee the truth, then the task must fall to Us. As We told thee yesterday, Celestia lied to thee. Thou cannot raise the sun. Thou art just a filly."

Just like how their brief conversation went the previous morning, Sunset pouted angrily at the princess. "So? What does being young have to do with it? Maybe I'm just naturally talented. My dad always says I am."

"It took the two of us nearly one hundred years before we perfected the art of moving the sun and moon. We refuse to believe that a prepubescent unicorn such as thee could do what we could not. In fact, We know thou cannot, as We spoke to Our sister about this yesterday, as well."

"But she wouldn't lie!" Sunset argued again. "She doesn't need to lie and make me think I can raise the sun. I didn't really care if I could or not, so why would she do that?"

"Apparently to make thee smile," Luna stated simply.

Sunset went silent for a moment, but her frustrated expression never subsided. "She doesn't need to go that far to make me smile. Just being around her is enough to make me happy."

"Truthfully, We do not know either why Our sister seems so intent on pleasing thee," Luna admitted. "But to go so far as to lie to somepony who respects her so much is quite a betrayal of trust."

Sunset's brow furrowed even more, and the filly jumped off of her chair to stand up to the taller mare. "Stop it! Why are your talking about you own sister like that?! Don't you care about her?!"

Luna was unfazed by the filly's outburst, simply taking a deep breath through her nose to steady herself and make sure she didn't speak too harshly to one so young and naïve. She looked down her muzzle at Sunset. "Why dost thou think we art having this conversation? The only reason We art speaking to thee about this is because We care. We—" Luna paused, taking another deep breath. Her expression suddenly softened, looking much less stern and more concerned, and her tone became much quieter and gentler than Sunset had ever heard from her. "I love my sister more than anything else in Equestria. I just don't want her to make any unnecessary mistakes."

Sunset was admittedly a little unnerved by the alicorn's sudden shift in attitude. The softness of her voice and expression reminded her of Celestia. But that didn't mean Sunset was going to just start believing her. "She wouldn't lie to me," she reiterated quietly.

Luna let out a groan, growing annoyed by the unicorn's stubbornness. "Hast thou ever heard the phrase, 'Never meet thy heroes'?"

Sunset simply shook her head.

"It means that thine idols may not be exactly as thou envision them. Thou may not think that Celestia would lie to thee, but thou hast only known her briefly. She is not infallible. We all hath our foibles, and she is not exempt. It would be unwise for thee to view her as the picture of perfection."

Sunset's glower remained steady, clearly having no intention of taking anything the moon princess was saying to heart. Instead, Sunset used her magic to grab the book she had been reading and stomped angrily out of the royal archives without saying another word.

Luna didn't attempt to follow her. She knew that not all the blame lay with her sister. This filly was stubborn beyond belief. Luna was all but certain that Sunset's unwavering trust and Celestia's seemingly 'harmless' lies were going to cause trouble in the future, but it appeared that no matter how hard she tried to correct her sister's mistakes, nothing was going to come of it. All she could really do now was wait until she could say "I told you so."

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer tossed and turned in bed, unable to find comfort in her new bed despite its soft and warm embrace. Since she'd first moved to the castle, her bed was more comfortable to her than her bed back in her former Canterlot home. However, as of late, she found herself unable to sleep soundly.

A week had passed since Sunset had first raised the sun, and she was super excited and proud of her accomplishment. She had bragged to her classmates and to the castle staff about it endlessly for the past week, and although there was some skepticism, the other foals at school seemed willing to believe her after she told them that Princess Celestia herself had requested she do it. She kind of felt like the soldiers and servants at the castle were humoring her when she told them, but at least they weren't trying to tell her she was wrong.

Unlike one particular alicorn...

And that was what bugged her night after night. Princess Luna's words had been echoing continuously in her mind since their conversation a week ago, and it was seriously eating into Sunset's sleep time. She didn't let it bother her too much during the day, her natural exuberance managing to help her power through her tired state. But any optimism she may have had would be drained in an instant whenever she crossed paths with the moon princess. Luna had not spoken a word to her since their talk in the royal archives, merely casting a stern look. Sunset never said anything back to her either, but their exchange of glances whenever they passed one another in the halls was like having that entire conversation again in the course of a couple of silent seconds. Sunset could tell from the look in Luna's eyes that she wanted to remind her of everything she'd told her, but the filly did everything in her power to push it from her mind.

Obviously that wasn't working. Despite her efforts, Sunset was still losing sleep over it. The worst part was, the more she thought about it, the more doubt began to fester in her mind. During these sleepless nights, Sunset starting thinking about it logically. How did she raise the sun? Even if she poured as much magic as she could into it, it still didn't feel as hard as Celestia had made it out to be. She wasn't even exhausted afterward. Luna claimed that it took the two sisters one hundred years to learn to do it themselves.

Sunset tapped her hooves against her temples in frustration. She felt as though Luna was sowing doubt on purpose during their brief encounters; she was trying to make Sunset confront Celestia about it, to drag the truth out of her sister. But Sunset refused to give in. She refused to believe that Princess Celestia—one of the foremost and highly respected authorities in the world—would lie to an innocent, little filly. If Celestia told her she could raise the sun, then what reason did she have not to believe her?

It was jealously. That had to be it. Sunset's previous accusation when Luna had first claimed it was a trick had to be accurate. The sun was incredibly important to Equestria's ecosystem; a very source of life for the entire world. What purpose did the moon serve other than to look pretty during the night when everypony was asleep anyway? She was probably upset that Celestia would sooner ask a young filly to raise the sun before her own sister, or was simply envious that Sunset had picked it up quicker than she had, despite it being the two alicorns' special talents.

But even though Sunset was convinced that Luna was just jealous, she still found herself having difficulty sleeping. Her teal eyes cracked open, staring up at the ceiling through the darkness. She was getting tired of these thoughts plaguing her like this. Living at the castle was supposed to make her happy. She was practically living like royalty herself, and being able to see and talk to Princess Celestia everyday was more than enough to keep her happy. But just one short conversation with Luna had begun to undo that.

Sunset turned over onto her side, her horn lighting up slightly so that she could check the clock on the bedside table. Her lack of sleep recently had been messing with her internal clock, so she was a little shocked to see that it was almost six a.m. If she were to lay in bed any longer, she'd miss the sunrise.

As quickly as she could manage in her somnolent state, Sunset rose from bed and headed for the door, stepping out into the dark hallway. It was kind of inconvenient that she had to leave her bedroom to watch the sunrise every morning, but it was always worth it. Even with everything that was bothering her now, she knew that watching as Celestia raised the sun would help her find an equilibrium. It always cheered her up without fail, even during these long, weary nights.

Sunset found a window to look out at the horizon and waited, rubbing her sleepy eyes. It was only about five minutes to six when she looked at the clock, and it took her a few to find the window considering how tired she was. So she knew it wouldn't be long now. She preemptively smiled as she stared out into the darkness in anticipation, watching and waiting.

And waiting...

And waiting...

Sunset's smile fell. Something was wrong. She was certain it had to be six o' clock by now, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. Even its incandescent, orange glow was absent from the horizon, the pitch blackness of the night holding steady and the stars sitting comfortably in the sky. Even the moon hadn't budged from its position. Was this Princess Luna's doing?

Sunset was worried. Everything she knew told her that there was a problem. The sunrise was never late unless something was wrong, and she needed to find out what it was. The concerned filly took off down the halls, making for Princess Celestia's chambers to get to the bottom of this. She hurried to the castle's east wing, into the eastern tower, up the steps and to the door to Celestia's bedroom. However, she hesitated. Sunset felt like she always hesitated before entering the princess's room, but this time it was more warranted as she did not have permission this time. But this may have been an emergency. If something was wrong with the princess, she needed to find out what. So she ignored her concerns about breaking the rules and opened the door, more worried about Celestia's condition than about being punished.

Nothing appeared to be out of order. Princess Celestia was still sound asleep in bed. But that in and of itself was the problem; Celestia was supposed to raise the sun, but was still snoozing comfortably. Curious, Sunset quietly walked around to the right side of the bed to get a closer look at the sleeping alicorn's face. There was a small, blissful smile on her muzzle. She must have been pretty cozy, perhaps having a pleasant dream.

Sunset's gaze then turned to the clock on her bedside table. It read the correct time, and it was already two minutes past six. Could it simply have been a case of Princess Celestia forgetting to set her alarm? That didn't sound right to Sunset, though; if the amber filly's internal clock could calibrate itself to wake her for the sunrise after just a week, surely Celestia's was hardwired to do the same after thousands of years. But then again, maybe not. How was she to know for certain?

Now the question arose: what should she do now? The sunrise was late, and Celestia herself had said that the sun rising at odd times could worry the citizens. So perhaps it would be for the best if she were to wake the princess up before it got any later. Then again, considering nothing appeared to be wrong, waking the princess would result in her being caught trespassing in her chambers without permission. She was starting to think that maybe she should just let Princess Celestia sleep and raise the sun when she was ready, and began silently heading back for the door. Besides, Princess Luna was certainly still awake. When she noticed that the sun had not risen, she would probably take it upon herself to do it.

Or maybe that was exactly the point.

Luna had been rather fixated lately on the fact that Sunset had raised the sun. Was it possible that, in her jealousy, Luna had snuck into her sister's chambers and turned off her alarm so that she would grant herself the opportunity to raise the sun herself and steal the glory? On top of that, the moon was still out. All of this could have been premeditated by Princess Luna.

That was where Sunset's mind had wandered, which also begged the question as to what would happen afterward. Would Celestia be grateful to her sister, unaware that it was her ploy the entire time, or would she be cross with Luna doing it for her without her consent? Either way, no good would come from it. Either she would enjoy unjust praise, or it might put strain on the two sisters' relationship.

And that's when an idea struck Sunset Shimmer. She had the power to deny Princess Luna the satisfaction of stealing the thunder, and simultaneously prove to her once and for all that Celestia hadn't tricked her.

Sunset could just raise the sun herself.

The very idea made the filly grin widely, and she immediately headed for the balcony doors, opening them ever so slightly, just enough to squeeze herself through without allowing the cool breeze to disturb Celestia's sleep. She stared out into the distance, just as she had done a week ago when she did it for the first time. She did take a moment to think this over, however. Sunset had made a promise to Princess Celestia that she wouldn't try to raise the sun unless she had to. But certainly these circumstances would fall under those criteria. Princess Celestia had overslept, and the sunrise was late. Somepony had to raise the sun. What difference did it make who that was? If anything, Sunset was doing the princess a favor by doing it for her and letting her get some well deserved rest.

That was all the convincing she needed to go through with it. Without any more hesitation, Sunset lit up her horn, pouring all of her magic toward the horizon just as she had done the last time.

But she had barely even begun when she suddenly felt an intense pain shoot through her horn, then through the rest of her body. She instantly doubled over in pain, every muscle in her body tightening and convulsing as though she had been struck by lightning. Sunset was paralyzed, unable to even scream or make so much as a whimper to vocalize the agony she was in. And then, the bright teal glow of her horn shifted to reds, oranges, and yellows, bursting outward in a vibrant and forceful blast that encompassed the balcony.

Within the princess's chambers, Celestia stirred in her sleep. She opened her eyes to find her entire room bathed in shimmering, warm colors of red, orange, and yellow. Confused and concerned, she lifted her head from her pillow, turning around to the source of the lights. Her pink eyes widened in shock at what she saw. Her balcony appeared to be engulfed in flames, but although the fire looked violent, it had an ethereal feel to it. Celestia felt it in her horn; these flames were not real fire, but rather were a result of magic of some kind. Their flames ebbed and flowed too unnaturally, the colors pulsating like a beating heart and were transparent enough to see into.

To see what—or rather whom—was at the center.

"Sunset!"

In a panic, Celestia shot out of bed, rushing over to the balcony doors and wasting no time in throwing them open. The moment she did, an intense wave of heat hit the alicorn's face, forcing her to stop in her tracks and close her eyes instinctively. The fire may not have been real, but the energy they exuded was, and it was incredible. Celestia felt as though she had just walked into a giant oven, beads of sweat already beginning to drip down her face.

But her own well-being wasn't her main concern at the moment. Sunset was at the epicenter of this phenomenon, and she was clearly in pain. Celestia steeled herself and began trudging into the magical inferno. Just as she suspected, the fire did not hurt her, but the heat was unbearable. She knew she had to get Sunset out of there as quickly as possible. She cracked an eye open to make sure she knew where Sunset was, but noticed something strange: the brightest point of the fire appeared to be centered around Sunset's horn, glowing with an intense, white light. Sunset wasn't just at the center of the fire, she was the source of it.

That revelation meant that removing the unicorn from the flames was impossible, as she would bring them with her. Sunset was outputting an astounding amount of magical power, and Celestia feared that if she didn't do something to stop her, the filly may very well die.

Princess Celestia rushed to the filly's side, laying down beside her to assess her condition. Sunset was writhing in pain, the very force of her magic levitating her small body in the air ever so slightly. Celestia's own horn felt numb both from the heat and the extreme power flowing around her. She had to do something, but what?

"Sunset! Can you hear me?!" Celestia could barely hear her own voice over the loud humming of the magic swirling around them, but she had to keep trying to snap Sunset out of it. "Sunset! It's me! Celestia! Please, say something!"

Sunset must have heard her. With what little strength and control she had left, the unicorn laboriously turned her head toward the princess, her eyelids opening only a little. Celestia was taken aback when she saw Sunset's eyes glowing a fierce white, her teal irises and black pupils not even visible anymore.

Celestia wasn't sure what to do. Along with the sweat pouring off of her, her eyes began to well with tears, not from the heat, but from the fear that she would be unable to do anything. Her mind was racing, her panic, coupled with the pressure of the heat surrounding her, making it difficult to concentrate. She was going to lose Sunset if she didn't do something—anything to save her, and she knew it would be her fault.

So she did the only thing that she could think to do: Celestia wrapped her hooves around the filly, pulling her tiny body against her own and wept.

"I'm sorry, Sunset..." she sobbed helplessly. "I didn't mean for this to happen... Please, hang in there!"

Sunset managed to force her glowing eyes open again, staring up at the crying princess. "P-... Prin-... -cess?"

And suddenly, the flames began to die down. The intense heat dissipated, the loud humming vanished, and the light from both Sunset's horn and eyes dimmed, her bright, teal irises shining through once more.

Celestia stared down, still fearful that it was too late. Sunset was gazing sleepily up at her, as though she had just been woken up in the middle of the night. But her eyes drifted shut again, and she seemed to instinctively nestle herself into the fur of Celestia's chest like a sleeping baby.

The princess took a moment to quiet her nerves. Sunset was alive, that much was an immense weight off her mind. The filly had passed out in her embrace, but was breathing still. Celestia wiped the sweat from her brow, and the tears from her eyes, letting out a shaky, but relieved breath.

But something was still off. Although the ethereal flames were gone, there was still a soft glow shining upon the balcony. Celestia turned her sight out toward the distance, baffled and astounded by what she was seeing. Between the mountains past Canterlot Valley, a soft, amber glow shone up from beyond the horizon, the very edge of the sun poking up from its place of slumber.

Celestia gawked, bewildered by the sight, and turned her eyes back down to the unconscious filly in her hooves. And to add onto everything that had happened, the stunned princess found an image of a red and yellow, shimmering sun upon the unicorn's flank.

***** ***** *****

Celestia sat in silence, her head hung low and her mind wracked with guilt as she waited with bated breath. She managed a glance over toward her bed, barely able to focus her gaze on the unconscious form of Sunset Shimmer tucked within the sheets without feeling her heart twinge.

After what had happened, the princess summoned a doctor immediately to assess the filly's condition, who was currently examining her. Of course, it was imperative to inform the little girl's father, as well. Starswirl paced throughout the room in worry, wondering exactly what had happened to his daughter. Celestia would explain it all to him, but not before they could confirm that Sunset was alright.

After a thorough examination, the doctor finally stepped away from the bed, breathing a slight sigh of relief himself. Celestia and Starswirl wasted no time in addressing him for an answer.

"Well? Is she okay?" the concerned father asked desperately.

The doctor gave a reassuring nod. "She is. Given what Princess Celestia described, I believe Sunset Shimmer is simply suffering from magical burnout. She expended far too much magic at once, and her natural reserves have run low. It's certainly not a common affliction, and I've never seen a case quite this severe before, especially in one so young. But she should be back at full strength in a few days. Until then, I'd advise her when she wakes up to not use her magic at all in the meantime in order to speed up the recovery."

Starswirl's muscles finally managed to relax, giving the doctor a relieved and grateful smile. "Thank you, Doctor. I'm so glad to hear that."

The doctor nodded to both him and the princess. "You're very welcome. Then if there's nothing else, I'll take my leave. Fetch me again if you need me."

"Thank you very much, Doctor," Celestia bid him as he stepped out of the princess's chambers.

With the tension and worry in the room abated, Starswirl walked around to the side of the bed, sitting down and tenderly holding his sleeping daughter's hoof. But while he was relieved to hear she was alright, Celestia was still plagued by guilt.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Starswirl," she apologized, her voice catching as though she were on the verge of tears. "This is all my fault. All I wanted to do was make a young filly smile. I never thought something like this would come of a simple, little lie."

As much as the stallion wanted to tell her otherwise, he knew she was right. This was her fault, but that didn't mean he was going to chew into her about it. It was evident from the sparkle of moisture in Celestia's eyes that she was beating herself up enough over it. That being said, Starswirl remained silent, not wanting to inadvertently say something that might make the princess feel even worse.

However, the silence didn't make Celestia feel any more at ease. "I should have listened to you. Even Luna warned me, but I ignored her, too."

"What could have even caused this to happen?" Starswirl asked, finally seeking an explanation for what Celestia had described to him.

"She raised the sun during a solar flare."

Starswirl quirked an eyebrow. "Solar flare?"

Celestia nodded, composing herself to explain in more detail. "The sun is a magical entity in nature, but the amount of energy it gives off can sometimes cause it to go into flux. This is what I call a solar flare, and attempting to use magic on the sun during this time can result in powerful magical feedback."

Starswirl was rather vexed by this explanation. "And yet you lead her to believe she could raise the sun? Even knowing about something as dangerous as that?!"

Celestia drew back under his accusatory tone, but attempted to defend herself. "Solar flares are very infrequent; there hasn't been one in almost a decade. And I usually don't know they're going to happen until the day before, when I feel the sun's magic becoming slightly unstable. The timing just happened to be unfortunate... Even if I didn't know it was coming, and even though Sunset had promised not to raise the sun without my permission, I should have warned her about solar flares regardless. It was a drastic oversight on my part, and I am truly, deeply sorry."

Starswirl let out a long breath through his nose. He had never known or heard of the princess being this irresponsible, and he was admittedly quite upset with her for letting this happen. That being said, it was hard for him to continue being mad at her considering how devastated she seemed to be when he had arrived in her chambers. "At least she's alright. That's what's important right now."

"I would completely understand if you wanted to return home to Canterlot after all of this, or even wished to resign from your position here on the staff," Celestia said quietly, her face full of dejection.

The bearded stallion shook his head. "No, I don't think there's any need of that. After all, I don't think even this would be enough to diminish the respect Sunset has for you."

Celestia's ears folded back, the comment only serving to make her feel even worse.

However, Starswirl gazed rather sternly and insistently at the princess. "But I just want you to promise me that you will not let something like this happen again. From now on, no more jokes. I want you to be completely honest with my daughter on all matters, regardless of if you think it might upset her."

The alicorn had no problem accepting those terms, having already told herself as much in her mind. "I promise. I swear I will not let anymore harm come to Sunset as a result of my own negligence."

Starswirl simply nodded. "Good."

It was then that the two heard somepony touch down on the balcony outside. It was Princess Luna, and she promptly entered seeing that her sister was up and active.

"Sister, We noticed that the sun was up earlier than expected," the blue alicorn commented, slight concern in her voice. "Thou did not try to raise it during the solar flare, didst thou?"

Celestia shook her head somberly. "I didn't, no." She looked back toward the bed.

It was only now that Luna had noticed an unconscious Sunset in her sister's bed. At first, she was deeply concerned for the filly's health, however, by reading the room and the expressions on both Starswirl and Celestia's faces, she could presume that Sunset was not seriously hurt. So, instead she decided to direct ire at her taller sister. "Did We not warn thee something like this would happen?!"

Celestia hung her head in shame and guilt once more. "You did. And I'm sorry I didn't listen."

"Now, we don't need to go down this road a second time," Starswirl interjected. "Princess Celestia has already received one lecture for the day."

Luna scowled at her sister regardless. She wanted to talk at her more and revel in the fact that she was right, but there were more pressing concerns at the moment. Her deep blue eyes fell back onto the filly in the bed, her expression softening. "Burnout, We presume?"

Starswirl nodded. "That's what the doctor said."

"Honestly, it's surprising that that's the worst of it," Luna said. "Last time Celestia attempted to raise the sun during a solar flare, she was laid up for a few days herself." She shot another glower up at her sister. "A good reason not to make an impressionable, young foal believe she can raise it herself."

Celestia was about to respond, but Sunset suddenly stirred in her slumber, letting out a long, tired moan as her eyes finally opened again. Starswirl was quick to speak to her.

"Sunset? Are you feeling okay?" he asked with tender concern.

Sunset rubbed her eyes as they adjusted. "My head hurts..." she groaned sleepily.

The exhausted filly looked around to find that she was still in Princess Celestia's bedroom, the princess and her sister both present, as well. She certainly wasn't expecting to have woken up in Celestia's bed for the second time, but this time was a little more confusing.

"What happened?" Sunset asked the three adults surrounding her.

"You raised the sun during a solar flare," Celestia informed her.

Sunset blinked, still a little out of it, and rubbed her eyes again. "A what?"

"Suffice to say it is simply the sun's magic becoming unstable and it forced your magic into flux," Luna explained.

"You won't be able to use your magic for a few days," the filly's father added.

"Oh..." Sunset stared up at Princess Celestia, her ears folding back and a guilty look in her eyes. "Is that why the sunrise was late this morning?"

The white alicorn nodded.

Luna's eyes suddenly widened as a realization dawned on her, glancing up at her sister. "Hold on. Thou did not say 'try.'"

Starswirl stared across the bed with a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

"Celestia said, 'You raised the sun during a solar flare.' She did not say she tried to raise it."

The stallion's eyes widened, as well, also looking to the taller princess for clarification.

Sunset, however, was more confused by their reactions than what Celestia had said. "So? We know I can raise the sun. I did it before, but Princess Luna wouldn't believe me."

Celestia turned away, a guilty look in her eyes. "Actually, Sunset... Last week, you did not raise the sun."

Sunset's heart sank, her mind struggling to accept that the possibility even existed that Celestia would lie to her. "I... I didn't...?" She chanced a glance at Luna, expected her to be wearing an expression that read of haughty superiority. However, the blue alicorn was still staring up at her sister in puzzlement.

Starswirl picked up on the shattered look on his daughter's face and rushed to the princess's defense. "Don't think ill of her, Sunset. She only did it to make you happy."

"It's true," Celestia confirmed with a regretful frown. "But that doesn't excuse the fact that I lied to you, and as a result, I inadvertently put your life in danger. And for that I am truly and deeply sorry. Can you ever forgive me, Sunset?"

The filly stared up into the remorseful and tearful, pink eyes of the princess. However, before she could respond, Luna interjected once more.

"Let us not skirt around the bigger issue. Celestia, what exactly happened this morning?"

Celestia took a breath to compose herself, speaking more evenly as she addressed the question. "I may have deceived Sunset when I told her she could raise the sun. However, this morning, she did just that."

Luna and Starswirl gawked incredulously, while Sunset stared with hope in her teal eyes.

The blue alicorn stared silently at her sister's expression, analyzing it for any hint of jest, but was thrown off by the dead seriousness in her eyes. "Thou'rt... not joking."

"Wait, you're actually saying that my daughter raised the sun?!" Starswirl questioned in disbelief.

The ivory alicorn turned toward the balcony doors, a very slight amount of amber sunlight streaming through them. "Barely, but most assuredly. What little sunlight you see now was Sunset's doing, not mine."

"You're not tricking me again, are you?" Sunset asked, her heart teetering on the edge.

Celestia could see that Sunset both wanted to and did not want to believe it for fear of having her dreams crushed once more, but she shook her head to assure her. "This is not a trick. And this brings me to another topic I wish to discuss with you and your father."

"Shall We... give thee some privacy?" Luna asked, still a little shaken by this revelation.

"No, you should hear this, too, Luna," Celestia told her. She then turned her attention to Starswirl, the utmost seriousness in her eyes. "What I witnessed this morning was unlike anything I'd ever seen from a normal unicorn, child or otherwise. As Luna said previously, a solar flare can easily incapacitate even us alicorns. That sort of magic feedback should have been enough to kill a young foal, yet Sunset not only survived, she won't even suffer any long-term effects."

"What does that mean?" Starswirl inquired, admittedly curious about where this was going.

"The shock she received from the solar flare must have triggered something within her; a latent, untapped power she didn't know she possessed. And from what I saw, that power is dangerous. Young unicorn foals often don't have full control over their magic until they get a little older, and most foals Sunset's age can barely utilize their magic. But Sunset's natural talent could be both a blessing and a curse. If she isn't careful, another shock like this could be dangerous not only to herself, but the people around her, unless she learns how to control it."

All of this information was starting to worry Starswirl. "So what do you suggest she do?"

"Us alicorns have to deal with a similar issue at a young age. Our magic is naturally powerful, so we were taught how to control it at a young age by our parents. I would like to suggest that Sunset become my pupil so that I can teach her how to not only keep it under control, but to harness it."

Sunset's eyes widened with a whimsical sparkle. She looked at her father expectantly. However, he hesitated, humming in thought and stroking his beard as he considered the offer.

Celestia took note of his prolonged consideration, looking away guiltily. "I understand if you wouldn't want to trust me with this. After all, we wouldn't be in this situation if it weren't for me... My poor judgment put your daughter's very life at risk, and I don't think I can ever truly forgive myself for that, let alone expect you to do so." She then leaned forward, a sudden determination in her eyes. "But consider this my way of atoning. I've witnessed first hoof the power that your daughter possesses, and she has astounding potential. With the proper tutelage, I strongly believe that she can use her magic for the good of Equestria as a whole."

Again, Starswirl hummed thoughtfully. "Do you truly think so?"

After all this time, Celestia finally managed a smile. "I do. After all, this entire ordeal was enough for her to earn her cutie mark."

"Huh?!" Sunset suddenly throw off the blankets covering her, looking down at her flank. Sure enough, the image of a shimming, red and yellow sun was emblazoned on her person, and the filly's mouth stretched outward in an ecstatic, beaming grin. "My cutie mark!" She leapt up into the air, throwing herself at her father in glee. "Daddy! I got my cutie mark!"

Starswirl was awash with pride, but was also still a little overwhelmed by everything that he'd just learned. With his daughter's hooves wrapped around his neck in an elated hug, he stared across at the white alicorn. Celestia was smiling happily herself, thankful that Sunset was not only okay, but that she had finally gotten what all young foals strive for. In light of Sunset's happiness, Starswirl couldn't help but smile himself, giving his little girl a congratulatory pat on the back as he returned her hug.

"Good for you, sweetie."

Sunset released her father, but continued to bounce excitedly on Celestia's cushy bed. "This is amazing I finally got my—oooh..." She suddenly teetered a little, having some difficulty maintaining her balance. "I'm kinda dizzy..."

"You should take it easy on the celebrations," Celestia suggested with a light-hearted giggle. "You're still suffering from burnout, so you might be prone to mild headaches for the next few days."

"You hear that?" Starswirl said, looking his daughter straight in the eye. "No magic until you're all better. Understand?"

Sunset nodded, her smile returning. However, she looked at her father pleadingly. "So? Can Princess Celestia be my teacher, Dad?"

With the topic having come around again, the bearded stallion glanced back at the princess, whose expression was much the same as Sunset's. "I don't suppose there's a choice in the matter. If this power you have is as dangerous as Princess Celestia says, then you need somepony with that kind of experience to help you get it under control."

Both Celestia and Sunset smiled with relief and joy, respectively. The ecstatic filly turned to her new teacher, trying hard to keep her excitement in check to avoid another bout of wooziness. "When do we start?!"

Celestia was a little caught off guard by the sudden question, but answered with a quiet chuckle. "Sunset, you're not exactly in any condition for that quite yet. Plus, I still need to finish getting the sun up over the horizon. No doubt people are wondering what's going on with that."

"We suppose We'll be turning in for the day," Luna informed, accompanying her sister out onto the balcony. "We certainly weren't ready for all of this today..." she mumbled to Celestia before taking off back to her own chambers.

"With that being said..." Starswirl said, addressing his daughter sternly. "You are to absolutely, under no circumstances, even think about raising the sun anymore. Do I make myself clear, young lady?"

Sunset shrunk back under her father's corrective glare and tone. "Yes, Daddy..."

Starswirl huffed at her response. "Don't 'Daddy' me. Despite all of this, you can be sure that you're going to be punished for disobeying the princess. And I don't want to hear any complaints." He then turned his attention to Celestia standing out on the balcony as she raised the sun properly. "We'll be taking our leave now, Your Highness. Sunset is going to be helping the staff clean up the castle."

The alicorn chuckled in amusement and gave the pair a friendly wave. "Sounds fine by me."

Starswirl guided his daughter to the door with authority. Sunset followed alongside him with her head hung low. However, even though she was being punished, she was still smiling. She had expected this to happen when she first came up to Celestia's chambers, but now she couldn't stop thinking about the fact that the princess was going to personally teach her about magic and how to harness and control it. She couldn't believe how well disobeying her had turned out. If helping the castle staff with some chores was the price for being Princess Celestia's student, she wasn't about to complain.

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

Twilight lay on her bed in silence, staring down at the book open in front of her. She was attempting to make sense of what she'd just read, but her brain didn't know how to properly react to it. A torrent of emotions swirled around in her head. All at once she felt confused, angry, disappointed, but most of all, betrayed.

This was it. This had to be it. The secret she'd been looking for, but it wasn't at all what she had been expecting.

Contrary to her theories, Twilight now knew that Celestia was not trying to hide something from her people, but from her specifically. And now she knew why.

Twilight's emotions were roiling, and it seemed her mind was gravitating toward one in particular: anger. How could Princess Celestia keep something like this from her? In her current state, she could think of nothing else but this new revelation. So, despite having tried to avoid Princess Celestia up until now, Twilight was going to finally confront her. She had some choice words for her former teacher.

With a furrowed brow and clenched teeth, Twilight's horn lit up. Her bedroom was filled with a bright light and a pop of magic. And with that, she was gone.

Chapter 5 - Kindling

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 5: Kindling

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The throne room of Canterlot Castle was empty, and the silence was so thick it was almost ironically loud. Usually the castle was abuzz with activity; soldiers conversing in the halls, or advisers reading aloud the day's itinerary. Certainly even the sounds of hooves against the soft carpets stretching through the halls would be easy to hear in a place as spacious as Canterlot Castle.

But today, nothing.

The thing is, it wasn't as though the castle were devoid of people. In truth, everything was perfectly normal. Guards were at their posts; servants were busy cleaning the halls; chefs were preparing lunch. All in all, it was a pretty average day at Canterlot Castle.

At least for most people who worked there. For Princess Celestia, on the other hoof, it was anything but.

The alabaster alicorn and one of Equestria's shining symbols of hope and comfort had been in a rather dour state since the previous day. She'd been wandering the halls of the castle absentmindedly since, too focused on the thoughts occupying her mind to pay attention to anything happening around her, or anything said to her. She felt as though she were alone in her home with only her persistent worries to accompany her.

Twilight Sparkle, her faithful student—or rather, former student—had made off with an ancient book she'd written long ago, despite her insistence otherwise. She had been hoping that guilt would eventually persuade Twilight to return the book to her, but it had been a day since Celestia had seen her. Perhaps her emotional outburst had frightened Twilight, and she was afraid to return for fear of punishment. Celestia couldn't really believe that, though. Twilight wasn't a child; she was mature enough to accept the repercussions of her actions. Still, she felt guilty herself that her most loyal subject and one of her closest friends had to see that side of her.

Princess Celestia had managed to find herself in the empty throne room of her castle, her aimless wanderings having apparently brought her there while lost in thought. She stood at the base of the platform where the two thrones were seated, gazing around at the expansive room as though it were her first time there. The marble pillars; the stained glass windows depicting significant events in Equestria's history; the elevated thrones where she and her dear sister sat to govern their kingdom. All of it was familiar, yet now alien at the same time. Seeing that book again for the first time in literal ages was bringing back a flood of old memories, reminding her of the days gone by when she lived at the Castle of the Two Sisters on the far edge of the Everfree Forest.

Not to mention the memories of somepony she held very dearly...

Celestia let out a long, forlorn sigh. She approached the carpeted ramp leading up to her throne with the intent of just sitting there for a bit and thinking quietly. However, she came to a halt when the silence was broken by a pop of magic. The princess turned around to investigate, but was shocked to see that she was no longer alone.

Much to Celestia's surprise, Twilight had returned. The lavender mare stood in the middle of the throne room quietly, as though waiting for Celestia to say something.

"Twilight?" Celestia fully turned to face her. She was conflicted by feelings of both relief to see her come back, but concern over exactly why.

Twilight didn't appear happy. In fact, she looked rather upset, scowling at her mentor with a furrowed brow and displeased grimace. Celestia was starting to feel a touch uneasy, the silence between the two alicorns as thick as soup. How much of the book had she read, Celestia wondered.

Finally mustering up the will to address her former student, Celestia spoke to her with as much compassion and concern as she could manage. "Are you... alright, Twilight?" she asked, still worried about her incensed expression.

Twilight ignored the question in favor of her own, her voice uncomfortably quiet, icy, and hurt. "Is that all I am to you? A replacement?!"

Celestia was taken aback by the unexpected accusation. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Don't act like you're oblivious to it!" the irate alicorn snapped. "A young filly who idolized you, had a surge of magic that unlocked their hidden potential and earned them their cutie mark, and then taking them on as your personal student. I'm just like Sunset Shimmer!"

Celestia was a bit shaken by the venom in Twilight's voice, but she wasn't really in a position to question a sudden outburst of anger. She breathed a long sigh of remorse. Not so much because Twilight had made that connection, but because she chose to see it that way. "Twilight, you can't compare yourself to Sunset Shimmer."

That statement only served to upset Twilight more, even feeling a sharp, emotional pain in her chest upon hearing it. "Because she was better than me?"

Celestia stepped forward defensively. "No, of course not! That's not what I'm—"

"You don't have to pretend..." Twilight looked away, her gaze falling to the side and her voice becoming more dejected. "She was repeatedly described as being naturally talented, whereas I could barely use magic at all until my entrance exam for your school... And she could even move the sun when she was just a filly apparently. I can't even do that now."

The ivory alicorn's ears folded back as she stared upon the self-pitying look on Twilight's face. Of all the reactions she'd expected her to have to the book, Celestia never expected her to fixate on how she compared to Sunset. It was unusual for Twilight to display feelings of inadequacy, though she'd never actually met another unicorn as talented or as powerful as she was. Was Twilight jealous of Sunset Shimmer?

Celestia took a deep breath, composing herself in an effort to help put Twilight's mind at ease. "Twilight, how much of the book have you read?"

"Enough..." she mumbled.

Celestia held out her hoof. "Then would mind returning it, please?"

Twilight's frown had once again shifted back to a scowl, raising an eyebrow and questioning her teacher's intent. "But I might as well finish it now that I've found out your 'big secret.'"

The sun princess lowered her hoof again. Twilight's uncharacteristically stinging tone hurt her deeply, but Celestia knew that she had brought this upon herself by not mentioning it to her. She only hoped that she could prevent any further pain. "Twilight, I'm sorry that I got upset with you yesterday. I acted irrationally because I was so shocked to see that book again. But I implore you, don't read any more. It's not worth it."

Twilight knit her brow tighter, surprised and even upset further by what she heard. "So there's more? What else are you hiding from me?!"

"I'm not 'hiding' anything from you, I'm protecting you!"

The lavender mare grit her teeth, fed up with Celestia's secrecy. "Protecting me from what?! You?! What's so bad in this book that you can't tell me about it?! I thought I could trust you, but now I know I'm just a living reminder of somepony else!"

"It's not that simple, Twilight!"

"Oh, yeah? Well, we'll see just how complicated it is, then! I know you're hiding more from me, and I'm gonna find out what!"

Twilight set her horn aglow with magic. Celestia stepped forward in a panic, reaching out to try and stop her. But as quickly as she had arrived, Twilight vanished again, her pink magic flashing brightly as she teleported out of the castle.

Celestia fell back onto her haunches in defeat, hanging her head in both regret and disappointment. "You know less than you think, Twilight..."

***** ***** *****

Twilight popped back into her bedroom back in Ponyville. No sooner than she had materialized there did she waste any time casting another spell. In an instant, her room was encompassed by a magical shield, preventing anypony—alicorn, or otherwise—from teleporting themselves inside. After that unpleasant conversation, Twilight fully expected Celestia to have had enough of this and come looking for the book, but she had no intention of returning it now. If she wanted it back badly enough, she was going to have to blast down that barrier to get it.

Twilight was still fuming. She felt her heart racing in her chest, her lungs were short of breath, and her face was flushed and hot with anger. But now that she was back within the solitude of her home, her anger began to cool; slowly, but steadily all the same. The problem with that was, with her temper subsiding, her mind was finally starting to clear, and she was beginning to contemplate the ramifications of all of this.

She was still upset, to be sure. How could Princess Celestia not tell her about Sunset Shimmer? There was no way she had simply forgotten about her; Celestia wrote an entire book about her, so she had obviously left a lasting impact on the princess. She had never felt so betrayed. To be so upset by something her idol had been keeping from her that she would tear into Celestia like she did, shouting and accusing. Twilight felt as though she'd become a totally different person, not unlike when she'd witnessed Celestia do much the same the previous day.

But it wasn't just about Celestia keeping secrets anymore.

Twilight's breaths started to become shaky, and she could already feel the moisture building in her eyes. She clenched her eyelids shut, wanting to focus on the anger rather than succumb to the pain she now felt in her heart. She had suspected that the contents of that book might affect how she saw the princess, but she hadn't expected it to make her look at herself differently.

Twilight didn't feel special anymore. She considered Princess Celestia to practically be a second mother to her, but, for some reason that she couldn't figure out, finding out that she was just filling the void that Sunset Shimmer had left made her begin questioning her own self-worth. It was like replacing a broken toy, but the new toy was just a cheap knockoff brand. And that's what Twilight felt like now: a cheap knockoff. She wasn't even as good as Sunset Shimmer. Sunset was just a filly and she could move the sun. How was Twilight supposed to compete with that?

Deep down, a part of her knew she was being irrational. As large a blow as her self-esteem had suffered, Twilight still knew she was smart, and that her emotions had likely gotten the better of her. But somehow, that didn't ease the pain of it. It probably wouldn't have been this bad on her if Celestia had just told her about Sunset Shimmer a long time ago. The fact that she had willingly kept that information away from her told her Celestia must have held Sunset in higher regard and wanted to spare her feelings.

Now feeling dejected beyond repair, Twilight wiped away the tears that had been welling up in her eyes and crawled onto her bed. She couldn't help but think about how damaged her relationship with Celestia was going to be after this, or if the two of them will even have a relationship at all anymore. The somber mare lay her head on her pillow, but her eyes caught sight of the book, still left open on the bed. Twilight grimaced slightly at the sight of it. She was starting to wish she'd never found that book. Twilight was never one who took stock in the saying, "Ignorance is bliss," but she was beginning to see the appeal. She probably would have been much happier not knowing about Sunset Shimmer.

Twilight contemplated what she should do now. That book had already caused her enough pain. Did she really want to keep reading it now? Her brief "talk" with Princess Celestia just now seemed to indicate that she had yet more secrets that she was hiding, but would Twilight be able to handle them? She was already emotionally drained from just one secret, and she feared how it might affect the rest of her life.

But her innate curiosity scratched at the back of her head. If she didn't finish it, she'd spend the rest of her life wondering. Her heart and mind were already in shambles anyway. What more could this dumb book do to her now?

So, with a long, listless sigh, Twilight propped herself up on her bed again, pulling the book over to her to pick up where she left off. At the very least, she was interested to see if Celestia's teaching methods were any different for Sunset...

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

Things were going to be a little different around the Castle of the Two Sisters from now on. News had spread throughout the staff of what had happened to Sunset Shimmer and what the young filly had accomplished. Needless to say they were more than a little flabbergasted to hear she had raised the sun—well, she moved the sun; even with as much power that had burst forth from her, she had only managed to push the sun up enough to see its very edge, but even that was more than what any other unicorn could claim. The servants and guards around the castle reacted mostly with disbelief, but many were quick to congratulate Sunset, knowing how much she aspired to be like Princess Celestia.

And there were none who took this more seriously than the princess herself. Having resolved to teach Sunset Shimmer how to utilize the power they now knew she possessed, Celestia had made Sunset's tutoring a priority. Some of her usual routines and duties had been postponed, or outright cancelled to make time in her day-to-day for Sunset, which was expected to cause a few headaches for her royal advisers and schedulers. But Celestia was determined to make sure Sunset knew how to control her inner magic, and was willing to make any adjustments and sacrifices necessary. After all, she strongly believed that her new pupil had the potential to do great things with that power of hers.

But, unfortunately, Sunset's surge of power caused by the solar flare had left her burnt out and unable to use magic for a few days, meaning that the actual practice of controlling her magic would have to wait until she had made a full recovery. On the bright side, however, it made for a good opportunity to teach Sunset about magic before she put it into practice, as a deeper understanding of different types of magic, the history of magic, and the many applications of magic would go a long way in helping Sunset understand her own magic. So, to that end, after giving Sunset a day to recuperate after her ordeal, Celestia had declared that she would be taking this Sunday off from her usual royal duties to direct one hundred percent of her focus on teaching her new protégé before she had to return to school the next day.

Of course, Sunset was ecstatic. Ever since she'd woken up that morning, she'd been following Princess Celestia around the castle as though she were the princess's pint-sized shadow. Even if she couldn't use her magic, Sunset never doubted that anything that Celestia taught her would be important and useful, and didn't want to miss anything.

"So, what are we gonna start with, Princess?" the filly asked eagerly as the two cantered casually through the castle halls. "Since I'm burnt out, can we try other magic, like runic magic? Or potions?"

"Not quite what I had in mind," Celestia laughed. "It would be pertinent to learn to master your own magic before attempting to use other kinds. No, today is primarily going to be informative. You like history lessons, don't you?"

Sunset nodded with a cute grin. "Like when you told me and my classmates about your battle with Discord. That was cool!"

Celestia chuckled bashfully at the compliment. "Oh, well, I'm certainly glad to hear that I'm 'cool.' Truth be told, I did enjoy it quite a bit myself. I've been thinking since then that it might be interesting to try my hoof at teaching. I have a lot to share, and it'd be a shame not to pass that knowledge onto younger generations."

"You could be a great teacher!" Sunset chirped. "Everypony already loves you, so you won't have any trouble getting them interested."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Why don't we see how well our time together goes before you start putting ideas in my head, hm?"

Sunset smiled in agreement, still excited by all of this and physically unable to give her cheeks a rest.

Before long, Sunset had realized where they were going. At first she expected Princess Celestia to bring her to the royal archives to do some studying. However, they had just passed the archives, and Celestia didn't so much as glance at the door. Which meant that their destination could only be the throne room. Sunset looked up curiously at her new teacher, but remained quiet, letting it play out to see what Celestia had in store for her.

Sure enough, the two of them had wound up in the throne room, and there Celestia stopped, a short distance away from the base of the thrones' platform. As often as Sunset had been through this room, and as extravagant and awe-inspiring as it was, she never saw anything about it that might seem magical in nature, or could be used as teaching tools.

"What are we doing in the throne room?" Sunset asked the alicorn.

Celestia could sense the confusion and skepticism in the filly's voice, smiling reassuringly. "There's something I want to show you; something very important not just for the sake of teaching, but for Equestria itself.

Sunset's ears perked up and stood at attention. Now she was intrigued. What could be so important in here that it affected Equestria as a whole?

"Step back a little, Sunset."

The filly moved away from the stairs leading up to the thrones, standing beside Celestia and waiting patiently.

Celestia's horn lit up with golden light. Sunset then heard a noise. It sounded like it was coming from the floor, like large stones being moved. The rug on the floor in front of them suddenly began to shift and rise, and Celestia pulled it aside to reveal a huge, square slab of stone that had come loose underneath it. Lifting the slab up and moving it out of the way, Celestia had revealed a large hole in the floor leading to a dark chamber beneath. Sunset was about to step forward to peer inside, but Celestia held out her hoof to stop her.

The princess wasn't finished, and now the very floor of the throne room was trembling. Before long, something began to emerge from the gap that Celestia had opened. Sunset watched in silent awe as a stone pedestal rose up from the floor. A cylindrical column stood in the center of the pedestal, a large, perfectly-spherical stone balanced atop it. Despite being made of stone, the entire structure appeared to be somewhat mechanical, with five arms of varying elevation extending out from the central pillar and slowly rotating around it. And upon the ends of each arm hovered five colored gemstones; purple, pink, red, orange, and sky blue.

Sunset simply stared at it, her mouth hanging open. She was entranced, intrigued, and baffled all at the same time by what she was seeing, gazing at the ornate patterns chiseled into the stone pedestal and listening to the steady, mechanical clicks of the rotating apparatus. Without tearing her eyes away from it, she quietly asked Princess Celestia, "What is that?"

"Those are the Elements of Harmony," the alicorn stated.

While she was befuddled by the sight of them, Sunset instantly recognized the name. "You mean the things you used to beat Discord?"

Celestia nodded. "The very same. Actually, Luna and I have come to rely on the Elements whenever a large threat encroaches upon Equestria."

Sunset lifted an eyebrow in slight confusion. "But you're alicorns. Isn't your magic super powerful?"

"We are powerful, but we aren't all-powerful. There are limits to what even we can achieve. Luna and I can move the sun and moon, but Discord could alter the very fabric of reality. Our magic can't stand up to that. So that's where the Elements come in."

Sunset stared wide-eyed at the jewels slowly orbiting the pedestal. "They're even more powerful than you and Luna combined?"

"In a sense. You see, the Elements of Harmony, as their name implies, are designed to combat chaotic and disharmonious forces. For example, Discord is the spirit of chaos, thus the Elements' magic can subdue him. However, their power would not work if used against Luna or myself, unless we were corrupted by dark power, or if we suddenly decided to become villains for whatever reason."

"So, basically, they only work on bad guys, right?" Sunset inferred.

Celestia shrugged with a smile. "That's the simplest way to look at it, but yes."

"What if somepony stole them?" the filly asked curiously. "Could they use them on anypony who was even a little bad?"

Celestia chuckled at the innocent-sounding question. "You probably don't have to worry about them being misused, if that's what you're getting at. The Elements cannot be used on their own. A powerful bond is required to activate their magic. The bond I share with my sister is how Luna and I are able to use them. That, and we were the ones who created them in the first place, so we have a special connection with the Elements. If others wished to utilize their power, six individuals each embodying the virtues represented by the Elements—honesty, loyalty, laughter, kindness, generosity, and magic—would be required."

"Can you use them without Luna?"

Celestia paused for a moment, humming in thought. "I could, but without our magic combined, the Elements would not be able to sustain themselves and would become drained of their power. We would have to reawaken them."

Sunset continued to gaze at the colorful crystals, deep in thought. As fascinating as this was, though, another question popped up in her head, and she looked up at the princess. "So, why are you showing me this?"

Celestia looked down to meet her gaze. She could tell from the expression on Sunset's face and the tone of her voice that she wasn't asking because she thought this was pointless, but because she knew there had to be a reason pertinent to her. The alicorn let out a sigh, gazing at Sunset as softly as she could to lessen the blow of her words. "Because I want you to understand that I am not perfect."

Sunset stayed silent. She hadn't been expecting that to be where this was going.

"I've had the pleasure of seeing the way you look at me, and knowing how highly you regard me. But you need to know that I cannot do everything." Celestia gestured toward the Elements of Harmony. "Without these relics, Equestria would have fallen to ruin ages ago. Any number of villains—not just Discord—could have taken over our world, or even destroyed it if not for the Elements, and Luna and I could have done nothing about it." She cast a solemn look down at her attentive pupil. "You won't always be able to rely on me. There may come a day where I may not be capable of protecting you, or any of my subjects." Celestia's expression suddenly became more determined and resolute. "And it's for this very reason that I want to teach you; so that you can protect yourself. So that you don't have to rely on me. You have the power within you to do great things, and I'm going to see to it that you can utilize that power to its fullest."

Sunset felt both moved and invigorated by her teacher's words. Knowing now how Celestia truly felt about herself and about her, Sunset was more determined than ever to master her inner strength, casting a reassuring and steadfast grin up at the alicorn. "So... Does this mean I can use the Elements against the next bad guy that shows up?"

A rather unladylike snort escaped Celestia's nose as she broke into boisterous laughter, having been caught off guard by the filly's surprisingly lighthearted response. "Oh-ho, we'll put that notion on the backburner for now. One thing at a time, alright? Now, why don't you run ahead to the royal archives while I put these dusty, old things away. I'll catch up in a few minutes."

Sunset nodded, her tail swishing eagerly at the idea of getting in some study time with her mentor. She wasted no time hurrying off back into the castle halls.

***** ***** *****

Sunset let out a long yawn, stretching her little legs out as she did. It certainly wasn't a yawn of boredom, she was just getting a little tired. She cursed that, of course. This had been a day she dreamed of; spending every waking hour she had today right alongside Princess Celestia while the alicorn taught her about magic. Sunset couldn't remember the last time she'd had this much fun, just chatting with somepony she cared about and learning a lot. It was perfect.

Too bad it had to come to an end at some point.

It felt like the daylight hours had come and gone in an instant, with the purple veil of twilight visible through the royal archives' window the only indication of the time. Even then, the alicorn and the filly never stopped their lessons, only taking short breaks for meals throughout the entire day. By now, the sky had faded to black, and Princess Luna had already brought out the moon for the night, yet Sunset didn't want the day to end. Even if she had asked Celestia to negotiate with her sister for a few more daylight hours, that wouldn't exactly prevent her from being tired.

But Sunset wasn't the only one who was sleepy. The filly looked to her left as she sat at one of the reading tables in the archives. Sunset might have been tired, but Princess Celestia had already conked out. It was a rather odd, yet somewhat amusing sight to see the princess of the sun with her head smack down on a table and snoozing away, her usual grace and elegance she exhibited during the day offset by her quiet snoring and the dribble of saliva drooling from the corner of her mouth and pooling onto the table. Even her mane and tail had lost some of their luster and the alicorn was using the silken locks like a makeshift pillow. Her hair still barely moved of its own accord, though, as not all of the magic had drained from it yet. Sunset knew that Princess Celestia had a rather strict sleep schedule, but she hadn't expected her to be physically unable to stay awake at this hour. It wasn't even that late, but the alicorn just must not have been used to it.

But it probably had to do with the day's events, as well. As much fun as Sunset had had today, Celestia seemed to have just as much. Similarly to when she had visited her school, the deeper Celestia got into her stories, the more animated and exuberant she started to get. Sunset was starting to see why she liked the idea of being a teacher; it really brought out her own inner child.

Once again, Sunset yawned. She was tired, sure, but she was pretty sure she could manage to stay up a bit longer if she wanted. But considering her teacher had already nodded off, she may as well turn in, too. After all, she had school in the morning. However, the issue now was what she was going to do about the slumbering alicorn. Sunset wasn't about to leave Princess Celestia to sleep in the royal archives with only a wooden table as a pillow, even if it didn't seem to bother her. Obviously she couldn't carry the much larger mare on her little back and all the way to her bedroom; climbing the tower would prove to be an insurmountable challenge alone. She could probably lift her with her magic, but she was still recovering from her burnout, and even if she was in any condition to use magic, it would probably be more than a little undignified for the sleeping princess to be lugged to her bedroom by a young filly.

With her options narrowed down, Sunset decided that she was going to have to ask for help. Her first instinct was to ask her father. He knew a teleportation spell, but she wasn't sure if he could teleport somepony else with him or not. Plus, she was already up past her bedtime. If her dad found out she wasn't in bed yet, she might get a lecture. Sunset wanted to avoid that if at all possible. The rest of the castle staff had probably already gone home or back to their quarters for the night. Everypony else was probably asleep at this hour anyway.

Well, everypony expect one...

Sunset hesitated at the thought, but figured it was her best course of action. Princess Luna's tower wasn't far from the royal archives anyway, and Sunset had never been there before, so she saw this as a kind of opportunity to sate a little bit of her curiosity. The filly quietly hopped off of her chair, trying not to disturb the sleeping alicorn still laying head down on the reading table, and made her way to Luna's tower.

Not surprisingly, the tower itself was practically identical to Celestia's, with its own connecting breezeway and a bland, spiral staircase leading to the top. But the door to her chambers, while also similar to that of the ivory alicorn's, was emblazoned with the image of a crescent moon, as expected.

Admittedly, Sunset was a little apprehensive about disturbing Princess Luna, expecting the moon princess to greet her uninvited visitor with an annoyed glower. But she remembered something Celestia had told her once, about how Luna was usually only cranky due to having been awake all night. Right now, she should be rested, so, theoretically, she was probably in a better mood currently. Or at the very least not as grouchy as usual. So Sunset worked up the nerve to finally knock on the ornate door.

There was no immediate, verbal answer, but Sunset heard the muffled sound of hooves on the carpeted floor approaching. The door opened, and Princess Luna peered out curiously, her gaze not level with her impromptu guest. Upon not meeting eye to eye with anypony right away as she was expecting to, Luna's gaze shifted down to the little filly, quirking an eyebrow in both curiosity and suspicion.

"Oh, it's thee. What art thee doing at Our door? Shouldn't thou be in bed?" Luna asked, slight annoyance in her voice.

Sunset swallowed nervously under the blue-eyed gaze of Princess Luna. She was already starting to regret this decision, but she did need help with her sleeping teacher, and she was here now anyway, so there was no point in not asking. "Um, Princess Celestia was tutoring me in the library, but she fell asleep. Can you help her back to her room, please?"

Luna's annoyed expression lifted upon hearing the explanation. "Oh, is that so?" She let out a quiet sigh, rolling her eyes with what appeared to be a small, somewhat amused smirk. "Some things never change, We suppose."

Sunset tilted her head in confusion. "What?"

Luna smiled at the filly, but as opposed to a condescending or haughty smirk, it looked to Sunset like a genuine, heartfelt smile. "Celestia would often doze off during our studies when we were younger, though not because she found it dull. Quite the opposite, in fact. She'd study so long into the night that she would tire herself out and drift off. We would frequently have to escort 'Her Sleepiness' to her chambers."

Sunset smiled, both in relief that Luna seemed willing to help, and in mild amusement to find out that this was once a regular occurrence.

"However," Luna continued, her grin dropping. "We hardly see need of this now. Why not just wake her up thyself?"

Sunset shifted her hooves slightly. "I didn't want to disturb her. She seemed so peaceful, even if she was snoring kinda loud."

Luna stifled a chuckle, a rare sight for Sunset to see. "Yes, her grace doth fall by the wayside when sleep takes hold of her so suddenly. Fine, We'll assist thee."

With that, Luna sauntered down her tower at a leisurely pace, Sunset following behind her. The filly was admittedly starting to feel a little more comfortable around the blue alicorn. Princess Celestia apparently wasn't kidding when she said her sister was more agreeable at night. She figured it would take more convincing than that, although she thought perhaps Luna was simply looking for something to do to pass the time; Sunset imagined it was pretty boring staying awake all night by oneself, so even a quick and simple task like this might have looked at least somewhat entertaining for the lonely moon princess.

Having arrived back at the royal archives, Luna and Sunset found Princess Celestia still sawing logs, having not budged since Sunset left. Luna smirked in both amusement and a little wistfulness.

"Just like old times indeed," the alicorn giggled as she approached her slumbering sister.

"You're not gonna wake her up, are you?" asked Sunset quietly.

Luna shook her head. "No. Celestia hast clearly hath a long day. We will let her sleep. Give Us a moment."

Luna's horn lit up with bright blue magic, and with a flash of light, she and her sister had suddenly disappeared. Sunset had witnessed teleportation before, her father being one of very few unicorns capable of utilizing the spell, but it was still always impressive to see a pony just vanish into thin air like that. Starswirl hadn't quite mastered the spell just yet, so he tended to use it sparingly, and he's never attempted to teleport two ponies at once for fear of the risk involved. So to see Luna do it so effortlessly and nonchalantly was admittedly inspiring. It was one of the spells that Sunset hoped to perfect someday herself.

After a minute of waiting, another flash filled the library, and Luna was standing before Sunset again. "There. Our sister hast been tucked snugly into bed. Now, We suggest you do the same, little one." Luna walked past Sunset on her way to the door.

"Wait."

The alicorn glanced over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow to see Sunset slowly approaching her. "Yes? Didst thou need something else?"

Sunset shifted awkwardly, hesitant to speak what was on her mind as she didn't want to annoy Luna too much when she seemed to be in such a good mood, relatively speaking. "Um... I-I'm sorry I yelled at you..."

Luna's eyes widened a little in surprise, the apology catching her off guard. "Oh. Er, yes, well... Hopefully thou understand now that one must take everything with a grain of salt. A smart pony questions everything instead of accepting it at face value. And hopefully Celestia hast learned her lesson as well. We would hate to see such a thing happen again." Luna expected the little unicorn to thank her for her help and forgiveness, but instead Sunset just stood there staring at her with an expectant look on her face. "What?"

"Aren't you going to apologize?" Sunset asked as though that were the logical course of the conversation.

Luna inferred that she was referring to the way she had adamantly argued with the filly about Celestia's lie, so she stuck her nose up at the question. "Why? We hath nothing to apologize for. We were right. The fact that thou didst move the sun afterward was merely happenstance and does not change the fact that Celestia tricked thee."

Sunset pursed her lips in a slight pout. She wasn't satisfied by that response, but Luna did have a point.

Luna could see the conflicted look on Sunset's face. It was evident that, while the filly was quick to forgive Celestia, at least a part of her was still a little hurt that she was lied to. So, Luna opted to try and ease her mind a bit by changing the subject. "Hast Our sister been rectifying her mistake well?"

Sunset was a touch confused by the question, tilting her head slightly at the alicorn. "Huh?"

"Is she a good teacher?" Luna clarified. "Art thou learning much from her?"

The inquiry elicited a cheery grin from Sunset, quickly replacing any doubt or frustration in her mind. "Yeah!" she chirped. "It's only been one day, but I've already learned a lot!"

"But We suppose there is only so much thou can learn while unable to use thy magic. What hath thou learned?"

"Princess Celestia showed me the Elements of Harmony," Sunset answered excitedly.

Luna was surprised to hear that. "Really? So soon?"

Sunset was a touch concerned by her tone. "Why? Was she not supposed to? Are the Elements a secret?"

"Well, no, not per se," the alicorn responded, her voice sounding somewhat uncertain. "But they are valuable artifacts. We are just surprised that she'd trust thee with their hiding place so quickly."

"I can keep a secret," Sunset assured her with a confident grin.

"We would hope so. But, We suppose it is of little consequence. They art important to our history, so it would make sense to teach thee more about them."

"Um..."

Luna took note of the curious look that Sunset was giving her, yet she seemed apprehensive as well. "What is it?"

Sunset shied away slightly, rubbing her leg nervously. "Well... I know you and Princess Celestia can both raise the sun, so..." She looked pleadingly at the alicorn. "Maybe you can teach me, too."

Luna practically felt her heart skip a beat, unable to form a response right away. She hadn't expected such a request, especially from somepony who revered her sister so highly. She felt flattered by the request, but at the same time, it was rather presumptuous of the filly to ask such a thing of her. Luna cleared her throat awkwardly, attempting to maintain a detached demeanor, but unable to completely suppress the slight tinge of red in her cheeks. "Of course We could. However, that is not Our prerogative. Celestia is the one who hast taken it upon herself to teach thee in an effort to atone for putting thy life in danger. Besides, We hath little time to tutor a young foal, especially one who hast school in the morning," she told her in a reprimanding tone.

Sunset hung her head slightly. "Sorry. Just thought I'd ask. I just wanna learn as much as I can."

Luna looked upon the dejected expression on the filly's face. When she had first met the little unicorn, she found her loud and bothersome—and she still did, to be totally honest. But she never thought that she'd find herself feeling bad for her. But in light of the sudden and unexpected request, Luna suddenly found herself with the urge to reassure her and offer at least something. "But..."

Sunset glanced up with a hopeful glint in her eye.

Luna met her gaze while still trying to hold an air of apathy. "If thou truly seek Our tutelage, and Celestia hast exhausted herself, and thou dost not hath school the next day... Then perhaps We will indulge thee."

Sunset gave the moon princess a grateful smile. "Really? Thanks, Princess Luna!"

Luna cleared her throat again, turning away and trying to hide the blush on her face. "Yes, well... Thou art welcome. Now, hurry to bed."

Sunset nodded, hurrying out of the royal archives and back to her room while hoping that her dad didn't realize she had been up past her bedtime.

Luna watched the filly trot quickly down the hall, letting out an exasperated sigh once she disappeared around the corner. She wasn't quite sure how to feel about all this. She admittedly felt a little frustrated with herself for letting that incessant filly persuade her so effortlessly, but she saw no reason to believe that anything her sister could teach her, she couldn't as well. And the sooner that Sunset learned to control the dangerous power within her, the better. Luna thought that if she contributed to that, it would be for the best.

***** ***** *****

"That's all for today, everypony. I'll see you tomorrow. Have a good day!"

With Mrs. Honeysuckle's dismissal, her students packed their school supplies in their bags and made for the door, ready to return home or get in some playtime before supper.

Sunset Shimmer was eager to get going, stuffing her books into her saddlebags with reckless abandon in an attempt to get out faster. While she normally enjoyed her classes at school, there were more exciting teachings on the horizon for when she returned to the Castle of the Two Sisters. Her studies were going to extend the whole day now that she had things she needed to learn both in and out of school, and she had absolutely no complaints about that.

After tossing her bags onto her back, Sunset hurried outside to find her ride back to the castle. As usual, Lance was waiting for her across the small bridge outside the schoolyard, their golden chariot sitting nearby. However, her escort wasn't alone, his little brother there conversing with him as he, too, was on his way home.

Sunset trotted briskly across the bridge, giving Lance a cheery and impatient grin. "Okay, I'm all set, Lance. Let's go!"

"You sound like you're in an awful rush, little missy," Lance remarked with a chuckle. "Can't a guy have a few minutes to chat with his little bro?"

Sunset gave the adult pegasus a grumpy pout. "Aren't you supposed to be my ride? What if I told Princess Celestia you were goofing off?"

Lance's smirk dropped, a little shaken by the filly's unexpected threat. "Whoa, chill out, Sunset. Did somepony pour salt in your cereal this morning, or something? What's with the attitude?"

Sunset's pout shifted to an apologetic frown. "Sorry, I'm just in a hurry to get home." Her impatience was punctuated by her restlessness as she fidgeted in place, unable to keep her hooves still.

"Oh..."

The unicorn looked to Halberd. He appeared to suddenly look a little dejected. "What's wrong?"

The silver colt shook his head dismissively. "N-No, it's nothing. I was just, um..."

Lance gave his little brother a discreet nudge and a smile to encourage him.

Halberd cleared his throat, looking Sunset in the eye, though continuing to speak sheepishly. "I was going to ask if you wanted to... hang out for a bit?"

Lance waited for the filly's response with an expectant grin.

Taking no time to contemplate an answer, Sunset simply shook her head, though with a friendly and oblivious smile. "No thanks. I really want to get back to the castle."

Halberd's ears folded back slightly, and he turned his hazel eyes down toward the ground. "Oh, o-okay..."

Seeing how his brother was taking the rejection, Lance quickly stepped in to mediate. "Now, hold on. What's the big rush, Sunset? I know you're eager to get back to your lessons with the princess and all, but you're still burnt out, remember? How much can you learn without your magic?"

Sunset shrunk back. "But I—"

"Huh? She can't use her magic?" Halberd interrupted with a puzzled expression. "Why not?"

"Because she burned herself out moving the sun the other day," the older pegasus explained. "She's not supposed to use magic for a while, probably until tomorrow."

Halberd quirked an eyebrow. "Really? But she raised it so effortlessly the first time, didn't she?"

Lance gave Sunset a sympathetic look. The filly had lowered her head in embarrassment. She had already told all of her classmates about how she raised the sun, but that was when she thought she had. Any credibility she had might have cracked if she then told them that she didn't raise the sun that time, but then actually moved it recently. Considering that she ended up moving it for real anyway, Sunset didn't really see any point in clarifying the situation since it would only serve to make it less believable, not to mention she didn't want to spread rumors that Princess Celestia made a habit of lying to her subjects.

"I... guess you never told him the truth," Sunset quietly inferred.

"I don't need to share everything that happens at work with my family," Lance told her. "This is more your personal business. It's not my place to go around telling people stuff like that."

This conversation was only serving to confuse Halberd more and more, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "What are you talking about?"

Lance let out an exasperated sigh. "The long and short of it is that she thought she did, but then she actually did, but it had an effect on her magic, so now she's recovering from that. I can tell you more about it when I'm off duty later, but that's why she only just now got her cutie mark, in case you were wondering."

The colt was still a little puzzled, but decided to dismiss it for now. "Uh, okay. But what was that about 'lessons with the princess'?"

The change in topic managed to quickly perk up the amber unicorn, her cute and excited grin returning. "Princess Celestia is taking me on as her personal student so she can teach me to control my 'latent potential,' as she called it."

Halberd smiled in amazement. "Wow, really?! That's so cool!"

Sunset nodded proudly and with a bashful blush. "Mm-hm. So I'm super eager to get back and start my lessons with her today."

Again, Lance jumped in at this point. "But like I said, you still can't use your magic yet. If it's all going to be book learning, then why not give yourself a break? You just got out of school here, and now you're just going to head back and bury your nose in another book? Why not unwind a little first? Tell you what: there's an ice cream place down the street. Why don't I treat you two to a couple of cones, huh?"

Halberd waited with an expectant smile and a slight tinge of red in his cheeks.

Although Sunset took a little more time to consider the offer this time, she still ultimately shook her head. "That's nice of you, but I think I'd rather head back. I want to learn as much as I can. I don't need a break."

Lance breathed a defeated sigh. "Alright, fine... Come on, then..." He lead Sunset toward the chariot, and as she was boarding, he glanced back to his brother with an apologetic frown. "Sorry, Hal. Can't say I didn't try."

Halberd let out a disappointed sigh of his own, his silver wings drooping at his sides. "It's okay. I'll see you later, Lance."

The older pegasus gave his little brother a sympathetic pat on the back before hitching himself up to the chariot. With a running start down the center of Canterlot's streets, he took off into the air with his charge in tow to reluctantly carry her home.

As they flew, Sunset stood up against the safety guard in front to gaze ahead toward their destination: the Castle of the Two Sisters. A big, beaming smile spread across her face in anticipation of the lessons in magic that awaited her.

Meanwhile, Lance cast a discreet look over his shoulder with a slight grimace on his face. He wasn't necessarily upset with her, but he still felt a need to try and talk to her. "Listen, Sunset, I know the idea of being taught about magic stuff from Princess Celestia is exciting and all, and you really enjoy learning new things, but it wouldn't kill you to just hang out and play like other foals your age from time to time."

"But Princess Celestia is expecting me," Sunset argued. "I can't keep her waiting."

"I believe you were also told at one point that you can spend time in Canterlot after school if you want," the armored pegasus reminded her. "I'm sure the princess wouldn't mind if you wanted to take a little time to hang out with your friends."

"Mmm..."

Lance looked back at the filly. There was rather unsure look on her face, and he was pretty sure he knew what her hesitation meant. "Have you even put much effort into making friends?"

"Uh, y-yeah, of course I have," she answered in a less-than-convincing tone.

"Uh-huh. Then name two that aren't Hal."

"Um... Princess Ce—"

"Nice try. I meant at school."

Sunset cast an irritated scowl at the back of the stallion's head. "Why are you getting on my case about this? You're not my dad, you know."

"I'm doing it for Hal," Lance replied.

Sunset blinked uncomprehendingly. "For Halberd?"

"Exactly. I don't know if you've noticed, but he's not exactly the most outgoing colt. So when we heard he'd made a friend on his first day of kindergarten, we were all happy for him. Honestly, I've never seen him so open and talkative as when he's talking to you."

Sunset frowned with a touch of shame. "Really?"

Lance nodded. "Yeah. But I've noticed something: you're practically the exact opposite. You're energetic, optimistic, curious, and pretty chatty when you get going. A filly like you shouldn't have any problem making friends, but you always want to go straight back to the castle after school."

"So? Daddy always focused on his studies when he was young, and now he's working for Princess Celestia."

Lance gave her a shrug. "Yeah, and that's all well and good and everything, but like I said, I'm thinking about my little brother here. And from what he's told me, he can usually only get you to talk when the subject is on you and the princess. No offence, but it comes off as kinda self-centered."

"I'm not selfish!" Sunset blurted defensively.

"Then why not take some time out of your day to make somepony else happy? Hal really wants to spend some time with you."

"Oh! Why don't you bring him to the castle some time?"

Lance groaned with a roll of his eyes, getting a little frustrated by the filly's apparent reluctance. "I believe I told you once before that you and your dad were a special case. I can't just invite my family to visit the castle when it suits me."

By now, the two had finally arrived at the Castle of the Two Sisters. Lance touched down and came to a gentle, rolling stop in front of the castle. Sunset hopped off of the chariot, and Lance unhitched himself. The filly was getting ready to hurry inside to find Princess Celestia, but Lance gave her one last pleading look before she left.

"Listen, I'm not trying to tell you what to do. I'm just asking you to think about it, that's all."

Sunset glanced down and did just that for a moment, silently considering the soldier's request.

"Welcome home, Sunset."

The filly's head jerked up at the sound of the voice, her ears perking up and her tail swishing cheerily on reaction. Princess Celestia had just come around the outside corner of the castle, and Sunset's father was walking alongside her.

Sunset hopped over to greet the two with an enthusiastic smile. "Hi! Were you out for a walk with the princess, Daddy?"

"In a sense," Starswirl answered with a lighthearted chuckle.

"Your father and I were taking a stroll through the gardens while we were discussing his work," Celestia added. "And it's timely that we should run into each other. I thought perhaps you and I could do the same for your lessons today. How would you like that?"

"That sounds fun!" Sunset squeaked eagerly. "Can we go now?"

Celestia nodded and giggled at the filly's exuberance. "Certainly."

Sunset wasted no time pulling off her saddlebags and thrusting them upon her father. "Can you bring my bags to my room, Daddy? Thanks!"

Starswirl staggered slightly as the bags were forced into his possession. "Sweetie, I'm sure the princess wouldn't mind if you took an extra minute or two to—"

"She's already gone, Starswirl," Celestia interjected.

The bearded unicorn glanced over his shoulder only quickly enough to see his daughter's fiery tail disappear around the corner of the castle. He let out a long sigh of exasperation. "Honestly, that child... You don't know what you've gotten yourself into, Your Highness."

Celestia laughed off the warning. "Maybe not, but I'm just as excited to pass down my knowledge as she is to learn it. Now then, I should catch up to her before she wanders into the hedge maze and gets lost." She gave Starswirl a friendly wave before casually sauntering back toward the gardens.

Starswirl turned toward the castle's short steps to head back inside and continue his research solo—after reluctantly dropping off his daughter's schoolbags in her room. However, he was stopped when Lance beckoned to him.

"Hey, Starswirl. Wait up a minute," the soldier requested, trotting up to the unicorn.

"There something you need, Lance?"

"Yeah, uh, listen," the pegasus began a little awkwardly. "I know it's probably not my place, but I was wondering if I could talk to you about Sunset."

Starswirl groaned in anticipation. "What did she do?"

"Uh, no, no, nothing like that. I was just wondering if you'd know whether or not she's making friends at school."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow, confused as to why Lance would inquire about such a thing, but curious to find out. "Oh, well, she did mention a young colt..."

"Yeah, that's probably my little brother Halberd," Lance inferred. "But is that it?"

Starswirl stroked his beard as he pondered. "Can't say I'm certain, but she does always tend to come back to the castle right after school."

Lance nodded, already knowing as much. "I've noticed that, too."

Finally, Starswirl decided to get to the crux of the issue, giving Lance an inquisitive look. "So why are you asking about this?"

Lance turned his gaze up slightly, breaking eye contact and scratching his cheek with his hoof. "Well, like I said, it might not be my place to say, but I think my brother might have a little crush on Sunset."

"Is that right?" the unicorn said with mild surprise in his voice. "So, then, you were hoping that she might reciprocate his feelings?"

"Whoa, let's not move too fast here," Lance said with an awkward chuckle. "They're probably still a little too young for romantic stuff. I just think it might be good for both of them to spend some time together and get to know each other a little better. You know, as friends first. 'Cuz I'm not even sure if Sunset considers Hal a friend or not. I'm just trying to have my little bro's back, you know?"

Starswirl lifted a hoof, gesturing gently to help subdue the slight defensiveness in Lance's tone. "Yes, I understand. Truth be told, as Sunset's father, I share your concern. I'd like her to make some friends as well, but right now, I do think it may be more important for her to focus on her lessons with Princess Celestia. She needs to get her magic under control as quickly as possible."

Lance sighed with a somewhat disappointed grimace. "I was afraid you'd say that, but I get it. You're her dad, so I'm not gonna argue with you."

Starswirl offered a sympathetic look to the pegasus. "I don't mean to dissuade your brother, or anything like that. And I do hope they grow closer—as friends, I mean—but that's ultimately up to Sunset."

Lance simply nodded in reluctant acceptance. "Right. Anyway, I've gotta go put this chariot away. Sorry for holding you up."

With that, Lance hitched himself back up to the chariot, flying off to park it where it belongs, and Starswirl gave a wave farewell as he headed back inside the castle.

***** ***** *****

Sunset leaned down over a perfectly-arranged bed of yellow flowers, taking a moment to literally stop and smell them. The scent of the castle's gardens could be detected almost anywhere around the castle—and even in it if one were near open windows—but the fragrance was so much more delightful when one had the chance to not only smell them up close, but also take in the sight of them. Although the abundance of pollen did tickle the filly's nose, forcing a cute sneeze out of her, but she made sure to turn her head so as not to disturb the pretty flowers.

Sunset hadn't really spent much time out in the castle's garden, usually preferring to remain indoors and study, so the sight of all the colorful and beautiful plant life was still quite something for her to behold. The groundskeepers that Princess Celestia had hired must have been masters of their craft to arrange the flower beds so perfectly and elegantly, with specifically chosen species and variations all sorted by color and planted side by side to create mesmerizing gradients of color stretching along the paths of the gardens like ground-based rainbows.

And it was a sanctuary for the fauna as well. During the day, the garden was awash with the chorus of birds singing and splashing in the majestic, stone fountains, and squirrels chattering as they frolicked. And if one were roaming the halls of the castle at night, they may hear the hoots of owls in the trees, and the croaking of frogs as they swam about the ponds of water lilies. It seemed like a perfect place for a picnic, or an overnight camping trip, despite its immediate proximity to the castle; the natural white noise of the gardens could soothe anypony to sleep effortlessly. One could easily see somepony setting up a hammock within the decadent, stone gazebo that stood within the middle of the garden to take a nap.

"Enjoying the view, Sunset?"

The filly snapped out of her thoughts, having found herself seemingly entranced by the beauty surrounding her, and turned around to find Princess Celestia casually walking toward her with a smile on her muzzle.

Celestia cast her gaze over the flowers with a fond grin. "I sometimes enjoy coming out here when I have some free time. The soothing aromas and pleasant and vibrant colors help me feel at ease after I've been busy with my royal duties. Though, I still don't manage to find time for that as often as I'd like." She glanced along the many beds of different kinds of flowers. "Which ones are your favorite?"

"Oh, um..." Sunset took a moment to look over the variety of flowers in front of her, having been a little caught off guard by the question. She gave it a good moment of consideration, slowly walking down the path as she analyzed the colors and petals of each she passed. Finally, she stopped next to a bed of bright pink flowers with many small petals, leaning down to get a closer look. "These are pretty."

Celestia leaned down slightly herself to get a closer look. "I'm not an expert on botany, or anything like that, but I believe these are zinnias. And yes, they are quite beautiful, aren't they?"

Sunset watched as a golden aura gently wrapped itself around one of the zinnias, carefully plucking it from its bed. Celestia slipped the stem of the flower into Sunset's hair over her right ear, giving the filly a new accessory and eliciting a cute smile from the little unicorn.

"Does it look nice?" Sunset asked curiously.

Celestia let out a quiet chuckle. "It looks lovely."

"What's your favorite, Princess?" Sunset asked eagerly.

The alicorn could already sense what the filly's intention was and gave her a smile. "Well, I don't like to pick favorites, so why don't you pick one out that you think would suit me?"

Sunset nodded with a giddy bounce, turning her attention back to the flower beds. She eventually stopped next to some purple flowers, their petals larger but fewer in number than that of the zinnia. She pointed to them confidently. "I think this one would look good on you."

Celestia giggled, satisfied by the choice. "Ah, an iris. My, you do have impeccable taste, don't you?"

"Can I put it in your mane for you?" Sunset asked eagerly.

"Of course, but you can't use your magic, remember?"

Sunset simply smiled, opening her mouth and grabbing one of the irises by the stem with her teeth. She plucked it out and Princess Celestia bent her long neck down to allow the filly to affix it to her mane as she had done with the zinnia.

"Well? Do you like your choice, or should we find something else?" Celestia asked.

Sunset immediately shook her head. "Nope, it looks perfect. It's beautiful, just like you, Princess."

The alicorn blushed with a bashful grin. "Sunset, if you keep slathering me with such compliments, I may wind up with a big head."

"But then you could fit more flowers in your mane!"

Celestia had to stifle an amused snort at the filly's comment. "Good point. But I think we should get to your lessons before we get sidetracked any further. Come with me."

The alicorn gestured for Sunset to follow her further into the garden. They approached a tall wall of expertly-trimmed hedges that bordered the gardens. Cut into the hedge was an archway lined with lattice and decorated with white flowers, and the two of them passed through into a deeper section of the gardens.

Sunset knew where they were, but, much like the flower gardens, she had never been out here before now. They had entered the castle's statue garden, a less flowery area of the gardens—both figuratively and literally—but no less beautiful. The statue garden was more flat and empty than the flower garden, and some might even say bland in its overall design, even if the layout of the statues and pathways were arranged efficiently. But the flower garden was designed to comfort and soothe, specifically laid out and arranged to look breathtaking, while the statue garden was more like an art gallery; minimalistic in its appearance so as not to distract from the works of art on display.

Many marble sculptures decorated the expansive space of land behind the castle, the majority of them depicting ponies of different sizes and shapes. Sunset assumed that they were likely significant historical figures, though she noted that there was a distinct lack of descriptive plates on any of them, perhaps indicating otherwise and that they were merely meant to inspire thought and discussion, or were actually just meant to be decorations.

Sunset separated from Princess Celestia to have a look around. The alicorn simply watched the filly and waited to see if she had any questions.

Sunset stopped in front of one statue of a mare holding a flag. Unlike the other sculptures, the flag was real and not made of stone, and it sparked curiosity in the unicorn. She turned back to Celestia with an inquisitive smile. "Are these all real people?"

"Some of them are," the princess answered as she walked up alongside her. She stared up at the statue of the mare with the flag. "This one is not, unfortunately."

Sunset was a little disappointed to hear that. "Aww, but she looks so cool."

"Well, I meant that she isn't based on any one particular pony. This statue is actually a memorial for the lives lost in the war against the tyrant King Sombra when he conquered the Crystal Empire."

Sunset quirked an eyebrow. Even though she had done much research about Celestia's past, those names didn't sound familiar to her. "Who's King Sombra?"

Celestia breathed a long, remorseful sigh as she remembered the events of her past. "Another enemy that Luna and I vanquished some time ago. However, before we could banish him, he cast a curse that caused the Crystal Empire and all of its inhabitants to vanish with him. Sombra did that because he sought a powerful artifact within the Crystal Empire known as the Crystal Heart, and wanted to keep it for himself, even if it meant sealing it and his entire conquered empire with him until he returns. But even without the Crystal Heart, the magic he already possessed was incredibly powerful, even though he was just a unicorn."

Sunset's eyes widened in worry. "Really? Like... Like mine?"

The princess gave her student a soft, reassuring smile. "No, not quite. Sombra used a dark form of magic, unfamiliar to Luna and I. Though that being said, King Sombra should be used as a cautionary tale; great power grants great possibilities, but one must not let that power cloud their judgment. Such power can corrupt those who are weak of heart, so it's important to remember that you must use your power for the betterment of pony-kind, lest you wind up like Sombra: an enemy of Equestria."

"I don't wanna be a bad guy," Sunset said with a resolute shake of her head.

Celestia gave the filly a proud grin. "Good to hear. And this is one of the reasons why I invited you out here today. If there are any other statues here that interest you, don't hesitate to ask about them."

Sunset gave the princess an enthusiastic nod before searching out other sculptures that took her fancy. But with such a wide variety of designs and concepts that would pique one's curiosity, it was difficult to decide where to go next. She hadn't been expecting to learn about an enemy that she had never heard of before by asking about a simple statue of a mare with a flag, so Sunset was intrigued to find out what other surprises these stone ponies could reveal.

However, it was not a pony statue that had suddenly grabbed her attention. One sculpture in particular seemed to stand out from all the rest, one depicting... Well, she wasn't quite sure. The statue in question, located off on its own, isolated near the corner of the garden, appeared to be a slender, almost serpentine creature singing, or perhaps laughing jubilantly. But the most peculiar part was its limbs, which seemed like they were a random mishmash of other creatures body parts. One arm looked like an eagle's talon, but the other was a lion's paw; one leg was that of a lizard, while the other was a goat's. The bizarre creature looked like something out of a story about a mad scientist's experiments.

Celestia had seen the filly gravitate toward the odd statue, the mere sight of the stone creature eliciting an instinctive grimace of displeasure from the alicorn. Knowing there was no way Sunset wouldn't have questions about such a strange statue, Celestia walked over to see what she thought about it.

"This one looks pretty weird," Sunset commented, looking a touch off-put by the statue.

"A more apt description than you realize," Celestia sneered as she glowered at the sculpture. "That is Discord."

Sunset's ears perked up. Now that was a name she recognized. "That's Discord? What...? What is he?"

"A draconequus; a creature comprised of parts of other animals. As far as I'm aware, he's the only one in existence."

"How did all those parts get mixed together like that?"

"The simple answer is that he's the spirit of chaos. Nothing about him is supposed to make sense. As I told you and your classmates, he possesses a chaotic magic capable of bending the very laws of reality. In actuality, Luna and I aren't even sure if this is his true form, or if it's simply a form he prefers to take. He may not even have a true form for all we know."

It wasn't hard for Sunset to hear the disdain in her teacher's voice, and the glare she was casting at the statue was the iciest glare she'd ever seen from the princess. "If you hate him so much, why do you have a statue of him?"

Celestia shook her head. "You misunderstand, Sunset. This is not merely a statue of Discord; this statue is Discord."

Sunset stared back at the stone sculpture again incredulously. "Really?! Like, the same Discord you and Luna beat?! Right here in front of us?!"

The alicorn nodded, taking a deep breath to level out her ire. "Discord's chaotic magic was far too much for Luna and I to contest. Every spell we cast on him, he could simply snap his claw and counteract it. He could very well have done away with my sister and I if he had the mind to. Thankfully, on top of possessing incredibly powerful magic, he also possessed an enormous ego, and all of his boasting and toying with us would give us a window through which to defeat him." Her stern expression dropping finally, Celestia gave Sunset an expectant smirk. "Pop quiz: what's the opposite of chaos?"

Sunset grinned confidently, answering the question with aplomb. "Harmony!"

"Precisely," the princess affirmed, giving the filly a playful tap on her little, amber nose. "The only force that could counteract Discord's chaotic magic was the harmonious magic of the Elements of Harmony, which encased him within this stone prison."

"Why don't you just smash the statue, then?"

Celestia was surprised by the uncharacteristically violent suggestion. "Sunset, we may not like him, but were aren't cruel. Although, I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed our minds at some point. Additionally, we don't know what would happen. Smashing the statue may simply break the spell containing him, and I wouldn't put it past Discord to be able to reconstitute himself, even if broken into thousands of pieces. So we decided to just put him here so we can keep an eye on him. He makes for a rather ugly decoration, but at least he can be a good place for the birds to do their business."

"So, bad guys like Discord are the reason you need the Elements of Harmony, right?" Sunset inferred, recalling their lesson the day prior when Celestia had shown her the Elements.

"Indeed," the princess answered with a nod. "Brute force can only get you so far. Luna and I defeated King Sombra without the Elements, but for more unpredictable magic like Discord's, it's better to err on the side of caution and break out the heavy weaponry." Celestia glared at the statue for a few silent moments before breathing an exasperated huff. "Frankly, I don't really want to stare at his mug any longer than I have to. What say we head inside and prepare for supper?"

Sunset nodded eagerly. "Okay!"

***** ***** *****

Princess Luna had finished her duty of raising the moon, and for yet another night she was heading out to roam the castle's halls by her lonesome. However, it was a little earlier for her than she would normally take leave of her chambers. Most nights she would usually wait until her sister and the castle staff had all turned in for the night so that she could wander uninterrupted and focus on her inner thoughts. However, tonight something compelled her to make a change. She was in an unexpectedly good mood, so much so that even she was surprised at herself, though she couldn't place exactly why she felt this way. And Luna was almost hoping to run into somepony in the hall, maybe even strike up a conversation.

But she saw no one at first, although she had only just left her tower and walked down one corridor. Still, she expected to see at least one person, or perhaps it was just wishful thinking on her part. The sconces on the walls were lit, indicating that there were indeed other ponies still awake and busy with one thing or another.

Despite her good mood, though, Luna found herself almost frustrated with herself for feeling this way with no discernible reason, or at least none that she could suss out. Why was she so open to the idea of chatting with somepony all of a sudden when she would barely say a word to anypony she passed in the hall on any normal night?

Luna's internal contemplation was interrupted for a moment when she approached the entrance to the royal archives. A light shone through from under the double doors, so somepony must have been making use of their extensive library. For a moment, Luna considered that it may be Sunset Shimmer continuing her studies into the night with Celestia, and for some reason that notion made Luna want to check in on them.

The moon princess quietly approached the door, a part of her not wanting her sister to see the curiosity in her eyes. Luna discreetly cracked open the door, peeking inside. However, it was not Celestia and Sunset occupying the room, but rather the amber filly's father. Starswirl sat at one of the reading tables, studying a book and making notes of his own on a scroll of parchment by candlelight. But he wasn't focused on his work at the moment, for he wasn't alone. Rosehip was present as well, busily preparing a cup of tea for the bearded stallion.

No longer feeling the same self-consciousness she had when she believed it was her sister and her student, Luna straightened up and entered the royal archives proper, admittedly interested to see what Starswirl was busy working on.

Upon hearing somepony come in, Starswirl and Rosehip's conversation was interrupted and the two greeted the princess with amicable grins, though they were also somewhat surprised to see her.

"Oh, Princess Luna, good evening," Rosehip greeted with a courteous bow. The unicorn mare gestured to the tea tray. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

"No, thank you," Luna answered politely.

"Okay." Using her magic, Rosehip lifted the tea tray and gave the princess and Starswirl a friendly grin. "Then I guess I'll clock out for the night. Goodnight, Your Highness. And you, too, Starswirl."

The stallion gave her a nod. "Goodnight."

"Sleep well," Luna bid her as well.

Rosehip politely exited the library, closing the door behind her and leaving Starswirl and Luna alone.

The bearded unicorn cast a curious smile to the alicorn. "I wasn't expecting to see you out and about so early, Your Majesty."

"Yes, well, We feel more energetic tonight." Luna glanced at the steaming cup of tea that Rosehip had prepared for Starswirl, noticing that he had yet to taste it. "Art thou going to try thy tea?"

"Hm?" Starswirl looked down at the cup himself as though he'd already forgotten it was there. "Oh, right. Well, the thing is, I'm not really fond of tea."

Luna quirked an eyebrow. "Then why didst thou not ask for coffee instead?"

Starswirl let out a somewhat remorseful groan. "Because I once told Rosehip that I enjoyed the tea she prepared for me to spare her feelings, and I must have done so with a tad too much enthusiasm since now she seems to be under the impression that I prefer her tea. She seemed so proud of herself, so I haven't the heart to correct her, and at this point I feel I'm in too deep to tell her now; it would just be too awkward."

Luna couldn't keep a slight smirk of amusement off her muzzle. "Thou remind Us of Our sister."

Starswirl chuckled quietly at the insinuation. "Perhaps, but I doubt this will lead to Rosehip raising the sun."

The royal mare actually giggled at the stallion's joke, and Starswirl practically felt honored to have Princess Luna of all people laugh at a little quip he'd made. Luna then stepped closer to the table, pointing to the teacup with her hoof. "May We?"

Starswirl was a little puzzled by her request, but obliged anyway, gesturing for her to take the cup. "Be my guest, but I thought you didn't want any."

Luna simply shrugged as she took the cup with her velvety, blue aura. "If thou dost not want it, then no sense letting it go to waste." She took a dainty sip, taking a moment to scrutinize the taste. "Hmm, We would prefer a little more sugar, but this is still fine."

"I suppose I just find caffeine to be more effective than sugar," Starswirl said.

"That could be so, but We never enjoyed the bitter taste of coffee," Luna responded with a slight grimace at the thought of it.

"To be fair, there are many different blends to suit one's preferences. I'm sure there's a blend out there that you would enjoy."

"The same could be said of tea, yet here we are."

The two shared mutual smiles, both finding the conversation oddly enjoyable despite its inane nature. But still, Starswirl found this to be rather strange regardless.

"Pardon me for saying, Your Highness, but you're being unusually chatty this evening."

Luna took a seat across the table from Starswirl. "Yes, We're in a rather good mood tonight, though We can't quite place why," she told the stallion, though her tone expressed mild frustration despite what she'd said.

"Really?" Curiosity taking hold of him, Starswirl brushed aside the book and parchment to focus on the princess, intrigued by this sudden difference in attitude. "Has anything happened recently that may have brought this on?"

Luna mulled it over for a moment, humming to herself as she thought. While normally she may chide somepony for prying, she was admittedly interested in getting to the bottom of this as well. "Nothing in particular comes to mind."

"Does it perhaps have anything to do with Sunset?"

The mention of the name caused Luna's ears to perk up slightly, though she was a tad confused by the question. "Why wouldst thou say that?"

"Well, much like me, you seemed to disapprove of your sister tricking my daughter. And I know that you've seen Sunset as a bit of a bother since you've met her, so it simply seems to me as though you do care about her."

Luna wore a slight scowl in response. "Do not mistake annoyance for lack of caring, Mr. Starswirl. Regardless of how loud and obnoxious thy daughter can be at times, she is still our subject. We merely take umbrage with the fact that Celestia would take advantage of her unwavering trust in her. We were quite relieved to see she was not hurt after the solar flare as a result."

"I'm glad to hear that," Starswirl said with a soft smile. "I was beginning to think you didn't like her."

Luna turned her nose up slightly in an attempt to appear aloof. "She could stand to turn the volume down, and perhaps learn how to properly speak to royalty, but one cannot fault her unending optimism and desire to learn. Celestia and I were much the same in our younger years. In fact, the filly approached Us last night and requested that We aid her in her magical studies."

Starswirl's eyes widened in surprise. "What? Really? She never mentioned that to me."

"It was only last night. She probably hasn't found the opportunity to bring it up."

"Speaking of which, when exactly would you find the time to teach her?" the grey stallion inquired curiously and a little sternly.

Luna smirked confidently, knowing she had the answer to quell his concern. "Fear not, for We made it clear that We would offer Our tutelage only on weekends, or on any night where she wouldn't otherwise hath school the next morning."

Starswirl nodded in acceptance, finding that answer satisfactory. "That sounds swell. Though I'd like it if you didn't keep her up too late; she's an early riser, so I imagine it may be difficult to keep her awake for as long as you may need."

Luna shrugged indifferently. "That suits Us fine. We don't intend to foalsit her all night anyway."

Starswirl squinted as he analyzed the expression on Luna's face. For as much as she appeared to be attempting to remain stoic, he couldn't help but notice a small smile on the blue alicorn's muzzle. He smirked knowingly at her. "Well, I think we may have gotten to the root of the problem."

The moon princess quirked an eyebrow, puzzled by the statement. "Hm? What problem?"

"Not a problem per se, but why you seem to be in such a good mood. I think you're actually looking forward to being her teacher."

Luna looked caught off guard by the assumption, a small blush filling her normally-blue cheeks. She turned her head with a pouty huff. "Don't be preposterous. We are merely making an effort to help her control her power. And We hath more than enough time during the night to schedule such things, and it will help Us alleviate the tedium and boredom."

Starswirl nodded with a chuckle. "Yes, whatever you need to tell yourself, Your Majesty."

The princess stood up, practically looking offended at his insinuation, which only made it funnier for the stallion, especially with the red in her cheeks deepening the more defensive she became. "We do not need to sit here and listen to thy wild assumptions. We hath better things to do." She turned to take her leave of the library.

"Yes, I'm sure you're busy with your 'tedium and boredom,'" Starswirl laughed.

Luna groaned in mild annoyance. "Now We see where she gets it from..." she grumbled under her breath.

"Don't forget your tea."

The princess hastily snatched the teacup off the table with her magic, almost spilling it, before exiting with a disgruntled, "Hmph."

Starswirl simply chuckled at Luna's childish behavior. He hadn't really intended to tease her like that, but he had a feeling she wasn't actually upset with him. Starswirl was just happy to know that Luna was giving Sunset a chance, and was admittedly curious as to how well she could teach his daughter.

Chapter 6 - Waning Moon

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 6: Waning Moon

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"Are you ready, Sunset?"

The amber filly took a deep breath. Sunset was normally bouncy and enthusiastic, full of boundless energy and excitement, especially when spending time with her idol Princess Celestia. She'd been nothing but eager and willing since the princess had taken her on as her student, even more so now that her magic had recovered and she was able to finally practice strengthening and controlling the deep well of power within her.

However, at this moment she felt the twinge of trepidation. For the past two weeks since she'd began her tutelage under Princess Celestia, Sunset had exuded the utmost confidence in her ability to learn and adapt quickly to her teachings, but now that the big moment had arrived, she was nervous—afraid even.

Princess Celestia observed the hesitant look on the filly's face as she stared out at the distant horizon from the alicorn's balcony. The light of the morning sun was bathing the mountains and the surrounding countryside in its radiant, amber glow already, but Celestia had purposely only raised it slightly, setting the stage for her protégé to put her abilities to the test.

After a few moments of silent hesitation, Sunset glanced up at Celestia, her ears folded back in shame and worry. "I... I don't know..." she answered meekly.

Celestia closed her eyes, nodding her head slightly. She couldn't really blame Sunset for being scared. The first time she did this was rather harrowing for her, the thought that this sleeping power within her being the only reason she survived was a frightening thought. But Celestia gave her student a reassuring smile. "There are no solar flares today, Sunset. There probably won't be another one for ten years or so. It's perfectly safe."

Sunset straightened up a little, but still looked reluctant. "That's... not really the only reason I'm worried."

Celestia let out a quiet breath through her nose, bending down to lay beside the little unicorn and see eye to eye with her. Her comforting smile persisted as she asked, "What else is bothering you, my little pony?"

Sunset stared deep into Princess Celestia's vibrant, pink eyes. The soft and warming expression on the alicorn's face was always a deep comfort to the filly, especially during this strange time in her life. "What if I can't do it?"

Celestia simply chuckled quietly at her innocent concern. "Sunset, I'm sorry if this sounds a tad blunt, but I'm not expecting you to be able to do it just yet."

That statement merely made Sunset's expression drop further. "Last time you said that—"

"I will never do that to you again," Celestia interrupted resolutely. "I brought you up here this morning for a simple test to see how far you've come. It's only been two weeks, so I'm not expecting much. But I think it might make for a good gauge of your capabilities if we do this every couple of weeks or so to mark your progress. Like a height chart, but for magic. Does that make sense?"

Sunset raised an eyebrow. "But if I can't move it at all, how do we know if I'm making progress?"

Celestia blinked blankly at her inquiry. "Um... Well, maybe we should make it monthly." She stood up again, gesturing toward the sun. "I'd still like you to give it a shot."

The filly finally managed a smile, turning her attention toward the horizon. The task given to her was a monumental one, but at least she knew she didn't actually have to accomplish it, she merely needed to try.

It wasn't as though she hadn't been making improvements in just two short weeks. Just as the saying goes, "whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Once Sunset had recovered from her burnout, she and her father did indeed notice that her magical output seemed to have increased slightly, likely as a result of her tapping that reserve of latent power. It was just a matter of steadily drawing that power out, like pouring out a drink; draw it out too quickly, and you risk overflowing. Sunset had experienced the feeling of her magic overflowing, and even though her memory of it was hazy, she remembered the initial pain that had ripped through her body. She wanted to avoid that from now on if at all possible.

So this would be the first time since that fateful morning that Sunset would pour out as much magic as she could in an effort to test herself. Obviously, her ultimate goal with these teachings was to be able to move the sun again. Once she did that, she would know for sure that her power was under control.

Sunset took a deep breath, staring out at the edge of the iridescent orb peeking up over the horizon. She still had a few butterflies in her belly, but she was feeling a little more assured now. Clenching her eyes shut, she focused her magic, her horn lighting up with a bright, cyan light.

Celestia watched as her student concentrated, briefly glancing out towards her sun every few seconds. Sunset was certainly showcasing an impressive amount of power for a filly her age, and the alicorn found herself with a small, proud grin on her face. She then began to notice the beads of sweat forming on the unicorn's forehead, and gently placed an ivory hoof on the filly's back.

"Alright, that's enough."

The aura surrounding Sunset's horn dissipated, and the filly let her muscles relax. "Did I... Did I do it?" she panted, wiping the drops of sweat off her head with a brush of her amber fetlock.

Celestia looked out at the sun once more. Unfortunately, it hadn't budged an inch. She gave Sunset a supportive smile. "Sorry, not this time."

Sunset's gaze lowered as she caught her breath, a somewhat dejected tone in her voice. "Oh..."

The princess gave her a reassuring pat on the back. "Like I said, I wasn't expecting it to happen right away."

Suddenly, Sunset straightened up confidently, looking more resolute than ever. "You stopped me too early. I can put more magic into it!"

Celestia's comforting smile shifted to a stern and reprimanding glare. "Sunset, I stopped you because I don't want you to overdo it. You don't want to burn yourself out again, do you?"

The filly turned away with a grumpy and disappointed pout, but reluctantly accepted. "No."

Celestia's smile returned, looking a little more playful. "Besides, if you managed to move the sun already, our lessons wouldn't be necessary anymore. Are you that eager to stop learning with me?"

Sunset's ears perked up, her eyes widening suddenly at Celestia's assumption. "What?! No! I wanna keep learning! You're a really good teacher!"

"Well, thank you," the princess responded with a giggle. "And you've been a really good student."

With a quick and effortless flourish of her magic, Celestia pulled the sun up the rest of the way over the horizon to start it on its daily journey. Seeing how easy it was for the alicorn made Sunset feel admittedly inadequate in comparison, but at the same time, it also provided motivation; she wanted to be able to do that some day herself, and she knew it was going to take a lot of time and practice. But for now, Celestia lead her student back inside, the pair making their way down the tower to return to the castle proper.

"I suppose that test didn't really give us a good idea of how much you've improved, did it?" Celestia said with a slightly embarrassed blush, knowing that the filly had sussed that out on her own already.

"Should I try another kind of test?" Sunset suggested eagerly.

"Perhaps another time. Like I said, I don't want you to overdo it. For now, why don't we have some breakfast?"

Sunset nodded, her peppy smile accompanied by a low grumbling in her tummy at the mention of food. "Are you going to have the cooks whip up something yummy for you?"

"They always do," Celestia responded. "But today, I was thinking we could make something together."

The amber unicorn was confused by the suggestion. "What? You're going to cook something?"

The princess glanced down with a look of mock offense. "What, you think I don't know how to cook? Need I remind you that Luna and I founded this kingdom in our later years; we didn't always have servants to do our cooking for us. I've sort of made it a fun, little hobby of mine." She leaned down to whisper secretively in Sunset's ear. "I actually have a cookbook of my own recipes that nopony else knows about."

Sunset's eyes widened with intrigue, the growling of her stomach growing louder. "Are they tasty?"

"You bet," Celestia said with a hearty chuckle.

"What kind of stuff do you make?!" Sunset asked enthusiastically, excited by the prospect of partaking in Princess Celestia's own home-cooked meals.

"Well, its mostly pastries; desserts and the like. But for breakfast, we can whip up some of my signature 'cumulo-cakes.'"

Sunset tilted her head, puzzled by the odd name. "'Cumulo-cakes'?"

"Their pancakes that are as fluffy as clouds," Celestia elaborated with a proud grin.

The filly snickered into her hoof. "That's a silly name for pancakes."

Celestia's grin faltered for a second at the quip, but she retaliated with a challenging smirk. "Then why don't you come up with something better?"

"I wanna try 'em first. Maybe that'll help me think of something."

"Alright. But how about we make it a little more interesting?"

Sunset stared at the playful and confident smirk on her mentor's face. "What do you mean?"

"A small competition. We'll both use my recipe, and whomever's pancakes are better will get to name the recipe. Think you're up for it?"

Sunset returned the princess's smirk with a determined one of her own. "You're on!" The filly then took off as though racing to the kitchen were part of the competition.

Although the royal kitchen was someplace within the castle that Sunset hadn't really ever visited, that didn't mean she hadn't memorized its location, and she was making a beeline for it. She quickly arrived at the princesses' dining hall, barging straight through the door and not slowing down. She knew the kitchen was just beyond the dining hall, the doors on the opposite end leading to a short connecting hallway that would take her there. Once she had reached the other end of the hall, confident that she had "won" the impromptu race, she chanced a glance behind her to see how far Celestia was behind. Much to Sunset's satisfaction, the alicorn was not even in sight yet, so she simply sauntered casually into the connecting hall with a triumphant grin on her face.

A grin that would quickly fall when she noticed that Princess Celestia was already in the hall to the kitchen, standing at the entrance with a smirk of her own.

Celestia responded to the flabbergasted expression on Sunset's face with an amused grin. "Nice try, but I can teleport, remember?"

"That's cheating!" Sunset argued, though she couldn't keep the smile off her face as she attempted to scold her teacher.

"Why don't we save the competitiveness for the actual competition?" Celestia suggested, opening the door to the kitchen and gesturing for Sunset to follow her inside.

The castle's kitchen was an expansive space compared even to those of high-end restaurants. With the several large, brick ovens, one might mistake the place for a forge at first glance. However, the clean, white walls, smooth, granite counter tops, and, most of all, the delectable aromas wafting throughout were all clear indicators that this was a place for food preparation. And, as expected, the kitchen was occupied by several ponies dressed in aprons, oven mitts, and a few with chef's hats, busily working away in preparation for the day's meals, even so far as to get things ready for supper later.

But all work came to a brief halt when the doors had opened, all eyes falling upon the princess who had just graced the kitchen with her presence. One somewhat portly stallion, donning a tall chef's hat, greeted the princess with an amicable smile and a polite bow. "Your Highness, good morning. We were just getting ready to cook breakfast. Do you have any requests?"

"Actually, I'll be preparing my own breakfast this morning," she informed the kitchen staff.

She received a myriad of surprised looks, the cooks exchanging quiet murmurs. This was not an unheard of occurrence in the castle, but it still tended to catch the cooks off guard. The portly head chef stepped forward. "Oh, very well, then. Would you like any assistance?"

Celestia simply shook her head. "No, thank you. In fact, I would like to ask that you all vacate the kitchen until we're finished."

The head chef stammered in response to the bizarre request. "V-Vacate? But why?"

"That's an order, Chef," the alicorn stated, though the authority in her voice was belied by the still-friendly smile on her face.

The chef gulped nervously, concerned about the implications of the order, but not wanting to upset the princess, he commanded his subordinates to follow him reluctantly out of the kitchen, leaving Celestia and Sunset alone with the entire arsenal of cooking implements and ingredients at their disposal.

"Now then..." With a quick pop of golden magic, a book appeared before Princess Celestia, which she opened to a specific page and laid on the long prep table for Sunset to look at. "This is my recipe for '*name-pending* pancakes.' You can make whatever adjustments you'd like to fit your preferences, but don't stray too far from the recipe, or it'll just wind up being a different recipe altogether. Alright?"

Sunset scanned the recipe quickly with an eager grin on her face before looking up at the princess expectantly. "Where are the ingredients?"

"One moment."

With a series of magical pops and flashes, ingredients began to materialize onto the table in rapid succession. Celestia had teleported numerous cartons of milk and eggs, a dozen or so hefty bags of flour, and several bowls of strawberries, blueberries, chocolate chips, and whipped cream to use as toppings.

Sunset gawked silently at the sheer amount of ingredients they had to work with. "That seems like a bit much for pancakes, doesn't it?"

"We want to make sure they're perfect, right?" Celestia said with a playful smile. "Take as many attempts as you think you'll need." With another flourish of magic, she zapped away her golden regalia, replacing them with a chef's hat and an apron embroidered with the image of her cutie mark, then materialized a smaller set for her diminutive opponent in this competition. She then used her magic to pull out all of the utensils they'd need, dividing them between herself and Sunset. "Ready?"

Sunset hopped up onto a stool to get better access to the table, nodding with a confident smile.

"Go!"

Without wasting a second, Sunset immediately snatched up all of her ingredients for the batter with her cyan magic, dumping them into a bowl and mixing like a madmare. Celestia was admittedly a little flustered by Sunset's aggressive approach, but let the filly do things her own way. But instead of doing the same, Celestia first glanced over her shoulder to the metal skillets hanging on the wall, taking one down and placing it on one of the smaller, open-flame stoves. With her magic, Celestia ignited a spark in the stove, lighting a fire under her skillet, then turned her attention back to the table to mix her batter, carefully and patiently.

Sunset, meanwhile, had already whipped up a bowl of creamy batter. She hopped off her stool and moved it over to the stoves, grabbing a skillet of her own and taking ownership of the stove next to the one Celestia had lit. She poured some batter into the skillet and laid it upon the stove.

As she was absentmindedly mixing batter, Celestia watched Sunset seemingly attempting to cook her pancakes on an unlit stove, casting a rather haughty smirk at the filly. "Did you forget to preheat? That's quite a rookie mistake, Sunset."

Sunset's cocky grin hadn't budged. "I didn't forget anything!"

Sunset then closed her eyes tightly and pointed her horn at the skillet, her tongue sticking out of corner of her mouth as she concentrated. Her cyan magic covered the underside of the pan, but the gentle ebbing of the aura quickly grew more erratic and even started to shift color, becoming orange, then a searing white. Celestia watched in slight awe as her student heated the skillet with nothing but her raw magic, the metal pan even starting to glow from the sheer heat she was producing.

Celestia stepped over to her stove, pouring her own batter into her skillet, but never taking her eyes off of Sunset. "You may want to tone it down a little, otherwise you might burn it."

"I know what I'm doing!" Sunset argued with confidence, eyes still clenched in deep focus.

Celestia raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Oh, do you now? Then what's that?"

Sunset finally opened her eyes, only to see a plume of black smoke rising from her scorched batter. "Wuh-oh!" She quickly scooped the burning pancake from the skillet with her magic, dumping it in a nearby trashcan, then let the pan cool off. She cast an awkward, embarrassed grin at her teacher. "Whoops..."

Celestia chuckled quietly, giving the haphazard filly a forgiving smile. "You need to have patience, Sunset. This may be a competition, but if you do things too quickly, you're bound to be sloppy. Steady..." She lit a small flame in the stove underneath the skillet for Sunset. "Ease into it. Don't just let the fire rage; let it grow first to keep it under control."

Sunset stared up into Celestia's soft, pink eyes. She knew exactly what the princess was saying, and smiled knowingly. "This was never actually a competition, was it? You're using this to teach me a lesson, right?"

"Why, I have no idea to what you're talking about," the alicorn responded in playful denial, the halo practically visible above her head. "We're just making breakfast. But nopony said a competition can't help you learn. Speaking of which, it seems I've gotten ahead of you," she said as she flipped her pancake.

Sunset smirked as she poured more batter into her pan. "It's not a race," she teased, sticking her tongue out mockingly.

Celestia had to force herself not to burst out laughing at the filly's attempt at goading her, but she had to admit, Sunset was sparking her competitive spirit. And just to make things more interesting, she decided to play a little dirty...

As Sunset was finally focusing on her cooking again, she suddenly felt a wet splatter on her cheek. She wiped it with her hoof, seeing that she'd been splattered with batter, and Princess Celestia was giving her the most taunting smirk she'd ever seen. The filly returned the favor with a smirk of her own. "You're asking for it now!"

Sunset dipped her hoof into her bowl of batter, flinging a glob right at the princess and smearing it all over her normally-pristine, ivory muzzle.

Celestia licked a bit of the batter off her lips, which then in turn curled into an unnervingly sinister grin. "Oh, you know not what you've wrought this day, little missy."

Sunset's playful smile dropped rather quickly, her ears folding back under the intimidating gaze of the taller mare and swallowing a nervous gulp as she observed the devious glint in her teacher's pink eyes.

***** ***** *****

Princess Luna let out a long, sleepy yawn, something she would never do in the presence of others if she could help it. The moon had been tucked away for the day and the sun had taken its place in the sky as usual, bathing Equestria in its warm light. Luna was about ready to pack it in for the day, but she had a routine to which she wished to adhere.

The princess of the night spread her wings, gliding down from her balcony gracefully and curving around the corner of the castle to touch down in front of the entrance. Because she spent so much time by herself during her waking hours, she usually opted to spend a short time during the early daylight to figure out the day's itinerary to get an idea of what was happening within the castle while she slept. In most cases, that involved speaking to either her sister or Quill, the royal adviser.

Luna gave a brief and halfhearted greeting to Scabbard and Lance as she entered the front doors, hoping to find Celestia in the throne room. With her sister in mind, Luna curled her mouth quizzically. Now that she thought about it, she had noticed something odd about the sunrise that morning; it only seemed to rise partway, just sitting there for several minutes before coming up the rest of the way. Certainly a strange occurrence and something she would need to ask her sister about.

Luna entered the throne room, but immediately took note of the fact that Celestia was not present. However, as luck would have it, Quill was waiting there, looking over a scroll and wearing a rather impatient expression himself. The alicorn approached him, stifling another tired yawn. "Quill, hath thou seen Our sister?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing," he answered with a sigh. "She's supposed to look over the plans for the new castle this morning, but I can't seem to find her."

"Hmm, unusual indeed. Could something be wrong with her?"

Quill looked at the princess with both curiosity and slight worry. "Why would you say that?"

"We noticed an abnormality with the sunrise this morning. Perhaps she's ill."

"She wasn't in her room, though. If she were sick, she'd probably still be in bed."

It was at that moment that the door left of the thrones opened, and Starswirl joined the two in the throne room. The bearded unicorn paused for a moment when he saw Luna and Quill there, but offered an amicable smile. "Oh, good morning, Quill. And to you as well, Your Highness."

"Good morning, Mr. Starswirl," Luna greeted, though with a slightly more pressing tone. "Thou wouldn't happen to hath seen Celestia this morning, hath thee?"

Starswirl stroked his white beard as he thought. "Princess Celestia? No, I haven't, sorry. Is there a problem?"

"That's what we're trying to figure out," Quill explained. "It seems nopony has seen her at all this morning, and she's not in her room."

Starswirl turned his eyes upward as he contemplated the situation. "Hmm... Come to think of it, I haven't seen Sunset at all this morning either, and she wasn't in the library when I checked just now."

"Curiouser and curiouser..." Luna pondered as she tapped her chin with a hoof.

"Well, I feel there is probably a correlation here," Starswirl posited with a confident smile. "The two of them are likely together for some early morning magic lessons."

"Ah, that makes sense," Quill said with a relieved sigh.

"Tch. Thou would think she'd hath the common courtesy to inform somepony, especially when she hast prior obligations," Luna chastised her sister in her absence.

Quill shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "It's not that pressing, especially since we can have you look over the plans instead, Your Majesty."

Luna grimaced in displeasure at the suggestion. "Thou hath a lot of nerve to request such a thing so close to Our bedtime."

The mustachioed stallion shrunk back a bit with a nervous gulp. "Oh, uh, s-sorry. Just thought you'd want to add you own input. Maybe later, then?"

Luna nodded, her expression letting up. "Indeed."

"The question we have now is where Sunset and Princess Celestia wandered off to," Starswirl interjected to get the conversation back on track.

Suddenly, the door opposite from where Starswirl had entered burst open loudly, startling the three ponies present. The castle's head chef, still donning his hat and apron, had barged into the throne room in hysterics, stumbling over his own hooves as he hurried over to Princess Luna.

"Your Highness!" he gasped between panicked breaths. "Your... Your..."

Luna, worried that something horrible had happened, looked the chef dead in the eyes. "What is it?! Is something the matter?!"

"It's your sister!" the chef wheezed, the run across the castle having taken its toll on the chubby stallion.

Luna's eyes went wide with concern. "Celestia?! Is she alright?!"

The chef dropped to his haunches, too exhausted and short of breath to continue speaking properly. He simply pointed toward the door he'd come through. "The kitchen... Hurry..."

Luna cast a brief glance toward Starswirl and Quill, both of them equally worried about what had happened to Princess Celestia. Without a word, Luna quickly rushed out of the throne room, the two unicorns quickly following behind her in hopes that there was something they could do to help.

Once into the corridors of the castle, Luna took flight to get to the kitchen faster. She would have teleported there, but her current state of concern prevented her from properly focusing. It didn't take long to reach her destination anyway, and it also didn't take much observation to figure out that there was some sort of crisis in the kitchen. The entirety of the kitchen staff were gathered in the dining hall, murmuring and also in mild panic—even a few royal guards had apparently been called upon to help, though their presence in the dining hall suggested there was nothing they could do. What was even more disconcerting was the smell of smoke that permeated the door leading to the kitchen.

Luna's hooves hit the floor in a skid, her metal shoes practically lighting sparks on the stone. Without much hesitation, she placed a hoof on the shoulder of one of the cooks to get their attention. "What's wrong?! Is there a fire?! Is my sister in there?!"

Starswirl and Quill finally caught up, hurrying over to the princess's side.

The cook simply pointed to the kitchen, practically shaking. "Y-You have to do something, Your Majesty! Please!"

Seeing that the staff were too panicked to effectively explain the situation, Luna straightened up, steeled herself, and prepared to dive head first into whatever danger awaited her in order to save her sister. The alicorn used her deep blue magic to grab hold of all the staff ponies, separating them to create a clear line between her and the door, and threw it open with her magic, doing the same with the kitchen door at the end of the short, connecting hallway.

"Celestia! Art thou—"

Luna stopped short once she was in the kitchen, her own worry and panic subsiding to make way for shock and confusion. The smell of smoke was most certainly strong, but there was no evidence of actual fire. And rather than flames covering the walls and ovens, there was what appeared to be a sea of creamy batter coating the tables, the ovens, the walls, the counter tops, and even some on the ceiling. And where the batter hadn't properly mixed were stains of milk, flour, and eggs. The source of the smoke seemed to be the batter that had landed on the lit stoves and had burned significantly, though not enough to start a fire.

And within this sea of batter, eggs, milk, flour, and utter chaos, were two vaguely pony-shaped lumps—one taller than Luna herself, and one quite small—sticking up and staring back at her through a blanket of the creamy mix.

Luna's worry was quickly replaced by utter vexation as she witnessed the sticky horror within the kitchen, directing her attention to the pair of pink eyes looking back at her from the batter blanket. "What art thou doing?!"

"Making pancakes," Celestia answered calmly and matter-of-factly, as though it should've been obvious.

Luna's eye twitched at the asinine response from her barely-recognizable sister. "Making...?" Her brain seemed to fail to even process the situation as it was presented to her.

Starswirl then hurried in behind Luna, worried that his daughter may be embroiled in the crisis as well, but had much the same reaction as the princess did to the absolute devastation laid out in front of him. His eyes quickly fell onto the small, batter-slathered unicorn. "Sunset, what...?"

The filly shot her hoof out toward Princess Celestia in an accusatory fashion, inadvertently flicking wet batter into the air as she did so. "She started it!"

Luna simply elected to run a hoof down her face with a loud groan of annoyance, turning around and exiting the kitchen without another word. Starswirl, meanwhile, gave Sunset a stern glower, gesturing authoritatively for her to follow him out into the dining hall.

Celestia and Sunset exchanged glances for a moment, the filly looking a tad guilty. "I think we're in trouble."

Luna and Starswirl both returned to the dining hall looking thoroughly exasperated. The kitchen staff were all waiting for her to say something, but it was Quill who approached to assess the situation.

"Your Majesty? Is everything alright?" he asked with concern.

The alicorn straightened up, taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm her building ire at what she'd seen. "Celestia and Sunset Shimmer are fine. The kitchen, on the other hoof, hath seen better days."

The two ponies in question finally stepped out of the kitchen, having cleaned off most of the batter from themselves, but still in a rather messy state. But before Celestia could say a word, Luna turned back toward her, her annoyance and frustration piqued once more.

"What were thou thinking, Sister?!" Luna scolded, getting up in the other alicorn's face—though making sure not to get too close to avoid making a mess of her midnight blue coat. "What would prompt thee to cause such a catastrophe?!"

Celestia turned her eyes up with an embarrassed blush. "Well, I may have challenged Sunset to a little cooking competition. It... got heated, to say the least." She giggled awkwardly in an attempt to diffuse her sister's anger, though the firm, disapproving scowl on Luna's face showed little sign of changing.

Starswirl, as well, gave his messy daughter a reprimanding glare. "Sunset, you should know better than to engage in horseplay in the kitchen."

The filly lowered her head guiltily, shuffling her hooves in shame. "Sorry, Daddy..."

"I'll say you are, young lady. And, of course, you know you'll be helping to clean up."

Celestia stepped forward with a hoof to her chest. "Starswirl, you needn't punish her. I instigated this mess and I take full responsibility."

"Thou hath been doing that quite a bit as of late," Luna commented with a grimace.

The head chef finally caught up again, having taken his time getting back in an effort to catch his breath. Seeing that Celestia and Sunset had emerged from the disaster area, he approached the princesses. "My kitchen... Is my kitchen okay?"

Using her deep blue magic, Luna grabbed the chef by his apron strings and directed her annoyance at him next. "Thine kitchen is the least of thine concerns. Thou had Us thinking that Celestia was in dire distress! We were worried sick!"

Celestia managed a smile, touched by her sister's concern for her well being. "Luna, you were that worried about me?"

Realizing what she'd said, Luna released the chef and cleared her throat to subvert her embarrassment in front of the crowd of onlookers. "Well, yes, of course. Thou art Our sister. Why should We not be concerned for thee?"

Celestia leaned her tall neck down to give her sister a loving nuzzle, startling the moon princess and eliciting a deep red blush. Luna pulled away with a slightly annoyed pout and attempted to wipe away the smear of pancake batter Celestia had left on her cheek.

"I appreciate the concern, Sister," Celestia whispered softly.

"But... My kitchen..." the chef repeated, falling back onto his haunches as he stared dejectedly through the open hall to his ravaged domain.

"Oh, suck it up," Luna chided.

Celestia nodded to agree with her sister's sentiment. "Yes, it's really not that distressing. I can have that cleaned up in a matter of minutes." She briefly glanced down at her chest and legs, noting the mess still adhered to her normally-pristine, ivory coat. "But first, I think I should get cleaned up. I'll be back after a quick shower." And with that, she zapped herself away in a flash of golden magic.

Although Princess Celestia had elected to take on the responsibility of cleaning the kitchen, Sunset looked to her father, knowing that she wasn't getting off scot-free. Sure enough, he was giving her a rather stern look. "So... What do I have to do for punishment?" she asked with reluctant acceptance.

Starswirl thought it over for a moment, but let out a quiet groan. "I need some time to consider it. Go get cleaned up in the meantime."

Sunset nodded and trudged her way towards the staff quarters to take a shower, tracking batter along with her with each step.

Luna let out a sigh as she, too, headed for the door. "We need some air..." She glanced over her shoulder at the crowd of cooks and soldiers still standing around. "Well? What art thou all loitering here for? The show's over. Back to thine posts."

The soldiers simply shrugged and left the dining hall, though the cooks didn't really know what to do with themselves with the kitchen in the state it was, but Luna didn't really care any further than that and left as well. Starswirl and Quill followed behind her, both a little concerned about her current state of mind.

"Your Highness," Quill addressed her as he briskly trotted up alongside her.

"What?" was her reply, her familiar grouchy grimace being aimed at the royal adviser.

Quill flinched slightly at her rather terse and grumpy tone, but continued anyway. "Are you going to be alright? You seem very upset."

Luna's brow furrowed ever so slightly more. "It is a wonder thou hath not gotten a raise for such astute observations," she snipped sarcastically.

"But surely there's no reason to be this angry over something so harmless," Starswirl added, trotting up on her opposite side. "As you said, you or Princess Celestia could have such a mess cleaned in no time at all, and your sister will be doing just that."

"Although we will have to restock the kitchen's pantry..." Quill mumbled quietly, taking a mental note.

"By thine logic, thou should not be upset with thine daughter either," Luna retorted. "Yet thou seemed equally peeved."

"Because she's still a filly. I may boast that she's a very intelligent girl, but sometimes common sense escapes her. There's still a lot she needs to learn," Starswirl explained.

"Which is precisely why We are upset!" Luna bellowed in aggravation, causing the two stallions to recoil. "Celestia is a grown mare, yet her immaturity never fails to astound Us! One would never think by personality alone that she was the older sibling. And such antics from a princess no less. If the public heard of this sort of behavior, what would they think?"

"From what I've seen, Princess Celestia seems to want your subjects to view her on a more... grounded level," Starswirl said. "To show them that she's not so different from any other pony."

"That's not her job," Luna argued. "We are supposed to lead our subjects, not make friends with them."

Starswirl exchanged concerned looks with Quill before looking back to the princess. "Pardon me for saying, but perhaps that's why your sister is more popular amongst your citizens."

Luna stopped in her tracks, narrowing her eyes at him. "What didst thou say?" she growled.

Starswirl did his best to maintain his composure under the moon princess's threatening glare. "What I'm trying to say is that it wouldn't hurt for you to lighten up a little."

The alicorn continued to stare icily at him for a moment, but then closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. "For the sake of argument, how wouldst thou suggest We do that?"

Starswirl smiled, finally finding the window he'd been looking for. "I think you've already taken that first step, Your Highness."

Luna quirked a puzzled eyebrow. "How so?"

"Did you not offer to aid Sunset with her magical studies? That seems like a good start. Maybe that could help."

Luna lifted a hoof to her chin as she contemplated. "Hmm... And thou think that this would aid Us in earning favor with Our subjects?"

Starswirl shrugged. "It may. I don't see how it could hurt."

Luna straightened up, taking up her more typical, authoritative posture. "Very well. We did make a promise to the young filly after all. Send her to my quarters this evening, and we will see if thine hunch holds merit." With that, Luna went on ahead, leaving Starswirl and Quill alone in the hall.

The adviser gave his colleague an impressed smile. "Wow. I'm not sure I've seen anypony diffuse Princess Luna so quickly before."

Starswirl tapped a hoof to his temple with a rather cocky smirk. "You simply have to play to a person's ego. As much as I hate to say it, Princess Luna's ego seems rather... fragile. So, as her employee, why not do what I can to help her?"

Quill gave him a knowing smirk of his own. "And this has nothing to do with finding a punishment for Sunset, does it? Forcing her to endure Princess Luna's company and take extra lessons?"

Starswirl simply laughed. "Two birds, Quill. Two birds."

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer found herself staring at the crescent moon emblazoned on the door before her, hesitant to knock upon it. She hadn't seen Princess Luna since the "incident" that morning, and the moon princess certainly didn't seem too happy about it at the time. Sunset had already gotten chewed out by her father about making a mess of the kitchen, and now he tells her that she has to participate in magic lessons with Princess Luna.

While it was true that Luna had agreed to help Sunset with her magic, it had been a couple of weeks since then and Luna had yet to arrange any time for it. Sunset knew that Luna wasn't entirely fond of her, and assumed that her agreement to the request had more to do with shutting the filly up rather than actually helping her. That assumption was compounded by the fact that this visit to Luna's chambers tonight was intended to be a part of her punishment for her childish antics that morning, and considering how miffed the alicorn was, Sunset was expecting either another lecture to go along with the one she received from her dad, or a more grueling routine with the lessons than what she was used to with Celestia.

Sunset glanced at the saddlebags she wore on her back, lifting the flap to double-check their contents. Even though she felt like Luna was going to have her own regime in mind for tonight, Sunset had brought along a few books on topics she was particularly interested in, just in case Luna happened to be more flexible than she anticipated. Seeing that she hadn't forgotten anything, Sunset raised her hoof to the door, paused for a moment, still feeling a tad reluctant, then knocked cautiously and quietly.

There was a moment of silence after her knock, and a twinge of optimism sparked the hope that perhaps Luna hadn't heard her knock. Sunset wasn't exactly sure why that idea sounded relieving, considering if she didn't do this her father would probably be upset with her for ignoring her punishment.

But that slight hopefulness would be hampered by the turning of the doorknob, the crested double doors opening to the face of the blue alicorn.

Luna's expression was expectant, yet with a touch of reluctance herself. "Punctual. A good start." She stepped aside, gesturing for Sunset to enter. "Come in."

Although her greeting was not inherently rude, her tone was rather terse and apathetic. Sunset had originally been looking forward to learning from Luna to see what she could offer that perhaps her sister could not, but her bedside manner thus far was less than encouraging. But Sunset had witnessed what Princess Luna was like in an agreeable mood; it may have simply been that the day's events had left the princess in one of her usual foul moods. For the time being, Sunset decided that it might be best not to say anything about Princess Luna's attitude in the hopes that she'll soften up over time. With that in mind, the filly stepped beyond the threshold and entered the moon princess's domain.

A far cry from Princess Celestia's room, Luna's bedroom featured much darker colors. The walls were painted a deep violet color, resembling the sky at twilight. To further that, the ceiling was speckled with many white dots of varying size; if Sunset didn't know any better, she'd have thought she was outside looking up at the evening sky, although the actual stars weren't connected with lines, clearly displaying the constellations they represented.

Luna's bed was positioned straight across from the door, just like her sister's, and while the blankets were the same royal purple, the awning over it was a midnight blue, like the owner's coat. Interestingly, Luna's room seemed more decorated than Celestia's. While she still had the same vanity, wardrobe, and desk, she had a few extra bookshelves lined along the walls, presumably to quell the boredom during the quiet nights. The writing desk had several open scrolls of parchment upon it, and while it was difficult to discern exactly what was on them from the door, Sunset noticed images of constellations, perhaps suggesting they were star charts of some kind.

On another table was what appeared to be a crystal ball. Sunset was curious about that, wondering if it was simply decorative, or if Luna actually had an interest in fortune telling. But another interesting feature still was the several dream catchers hanging in various locations around the room, including a couple from the awning of the bed. They were all designed differently and appeared to be hoofmade from sticks and feathers. Combined with the crystal ball, Sunset had to wonder if Princess Luna was somewhat superstitious, or had an interest in occult and tribal magic. That thought was interesting to the filly; maybe she'd ask about that at some point.

But that wasn't even the end of it. Luna's writing desk wasn't the only table in the room, as practically the entire circumference of the round chamber was lined with wooden tables, and some just sitting in the middle of the room. As spacious as Princess Celestia's bedroom was, there was barely room to move about freely in Luna's quarters without risk of bumping into something. What was fascinating was the plethora of astronomical equipment that sat upon these tables. In addition to a telescope standing near the balcony doors, there was an armillary sphere, an astrarium, a celestial sphere, and so many other instruments that looked completely alien to Sunset. Luna didn't even have a normal clock; instead, an astronomical clock hung on the wall, though the filly had no idea how one would discern the time from it.

Sunset slowly spun around, her jaw slacked in awe and her eyes wide with wonder. "Whoa, what is all this weird stuff?" Her rump suddenly collided with the celestial sphere sitting on its own in the middle of the room, jostling her from her state of amazement.

Luna calmly placed a hoof on the sphere's stand to halt its wobbling, though cast a somewhat stern look at the distracted unicorn. "'Weird' is a matter of perspective. These are all instruments that We use to monitor the moon, stars, and many other celestial bodies. And We would appreciate it if thou wouldst be careful and not fiddle with any of them; they are specifically calibrated and We would rather not hath to realign them."

Sunset stared at the celestial sphere for a moment, thinking about how cool it looked, but also wondering how it worked. "I thought you were always bored during the nights. How could you be bored with all this cool stuff?"

The alicorn breathed a slightly exasperated sigh. "Because when one hast been monitoring the night sky every night for hundreds and hundreds of years, it tends to become a little mundane. Nevertheless, it is Our job, and We do it gladly."

Sunset looked up at the princess expectantly, her fiery tail swaying eagerly. "Are you gonna teach me how to use them?"

A small grimace creased Luna's lips at the question. "No. These instruments have nothing to do with magic, which is the reason thou art here."

Sunset quickly hopped over to the stand holding the crystal ball. "Then what about this? Is this magic? Can it show the future?"

Luna was silent for a moment, prompting the filly to look back at her curiously. The alicorn was hesitant to answer the question, but figured it may be a good place to start. "No, it cannot perceive the future. That is a dream orb."

Sunset quirked an eyebrow, confused, but intrigued. "What's a dream orb?"

Luna pointed to the crystal ball. "As We said, that is a dream orb."

The filly rolled her eyes. "I mean what does it do?"

Luna approached the orb, running a hoof gently over the orb's glassy surface. "It allows Us to peer into the realm of dreams and see what others are dreaming of."

Sunset stared up at her incredulously. "You can see people's dreams with this?!"

The princess nodded. "We can. You may think Our only duty is to raise the moon, but while Our sister takes care of our subjects during the day, We watch over them at night. And this orb is one way We do that."

"'One way'?"

Again, Luna nodded. "Indeed. If need be, We can physically enter the realm of dreams to more directly interact with Our subjects."

"What?!" Sunset bellowed practically loud enough to wake everypony in the castle. "But if you can do that, then why don't more people talk about you?! That's amazing!"

Luna gave the loud unicorn a corrective glare. "Because people do not have control over their dreams. They are constructs of one's subconscious, and therefore may depict the dreamer's deepest desires, secrets, or fears. We do not make a habit of invading Our subjects' privacy unless absolutely necessary. And do not even suggest that We teach thee such magic."

Sunset lowered her head in mild disappointment, but understood that doing something like that could have severe repercussions and decided to let it go. Still it was interesting and impressive to learn that Princess Luna could do such a thing. To think that she had dominion of the realm of dreams was something that Sunset had not expected to learn tonight.

But it was time for her to focus on what she did come to learn. The filly flashed an eager smile up at the blue alicorn. "So, what are you going to teach me?"

Luna mulled it over for a moment, humming quietly to herself. Admittedly, even though she had agreed to do this two weeks ago, she hadn't thought much about what exactly she would teach the filly. "Well... What hast Celestia taught thee thus far?"

"You want me to tell you everything she's taught me?"

"Give Us the gist."

Sunset curled her lips and tapped her chin in thought, trying to remember as much as she could. "It's mostly just been practicing using my magic. She taught me about all sorts of different kinds of magic, but she didn't actually teach me how to use them."

Luna nodded. "Understandable. Thou should learn first how to properly utilize thine own magic before attempting to learn new ones."

There was a hint of disappointment on Sunset's face as she put together what that probably meant. "So, does that mean this is just going to be more training to strengthen my magic? You're not actually going to teach me anything new?"

The alicorn contemplated the question. If Celestia was going to focus primarily on teaching Sunset to harness her power, then she thought perhaps it would be beneficial to expand the filly's knowledge. So, for the first time since Sunset had entered her chambers, Luna smiled. "How about this: ask Us questions to which thou seek answers, and We will do Our best to provide." Sunset was about to open her mouth, but Luna quickly and sternly added an addendum. "That does not pertain to the realm of dreams."

The amber unicorn took another moment to think it over, deliberating in her mind where she wanted to start. "Um... The moon."

Luna quirked an eyebrow at the vague response. "The moon? What about it?"

"Is it easier to raise the moon than the sun?"

All things considered, it was a rather innocent question. Luna was simply a little surprised that she hadn't asked such a thing much earlier, though the filly never seemed to show much interest in anything that didn't have to do with Celestia or the sun.

Luna glanced toward the balcony doors, then back at Sunset. "Come," she beckoned with a tilt of her head, leading the unicorn toward the balcony.

Sunset silently and curiously followed behind her. Unlike in Princess Celestia's room, where the curtains in front of the balcony doors were a transparent white, Luna had blackout curtains in front of her balcony to keep the sunlight out when she slept during the day. However, they were drawn at the moment, allowing for the soft light of the moon and stars to bathe the room.

The two of them stepped out onto the stone balcony, and it reminded Sunset of the first time Celestia had invited her to watch her raise the sun. Though, of course, that wasn't happening tonight; Luna had already raised the moon for the night, but it did make Sunset wonder for a brief moment if watching her do so would have the same impact on her as it had with Celestia.

The cool, evening breeze flowed through their manes, though it was difficult to tell if it had any effect on Luna's ever-flowing mane. The alicorn stared up at the giant, white pearl hanging above them and contrasting the darkness of the sky. Sunset, however, was looking at Luna, noticing a rather forlorn expression on her face.

Luna tore her eyes away from the moon to look back down at the filly. "Thou asked if it was easier to raise the moon than the sun. Now, why wouldst thou ask that?"

Sunset hesitated to answer, wanting to make sure she phrased her response in a way that didn't offend the princess. "Um... Because I know that the sun is magic in nature, but isn't the moon just like a... really big rock?"

Luna grimaced slightly at the filly, but chose not to chastise her ignorance. "Is it really the case that, as much as thou study Our sister and the sun, thou hath not learned anything of the moon?"

Sunset pouted grumpily at the alicorn's judgmental tone. "It's not like the moon does anything. The sun gives us warmth, and it helps plants grow, and all sorts of stuff. The moon just kinda... sits there."

The princess of the night felt a twinge of anger in her mind, but inhaled a deep breath to calm herself; she was here to teach this ignorant filly, and correcting such notions was something she sought to do. Luna pointed to the full moon above them. "Dost thou see the glow of the moon?"

Sunset looked towards the sphere, then back to Luna with a quizzical expression.

"The light of the moon is the same as that of the sun. The moon's pristine surface reflects the light of the sun while it is beyond the horizon so that Equestria and its inhabitants can always see that we are watching over them."

"Then why not just have the sun up all the time?"

Luna rubbed her temple with a sigh. It was like Sunset was deliberately trying to irritate her. How could one filly be so stubborn? "Hast thou ever heard the phrase, 'too much of a good thing'? Thou hast experienced the harm that the sun can cause firsthoof. Overexposure to the sun's light can cause damage to the lives that it provides for. We must eat to survive, correct? But what happens when we eat too much?"

Sunset blinked. "Uh... We get sick?"

"Precisely. It is much the same concept. Even the trees and flowers need a break from the sun every now and then."

The unicorn hummed in quiet contemplation. She'd never thought about it like that before. She'd been looking at the sun as a life-giving presence, but Princess Luna had a point. The solar flares were a sign of instability, and Celestia had said that if it weren't for the power hidden within her, she would have died. But that also raised a question...

"Does the moon have solar flares?"

"Hm? Oh, well, no. As thou said, it is but 'a really big rock.' The sun is an ever-burning ball of fire. So, while the moon is also magic in nature, it is considerably more stable."

"Sooo... Does that mean it is easier to raise it?"

Luna furrowed her brow slightly, the filly's insistence on getting an answer to that question grinding on the princess's nerves. "It means it is safer. Just because the moon doesn't do quite as much for the world as the sun, doesn't mean it takes less effort to move it."

"Oh."

The alicorn raised a suspicious eyebrow. She knew Sunset was trying to glean something from this, but the question was: what? "Why dost this matter so much to thee? Dost it make any difference which is easier?"

"Well..."

Luna saw a slightly dejected look in Sunset's teal eyes, and she wondered if perhaps she'd said something to upset her.

The amber unicorn shifted her hooves against the stone balcony. "Princess Celestia wanted me to try moving the sun again this morning."

Luna's eyes widened in surprise. After what had happened last time, she was shocked that her sister would take such a risk again, even without a solar flare. "She did?"

Sunset nodded somberly.

The moon princess wore an understanding frown. "No luck, We presume."

The filly shook her head with a disappointed sigh. "I was kinda hoping you'd tell me it was easier to raise the moon so I could try it myself. I thought maybe if I wasn't good enough to raise the sun yet, then maybe I could see if I'm making any progress at all if I can move the moon."

While Luna was a little annoyed by the way Sunset just assumed she'd let her do such a thing, the downtrodden expression on the filly's face made her feel a twinge of pity. After all, she only wished to see where her lessons and training had got her thus far. It seemed fair to want to view one's progress. And at least she now had an answer as to why the sunrise was so irregular that morning.

Luna glanced back up at the moon, then back to Sunset. "Then let's see, shall we?"

Sunset's head shot up, her mood lifting in an instant. "Really?! I can try?!"

Even though Luna was graciously giving her this opportunity, her expression was still somewhat stoic, expectant even, feeling as though she already knew what the outcome was going to be and not wanting the filly to get her hopes up too high. "Go ahead," she said with a flourish of her hoof.

The unicorn grinned with excitement and performed a small, eager hop in place. But when she gazed out at the night sky, the wind was suddenly taken out of her sails. As she stared up at the moon, she felt intimidated. It felt like a giant eye staring at her, a doubtful gaze that matched the one Luna was casting down on her from the corner of her eye. Sunset had failed to move the sun that morning, and that had caused a minor blow to her self-confidence. So what if she couldn't even move the moon? How would that make her feel? Luna had assured her that it wasn't any easier, but for some reason Sunset didn't quite believe that.

"Well?"

Sunset flinched as Luna's voice penetrated the thick silence, looking back up at her. Oddly, Luna's tone as well as her expression showed no impatience towards the filly's hesitance, though her face was still hard to read. Sunset's conversation with Princess Celestia that morning played through her mind again. She had been reluctant to try then, fearing failure, but her teacher had outright told her that she likely wouldn't be able to do it, yet encouraged her to try regardless. And while Luna's demeanor wasn't quite as warm and inviting as Celestia's, she was likely thinking the same thing.

Sunset straightened up, her expression becoming more determined. She was a little split, though; a part of her just wanted to do it to prove to herself and the princesses that she wasn't afraid of failure, but at the same time, she was hoping to actually pull it off, if only to see the look on Luna's face. But she tried to push those thoughts from her mind. Right now, she didn't want to be distracted by the reasons why she wanted to succeed. She just needed to concentrate on trying.

A cyan light emanated from Sunset's horn, the filly clenching her eyes shut as she went right into it and focused as much of her magic as she could toward the moon.

Luna watched with interest as the glowing aura around the unicorn's horn grew steadily, the expanding output of power admittedly impressing the princess. Sunset was clearly pouring everything she had into this, sweat beginning to form on her forehead and cyan sparks flickering off her horn.

But almost as quickly as her power had built, it suddenly died down, Sunset's aura shrinking to a weak glow and the filly wobbling slightly in exhaustion. Her teal eyes opened again, peering up toward the moon. "It didn't move, did it?"

Luna glanced up briefly to assess, but shook her head. "No."

Sunset took a deep breath to steady herself, her horn still tingling slightly. As worn out as she was, she flashed a small smile at Princess Luna. "But that's okay, right? I shouldn't let it get to me."

Luna raised a skeptical eyebrow at the filly's sudden, optimistic attitude. Despite the grin, the alicorn spotted a small glimmer in Sunset's eyes, and a tiny, almost unnoticeable quiver in her lips. "Is that what thou believe?"

The amber unicorn's smile faded.

"Perhaps We may not be an exceptional judge of character, but even We can see the falsity in thine resolve. Thou'rt only trying to fool thyself."

That glimmer in Sunset's eyes grew more apparent after Luna's rather blunt and scathing words. Sunset's ears folded back, and she scowled at the moon princess as moisture formed in her teal eyes. "Why are you being mean? Teachers are supposed to be supportive."

Luna didn't let the filly's frustration phase her, but her expression did soften slightly. "Because We wish for thee to be honest with thyself. It is clear thou feel disappointed by thine failure, but thou put up this facade to hide it from thyself. It is okay to feel disappointed. What's important is to use that disappointment as motivation to improve. If thou fear failure, then it will become more difficult to perform to the best of thine ability, and wearing a false smile dost not alleviate that. Frustration and disappointment art evidence of thine dedication, and We respect that."

Sunset let out a sigh, not bothering to hide her emotions anymore as she wiped the tears from her eyes. "Why can't I do it? I've been practicing a lot, and I know my magic is stronger now from when I started. But I still can't do it..."

"Perhaps thou art not interpreting thine situation correctly."

Sunset was confused by the statement. "What do you mean?"

"Thou seem to be under the impression that the solar flare granted thee access to thine hidden power, but that is not likely the case."

The filly listened intently to Luna's explanation, hoping that it would shed some light on the problem.

"The shock thou received from the solar flare simply drew out thine latent magic, it did not 'unlock' it. It made us aware of its existence, but did not necessarily grant thee free access to it. Thine own power almost killed thee, so even if thou could utilize it freely, thou run the risk of seriously injuring thyself. It is as Celestia said in the first place: thou need to strengthen thine magic and learn to control it before thou can truly make use of it. Thine disappointment and frustration is a direct result of thine impatience. If thou can address that issue, then this whole process will run more smoothly. Remember: it took Celestia and I nearly a hundred years to perfect the art of moving the sun and moon. Two weeks is nothing. Thou may learn to do so eventually, but be aware that it could potentially take most of thine life to accomplish it."

Sunset groaned quietly. "That's not very encouraging..."

Luna leaned down with a taunting glare. "If thou hath not the resolve, then perhaps thou should give up now, hm?" the midnight blue alicorn chided.

Sunset, not wanting to give Luna the satisfaction of seeing her quit, challenged her glare with one of her own. "I'm not gonna quit! I'm gonna raise the sun one day, and I don't care how long it takes!"

Luna straightened up again, staring down her snout at the defiant filly with a self-satisfied smirk. "Then perhaps we should truly start thine lessons."

The unicorn smiled confidently with a resolute nod, her determined, teal eyes burning as fiery as her mane.

***** ***** *****

Starswirl sized himself up in the mirror on the vanity of his room, tilting his head to the left, then to the right. A dissatisfied hum escaped his throat and he brought up a small comb with his white magic. With a few gentle strokes, he ran its teeth through his short beard, realigning any stragglers with the rest of his well-groomed facial hair, and giving the tip a fine curl. He analyzed his condition one more time, this time giving his beard a firm stroke with his hoof. The hairs immediately bounced back to their original position once he let go, the ends curling up again and bringing forth a grin of proud satisfaction.

Done with his morning grooming, Starswirl was prepared to begin his work for the day. He scooped up a few books that he had taken from the library and tucked them neatly into his saddlebags. He wasn't quite finished with them, but found that the royal archives made for a better atmosphere for study. Plus, there were other books he intended to peruse. Needing nothing more, Starswirl opened the door and stepped out into the castle's halls.

The halls were already illuminated by the morning sun, which reminded Starswirl that he wanted to ask Princess Celestia if she wished to join him in his work today. However, he knew that she'd likely decline. Ever since the incident with the solar flare, Celestia has devoted most of her free time to Sunset, and since today was Sunday, that was probably going to be the case today as well.

Though now that he thought about it, something seemed off. The sun had risen not long ago, and while Starswirl wasn't quite as early a riser as his daughter, he typically heard her exit her room to watch the sunrise from the windows in the hall. Yet he had heard nothing from the room next door this morning. Curious, Starswirl approached Sunset's room, tapping gently on the wooden door.

"Sunset?" he beckoned through the entrance.

He received no response. It was certainly entirely possible that he simply hadn't heard her that morning, but the filly was never usually light-hoofed, especially when laser-focused on watching the sunrise. But a lack of response probably meant that she was elsewhere, as she rarely returned to her room once she knew Princess Celestia was awake. Still, just to sate his own curiosity, Starswirl opened the door to check anyway.

And to his surprise, his daughter was indeed present, tucked snugly under her plush bed covers and sound asleep. Starswirl was astonished by the sight. This was the first time he'd seen her sleep in since she became enamored with Princess Celestia. At first, his disbelief lead him to think that perhaps she had simply returned to bed after watching the sunrise, but even that was uncharacteristic of her. Like the flowers blooming in the morning, the sunrise was practically what energized Sunset each day. There was no way she'd still be relaxed enough to go right back to sleep after watching it.

"Sunset? Are you alright?" he asked with concern, wondering if perhaps she may have been ill.

The sleepy filly let out a disgruntled moan, pulling her sheets tighter to her neck. "Five more minutes, Daddy..."

Again, Starswirl was flabbergasted by his somnolent daughter. He was beginning to wonder if she actually was his daughter. "Sweetie... You know the sun is up already, right?"

The filly's eyes shot open in an instant. "What?!" She kicked the covers from underneath in a panic, her desperate flailing only serving to get her tangled up until she wound up rolling off the bed and dragging the sheets down into a pile with her. Her head managed to wiggle its way free from the pile, giving her father a distressed look. "Y-You're joking, right?! This is just a trick!"

Starswirl stepped aside with a sympathetic smile, showing that the hallway was, in fact, bathed in sunlight.

Sunset's ears drooped, and her mouth fell open in disbelief. "I missed it...?"

"Looks like it."

The amber filly finally freed herself from her cozy prison and briskly trotted out into the hall to confirm it with her own eyes. Sure enough, the glow of the morning sun flooded the castle as it did every morning. But never had the sunrise made her feel so bad. "I actually missed it..."

Starswirl placed a comforting hoof on his daughter's back. "It's not a big deal, Sunset. What difference does it make if you miss one sunrise? I'm sure Princess Celestia won't mind."

Sunset frowned deeply, her gaze falling to the floor. "I mind..."

Her father lifted her chin up again, giving her a knowing grin. "Well, it's not like you don't have a good reason. You were up pretty late last night studying with Princess Luna."

Rather than feeling reassured about it, Sunset instead scowled at her father. "Then it's your fault, Dad! You made me take lessons with her as punishment, remember?"

The stallion retaliated with a reprimanding glower of his own. "It was my understanding that you and Princess Luna agreed to do this a couple of weeks ago. And nopony said you had to stay up that late."

Sunset simply turned away from her father with a pout.

"Did you not enjoy your time with Princess Luna?"

Sunset was hesitant to answer, as though an admission of enjoyment would put all the blame on herself. "Mmm... No, I did..."

"Then surely it was worth missing one sunrise. There'll be plenty more in the future."

"I guess..."

That was enough for Starswirl. He knew Sunset was going to wallow over this for a while, but he was sure she'd get over it eventually, especially once Celestia confirmed how insignificant the issue was. "Alright, now get cleaned up and go have something for breakfast," he urged her with a gentle nudge down the hall.

Sunset begrudgingly did as she was told, returning to her room briefly to remedy her current case of bedhead while Starswirl went on his way to the royal archives. Once sufficiently groomed, Sunset headed out as well, but rather than making her way to the mess hall for breakfast as her father had suggested, she turned in the opposite direction, toward the throne room.

Once there, Sunset poked her head through the door on the throne room's left side, nearest to Luna's throne. It appeared that nopony was present yet, and the spacious chamber was completely empty and silent. But Sunset knew Princess Celestia would show up there eventually, so she entered and waited.

It wasn't often she found herself alone in the throne room, so to pass the time while she waited, she glanced around at the elegant tapestries hanging from the walls. Really, aside from their size, there wasn't anything especially noteworthy about them compared to all of the other tapestries strung up throughout the castle, but she did like the one that hung behind the thrones, framing the two seats quite nicely.

Now that her attention had been drawn in that direction, curiosity overcame the filly. She glanced around discreetly to ensure that she was alone, then briskly ascended the short set of stairs up to Celestia's golden throne. She placed a hoof on the seat, hesitating slightly and wondering if she should actually be doing this. But she couldn't help herself. With a playful smile, Sunset hopped up onto the throne and planted her rump upon it. From her new vantage point, she stared out over the empty throne room. Even though the view wasn't much different, her perspective was. This was where one of the governing diarchs presided over her kingdom. This is where she sat when making an address, or meeting with foreign dignitaries. But as great as the importance of this seat was, all Sunset could do was giggle to herself as she pretended to be a princess, even if the throne was way too big for the diminutive filly.

The playful unicorn was suddenly startled by the sound of the door nearest to the golden throne opening, and much to her surprise, embarrassment, and worry, it happened to be the throne's owner.

Upon entering the throne room, Princess Celestia's pink eyes immediately landed upon the little unicorn occupying her throne, a deep, crimson blush on the filly's amber cheeks. The princess raised a hoof to her mouth with a reaction of mock surprise. "Oh, dear. I didn't realize I'd been usurped."

Sunset hastily jumped down from the throne, brushing it off for the princess before scampering down the steps with a mildly panicked and remorseful look. "Sorry! I-I was just waiting for you, a-and I just wanted to see what it was like! Please don't be mad!"

Celestia responded to the filly's hysterics with a soft giggle and a gentle pat on the filly's head. "It's fine, Sunset, calm down. It's just a chair."

The unicorn breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the princess wasn't upset with her.

"So, why were you waiting for me? Looking to start your lessons before breakfast this morning as well?"

Sunset shied away, her remorseful expression returning. "No, I... I want to apologize..."

Celestia raised a concerned eyebrow. She assumed this wasn't still about the throne. "For what?"

Sunset stared straight up into the alicorn's eyes apologetically. "I... I missed the sunrise this morning. I'm sorry..."

Celestia was a touch confused at first, but quickly gave her a forgiving smile. "Is that all? Sunset, that's nothing you need to apologize for."

The filly's teal eyes widened to hear she wasn't upset about it. "Really? You don't mind?"

"Of course not. Sunset, I'm flattered that you respect me so much that you'd devote yourself to watching the sunrise every morning, but a smart, hard-working filly like you deserves to sleep in from time to time."

"But I like watching the sunrise," Sunset argued, still feeling a little guilty.

"And that's fine, but you don't need to go out of your way to do it just for my sake. I mean, it's not like it's anything special; I do it every morning. Missing it once is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things."

A small smile managed its way onto the unicorn's muzzle. "I guess. But I'm still gonna try to watch it whenever I can."

"Well, thank you. I appreciate your dedication. Just remember that I said it's not necessary, alright?"

Sunset nodded.

"But since we're on the topic," Celestia said wearing a curious expression. "Was there a particular reason you missed it? You're usually pretty diligent about it, and you've always been rather punctual with these sorts of things. Did you forget to set your alarm?"

"Oh, I don't usually use my alarm," Sunset answered. "I always—er, almost always—wake up before sunrise anyway. It's probably because I was up so late last night. I was pretty sleepy by the time I went to bed, and didn't think to set my alarm just in case."

Celestia smiled fondly at her. "Up all night studying, were you?"

Sunset nodded with a grin. "Mm-hm. Princess Luna was giving me lessons."

Suddenly, Celestia's smile dropped, surprised and confused. "What? Luna?"

Sunset hopped in place. "Yeah! And it was fun! She taught me a lot about the moon, and astrology—oh! And her dream magic! That sounded cool!" As excited as she was to regale Luna's teaching's, the filly's grin faltered upon seeing the expression on her teacher's face. Celestia looked almost... hurt. "Princess? What's wrong?"

The alicorn didn't respond. Her eyes shifted around as though lost in thought. She was only jarred from her trance upon hearing the filly address her. "Hm? Oh, um, sorry. E-Excuse me, I have to take care of something."

Before Sunset could even inquire as to what she was talking about, Celestia vanished on the spot with a bright flash of magic. The unicorn glanced around the once again empty throne room, wondering what the hay had just happened.

***** ***** *****

Princess Luna stared out into the amber horizon as her sister's sun illuminated the mountains. Seeing the sunrise always reminded the blue alicorn of how long she'd been awake and elicited a tired yawn. With another night come and gone, in was time for Luna to hit the sack for the day. While normally she'd like to get an idea of what the day's plans were before heading to bed, this morning she felt like just dropping onto her cozy mattress and dozing off.

Luna stepped back off of the balcony to return to her chambers, shutting the glass doors behind her. She started making her way toward her private bathroom to brush her teeth and do her "business" before curling up in bed, but she had only made it halfway across her room before she was distracted by a knock at her door. The forcefulness and rapidity of the knocks sounded distressful, making her wonder if perhaps there was some sort of emergency, so she quickly trotted over to the door to investigate. To her surprise, it was her own sister that stood there, though Luna presumed by the somewhat pained look on her face that this wasn't a casual visit to say hi.

"Sister, what brings thee here?" Luna asked with concern.

"Luna, I need to talk to you about something."

The shorter princess could sense a hint of urgency in Celestia's voice, stepping aside to let her sister in. "Is something wrong?"

Celestia looked her younger sister in the eye, a rather serious and almost hurt look in her pink eyes. "Sunset told me that you were giving her magic lessons last night."

Luna quirked an eyebrow, confused as to what exactly she was getting at. "Yes, so what's the issue?"

Celestia placed a hoof upon her chest, looking at Luna pleadingly. "Luna, tutoring Sunset was supposed to be my responsibility."

Luna gawked slightly, vexed by the declaration. "Beg thine pardon?"

"I'm the one who put Sunset into her current situation, so the job of teaching her and guiding her should be on me. There's no need for you to get involved."

"Why art thou making a big deal of this? Thou hath requested many times that We become more involved with our subjects, but now that We have, thou wish for Us to stop?" Luna responded defensively.

"Like I said, Luna, this happened because of me. This was supposed to be my way of atoning, remember?"

Luna simply stared at her sister, bewildered by what she was hearing. Even though she had said something similar to Sunset herself, that had mostly been an effort to appear dismissive. "What, so this is just about atonement? What happened to protecting her from her own power? We thought that was the priority here."

Celestia faltered slightly, but continued her argument. "I-It is, but this should be my burden to bear, and mine alone. I don't want to thrust that responsibility onto you, too."

"And did it occur to thee that We do not mind supporting some of that burden? We wish for that filly to master her power as well. We are more than willing to aid her in this endeavor."

"But this has nothing to do with you, Luna."

Luna went silent, her pupils narrowing. Celestia's words roiled her emotions, and something inside her snapped. "No, of course not! It's about you! It's always been about you! Heavens forbid that the spotlight not shine down upon your majesty at all times!"

Witnessing her sister's emotions getting the better of her, Celestia attempted to interject. "Luna, I didn't mean—"

"Shut up!"

Celestia flinched and took a step back as she was assaulted by Luna's incensed outburst, her words striking at her like daggers.

Though she continued to seethe with anger, through the raging fire in her eyes a hint of concealed sadness could be seen in Luna's deep blue irises. "Ever since we were kids you've always tried to one-up me; if I got something, you had to have something better."

"Luna, you know that's not true," Celestia argued in a desperate attempt to talk her sister down.

"How can you say that?! Just look outside!"

With some trepidation, not really wanting to take her eyes off of her livid sister, Celestia followed Luna's pointing hoof to the sunrise outside, but was confused as to what exactly she was referring.

"Is the sun not proof enough that you always get the larger slice of cake?! And yet now, even with everything you have, you can't share even one of those things with me?! Does this have nothing to do with that filly's safety and the safety of those around her?! Does this not have anything to do with bettering our kingdom?! Has this just been about you getting credit for it all?!"

"I-I—"

It was at this point that Luna's eyes began to water, though her sadness and dejection was still rivaled by the anger and loathing in her furious expression. "Your subjects have nothing but respect for you, yet they have no idea how selfish you really are! They rarely ever even see me, yet I'm practically a social pariah! How is that fair?!"

"Luna... I..."

Luna turned away from her sister, clenching her eyes shut to hold back the tears that had inadvertently welled up during her outburst. "If you don't want me teaching Sunset, then fine! Enjoy all of 'your' responsibility. Now, get out!"

Before Celestia could even mutter another word, Luna let out a forceful shock wave of magic that pushed the older sister back out the door, and even knocked over a few of her astronomy instruments in the process before belligerently slamming the doors in Celestia's face. The furious alicorn stomped over to the balcony doors, glaring disdainfully at the sun in the distance for a moment. Then with a indignant, "Hmph!" she drew the blackout curtains violently with her magic, threatening to tear them down entirely.

Meanwhile, Celestia stood outside her sister's chambers in silence, simply staring at the image of the crescent moon on the doors. She'd seen her sister upset before, but never quite like this. She hadn't expected what she said to set her off like that. But as much as Celestia wished to talk this out with her sister, it was clear that Luna was not in a reasonable mood anymore. Hopefully, given time, her head would cool enough that they could discuss this more calmly. But as she started making her way back down the tower with her head hung low, Celestia couldn't help but think that she may have pushed Luna a tad too far this time...

Chapter 7 - Altered Course

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 7: Altered Course

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Sunset Shimmer's horn glowed fiercely, flickering and sparking with cyan energy. Sweat dripped from the filly's chin as she focused her magic, and although the strain was great, she forced herself to keep her eyes open, even if the moisture around them was starting to obscure her vision.

Her eyes were trained on her target: one of the marble statues in the castle's statue garden. A sculpture of an armored, unicorn soldier standing tall upon a solid stone block of perfectly-chiseled marble was wreathed in the cyan grasp of Sunset's aura, and the whole thing was hovering about six inches off the ground.

But that was about all Sunset could muster. She'd been managing to hold the statue in the air for about thirty seconds, but she'd quickly reached her limit. Sunset couldn't physically hold it any longer, a sharp twinge in her horn the sign that she needed to stop. The amber unicorn released her magical grip on the sculpture, and the stone stallion immediately dropped back to the ground with a thunderous crash, shaking the garden with its weight.

With a gasp of air, Sunset fell to her knees, panting for breath. She stared at the statue for a moment, a small smile managing to work its way onto her face. As worn out as she was, she was proud of this accomplishment. This was by far the most impressive feat she'd managed to perform since she started her training. It wasn't quite the sun yet, but it was at least an indication of progress.

Her head was throbbing slightly, but it wasn't nearly as bad as when she was struck by the solar flare. She wasn't burnt out this time, just exhausted, which was a relief. But with that thought in her head, something occurred to Sunset. It was not long ago that Princess Celestia had expressed that she didn't want her student going overboard with her magic, so it was odd to her that she hadn't instructed her to stop, despite how intense it clearly was for her.

Sunset wiped the sweat from her forehead, shakily rising to her hooves, then glanced up at the alicorn standing behind her. Celestia didn't even seem like she was paying attention, just staring off into space. Even the loud impact of the statue hitting the ground hadn't appeared to shake her from her thoughts.

"Princess?"

The alicorn's head jerked up as though snapped from a trance. "Huh? Yes?"

Sunset frowned at the princess's oblivious expression. "You weren't even watching, were you?"

"Uh..." Celestia looked toward the statue she'd instructed Sunset to move. Although she'd certainly felt something just now, her mind hadn't really registered it. "Oh, sorry. Did you want to try again?"

Sunset furrowed her brow slightly at the question, a question that proved beyond doubt that Celestia's mind was elsewhere. "Are you nuts?" she responded between breaths. "I can barely stand up now."

Seeing the frustrated look on her student's face, Celestia let out a regretful sigh. "I'm sorry, Sunset. I'm afraid I've just been a little distracted today. Maybe we should cut your lessons short for today."

Sunset took a deep breath, wiping away another few errant beads of sweat. "I don't think I could do much more anyway."

With the decision made, the teacher and student started making their way back toward the castle. After a workout like that, Sunset felt she could use a shower and a snack. But even though the lessons were over for the day, Sunset couldn't help but notice that Celestia's expression was still much the same during the walk back: somewhat sullen and lost in thought.

"So you really didn't see me do that?" Sunset asked with a hint of disappointment.

"Er, no... And again, I'm sorry. But I'm sure it was quite impressive," she assured her student, though her smile looked rather forced.

Sunset turned away slightly with a pout, mumbling under her breath, "Probably would've made me stop before I could do it anyway..."

"Hm?"

Sunset shook her head. "Nothing." Despite the uncharacteristic hint of contempt, Sunset turned up to Celestia with a concerned frown. "Is something bothering you, Princess? I don't think I've ever seen you acting like this; all distracted and stuff."

Celestia stopped walking as they neared the exit of the gardens, breathing another deep sigh. She figured she wouldn't be able go very long without bringing it up, but had secretly hoped to put the conversation off a little longer. "Luna's mad at me."

Sunset raised a confused eyebrow at first, but then she remembered how her teacher suddenly left that morning after she'd told her about her lessons with Luna. Celestia hadn't really said much about where she went or what she was doing, and at the time, Sunset had simply thought that the princess may have forgotten something and didn't bother inquiring about it. But now Sunset couldn't help but think that their brief conversation this morning may have been the cause of this. "Does this have anything to do with Luna giving me lessons last night?" Sunset asked with flattened ears.

Celestia looked her student in the eyes. As much as she wanted to tell her otherwise, she did promise never to lie to her again. On the other hoof, she also didn't want to get Sunset involved in her sororal dispute if she could avoid it. That being said, Celestia had some inquiries for Sunset regarding the subject that she was hoping could shed some light on things. "Sunset... Did you... enjoy your lessons with Luna last night?"

The amber filly was reluctant to answer. Celestia looked as though she was hoping for a particular answer, but Sunset wasn't sure if she could provide the right one. "Well, yeah. It was fun."

Celestia tried to maintain an unreadable expression, but she wasn't quite sure how well she was managing that. "Okay, that's good, then. I was worried you weren't getting along well with my sister."

"Then why don't you seem happy?"

The alicorn opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. Luna's accusations toward her that morning echoed in her mind, but Celestia knew there was more to it than that; in her anger, she just didn't give her a chance to fully explain, and she was too flustered to respond. That's what she was telling herself, but now that she had more time to think about it, what was the full explanation? Why hadn't she thought of anything else?

"Princess?"

Again, Celestia was jostled from her thoughts, having gotten distracted once more. Sunset was staring at her, looking increasingly concerned. For her student's state of mind, she had to say something, so she went with the first thing she could think of. "What... What sort of things did Luna teach you?"

Sunset managed a small smile at the question, hoping that her answer would help alleviate her mentor's worries. "Well, she let me try and raise the moon at first. I couldn't do it, but I didn't even expect her to let me try."

Rather than relieve her, Celestia's expression fell slightly at the answer. "Oh... I-I thought you wanted to raise the sun. Why the interest in the moon all of a sudden?"

Sunset simply shrugged. "Honestly, I just thought it'd be easier than the sun. I was wrong. But you two can raise 'em both, so I figured I might be able to, too."

This time the alicorn was somewhat relieved by the explanation, even managing a slight smile. "I suppose that's a logical presumption to make. But as far as we know right now, given your cutie mark, your magic might only pertain to the sun. Just keep that in mind. What else? You mentioned dream magic earlier, right?"

"She told me she could see people's dreams and enter them, but said she wasn't gonna teach me to do that."

Celestia nodded. "Probably for the best. The ability to freely enter dreams is a power not to be taken lightly, much like raising the sun. I don't think it's necessary to teach you such magic, nor do I even know if it'd be possible. I can't even do it without Luna's help. Anything else?"

Sunset curled her lips in thought. "Well, most of it was just me asking questions, or showing her how strong my magic was. But she did give me some useful words of advice."

Celestia looked at her with a curious tilt of her head. "Like what?"

"Like when I couldn't move the moon, I tried to put on a brave face. But she told me I shouldn't try to fool myself and that it's okay to feel frustrated and disappointed, and use those emotions to encourage me to do better."

The princess's eyes widened slightly at what she'd heard, looking more concerned than ever. "What? Why would she teach you something like that?"

Sunset's ears folded back. She had thought that would make Celestia happy to hear. "Wh-Why? What's wrong with that? It sounded like good advice."

Celestia placed a caring hoof upon Sunset's back. "Sunset, I've always believed that in any endeavor, maintaining positivity and optimism is the key to motivation. As long as you don't get down on yourself when you fail, then you'll always have the will to keep going. You can't let things like frustration and disappointment guide you forward; then you're not doing it for the right reasons. You shouldn't let negative emotions control your actions, or the results will ultimately be negative."

Sunset's teal eyes turned down toward the dirt beneath her. "Oh... I... never really thought about it like that."

"I know my sister meant well, but we both know that she isn't quite as socially adept as she could be. Perhaps somepony who still has much to learn herself shouldn't be teaching others more impressionable than her."

Now Sunset felt bad that she had inadvertently caused this argument between the two sisters, knowing now that Luna may not actually be an appropriate teacher for her.

Celestia, seeing the guilty look on her student's face, gave her a reassuring grin. "I'm not mad at you for wanting to learn more, but I wished you'd have told me first, that's all. Let me talk to Luna again. Now that I know the details, I think we can fix this."

Sunset managed a small smile herself, trusting in her teacher to patch things up. "Okay."

"Now, why don't you go and have the rest of the day to yourself, hm? Let us princesses deal with all the 'drama.'"

The filly nodded with a cute grin before running ahead to return to the castle. Celestia watched with a fond smile as the little unicorn scampered away. But once she was out of sight, her smile vanished, replaced with a rather displeased grimace. She had some words for Luna alright, they just may not have been the same ones that Sunset was thinking of.

***** ***** *****

Another day had come and gone, but while the princess of the night normally relished in her act of raising the moon, she found little enjoyment in it this evening. A part of her wanted to simply leave it where it was beyond the horizon to spite her sister, but couldn't determine whether or not she'd take it as an act of defiance or surrender.

Luna let out an indignant snort through her nostrils as she stepped off her balcony and back into her room. She'd been absolutely fuming all day, and had lost sleep as a result. And it was all because of Celestia. Just thinking about it was enough to make the midnight blue alicorn tightly clench her teeth behind pursed lips. She couldn't wrap her head around just how selfish her sister was acting. Luna knew that Celestia may have had a somewhat inflated ego due to being in the limelight more often—she could accept that. But at the very least she had expected her to have some humility about it.

And that was the crux of it. Luna was well aware that her standing was not as favorable with the people as her sister's, but for Celestia to so bluntly flaunt it to her face and outright tell her that it was none of her business boiled the moon princess's blood.

And now she'd gone and wasted an entire day's sleep steaming over this. Luna had had arguments with her sister many times over the millennia, but never before had she cursed the ivory mare's name so many times as she writhed in her bed. What was worse, she was starving. All of the tossing and turning and groaning and grumbling had used up more energy than she'd normally spend during the day. It was not something she normally did, but Luna felt the need to put the cooks to work tonight. She had problems that she wanted to eat away.

With her stomach growling almost as loudly as she had been throughout her sleepless day, Luna descended her tower and made her way to the kitchen to demand an evening meal. She didn't care what, she just needed something to sink her teeth into.

The moon princess haphazardly threw open the doors to the dining room, and immediately halted in her tracks. She was met by the smell of food that had seemingly already been prepared, as though her needs had been anticipated. But one look at the person who was already seated at the long dining table told her that this was one hundred percent deliberate.

Luna knit her brow tightly, casting an incensed glower at the alabaster alicorn sitting on the left side of the table. Celestia was staring back at her, though not with any sort of apologetic expression as Luna would have expected. Her sister was gazing at her rather judgmentally, which only further fueled Luna's ire. What reason did she have to look at her so?

As aggravating as her sister's presence was, Luna was admittedly curious as to what exactly her plan was here. So, in an attempt to discern her intentions, Luna lifted her nose at the other alicorn as she inquired, "What art thou doing up so late?"

Celestia was unfazed by the venom oozing from her little sister's voice, responding with a dismissive shrug. "It's not that late Luna. The night has only just begun. But to answer your question, I thought I'd make you breakfast in the hopes that you'd be willing to sit and talk with me for a bit."

Luna's left eyebrow slowly rose, casting deep suspicion on her sister's seemingly innocent gesture, especially considering the lack of sympathy on the ivory princess's face. Luna cautiously approached the table to see what her sister had prepared. A grimace blemished her face as she noted the plates of pancakes stacked up and decorated with blueberries, strawberries, and whipped cream. Surely Celestia must've chosen pancakes on purpose to further irk her. But, choosing to be the bigger mare—figuratively, of course—Luna pulled out a chair on the right side of the table, opposite her sister, and sat down.

Celestia watched as her sister only continued to glare across the table at her, not even taking a plate. In order to move things along, Celestia placed a plate in front of Luna herself and gestured to the stacks of pancakes. "Help yourself."

Luna furrowed her brow further, but said nothing. As irate as she was with Celestia right now, and as much as she wanted to ignore her "generous" gift, Luna's stomach was still calling out to her. She reluctantly gave in to her hunger pangs, and using her magic instead of a fork, she forcefully snatched a short stack of pancakes from the main plate, dropping them with an unceremonious splat onto hers. She tore a small chunk off of the top pancake and bit into it, all the while never breaking eye contact with Celestia.

"How is it?" the sun princess asked rather nonchalantly as her sister chewed.

Luna didn't answer. She was still livid at Celestia over everything that happened that morning, so now wasn't exactly an ideal time to admit that the pancakes her sister had made tasted absolutely divine; it would have put a sizable damper on her credibility in the argument that she knew was coming. To that end, Luna was done with whatever it was Celestia was trying to do here. "Enough games, Sister. What dost thou want?"

Celestia's expression finally let up, softening apologetically as she breathed a deep sigh. "Alright... First of all, I wanted to apologize for our altercation this morning. I didn't mean to say what I said."

Luna's brow remained furrowed, finding little reprieve in her apology. "Art thou sorry for what thou said, or art thou sorry that thou said it out loud?"

"I didn't intend to hurt your feelings, Luna. That's just how it came out, and again, I'm sorry."

"A simple apology does not make a problem go away, Sister," Luna retorted. "Thou made thy own feelings abundantly clear this morning, as well."

Celestia turned away ashamedly. "And I have been thinking about that since—about what you said. Perhaps you had a point: maybe I was being selfish."

Luna turned her nose up at Celestia with a scoff. She had a feeling she knew where this was going, but had no intention of giving her sister the satisfaction. "Art thou going to ask Us to continue tutoring Sunset Shimmer, then? Well, too bad. We refuse. Thou can take thy responsibility and shove it."

The shame and guilt that had been on Celestia's face had suddenly vanished. Instead, she glowered coldly across the table, much like she had been doing when Luna first entered the dining hall. "And that brings us to our second topic: I was speaking to Sunset about your teaching methods."

Luna wasn't exactly sure how to respond. Given the way Sunset idolized Celestia, would the filly be willing to tell her she had enjoyed learning from her sister? Or perhaps any enjoyment that Sunset had had was not as genuine as Luna thought it was. Had she told Celestia otherwise? Was that girl using this as a way to get back at her for antagonizing her in the past? What lies had she fed Celestia?

Luna narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What did she tell thee?"

"She said she had fun."

The blue alicorn's scorn lifted quickly, relieved and, frankly, a little surprised. "She... said that?"

Celestia nodded.

Luna quirked an eyebrow. Despite this information, the slight scowl on her sister's face hadn't shifted. "Then what's the issue? We've done nothing wrong. The filly is happy, and We taught her a thing or two."

"But it's the things you've been teaching her that I take umbrage with."

The moon princess furrowed her brow once more. "What dost that mean? We taught her nothing that thou couldn't teach her."

"There's a difference between 'couldn't' and 'wouldn't,' Luna."

"Get to the point! What is thy issue?!"

"You told her to use her frustration and disappointment as motivation."

Luna paused briefly, vexed by the accusation. "So? Where's the harm in that? Our emotions are what guide us. We should use them to achieve our goals in whatever ways we can."

"But those—" Celestia took a deep breath to steady herself; she didn't want this to become a shouting match. She placed a hoof to her chest for a moment before looking at Luna with a more level gaze and tone. "Frustration and disappointment; these are negative emotions, Luna. We can't let our actions be dictated by negativity. Our emotions may guide us, but different emotions can lead you down a different path."

"And who art thou to decide what path she should take?"

"I am her teacher! It's my job to show her the correct path."

Luna felt it again; that roiling in the back of her head, just like she'd felt that morning. Luna shot up from her chair, knocking it over in the process and glaring icy daggers across at her sister. "And it just comes back to this again! I'm wrong and you're right! My philosophies don't precisely match yours, so that means they are objectively incorrect, is that it?! We may look at things differently, Celestia, but that doesn't inherently mean that my views are invalid! You'd know that if you'd step down off of your damn pedestal once in a while!"

During Luna's outburst that morning, Celestia had found herself falling into her sister's emotional clutches, letting her tears and her words sow guilt and remorse inside her. But now, Celestia instead grit her teeth, glaring almost as harshly back at her little sister. The ivory alicorn stood from her seat as well, stomping a hoof on the table and causing the plates and pancakes to shake and bounce from the force.

"Luna, that is enough!"

Luna took a step back in shock. While it wasn't uncommon for the moon princess to become irate, seeing her big sister glare so harshly was a rarity, one that slightly unnerved her.

"I am sick and tired of listening to you play the victim! All you do is complain about how much better I have it than you, and how little our subjects supposedly respect you! So instead of whining about it, have you ever considered, I don't know, doing something to earn their respect?!"

Luna hesitated for a moment under her sister's bellowing voice, but retaliated with a glower of her own. "And how art We to do that? Our subjects sleep during the night when We art active."

"And since when has it been a rule that you need to be awake all night and asleep all day? I know you monitor the night sky every night, but when was the last time something actually happened up there of any note? Why not just raise the moon and go to bed so you can be awake with the rest of us? I know I'd like to spend some more time with my little sister."

Luna turned away with a reluctant grumble. "It's not as simple as that... Why does raising the moon not warrant the same level of respect as raising the sun? We can do that, too, yet thou get all the credit..."

Celestia clomped a hoof on the table once more, firmly, but not angrily, making sure that Luna was looking her in the eye. "Luna, stop acting like an entitled brat. You're an adult. Perhaps it's time to start acting like one. And it's precisely that attitude of yours that's the reason why people treat you as they do. Our subjects aren't here to serve us, Luna. It's the other way around. And maybe when you manage to get that through your head, I'll let you teach Sunset again." Celestia adjusted the bangs of her colorful, flowing mane, fixing the stragglers that had fallen out of place during her uncharacteristic outburst before starting towards the door. She opened it with a surprisingly calm flourish of her golden magic, but took a brief glance back at her sister. The authority was still present in her pink eyes, but there was also a softness that belied the aggravation she was clearly feeling. "I love you, Luna. I want you to know that. Good night."

Celestia disappeared behind the door, shutting it behind her. Luna was alone now, and she fell back onto her haunches with a long sigh. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so thoroughly chewed out like that, and it left her in much the same position that she'd left Celestia that morning. The tables had turned rather quickly, and Luna was not ready for the shift in inertia. In a way, Celestia reminded her of their mother when she'd scold them for misbehaving. It was a nostalgic feeling, and not entirely unwelcome.

Luna had a lot to think about as she stared at the disturbed piles of fluffy pancakes still sitting on the table. She quietly hovered a fork over to herself, taking another bite—albeit a listless one—from the breakfast her sister had so lovingly made for her.

***** ***** *****

"So, how's your training with Princess Celestia going? Have you raised the sun again yet?"

Sunset moaned sheepishly with an embarrassed blush at the question, not looking Halberd in the eye. "No..."

The silver pegasus gave his classmate a sympathetic look. "Oh, too bad. I guess it's not going well, huh?" he said to her quietly as he stuffed his school books into his saddlebags.

Sunset's expression shifted quickly, her voice becoming more defensive at Halberd's assumption. "N-No, it's going fine! Princess Celestia's an amazing teacher, it's just..." She turned away ashamedly. "It's me... My magic's definitely getting stronger, but I can't tap into the power I used when I did it the first time yet."

"Oh. But... you're still making progress, right?"

Sunset nodded, managing a small grin. "Yeah. But..." And as quickly as it had appeared, her smile faded. "Apparently it might be a long time before I get strong enough to move the sun again. Like, most of my life. I might be an old mare before I can do it."

"But it'll be exciting when you do, right?"

The amber filly looked her classmate in the eye again. He was wearing a rather reassuring smile. The years didn't seem to bother him much, but then again, he wasn't the one who was trying to raise the sun. Regardless, Sunset was still able to force a smile of her own. "I guess." She fastened the clasp on her bags, ready to head home after another day of school. "But even if it takes a long time, that just means I get to spend more time with Princess Celestia."

A slight frown curled Halberd's lips down as the two foals left the schoolhouse with the other children. "I guess that means you're going straight home again, then, huh?"

Sunset nodded eagerly, oblivious to the colt's downtrodden tone. "Yup. The princess wasn't really in a teaching mood yesterday, so I basically missed a whole day of lessons. I gotta make up for it today."

"Okay..." Halberd groaned quietly, hanging his head slightly. Despite his sullen attitude, he still managed to give Sunset a friendly smile goodbye. "I'll see you tomorrow, Sunset."

Sunset barely acknowledged his goodbye as she galloped over to where the colt's older brother was waiting for her with the golden chariot. "Alright, Lance! Let's go!" She skidded to a stop next to the armored stallion, noticing that he wasn't even looking at her. He didn't even so much as greet her. He was just staring off into the distance. Sunset quirked a curious eyebrow. "Lance? Hello? You hear me?"

"Um..." was all he said in response. However, he did acknowledge her presence with a slow raise of his hoof.

Sunset tilted her head in confusion at the soldier's odd behavior, but followed his pointing hoof down the main road of Canterlot. The filly's teal eyes widened in surprise, disbelief, and more confusion, her expression mirroring Lance's.

Not far down the street, out and about in the middle of the day and within the public eye, was Princess Luna. She appeared to be conversing with a pair of mares, though the two civilians looked a tad uncomfortable in the alicorn's presence.

Having noticed the situation himself, Halberd walked over to Sunset and his brother, unable to take his eyes of the blue alicorn. "Um... Is that Princess Luna?"

"Uh, yeah. It is," Lance responded, though he still sounded uncertain himself.

"What's she doing here?" Sunset whispered.

"I have no idea. She just showed up a few minutes ago and started randomly talking to people on the street."

The two mares to which the princess was talking were steadily backing off from Luna, and one of them forced an awkward smile and seemed to gesture that they needed to be elsewhere before briskly taking their leave of the alicorn's presence. Luna appeared accepting of their departure, but quickly began looking around, presumably to find somepony else to speak with. It didn't take long for her eyes to fall upon Lance, Sunset, and Halberd, the princess immediately recognizing her armored employee and the fiery mane of her sister's student. She trotted over toward them with a rather exaggerated gait, holding her head high.

"Ah, good afternoon," Luna greeted, though her own voice seemed to stop her in her tracks. "Goodness, it's been quite some time since We've said that. In any case, We were hoping to run into thee here."

"Uh, yeah, good to see you, Your Highness," Lance greeted somewhat awkwardly, still pretty puzzled by her presence. "If I might ask, what exactly are you doing here?"

"Yeah, aren't you supposed to be in bed?" Sunset asked.

"What? Are We not allowed to consort with Our subjects? Is that not the duty of a princess?" Luna replied rhetorically, dodging the question.

"No offense, Your Majesty, but since when do you do that?" inquired Lance.

Luna narrowed her eyes at the soldier's skepticism. "Thou seem to be implying that We have no interest in Our subjects' lives."

Lance raised a hoof defensively. "That's not exactly what I'm saying."

Sunset cast a knowing frown at the princess. "Does this have anything to do with the fight you and Princess Celestia had?"

Both Lance and Halberd stared at Sunset, a little surprised to hear that.

Luna, however, dropped the act finally and breathed a deep sigh. "We had a... sobering conversation with Our sister last night." She straightened up, briefly puffing out her chest defiantly. "We maintain that Our argument still hast merits, but... Celestia brought up some good points..."

Princess Celestia hadn't really shared any specific details about their argument with Sunset, so the filly wasn't entirely sure what these "points" Luna was talking about were. But however curious she was, she decided that it wasn't really any of her business, even if her lessons were an instigating factor. Sunset thought it might be best if the royal sisters could work this out for themselves—plus, she didn't want to inadvertently make matters worse by interfering.

"So what does that have to do with you being here in broad daylight?" Lance continued to ask.

"As per Our sister's suggestion, We are attempting to garner favor from Our subjects by interacting with them directly," Luna elaborated. However, her ears drooped slightly. "Though it hast not been going well thus far. Everypony We've tried talking with seems to hath prior obligations and quickly excuse themselves from Our company. Is there an event today that everypony is busy with?"

"Not as far as I'm aware," Lance answered.

"It might have to do with your face."

Luna grimaced, insulted by Sunset's insinuation. "Beg thy pardon?"

"She's not kidding," Lance added. "You look more than little haggard right now."

Luna turned to a nearby shop window, approaching it and examining her reflection. Sure enough, the area around her eyes were sunken and darker than usual, with unappealing bags underneath them. Indeed, her current appearance was quite off-putting. She breathed another sigh as she walked back over to the stallion and two foals. "Our apologies. After Our fight with Celestia yesterday morning, we had difficulty sleeping throughout the day. And We attempted to sleep last night in preparation for Our excursion today, but We art not yet accustomed to sleeping during the night. We've essentially been awake for over twenty-four hours at this point."

"That doesn't sound healthy," Lance commented with concern.

"But necessary if We are to improve Our relationship with Our subjects," the alicorn claimed confidently. "Besides, We'll likely have little difficulty getting to sleep tonight after this." She punctuated that by stifling a tired yawn.

"So, what, you're just gonna wander around Canterlot and randomly strike up conversations with people on the street?"

"Is there a more efficient method?" Luna asked with genuine curiosity.

Lance shrugged. "I'm just saying that it might be a bit time-consuming to chat up everypony one at a time."

"Ah, We understand. Thou art suggesting that We make a public address to inform the people of Our presence and intentions."

The armored stallion blinked. "Uh, that's not quite what I—"

"One moment..."

Ignoring anything further, Luna flapped her majestic wings and took off into the air, flying high above Canterlot. The civilians in the immediate area watched with confusion and caution as the princess rose above them, overlooking the entire town. Once she was certain that she was in full view for everypony to see, Luna cleared her throat and inhaled deeply.

"Salutations, citizens of Canterlot! It is I, Princess Luna!"

Lance, Sunset, Halberd, and everypony else in the capitol winced at the sheer volume of Luna's voice as she bellowed down to them. Despite how high up she was, the alicorn's voice boomed like a shock wave, practically shaking the windows of nearby houses and threatening to crack them.

"We hath chosen to grace thy fair town with Our presence this day as a gesture of camaraderie! If anypony wishes to converse with Us, by all means, do not hesitate to approach Us!" With that, Luna descended from the sky and alighted back where Sunset and Lance were with a slight self-satisfied smile. "There. Now we need only wait for Our subjects to come to Us. A brilliant suggestion, Lance."

"What?" was Lance's response as he rubbed his ringing ears.

Luna stared down the street as she waited, looking to the several ponies who were still passing along. However, while pretty much all of them were looking in the princess's direction, none of them appeared to be taking her up on her offer. "They... aren't coming," Luna observed, her ears folding back slightly in dejection. "We made it clear who We were, right? Why are they not interested in talking with Us?"

"They're probably a little weirded out," Sunset told her.

Luna quirked an eyebrow. "What dost thou mean?"

"Well, they're not used to seeing you out here in the middle of the day. Or ever, really."

"So? Our sister rarely makes public appearances either. Usually if anypony needs to speak with one of us, they come to the castle. Do they look at Celestia the same way?"

"And when exactly do people usually show up at the castle?" Lance posited, already knowing the answer, of course.

"During the... day..." Luna frowned slightly as she put the pieces together. "Hath they simply forgotten who We are?"

"Probably not, but people don't really know what you're like either. They might think you have some sort of ulterior motive for being here," Lance explained.

"Then We'll make another address," the princess declared resolutely. "We'll make it abundantly clear that We're here to talk and only talk, with no other purpose."

"No, no, there's no need for that!" Lance hastily interrupted, wanting to save his eardrums from any further discomfort. "That would probably only make them even more suspicious."

"Then what do We do?"

Sunset observed the falling expression on Luna's face as the hope steadily drained from her. She wanted to help her, but Sunset knew from experience that Princess Luna doesn't exactly give a good first impression, and she probably wasn't doing a very good job of remedying that today. But that's when a light switched on in the filly's brain, and an idea hit her.

"Actually, maybe what you were doing in the first place was right," the little unicorn suggested with a grin.

Luna gave a curious tilt of her head. "Thou mean just talking with random strangers on the street?"

"Kinda. See, I first heard of Princess Celestia in school, and after that I wanted to meet her so badly. So maybe the people you've already talked to will tell their friends about it, and that'll make them want to come talk to you."

"Word of mouth, huh? It's not the craziest idea," Lance remarked with a grin of his own.

Luna held a hoof to her mouth as she contemplated the idea. "So We generate buzz, and that, in turn, generates interest. But We've already let the people know of Our presence. What more could this do?"

"But people's personal interactions with you would probably be more interesting," Sunset informed. "You yelling at everypony from the sky isn't really something that people are gonna talk about for very long cause everypony heard it already. But if somepony told their friends that they actually talked to Princess Luna directly, they might think that's cool."

"Then do We simply wait and allow those We've already spoken with to spread the word, or shall We continue to seek Our subjects out?" Luna inquired.

"That depends," Sunset replied. "Did they like talking with you?"

"Surely they must have," Luna presumed confidently, though not without a hint of doubt. "After all, We are their princess, their ruler. For Us to take time out of Our day—time which We would normally spend sleeping—should be seen as a momentous occasion. The average citizen dost not receive such a gifted opportunity often. Surely they will relish the occurrence."

"I don't know, Princess," Lance doubted with a scratch of his neck. "From what I saw, those people seemed a bit uncomfortable when you were chatting them up, even before your 'public address.'"

"Then what doth thou suggest We are doing wrong?"

"You could try speaking like a normal person, for one," Sunset answered.

Luna scowled slightly, feeling a tad insulted, and scoffed at the suggestion. "This is how royalty is meant to speak. We know Celestia chooses to not, but that is her prerogative."

"Then maybe just try being a little more friendly. Instead of talking about yourself, why don't you ask them about themselves?"

Luna paused for a moment. In that moment, she remembered what her sister had said to her the night before: their subjects weren't there to serve them; the two of them existed to serve their subjects. "So... We should... offer... assistance?"

"I guess?" Sunset replied with a touch of uncertainty. "I mean, if they need help, I guess you can help. But I kinda just meant get to know them a little better. Princess Celestia likes to show an interest in other people's lives."

The alicorn grimaced at her. "We are not trying to be Our sister, so We would appreciate it if thou wouldst stop comparing Us to her."

"Didn't you say she was the reason you're out here right now?" Lance reminded her.

"Yes, but... We only wish for Our subjects to respect Us for Our own merits, not necessarily the ideals set by Our sister. We are both princesses, but we are our own people."

The stallion rubbed his temple gently, sighing as he became more and more annoyed by this whole situation—not that he'd say so out loud in front of Princess Luna. "Honestly, it sounds like you didn't think this through before you came here, Your Highness."

"Yeah, it kinda sounds like you expected people to love and respect you just because you're a princess," added Sunset.

Luna leaned down toward the filly with a grumpy pout. "Do not spout hypocrisy, little one. Did you not become enamored with Our sister simply because she's a princess?"

Sunset stared back defiantly. "No, I liked Princess Celestia because I learned about all the stuff she's done for Equestria."

Lance stepped in, pulling Sunset away from the alicorn before either of them could trigger the other into starting an argument. "Look, we could talk about this all day and not get anywhere. When it comes right down to it, what you expect to happen, Princess, is not gonna happen in just one day. Earning the respect of an entire kingdom is gonna take time."

Luna straightened up again, breathing a resigned sigh. "Yes, thou hath a point. But We must start somewhere, and We are losing some of that valuable time simply talking about it. We must continue with Our endeavor, but We need to find somepony who is willing to speak with Us more openly..." As she began to look around the area again, Luna's eyes eventually fell onto the small, pegasus colt that had been silently standing there with them the entire time. "Thou hath been staring at Us for quite some time. Who art thee?"

Halberd gulped nervously. Having been dumbstruck by the rare presence of Princess Luna this whole time, the colt had been rendered speechless. And now that she was actually addressing him directly, he found his short legs begin to shake under her inquisitive gaze and his wings held fast against his sides. "I-I-I..." was all the awkward kid could manage to muster up.

Lance gave the colt a pat on the head. "Oh, right. Sorry, we were so distracted by your presence that I completely forgot to introduce him. This is my little brother Halberd. Hal, greet the princess."

Halberd stared wide-eyed at Luna, who was staring back expectantly. He opened his mouth to speak, but was too intimidated to properly form words.

Lance shook his head with a quiet chuckle at Halberd's nervousness. "Sorry about him. He's a bit shy, and probably a little starstruck."

That was when Sunset jumped in with a smile and an idea. "Oh! Maybe this is a good opportunity to practice! Princess, try giving Halberd a friendly greeting."

Lance stifled a snicker at the idea of Princess Luna using his little brother as a guinea pig in this experiment, but was still curious as to how it would go.

Luna nodded in agreement. "Very well." She cleared her throat and lifted her head high, staring down her nose at the uncomfortable colt. "Greetings, young one. We are Princess Luna, ruler of the night."

The alicorn held out her hoof to the colt as though expecting him to kiss it. Halberd didn't know how to respond, looking to his big brother for guidance. However, Lance could only offer a dismissive shrug and a slightly amused smirk.

"Just say hello, Princess," Sunset corrected.

"That hardly sounds formal," the alicorn argued.

"There's nothing formal about this," Lance added. "Hal's not a foreign dignitary or anything. You're just talking to somepony."

Luna hesitated, looking a tad apprehensive about abandoning her usual air of sophistication and authority in front of one of her subjects. "H-Hello."

Sunset smiled at even that little amount of progress. "Okay, now, introduce yourself and ask him for his name."

The princess was puzzled by the instructions. "But we know one another's names already."

"This is practice. Just do it."

Luna wasn't entirely fond of being told what to do, especially not by a child, but went along with it anyway, looking back at Halberd. "Our name is Princess Luna. What is thy name?" she asked, though her greeting was rather forced and stiff.

Once again, Halberd found it difficult to respond, the princess's odd demeanor and this whole contrived scenario making things feel just a little awkward.

"Come on, Hal," Lance encouraged his brother with a grin. "You met Princess Celestia before, didn't you?"

"I-I didn't actually talk to her," Halberd replied, finally managing to get some words out.

Lance rolled his eyes, getting a little fed up with all of this. "It's not hard, Hal. Mom and Dad told you how to greet the princesses if you ever met 'em, didn't they?"

Halberd looked back up into Princess Luna's eyes. Admittedly, as nervous and as awkward as he felt right now, he could see that the princess looked much the same, struggling to maintain eye contact and with a slight, embarrassed blush in her cheeks. She was clearly in the same boat as him, and, somehow, that made him feel a little better, knowing that even royalty wasn't exempt from social anxiety.

Halberd bowed to the princess, though his legs were still a little shaky. "H-Hello. M-My name is Halberd. It's an honor to meet you, Y-Your Highness."

Lance gave his little brother a firm pat on the back, startling the colt. "There you go. That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

"Was that sufficient?" Luna asked Sunset.

The filly gave the princess a pleased grin, nodding in response. "Yeah, that was great. If you just introduce yourself like that, then maybe people won't feel as weird."

Luna spread her wings confidently. Although it felt a little humiliating to receive advice from somepony so young, it was better than nothing. "Excellent. Then We shall continue Our efforts."

Sunset nodded, giving the alicorn an encouraging smile. "Alright, good luck, Princess. Come on, Lance. Let's go home."

"You sure you don't want to stay a little longer? You know, help out Princess Luna?" Despite mentioning the princess, Lance's eyes briefly glanced toward his little brother, though Sunset didn't seem to notice.

Sunset shook her head. "Me and Princess Celestia gotta make up for the lessons we missed yesterday, so I wanna get back to the castle. I'm sure Princess Luna can manage by herself. Right, Princess?"

Luna nodded. "Yes, We'll be fine."

Lance shrugged. "If you say so." He hitched himself up to the chariot and Sunset hopped aboard eagerly. "Hal, you can keep the princess company if you want."

"Huh?! But I—"

"Later, kiddo!" Lance called out to him as he got a running start down the street, ignoring Halberd's attempt to argue with him.

The pegasus colt watched his older brother and his classmate take off into the sky and toward the Castle of the Two Sisters. He could feel Luna's eyes continuing to stare at him, making him feel a little uncomfortable again, especially now that the two of them were alone.

"Should we practice small talk?" Princess Luna suggested.

Halberd gulped, unsure how to feel about this. "Um..."

***** ***** *****

"Are you sure you weren't too hard on her, Princess?"

Princess Celestia breathed a regrettable sigh, but held fast to her actions and decisions. "Honestly, it was a long time coming. I should have had this conversation with Luna years ago. I wish I didn't have to, but these are the circumstances as they've been presented to us. My sister needed somepony to give her that kick in the flank, and nopony else was going to work up the courage to do it if I didn't."

"Do you think you got through to her?" Starswirl asked as the pair wandered the halls of the castle.

"That's hard to say. I took my leave a little sooner than perhaps I should have, but I wanted to give her the night to think it over. I suppose we'll see when we see her tonight."

The stallion chuckled in mild amusement. "You know, you and I may have more in common than I first presumed, Your Highness. I know I've spent my fair share of time scolding a stubborn child."

Celestia giggled, as well, in response. "Perhaps so, but mine should have grown out of such childishness ages ago."

"Speaking of children," Starswirl segued. "How has Sunset been faring in her training?"

The alicorn gave him a proud smile. "She's making notable headway. At first, I was worried it would take a long time before she was able to even come close to tapping into the power within her. But she's improving quickly, far faster than I had expected."

The bearded unicorn analyzed the expression on the princess's face as she thought about Sunset. Though there was most certainly great pride in her voice to think of the progress her student was making, her eyes held a tinge of concern. Given that this was his daughter they were talking about, Starswirl felt the need to inquire. "Too quickly?"

Celestia glanced down at him with a touch of uncertainty. "At her age, it may be a bit much. I'm honestly a little worried that it may be more than she can handle at this time, even with training. I don't want her to hurt herself again."

Starswirl nodded in understanding. "I trust your judgment, Princess. I know you've put this responsibility on yourself, but if you believe that this is moving too fast, or if you think she can handle it, I trust you to make that choice."

The ivory mare let out another sigh. "As much as I'd hate to say it, I fear Luna may have put some ideas in her head that I don't agree with. After thinking about it for a while, I do feel my sister may have had a point that Sunset can decide for herself what path she wants to take, but it may be wise for me to focus on figuring out exactly what that path is."

"So, the plan is to use this time less for strengthening her magic, and more so to develop her mindset," Starswirl presumed. "Does that conflict with your original intentions? You were worried that her innate power could hurt her if she didn't learn to control it."

"Controlling one's magic is just as much a mental exercise as it is physical," Celestia explained. "I just think now is a better time to focus on the former, while her young mind is still malleable." She gave Starswirl a reassuring grin. "Besides, she's already proven that she's quite strong already, more than anypony I've ever seen at her age. There may not be any need to advance further than where she is right now, at least for the time being."

Starswirl groaned quietly. "But surely you know she'll be persistent. We've both seen how that girl is when she sets her mind to something. She's not likely to accept a hiatus on her training and will probably continue to practice in secret, perhaps even seek out your sister's tutelage behind your back to make up for it."

"Yes, you're probably right," the princess reluctantly agreed. "Rest assured, I'm going to discuss this thoroughly with her to make sure she fully understands my intentions."

The unicorn gave her a grin. "Well, in the end, that filly respects you above all else—perhaps even more than she respects me. I don't believe you'll have difficulty convincing her that you have her best interests in mind."

"Let's hope so," Celestia replied with a lighthearted chuckle.

It was at this time that the two of them had arrived at the castle's throne room. As luck would have it, their timing was spot on, as entering from the main entrance at the exact same time were Sunset Shimmer and Lance. Upon seeing the princess, a wide, beaming smile spread across the filly's face and she galloped across the throne room to meet her.

"Hi, Princess! Hi, Daddy!" Sunset chirped cheerily.

"And hello to you, too, sweetheart," Starswirl greeted back, tousling his daughter's fiery mane. "How was school?"

"Fine." Her response was rather dismissive, but that was par for the course, as both her father and Princess Celestia knew what she was expecting now that she was back. Sunset immediately looked up at the alicorn with eager anticipation. "But I'm always excited to come home and start my real lessons."

Celestia and Starswirl exchanged glances, both of them thinking on their prior conversation. The princess smiled softly at the filly, speaking tenderly, yet cautiously. "Sunset, there's actually something I want to discuss with you about your lessons."

Sunset's ears flattened back a little. "Does it have to do with Princess Luna?"

Celestia's smile faded. She understood why Sunset might think that given recent events, and she could tell by her expression that the filly felt bad about the whole debacle, but she was somewhat surprised to hear that that was the first assumption her student would make. "No, it doesn't. Are you still concerned about that?"

Sunset kneaded a hoof into the carpet underneath her. "Well, I know you and Princess Luna had an argument last night, too. I just don't want you two to fight."

Celestia took a short breath through her nose before gently placing a hoof on the filly's shoulder. "Sunset, you may not know this because you're an only child, but siblings butt heads occasionally. Sure, the two of us are upset with one another for various reasons, but I see no reason to believe that we won't get over it—we always do."

Sunset managed a small smile and nodded in understanding. "Okay. I was just a little worried because Princess Luna seemed like she took what you said pretty seriously."

Celestia quirked a curious eyebrow at the statement. "When were you talking to Luna?"

"Just now."

"She's still awake?" said Starswirl. "That's certainly unusual."

"Actually, she's in Canterlot right now," Lance interjected as he sauntered over to join the trio. "We were talking to her before we came back."

"Canterlot? What's she doing up there?" Celestia asked, surprised and baffled.

"Taking your words to heart, apparently," Lance replied with a shrug.

"She's trying to earn your subjects respect by going around town and talking to them," Sunset added.

Celestia breathed a sigh, rubbing the back of her graceful neck. "I see. I know I suggested she do so, but I didn't expect her to jump right on it."

"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?" Starswirl commented. "Princess Luna should get more involved with the kingdom and its people."

"True, but she's been rather disconnected from society for a long time. I feel like this is something she should ease herself into rather than dive in, head first."

"Then you probably should have told her that, too," Lance remarked.

"But we told her," Sunset chimed in with an optimistic grin. "We even gave her some pointers."

"I suppose she has to start somewhere," Celestia said with a quiet shake of her head. "But I wish she'd have told me she was going. I could have accompanied her. That might have made things easier."

"Judging by what she told us, I doubt she would have accepted that offer," Lance told her with a slight grimace. "She seems like she wants to differentiate herself from you."

"That makes sense," Starswirl agreed with a nod and a stroke of his beard. "Judging from what I've observed of Princess Luna, she seems like the sort who would prefer to garner respect on her own merits rather than having you tell people to like her, Your Highness."

"Perhaps," Celestia said with a sigh and a nod. "But I am still a little concerned about her being out there on her own."

"Did you not say it yourself, Princess? You were the one who wanted her to start acting like an adult," Starswirl reminded her.

Celestia raised her head, her expression becoming more resolute in response to his words. "Yes, you're right. If Luna believes she can handle this, then I shall not interfere unless asked. I just hope she can stick this out." The alicorn cleared her throat, looking down at the young filly again. "Now then, I said we had things to discuss, Sunset. Why don't I accompany you as you drop off your schoolbags and we can talk, alright?"

Sunset nodded eagerly, following Princess Celestia out of the throne room and toward the staff quarters.

Starswirl let out a quiet chuckle as he turned to Lance. "Well, I certainly wasn't expecting to hear such a thing today."

"You're telling me. I had to watch it," Lance agreed with a laugh of his own.

"How is Princess Luna faring out there?"

The pegasus responded with a somewhat uncertain and crooked grin. "Ehh, she's got some work to do, I'll say that. She's pretty out of touch. You should have seen the looks she was getting."

"I can imagine. Suspicions must by high to see the princess of the night suddenly out and about," Starswirl laughed.

"That's exactly what I told her."

Starswirl looked to the soldier curiously. "Sunset said you were giving her advice. Was she very receptive? She doesn't strike me as the sort of person to do things somepony else's way."

"And to a extent, you're right. Thankfully, she was willing to listen to us, although she seemed pretty insistent that she didn't want to do things exactly as her sister would."

"Yes, you mentioned that. Which raises the question as to what approach she is going to take," Starswirl wondered, exhibiting both concern and curiosity. "Was Sunset helpful? I've been a little worried about her relationship with Princess Luna."

Lance breathed a slight sigh as he removed his helmet, the hairs of his white mane falling down around his forehead so he could run a hoof through it. "Yeah, actually. I think she gave the princess some great advice; nothing I wouldn't have said myself."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. What Lance had said didn't exactly match his tone or body language. "Is there a problem, then? Did she do something I should know about?"

Lance briefly glanced at Starswirl, but turned away again, unsure if he wanted to get into this topic again. "It's just... she had plenty of good advice to give Princess Luna about being sociable, but... it seems weird to me that she doesn't make use of her own advice."

The bearded stallion tilted his head. "How do you mean?"

"She has the personality and the charisma to make plenty of friends, but she seems content to spend all her time at home, studying and training."

Starswirl nodded in understanding, giving his white beard a slow stroke. "Ah, this again. I see."

"Look, I'm sorry. I don't mean to keep harping on this. It's just a little disappointing to see such a energetic kid waste her time stuck indoors with her nose in a book."

Starswirl stared somewhat sternly at the pegasus in response. "Well, I'd hardly call it a waste of time. All of her studying will be good in the long run. She's going to do great things for this kingdom someday."

"Yeah, yeah, and that's all well and good, but I'm just saying that a person can put the books down every once in a while. There's nothing wrong with having a bit of fun every now and then."

"Studying is fun for her, though."

Lance let out an exasperated sigh. "I guess you wouldn't really understand, huh? From what I gathered, you were pretty much the same when you were a kid, right?"

Starswirl remained silent. He hadn't talked to any of the other staff members about his past much, specifically about his rocky relationship with Sunset's mother, so he wouldn't have expected Lance to fully sympathize with him. But Lance had a point: he didn't really want Sunset to endure the same things he had to in his youth due to their naïveté.

"If you wanna look at it like this," Lance continued, "Do you want Sunset to wind up like Princess Luna?"

At that question, Starswirl smiled confidently. "I'm not really concerned about that. Princess Celestia doesn't exactly get out much either, but she's still a highly respectable and sociable mare. Given my daughter's enthusiasm and how much she idolizes her, I'd like to think Sunset is more similar to Celestia."

Lance sighed in resignation. "I guess you've got a point. Look, sorry for bringing this up again. I just thought it was a little odd, that's all. Anyway, I gotta get back to my post. Later, Starswirl." He placed his helmet back on his head and gave his colleague a halfhearted wave as he headed back to the castle's main entrance.

Starswirl returned the farewell with a wave of his own. "Have a good day, Lance." And with that, the bearded stallion decided that since Princess Celestia was occupying his daughter, he may as well do some silent study in the royal archives.

***** ***** *****

"Does all of this make sense, Sunset?"

The filly stared outward at the mountains as she thought over what Princess Celestia had suggested to her. Reducing her lessons was not something she wanted to do, but she could still use that time to study. Still, though, after being told that it may take her whole life to raise the sun again, she was hesitant to sacrifice her training just because Princess Celestia was a little worried about her safety.

Sunset stared up pleadingly into Celestia's eyes. "Do you not trust me?"

While the look of dejection in the young unicorn's eyes was heart-wrenching, Celestia held firm to her decision. "Of course I do, but there's a difference between confidence and overconfidence. Just because you believe that you can handle something, doesn't mean you're actually ready to do it."

Sunset stared down at the canopy of the Everfree Forest below them with a slight pout. "What happened to being able to do anything you put your mind to...?"

"That saying implies dedication, hard work, and knowing how to overcome one's limitations. In other words, it takes time, and overdoing it can just result in those goals moving further away."

"I can handle it..." Sunset grumbled under her breath.

Celestia sighed in exasperation. "Your father said you'd be stubborn about this. I suppose I'm just going to have to put my hoof down on this matter. I know you don't like it, but I could turn your own question back on you: do you not trust me, Sunset?"

Sunset groaned with a grimace, laying her chin upon her fetlocks as she leaned on the balcony railing. Celestia had deliberately backed her into a corner, knowing that she'd never say no to that question, and it irked the filly slightly to know that she was so easily manipulated. But still, she did trust Princess Celestia. As sure as she was that she could handle her training, her teacher's judgment was probably more reliable than her own.

The alicorn observed the reluctant look on her student's face. She felt a little guilty, but she knew this was for the best. Still, Celestia always thought that a smile looked better on Sunset's face than a grumpy pout. So, to get things back on the right track, Celestia started with a smile of her own. "It's not like we have to completely phase out your training. If we did that, your magic might start getting weaker."

Sunset lifted her head, looking up at her teacher hopefully. "So I can still practice?"

"Of course. However, I'd like to make a few stipulations," Celestia stated sternly. "If you're going to practice, practice with me. I need to make sure you aren't overexerting yourself."

Sunset nodded with a grin.

"Also, I'd rather if you didn't request lessons from my sister. It's not that I don't trust her, but her tutelage may conflict with my own. And besides, it sounds like she has her own stuff going on now." Celestia stared off into the distance at Canterlot, wondering for a moment how Luna was doing in her endeavors.

Sunset followed her gaze to the town built into the mountainside. She was equally curious about Luna. "Okay."

Celestia glanced back down at Sunset. It didn't sound like she liked that idea, but it didn't seem as though she questioned her teacher's decision on that front. Their discussion on the subject the previous day must have held fast in her mind. Regardless, she feared that Sunset's reluctance now and her inherent impatience in regards to her training might lead her to make questionable decisions.

The alicorn leaned down, placing her hoof gently on the filly's shoulder and looking her straight in her teal eyes. Her gaze exhibited both compassion and authority, wanting Sunset to know exactly how important this was. "Sunset, I want to reiterate that this is all for your own safety. I know you may feel like this change is going to hold you back, but trust me, in the long run this will be for the best. You just have to have faith and not become frustrated if it seems as though you aren't making progress."

Sunset stared into her teacher's caring, pink eyes. It wasn't like she expected Princess Celestia to have some sort of personal agenda fueling this decision, but a part of her wanted to find some sort of argument to make her change her mind. But it was clear that everything that the princess said and did was done with her in mind, so for now, she chose not to argue anymore, putting her trust in the princess.

Celestia could still see a hint of apprehension in Sunset's expression, but accepted that she was never going to be completely satisfied with this change. All she could do was continue to reassure her. To that end, Celestia gave her student another smile. "You're a smart, young filly, Sunset. I have no doubt that you'll only continue to improve as you grow. And I'll be there for you every step of the way."

As simple as that statement was, Sunset couldn't deny that it did feel reassuring. Princess Celestia's words could always put her at ease when she really tried, and she didn't want to worry the princess anymore than she had already. In fact, Sunset felt that she needed to apologize for any of the emotional turmoil she'd inadvertently caused recently.

Celestia was a little caught off guard when the filly suddenly threw her forelegs around her long neck, hugging her tightly. But feeling Sunset's smile against her neck was all she needed to know that her student trusted her and was relying on her, and she was going to do everything she could to ensure that trust was well placed.

Chapter 8 - Outshined

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 8: Outshined

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"Go on. Give it another shot, Sunset."

The filly nodded, grinning eagerly as she once more focused magic into her horn. She closed her eyes, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated.

True to their agreement, Sunset's magical training had been relegated to one day a week so that she didn't get overwhelmed by her own power. Instead, Princess Celestia had been focusing on teaching Sunset the more fundamental aspects of magic, as well as keeping her optimistic. That point was important; Sunset had frequently exhibited disappointment, frustration, and dejection whenever she would fail to accomplish something she'd been dead set on doing, and Princess Celestia wanted her to learn to accept that the things you want don't come easy.

Thankfully, that seemed to be going well. It had been two months now since Sunset and her father had moved to the Castle of the Two Sisters, and even though Sunset had spent more of that time studying rather than practicing, she had managed to maintain a positive attitude. Besides, it wasn't as though she wasn't getting any training in, it just wasn't specifically to strengthen her magic. Rather, Princess Celestia and even Starswirl were helping to teach her new spells. For as powerful as Sunset was for her age, her range of spells was still pretty much what one would expect from a young foal, just to a significantly higher degree. For example, while an average unicorn foal would likely be able to levitate nothing heavier than a stack of textbooks, Sunset had demonstrated enough power to lift one of the sculptures in the castle's statue garden—something not even most adult unicorns could claim.

So right now, Sunset was broadening her skill set. With the power at her disposal, as well as her sharp mind, her father and Princess Celestia felt she'd have little trouble learning some new spells. In addition, doing so would help her learn to better control her magic without risk of hurting herself, which, of course, would aid her in her long term goals. One such spell was what her father was currently helping her with: teleportation, a spell that Sunset had always wanted to learn. Starswirl was one of very few unicorns capable of performing the spell, so who better to teach her than her own father?

Once her cyan magic had been built up sufficiently, Sunset then focused her mind. She had been told how to perform the spell: the caster must picture the location to which they wish to travel, then focus their magic on themselves and direct it to that location. That was the explanation for short-range teleportation. The final step—directing the magic to the desired spot—was more complicated when it came to long distances, or locations not within view. But as Sunset was simply learning to perform the spell, that was a bridge she'd cross later.

Once she had the location pictured in her mind's eye, Sunset released her magic, creating a bright flash and a high-pitched pop. She immediately opened her eyes with an eager grin, but her mouth quickly curled down as she realized she hadn't moved an inch. Again. "Dang it..." she groaned in disappointment.

"Don't feel discouraged, sweetie," Starswirl said with a reassuring smile. "You have the right idea, but you seem to be having difficulty focusing your magic on your destination. You're concentrating your magic too much on yourself."

"I know teleporting isn't the easiest thing to do, but I thought I'd get the hang of it a little quicker," Sunset expressed.

Starswirl smirked at his daughter. "Well, you may not have noticed it, but you are actually performing the spell correctly."

Sunset blinked, both confused and hopeful. "I am?"

Her father nodded with a proud grin. "Yes. You've actually been teleporting successfully during your last few attempts. You just happen to teleport to the exact spot you already were."

Sunset beamed widely at that information, her enthusiasm returning to her in full force.

"Like I said, you're focusing too much of your magic on yourself, so you keep teleporting to yourself."

"Okay." Sunset had a look around. Her father had brought her out to the gardens of the castle, but to an area that was clear of obstructions. The area where they currently stood was intended to be an extension of the flower garden, but it had only recently been cleared away of trees and shrubbery, and as such it was just an empty plot of land. "I guess you were worried that my powerful magic might make me accidentally teleport inside something, huh?"

Starswirl laughed at her assumption. "I can see why you would think that. There are certainly myths telling of people who've performed teleportation spells, only to wind up fusing their bodies into walls or some such. But those are merely urban legends. In truth, matter cannot overlap with other matter, so if one were to even purposefully attempt to teleport themselves inside another solid object, the spell would simply fail. I suppose since there are so few people who can actually do it, such rumors wind up circulating. But you have nothing to fear, Sunset. I brought you out here because it will make it easier to visualize your destination. Simple as that."

Sunset breathed a relieved sigh. Admittedly, that had been a concern tickling at the back of her mind. She may have even been subconsciously holding herself back to prevent such a thing from happening, but now that she knew it wasn't possible, she was eager to give it another go.

Her father gave her another smirk. "Also, your 'powerful magic'? Sunset, I hope you're not getting a big ego about this."

Sunset puffed out her cheeks at the accusation. "You guys are the ones who keep saying I have a lot of latent potential. I was just saying it how you would say it."

Her father chuckled at her defensive reaction. "Alright, I was just making sure. I thought it sounded odd coming from you, that's all. Boasting never seemed to be your style."

"Princess Celestia doesn't brag, so I won't either," Sunset told him resolutely.

"Good to hear," Starswirl laughed.

With that said, Sunset immediately started charging her horn with magic again, a determined grin on her lips. "Okay, I got it this time. Check it out, Dad!" Without even giving her father a chance to interject, the filly's horn flashed with cyan light. When the light faded a split second later, Sunset opened her eyes, but noticed something was different. She was alone. She was still in the garden, but her father had disappeared. "Huh? Daddy? Where'd you go?"

"Behind you, sweetheart."

Sunset looked over her shoulder and was greeted by her father's grinning face, though the filly was confused.

"You turned yourself around, dear," her father explained with amusement. However, there was also a notable hint of pride in his voice. "Were you picturing a spot behind you?"

Sunset turned back around to face her dad, looking a tad disoriented. "Yeah."

"I think you were a little hasty that time, but you did manage to turn yourself in that direction. I'd say that's some progress, if only a little."

Sunset rubbed her temple firmly, groaning with discomfort. "I feel kinda dizzy..."

Starswirl chuckled knowingly. "Yes, teleportation will do that. Your brain gets a little confused by such an instant shift in your viewpoint. It's fine, but it's something you'll have to get used to. With enough practice, you'll hardly need to think about it." He demonstrated that point by suddenly vanishing in a flash of white light, reappearing behind his daughter and startling her by giving her a playful noogie. "Now, why don't we take a break and get something to eat, hm?"

Sunset swatted his hoof off of her head with a smirk, then took off ahead of him. "Race ya!"

"I can teleport, sweetie," he called out to her, but she was already too far ahead to have acknowledged him. The proud father shook his head with an amused grin. But, instead of following up on his warning, Starswirl casually followed. He wasn't one who used teleportation often, believing that overreliance on the spell would lead to laziness. Besides, there was nothing wrong with taking the scenic route and enjoying the view on such a beautiful day, even if it meant losing the race.

Once he had rounded the corner toward the front of the castle, Starswirl noticed that Sunset hadn't gone much further than that. It wasn't that she had abandoned the race, but she was certainly willing to put it on hold for Princess Celestia, who had apparently just come outside as they were returning. It looked as though even Lance and Scabbard had joined in whatever conversation they had started, the four ponies standing at the bottom of the stone steps leading up to the front doors.

"Good afternoon, Your Highness," Starswirl greeted cheerily. "Going out for a stroll?"

"Sort of. I was actually coming to see how you and Sunset were doing," Celestia answered.

"It's going well, I must say," the bearded stallion said with a hearty chuckle. "She's picking up on it rather quickly."

"Yeah, watch!" Sunset quickly flashed her horn to attempt a teleport, but only managed to instantly reappear in the exact same spot again. Lance and Scabbard both gave the filly quizzical looks, as it simply appeared to them that she didn't even disappear.

Celestia, on the other hoof, smiled widely at her student. "Wonderful! I see you aren't having any difficulty casting the spell."

"It's the relocation part she needs to work on," Starswirl elaborated. He placed a hoof proudly on his daughter's shoulder, earning a cute smile from the amber unicorn. "But I'm certain she'll have it down soon enough. She's a quick learner, this one."

"I can't help but notice that she's been even more peppy than usual lately, too," Lance pointed out.

"Well, since she isn't concentrating on raising the sun anymore—at least for the time being—she hasn't had to deal with the concern of not being able to do it every time she tries," Celestia explained. "I felt as though doing so would gradually eat away at her self-confidence."

"But won't that make it worse if she tries again later, only to find out she still can't do it?" Scabbard postulated rather bluntly.

Sunset's chipper grin fell slightly at the thought, but she felt her father's hoof gently rub her shoulder reassuringly.

"She's not strengthening her magic during this time, so it's not like she should expect to, right?" he told Scabbard in response. "This 'down time' isn't meant to have anything to do with her goal of raising the sun anyway."

Scabbard simply shrugged, his question having been answered. "Fair enough."

"Hey, check it out."

Everypony looked to where Lance was pointing. A figure could be seen flying over the Everfree Forest, heading in their direction. They all knew who it was, and all waited curiously.

Having spotted the group of ponies, including her sister, gathered at the castle entrance, Princess Luna came in for a landing. She touched down rather unceremoniously, breathing a deep sigh of exasperation, and walked up to the group of five ponies with a noticeable lack of her usual poise.

"Welcome back, Luna," Celestia greeted her sister. "Calling it quits early today?"

The blue alicorn groaned, looking rather dejected and defeated. "We are beginning to think that all of this has been an exercise in futility."

Celestia shook her head, disappointed in her sister. She had heard those words a few times since Princess Luna had started making an effort to connect with her subjects. Despite spending a great deal of time in Canterlot over the past two months, it seemed Luna was making little headway. Celestia had offered multiple times to accompany her to assess what she was doing wrong, but the moon princess would always decline, insisting that she can manage without her sister's interference.

"This sort of thing takes time, Luna," Celestia told her.

Luna gave the ivory alicorn a disgruntled glower. Just as Celestia had heard Luna moan in defeat many times, Luna had heard Celestia say that same line just as many times. "We are well aware of that, Sister, but We were at least expecting to make some progress in the interim."

Celestia gave her sister a more concerned and compassionate look, practically pleading with her. "Luna, can you at least give me an idea of how exactly things are going? What are the people doing or saying?"

Luna gave a long sigh, turning away slightly in self-pity. "At first, the people seemed uncomfortable and suspicious of Our presence. That We've come to accept is understandable given Our supposed reputation and the lack of Our presence prior. But now... Now We simply feel like We are being ignored... We greet Our subjects amicably, but they respond simply with halfhearted waves, not even slowing down as they pass right along."

The four other ponies exchanged uneasy glances. It wasn't uncommon to encounter Princess Luna in a grouchy mood, and she had a tendency to come off a bit prickly, but seeing her so sullen and dejected was admittedly concerning. It was clear that her self-esteem was suffering, but the worst part was that the people of Canterlot probably didn't even realize what they were doing to her.

"Do you suppose that the populace has simply become disenchanted with your presence?" Starswirl posited.

Luna raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

Sunset's ears perked up as she caught on to what her dad was insinuating. "Oh, I see. They weren't used to seeing you around, so they were all awkward and weird around you. But since you're up there pretty much everyday now, it's not really special anymore."

Luna's eyes widened at the revelation. "Art thou suggesting that a visit from the princess hast become... mundane?"

"Makes sense," Lance agreed with a shrug. "I mean, we've known you two for a good long while now, and we've gotten a lot more casual around you since then. Seeing a princess is normally a pretty big deal, but when you see one everyday, it's not really worth talking about anymore."

"Perhaps you need a break, Luna," Celestia suggested with a kind, warm smile. "Or maybe consider making your visits less frequent. It'll probably help make your appearances more noteworthy, and will also be less stressful for you."

"Yes. Sunset has lessened her own workload recently and has been better off for it," Starswirl added. "Taking it easy could very well do wonders for your mood."

Luna let out another long sigh. As reluctant as she was to admit it, they may have had a point. But she didn't want to simply abandon this endeavor of hers. She was determined to see this through and build a respectable reputation, just as her sister has. "We do worry that, if We were to do that, the people may be relieved that We are no longer around, only to be disappointed by Our inevitable return..."

Celestia and Starswirl shared worried looks. Now Luna was just sounding depressed, and they were starting to pity her pretty deeply.

However, contrary to the gloomy mood surrounding the area in front of the castle, Sunset interjected with a chipper grin. "I have an idea! What if I went with you one day to help you out?"

Luna gave the filly a corrective scowl. "While We appreciate the advice thou hath shared with Us in the past, We've made it abundantly clear that We wish to handle this on Our own from here on. We doth not need thee there to foalsit Us."

"Wait! I know the word-of-mouth thing didn't work out how we thought it would, but if somepony who actually knows you talks about you, maybe people will be willing to listen."

"Like a little salesfilly," Lance laughed. "She can give the pitch and get people interested in the product."

Luna hummed in thought at the suggestion. "While We do not enjoy being referred to as a 'product,' We suppose there is no harm in trying. Very well. If thou wish to accompany Us to Canterlot sometime, be Our guest. Now then, We are hungry. Is supper being prepared, Sister?"

"The cooks are on it right now. I'll go with you." Celestia turned back to the castle entrance, walking up the steps and through the doors, her sister following behind.

With the princesses gone, Lance gave Sunset a sly smirk. "You know, she'd never admit it, but I think Luna actually has a soft spot for you, kiddo. You sure you haven't taught her any spells that manipulate alicorns, Starswirl?"

"I most certainly haven't," the bearded stallion laughed. "I'd attribute that to her boundless charisma, as well as her irresistible cuteness."

"There's no spell more powerful than that," Scabbard remarked with a slight grin.

Lance gave his fellow soldier a somewhat astounded look. "I think that's the closest thing to a joke I've heard from you."

The armored unicorn scoffed. "What? I have a sense of humor, too, you know."

Starswirl nudged his daughter toward the castle. "Come along, dear. I believe we were heading in for supper, as well."

"Okay." Sunset bounded up the short steps, quickly turning around to wave to the two guards. "Bye, Lance! Bye, Scabbard!"

"Later, kid," Lance called back with a wave of his own as she headed inside. However, as Starswirl was passing by to follow his daughter, Lance stopped him, earning a curious look from the father. "Listen, Starswirl. Think you could convince Sunset to give Hal a holler when she goes to Canterlot with Luna? I just figure it might be a good chance for them to hang out."

Starswirl gave him a smile and a nod. "Sure, I'll mention it to her. But it's ultimately up to her."

"That's fine. Thanks a lot, Starswirl."

"Don't mention it. Sunset's got more free time nowadays, so spending it with a friend would be good for her."

With that, Starswirl headed inside. He was left wondering if Sunset would bother asking Halberd to join her, even if he suggested it to her. But he was also curious as to how well her plan would work out with Princess Luna. It was a long shot, to be sure, but it would certainly be nice if his daughter could help get Luna out of this emotional slump that she's been in lately.

***** ***** *****

Within the dining hall of the Castle of the Two Sisters, the fragrant aroma of freshly prepared food wafted throughout the spacious chamber. The table was lined with a number of delectable-looking dishes, from various pastas, to a multitude of sandwiches and soups, and, of course, sweet and sugary desserts. The chef's had a tendency to go overboard when preparing meals, especially considering they usually only cooked for the two princesses, but any excess never typically went to waste, as whatever remained untouched was usually delivered to the staff mess hall afterward for the employees to enjoy, like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna had dietitians keeping track of their caloric intake, as well, so the abundance of food was often a result of the chef's being overzealous in their jobs—not that anypony minded. It just meant that the princesses perhaps couldn't enjoy as much as they would like, but it was those dietitians that were responsible for the alicorns' trim figures. Without them, the princesses would likely have packed on a few extra pounds over the years.

Celestia slurped up a mouthful of spaghetti, rather loudly at that, and inadvertently flicking tomato sauce onto her pristine, white muzzle, as well as across the table toward her sister.

Luna was about to take a mouthful of her strawberry bisque, but a dollop of tomato sauce suddenly splashed into the bowl, creating a red splotch in the pink liquid. Luna gave the other alicorn a slight scowl from across the table as her sister noisily sucked down her pasta noodles, making a mess of her face in the process. "How hath thee not adopted any table manners in all these years?"

As if to mock her sister, Celestia daintily dabbed her muzzle with a napkin to clean herself off, then cast an amused, but apologetic grin back at Luna. "I guess I never really think about it. I've been used to dining by myself before you started becoming active during the day. Sorry, I'll try not to make a mess from now on."

"Don't worry about it," Luna told her as she spooned out the offending sauce from her dish, discarding it onto an empty saucer. She managed a rare smile back. "It's actually been nice dining with thee again, Sister."

"It has, hasn't it? And how are you adjusting to this change overall, Luna? Do you miss your quiet nights?"

The blue alicorn shrugged as she swallowed a mouthful of bisque. "At times. As empty as these halls can be, even during the day, it's still notably noisier than the nights. Especially when thou-know-who is around," Luna remarked with a slight grimace, though not without a hint of playfulness in her voice.

"And what about the 'professional' aspect of it? Are you enjoying being more directly involved with our royal duties?" Celestia asked with a knowing smirk.

Just as the ivory alicorn predicted, Luna groaned and rolled her eyes at the question. "'Enjoy' is a strong word. We thought the solitary nights were dull and tedious, but those meetings art in a league of boring all of their own. Still though, it is refreshing to be more informed of the goings-on around the castle rather than receive a simple synopsis when We wake up."

"And it's been good getting your input on the new castle. I feel the plans are moving along quite smoothly. We may even be able to begin construction within the next couple of years."

With the topic of construction having been brought up, Luna cast an inquisitive look across the table. "Celestia, correct Us if We are wrong, but it is Our understanding that you've been discussing a second project to be built. May We inquire?"

"Mm," Celestia responded with a nod and a mouthful of spaghetti before gulping it down. "Yes, sorry, I've been meaning to tell you about it. While I haven't laid out anything concrete just yet, I was thinking about building a school in Canterlot, as well."

"A school?" Luna repeated with a raised eyebrow. "But Canterlot already hast schools of all appropriate levels. Why build another?"

A small, bashful smile creased Celestia's lips. "Well, I got the idea from teaching Sunset. I've just been enjoying my time as her teacher so much, that I kind of don't want to stop. I intend for it to be a school specifically for talented, young unicorns, like Sunset; a school where they can learn to harness and improve their magic. But Sunset is going to graduate from my teachings eventually, so why not pass down my knowledge to other potential students?"

Luna gave her a skeptical look. "Thou art going to teach an entire school of foals by thyself?"

"No, of course not. I intend to hire other teachers; ponies who also have vast knowledge that should be shared with the next generation. I've actually already asked if Starswirl would like to be on the faculty, and he's in agreement."

"We see. And were thee intending to extend the same offer to Us?"

Celestia blinked, hesitating for a moment. "O-Oh, well... You see, we're still in the very early planning stages as of yet, sooo..."

Luna narrowed her eyes slightly. "And yet thou already requested Starswirl's assistance."

"He's been a part of the planning, so of course I asked him right away."

"And why aren't We a part of the planning?"

Celestia could clearly see the look in her sister's eyes. She was doing her best to make acceptable excuses, but she knew that if she kept dodging, she would get cornered eventually. It was just as well to skip straight to the meat of the issue.

The sun princess sighed remorsefully. "I'm sorry, Luna. I didn't deliberately exclude you. You only just started to readjust to day life. I didn't want to drop all of this on you right away. Are you... interested in being a teacher at the school?" She had asked that question with perhaps a little more trepidation than she had intended.

Luna lolled her head with uncertainty. "We aren't sure. After all, We've already been told that Our teaching methods may not be ideal."

Celestia's ears folded back in response to her sister's quiet and dismissive tone. "Luna..."

The blue alicorn straightened up a little, her expression becoming more determined. "But in order to teach a class of foals, it would be imperative to improve Our rapport first." Luna smirked across at her sister. "Perhaps by the time thy school is built, We'll be ready."

Celestia smiled fondly back at her. It was a relief to see her sister in good spirits after how despondent she was earlier. It appeared that she may have been looking forward to having Sunset accompany her to Canterlot. With that in mind, she felt the need to ask Luna about it. "And do you think Sunset will be able to help you with that?"

Luna shrugged indifferently. "We will see. We cannot see how it would do any harm."

"And if you succeed? Will you continue your daily visits?"

The younger sister let out a resigned sigh. "Not likely. Starswirl had a valid point: if We show up there everyday, Our presence becomes less and less noteworthy. In fact, We may make another alteration to Our sleep schedule."

"You're not giving up, are you?"

Luna shook her head. "No, We are simply making a compromise. We think it would be better if We awoke in the afternoon rather than morning, remaining active throughout the evening and the late night, but heading to bed by early morning. That way, We can continue to monitor the night sky and still spend time with Our subjects without overstaying Our welcome."

Celestia nodded in understanding. "I see. If that's what you're more comfortable with, you'll hear no arguments from me." She then decided to return to the original topic. "And what if Sunset can't help you? What then?"

"We can't imagine We would do things any differently from what We just said. So the outcome will likely be the same regardless."

"The difference being the public's opinion of you," Celestia pointed out. "That's why you're doing this, remember?"

Luna waved her off dismissively. "Yes, yes, that aspect was implied."

Celestia gazed skeptically across the table. The nonchalant response to what was supposed to be the primary goal of Luna's mission made Celestia question her sister's intentions. Yes, she may have wanted to earn her subjects' respect, but she had to wonder whether or not that respect was mutual. Was Luna doing this for the right reasons? While she'd normally confront her sister about these suspicions, her downtrodden mood from earlier seemed to indicate that Celestia's skepticism may have been unfounded. Plus, she didn't want to continue arguing with her sister. She wanted to give Luna the benefit of the doubt, and if her suspicions held any water at all, then it would likely become evident if or when Luna succeeded in her mission. So Celestia kept her mouth shut on this occasion, choosing instead to let the conversation end there so that the two sisters could enjoy the rest of their supper together.

***** ***** *****

It was a peaceful day in Canterlot. Princess Celestia's sun basked its capitol in the warm embrace of its soothing rays, and there was nary a breeze of wind to disturb the grass and flowers. The mountain town was not typically busy on a Sunday afternoon, and this Sunday was not much different. However, given how beautiful it was outside, there were a number of citizens who just couldn't stand to waste their time indoors. Young foals frolicked through the streets, while adults went for casual strolls, stopping periodically to chat with their neighbors. All in all, a rather perfect day in Canterlot.

But all of that was disturbed by a bright flash of light in the town square. Nearby townsfolk had to shield their eyes from the sudden brightness, and when they opened them again, there were now two ponies standing near the fountain: a small, amber filly, and a midnight blue alicorn.

Suppressed groans could be heard from some of the passersby, doing their best to ensure that Princess Luna didn't pick up on it. They were all anticipating what was going to happen next; Luna was likely going to just pull random ponies aside and engage in inane chatter about nothing, accomplishing little other than making everypony involved uncomfortable. They've all learned over the past two months that Princess Luna was terrible at small talk, bringing up subjects that usually had nothing to do with anything relevant to the lives of the townspeople, and when she did bring up something pertinent, it was usually an offer to provide assistance out of the blue. Such offers would always be respectfully declined, partly so that they weren't imposing on the princess, and partly due to their worry that any mundane issue she attempted to resolve would only be made worse, her great zeal when inquiring instilling more worry than relief.

So lately, the citizens chose to simply continue on their way whenever Princess Luna showed up. They knew that if they happened to make even the slightest eye contact with the alicorn, she'd wind up locking onto them, and on average a half an hour of their lives would be flushed down the drain. However, some of them were admittedly curious about the filly accompanying Princess Luna today. She typically showed up alone, and always by flight. This was the first time she'd teleported to the town, which raised some concerns. But those concerns conflicted with their other concerns about not wanting to fall victim to Luna's horrendous attempts at socializing, and so they went about their business as usual, and hoped that they wouldn't be singled out.

Sunset Shimmer wobbled slightly after suddenly appearing in Canterlot's town square. She wouldn't even be able to tell that that's where she was until her vision adjusted. The disoriented filly shook her head vigorously, realigning her eyes in their sockets and squaring her legs to maintain her balance. "Ugh, that feels really weird..."

"Isn't thy father teaching thee to teleport?" Luna questioned, puzzled by the filly's difficulty to maintain her equilibrium. "Surely, he hast transported thee to another location with him before."

Sunset shook her head, but this time in response to the princess's inquiry. "No, Dad's never teleported me before. I don't know if he's ever teleported another person. Now I can see why. Bleugh..." the unicorn blanched, her stomach churning slightly from the sudden shift.

"Thou will get used to it. Now then, where to begin...?"

Luna began glancing around the immediate area. Upon seeing the alicorn's eyes scanning her surroundings, the townsfolk went on high alert, doing their best to look busy, or picking up their pace to get out of there as quickly as possible.

"Hang on," Sunset urged the princess. "I came with you to help, remember? Maybe I should do the talking and let people know you're a nice person."

"We've been acting as friendly as We can manage," Luna told her with doubt in her voice. "If they doth not think well of Us by now, doth thou think thou can convince them otherwise?"

"That's what we're here to try," the filly replied with a reassuring grin. "Give me a second."

Sunset suddenly bounded away like an eager puppy before Luna could even stop her. The amber unicorn hurried over to a stallion that was exiting a nearby corner store, and therefore had not been made privy to Princess Luna's presence. The stallion jerked to a stop when he nearly ran straight into the filly now standing in front of him.

"Excuse me, sir. Have you met Princess Luna?"

"Huh?" The stallion glanced toward the fountain, his eyes falling on a rather embarrassed-looking moon princess. He hesitated slightly now that he knew Luna was here. "Um... Y-Yeah, she shows up here everyday. She... said hello to me once. Why?"

"What do you think of her?"

The stallion raised an eyebrow at the filly. Conversely to pretty much everypony else in Canterlot, this little girl seemed oddly enthusiastic about Princess Luna. It seemed that at least somepony in town was excited to see her, and given that it was just a young filly, he didn't want to say anything to upset her. "She's, uh... nice," he said, forcing a grin while periodically glancing toward the princess. He also didn't want to offend the alicorn, considering she was within earshot.

Sunset tilted her head at the rather unimaginative response. "That's it? Don't you think it's cool that she can raise the moon?"

"Uh..." The stallion was starting to get quite uncomfortable, even sweating a little under this eager, little filly's interrogation. "S-Sure. Raising the moon is cool. I-If you don't mind, I have somewhere I need to be, soooo..." He carefully scooched by Sunset, trotting quickly down the street to escape the situation.

Luna walked over to Sunset with a sigh. "A valiant effort, but to no avail."

"What are you talking about? He said you were cool."

"We've been attempting to interact with these ponies for some time now. We've come to learn when they art being disingenuous. This plan of thine is obviously not going to work," Luna claimed, lowering her head in resignation.

Sunset puffed out her chest in determination. "That was just one guy. There's gotta be somepony who'll be willing to give you a chance."

"Nopony accomplished anything by giving up."

At the sound of the familiar voice, both Luna and Sunset turned to find a colt and a stallion heading their way. Sunset immediately recognized the silver pegasus colt as her classmate, Halberd. However, the stallion briefly baffled her, though his steel-gray coat and white mane with a golden streak looked vaguely familiar. But it was his voice, as well as the familiar grin on his face that flipped the switch in her brain.

"Lance, hi! I almost didn't recognize you without your armor," Sunset giggled, making note that, without it poking up through the slot in his helmet, Lance's mane was fairly wild.

Lance let out a laugh himself. "I guess we do only see each other when I'm at work." He cast a sidelong glance down at his brother, who was staring awkwardly at Princess Luna. He gave Halberd a firm nudge and cleared his throat.

Halberd, startled slightly by his big brother, quickly bowed to the princess. "H-Hello, Your Highness. It's good to see you again."

Luna sighed at the greeting, looking down at Sunset. "Doth thou see? Our subjects should not hath to be forced to greet Us. It should be an impulse. If they respected Us as they do Our sister, then they should be more than willing to speak with Us of their own volition."

Halberd shrunk back guiltily. "S-Sorry. I-I just forgot."

"Hal's not really a great gauge for that sort of thing. He's a pretty shy kid," Lance explained. "To be fair, he'd probably react the same way with Princess Celestia. He probably wouldn't have even left the house today if I didn't take him with me."

"What are you doing here, Lance?" Sunset asked curiously.

"It's my day off, why else? Oh, and did your dad mention my request?"

Sunset's eyes widened slightly and she briefly glanced at Halberd. "Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot."

Lance groaned quietly, rubbing the back of his neck with a hoof. "Can't say I'm surprised..." he mumbled under his breath. "Whatever. Not like it matters now anyway. I only asked because I wasn't expecting Princess Luna to take you along the very next day. Guess things just have a way of working out, huh?"

"For some ponies anyhow..."

Lance and the two foals watched as Luna's gaze slowly fell to the cobblestone street. Her mood certainly hadn't seemed to have lifted from the previous day.

"Well, if it means anything, me and Hal can tag along to help out, too," Lance suggested with a friendly smile. "Might make it easier if you have three ponies in your corner to vouch for you."

"As much as We appreciate the offer, We do not suspect that thy participation will hath much impact. Thou art Our employee, so thy opinions may be seen as biased. And given thy brother's nervous disposition, others may believe he is being disingenuous."

Lance sighed in exasperation, running a hoof through his mane. "Geez, pessimistic much? Why not just let us hang out for a while. Maybe the problem is that you're forcing the issue. Just act natural." He observed the blank stare Luna was giving him, making him rethink his choice of words. "Well, I guess 'natural' for you is a little different, but you get what I'm saying, right?"

"We... believe so," Luna responded, though still with some uncertainty in her voice.

"Look, why don't we just start by getting a bite to eat? Maybe if people see you spending some time with the locals, they'll warm up to you a little. Not everypony in this town knows who me and Hal are."

"But We ate before coming here."

"Then get something light, or a dessert, or something. There's a nice café right over there," Lance said, pointing over his shoulder to the opposite side of the town square.

"Hmm... What should We get?"

Lance groaned again, running a hoof down his face. "I don't know, get a bagel, or even just a cup of coffee. The food's not even the point right now. Just go with the flow, Your Highness."

Luna blinked, uncomprehending. "'Go with... the flow...'" She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath before straightening her posture and looking more resolute. "Very well. Then We shall follow thy lead."

The stallion grinned at her positive shift in attitude. "There you go. Come with me."

The quartet of ponies made their way over to the café, as per Lance's suggestion. The entrance to the quaint establishment had a fenced area around the entrance where several tables were set up outside. The off-duty guard guided Sunset and the princess to one of the tables, pulling out their chairs for the ladies as a gentlecolt should. Lance gestured to a nearby waitress. However, upon seeing the moon princess seated at one of her tables, the waitress hesitated nervously. But, not wanting to upset the princess, she hurried over to take their order, forcing a wide smile. As per Lance's suggestion, Luna simply ordered a bagel with butter and a cup of tea, while Lance ordered himself a daffodil sandwich and a coffee. The two foals only requested a slice of apple pie each and glasses of milk.

After receiving their orders, Princess Luna took a bite of her bagel, raising an eyebrow at Lance. "We do not see how loitering is supposed to—"

Lance discreetly held his hoof up at the alicorn. "Shh."

Luna gawked, vexed and insulted. "Didst thou just shush Us?"

"Listen," he whispered.

Lance gestured with a slight tilt of his head toward a nearby table, but did not turn his eyes toward it. Luna, following his direction, glanced through the corner of her eye. There were two mares seated at the table in question—one pink and one lime green—and they were staring in Luna's direction.

"Looks like Princess Luna's back," the pink mare said to her companion, keeping her voice down in an attempt to keep their gossip to themselves. "Wonder what she's doing. Who are those ponies she's sitting with?"

"I don't know. I think I've seen them around before, but I don't know their names," the green one responded.

"You don't think Princess Luna has a secret family or anything, do you? Like, that guy's her forbidden lover and those are their illegitimate children?"

Luna's face flushed a deep red, and a part of her wanted to stand up and immediately dispel this rumor before it started to spread. Lance, on the other hoof, had to stifle an amused snicker.

"Yeah, right. Like Princess Luna gets out enough to have a secret family," the green mare quipped with a roll of her eyes.

"Still, it's kind of surprising that she actually managed to find some people who were willing to sit down and talk to her. And those two kids seem to be enjoying themselves."

Both Lance and Luna quickly glanced at Halberd and Sunset. Sure enough, the two were all smiles as they enjoyed their apple pie, too distracted by their own conversation to pay attention to what the two mares were saying. It warmed Lance's heart to see his little brother speaking so openly with somepony.

The lime green mare squinted, focusing on the amber unicorn. "Come to think of it, that filly looks familiar. I think that's Starswirl's daughter, Sunset Shimmer."

"Huh, now that you mention it, I think you're right. I don't think I've seen Starswirl around much lately."

"What, you didn't hear? He got a job at the Castle of the Two Sisters a couple months ago. He and his daughter are even living there now."

"Really? Wow. Talk about a dream come true. When I was a filly, all I ever wanted was to live in a castle and be a princess." She glanced back over at the table, specifically at Luna. "I guess it's nice of Princess Luna to take time out of her day to entertain the filly. Maybe she's not as bad as she seems."

Lance gave Luna a reassuring smirk, to which Luna responded with a somewhat involuntary smile of her own. While the mare's choice of words could have been a little more tactful, she wasn't aware that the princess was actually eavesdropping. Either way, the plan seemed to be working regardless.

The green mare leaned closer to her friend. "You know, my daughter goes to school with Sunset Shimmer, and apparently that filly claimed that she moved the sun once."

The pink mare rolled her eyes with a grin. "You don't actually believe that, do you?"

"Well, get this: I heard from a friend of mine who works at the castle say the same thing. In fact, I heard that Princess Celestia has even taken that girl on as a student."

"Are you serious? So, wait, you don't think she actually moved the sun?"

The green mare shrugged. "I'm just saying there might be some kind of correlation. Starswirl's daughter is said to be a talented young filly."

"And if she is being tutored by Princess Celestia herself, then she must be talented. Do you think she's looking for a successor?"

"Maybe. It's not like Princess Celestia has shown any interest in looking for a husband, or starting a family of her own. She might have just been waiting for a particularly powerful filly to come along to pass the torch to."

"Mmm, I don't know if I'm ready for Princess Celestia to step down from the throne yet. She's always done such a good job running this kingdom. It'd be a shame for her to retire now."

"Yeah, but look at that filly. You can't say that she wouldn't fit perfectly as the new sun princess. Even her cutie mark is a sun."

"That's true," the pink one agreed with a giggle.

Luna let out a sigh, whispering to Lance. "It appears any interest they had in Us has waned. Perhaps we should move on."

Lance nodded in agreement, though reluctantly. "Yeah, sure." He got up from his chair, gesturing to the two foals. "Come on you two."

"Just a sec!" Sunset chirped. She scooped the last big bite of apple pie into her mouth, stuffing her cheeks like an amber chipmunk. "Ogay! Weady!" she exclaimed, spewing errant crumbs of pie crust from her lips.

The two kids went on ahead, back out toward the fountain in the square. Lance extended one of his wings, revealing a pouch of bits underneath it that he'd been carrying with him. However, before he could even open it, Luna held out her hoof to stop him.

"Allow Us. It is the least We can do to repay you for aiding Us," Luna offered.

Lance was a little conflicted about letting a lady pay for a meal, but there was a prideful look on Luna's face that told him that she was not going to accept no for an answer. So, he gave her a gracious smile. "Uh, thanks. But just so you know, you don't have to do that."

Luna nodded to respectfully acknowledge his statement. "It is Our pleasure." With that, Luna materialized a pile of twelve golden bits onto the table, and she and Lance made to rejoin Sunset and Halberd.

The waitress that had served them cautiously approached the table now that Princess Luna had left. She grimaced slightly as she counted, noting that Luna had left only the exact amount for the orders. "What, a princess can't afford a tip?" she grumbled under her breath.

Luna's ear swiveled backwards, and she glared harshly over her shoulder. The waitress flinched, a sudden dread coming over her as she realized the princess had heard her.

"Beg thy pardon?" Luna snipped as she stomped back over to the table.

The waitress cowered, trembling, under the icy glare of the incensed alicorn. "I-I'm sorry! I d-didn't mean... I was just—"

Lance hurried over to Luna's side, trying to lead her away before she did something she might regret. "Whoa, whoa, calm down, Your Highness. Just let it go, alright?"

Despite her anger, Luna did as he requested, casting one more venomous glower at the mare before turning her back on her and leaving the café area. The waitress breathed a shaky sigh of relief, feeling as though she had just had a brush with death.

Luna let out a disgruntled huff. "Honestly. Canst thou believe the nerve? Our presence should be reward enough."

"Princess, you can't go around snapping at people like that. It's kinda counterproductive to what you're trying to achieve here," Lance warned her.

Luna took a breath to steady herself. "Our apologies. We just cannot believe that somepony would be so ungrateful. And if that's the attitude she wishes to cop, We art glad We didn't leave a tip."

"Just forget about it and let's keep trying. Don't let one person throw you off."

"We will try. What doth thou suggest we do now, then?"

As the two adults discussed their next move, Halberd stared down into the clear water of the fountain. However, he glanced up toward Luna with a little worry. "She seemed pretty mad, huh?"

Sunset didn't respond. She was staring up at the statue of the mare standing upon a column in the middle of the fountain, listening to the peaceful trickle of water as it poured from the urn the statue was holding.

"Sunset?"

The filly's ears perked up, and she turned to Halberd. "Hm?"

"Princess Luna. Do you think this is gonna work out for her?"

Sunset simply smiled optimistically. "Sure. I don't see why not."

Halberd stared at her, uncertain if he agreed. "I don't know, she just seems kinda—"

"Excuse me."

The pair of foals were distracted from their conversation by a pair of mares that were heading toward them. They were the same pink and lime green mares from the café, though Sunset and Halberd wouldn't have recognized them due to being engrossed in their own conversation at the time.

"You're Sunset Shimmer, right?" asked the green mare with a friendly smile.

"Uh-huh," the filly replied with a nod.

"Could you settle something for us?" the pink one requested.

Sunset tilted her head, curious. "What is it?"

"Well, we heard a rumor that Princess Celestia took you on as a student. Is that true?"

The amber unicorn nodded with an enthusiastic grin. "Yup! She's been teaching me all kinds of stuff about magic."

"So I guess you are a talented little unicorn if even the princess has taken an interest in you," the pink mare remarked.

"Sooo... Does that mean what my daughter told me is true, too? Did you really move the sun?" the green mare asked, leaning in excitedly.

Sunset beamed at the question. She hadn't really been spreading it around that she had moved the sun. She mentioned it to her classmates back when she had only thought she had done it, and while she was met with only a little skepticism, she knew it was unlikely that everypony would be willing to believe that without proof. But it wasn't as though she was bragging; Sunset was simply so incredibly excited that she couldn't contain it. As her father had noted in the past, she wasn't one to boast. Still, it was somehow elating for her to hear that there were people who believed it—and adults, no less.

Sunset tried to suppress her pride and maintain a level tone, though she couldn't hold back her smile entirely. "Yeah, I did."

"Can you show us?"

"Huh?" Sunset was caught off guard by the request. But the eager grins on the mares' faces told her that it wasn't because they wanted proof, but was more similar to Sunset's own face when she waited for the sunrise in the morning. However, Sunset knew she couldn't grant the request, and she frowned apologetically. "Um, sorry, I can't. Moving the sun is Princess Celestia's duty. And even if I wanted to, I only did it the first time because of a surge of magic. I haven't been able to do it since."

The two mare's seemed a little disappointed, but also sympathetic. "Oh, that's too bad," the green one said. "But still, even moving the sun a little one time is a pretty big deal for just a little filly."

"And a surge of magic? That sounds pretty rough," the pink mare commented. "You must be a strong and brave little girl to handle something so harrowing."

"And under Princess Celestia's wing, I'm sure you'll grow up to be an amazing mare," the green one added. "You're pretty lucky to have her as a teacher."

"Excuse Us."

The two mares turned to find Princess Luna staring in their direction, the look in her eyes none too pleasant as she approached them, holding her head up high and looking down her nose at the mares. She had clearly been listening in on the conversation and seemed none too pleased by what she was hearing.

"Pardon Us for overhearing, but it may interest thee to know that the only reason Sunset Shimmer became Celestia's student to begin with is because Our sister lied to her. The magical surge that Sunset experienced as a result nearly killed her."

Lance placed a hoof firmly on Luna's shoulder to try and diffuse her. "Your Highness, what did we just—"

Luna swatted his hoof away, baring her teeth at the pegasus. "Be silent!"

Lance backed off. He didn't want to let up, but given the look in the princess's eyes, his instinct told him it was a bad idea to continue arguing with her.

"We are tired of hearing people blindly praising Our sister for her negligence! And thee!" She glared down at Sunset, causing the filly to flinch. "Thou art not innocent in all of this either! Thou just sit there and soak up the admiration just as Celestia does!" The incensed alicorn turned her ire back on the two mares. "Thou should not be applauding Celestia for her negligence, nor this filly for her recklessness and poor judgment! And why act so impressed that she only managed to move the sun slightly?! We can move the sun as well! We move the moon effortlessly every night! And do We receive such praise?! No!"

At this point, a large crowd had gathered around the town square, watching as Princess Luna vented her anger. Lance wanted to intervene, knowing that everything she had been hoping to accomplish here was going to fall apart if this kept up, and likely make matters worse for her. But at this point, any attempt at interjecting would likely only result in ticking the princess off further, so he was forced to hold his tongue.

A touch of hurt started to well in Luna's voice as she continued. "All We've been trying to do is connect with Our subjects! Yet all of thee stare at Us as though We art some kind of monster! We hath done nothing to deserve such treatment and hath been making an effort to fix it, yet still We art shunned and ignored! We grow exhausted and frustrated with trying to figure out how to please you people! Just tell me what you want me to do!"

In her frustration, Luna stomped a hoof against the cobblestone street of the town square, the impact cracking the stone, shaking the ground, and causing everypony to take a step back in shock and fear. Unnoticed by the spectators, who were too focused on the enraged and indignant alicorn, the base of the fountain statue had cracked as well, and was beginning to crumble where the stone mare stood. The statue's balance was thrown off, and it began to lilt to one side. Lance noticed the movement out of the corner of his eye, seeing as the statue started to tip. His eyes went wide in panic when he saw where it was going to fall: right where his brother was standing.

"Hal!"

At the sound of his brother's voice, Halberd turned quickly enough to see the statue falling towards him. But instead of running away, the colt became frozen in fear, unable to move his legs. All his brain would allow him to do was stare at the collapsing sculpture as it fell.

Suddenly, Halberd felt something strike him from the side, though he had no time to figure out what. In the next instant, there was a bright flash of cyan magic, followed by the crashing of the statue against edge of the fountain. The statue crumbled to pieces from the impact, and water began to leak from the pool through the cracks and breakages to the fountain's edge. Water spewed up from where the statue had once stood, and the head of the broken, stone mare lay where Halberd was standing.

Key word: was.

What felt like minutes had, in reality, been merely a couple of seconds. After the first flash of magic, another occurred next to Lance, and the pegasus looked down to see both Sunset and Halberd laying on the ground, seemingly unharmed. Sunset had been the one who had tackled Halberd, then had quickly and expertly teleported the two of them out of harm's way. The two foals slowly rose back to their hooves, Halberd looking a little shaken and confused.

Lance practically began to tear up with relief, grabbing his brother and hugging him tightly, much to the colt's surprise. "Hal! Thank the sun, you're okay!"

Once released from the embrace, Halberd stared up at his brother, bewildered and slightly dizzy. He glanced over to where the remains of the statue lay—where he was supposed to be. "Wha...? What happened?"

Lance turned to Sunset with the most grateful smile he'd ever expressed. "Sunset just saved your life."

Halberd stared incredulously at the filly. "Sh-She did?" he stammered, still unsure of what exactly had happened.

"Sunset," Lance started, leaning down to look her in the eye, his own barely glistening with grateful tears. "I owe you big time for this. If there's anything I can ever do to repay you, you name it."

"Um... Okay," Sunset said with a small nod, clearly a little shaken herself.

"That was amazing!" a mare from the surrounding crowd called out.

"She just jumped in to save that boy without a second thought," an impressed stallion added.

"I've never seen a little filly perform a teleportation spell so easily before," a unicorn mare remarked.

"She is Starswirl's daughter and Princess Celestia's pupil," the green mare that had been talking to Sunset before chimed in.

Her pink companion agreed with a nod. "Yeah, no wonder the princess has taken a shine to her. She's something else."

Sunset shied away with a bashful blush. She wasn't used to receiving praise from such a large crowd, and she found it a little embarrassing. But at the same time, she found herself smiling like when Princess Celestia would pay her a compliment.

The crowd continued with their awestruck murmurs.

"That little girl really is talented."

"Can you imagine what might've happened if she hadn't been here?"

"I mean, I'm sure Princess Luna could've saved him if she hadn't, right?"

"Wait, wasn't Princess Luna the one who knocked the statue over?"

Luna's eyes widened as the crowd made the realization for her. Suddenly, the area went quiet and all eyes turned on the alicorn. Luna felt her heart start to beat faster as the truth of what had just happened dawned on her.

"You're right," one person in the crowd said in a hushed tone.

"I'm sure she didn't do it on purpose, but still..."

"The kid could've been seriously hurt, or worse..."

The worried stares and judgmental mutterings of the crowd bombarded Luna the same as if they were shouting and assaulting her. Her mind swirled with panic, knowing that it was her fault that Halberd was nearly killed. Even Lance, one of the only people who was willing to help her, was staring at her as though he didn't even know who she was. Luna wanted desperately to call out and defend herself, to assuage their fears and concerns, but the words were lost in the sea of panic that was her mind, and nothing came out of her mouth as it hung agape. As if their trust in her couldn't have diminished further, here they stood, blaming her for nearly bringing harm to one of her own subjects.

With no words forming to argue in her defense, and no other ideas coalescing in her hurricane of thought, Princess Luna resorted to her first instinct: she clenched her eyes shut, her horn glowing for just a brief moment, and, with a bright flash and a magical pop, she was gone.

While the crowd was confused, their murmurs continued. But before long, they started to disperse, leaving only Lance, Halberd, and Sunset standing near the broken fountain in the town square.

Sunset looked up to Lance with a worried look in her eyes. "Is she gonna be okay?"

Lance breathed a regrettable sigh. "I don't know," was all he could say, his tone somber. He then leaned down, gesturing for Sunset to climb onto his back. "Come on, I'll give you a lift home."

Sunset nodded gratefully, crawling on top of the stallion. Lance stood up again, spreading his wings in preparation to take flight. But first, he glanced down at his little brother.

"Hal."

"Huh?" The colt's head jerked up as if snapped from a trance.

Lance gave Halberd a concerned, but understanding look. He was still visibly shaken and likely was still trying to comprehend what had just happened. "You coming?" Lance asked his little brother, giving him a grin in an effort make him feel more at ease with the situation.

Halberd hesitated for a moment, a little confused by the invitation, but nodded absentmindedly. "Uh, sure."

Needing nothing else, Lance took off into the air with Sunset on his back, and Halberd followed close behind as the three of them made their way to the Castle of the Two Sisters.

***** ***** *****

The afternoon sun was continuing its daily journey across Equestria's sky, the bright blue horizon gradually fading to an incandescent orange as the day began to reach its end. Though normally a gorgeous sight, the atmosphere was thick with melancholy, the shift in color feeling now more somber as opposed to calming and inspiring.

This was primarily true for the group of ponies waiting outside the entrance to the Castle of the Two Sisters. Sunset Shimmer, Lance, and Halberd had all arrived from Canterlot a short while ago, and the amber filly had promptly retrieved her father who was now standing outside with them. In addition, Quill had felt the need to join them as well, and, while not directly engaging with the rest of the group, Scabbard stood at his post at the castle's entrance nearby, listening intently to the details of the situation as Lance and Sunset described them.

After some time, they were rejoined by the only member of the group remaining. Princess Celestia fluttered down from above the castle, touching down with the others with a rather disheartened sigh. "She won't talk to me. She won't even open her door."

"This must have hit her pretty hard," Starswirl commented quietly with a slow stroke of his beard.

"I don't know if she can recover from this," Lance stated bluntly.

"I'd rather we didn't think like that," Celestia responded, refusing to accept that fact.

"I watched it happen, Your Highness. The way everypony was looking at her... Heck, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking at her the same way. And I hate to say it, but their reactions are understandable. I feel bad for Princess Luna, sure, but she did almost get my brother killed because she couldn't control her temper."

"And I apologize in her stead," the princess said with a respectful and regretful bow of her head. "I agree that this should not have happened, and I will do anything in my power to rectify it."

Lance grimaced slightly. "No offense, but it doesn't exactly mean much unless it comes from her."

Celestia frowned at Lance's refusal to forgive her sister. If he was an indication of how the public was now viewing Luna, the situation did appear to be dire. Everything that Luna had been working towards had crumbled in an instant, and Celestia worried how that would affect her sister mentally and emotionally. "I'll keep trying to get through to her, and I'll see if I can convince her to make a public apology."

Lance breathed an exasperated sigh. While no amount of promises could really fix what happened, he didn't want to continue arguing with Princess Celestia and disparaging her sister. "I appreciate the effort, Princess. Thanks."

Princess Celestia finally managed a smile, though it was somewhat forced. "While I sympathize with your personal involvement in this situation, Lance, I would rather we move away from this negativity. Instead, let us be thankful that your brother is okay."

Lance draped a hoof over Halberd's shoulder, pulling the colt against his side lovingly. "Trust me, I am."

Celestia then turned her attention to Sunset, a proud grin on the alicorn's lips. "And let's not forget why he's okay. Sunset, you did an amazing thing today. Saving a life is a very commendable achievement."

"Not to mention she successfully teleported, and not just herself, but another person as well," Starswirl added, placing a hoof on his daughter's shoulder proudly.

Sunset's eyes widened slightly as the realization finally hit her. "Oh, yeah, I did. Huh, I guess I didn't really think about it. I saw that Halberd was in trouble and just kinda... did it."

"I told you it'd become second nature eventually," her father said, patting her on the back. "Though I certainly wasn't expecting it to be so soon, I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"You should be proud of yourself, Sunset," Celestia told her. "Putting yourself in harm's way for the sake of protecting others is the mark of a hero."

Sunset's teal eyes sparkled at the compliment, staring up at the princess with wonder. "A hero?"

"Don't make a habit of it, please," Starswirl interjected firmly. "You have people who care about you, too. And there are safer ways to help people than throwing yourself into danger. Your poor father is going to lose years off his life if you keep doing things like that."

Sunset nodded in understanding, giving her father a cute smile. "Okay, Daddy."

"Guess we should be heading home," Lance informed them. "I'll see you guys tomorrow. Come on, Hal."

"Just a sec..."

Halberd turned to Sunset, the filly tilting her head in puzzlement at the bashful look on his face. He slowly approached her, dragging his hooves pensively with a big blush on his silver cheeks. He hesitated for a moment, finding it difficult to maintain eye contact without feeling awkward. But before he could second guess himself, he gave Sunset a quick hug, maybe a little tighter than he had intended, then backed off.

"Um... Thanks," the colt said gratefully.

Sunset blushed a little herself, still a tad confused by Halberd's odd behavior. "Oh, uh, you're welcome."

Halberd then started hurrying over to his brother, but stopped halfway to give Princess Celestia a quick, respectful bow. "I-It was an honor to meet you, Your Majesty," he hastily said to her before joining Lance. The older pegasus gave his brother a proud pat on the back himself, and the two then took to the sky to return home to Canterlot.

"So, what do you suggest we do about Princess Luna, Your Majesty?" Quill asked the white alicorn.

Celestia closed her eyes as she breathed a long sigh through her nose. She glanced over her shoulder and up at Luna's spire where she knew her sister was wallowing in her self-pity. "Perhaps it would be best to let her ruminate for the night. Hopefully she'll be more agreeable after she gets some sleep."

Starswirl nodded in agreement. "Yes, it's not likely she'll be willing to listen while she's so emotional."

"We should just go about the rest of our day and leave her be for now," Celestia decided, though she did so reluctantly.

With that said, Celestia, Starswirl, Quill, and Sunset made to return to the castle, the former three heading inside. However, Sunset lagged behind slightly, and as the three adults went inside, she still stood at the base of the entrance steps. She stared up at Luna's tower, her hesitance earning a curious look from Scabbard as he silently stood at the doors, though he chose not to question her.

Despite Princess Celestia's decision to leave Luna alone for the night, Sunset couldn't find it in her to just let this go. She knew it was a long shot, but she felt the need to at least try and talk to her. But first thing was first: she had to get up there. Sunset knew it was unlikely that Luna would bother answering her bedroom door if somepony were to simply come knocking, but maybe a different approach would work. Plus, this might also be a good opportunity to test something...

Sunset closed her eyes and cleared her mind. She painted an image in her head: Luna's balcony. She imagined the stone perch, the ornate railing, the glass doors; as many details as she could recall, even the landscape visible from the balcony. With the picture posted in her mind's eye, Sunset focused her magic—quickly, but not hastily, as she did not want to risk losing her concentration on the image she had painted—and once she was ready, released it with a magical pop.

Sunset opened her eyes again, and they widened even further when she noticed where she was. Instead of staring up at the tower, she was now staring out over the Everfree Forest from an elevated vantage point. The dirt beneath her hooves had been replaced by smooth stone, and a gentle breeze blew through her fiery mane. Sunset turned around to confirm her location, finding the pair of glass double doors she'd envisioned, though she could not see past them due to the blackout curtains on the other side. But at the very least, those curtains meant she had actually reached her destination, and not accidentally teleported to Princess Celestia's balcony.

But more importantly, she had done it. She successfully teleported, and not like when she saved Halberd. While that was based on instinct, this time she'd followed what her father had taught her and finally managed it on her own. Although opening her eyes to see a completely different environment than when she had closed them made her a little dizzy and her legs were a touch wobbly, she was still elated regardless.

However, the celebrations would have to be put on hold. She had come here for a reason.

Sunset stared somewhat apprehensively at the glass doors. If Princess Celestia's words earlier were not evidence enough, the blackout curtains concealing the interior of the room were a clear indication that Princess Luna was not in a talking mood. Regardless, Sunset felt that she'd be unable to get to sleep tonight if she didn't at least try. So, without hesitating further, the filly gently rapped on the glass.

Much to her surprise, it didn't take long to hear the sound of hoofsteps approaching. One curtain was abruptly pulled aside, and the scowling face of the moon princess revealed itself. But what Sunset wasn't expecting to see was the presence of tears in Luna's eyes, the midnight blue of her coat around her eyes and cheeks having been darkened even more by the moisture that had run down her face.

"I told you to leave me alo—" Luna paused suddenly, realizing that she was staring up at somepony who wasn't there. Her gaze then lowered to find Sunset standing on the other side of the doors. "Oh... It's thee..." She quickly wiped the tears from her eyes as best she could, not wanting the filly to witness her in a vulnerable state. "What doth thou want?" Luna snipped with a glower in an effort to scare off the unwanted visitor.

"I wanted to know if you were okay," Sunset told her sympathetically.

Luna scoffed at her in response. "If We would turn away Our own sister, then what makes thou think We'll talk to thee?"

Sunset shrunk back slightly. "I just wanted to try..."

The princess flicked her nose up at the filly. "Hmph. A commendable notion, but for naught. Leave Us be." With that, Luna closed the curtains again, blocking out both the evening sunset, and the Sunset on her balcony.

"Are you mad at me?"

There was a long moment of silence as Sunset's question lingered in the air. But after several seconds of hesitation, the curtains opened again.

While Luna was trying to maintain an air of indifference so that Sunset would leave her alone, there was a small hint of concern in her still-glistening eyes. "Why wouldst We be mad at thee?"

"Because those ladies were talking about me when the reason we went to Canterlot was to help you."

Luna was quiet for a moment. This filly continued to surprise her at every turn with how perceptive and compassionate she could be despite her childish naïveté. And she had snapped at Sunset briefly during her outburst, so the question was understandable. The alicorn let out a regretful sigh. "No, We are not mad at thee."

"Then what's wrong?"

"Thou shouldst know that full well. Thou hadst to save the child whose life I accidentally endangered."

"Princess Celestia says you should make a public apology."

Luna's eyes turned downward sullenly, her voice becoming equally as solemn. "Perhaps that is what We should do, but it is not what We are going to do."

Sunset tilted her head, confused and, admittedly, somewhat shocked. "What? Why not?"

"An apology would make little difference. Everypony would still see Us as the one who nearly got an innocent colt killed. It would cross their minds everytime they see Us."

"But it wouldn't hurt. You should probably still do it anyway."

"There is no point. Especially since they won't have to see Us anymore."

Sunset's ears folded back and her mouth hung open slightly at the princess's implication. "You're not going to visit Canterlot anymore?"

Luna stared quietly at Sunset, and she sighed with defeat and acceptance in her listless eyes. "Celestia once told me that we, as princesses, art here to serve our people. In other words, we do what we must to keep them safe and happy. Today, I could do neither of those things. Tell me, Sunset: Did any of them look happy?"

Sunset remained silent. She knew what the answer was, but didn't want to say it out loud. Of course, Luna knew that as well; the question was obviously rhetorical.

"It may be best if things just went back to the way they were. Celestia can govern our subjects during the day, and I can go back to watching over the night. In solitude. Everypony was happier that way..."

"They just have to get used to you, that's all..."

"Art thou not listening?"

Sunset flinched slightly at the slight annoyance in Luna's voice, the alicorn finally raising her voice above a despondent murmur.

"They have no intention nor interest in 'getting used to' me. I've done nothing but be amicable towards them for these past two months, and yet they continue to stare at me and avoid me as though I were diseased."

"Do you think there's anything you could do to fix that, though?" Sunset asked desperately.

Luna lowered her gaze once more, her ears falling flat. "At this point, no, I do not."

Sunset's expression became much the same as the princess's. As much as she wanted to help, how much help could she be if Luna wasn't willing to try anymore?

Luna observed that her own defeated attitude had been passed onto the filly, and she admittedly felt guilty about it. But the truth was harsh sometimes, and Luna knew that now more than ever. However, she straightened up slightly, looking to the filly with more compassion in her eyes, though it did not overpower the dejected look of acceptance.

"Celestia may hath forbade me from teaching thee further, but allow me to impart one more lesson unto thee."

Sunset listened intently, though the tone in Luna's voice alone told her that this lesson wasn't necessarily going to inspire confidence.

"Light and darkness are two sides of the same coin. This is a lesson I learned long ago. Yet while people revel in the light, they fear the darkness, for it conceals what is within. But just as darkness cannot exist without light, light cannot exist without darkness." Luna's expression fell again, once more full of acceptance and self-pity. "And that appears to be the extent of my purpose: to exist, simply to balance out my sister's light."

"You can do more than that..." Sunset claimed, though her voice held little comfort or confidence at this point.

"Can I? If the night were just as important as the day, then why doth everypony choose to ignore it—to ignore me? They all frolic and rejoice under my sister's sun, but my radiant stars, my glorious moon, the beauty of my night go totally unappreciated. They would choose to sleep through it instead and pretend the darkness has simply stopped existing when the moon crosses the horizon." Luna let out another long sigh. "But as Celestia said, we art here to serve them. If they art happy living that way, then let them live their lives in blissful ignorance. I'll just continue to watch from the shadows..."

Luna glanced back at the filly who had been quietly listening to her vent her emotions and thoughts. If anything, seeing the filly here at all was somewhat of a minor comfort. Of all the people Luna had tried to please, the only one who showed her anything in return was this filly; a filly that she herself had once considered a nuisance.

"Thou art somepony special, Sunset Shimmer."

Sunset's ears perked up slightly at the unexpected compliment.

"Though I treated thee like a bothersome, buzzing mosquito in the past, thou art the only one who hast shown me any sort of compassion. So I thank thee. At least I can rest well knowing that at least one of my subjects has shown me any respect."

"Oh, um... Y-You're welcome," Sunset said in response, though neither the thanks nor Sunset's reply seemed to do much to lift the dreary mood.

"Celestia hast found a good pony to be her protégé. Do not disappoint her."

"I won't."

Luna nodded at the filly's resolute response. "That's enough. I tire of this conversation. Now, leave me be."

Sunset took a step back. "Oh, o-okay." Though this resolution wasn't as satisfying as she had hoped it'd be, Sunset didn't want to risk overstaying her welcome. She had managed to get Princess Luna to talk to her, and that was what she had set out to do. So, with the conversation effectively ended, Sunset focused her magic in her horn, preparing to teleport back down to the castle entrance. But after a moment and a flash of magic, she found herself still standing on Luna's balcony, much to the alicorn's confusion. Sunset grinned awkwardly. "Um, guess I still don't quite have the hang of it. Can you...?"

Luna rolled her eyes with an exasperated sigh and opened the balcony doors to let the filly in so she could head back down into the castle proper.

"Thanks. Goodnight, Princess Luna," Sunset bid her as she hurried out the door and down the tower.

Luna breathed another long, listless sigh as she sauntered over to her bed. "Goodnight..."

As Sunset reached the bottom of the tower, her hurried pace slowed. She stepped out into the connecting breezeway, looking out the window at the amber sky. Given everything that Luna had just told her, Sunset had to wonder if the princess would be able to muster up the willpower to raise the moon tonight. But she put it out of her mind; if Luna wasn't up to it, then Princess Celestia would handle it anyway.

Sunset exited the breezeway, finally entering the castle proper, but stopped in her tracks suddenly. Puzzled and surprised, Sunset looked up to see Princess Celestia staring back at her. The alabaster alicorn had a rather worried look on her face, and she seemed as though she was waiting for something. She also didn't seem surprised to see Sunset emerge from Luna's tower.

"Princess? Are you going to try and talk to Princess Luna again?" Sunset inquired.

Celestia shook her head. "No. I know she won't talk to me, no matter how much I try. But I had a feeling you wouldn't be able to just ignore this, and maybe, just maybe, she'd be willing to open up to you. So..." She leaned forward expectantly, her pink eyes full of concern. "Did she say anything?"

Sunset frowned, feeling bad that she didn't have any good news to report. "She said that she thinks things should just go back to the way they were."

Celestia sighed remorsefully. "I see. That's disappointing, but I understand. This incident may have been almost as traumatizing for her as it was for that young colt. I wish she could have stuck it out a little longer, but at the very least I'm proud of her for trying. And all things considered, it could have been worse. Going back to square one is better than having a totally despondent sister." She gave Sunset a small, grateful smile. "Thank you for taking the time to talk to her, Sunset. Even if she didn't express it, I'm sure she appreciates it."

Sunset smiled back. Despite Celestia's assumption, Luna had indeed told her as much. But there was something else that Luna said that lit a spark of determination in the filly. "Princess?"

Celestia observed the sudden look of resolve in Sunset's teal eyes. "Hm?"

"I wanna get better. I wanna get stronger. I wanna learn more spells. And I wanna help people."

The princess smiled knowingly. "It feels good to help people, doesn't it?"

Sunset nodded with a blush, a little embarrassed that her teacher could so easily read her. "I liked it when you called me a hero. And I want to be a hero like you!"

Celestia laughed in amusement at the filly's vigor. "Well, I think you're a ways off from fighting villains and monsters just yet, but I can certainly help you be on your way." She leaned down to look her student in the eye. "Sunset, is this what you want to do with the power within you?"

The filly nodded with confidence. "Mm-hm."

"Wonderful. Having such a noble goal rather than simply doing it for the sake of raising the sun will likely make mastering your power much simpler. If you know what you want to do with your power, and you devote yourself to that cause, you can overcome any hurdle in front of you. And you can trust me to help you accomplish that goal."

Sunset grinned widely, then suddenly tackled the princess's leg to give her a big hug. Celestia giggled softly at her pupil's gratitude, gently brushing a hoof over her fiery mane. While the progress she'd made since the solar flare had been minute in comparison to how far she had yet to go, after watching this rambunctious filly accomplish what she had at her young age, Celestia was no longer concerned that Sunset's power would hurt her. If she progressed as well as she has been up until now, this filly could indeed achieve every goal she had set for herself.

Chapter 9 - Corona

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 9: Corona

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Canterlot: the capitol of Equestria that was founded by the kingdom's two alicorn princesses. Since its founding, Celestia and Luna had sought to build it up from a humble town wedged in a mountainside into a sprawling city of marble and gold; a symbol overlooking their kingdom and acting as a beacon of prosperity, progress, hope, and inspiration. As such, the relatively small town was always changing, always growing. It seemed like every other week there was a new building erected, a new business opening, or new residents moving in. Over time, the town's boundaries expanded outward—or rather, downward—construction progressing down the side of the mountain, turning the humble mountain town into a multi-tiered city. While one would think that there would be those bothered by the drastic changes, insistent that things were fine as they were, one would be wrong. The citizens of Canterlot were always watching their town grow and evolve, and the more elaborate it became, the more they came to love their home. It felt exactly as the princesses had envisioned it.

And nowhere was that more prevalent than near the mountain's peak.

Jutting up into the sky as though attempting to reach out to the clouds above were tall, elegant spires of white, gold, and purple, attached to a flawless, marble building that appeared as though it were growing out of the mountain itself, like a tree whose roots gripped the cliff's edge; one side peering over the precipice above Canterlot Valley, the other overlooking the city in which it was built. It was a structure unlike any other in the city. Canterlot Castle: the new pride of the capitol. Years of planning and construction were finally reaching fruition, and while it was still not quite finished, Princess Celestia was more than satisfied with how it had been turning out. It was estimated that construction would be complete within the next couple of months, but even in its current state, the castle's beauty and radiance against the horizon served as a pillar of comfort and confidence, like a lighthouse guiding wayward sailors to safety.

But it wasn't just Canterlot that had changed over the years. So, too, had its people. New faces were always showing up to take up residence in the growing capitol knowing that one day the princesses would be moving there themselves to be closer with their subjects. So Canterlot had become a melting pot of people from all over the kingdom wanting to witness its splendor for themselves and have a chance at meeting the princesses who governed them.

However, there was one particular person who needed none of that, for she was already well familiar with both Canterlot and especially its rulers.

A young, unicorn mare entered the lower part of the city from the road leading down the mountain, having taken the scenic route through the Everfree Forest as opposed to having one of the royal guards escort her to the capitol by chariot as they had so many times in the past. She paused for a moment as she entered the city limits, taking the time to gaze up through her teal eyes at the castle looming above the city. It brought a smile to her face every time she saw it, as it was just as important to her as it was for the princesses; after all, it would soon be her home as well. The mare let out a short breath, brushing aside her flowing, fiery, red and yellow mane. She was admittedly not the most athletic pony in the world, and the walk from the Castle of the Two Sisters and up the mountain had left her a little exhausted, but she wasn't one to let a little shortness of breath take the wind out of her sails.

After a brief moment of rest, the young mare continued into the city, her sights set on Canterlot Castle—her destination for the day. As she trotted down the streets, she received numerous waves and affable smiles. She was a familiar face around the city, and only became more and more known among the populace as time went on. She was practically a local celebrity at this point, mostly due to her connection with Princess Celestia, but also just because of her air of energy and optimism.

As she approached the castle, crossing a small bridge across a shallow brook, she received a few waves from the construction ponies working on the gate wall leading into the castle's main courtyard. The doors of the gate had yet to be installed, so she was able to simply walk straight in. Normally, citizens were told to keep away from the construction site for safety reasons, but given who this mare was, they knew she had every right to be there. It wasn't just because of her relation to Celestia, but also because they knew they didn't need to worry about her safety.

As the main entrance of the castle was currently also being worked on and was rather cluttered with workers, she opted to walk around to a side entrance, where some more volatile construction was underway. Large blocks of marble were being hoisted up to the higher parts of the castle walls by powerful earth ponies operating pulley systems. It appeared that everything was going quite smoothly all around.

"Watch out!"

Eyes on the ground shot up immediately at the warning. A rope had apparently snapped, and a big block of marble, twice the height of a grown stallion, was careening toward the ground. Workers scattered to avoid being flattened, clenching their eyes shut and covering their ears to protect themselves from shrapnel and the crash of the impact.

However, there was no impact. When the construction workers looked back to assess what had happened, they were surprised and relieved to find the block hovering a few feet off the ground, enveloped in an aura of cyan magic.

One worker took off his hardhat, wiping the sweat from his brow with a grateful smile when he spotted the amber mare standing nearby, her horn glowing with the same cyan light. "Thanks, Sunset. You're a lifesaver."

"You guys are just lucky I happened to come by when I did," Sunset said with a slight smirk, still continuing to hold the marble block as though it weighed nothing. "But it's not like anypony would've actually been hurt. This time anyway."

"Well, hey, at least we won't have to have a new block carved," the worker chuckled. "You mind giving us a hoof while you've got that thing?"

"Sure." Sunset effortlessly lifted the block high up into the air, the construction ponies sitting atop the wall helping her guide it into place.

"Thanks a bunch, Sunset. Now, we just gotta get some new ropes."

"My pleasure. But be a little more careful, alright?"

The stallion gave an affirmative wave as he put his helmet back on, and Sunset went back on her way to enter the castle.

As the years had gone by, Sunset Shimmer had grown, and in more ways than one. She had recently graduated from high school, though to her that was merely a formality. Sunset had actually wanted to drop out of school, but not because she found it difficult or stressful—quite the opposite in fact. Given that she spent most of her free time studying anyway, she had quickly gotten ahead of the school's curriculum. She no longer found it challenging and felt she wasn't learning anything she didn't already know. It was only at the insistence of her father and the princess that she stuck it out until graduation.

Still, even with her high school diploma, Sunset had no intention of enrolling in a college as her father had when he was her age. After all, there wasn't a college or university in Equestria that had courses to teach Sunset what she wanted to do. Only one person had the knowledge and skill to teach her, and that was Princess Celestia.

That being said, Princess Celestia had also recently completed a different project in Canterlot. After receiving the inspiration from teaching Sunset Shimmer, the princess had a new school built, one specializing in teaching young unicorns about magic. Granted, even that school wouldn't do much for Sunset, as it currently only offered basic courses for young fillies and colts; she was far beyond that at this point. But her father had already started working there as a teacher himself, though since the school focused on magic and didn't currently provide other elements of basic education, classes were limited to a couple of hours in the afternoon so any young unicorns could attend after their normal school day had wrapped up. Celestia intended to improve the institute to accommodate for things like that, but those plans were still in development, and the princess herself hadn't yet started teaching there like she wanted to due to being busy with the new castle, but has occasionally made appearances when she found some free time.

Regardless of her being unable to teach at her own school, Princess Celestia was still a teacher, and Sunset was her star pupil. Sunset Shimmer's own abilities had improved considerably over the years under the alicorn's tutelage. In terms of raw magical power, she had even surpassed Starswirl, her own father and talented spellcaster in his own right, at this point. But even so, she knew she still had a ways to go. Sunset had not yet been able to fully access the power she exhibited when she was a filly after being struck by the solar flare, and also still hadn't been able to move the sun again like she was hoping. But even though it had been a long time, Sunset hasn't let that put a damper on her spirits; she was confident she would accomplish her goals one day, and continued to work tirelessly toward them.

Right now, though, there were other things on her mind. A unique day was soon approaching, one Princess Celestia took rather seriously, and that was what Sunset had come to Canterlot to discuss. Celestia was currently at the castle, overlooking the work being done on it to ensure it went according to the plans she had laid out, and if Sunset knew anything about the princess, it was that she could usually always be found in the throne room.

Sunset made her way around the outside of the unfinished castle until she came to a clearing where the new statue garden was going to be located. A side entrance to the castle was located nearby, and there were few workers in this area, so construction wouldn't hinder her.

The inside of the castle was just as grand and expansive as the Castle of the Two Sisters, but the big difference between them was the color. While the current castle's walls were mostly browns and greys from the granite it was built from, the new castle was a pristine white from the marble construction. With the sunlight shining in through the windows—which still lacked panes of glass as of yet—one practically had to shield their eyes from light reflecting off the walls. It perhaps wouldn't be as much of an issue once the castle was complete, as the interior decorations, such as banners and the carpet, hadn't been placed yet; they would likely just end up getting full of dust and dirt from all the work still being done.

Sunset eventually navigated the halls to find the new castle's throne room. Honestly, she couldn't decide which one she liked better. While the old castle's throne room would always hold a special place in her heart, she couldn't deny the radiance of this new throne room. While it, too, was unfinished, the ground work had been laid, and all that really was left to do was decorate with banners and carpets, and insert the windows. The latter was something to which Princess Celestia was looking forward, as she intended to have elaborate, stained-glass windows depicting significant moments in Equestria's history, siting the two princesses' battle with Discord as an example.

The thrones themselves were fairly similar—one of gold and one midnight blue for their respective owners—but had a ramp leading up to them instead of stairs, and both thrones were now side by side instead of upon separate platforms connected by a small bridge; perhaps a small effort on Celestia's part to make she and her sister feel closer.

But as it currently stood, Sunset had to visualize what the final design would look like with everything in place, but she definitely liked what she was imagining. And, of course, any room was always made more wonderful by the presence of Celestia herself, and this room was no exception.

Princess Celestia was standing at the base of the ramp leading up to the thrones, having a discussion with both Quill and a burly, brown, earth pony stallion, who Sunset recognized as the foreman of the construction team.

What Sunset hadn't been expecting to see, however, was Princess Luna standing with them. Sunset knew that she had been pretty engrossed in her studies in the royal archives earlier, but she figured she would have at least caught wind of the knowledge that Luna was going to be heading to Canterlot today, as well. After a particular incident, Luna hadn't made much of an effort to even leave the castle very often, let alone travel to Canterlot. She'd pretty much just been doing what she normally did over the past couple of centuries and just stayed at home, monitoring the sky at night. If anything, she'd become even more anti-social in the interim, having hardly ever been seen out of her chambers during the day in the past thirteen years or so. And it definitely showed; the area around Luna's eyes were dark and sunken, and her expression was less than welcoming. Sunset figured the only reason that Luna would bother coming out to Canterlot was simply to see the progress on the new castle now that it was nearing completion, perhaps if only to have a gander at her personal quarters. Either way, Sunset had no intention on pressing her about it; that was her own business, and the amber unicorn didn't want to pry. Besides, she knew how touchy Luna could be. In her current state, it was likely that anything could set her off.

The discussion that the princesses were having was cut short once Celestia noticed that Sunset had arrived. The ivory alicorn beamed rather widely to see her student. She quickly turned her attention back to the foreman. "Anyway, everything's looking great. I'll let you get back to it."

The foreman gave a polite bow to the princesses before turning to take his leave, offering a tip of his hardhat to Sunset as he passed her by.

Princess Celestia practically skipped across the throne room to meet Sunset halfway, her grin holding firm. "Sunset, this is a pleasant surprise. I wasn't expecting you to come out here today." She punctuated her glee by bending her long neck down to give her student a happy nuzzle.

Sunset had to stifle her amusement at the princess's behavior. "Wow, you're in a good mood today, Princess."

"How can I not be?" Celestia responded giddily. She swept her hoof around at the throne room. "I mean, just look at this place! It's turning out even better than I'd envisioned!"

"Than we've envisioned."

Celestia glanced back at the heavy eyes of her grumpy sister, waving her correction off dismissively. "Yes, yes, you knew what I meant."

"So, do we know when it's gonna be finished?" Sunset asked eagerly.

Quill approached to field the question, taking a look over a clipboard of papers he was carrying with him. "Judging by what the foreman's told us, construction should be one hundred percent complete within the next two months. However, it should be livable even sooner."

"I can't wait," Sunset expressed with a cheery and excited smile. "Moving into a new castle... I mean, I'm definitely gonna miss the Castle of the Two Sisters—I grew up there after all—but this place is just so beautiful."

"Not to mention more convenient," Quill chuckled. "Now we won't have to put the pegasus guards out if we need anything in Canterlot."

"On top of that," Celestia continued, "now that we're so close by, you get to move back into your old house, Sunset."

In contrast to the chipper grin on Celestia's muzzle, Sunset's smile had suddenly faded. "Oh... Um, I-I guess that's..."

A loud snort escaped from the ivory alicorn's nose as she burst out laughing. "Ha Ha! I'm just kidding! As if I would ask you to move out. The castle would feel empty without you around, Sunset."

The amber mare breathed a sigh of relief, her smile returning. "Whew, you had me worried for a second there. Geez, I don't think I've ever seen you this playful before, Princess."

Celestia giggled in response. "Well, like I said, I'm just happy to see that all of this is finally happening!"

"As though that's the only reason," Luna interjected gruffly.

Sunset, Celestia, and Quill all gave the moon princess quizzical stares.

Luna rolled her tired eyes. "Oh, don't look at Us like thou doth not know. We all know what day is approaching, and we all know how Our sister gets around this time of year."

Sunset giggled in amusement. She knew exactly to what Luna was referring. "Right. The summer solstice."

Celestia glanced back and forth between her sister and her student, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious. "Do I really act like this during every summer solstice?" She looked to Quill for confirmation.

The royal adviser grinned awkwardly. "You do."

"Yes, but doth thou not think this is a bit much?" Luna argued. "Thou only get an extra hour of daylight for one day a year. Big whoop."

Celestia scowled slightly at her sister. "If it's no big deal, then why are you copping an attitude about it? You get an extra hour of night during the winter solstice."

"Yes, but We do not make a whole song and dance about it."

Sunset stepped forward to interject and hopefully diffuse this argument before it could escalate. "Princess Luna, the summer solstice is more than just an extra hour of daylight. It's meant to be a reminder of the sun's importance to Equestria."

Luna narrowed her eyes. "As though they need to be reminded."

As sour as Princess Luna was being, Sunset decided to chalk that up to the lack of sleep. After all, the subject had shifted exactly where she was hoping. She looked up at Celestia with a grin. "Actually, the whole reason I came out here was to talk about the summer solstice."

The ivory alicorn tilted her head curiously. "Oh?"

"Yeah. See, I was thinking: I contribute who I am today to watching the sunrise everyday. Most of the energy I get in the morning is from watching the sun come up over the horizon. Aside from you yourself, Princess, it's my primary source of inspiration."

Celestia held a hoof to her chest, touched by her student's words. "Aw, that's so sweet of you to say, Sunset."

"Gag Us..." Luna muttered, sticking her tongue out in mock disgust.

"But it occurred to me..." Sunset continued. "Most people tend to sleep in later than I do, so they don't usually get to witness it."

"Oh, no. How terrible," Luna deadpanned sarcastically. "We can't imagine what that must be like."

"So what does this have to do with the summer solstice?" asked Celestia.

Sunset's smile widened eagerly as she was approaching her point. She straightened herself up, putting on a more professional air as she prepared to make a formal request of the princess. "I would like to propose that we make the summer solstice a proper event."

Celestia's ears perked up, listening in earnest. "Oh? How so?"

"We set it up like a festival. Decorate Canterlot Square, get the people to gather around, and we all watch the sunrise together. Everypony should experience the same sort of inspiration that I do everyday, even if they aren't willing to wake up early every morning."

"But isn't that where the problem lies?" Quill pointed out. "Do you think that we could convince every single pony in Canterlot to wake up early for the sunrise? And would a bunch of sleepy citizens be willing to all gather in the town square at such an hour?"

"Actually, I was going to suggest that we delay the sunrise to make sure everypony can see it," Sunset explained.

Luna finally managed a smile, casting a discreet, snide grin at her sister. "Interesting. We could get behind that idea."

"Of course, we'd have to keep the sun up longer to compensate," Sunset continued. "The summer solstice is supposed to be the longest day of the year."

Luna lolled her head back and forth as she mulled that over. "Mmm, well, an acceptable trade off, We suppose. At least this way our subjects can actually witness Our beautiful night for a few hours before the sunrise."

Celestia smiled at the change in her sister's attitude. "Well, it sounds like you have Luna's approval. You know what? Let's give it a go! It couldn't hurt to try, right?"

Sunset performed an excited hop in place to hear that the princesses liked her idea. "Yes! And since you're busy overseeing the castle's construction, I'll plan everything out myself. It'll be great, I promise!"

Quill stepped forward, Sunset's declaration making him a touch pensive. "Uh, I think I'll help you out, Sunset. This castle's been a rather costly venture, so I'd prefer if we keep this 'festival' on a reasonable budget."

"Fair enough," Sunset agreed with a shrug. "But I wanna get started on this right away! I'll leave you guys to your work here and head back home to work all this out!"

Celestia frowned slightly to hear that. "So soon? You just got here."

"Unless she's actually going to help with the construction, there's little reason for her to be here," Luna pointed out.

The ivory alicorn hummed in thought. Perhaps her enthusiasm was merely a result of all the excitement surrounding the castle and the approaching solstice, but she was still very happy to receive an unexpected visit from her student. But as much as she wanted to let Sunset get a jump on these plans she was so eager about, she also wanted to find an excuse to keep her around for just a little longer.

Celestia's head suddenly shot up as an idea came to her. "Oh! Sunset, before you go, you should have a look at your room!"

Sunset's ears perked up, her interest suddenly piqued. "My room? You mean it's ready?"

"Well, it still needs your own personal touch, but the basic furnishings are finished."

The amber mare smiled, now thoroughly distracted by the suggestion. "Okay, sure."

"Alright, let's go." Celestia was about to head out of the throne room with Sunset, but quickly remembered they weren't the only ones there. "Oh, Luna. You can head home and get some rest if you'd like."

Luna breathed a relieved and exasperated sigh as she immediately started sauntering over to one of the open windows. "About time. We'll be off then." With that, Luna hopped up onto a windowsill and took off into the sky to head home.

"And, Quill, you stay here in case the workers need anything," Celestia told the mustachioed stallion, who promptly bowed in agreement.

With business in the throne room concluded, Princess Celestia proceeded to lead Sunset through the halls of the castle to take her to her designated quarters.

Unlike at the Castle of the Two Sisters, Sunset was receiving some special treatment at the new castle in regards to her living quarters. Whereas there was still a staff wing of the castle for servants and soldiers to live, Sunset had been given a tower all her own, much like the two princesses. Sunset honestly felt like she was being treated as royalty herself to receive such an honor, and that was only exacerbated by the decadence of her tower's interior. First of all, the tower's entrance was across an outdoor bridge, much like the breezeways of the old castle, but much more elegant in design. It was essentially a more traditional bridge as opposed to an enclosed hallway, with purple railings and a curved, purple awning overhead to protect from the elements. As opposed to the dimly lit, stone staircases, this tower's interior was quite well lit and the walls were bright white like the rest of the castle. A set of simple, yet elegant, spiral stairs coiled around in the center of the tower, leading up to the tower's peak where Sunset's room was.

After leading Sunset up the stairs, Celestia proudly introduced her student to her future home. There was no door leading inside, but instead lead right up into the room itself. Sunset's jaw dropped in awe as she looked around the expansive tower space. As Celestia had told her, it wasn't fully furnished yet, but there were already a couple of tall, but as of yet empty bookshelves, as well as a reading table and a plush, purple couch for lounging. There were also a couple of doorways: one was a set of glass doors leading out onto a balcony, while the other she assumed led into her bedroom—an assumption based on the fact that there was no bed present in the living room.

It only took a few moments for Sunset to take in the interior of the tower, briefly contemplating how she would decorate it when she prepared to move in. But her attention quickly gravitated to the balcony, throwing open the glass doors and letting the warm, summer winds blow back the transparent, white curtains. The view from the balcony was breathtaking. From this vantage point, Sunset could see all of Canterlot below her, even seeing the townsfolk wandering the street. And across the distant Everfree Forest, she could see the Castle of the Two Sisters. It was such a different feeling to be looking down over the landscape instead of up at the mountains, but as long as it had a clear view of the horizon where the sun rose every morning, she was happy.

"Wow..." Sunset uttered in amazement as she stared out over the countryside.

Princess Celestia walked out alongside her, smiling fondly at how grateful her student seemed to be for this gift. "I figured you'd like to watch the sunrise without having to leave your room."

Sunset stared up at the alicorn, disbelief in her teal eyes. "Princess, you didn't have to go to such trouble just for me."

"Says the pony who's planning an entire celebration for me during the summer solstice," Celestia responded with a smirk.

Sunset chuckled in embarrassment. "Touché."

"Now, I suppose you're eager to get to planning that celebration, but you can take your time to look around, even if it isn't much yet," Celestia said.

The alicorn suddenly felt something press up against her side. Sunset was lovingly nuzzling into her shoulder. Celestia couldn't help but smile, her student's affectionate response eliciting memories of when she was still a filly.

"I really appreciate this, Princess," Sunset told her, staring up at Celestia with unyielding gratitude. "You have no idea how much this means to me."

"I think I'm getting the idea," the princess giggled.

Sunset suddenly pulled away, blushing a bit as she realized how silly it must have looked for a grown mare to be cuddling up with somepony like that, despite nopony being around to witness it. She cleared her throat and straightened up. "A-Anyway, you're right. I'll head back to the castle to get preparations underway. As much as I'd like to take this in a little more, the summer solstice isn't far off, so I better get on it," Sunset said as she headed for the stairs.

"Looking forward to it," Celestia said with a smile.

***** ***** *****

Sunset wiped a hoof across her brow, cleaning the sweat from her forehead. She thought the trek back down from Canterlot would be significantly easier than going up, but she still found herself a little wiped out by the time she made it out of the Everfree Forest. She paused on the stone bridge spanning the shallow valley to the Castle of the Two Sisters to catch her breath for a moment, as well as take another look up at Canterlot.

Sunset smiled as she stared at the new castle in the distance. She was practically seeing it in an all new light now. Even from this distance, she could pick out the tower that Celestia had had built for her. She'd never get tired of this view, with Canterlot Castle looking radiant against the blue sky. It was just unfortunate that she wouldn't be able to see this view for too much longer before they all moved up there, but after seeing the new view she was going to have, she wasn't too disappointed by that.

The amber unicorn managed to tear herself away from the landscape and started heading for the castle; she had work to do after all, and wanted to make sure everything went perfectly. Sunset crossed the bridge, heading for the castle's entrance. No guards were present at the moment, as it was likely they were stationed at the new castle while the princesses were out, though Princess Luna should have been back by now; she must have been too distracted by the call of her bed to mention her return to any of the soldiers.

Sunset halted for a moment, the unicorn raising an eyebrow. Something felt off all of a sudden. She felt a slight tingle in her horn as though there was a powerful source of magic nearby. Suddenly, the wind began to pick up, despite the fact that today's weather was supposed to be mild all day. The grass began to blow erratically, and loose leaves swirled about in the air. On top of that, the wind appeared to be focused around one spot.

With concern and confusion, Sunset saw that the small whirlwind centered around a spot in the path to the castle, and was accompanied by white sparks of magic flickering outward. Sunset hesitated to approach it as it could have been dangerous, but before she could actually make a decision, a bright, white light appeared in that spot, growing larger and brighter as the wind picked up even more. Sunset had to shield her eyes from the blinding light, now accompanied by the building hum of magic until it all burst outward in a flash.

And just like that, it had all died down. The wind, the light, and even the tingle in Sunset's horn had disappeared in an instant, leaving only errant leaves to flutter gently back down to the ground. Sunset opened her eyes again, utterly baffled by this bizarre phenomenon.

But she was even more baffled still when she saw somepony now standing where the magic charge had originated. And not just anypony either: a slender stallion with a grey coat, but was even more recognizable by his bushy, white beard which had grown out quite a bit over the years.

Sunset was utterly flabbergasted by what she had just witnessed and understandably wanted answers. "Dad? What the hay was all that about? Was that some sort of new kind of teleportation or something?"

Starswirl shook his head, clearly a little dazed by what had happened. But once he laid eyes on his daughter, he suddenly started frantically looking about at his surroundings as though he didn't believe where he was. He quickly jerked his gaze back toward Sunset, hurrying over to her with a rather manic look in his eyes, causing her to take a cautious step back.

"Sunset! What time is it?!" he asked hysterically.

The amber mare hesitated. As though this weren't confusing enough, her father had to make it even more strange by following up with such an inane question. "The... time?"

"Yes! The exact time!"

"Uh..." Sunset was just going to play along at this point, as it appeared her father was too distracted to properly explain. She glanced up into the sky, holding a hoof over her eyes to shield them as she discerned the sun's position. Being an enthusiast of both Princess Celestia and the sun itself, Sunset had learned to be able to gauge the exact time simply by the sun's position in the sky. "It's five after four. Why?"

Starswirl paused quietly for a moment as he let that information sink it. Then, an enormous grin—bigger than any Sunset had ever seen from him—poked out from beneath his curly facial hair. "Ha hah! Success! I actually did it!"

Again, Sunset couldn't have been more puzzled by her father's behavior. "What? Dad, talk to me. What's going on? What did you do?"

"You'll never believe me if I just tell you! Come! Meet me in the royal archives!"

"The royal archives? Why do we need to go there?"

"What is this, twenty questions?! Just follow me and I'll sh—"

All of a sudden, Starswirl's body began to crackle with magic, and in just a few moments, he was engulfed in the same light as before. The difference this time was, when Sunset opened her eyes, Starswirl was now gone.

Sunset glanced back and forth, utterly bewildered by what had just happened. She'd never seen her father acting so eccentrically before. He had been buried up to his head in his research as of late, so it was possible that the exhaustion had finally gotten the better of him and he'd gone off the deep end. Still, she figured she should probably head to the royal archives anyway and see if he was okay. He'd probably just had a little too much coffee today.

Upon arriving, Sunset did indeed find her father seated at a table in the library. However, she found it odd that his disposition had suddenly shifted completely. Starswirl wasn't exhibiting the same exuberance he'd displayed a couple of minutes ago. Rather, he was quietly mulling over a messy pile of notes, looking somewhat exasperated as he leaned against his hoof.

But upon hearing somepony enter the room, Starswirl lifted his head to find his daughter staring at him as though she were waiting for him to say something. "Oh, Sunset. I wasn't expecting you back so soon."

Sunset raised an eyebrow slowly. "You... told me to come here."

Starswirl tilted his head in confusion. "Did I?"

"Yeah. Like, two minutes ago."

Her father blinked, a blank, uncomprehending look on his face.

Sunset's expression became a little concerned. "You feeling okay, Dad?"

Starswirl shook his head to help clear his mind. "I know I've started getting a few grey hairs here and there, but I don't think I'm at the point of senility just yet. Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure. You just teleported in front of me out of nowhere, asked me what time it was, told me to meet you here, then just vanished all of a sudden. You seriously don't remember that?"

Starswirl's eyes suddenly widened. "Wait. I asked you what time it was?"

Sunset gave her father another eyebrow raise. She found it odd that that's what he chose to fixate on. "Yeeeeeah..."

Starswirl immediately turned his focus back on his papers, frantically rifling through them and briefly glancing over specific pages.

Sunset's concern for her father only grew as she cautiously approached. Errant sheets of paper ended up getting flung onto the floor by Starswirl's hasty rummaging. One piece fluttered over and landed against Sunset's leg. She lifted the paper up and skimmed over it out of curiosity.

Upon realizing what it was her dad was currently working on, Sunset's jaw slacked slightly as she started putting the pieces together. "Hold on. This is your research on the time travel spell."

"Yes!" Starswirl exclaimed excitedly. His mood had suddenly lifted to match how he appeared when Sunset saw him outside, adding even more credence to their realization. "Do you realize what this means?!"

Sunset smiled enthusiastically. "That was you from the future?!"

"It must have been! Which also means..." He snatched the paper that his daughter was holding and quickly glanced at it. "This is it! This must be it!"

Without much more warning than that, Starswirl's horn glowed brightly with white magic. Just like when he had appeared in front of Sunset a few minutes ago, the air swirled throughout the room, and Starswirl was enveloped in a blinding light. And with a loud crackle of magic, he was gone.

Sunset was left alone in the royal archives amidst a shower of research papers that had been thrown about the room by the spell. However, before she could even contemplate what would happen next and even before the papers could come to a rest on the floor, the wind and light returned almost instantly.

"—ow you! Hm?" Starswirl had returned just as quickly as he'd disappeared, looking around the library in a state of frenetic confusion. "Oh. How'd I get back here?"

Sunset stepped forward in anticipation. "Well? What happened?"

Starswirl scratched his head, but smiled proudly and excitedly. "It worked! I traveled a few minutes into the past and ran into you as you were arriving at the castle! And it played out exactly as you recounted. I asked for the time, told you to come to the library..."

"And then vanished suddenly. So, what was with that?"

"I'm not sure. I didn't cast the spell again, but it seems I was simply... flung back to the moment I left involuntarily."

Sunset picked up one of her father's research papers and gave it a once over. "You think there's a problem with the spell?"

"More than likely. Even if this is my first successful attempt to use a time travel spell—a first for anypony, in fact," he stated with an ecstatic grin. "—it's certainly imperfect. There are bound to be hiccups in the testing phase."

"Why don't you just do it again? You can figure this out, right?" Sunset told him confidently, unable to hide the excitement in her voice.

There was a glint in Starswirl's eyes. "I can do one better. What if I go back and share this spell with past me? Then I'll—er, he'll—or whatever—will have even more time to perfect it!" Starswirl lit up his horn again as he prepared to venture into the past once more.

"Whoa, whoa, hold up, Dad!" Sunset interrupted. "Aren't there theories about your past self seeing your future self? Isn't that supposed to cause a time paradox, or something?"

Starswirl waved the warning off with a dismissive flick of his hoof. "Oh, those theories are baseless. Besides, I'm far too excited by this breakthrough to worry about consequences. Caution to the wind and all that!" And without any more warning than that, his horn flashed white again. But this time, he went nowhere. The magic didn't swirl and burst like before, but rather just fizzled weakly as a few white sparks sputtered out of Starswirl's horn. "Huh. That's odd. I'm certain I cast it correctly."

Sunset breathed a slight sigh of relief, but gave her father a disapproving glare. "Well, nice to know you're willing to put the space-time continuum at risk for the sake of scientific curiosity," she deadpanned. "So, what? Did it use up too much of your magic?"

"I don't think so. I feel fine." Starswirl lit up his horn again, this time to simply display the raw reserves of magic power he still had. The entire room was filled with white light, something he'd certainly be unable to do if he were actually drained of power. "It doesn't appear that the spell took much out of me at all, surprisingly."

"Maybe there's a cool down period."

"Could be. Another kink that'll have to be worked out, I suppose." Starswirl glanced at his daughter, casting a slight smirk her way when he noticed the gleam in her eyes; the same gleam that was in his own, no doubt. "Want to give it a go, Sunset?"

She smiled back, unable to hide her enthusiasm. "Like you even have to ask. Lemme just take a look at this..."

Sunset continued to read over her father's notes on the spell. Surprisingly enough, for something as revolutionary as a time travel spell, it didn't seem all that complicated. In fact, based on the research, it was very similar to a teleportation spell, but with the added step of imagining the exact point in time you wished to visit on top of visualizing the specific location. Given it's simplicity, it was hard to believe that it took this long for somepony to devise a time travel spell.

"Seems easy enough. But where should I go?" Sunset chuckled to herself. "I guess I should say when, huh?"

But before she could think it over for any reasonable amount of time, the room once more became a whirlwind of paper and blinding light. And when it died down, there was suddenly another pony in the room. Another Sunset, to be specific.

Sunset blinked as she stared at the other amber unicorn now occupying the royal archives with them, mentally noting how surreal it felt to be looking at herself without the aid of a mirror. "Well, I guess that answers that question."

"What happened to the whole 'time paradox' thing?" Starswirl mockingly asked the new Sunset that had appeared suddenly.

"Like you said, Dad: 'Caution to the wind,'" the future Sunset laughed.

"Does this mean I'm not an only child anymore?" the present Sunset joked with an amused grin. "Oh! Hey, what if you tried to back to a few seconds ago so there'll be three of us?!"

"Heh, that'd be pretty weird," future Sunset giggled.

"Now, Sunset—er, Sunsets—maybe we shouldn't be messing around with this too much," Starswirl warned. "The spell is still imperfect; I know this'll sound hypocritical, but warping about in time willy-nilly could have unforeseen consequences. Perhaps it would be best if you return to your time and let future me work on this. Besides, not that I mind having two daughters, but I wouldn't want future me to have to go without his."

"Fair enough," future Sunset agreed with a shrug.

"Oh, before you go," present Sunset said, having to stifle a snicker. "What's the future like?" she asked in a joking tone.

Future Sunset gave her past self a playful smirk. "All the food's in pill form, and Equestria is ruled by giant, mutant—"

But just like when Starswirl had arrived from the future, this Sunset's body began to crackle with magic before abruptly vanishing in a white flash as well.

The remaining Sunset raised an eyebrow, turning to her father. "That's just like what happened to you. Gimme a sec..."

Now, finally, Sunset set to casting the spell, disappearing and—just as her father had—reappearing immediately after.

"—crabs. Oh, I'm back."

"There definitely appears to be a time limit," Starswirl deduced, looking over his notes once more. "Approximately thirty seconds, it would seem. Hmm... I wonder if I can work around this..."

"And do you think it's a coincidence that we both pretty much reenacted exactly what happened when our future selves came back?"

The stallion stroked his beard in thought. "There are a few prevailing theories in regards to how time travel should operate. On top of multiverse theory and the butterfly effect, there's also the notion that the events of the past and future are predetermined, and even if time travel were possible—which we've seen now it is—we can do nothing to alter the timeline. That sounds like what we just experienced."

Sunset frowned at the thought. "You think? I don't know if I like that idea. Knowing that the future is set in stone and you have no control over your own destiny sounds kinda depressing."

Starswirl nodded his head in agreement, but there was also a sparkle of optimism in his eyes. "True, but if we already know that, then what's to stop us from going back and doing something differently if we already know what's going to happen?"

His daughter's lips curled outward in a big grin. "Hey, yeah! I'll just pop back to that exact same moment and say something different! That'll prove that theory wrong!" With a goal in mind, Sunset cast the spell again, only for it to spark and fizzle out just as it had with her father. Sunset let out a groan of annoyance. "Ugh, you gotta be kidding me."

"It would seem there is indeed a cool down of some sort," Starswirl muttered in disappointment and with a shake of his head. "Well, nothing we can do about it now, as far as I can tell. As painful as it is, I suppose we can't do anymore testing until we're able to cast the spell again. Still, though, this is a momentous occasion!" he exclaimed, his vigor returning as he gathered up his scattered papers with his magic. "And I'll certainly be looking over my notes to see how I can improve it. In the meantime..." Starswirl turned to Sunset with an eager and curious smile. "How did your idea go over with the princesses?"

Sunset's ears twitched when she was finally reminded of the reason she came home in the first place. "Oh, right! They said yes!" she exclaimed with an ecstatic smile.

"Really? That's great, sweetie."

"Yeah, even Princess Luna was interested."

"Now, that's a ringing endorsement," Starswirl chuckled. "So, what are you going to do now that you have the go ahead?"

"Start planning, obviously. I'm gonna draw up plans for how to decorate the town square, see if any businesses wanna partner up to help cater and stuff, arrange to have a stage set up, maybe hire some musicians to entertain the crowd while they wait for the sunrise..."

Starswirl stared blankly at his daughter as she rattled off everything she wanted to do with this celebration, though he wasn't lacking in pride in her enthusiasm and work ethic. "That all sounds great, but just don't pile your plate too high, dear."

Sunset waved his words of caution off with a playful scoff. "Pfft. I can handle it. Quill is gonna help me balance the budget. I'm sure he'll probably end up doing most of the consulting; I just wanna handle the planning to make sure everypony can draw the same inspiration from the sunrise that I do everyday."

"Because you throw a big shindig whenever you watch the sunrise," Starswirl mocked with a sarcastic smirk.

"I would if I had the resources," Sunset retorted with a genuine grin.

"So, is there any way I can help?"

"Sure! I mean, probably. I'll have to get started on the plans first to figure out what exactly we're gonna need to make this thing absolutely perfect." Sunset moved over to the table her father had been working at, her cyan magic grabbing some blank papers and a pencil to use for her planning.

Starswirl hovered slightly over his daughter's shoulder as she began writing notes of her own. "Mind if I stick around and give you a helping hoof?"

Sunset smiled gratefully, yet apologetically. "I appreciate the offer, Dad, but—and I mean no offense—this is kinda my passion project. I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I have a specific vision that I want to bring to life."

The stallion backed off respectfully. "Noted. I don't want to 'cramp your style,' sweetheart. But could I at least have a look at it when you've done up a rough draft? I don't want you to go overboard with this, that's all."

"Sure thing. I'll let you know if I need your input on anything."

Starswirl nodded with a smile. He gathered up his stack of notes and research papers and made for the door, giving his daughter some peace and quiet so she could concentrate on her own work.

***** ***** *****

Princess Luna let out a long yawn as she traipsed through the halls of the castle. While she would take solace in basking in the gentle light of her full moon as it shone through the windows, she was a touch too aggravated to properly enjoy it. It had been some time since she'd been awake into the afternoon hours, so she was no longer accustomed to being so tired during the night. But she still had her duties as princess of the moon, and she was not about to ignore them, even it if meant losing some sleep.

As usual, Luna had no particular destination as she wandered the halls, simply passing the time and keeping herself moving to avoid drifting off to sleep. However, as she began approaching the throne room, she noticed the door to the royal archives was open, a faint light shining through the crack. Curious, Luna peered inside. She had been expecting to find Starswirl undergoing another all-night research session, but was a little surprised to find that it was instead his daughter.

Sunset was seated at one of the reading tables, illuminated by the light of a candle that had melted quite significantly. However, she was not occupied by study with her nose buried in a book. Rather, she lay with her head on the wooden surface, sound asleep and snoring rather loudly.

Luna let out a somewhat wistful sigh; Sunset was starting to remind her more and more of her sister when they were young.

The princess quietly entered the library, carefully approaching the sleeping unicorn. Luna glanced over Sunset's shoulder to see what it was she was doing before she conked out. The table was littered with papers; notes and lists consisting of ideas and materials, along with many drawings. Luna grimaced slightly as she looked over one of the pictures Sunset had drawn; they all looked like something one would find pinned on the wall of a kindergarten classroom. Sunset was clearly no artist, and even her penmanship was akin to chicken scratches. As concerning as it was that she had not improved in that regard after all these years, Luna couldn't help but find it a little amusing. Of all the things that Starswirl and Celestia couldn't teach her...

As cute or funny as it may have been, Luna felt it necessary to aid Sunset in returning to bed, but she wasn't about to pick her up and carry her there.

"Ahem."

"Snrk, whu-wha?" Sunset's head suddenly shot up, looking around through tired, half-lidded eyes, not even noticing at first the piece of paper stuck to her cheek. Though she was still rather groggy, she eventually noticed Princess Luna standing there and rubbed her eyes to try and help her vision adjust. "Oh, it's you, Princess Luna. I must've fallen asleep." Sunset yawned and stretched her legs. "What time is it?"

"Midnight. Thou must hath been quite engrossed in thy work; We hath not known thee to stay up so late," Luna commented.

Sunset looked a little confused at first, as though she couldn't remember why she'd fallen asleep in the royal archives in the first place. But once she looked over the table and saw all the papers she'd drawn up, she smiled as it came back to her. "Right. Guess I got caught up with all of this. Maybe this was what Dad was referring to when he talks about getting into 'the zone.'"

Luna nodded. "Yes, We know well the feeling of accomplishment when things seem to... 'click.'" The princess glanced over the papers once more. "We take it these are the plans for this festival thing thou were speaking of today."

Sunset leaned forward on her chair eagerly as Luna sized up her work. "Yeah. So? What do you think so far?"

Luna was tempted to make a snarky comment about the quality of the drawings, but chose to bite her tongue on that matter. Instead, she picked up several other papers and scanned each one briefly. "Hmm... Thou hath quite a lot in mind. Art thou sure thou'rt not going a tad overboard?"

"Well, this is just more of a first draft," Sunset admitted. "I'm gonna go over it with Quill to figure out a budget and what we can and can't do."

"Mm-hm..." Luna continued to analyze the work, looking for anything of interest. Her attention was grabbed by a few words written across the top of one sheet. Though it was sloppily written like pretty much everything else, Luna could still pick it out. "'Summer Sun Celebration'?"

"Yeah, that's the name I came up with," Sunset explained proudly. "It's got a bit more punch than just 'summer solstice,' don't you think?"

"Hm. Well, Celestia always did seem to have a soft spot for alliteration, so We're sure she'll be in agreement on that."

Sunset grinned ear to ear to hear that Luna seemed to like what she was seeing so far. But as much as Sunset wanted to continue working on this, another tired yawn reminded the unicorn how late it was. "I guess I should probably get to bed. Don't wanna miss the sunrise tomorrow." Sunset hopped off her chair, gathering up all of her notes with her cyan magic before starting toward to the door. "Good night, Princess Luna."

"One moment."

Sunset stopped, turning back to the princess. Luna was gazing at her rather seriously, as though something concerned her.

"Sunset, why art thou doing all of this?"

The unicorn raised an eyebrow at the question. "Um, didn't I go over that today? I want everypony to feel the same kind of inspiration that I get every morning when I watch the sunrise."

"And this has nothing to do with impressing Our sister?"

Sunset went quiet for a moment as she eyed up Luna. Was she trying to imply something? "No, that's not it at all. Why would I be trying to impress her?"

Luna shrugged. "That's what We were wondering. While We do not object to this 'Summer Sun Celebration,' We find it unnecessary to place Celestia on an even higher pedestal than the one she's on currently."

Sunset frowned slightly as she put the pieces together. Luna was clearly a little jealous, so Sunset wanted to help alleviate any concerns she might have. "Well, this whole thing is meant to be more about the sun than it is about Princess Celestia herself. Though, obviously she's gonna be there so everypony can watch her do it. But we could always do the same thing during the winter solstice, if that'll make you feel any better. A day to celebrate the moon, too. How does that sound?"

Luna closed her eyes in thought. She began to wonder if she was reading too much into this. "Perhaps. Our apologies, We don't mean to sound as though We art against this. And thou did say the moon could be up longer before the sun is raised, so it's hard to object. And with that being the case, if there is anything thou need Our aid with, We art willing to help."

Sunset smiled gratefully at the offer. "Yeah, thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

"And apologies still for keeping you. Thou should head off to bed," Luna insisted.

Sunset nodded, placing her hoof upon the door. "Right. Goodnight, Princess. Uh, again. And thanks for your input."

"Our pleasure."

The amber unicorn took her leave of the library, shutting the door behind her. Now alone, Luna simply remained where she was, breathing a deep sigh. She found herself unable to discern how exactly she felt about all of this. For every time she was reminded that this event was to benefit everypony, herself included, a small voice in the back of her mind was telling her it wasn't right. Luna shook her head, trying her best to shut it out. She hoped at least that perhaps helping out would push those doubts away, but only time would really tell how she was ultimately going to feel about it.

The candle's light eventually put itself out as it burned away what was left of its wick. Luna took this as her signal to return to her wanderings about the castle for the night. Hopefully she could keep her mind clear enough to at least enjoy what was left of it.

Chapter 10 - Eclipse

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 10: Eclipse

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The summer solstice was fast approaching, only being a day away now. Sunset Shimmer's plans for the big day had received proper approval and the citizens of Canterlot have been notified of what was being dubbed the Summer Sun Celebration. The people were at first a touch skeptical of the idea of the sunrise being delayed, but they quickly warmed up to the idea of what was basically a city-wide festival, so everypony was pretty excited overall. Preparations were already underway with Canterlot Square already featuring multiple stands for various goods and services that would be offered during the summer solstice. Though Quill had to put his hoof down on a couple of things for monetary reasons, most of what Sunset had suggested was given the go-ahead; the troupe of circus performers had to be nixed, unfortunately.

But while the folks in Canterlot were busy with the Summer Sun Celebration preparations within the city limits, some particular individuals were making preparations of their own back at the Castle of the Two Sisters. As the moonlight shone down from the night sky above, a pair of armored, pegasus stallions stood outside the entrance of the castle in waiting: one with a steel-grey coat, white mane with a golden streak, and a stern, yet somehow playful look on his face, while the other had a silver coat, dark grey mane, and somewhat nervous expression on his face. The two of them wielded spears, and the grey-coated one paced back and forth in front of the silver one as though to scrutinize him carefully.

The grey pegasus stopped pacing to look the other soldier straight in his hazel eyes, addressing him gruffly. "So... Ready for your first mission, rookie?"

The silver stallion swallowed pensively, but maintained his professional stance. Despite whatever doubts he may have had, he nodded resolutely. "Yes, Sir."

The other soldier analyzed his expression critically, but upon seeing the slight unsteadiness of his lips and eyes, he let out a sigh. His own expression softened suddenly, smiling reassuringly and giving the other pegasus a firm slap on the shoulder. "Come on, Hal, you gotta loosen up a little. You did great at boot camp, so why are you now suddenly so uneasy, huh? You're in the royal guard now. It's what you've always wanted to do, so smile a little."

Halberd let out a long breath as he let his muscles relax. "Sorry, Lance. But it's a different feeling knowing that I'm actually responsible for the princesses' well being, you know?"

Lance gave his little brother an understanding nod. "Yeah, I get it. But trust me, this job isn't as serious as it sounds. I mean, how many Scabbards do you see around here? You can easily pick out that sourpuss from the rest of the guards. You wanna wind up like him?"

"I think Scabbard's a nice guy," Halberd commented.

"Sure, he's nice when you get to know him, but he just takes his job a little too seriously. Being a guard is a lot more laid back than you might think. I mean, take tonight's mission for example. Look at who we're escorting: Sunset and Princess Luna. You really think if something ended up happening that those two couldn't do a better job of defending themselves than we could?"

Halberd gave his brother a deadpan look. "Then why are we doing this?"

Lance wrapped a foreleg around Halberd's shoulders, pulling his little brother closer and giving him a sly smirk. "You know exactly why we're doing this. You might've wanted to become a royal soldier to follow in my hoofsteps, but now that you're here, you have opportunities. We're gonna be escorting Sunset Shimmer through the Everfree Forest on a beautiful, moonlit night. Magic is gonna be in the air tonight, little bro. Literally. That forest is probably the most romantic place a guy can take a girl."

Halberd rolled his eyes with a slight blush in his cheeks. "Okay, assuming that's true and this goes how you expect it to, how romantic can it be when we have you and Princess Luna there with us?"

Lance waved off his question dismissively. "I can just distract Luna for a little bit. We don't need to stick together or anything."

"I also think you're giving me a little too much credit," Halberd claimed with a notable lack of self-confidence. "Sunset and I have known each other since we were kids, and she's never caught on to the fact that I like her. She's obviously not interested."

Lance groaned at his brother's defeatist attitude. "You clearly know nothing about women. Of course she's noticed; how could she not have? She's just waiting for you to make a move. You've just gotta man up and ask her out. That's all there is to it."

"And what if she says no?"

Lance prodded Halberd in the chest with his hoof. "Don't even think about that. Thinking 'what if' is what holds people back. Don't think about 'what if.' Just do it."

Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of the castle doors creaking open. As if on cue, their two charges emerged to join them, Princess Luna gracefully fluttering over to where they stood while Sunset happily trotted behind her. The two mares were equipped with saddlebags, the contents of which made clinking sounds as they moved.

"Alright, all set," Sunset chirped.

"Let us make this quick," Luna suggested. "We'd rather not stay up too late tonight if We have to be up early for the summer solstice tomorrow."

"Sure thing. Just stick with us, miladies," Lance said with a gentlemanly bow.

The two soldiers escorted Sunset and Luna across the stone bridge and into the Everfree Forest. The goal of this endeavor was to acquire glowflies, which would be used to illuminate Canterlot Square during the extended night before Celestia raised the sun. Luna and Sunset had brought along with them several glass jars to contain the glowflies and transport them back to the castle. Despite what one may think given her rather introverted lifestyle, it was actually Princess Luna that suggested this expedition. Her desire was to try and emphasize the beauty of the night while she had this opportunity before the inevitable sunrise.

The Everfree Forest itself was not like a run-of-the-mill forest. It was teeming with natural magic, leading to it being a cornucopia of exotic wildlife and unusual phenomenons. Starswirl had done much research on the forest over the years, taking notes of the many varieties of unique plant life that held great potential for medicines and potions. And true to what Lance had told Halberd, the forest was exquisitely beautiful. Even without sunlight, there were still flowers in full bloom in the middle of the night, displaying the radiant, cool colors of their petals, from blue to indigo to violet, like the lower half of a rainbow. And Luna and Sunset did not even have to use their magic for light within the forest. Though the thick canopy of leaves and branches above blocked most of the moonlight, the area was modestly lit by glowing mushrooms growing near the base of the surrounding trees, giving off an alien, yet soothing light in colors ranging from blue to green to yellow.

Having traipsed a reasonable distance into the forest, Lance discreetly nudged his little brother, giving him a sly wink. Halberd was a little puzzled at first, but then Lance stopped and turned around to address the two mares.

"So, what say we split up to cover more ground?" he suggested. "We could probably catch more of those glowfly things if we search in pairs, right?"

Luna nodded in agreement. "A novel idea. Very well, then. Halberd will come with me and—"

"A-Actually!" Lance jumped in hastily to interrupt, startling the alicorn slightly. "I'll go with you, Your Majesty."

Luna gave a slow, suspicious raise of her eyebrow at his sudden shift in behavior.

"See, no offense to my little bro of course, but it's probably safer to have a more experienced soldier by the princess's side, don't you think?"

Luna briefly glanced at Halberd. The younger pegasus was standing alongside a smiling Sunset with a slight tinge of red on his silver cheeks. The princess rolled her eyes slightly, breathing a sigh of reluctant acceptance. "Fine. Not that it really makes any difference anyway."

Lance beamed involuntarily, and was quick to begin escorting Luna deeper into the forest. He looked back over his shoulder to call back to his brother. "You take good care of Sunset, Hal," he said with a wink.

Halberd's only response was a nervous gulp as all of this happened so suddenly.

"Come on!"

Halberd looked to Sunset, who was staring at him eagerly with her usual cute smile.

"We're just wasting time standing around here! Let's go! Those glowflies aren't gonna catch themselves!" And she grabbed Halberd's hoof and dragged him off before he could say a word.

Lance watched the pair of youngsters disappear into the trees, satisfied that he'd done what he'd come out here to do. With Halberd and Sunset getting some long awaited alone time, he just had to have faith that his little brother would follow his advice. So, now all Lance needed to do was actually perform the duties expected of him and help Princess Luna obtain some glowflies.

"We know what thou art doing."

Lance was snapped back to his current whereabouts by the princess's voice. Luna was giving him a rather judgmental scowl. "What are you talking about?" he replied, trying to casually play off her suspicion as they traipsed deeper into the woods.

"Please. We may not be the most socially adept person in Equestria, but this ploy of thine is apparent even to Us. Thou hath been encouraging thy brother to woo Sunset Shimmer."

Lance let out a defeated groan. He wasn't expecting Luna to be so keen on matters like that. He'd been sussed out, so Lance figured it was probably best to not lie to the princess any further. "Alright, you got me. But I'm just trying to help Hal out, you know?"

"We find it highly irregular—not to mention inappropriate—for thee to try and fix him up with Our sister's protégé," Luna scolded. "If this is the only reason Halberd enlisted in our royal guard, then we may need to reconsider his employment."

Lance wasn't fazed by the threat; he knew better than that. "You don't have to worry about that. Hal's always looked up to me, and the whole reason he wanted to be a royal guard was because of me. Trust me, if I wasn't here to encourage him, he'd never make a move on Sunset."

Luna narrowed her eyes at the stallion. "Then perhaps it is thy employment we should reconsider."

"Hey, I'm just trying to help him do something he's been wanting to do for a long time. He's kinda had a crush on Sunset since they were kids, but never had the courage to tell her. The two have been pretty close for a long time, though, so even you have to see that there's something there, right?"

"We've never known Sunset to seek out romance," Luna commented.

"Just because she's not looking for it doesn't mean it isn't there. And what's the harm? They both find out they have feelings for each other and are happier for it? You wanna stand in the way of that?"

Luna turned her eyes forward, thinking on it for a moment in silence. "We weren't saying it was a bad thing. We just believe thy involvement is a touch inappropriate. Thou should not be encouraging thy younger brother to pursue a relationship for frivolous purposes."

"Whoa, I didn't say anything about that," Lance responded defensively. "I just want my little brother to be happy, and I know being with Sunset would do just that. You know what that's like, right? Hasn't Princess Celestia ever done anything like that for you?"

Surprisingly, a slight blush appeared on Luna's cheeks, and the alicorn turned her nose up dismissively. "Our personal lives art not the subject here."

Lance smirked slightly, but at the same time felt a little pity for the princess as he deduced the source of her embarrassment. "You've never been in a relationship before, have you?"

Luna's blush deepened and she breathed a disgruntled huff through her nostrils, but could come up with nothing to say to defend herself that wouldn't dig the hole deeper.

The pegasus sighed. "I guess you wouldn't know what I'm talking about then. Look, you're just going to have to trust me that I'm doing this for his sake. I think both of them will be happier if Halberd can get his feelings out in the open."

Luna cleared her throat awkwardly, her more stoic poise returning. "Again, We didn't say We had anything against it. And for the record," she continued, the redness returning for a brief moment. "It isn't as though Celestia didn't try. We—er, I—wasn't receptive of her advice. That's all."

Lance simply grinned. It seemed Luna's relationship with her sister did indeed mirror his relationship with his brother in some aspects. That made him wonder, despite their differences, how much Luna actually looked up to her sister. Did she see her the same way that Halberd looked at him?

"A-Anyway," Luna segued, eager to change the subject and get back on track. "There should be a good spot for glowflies up ahead."

"Right," Lance said with a quiet chuckle. "But can we take our time? I wanna give the two lovebirds some time alone."

Luna simply gave a roll of her eyes, but did not reject the request.

***** ***** *****

Sunset and Halberd walked side by side through the Everfree Forest, the former completely oblivious to the latter's nervous blush as she kept her eyes peeled for their quarry. Were they any other couple venturing out into such a place in the middle of the night, romantic sparks would likely fly, but they weren't exactly a "couple."

Halberd wasn't even sure why he was so apprehensive about this. They've been friends since they were kids, and didn't drift apart throughout high school, like some friendships tended to do. It was only the last couple of months that they hadn't seen much of one another, since Halberd had to attend boot camp. Sunset had even been there to witness him getting his cutie mark—two of his namesake pole arms crossed over a winged shield. Yet still, whenever he thought about telling her how he felt, he'd get butterflies in his stomach. She was basically his best friend, so why was it so difficult?

As Halberd absentmindedly mulled over his conundrum, Sunset had dashed ahead suddenly, calling back to him and snapping him from his thoughts.

"Hey, Halberd! Over here!"

The pegasus picked up the pace, hurrying over to where the excited mare was waiting for him. She had lead him to a clearing in the forest, a spot where the moon wasn't obscured by the trees, allowing it to bathe the area in soft, white light. A small pond decorated with lily pads sat in the center of the clearing, the ribbits of frogs accompanied by the chirping of crickets creating a calm chorus of white noise. And floating all about the clearing were orbs of incandescent light, gently drifting here and there and shifting between all the colors of the rainbow as they pulsed.

"Found 'em," Sunset stated eagerly.

She set down her saddlebags and removed the many glass jars she'd packed for this occasion. Using her magic, she popped the lid off of one and carefully guided the jar over to one of the floating orbs, scooping is inside and sealing it shut before holding it up against the moonlight.

"Pretty cool, huh? Ever see a glowfly before?"

Halberd stared at its admittedly mesmerizing glow. "Uh, no. I usually just fly over the forest if I need to go to the castle. And even then it's during the day."

"Oh, glowflies are around during the day, too. They're just easier to spot at night," Sunset explained. "Actually, contrary to their name, glowflies aren't actually insects; they're not even living creatures at all. They're concentrated clusters of the Everfree Forest's natural magic. That's why we don't need to put holes in the lids."

Halberd looked closer at the glowfly in the jar. Sure enough, he couldn't seem to spot anything resembling a body through the light. "Huh. That's neat."

"There are all sorts of magical phenomenons around here. It's what makes this place so interesting to explore. Here." Sunset passed a jar to Halberd. "Try and catch one."

"O-Okay." Halberd took the jar and fluttered out over the pond where the most glowflies seemed to be situated. Without much effort, he scooped one up and clamped the lid on. "Well, that was easy."

"Like I said, they're not living creatures, so they aren't exactly gonna try and avoid you." Sunset picked up another couple of jars. "Alright, let's fill these up."

The two of them spent the next few minutes catching more glowflies. Sunset had brought along about a dozen jars, so that's about as many as they could catch, barring what Luna and Lance were going to get. Even so, a couple dozen glowflies would be more than enough to provide Canterlot Square with light and give the place some atmosphere.

Even when they were finished catching glowflies, there were still quite a few remaining, the light within the clearing having faded little from the absence of just a dozen of them. But even with their job done, it seemed the two ponies weren't exactly in a rush to get back to the castle. Halberd packed all of the jars back in Sunset's saddlebags, but he noticed that Sunset herself had wandered over to the pond's edge.

Halberd stared quietly. The moonlight shone down from above, reflecting off of the water's surface and silhouetting Sunset's body. The effervescent light of the remaining glowflies lit her up from all angles. Sunset was simply taking a moment to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings, but Halberd was more focused on the beauty sitting by the pond.

This was it, he thought. If there were ever a moment to make his move, now was the time.

Halberd swallowed pensively, but knew that he couldn't let this opportunity escape him. It was too perfect. Maybe Lance was right; she was just sitting there quietly, as though she were waiting for something—waiting for him. He had to do it now. He was going to follow his brother's advice and just say it.

Still with some underlying apprehension, Halberd cautiously approached Sunset, not saying anything yet. Once he was beside her, he took notice of the soft smile on her face as she continued to stare up at the night sky. Halberd inhaled a deep breath quietly, taking a seat next to Sunset.

"It is beautiful, isn't it?"

Halberd's words suddenly caught in his throat when Sunset spoke first, hesitating further as he didn't want to interrupt her.

"Princess Luna has a point: the night is pretty breathtaking," Sunset said, her voice barely above a whisper. "Maybe the Summer Sun Celebration will help everypony realize that, too."

Despite what she was saying, Halberd never once removed his eyes from her. At this moment, all he could think about was what came before the night: Sunset.

And that was it. With just one thought, all of his nervousness melted away. In this spot, at this time, under these circumstances, Halberd couldn't think of a more perfect moment to speak his mind and make his feelings known.

"Sunset, I—"

"Ah, there thou art."

Halberd nearly had a heart attack when the voice of Princess Luna pierced through the silence out of nowhere. And just like that, his nerve was gone as both the princess and his brother entered the clearing as well, shattering the moment in its entirety.

Sunset, however, was unfazed, simply standing up with a smile to greet the other two ponies. "Oh, hey, Princess. Did you get your glowflies?"

"Indeed," Luna said with a nod. "This should suffice for the celebration tomorrow. Let us retire back to the castle and get these glowflies into proper containers."

"Right." Sunset skipped ahead to join Luna as they made their way to exit the forest.

As Halberd's heart rate gradually returned to normal, he breathed a heavy sigh and hung his head in shame. Lance immediately picked up on his brother's dejected body language, placing a sympathetic hoof on his shoulder.

"Sorry, Hal. I tried to distract the princess as long as I could. Looks like we got here at the exact wrong time."

"No kidding..." Halberd moaned in self pity.

Lance, not wanting his brother to call it quits just like that, gave him an encouraging smile. "Well, hey, it's not the end of the world, right? I mean, as romantic as this setting is, the Summer Sun Celebration might also be a good place to have a date, you know? I mean, we're all gonna be there to provide security, so what's the big deal if you wanna ask your lady friend to have a dance or something?"

Halberd lifted his head, taking in a deep breath through his nostrils and wearing a more resolute expression. "You're right. Why should I let this get me down? I was gonna do it if you and Luna hadn't showed up, so what's to stop me from trying again?"

"That's the spirit!" Lance cheered, giving his brother a playful jab in the shoulder. "But we still have a job to do, then our shift is over for the night. Let's catch up to the ladies, hey?"

Halberd nodded with a grin. Despite how things had worked out tonight, he wasn't about to let it put a damper on things. His brother was right: the Summer Sun Celebration was tomorrow, and what better moment to confess his feelings than when the whole city of Canterlot was watching the sunrise together? At the very least, he knew Sunset well enough to know she'd appreciate that. So, with renewed vigor, Halberd and Lance left to catch up with their charges before calling it a night. Tomorrow was going to be a big day, in more ways than one.

***** ***** *****

The day had finally arrived. The preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration had been almost completed, and only a few things here and there needed to be tended to still. Canterlot Square was decorated to the nines with banners and balloons, many businesses in and around the center of the city had opened their doors early for the many ponies who had come out to witness the sunrise, and for those businesses further away, they had temporary stalls set up in the square to peddle their merchandise and services.

For many, it was a little jarring to have their alarms go off only to find it was still dark out. Though the entire city was informed of the celebration, it still caught them off guard to see the moon in the sky at eight o' clock. Nevertheless, the reception to the idea was overwhelmingly positive, particularly among those who owned businesses as any public occasion such as this was a great opportunity to make money. For others, school and some work places had been delayed to offer everypony the chance to experience this, and not many of them were going to argue with it.

It was rare to see Canterlot Square this bustling at this hour of the day. While this was a time when most people would be making their commute to work, or students heading to school, the area was rarely this packed. And despite the relatively early hour, energy was high. The square was filled with the sounds of conversing adults and playing children, all illuminated by the light of the moon and the glowflies hanging from paper lanterns strung up between the buildings.

Perhaps the most noteworthy addition to the square was the presence of a large stage on the southern end. The stage itself was rather simple in design, merely there to serve the purpose of giving Princess Celestia a place to stand out—not that it would be difficult to pick her out of a crowd. Rather, its location was of importance here. It was positioned near the edge of the cliff side overlooking Canterlot Valley; beyond that was the Everfree Forest and the Castle of the Two Sisters. Normally, Celestia would raise the sun further in the west, using the mountains to frame its ascent. However, at the suggestion of Sunset Shimmer, it was decided that directly south would be a more optimal location for the sunrise, as it gave the clearest view from Canterlot Square. Celestia would stand upon the stage, and the sun would rise behind her.

Speaking of whom, Princess Celestia herself was standing behind the stage, along with her sister and Sunset. The ivory alicorn peered out at the sizable crowd of people gathered in the square, a rare touch of apprehension on her face.

"I have to be honest, this is a little intimidating," Celestia admitted. "I've never raised the sun in front of an audience before."

"People watch the sunrise everyday," Sunset told her with a reassuring grin. "I'm not the only one who gets up that early, you know."

"Yes, but you're probably one of the only ones who wakes up so early for the express purpose of watching the sunrise," Celestia said as she hid behind the stage once more. "And it's an entirely different feeling to have so many ponies staring at you while you do it. I'm afraid I may be developing performance anxiety."

"Thou'rt the last person We would hath thought to suffer from stage fright, Sister," Luna commented, a slight, amused smirk on her muzzle. "Normally thou seem to enjoy basking in thy subjects' praise."

Celestia took a deep breath in an attempt to steady her nerves. "I think I just need a little time to mentally prepare myself."

"Take all the time thou need. If it means letting Our moon stay out longer, We will not object."

"Maybe you should mingle with the crowd for a bit," Sunset suggested. "Just striking up casual conversation might help put your mind at ease."

Luna rolled her eyes with a quiet groan. "Says thou..."

"Well, I suppose we do have some time to kill before noon," Celestia muttered as she considered it.

Sunset walked past her, gesturing for Celestia to follow her out into the square. "Come on. You're fretting too much about this. It's still a festival. Just because you're the main attraction here doesn't mean you can't enjoy the amenities like everypony else."

Celestia let out a short breath, opting to follow Sunset. "Alright. I am a little hungry anyway."

The three mares made their way into the crowd, the presence of Princess Celestia inciting cheerful waves from the townspeople, eager to watch her raise the sun.

While it wasn't particularly rare to see Princess Celestia within the city limits due to her frequent visits to the new castle, Princess Luna was quite the stranger. Many people still vividly remembered that particular incident, even though it was over a decade ago at this point. As such, Luna still received some awkward and hesitant stares. Thankfully, today's occasion did much to alleviate the attention she was afraid she might get, and for once in her life, she was relieved that her sister was the center of attention. Still, Luna hoped that this event would improve the people's opinion of the night and, by extension, her.

And as the three of them walked through Canterlot Square, it appeared that everypony was liking what they were seeing thus far. Ponies stared in whimsical awe at the sight of the colorful glowflies illuminating the area, and there were several positive comments heard in regards to the stars that twinkled in the night sky. So far, so good. Luna was surprisingly pleased with what she had seen and heard throughout the morning.

While Sunset had suggested that they chat up the civilians, Celestia was more interested in following her stomach. Her eyes passed between the many food stalls set up around the square. It was like a carnival had come to town and the proprietors were filling the streets with the aroma of sugary sweets and the sound of sizzling oil as they cooked up tasty, yet clearly very fattening treats. The allure of a deep fried candy apple was tempting for Princess Celestia, but she knew both her teeth and her hips would likely suffer if she were to indulge too much. It was also easy to forget that it was still morning, and while it was unusual to partake in what were normally viewed as snacks and desserts at such an hour, the absence of the sun appeared to lower everypony's inhibitions as they snacked on all manner of sugary and greasy delights. And seeing such a sight made it a tad too difficult to resist.

Celestia wandered over to a pastry stall, from where the fragrance of chocolate was calling her. The stall in question looked like a mobile bakery counter, with all sorts of delectable, bite-sized treats. Celestia eyed up the plate of cookies, so freshly baked that the chocolate chips were still gooey.

Celestia smiled pleasantly—and a little desperately—at the unicorn mare running the stall. "Excuse me, how much for one of those cookies?"

The mare grinned from ear to ear, elated that Princess Celestia herself wished to sample her wares. "Oh, no charge for you, Your Highness! I couldn't take your money."

While Celestia was flattered by the offer, she wasn't about to let her do that. "Oh, no, a business can't thrive if you give things away for free. I insist."

Though reluctant, the mare smiled sheepishly and nodded. "A-Alright. Just one bit." She quickly picked up a cookie with her magic, wrapped it in a napkin, and passed it to the princess.

Celestia blinked a single gold bit onto the counter with her magic, then wasted no time taking a big, eager bite of the treat, moaning in delight as the melted chocolate coated her tongue. "Mmm, thish ish sho tasty!" she exclaimed with a mouthful of still soft dough and chocolate before gulping it down. "Luna, you should try something."

"Very well." Luna perused the selection for a moment, looking over cupcakes, brownies, donuts, and an assortment of other confections. "Hmm... Doth thou hath any moon pies?"

The mare's smile faded for a moment in mild embarrassment, offering Luna an apologetic frown. "Oh, um, no, sorry, Your Highness. I didn't really think they matched the theme of the event, you know? It's the Summer Sun Celebration after all, not the—" She paused, noticing the blue alicorn's quirked eyebrow. The mare forced an awkward grin. "Heh, uh, nevermind."

Luna simply shrugged. "Fine, then We'll hath one of those cupcakes."

The mare passed a cupcake to Luna with a smile. "Great! That'll be three bits."

Luna blinked at the mare as though confused by the transaction. "Why doth thou not grant Us the same offer as Our sister?"

The mare was caught off guard by the question. "Huh?"

Celestia leaned down close to her sister. "Luna, you can't just ask for free stuff because you're a princess."

"We were not asking for free stuff," Luna snipped with a slight, grumpy pout at the accusation. "We simply find it odd that she would offer thee a discount, but not Us."

The mare fidgeted awkwardly, now quite embarrassed by this whole situation. "I-I just thought you'd say the same thing that Princess Celestia did and turn the offer down out of politeness. Y-You can have it for free if you want, a-as an apology."

Luna spotted a rather judgmental scowl coming from her sister out of the corner of her eye. It was evident that Celestia was expecting her to take the offer, but Luna wasn't about to give her the satisfaction of being the bigger mare—so to speak. "No, we must keep the wheel of commerce turning." Luna teleported three bits onto the one bit that her sister had paid. "Thank thee." And with that, Luna promptly took a big bite of her cupcake, giving Celestia a haughty flick of her tail as she turned to leave.

Celestia, too, took her leave as she took another bite of her cookie, leaving just Sunset standing there awkwardly.

"Uh, sorry about that," Sunset apologized in the princesses' stead. "I'm sure Luna's not upset, if that's what you're worried about. So, uh... Can I get a cookie, too, please?"

As Celestia and Luna traipsed through the crowd, the older sister spoke tersely to the younger alicorn, though kept her voice low to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. "Luna, I would prefer it if you didn't make a scene today."

"Hmph. We weren't 'making a scene.' It was a genuine question."

"All you did was make her feel uncomfortable. You know, you don't have to voice every objection or curiosity that comes to mind. I'm sure I don't have to remind you of the debacle with young Halberd."

Luna let out a long, remorseful sigh. She was surprised that her sister would open an old wound like that, suddenly making her feel despondent. "Yes, of course. Apologies, Sister. We'll try and keep Our mouth shut. We don't want to ruin thy big day..."

Celestia quickly felt a little guilty upon seeing Luna's expression become more sullen. "Don't say it like that, Luna, you know that's not what I mean. I'm just asking that you think about what you're going to say before you say it."

Luna nodded, looking her sister in the eye. "Yes, We understand. Forgive Us, Celestia, We art not trying to be passive-aggressive; We genuinely want this event to go well."

The ivory princess smiled fondly at her little sister. "I'm glad to hear that. And if we work together, we can make sure that happens."

Luna returned her sister's smile, taking an enthusiastic bite of her cupcake. "Indeed. And with that in mind, shall we see how our subjects are enjoying the celebration thus far?"

"I believe we shall."

The pair of alicorns finished their confections and began to simply wander around to hear what everypony had to say about the event.

From a respectful distance, Sunset watched the two princesses disappear into the crowd—or as well as they could given their stature. The amber unicorn decided to leave them to their own devices for the time being. Even though Sunset had been the head planner for these festivities, she wanted to partake in the amenities just as much as everypony else.

"Uh, hey, Sunset."

Sunset glanced over her shoulder with a friendly smile. If his voice hadn't been enough to recognize him, the light clattering of armor would help to discern who it was. Halberd sauntered over to her, though with a touch of reluctance. "Hey, Hal. How's guard duty?"

"Mundane," he chuckled. A slight blush tinged his silver cheeks. "Kinda wish I could join you and just... enjoy all of the hard work you put into this."

Sunset shrugged, casting an apologetic grin. "Yeah, well, Princess Luna insisted all the guards contribute to security. But I'm sure once the sun is up and everything starts winding down you'll get a chance to do something."

Halberd nodded, liking the idea of that. "Yeah, hopefully. But I guess you're pretty busy, too, huh? I mean, you're practically running this whole thing."

Sunset took a bite of the cookie she'd bought. "Not really," she replied, spraying a few crumbs out of her mouth before swallowing. "I've basically just been running things over with Princess Celestia. Quill's been doing most of the behind-the-scenes work, so I've got some time to waste. I was just gonna wander around with the princesses for a bit." Bringing up the two alicorns, Sunset turned back to the crowd. She could clearly see their heads poking out above the crowd on the other side of the square.

"Oh, well, I suppose you wanna get back to it then," Halberd said with a hint of dejection in his voice.

The pegasus suddenly felt a hoof wrap around his shoulder rather aggressively, jerking him to the side until his armor clanked against another set of golden mail. He didn't even need to look to know who it was.

"Why the long face, Hal? Not having fun on security duty?" Lance laughed.

"Are you?" Halberd retorted bemusedly.

"Sure!" he answered enthusiastically. Lance then gave his brother a sly smirk. "I was chatting up a couple of cuties earlier. I think they might have a thing for me."

"That... doesn't sound appropriate," Sunset commented, though couldn't hide her amusement at Lance's confidence.

"You're right. It doesn't."

Lance rolled his eyes, looking over his shoulder to find Scabbard walking up behind him with a stern and reprimanding look on his face.

"We're supposed to be maintaining a perimeter here, yet you two are out here goofing off," Scabbard chided. He turned his attention specifically to Halberd. "Not a good look for a new recruit. How are these people going to know they can rely on us to protect them if we're getting distracted by casual conversation?"

"Personally, I think a bunch of armored ponies standing around like trained guard dogs would make me a bit uncomfortable," Lance argued. "What better way to show them that everything's under control than to relax a little?"

Scabbard let out a sigh. As usual, he knew he'd never get through Lance's thick skull, so there wasn't much point in banging his head against a brick wall. "I'm just trying to make sure we do what we came here to do, Lance."

"Right. And as long as nothing happens, we've done our job. So loosen up a little."

"I'd prefer to just keep up my watch. At the very least you should keep an eye on the crowd; with so many people here, we need to be on the lookout for hoodlums."

Lance didn't know whether to laugh or groan at that statement. "'Hoodlums'? Do you even hear yourself? You sound like a jaded, old man."

"I'm six months younger than you."

"My point exactly!"

Halberd and Sunset exchanged awkward glances, both of them silently regretting that they had to bear witness to these two butting heads yet again. Halberd discreetly whispered to Sunset, "You wanna... go somewhere else?"

"Anywhere's better than here," she agreed with an uncomfortable laugh.

Amidst their argument, Scabbard noticed the two youngsters trying to sneak off into the crowd, reaching out a hoof to stop them. "Hey! Where do you think you're—"

He was suddenly cut off by Lance moving in his way, using his own hoof to lower Scabbard's back to the ground. Scabbard was taken aback slightly by how serious Lance looked all of a sudden.

"Look, you can chew me out all you want, but tonight, I am not letting you get between those two. Capiche?"

Scabbard was silent for a moment, casting a disapproving scowl at his fellow soldier. He knew exactly what Lance was trying to do, and while he didn't exactly agree that this was an appropriate time or place for that sort of thing, he decided to back off. "Fine. But don't go getting upset if he gets himself into hot water for shirking his duties."

Lance forcefully draped a hoof over Scabbard's shoulder, leading him in the opposite direction from Halberd and Sunset to ensure he didn't try and interrupt them. "I'm not worried. Come on, let's get back to our posts."

Meanwhile, on the other end of Canterlot Square, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were still attempting to mingle amongst their subjects, though "blending in" wasn't exactly in the cards. Though this event placed Celestia in the spotlight, many people were still a little starstruck to see the princesses out and about. Celestia in particular had made frequent visits to Canterlot as of late to check up on the new castle's construction, but didn't make much time to actually visit the town proper, so this occasion was still a prime moment for the citizens of Equestria's capitol to meet and greet their princesses.

"We appear to be turning heads, Sister," Luna commented, noting the number of eyes looking in their direction.

"Well, we should be doing more," Celestia noted pensively. "Sunset suggested that we talk to people, but I'm finding it difficult to know where to start."

Luna couldn't help but smirk in amusement at her sister's unusually passive demeanor. "We thought We were supposed to be the anti-social one. Who'd hath thought thou, of all people, would hath trouble talking to thine own subjects."

"It's not exactly easy to just walk up to somepony and ask 'Hey, what do you think of me?' That would sound a tad self-important, don't you think?"

Luna grimaced slightly at the remark. "Now thou know how We feel."

"Good morning, Princesses."

Celestia and Luna watched as Starswirl weaved through the crowd of ponies to make his way over to them, flashing an amicable grin.

"Or would it still be evening since the sunrise is delayed? Or late night even," he said with a chuckle.

"Going by the hour, it would still be morning," Luna replied.

"Yes, Luna, he was just making a small joke," Celestia said with a roll of her eyes.

"All ready for the big moment, I take it," Starswirl presumed. "Everypony seems to be looking forward to it. Perhaps Sunset was really onto something."

Celestia let out an apprehensive sigh. "Yes, but I'm feeling a touch nervous. I'm hoping my head will be clear when the time comes."

Starswirl waved off her worry. "Oh, don't let it get to you. You've done this thousands of time. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands even."

"Yes, we get it, we're old," Luna interrupted with a disgruntled groan.

"I know, I know," Celestia responded with another sigh. "But for some reason, having an audience this big is weighing on my nerves. Perhaps I just need to take my mind off of it for the time being. Oh! How are things going with your time travel spell, Starswirl? Any luck?"

Starswirl moaned in disappointment, slowly running a hoof over his curly beard. "Mmm, unfortunately, no. Neither Sunset nor I have been able to cast the spell again since."

"Should we have a crack at it?" Celestia suggested.

"No!"

His defensive reaction caused the two alicorns to recoil slightly in surprise.

Starswirl cleared his throat, regaining his composure. "I wouldn't if I were you. I've come to the conclusion that I made a grave miscalculation in my research and application of the spell. As it stands, the spell appears to have a limit of one use per person, though I haven't been able to discern exactly why, and I fear I never will. Without being able to perform the spell again, I cannot accurately research it. As such, I've decided, with great reluctance, to shelf my study of time travel indefinitely."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Celestia said sympathetically.

"Perhaps somepony else will be willing to pick up where I left off in the future, but for now, I would suggest that the two of you refrain from casting the spell until it can be improved. You may want to use it for something at some point, and you shouldn't waste your one chance on something frivolous in case you don't get another."

"As princesses, We do not believe it would be wise for us to be messing around with time travel," Luna stated.

"I agree," Celestia said with a nod. "I know we should be doing everything within our power to help our kingdom and its people, but the implications of changing history might be a little too risky."

Starswirl simply shrugged. "That's your prerogative, I suppose."

"Um, e-excuse me..."

The three of them now noticed that a young, teenage mare wearing a pair of saddlebags had approached them, looking quite nervous and sheepish.

"Oh, yes? Can we help you?" Celestia responded curiously.

"Y-You're Princess Celestia, right?" the mare asked, though the answer to that should have been obvious.

Celestia offered a warm, friendly smile in response. "Yes, I am."

The mare smiled back, some of her hesitance lifting as her cheeks dimpled eagerly. "I-It's such an honor to meet you. And I-I know you're probably busy getting ready for the sunrise and everything, b-but..." She reached into her bags and pulled out a pencil and piece of paper, offering them to Princess Celestia. "Can I have your autograph?"

Celestia was caught off guard by the request. "Autograph?"

The princess's confused reaction caused the mare to backpedal slightly, sudden concern coming over her face. "O-Oh, I'm sorry! Is that not appropriate? I-I just heard you were really nice a-and... stuff, soooo..."

As unorthodox as this was, Celestia couldn't help but admire this mare's bravery to do something she was clearly apprehensive about. With a soft smile, Celestia gently took the pencil and paper from the mare with her golden aura. "I'd be glad to."

The mare watched in wonder as the princess neatly signed her name on the paper. Meanwhile, Luna was silently watching with a raised eyebrow as her sister obliged a random request from this stranger.

"There you are," Celestia said as she kindly passed the pencil and paper back.

The mare stared at the paper for a moment, admiring the princess's elegant writing and wondering if this was actually real. She beamed up at the ivory alicorn again. "Thank you so much, Your Highness! I'm gonna get this framed!" And with that she hurried back into the crowd and disappeared.

Celestia giggled quietly. "Well, that was certainly interesting. I don't think anypony's ever asked me for an autograph before."

"She never asked for Our autograph..." Luna grumbled with a pout.

"Don't take it personally, Your Majesty," Starswirl told Luna. "After all, Princess Celestia is meant to be the center of attention today."

That comment didn't do much to reassure her. If anything, it only upgraded Luna's pout to a grimace. "Thou say that as if that is not the norm..."

"Green is not a good color for you, Luna."

The midnight blue alicorn scowled up at her sister. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"I'm simply trying to tell you that you've no need to be jealous. I'm not trying to hog attention."

"Then thou did not have to say it so smugly," Luna huffed. "And since when hath thou ever needed to try?"

"Ahem," Starswirl brusquely interrupted before this argument could escalate. "Anyhow, I believe it should soon be time for the sunrise. Do you think you're prepared, Princess? We could always delay a little longer if you need some more time to compose yourself."

Celestia smiled, a newfound confidence brimming within her. "I don't think there'll be need for that. I'm feeling... inspired all of a sudden. Luna, are you coming?"

Luna waved a hoof rather passive-aggressively as she lifted her nose at the question. "No, this is thy day. Wouldn't want to get in thy hair. We'll just observe from the crowd."

Celestia wasn't entirely fond of her sister's tone, and was admittedly a little concerned; Luna had been in a rather perky mood when the event started, but now she sounded a tad spiteful. "Are you sure? You could lower the moon for me to start things off."

"We're sure thou can handle it thyself."

That was even more worrying. Luna didn't often allow Celestia to move the moon without some convincing first, or without just cause. But Celestia decided to give Luna the benefit of the doubt here and assume she was just a bit sore about not being asked for an autograph. Luna was being testy, but at least she didn't seem outright frustrated. "Alright. Then enjoy the rest of the celebration, Luna."

"We shall."

With that, Starswirl offered a wave farewell as he accompanied Princess Celestia toward the stage, leaving Luna by her lonesome. While Starswirl was correct about the time, there was still enough for Luna to mingle a while longer before the sunrise, though she wondered how much more difficult that would be without her sister beside her.

From nearby, Luna heard the sound of somepony shivering, her eyes discreetly glancing in their direction. A couple stood nearby, staring out over the landscape. Despite the view on this moonlit night, the stallion looked a touch irritated.

"Brr," he shuddered, rubbing his hooves together. "Man, I'm freezing my flank off out here. Who thought it was a good idea to keep it nighttime all morning?"

"Come on, you're overreacting," the mare with him chided. "It's not that cold."

"Try taking off your coat and saying that."

The mare only pulled her soft, thick, down jacket closer to her neck, moaning blissfully into the collar to purposely aggravate him further. "Mmm, no. You should've just worn your own."

"What, like it's my fault? You were the one who dragged me out here for this so early, and now I've gotta sit out here in the darkness and catch a cold. I wish Princess Celestia would just raise the sun already and get it over with."

Luna let out a quiet sigh. As much as the people gathered in the square seemed to be enjoying themselves, it appeared there were still those who failed to appreciate the beauty of the night. She didn't really want to hear anymore of this, so the princess chose to leave the couple alone before their comments started getting under her skin.

"I'm so tired..." another nearby voice said with a loud yawn.

Two mares sat on a nearby bench with cups of coffee to fight off the sleepiness. Against Luna's better judgment, she stopped to listen.

"Finally get a day off work after a hectic week, and now we gotta sit through this," she complained somnolently.

"Tell me about it," the other mare agreed, her friend's contagious yawn spreading to her as well. "I just wanted to sleep in today. Would've actually been easy with the sunrise being later. But I can't get a wink with all this ruckus going on."

"Did they have to throw a party for this kind of thing? I mean, we could've just sat at home and watched the sunrise through our windows like normal people."

"Guess we could've just stayed home, but I kinda wanted to see what all the fuss was about." She looked around, her eyes briefly turning up towards the night sky, but there was no hint of enjoyment or wonder. "I'm not getting it. It's dark, and cold. Not really my scene. Only real night owls enjoy this kind of atmosphere."

Once again, Luna fought the urge to eavesdrop further. At this point, she had to wonder if these people were doing this on purpose. Surely they should have noticed that she'd been standing nearby, yet did nothing to lessen the blows. Luna figured it might be a good idea to move on once more. For once in her life, she found herself wishing that Celestia would raise the sun sooner.

With those comments leaving a sour taste in Luna's mouth, the alicorn decided it might help to balance it out with a little sweetness. Celestia often turned to sugary confections when she needed comfort, so Luna thought she'd give it a try; maybe that might make her feel a little better. With that in mind, Luna weaved her way through the crowd again to find that pastry stand she and her sister had stopped by early. The cupcake she'd had was rather delicious, so another one sounded pretty good right about now.

However, as Luna approached the stall, she quickly noticed a distinct lack of wares on display, with mostly just crumbs and smears of chocolate left on the plates. In fact, the mare operating the stand looked like she was packing everything away. Luna hurried over to see if she could stop her.

"Excuse Us, but doth thee hath any cupcakes left?" Luna asked with a hint of desperation in her voice.

The mare, startled slightly by the princess suddenly running over to her, gave the alicorn an apologetic and regretful look. "Oh, I-I'm sorry, no. I'm sold out of cupcakes."

Luna's expression almost seemed to become panicked at the news. "Then what about cookies? Brownies? Anything?"

The mare shook her head slowly, worried about the repercussions of her answer given the princess's behavior. "N-No, nothing. I'm completely cleaned out. Everything sold pretty quickly after you and Princess Celestia came by. I'm so sorry. I-If you want, I can hurry over to my bakery and see if there are any day-olds lying around, if that'll be good enough."

Luna lowered her head in disappointment. "No, there will be no need for that. Thank thee anyway."

The princess planted her flank on the ground right there, leaving the mare to awkwardly clean up as the sullen alicorn just sat there in silence.

"I wonder how much this is gonna set me back."

Luna cracked an eye open at the sound of the voice. The voice had come from an older stallion who was operating another stand nearby. He was speaking with yet another stallion about the same age who had a stall of his own. They both appeared to be selling a variety of vegetables. Luna didn't know why she was still doing this. She knew no good was going to come from listening in on other people's conversations, but her own morbid curiosity had managed to drown out all other noise around her to force her to listen to these two curmudgeons complain about whatever was on their minds.

"Holding off on the sunrise for so long is gonna hurt my crops," one stallion griped. "The summer solstice is usually all well and good when we get an extra hour of sunlight, but with all this hullabaloo they ain't gettin' all the nutrients they need."

"Supposedly, they're gonna keep the sun up longer tonight to compensate," the other stallion mentioned.

"Yeah, which means my sleep schedule's gonna be outta whack, not to mention fertilizin', waterin', the whole kit and caboodle."

"All this darkness ain't doing us no favors, I'll say that much."

Luna was starting to feel it again; that voice at the back of her mind. She hadn't felt that in quite a long time, but she knew what was going to happen if she let it get to her. She had to shut it out. It was the very reason she'd secluded herself so deeply for the past thirteen years. A part of her just wanted to leave, knowing that what she'd hoped to get out of this event was not going how she'd expected. She just wanted people to witness the glory that was the night sky, the beauty that could be hidden within the darkness. The moon was supposed to be a beacon in the dark, not a symbol of spite and disdain as these ponies seemed to see it. Why couldn't they understand that? Why couldn't they see past the veil and learn to appreciate the night—her night?

Luna held her hooves to her temples, trying to fight off the voice as it chewed away at her subconscious. What happened to all the positivity she'd heard at the start of the day? Why now could she only hear the negative comments and complaints? Why were they festering in her mind while anything good she'd heard was being involuntarily disregarded?

"You okay, Princess Luna?"

The alicorn snapped out of her thoughts, glancing over her shoulder to find Sunset and Halberd approaching her, the former looking somewhat concerned; she'd clearly picked up on Luna's crestfallen expression.

Luna breathed a deep sigh. "Yes, fine."

Sunset raised a worried brow. "Really? You look like something's bothering y—"

"I said I'm fine."

Sunset took a small step back. She wasn't prepared for Luna to snap at her like that, the princess's dour expression having quickly shifted to aggravation. Sunset didn't know what was on her mind, but whatever it was, she clearly wasn't in a mood to talk about it. So the next logical option was to try and take her mind off of it. "Uh, okay. If you say so. So, uh... Your sister's about to raise the sun in a few minutes. Wanna watch with us?"

Luna hesitated for a few moments. Briefly, a part of her wanted to say no, and she wasn't entirely sure why. But if that's what that voice was telling her to do, then it may be for the best if she did the opposite. "Alright."

The princess stood up, taking a quiet breath as she joined Sunset and Halberd. The three of them made their way through the crowd. Given that the big moment was upon them, everypony was starting to gather around the stage near the cliff. Luna, Sunset, and Halberd made their way to the front, to which nopony was going to complain given who they were.

Celestia hadn't yet taken to the stage, but she was clearly visible, her long, graceful neck poking up from behind it. Sunset was relieved to see that she was smiling, considering that she had been so nervous earlier. She must have gotten over her stage fright pretty quickly, though she was still pacing back and forth slowly and taking a few deep breaths.

Starswirl emerged from around the stage, walking over to where his daughter stood. He didn't say anything, but Sunset could tell from the grin on his face that he'd been busy running through the process with the princess again. But now that the time was approaching, he was just going to be another spectator like the rest of them.

One more time, Luna looked around, casting a discreet glance over her shoulder at the crowd assembled behind them. What she saw were mostly eager smiles, but for some reason, that irked her. With all the negativity she'd been focusing on in the past ten minutes or so, why now was there no hint of displeasure from these people, now that the sun was about to rise?

Finally, Princess Celestia took to the stage, her elevated presence within the square bringing all the murmurs of the crowd to a halt. Standing center stage, her wings spread majestically, Celestia looked out at her audience. There was a brief moment of hesitation when she saw hundreds of eyes staring back at her, but the smiles that accompanied them helped put her mind at ease. With a comforting smile of her own, Celestia spoke, her voice carrying loudly and clearly across the silent square.

"Fillies and gentlecolts, welcome to the first hopefully-annual Summer Sun Celebration. I know you all came here to witness me raise the sun this morning, and I would like to thank you for your patience. However, before I begin, I would like to first give credit to those who have made this event possible. First of all, our royal adviser Quill, and our head of magical studies Starswirl for their aid in planning and preparation. Secondly—but no less important..." Celestia smiled fondly down at Sunset, to which the amber mare responded with a proud grin of her own. "My faithful student, Sunset Shimmer, without whom this event wouldn't have even occurred. The Summer Sun Celebration was her idea, with the hopes that all of you could experience the same level of inspiration that she feels when watching the sunrise in the morning."

The crowd clomped their hooves against the cobblestone street in applause, praising the named ponies for their contributions. Sunset blushed bashfully; while she was well known around Canterlot for being Princess Celestia's protégé, it wasn't often she received this level of admiration.

Conversely, a slight frown creased Princess Luna's muzzle. She couldn't help but notice that her name had been omitted entirely, despite the fact that she had helped out as well, perhaps even more than Starswirl had.

"So, without further ado..." Celestia continued once the applause had quieted. She cleared her throat, her voice catching for a moment as she tried to improvise an inspiring phrase to kick things off. "Let the day begin."

With that, Celestia's horn lit up with golden light. In the sky behind her, the full moon that had been hanging above the Castle of the Two Sisters began to descend back down into the horizon. The brief lack of moonlight made the landscape in the fields and valleys around Canterlot pitch black; from a distance, the city may have looked like a floating island in an empty void, now being the only source of light for miles around. But that imagery didn't last long. A few moments later, Celestia's horn began to glow brighter, and the sky did much the same. An iridescent, amber light started to expand from the edge of the world, pushing back the darkness and making way for the morning as the stars began to fade away.

With a bit of impromptu showmanship, Celestia flapped her wings, lifting herself in the air above the stage. She pointed her horn skyward, it's golden light shining even more fiercely as though it were the sun itself.

In the crowd, Princess Luna raised an eyebrow at the odd display. "What is she doing?" she whispered to herself.

Sunset, hearing Luna's quiet, begrudging murmur, looked at her curiously.

"All this pomp and circumstance is completely unnecessary."

Sunset didn't say anything in response, hoping that it was just an offhoofed comment from the alicorn, and returned her focus to Princess Celestia.

With one more flourish, spreading her front hooves out as her horn flashed ever brighter, Celestia made the final push. All eyes were diverted to the horizon, where the sun princess's golden orb was finally awakening from its slumber.

To the average person, the sunrise wasn't an event worth celebrating. It happened every morning, so what was the big deal? But at this moment, such thoughts were absent. Even if any of these people had seen the sunrise dozens, even hundreds of times before, somehow, today's sunrise was special, and nopony could touch on why, not that they cared. Canterlot Square was inundated with the "Ooo's" and "Ahh's" of an impressed crowd of ponies as they watched their princess usher in the morning right in front of them. Despite the brightness of not just the sun, but Celestia as well, all eyes were focused on the horizon, wide with wonder and accompanied by hundreds of beaming smiles.

Sunset Shimmer couldn't help but feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as she watched the reactions of the people around her. This must have been what she looked like the first time she watched the sunrise after learning about Princess Celestia.

As the sun rose, the sky faded from black, to purple, to orange and yellow, and finally to its distinctive blue as the celestial sphere took its place high above the land and its people. And with that, the glow of Celestia's horn dimmed, and the princess gracefully fluttered back down, alighting gently on the stage again. She barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief now that it was over before she was startled by the roarous applause and cheers from the crowd. Hooves clomped so loudly and enthusiastically that they threatened to break away the cliff side the city was built upon, and the sound of their delighted cheering and whistling drowned out the songs of the birds as they were waking up.

If she hadn't known any better, Celestia would have thought she just saved Equestria from some great disaster. She'd never received such praise for simply raising the sun before, except from Sunset Shimmer. Admittedly, she was a little embarrassed, a deep blush tinging her ivory cheeks as she smiled involuntarily.

But as the crowd continued their raucous hollering, Princess Luna had the opposite reaction. After all of that, all of the whining and complaining she'd heard, it was the sunrise that quieted it. To see people so enthused about having her beautiful night pushed away like it was a disease that had been plaguing the kingdom, and to applaud something as simple as the sunrise—a daily occurrence that any of them could watch on any day of the week...

Luna watched in bewildered silence as the people cheered her sister and celebrated the rays of the sun shining down upon them. Meanwhile, Celestia stood upon the stage with the most self-satisfied smile Luna had ever seen on her. Luna felt her teeth grit in her mouth. Her muscles tensed up, and her face began to burn hotter than the sun itself.

And then, the voice spoke.

"What are you all doing?!"

The crowd went silent almost instantly. Luna had spun around to face the crowd, her face contorted with seething rage.

"Why are you so impressed by this?! All she did was raise the sun, and you act as though this is something to be lauded?! She does this every. Single. Day! I can raise the sun, too! Look!" Luna demonstrated by lighting up her horn and shifting and circling the sun in the sky erratically and recklessly. "See?! It's not that complicated! She's not special! Yet you applaud her for something that takes her literally no effort, while my moon is shunned and ignored!"

Celestia was shocked to see her sister suddenly start acting out this way, but was intent to stop her before this went any further. She stepped forth on the stage authoritatively, glaring sternly down at her younger sister. "Luna, that is eno—"

"Don't you dare!" Luna spat, pointing a threatening hoof at Celestia. "You don't get to play the big sister card this time! My job is just as important as yours, yet my efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated! All these people care about is their precious sun, without so much as even sparing more than an hour or two of their time to enjoy the majesty of my night! And what have you done to remedy that?! Nothing! All you do is treat me like a child and expect me to just let things be! Meanwhile, you get to sit upon your sun-spotted behind and soak up all of the undue praise from these mindless simpletons who worship you just for existing!"

"Luna, please, stop this before—"

"Shut up!"

Celestia was taken aback and effectively silenced. The incensed fury in Luna's eyes was unlike anything she'd ever seen from her sister before. Celestia had expected to find a hint of sadness, a twinkle of tears in Luna's eyes, like when she'd had similar outbursts in the past, but this time she saw none.

"It's not enough to have everypony watch the sunrise, is it?! You have to go and turn it into a circus sideshow to make yourself look even better! Well, I'm tired of having to settle within your fat shadow, and I'm tired of putting effort into trying to get these ungrateful ingrates to respect me!"

Luna turned her ire back on the crowd. The citizens all took a step back in fear. Magic was sparking in the furious alicorn's horn, but it wasn't her usual blue aura. It crackled around her horn like electricity, but it was jet black, and the dark glow was only growing more fierce as Luna's tirade continued.

"What does it take to please you people?! I've tried being friendly, I've tried offering to help, I've tried being more involved in your lives, yet what have I received in return?! Say one nice thing about me! Anything!"

The crowd was silent, not so much as a peep to crack the tension in the air. They were all too afraid to speak up, fearful that anything they said would only anger her further.

Luna's expression suddenly let up a bit, though the glower she cast upon the crowd was still as dark as the night. When she spoke again, her voice was much quieter, but oozing with venom. "That's what I thought. Fine. You know what? I'm done. I'm done trying to earn your respect. If this is how you're all going to treat me, then perhaps I should respond in kind. Enjoy the rest of your 'Summer Sun Celebration.'"

With that, Luna spread her wings, performing one mighty flap and bolting into the air. Her liftoff kicked up a powerful gust of wind over Canterlot Square, forcing the people to shield their eyes, and knocking over several of the hanging glowfly lanterns in the process.

The crowd watched in stunned silence as Luna flew off toward the Castle of the Two Sisters. The square was dead silent for what felt like minutes before anypony had the courage to say anything, quiet murmurs starting up once everypony felt safe from Luna's wrath.

Sunset climbed up onto the stage with Princess Celestia. The ivory alicorn was still staring off toward the castle, a look of deep concern in her pink eyes. "Geez, that was rough," Sunset commented. "I didn't expect her to fly off the handle like that today. And the 'fat' comment was a bit uncalled for." She looked up at the princess. "How long do you think she'll be moping around about this one?"

Celestia didn't respond right away, and that only started to worry Sunset as well. "No, this was different. Something about this felt... wrong."

Sunset didn't like the sound of that. "What do you mean?"

"That wasn't just a childish temper tantrum. It was unrestrained, indignant rage. I've never seen Luna like this before." Celestia finally managed to tear her eyes away from the castle to look down at Sunset. The worry in her eyes was unnerving. "Sunset, I'm going to go talk to her. Try to keep things under control up here for me while I'm gone."

Sunset blinked, but nodded. "Oh, uh, okay. Good luck, I guess."

Without another word, Celestia took to the air to chase after her sister.

With a sigh, Sunset hopped back down from the stage, rejoining her father and Halberd, as well as Lance and Scabbard, who had come over to investigate before the princesses left.

"I certainly wasn't expecting this development," said Starswirl, uncomfortably scratching his bushy beard.

Lance grimaced slightly. "And why not? It's not like this sort of behavior from Princess Luna is unprecedented or anything."

"But Luna was looking forward to this almost as much as the rest of us," Sunset reminded him. "She was actually in a good mood when the event started."

"Princess Luna's ego is rather fragile," Starswirl remarked. "And it's evident that she also suffers from an inferiority complex. Combine those factors in a scenario that she was eagerly anticipating but where her sister is the center of attention and her emotions simply... exploded."

"You think Princess Celestia will be able to calm her down?" Halberd asked, though with some pessimism in his voice.

"Princess Luna has a tendency to stew over things like this for a long time," Scabbard pointed out. "She's been a recluse for the past thirteen years since..." He glanced at Halberd. "Well..."

Halberd sighed in slight exasperation. "Guys, I'm not a traumatized kid. You don't have to talk about it in hushed tones around me."

"You know, Luna never did apologize for that," Lance stated with a furrowed brow. "What makes you think she'll do so after this?"

Sunset turned her attention to the crowd. While there was still a lot of whispering and cautious glances in the direction of the castle, most of the attendees were going back to their business as though nothing had even happened. She wasn't entirely sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing given everything that Luna had said. "Maybe we shouldn't be talking about her behind her back. Princess Celestia seemed pretty worried about her this time. We should just have faith that she can get through to her."

Starswirl nodded. "Agreed. Now then, I think I'm going to try and locate Quill. We need to figure out what we're going to do from here. Oh, and I'm sorry this had to happen, Sunset. I know how much effort you put into this."

In spite of everything, Sunset smiled softly. "It's fine. At the very least, the crowd had the reaction I was hoping for. You know, until the end there."

Her father smiled back, admiring his daughter's optimism before he took his leave back into the crowd.

"Lance, we should probably help the other soldiers keep the crowd in check," Scabbard suggested.

"Sure. Come on, Hal."

Halberd hesitated for a moment, eliciting a puzzled look from his brother. Lance spotted Halberd staring at Sunset as the mare wandered over to the edge of the square overlooking Canterlot Valley, a conflicted look on his face.

After a few quiet moments, Halberd looked back at his brother. "Give me a minute."

Lance grinned, knowing full well what that meant. He didn't say anything else, and headed off with Scabbard to leave his little brother to his devices.

Having received silent approval, Halberd hurried to catch up to Sunset. She was staring out over the short, stone railing at the cliff's edge, gazing toward the Castle of the Two Sisters. It was obvious that she was worried about Princess Luna, but there must have been more on her mind than just that. Even so, Halberd had something on his mind, too, and even if this wasn't the most appropriate time, he had to get this monkey off his back one way or another.

Halberd took a deep breath, steadying his nerves. "Sunset? Can we talk?"

The amber mare turned around curiously. "Hm? Uh, sure. What's up?"

"There's something I need to tell you, and this might not be the best time, but I just need to get this off my chest. I—What the...?"

Sunset raised an eyebrow when Halberd suddenly cut himself short. He was now staring past her, and she noticed that he wasn't the only one. A growing number of people in the square were turning their eyes out toward the horizon. Sunset turned around to see what everypony was looking at.

Despite the fact that the sun was sitting high in the sky right now, the moon had suddenly returned, and was steadily rising back out from its hiding spot beyond the horizon.

The awestruck people of Canterlot were beginning to gather behind where Sunset and Halberd were standing, baffled by what was happening. Starswirl, Quill, Lance, and Scabbard pushed their way back through the mass of ponies to join Sunset, equally troubled by this unusual occurrence.

"What's going on? Is Princess Luna doing this?" Starswirl wondered worriedly.

As the moon rose higher, the sky began to darken. Soon, it had encroached upon the sun's location, passing in front of it and obscuring its light until only the sun's corona continued to shine through. Even then, just a moment later, the light faded entirely, and the sky reverted to the black of night.

The crowd was a low roar of concerned whispers as they witnessed an unprecedented event. The sun had been completely eclipsed as though it hadn't been raised at all.

"What's happening?" Sunset uttered quietly, too stunned to say anything more.

Suddenly, a beam of blue light shot out of the Castle of the Two Sisters, sweeping across the sky. The crowd gasped in unison, startled and shocked. Then there was another blast, followed by another, and another. The sky was being assaulted by blasts of blue magic coming from inside the castle.

Without anymore hesitation, Lance made the call to action. "Get the chariots! Now!"

The pegasus soldiers scrambled to hitch up their chariots, while the earth ponies and unicorns boarded the vehicles to prepare to make a beeline for the castle.

Lance quickly looked to Scabbard. "Scabbard, can you run crowd control here?"

The unicorn simply nodded, getting straight to it as he focused on the bystanders. "Everypony, remain calm! Clear some space for the soldiers to get through, and then return to your homes!"

Following his orders, Canterlot Square was quickly evacuated, giving the pegasi ample room for takeoff.

Halberd hurried to his chariot, hooking it to his armor and getting ready to take off. However, before he could begin his running start, Sunset ran over to him and hopped in the chariot.

"I'm going with you!"

There wasn't really any time to argue with her, and her magical prowess might prove helpful. Without another word, Halberd took off with Sunset in tow, and the other pegasi did likewise, with Lance carrying Starswirl and Quill in his chariot.

As the squadron of soldiers streaked through the air, all eyes were locked on the castle. Whatever struggle was unfolding there was still under way, with beams of light being fired every which way. They could see even from this distance that the castle was taking collateral damage from the attack. In fact, the source of the blasts seemed to have shifted to the airspace around the castle. Two objects appeared to be flying around the castle, and it wasn't difficult to discern that one of them was Princess Celestia. The other one, however, was harder to identify. They were difficult to pick out as they blended into the darkness of the sky. The only thing Sunset could tell was that it didn't look like Princess Luna.

By the time the platoon of chariots had nearly made it to the other side of the Everfree Forest, the firefight of magic lasers had suddenly ceased, and the two combatants appeared to have vanished, presumably back into the castle. They swooped down to the front of the castle, landing roughly and hastily unhitching their chariots. Wasting no more time, everypony present rushed toward the castle's entrance, with Sunset leading the charge, having jumped out of her vehicle before it had even touched the ground.

But a sudden flash of light from the roof of the castle halted everypony in their tracks. A loud hum of magic pervaded the air, steadily increasing in intensity. A voice could be heard crying out in agony, though in the midst of this chaos they couldn't determine whose it was. Then, the group of ponies were startled once more, taking a cautious step back as an enormous beam of rainbow-colored light blasted up from the castle, tearing straight up into the sky. Nopony could even begin to guess what could cause such a thing. Was Princess Celestia even capable of such power?

While everypony was frozen in stunned silence, Sunset quickly regained her senses, charging forward and rushing through the doors, down the entry hall, and throwing the doors of the throne room open forcefully. She skid to a halt once she saw the devastation. The throne room was in ruins. The ceiling had been completely torn away, leaving the chamber exposed to the sky above. Rubble and debris littered the throne room, from dust and peebles, to large slabs of stone that could easily crush a pony. The banners on the walls were charred by magic burns, and the bridge connecting the two throne platforms had been broken in half. But while Princess Celestia's throne was still intact, Luna's throne had been shattered to pieces.

On top of that, Sunset noticed that the pedestal housing the Elements of Harmony had been raised, but the Elements themselves were nowhere to be seen. There were, however, five stones laying on the floor around the pedestal, too spherical to be natural debris.

But the Elements were the least of Sunset's concerns. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw Princess Celestia slowly making her way toward her. The princess hobbled weakly, one of her hind legs dragging slightly, and her left wing hanging limply at her side. Her normally-flawless, ivory coat was marred with cuts, bruises, and burn marks.

"Princess!"

Sunset hurried over to help Celestia, barely reaching her in time as the alicorn's strength gave out and she collapsed, her student catching her. Sunset looked Celestia in the eye, fearful for her health. The princess was worn down, both physically and emotionally. The look in her pink eyes was full of regret and pain.

"Princess, are you alright?" Sunset asked worriedly.

Celestia clenched her teeth in pain, her eyes squeezing shut as moisture began to accumulate within them. "Sunset... I..."

And that was all she could manage before she broke down into tears, crying loudly and openly as she lay her head against her student's back.

By this time, Starswirl, Quill, and the soldiers had caught up, trying to wrap their heads around what had happened. The throne room was in shambles, and the princess was much the same.

Sunset said nothing as Celestia's tears soaked into her amber fur, only wrapping a hoof around the princess's neck in comfort. She was confused and concerned by all of this, but Celestia was clearly in no condition to talk. In addition, there was no sign of Princess Luna anywhere. With nowhere else to turn, Sunset shifted her gaze upward, staring up at the moon through the demolished roof.

And from its alabaster surface was the dark silhouette of a mare staring back at her.

Chapter 11 - Impact

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 11: Impact

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Twilight Sparkle's eyes fluttered open slowly. It took a moment for her to remember where she was, but once she lifted her head from her pillow and rubbed her eyes, her senses quickly came back to her.

She glanced down beside her, an elongated breath escaping through her nostrils. Celestia's book was laying next to her, still open on the last page she'd read. She must have fallen asleep while she was reading it, which she thought was odd; she'd never fallen asleep reading a book before, although she hadn't slept very well the previous night, so she chalked it up to sheer exhaustion.

It was just a little unfortunate that Twilight had fallen asleep in the middle of the day, though not that she expected her sleep schedule to be regular with everything that was swirling around in her head lately. It appeared she had awoken on the cusp of nighttime, as the dusk sky was visible through her bedroom window.

However, the soft, amber light of the evening was somewhat offset by the pink glow of the magical barrier she'd cast around the room to isolate herself. Twilight let out a sigh. Spike must have been worried about her. She hadn't said a word to him since that morning, so he didn't even know about her little outburst toward Princess Celestia. Then she came back and immediately shut herself inside her room with a magic shield. It must have been a concerning discovery. She wondered if he'd been trying to get her attention this whole time, and if so, for how long? Then again, Spike was a smart dragon; he could probably deduce for himself that something was up and understand when she needed to be alone. In either case, Twilight wasn't about to bring the barrier down. As bad as she felt about Spike, she was a touch paranoid that maybe Princess Celestia was waiting out there for her, too.

Twilight wearily crawled off her bed, letting out a long yawn. She was honestly a little surprised that she'd slept as well as she did, all things considered. Even barring how distraught she'd been over this whole business with Celestia, she still wasn't entirely used to sleeping with her two new, feathery appendages. It may have just been a result of how tired she was, since her wings were a little uncomfortable; perhaps she'd slept weirdly. She furled and unfurled her wings a few times, and flapped them repeatedly to work out the soreness.

As she stretched her stiff muscles, Twilight's eyes were focused on the dusk sky outside. The sky was fading into darkness, the sun had set, and the moon had now emerged to take its place. As beautiful as the rising moon was, Twilight couldn't help but think about the last thing she'd read in the book. It seemed the more she read, the more pressing her questions about it became. Sunset Shimmer had been around for some of Equestria's most significant events. Not only was she the one responsible for the creation of the Summer Sun Celebration, but she was even around for the emergence of Nightmare Moon. It just made it all the more confusing as to why Twilight—or anypony else for that matter—had never heard of her before. She had never even known Starswirl the Bearded had a daughter, and as famous as he was, even any writings about him had never made mention of Sunset Shimmer. And the big problem was that the only person who could provide her with answers was the one person that Twilight didn't really want to confront right now.

But as Twilight watched the full moon ascend into the starlit sky, her eyes widened as the realization finally dawned on her. How had she not thought of this before? There was somepony else around who knew Sunset Shimmer.

With the idea in her head, Twilight picked up Princess Celestia's book with her magic to take with her, slipping a book mark between its pages so as not to lose her place. She was still a tad too paranoid to walk out the door. Instead, she created a small hole in her barrier and slipped out her window, shutting both behind her as she flapped off into the darkness.

***** ***** *****

Canterlot Castle was now bathed in moonlight, the marble walls practically glowing as the moon shone upon them. With another day gone and another night now in progress, Princess Luna was ready to get started on her nightly rituals; the lavenders throughout the castle halls needed replacing and the night guards' attendance needed to be taken. But aside from that, there wasn't much else to do, so she would have to decide what it was she wanted to do to pass the time tonight.

The midnight blue alicorn stepped back into her chambers, shutting the glass doors to her balcony behind her. But before she even had a chance to contemplate possible activities to occupy her time, she heard a gentle rapping on the balcony doors. Looking back, Luna was surprised to see Twilight Sparkle standing outside. Confused, yet curious, Luna turned around and opened the doors for her unexpected visitor.

"Twilight, what brings you here?" Luna asked. She couldn't help but notice an odd look on the purple alicorn's face; pensive and apologetic.

"Well, first of all," Twilight began, "I wanted to apologize for disappearing on you guys. You were putting a lot of effort into helping me learn the ins and outs of being a princess, but it was—"

"Overwhelming?"

Twilight nodded slowly.

Luna simply smiled. "Understandable. It's a lot to take in, I know. Being a princess is not easy. But it's okay to want to take a break. Just maybe tell somepony next time instead of sneaking off."

"Yeah, I will. Sorry."

Luna then raised an eyebrow curiously. "But you chose a bizarre time to return. It's getting late," she said, gesturing to the moon in the sky behind Twilight.

"Actually, I didn't really come here because of my princess duties. I want to talk to you about something."

Luna could sense a seriousness in her voice, and at no point thus far had Twilight shown even a smile or hint that everything was well. Something was clearly bothering her. Luna stepped aside hospitably. "I see. Come in."

Twilight accepted the offer graciously. It wasn't often she visited Luna's quarters. It was actually a little jarring how similar it was to how it had been described in Celestia's book, back at the Castle of the Two Sisters; dark colors all around that gave the room the illusion of being surrounded by the night sky; bookshelves lining the walls and offering reading material to pass the time; various astronomical instruments for monitoring the stars and the moon. The latter in particular was noteworthy as there didn't appear to be as many as described in the book. Perhaps some were lost to time, or were made obsolete.

"What was it you wished to talk to me about?"

Twilight paused for a moment before looking Luna dead in the eye. "Can you tell me about Sunset Shimmer?"

If the room hadn't been quiet before, it was like it had become a vacuum all of a sudden. Luna's eyes had widened, and her jaw dropped slightly as though she'd just seen a ghost. "Sunset... Shimmer? Why, I haven't heard that name in over a millennium. How do you know of Sunset Shimmer?"

"Your sister wrote a book about her." Twilight unfurled one of her wings, pulling out the tattered tome from beneath her feathers.

Luna raised an interested, yet skeptical eyebrow. "Really? This is the first I've heard of this. Why didn't she mention it?"

"Because I don't think she wants anypony to read this book. She got pretty upset when she found me reading it," Twilight explained, her ears folding back in remorse as she recalled the unpleasant sight of Celestia shouting at her.

Luna grimaced slightly as she discerned the implications of Twilight currently possessing the book. "And you did not return it? Twilight, I've not known you to disobey my sister."

"I know," Twilight said defensively. "But you don't understand, the fact that she didn't want me to read it meant that she was hiding something, and that scared me." Twilight hung her head in self-pity. "And now I know what..."

Luna raised an eyebrow. "That being...?"

"That I'm almost exactly the same as Sunset Shimmer," Twilight said with slight hint of anger in her purple eyes.

The moon princess took a moment to think that over. "Hmm... I didn't take you for the jealous type, Twilight."

"I just need to know why," Twilight declared almost desperately. "Why wouldn't Princess Celestia tell me about her? Am I just supposed to be a replacement? Somepony to fill a void? Is that all I am to her?"

Luna lifted a hoof to Twilight's shoulder soothingly. "Calm down, Twilight. My sister doesn't do things without reason."

Twilight took a deep breath to steady herself before she let her emotions get the better of her. She didn't want to go down this path of anger and frustration again. She looked up to Luna once more, more calmly. "I was just wondering if you could help me shed some light on things. You knew Sunset Shimmer, too, right?"

Luna nodded, though her face was still full of disbelief. "I did. But truth be told, I haven't so much as thought about her in ages. It's curious that Celestia would make no mention of her after my return."

"You forgot about her?"

"Bear in mind, Twilight, that I spent one thousand years banished inside the moon, stewing in anger, hatred, and jealousy towards my sister. Everything else couldn't have been further from my mind—or perhaps I should say Nightmare Moon's mind. I was practically a different person during that time."

"But she seemed like she was such an important person in your lives. How could nopony even know she existed?"

Luna closed her eyes, thinking on that for a few moments. "Well, even my transformation into Nightmare Moon became little more than a myth over the past one thousand years; an old mare's tale passed down through the generations. I suppose it's possible that Sunset Shimmer's existence similarly may have faded into obscurity over the ages."

"But her father was Starswirl the Bearded, a famed scholar whose contributions to the field of magic have impacted our very way of life."

Luna shook her head with a sigh. "I don't know what to tell you, Twilight. How much of Sunset's life is described in that book exactly?"

Twilight glanced at the book in her magical grasp. She looked where she had placed the bookmark, noting that she seemed to be about halfway through the book at this point. "I'm not sure, I haven't finished it yet. And it's already jumped from her childhood straight to her young adulthood, so I'm not sure if there'll be any more time jumps."

"Then how far have you read?"

Twilight's ears drooped a little as she readied her answer. "Um... I just got to the part where you... became Nightmare Moon..."

Luna nodded with an apologetic look on her face. "Then I'm afraid I know no more than you do. I was banished just after that, so I know nothing of what happened to Sunset Shimmer following those events. It would appear that your only options at this point are to either finish the book, or ask my sister." She took notice of Twilight's reluctant expression when she suggested that. The pieces were beginning to fit together. "I see. I take it this whole situation is the reason why Celestia has been so standoffish these past couple of days."

"I can't talk to her yet," Twilight admitted quietly. "I'm afraid she'll just tell me what I want to hear instead of telling me the truth."

A frown curled Luna's muzzle. It was distressing to hear that Twilight had seemed to have lost faith in the mare who had been her mentor since she was a child. "I wish I could help more, Twilight, but I'm afraid I have nothing I can offer. All I can say is that I know my sister better than anypony. But how she views you in comparison to Sunset Shimmer, I can't say."

Twilight hung her head in dejection. She'd been hoping to get something from Luna to help ease her mind; if nothing else, a reason not to continue reading the book and return it to Celestia with an apology. But it appeared that, if she wanted answers, she'd have to continue on her course and finish it.

That being said, Luna never did answer her question.

"Princess Luna, I asked if you could tell me about Sunset Shimmer. Could I still get your input, please?"

Luna sighed regretfully. "If you've read the book as far as you say, then—"

"But this book was written by your sister, and while you were banished to the moon. So isn't it possible that some things may not be entirely accurate? Your thoughts, even if they are written as though from your perspective in the book, were still written by Princess Celestia. It's possible there may be some bias in the way she'd written it."

Luna mulled that over. "Hmm... I suppose you have a point. Without me around to ask for reference, she may have had to resort to approximations on some matters. May I see the book?"

Twilight hesitated. She pulled the book closer to herself instinctively, casting a silent, apologetic frown at the moon princess.

Luna rolled her eyes, having an idea of what was going through her mind. "This is not a ploy to make you relinquish the book so I can return it to my sister. Quite frankly, this whole kerfuffle between you and Celestia is none of my business, and you two should work it out for yourselves. Right now, I'm only humoring this conversation out of sheer curiosity."

Twilight was still visibly reluctant, but sensed no dishonesty in Luna's voice or expression. In fact, now she felt a little bad about getting Princess Luna roped into this argument between her and Celestia. Though her apprehension hadn't been entirely abated, her own curiosity lead to her handing over the book to Luna.

Luna received the worn tome, looking it over for a moment with mild disgust. "For something supposedly so important to her, Celestia hasn't kept very good care of it."

"I found it hidden away under one of the shelves in the royal archives. I speculate that she had either lost it, or it was stolen and stored somewhere without her knowledge, though both of those scenarios have some holes in their logic."

"Yet something else you'll need to hear straight from her mouth." Luna opened the book, flipping quickly through its pages.

"Um, be careful," Twilight warned. "Some of those pages a pretty loose. If they were to fall out, I'm not sure if I'd be able to find where they belonged again. Also, can you not look at anything past the bookmark? I don't want any spoilers," she requested with an awkward grin and a slight blush.

"I'm admittedly curious as to what became of Sunset, but I'll oblige." Luna began to flip more slowly, skimming over a select few pages. A sudden, amused smile creased her lips. "Oh, yes, the pancake incident. How could I have forgotten that? I was furious," she chuckled.

Twilight stepped closer as Luna continued to look over several other scenes. "Any... discrepancies? Does it match up to how you remember everything?"

Luna's brow suddenly knit tighter. She was scrutinizing a particular page quite thoroughly. "This scene where I'm giving young Sunset lessons... I don't recall it playing out quite like this."

Twilight leaned in with vested interest, intrigued by anything that Luna might be able to clarify. "What's different?"

"Well..." Luna skipped ahead slightly. "Apparently Sunset told Celestia that I instructed her to use her negativity to motivate her. I don't remember saying it like that."

"I see. Well, that's a scene that Celestia wasn't there for. She pretty much had to go off of what Sunset told her. Do you think Sunset misinterpreted what you said?"

Luna let out a long breath through her nose. "Perhaps not. This was during a time in my life where I felt the world was against me. My memory of this time may be slightly skewed."

"So what do you remember about Sunset Shimmer? I'd like to hear it directly from you rather than getting your sister's interpretation of what you felt."

Luna closed her eyes for a moment, allowing the memories that long lay dormant in the back of her mind come flooding back. "When I first met Sunset, when she was just a little filly, I likened her to an incessant, little mosquito, dead set on buzzing around my ear and irritating me to no end."

Twilight smirked a little. "Yeah, I think Princess Celestia got that impression, too, based on what's written in there."

"She was naïve, but curious. Studious and a quick learner, yet oblivious to things around her. Charismatic and optimistic, yet somehow isolated, like her world was confined to a tiny bubble."

Twilight's expression fell, speaking her mind quietly. "Sounds familiar..."

"Sunset was a very talented person, intelligent and powerful, I will not deny that. But I think what stood out the most to me was that she was one of the few people who gave me the time of day."

"Yeah, after reading about what happened at the first Summer Sun Celebration, I can kind of see where you were coming from."

Luna's face became full of remorse as she thought about that fateful day. "If I had told Sunset to harness her anger and frustration, then I wish I could apologize. I lost control of my emotions and look what happened."

Seeing the look on Luna's face, Twilight wanted to shift the subject back on track quickly for her sake. "So, you think I should take what's written in this book with a grain of salt, then? If it's not accurate to how you remember..."

Luna shook her head. "That was just that one scene, and it may have been influenced by what Celestia had heard from Sunset. Obviously I'd need more time to confirm the overall accuracy of the events written here, but based on a cursory glance, it all seems more or less correct. Celestia may have exaggerated here and there, but I cannot necessarily refute what's depicted in these pages. Whether or not that helps you, I do not know."

Luna returned the book to Twilight, and the lavender alicorn let out a somewhat disappointed sigh. "It was worth a shot, I guess. Thanks anyway, Princess."

As Twilight sauntered slowly back toward the balcony, Luna reached out once more. "Twilight. I know better than anypony that its dangerous to live your life in somepony else's shadow. I know not what happened to Sunset after my banishment, so I can't say for certain that your path is the same as hers. But at the very least, don't walk the same path that my past self once did. You are not Sunset, nor should you strive to be. You are your own person."

Twilight straightened up a little and managed a small smile. "I understand. Thank you, Princess Luna. But you understand that I still have to finish this book, right?"

"Truth be told, I would likely say the same if I were in thy place."

Twilight quirked an eyebrow. "Did you say 'thy'?"

Luna blinked blankly. "Did I? Apologies, all this reminiscing about days of old must have Us falling back on old habits. I mean 'me.' Dang it."

Twilight couldn't help but snicker at the embarrassed blush on Luna's dark blue cheeks. "Don't worry about it." She was about to take off from the balcony, but turned back to Luna for another moment. "Oh, and can you not mention we had this conversation to your sister, please?" Twilight requested with an awkward grin.

Luna waved off the request dismissively. "As I said, this is not my business. Settle it between yourselves. That being said, if you do reconcile, I would like to perhaps give that book a read. I do wonder what became of Sunset."

"Well, you'll have to ask your sister if she'd be willing to lend it to you. Anyway, thanks again for your time, Princess."

"Goodnight, Twilight. And thank you for visiting," Luna responded in gratitude.

And with that, Twilight took off from Luna's balcony, hurrying back home to immediately pick up where she left off.

~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~

Never had the atmosphere within the Castle of the Two Sisters felt so bleak. The castle itself was is a state of disarray, to put it lightly. The battle that had taken place there had done significant damage, though thankfully it was mostly contained to the throne room. A few of the surrounding towers had suffered collateral damage during the battle, and while Princess Celestia's tower suffered little damage, Princess Luna's tower wasn't so lucky. However, a preliminary search revealed that Luna herself was fortunately not within the tower when it collapsed. But the worrying part about that was that nopony actually knew where Princess Luna was currently, and soldiers were searching the castle and the surrounding area tirelessly for any sign of her.

For that matter, nopony could see hide nor hair of the entity that Princess Celestia had been doing battle with either. Presumably, Celestia had won, as she was still present while her opponent had vanished, but somehow that knowledge didn't ease anypony's minds. Until they could get some answers, nopony was going to feel at ease, and the only person who could provide those answers was currently receiving medical attention.

In the meantime, all anypony could do was wait in the ruined throne room for Princess Celestia to return, or at least hear word of her condition. She hadn't even had time to raise the sun once more, the night sky still hanging above them even in the middle of the afternoon. What was unsettling was the mysterious face staring down on them from the surface of the moon. One could only imagine what must be going through the minds of Equestria's populace. A few pegasus soldiers had returned to Canterlot to help keep the citizens under control, but those still at the castle had to imagine the capitol was in a state of near panic over all of this.

Sunset Shimmer, Starswirl, Quill, and several soldiers remained in the throne room, as precarious as it was; though the roof had been almost completely destroyed in the struggle, there was always the possibility that the instability could cause more debris to come down in time. As such, everypony was staying away from the walls.

Still, it was distressing to see the throne room in such a state. For many of them, this was their home. Sunset and her father had been living there for over a decade at this point, and even though they were anticipating the move to Canterlot Castle, to see their current home falling apart was disheartening.

Barely a word had been said since Princess Celestia was carried away for medical treatment, leaving everypony to theorize about what exactly had happened. Sunset in particular was focusing her attention on the pedestal that normally held the Elements of Harmony, which sat out in the open instead of being concealed under the floor of the throne room like usual. It was evident that Princess Celestia had used them, but even the Elements were nowhere to be found. Sunset couldn't concentrate any further on the matter than that, as she was too worried about Princess Celestia's well being. She wanted to rush up to her chambers to check on her, but the paramedics urged her to remain where she was.

The flapping of wings managed to distract those in the throne room from their morbid thoughts for a moment. Lance, Halberd, and several other armored pegasi flew in through the open roof to touch down inside. Sunset hurried over to them with deep concern.

"Anything?"

Lance shook his head in defeat. "Nothing. We can't find Princess Luna anywhere."

"This is very concerning," Starswirl stated with a weary sigh. "We all saw Princess Luna fly back to the castle after she left Canterlot. Could she have fled somewhere else?"

"If she did, it would have to be pretty far away," said Halberd. "We've set up a wide perimeter, and we've even got a ground team searching the Everfree Forest."

Lance stomped a hoof in frustration. "Augh, this is our fault! We shouldn't have let the princesses return to the castle alone! It was stupid of us to send all of our soldiers to Canterlot instead of leaving some to watch the castle."

"What could we have even done if we were here?" Halberd argued. "Princess Celestia is barely standing after that. What chance did we have?"

"That's not the point!" Lance snapped, clearly more frustrated with himself than anypony else. "What's the purpose of having us around if we can't do anything! Whether or not we could've done anything isn't what matters! Our job is to protect the princesses and we have to do that to the best of our ability regardless of the circumstances!" Lance's expression suddenly fell as he slipped off his helmet to run a hoof through his mane. "And we failed..."

A hush fell over the throne room once more. The somber air in the castle was difficult to suppress, and it affected everypony present. Sunset and Starswirl wished they could have said something to lift everypony's spirits, but it was clear that nothing either of them could say would help under the current circumstances.

As if to break the silence, the creak of an opening door caught everypony's attention. To the right of where the throne platforms were, the door leading to the castle's east wing opened, and through it came Princess Celestia, slowly making her way towards the people who had been anxiously awaiting her return, accompanied by a doctor and nurse.

Sunset was about to rush to her side, but was quickly stopped when Lance extended a hoof in front of her to hold her back. Sunset didn't fight against it. Lance had the right of it; the last thing Celestia needed right now was to be surrounded on all sides and bombarded with questions. But it was still painful for her to watch her teacher limp her way into the room.

Celestia's normally pristine, white coat was adhered with bandages and patches of gauze in several places to dress the wounds she'd received. More concerning was the wrappings around her right hind leg, which she was avoiding putting any pressure on—hence her impaired gait—and the sling supporting her left wing. But perhaps the most disconcerting blemish upon her figure was the dour and distant expression on her face. Her eyes were listless, staring at nothing in particular as she made her way to the center of the room, and her lip was practically trembling.

The princess stopped in front of the alter of the Elements of Harmony, and it was only now that she seemed to acknowledge the presence of her staff, all staring at her quietly and worriedly.

Of course, it was Sunset who was first to speak. "Princess...? Are you alright?"

Perhaps a pointless question to ask, all things considered, but one to which everypony present wanted an answer first and foremost.

Celestia took her time answering the question, not even making eye contact with Sunset. When she finally did speak, she did so very quietly, her voice barely above a whisper. "Physically, I'm fine. Some scrapes, bruises, minor magic burns, a sprained leg, and a small fracture in my wing. Nothing that won't heal in time."

A collective sigh of relief was released from the group of ponies, as though all of them had been holding their breath.

It was then that Celestia's expression somehow fell even more, her gaze drifting to the floor. "Emotionally... That's another story entirely..."

"What exactly happened here?" Starswirl finally asked.

"And do you know where Princess Luna is?" Lance added.

Celestia tensed up, as though the mention of the name had caused her physical pain. "Luna is..."

Sunset was worried. She'd never seen Princess Celestia so broken before. Her composure was gone, and it seemed as though she was doing everything in her power to prevent herself from crying again.

"Luna's gone..."

Silence pervaded the throne room. Everypony felt their hearts skip a beat, matching the hitch in Celestia's voice as she'd said that.

"Wh-What do you mean 'gone'?" Quill asked for clarification.

Celestia lifted a hoof to her face, wiping away any tears before they had a chance to dampen her coat. "She's not dead, if that's what you're worried about." Once again, her eyes shifted away. "Though, to all of you, she may as well be..."

The entire group shared concerned and confused glances.

Upon seeing how clearly bothered by all this her subjects were, Celestia finally mustered up the strength to straighten herself up, her usual poise and authoritative posture returning to her as best it could in her physical condition. "I suppose I should explain from the beginning. Upon following my sister back to the castle, I confronted her here in the throne room. You all witnessed her outburst earlier, but you may or may not have noticed the effect it was having on her. Luna had allowed her emotions to take control of her. Her anger, her jealousy, her hatred; it all came to a head. By relinquishing control of those emotions and letting go of her inhibitions, her magic became corrupted, transforming her into something else—somepony else—and calling herself 'Nightmare Moon.'"

Somehow, the name caused a shiver to run down Sunset's spine. "'Nightmare Moon'? Then, is that who you were fighting?"

Celestia nodded. "But regardless of what she called herself, she was still my sister, and I couldn't bring myself to harm her, even if she was willing to take my life."

Starswirl glanced past the princess and to the exposed alter behind her. "So, you used the Elements of Harmony," he inferred.

"Yes. And with their power, I was able to defeat Nightmare Moon, imprisoning her inside the moon."

All eyes turned skyward. That would explain the face that was now visible on its surface; the profile of this "Nightmare Moon."

Now that attention had been drawn to it, Celestia thought now may be a good time set things straight. It was with a heavy heart that Princess Celestia lowered the moon once more, bringing the sun out and allowing its rays to light up the otherwise dreary atmosphere in the castle. It was her hope at the moment that bringing the sun back out would quell any worry that her subjects outside the castle may have, but she herself took no solace in having to move the moon in her sister's stead.

"So, Luna's stuck inside the moon now?" Sunset surmised dismally. "How long is she going to be banished for?"

Celestia let out a long, shaky sigh at the question, a tear rolling down her cheek as she said the words out loud, to herself just as much as everypony else. "One thousand years..."

Everypony was taken aback by the answer, a series of shocked gasps escaping their lungs.

"A thousand years?!" Sunset echoed, her voice the loudest thing to have been heard in the throne room since the battle.

"Your Highness, don't you think that's a bit excessive?" Quill expressed.

"It was not my choice to make!" Celestia snapped.

Although her response caused Quill to wince, it was clear from the pain on her face that she was more frustrated with herself than anything else.

Celestia held a hoof to her chest in an effort to steady her nerves before elaborating. "A strong bond is required to properly control the Elements of Harmony. That's why Luna and I have always used them together. But this time, I was forced to use them alone, and as such, I had no control over the duration of her banishment. On top of that, with that bond now... broken..." She took a moment to take a breath as that thought sunk in. "The Elements have lost their power entirely."

Starswirl walked over to the alter, examining the spherical stones that lay around it. "Then, these are the Elements, I take it?"

The princess simply nodded solemnly. "And if I can't find a way to restore their power within the next one thousand years, I'll be virtually powerless to defeat Nightmare Moon again when she does eventually return."

"So Princess Luna's gone, and we don't have the Elements anymore?" Halberd summarized. "What are we supposed to do if another big threat like Discord shows up?"

Lance placed a hoof on his brother's shoulder, a resolute and determined look on his face. "That's what we're here for. We might not have been able to save Princess Luna, but I'll be damned if we let something like this happen again."

Lance's motivational words inspired the soldiers to stand at attention and salute their princess in unison. However, their will and determination did little to assuage the turmoil in Celestia's heart.

"Your devotion is admirable and appreciated," the princess said, though her quiet and somber tone did not reflect her words of gratitude.

Quill stepped forward somewhat apprehensively. "Your Majesty... I know now may not be the most appropriate time to discuss this given all you've been through, but..." He gestured to the rubble and debris surrounding them. "What of the castle? What are we going to do about this?"

Celestia frowned apologetically at her staff. "I'm sorry I allowed this to happen. Many of you call this place your home just as I do. Do we know the extent of the damage?"

"From what the guards have told me, it appears the throne room took the brunt of it," Quill informed. "Though Princess Luna's tower has fallen, unfortunately. But the staff quarters, the kitchen, your tower, and even the royal archives are intact."

"I see. Then at the very least, the castle is still livable, though it may be pointless to bother with repairs," Celestia figured. "It won't be terribly long before construction on Canterlot Castle is complete. We'll simply have to tough it out here until then. That being said, if there are any of you who do not feel safe staying here any longer, I will do what I can to accommodate you with lodgings in Canterlot at my expense."

"For what it's worth, Princess, I'll stay here with you as long as you need," Sunset assured her.

Her student's words finally encouraged a small smile from Celestia, something she desperately needed right now. As a show of her gratitude, the alicorn bent down to give her an appreciative nuzzle. "Thank you, Sunset."

The display of affection was interrupted by Quill clearing his throat awkwardly. "If I may, Your Highness? And I know this may be a touchy subject at the moment, but what about the moon?"

Celestia felt a twinge of guilt in her heart. The pain was clear in her eyes, but she nodded in acknowledgement. "I suppose I have no other choice but to take over my sister's responsibilities in her absence. It pains me to say that given what triggered this change in her, but this is the only option we have."

Sunset stared up at Celestia silently. There was a hint of disappointment in her teal eyes.

Quill seemed none too satisfied by the answer either, knowing that all of this was going to result in some pretty drastic changes in the princess's life. "Right. Well... Is there anything else, Your Highness?"

Celestia let out one more long sigh through her nose. Even if there were any other matters that needed discussing, she was too exhausted to think about it right now. "No... You may all return to... whatever it is you wish to do."

The group of ponies all shared worried glances at the princess's sullen and defeated attitude, but chose not to say anything. Right now, the best thing they could do was give her some space and time to reflect on these recent events.

"I'm... gonna head up to Canterlot to let the other guards know what happened here," Lance said.

"We should probably let the citizens know as well," Starswirl added. "We only have one princess now, after all."

With that, the soldiers all made their way back to the capitol to spread the word of Luna's fate and the changes that came with it. Meanwhile, Starswirl and Quill remained at the castle to assess the interior damage caused by the battle, and the doctors that had tended to the princess returned to her chambers to await her return and further examine her injuries when she was ready.

And that left just Sunset Shimmer and Princess Celestia in the ruined throne room together.

The princess silently looked over her shoulder toward the two thrones. The bridge between them had been destroyed, and Luna's royal blue throne had been broken into pieces. For the first time since the two sisters had taken on the title of princess so many years ago, Celestia would have to rule alone.

"You don't have to do this, you know."

Celestia turned back to Sunset. The amber unicorn was staring back at her with a confident and determined expression meant to comfort the downtrodden princess. "Do what?"

"Take on all of your sister's duties. Don't you think you're putting a little too much pressure on yourself?"

The alicorn sighed with mild exasperation. "As I said, I don't have any other options. With Luna gone—"

"But you do. You have me."

Celestia paused, caught off guard for a moment, but quite vexed by what Sunset was implying. "Sunset, what are you trying to say exactly?"

"I'm not saying I want to be a princess or anything, but I can help take some of the weight off your shoulders."

"I appreciate your concern, Sunset, but that's unnecessary."

"But isn't this kind of what you've been training me for?"

Celestia stared at Sunset, her brow knitting into a slight scowl as she figured out exactly to what Sunset was referring. "Excuse me?"

"We already know that I have the power to raise the sun. So with Luna gone, why don't you focus on the moon, and let me handle the sun for you from now on?"

The alicorn glowered authoritatively at her presumptuous student. "Sunset, need I remind you that you still haven't fully tapped into the power that allowed you to do that. And even if you could, there's no need for you to do so. I can handle it just fine myself."

"But isn't that exactly why you made me you're student in the first place? To be your successor?"

"I took you on as my pupil to help you control the dangerous power within you," Celestia reminded her, her voice rising as her frustration grew. "And as much as you've improved over the years, you still haven't quite gotten to that point yet, so raising the sun is absolutely out of the question."

Sunset glared at her, starting to become upset herself. "Maybe I would be by now if you hadn't cut back on my lessons when I was a kid."

Celestia felt her temple throb as her anger started to boil at Sunset's immature attitude, but she managed to keep her tone from rising any higher. "Sunset, I am in no mood to have this conversation again."

"You told me I could raise the sun one day, but you've been putting off actually teaching me for years now! Don't you have faith in me anymore?!"

"Of course I do!" the princess snapped, her efforts at suppressing her frustration having now failed at Sunset's continued badgering. "If I didn't, I wouldn't have made you my student to begin with!"

"Then why can't you just teach me to raise the sun?! I'm trying to help you!"

"Because you're not ready for that kind of responsibility!"

"And if you're not going to put your full trust in me, then when will I be ready?!"

"When you stop acting like a child!"

The room suddenly went quiet, the only sound the echo of Celestia's final word throughout the empty throne room. Celestia's expression had suddenly changed. The anger had vanished in an instant, her eyes widened as though she had shocked herself by what she'd said.

This conversation was starting to sound familiar...

Celestia turned away from Sunset, still upset, but clearly disheartened. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet, but forceful. "This discussion is over..." And that was all she said before taking her leave of the throne room, not even giving Sunset a second glance as she slammed the door to the east wing behind her.

As upset as Princess Celestia was, Sunset felt much the same, but for different reasons. She knew that her teacher had a lot on her mind right now, but to outright tell her that she wasn't ready to handle the responsibility of the very thing she'd been training for infuriated her. She'd previously made peace with the idea that raising the sun would take time, but now that they were in a situation where it would be pertinent to expedite her progress, she was being denied.

Sunset grit her teeth behind her lips. Needing to vent her frustration, she focused her magic in her horn. However, while it started in its usual shade of cyan, it quickly shifted to red, and the gentle ebb and flow of her aura suddenly flickered sharply and erratically like a flame for a moment.

"Rrrragh!"

Sunset stomped her hooves in frustration, the added force of her magic shaking the floor, causing another loose piece of the ceiling to fall away in the far corner. She inhaled deeply through her nose, closing her eyes in an attempt to calm herself to a reasonable level as her magic died down, leaving a thin trail of smoke rising from the tip of her horn.

If Princess Celestia wasn't willing to trust her, then she would have to prove to her that she was ready.

***** ***** *****

Just as the soldiers had informed, the remainder of the castle was mostly intact. There were cracks and small holes here and there from errant blasts of magic, but nothing that would compromise the structural integrity of the castle. Still, even with the guards' word, Starswirl and Quill wanted to verify the castle's condition with their own eyes. They were relieved to find that there was little to worry about safety-wise in terms of damage, though the halls were going to be subject to slight breezes when the wind blew in the right direction.

Above all else, Starswirl was glad to see that the royal archives were entirely untouched, with only a few books having slipped off the shelves from the intensity of the struggle. Even though Starswirl kept his research papers in his personal chamber in the staff quarters, the books in the library were just as important to his work; were they destroyed in the conflict, he may very well be out of a job.

Quill was more concerned about the castle's more significant facilities. The staff quarters and mess hall did take some hits, but were mostly fine. The only noteworthy damage was a single, small hole in the ceiling of the mess hall, but it was off in the corner where nopony would be seated anyway. Even though Princess Celestia said there was no point in repairing the damage to the castle, it was likely the hole in the mess hall was going to be patched anyway, if only with a few planks of wood to keep out the rain.

The kitchen and dining hall were located near the castle's center, so they escaped any collateral damage altogether. Somepony in the dining hall wouldn't have even realized that anything had happened, save for the shaking and the noise. It was lucky that the large chandelier in the dining hall hadn't come loose; they could only imagine the hazardous mess and damages it would have caused had it fallen and smashed through the dining table.

After a thorough examination of the castle's state following the carnage, Starswirl and Quill were certainly relieved to see that it could've been far worse, all things considered. Still, though, there was more to be worried about than just the castle...

"I never expected I'd have to be around for such a tragedy," Starswirl remarked with a shake of his head.

"At least we can take solace in the knowledge that Princess Luna is still alive," Quill reminded him, though his own expression fell as the thought continued. "Though we'll never see her again, unfortunately. I don't suppose it would be too much to hope that somepony could use that time travel spell to go back and prevent this, would it?"

"As it stands, I don't think the spell is lenient enough to allow a change as drastic as that."

"I figured as much," Quill said with a sigh. "I think I'm going to go check up on Princess Celestia."

"Is that wise? She seemed like she'd rather be left alone."

"Given what happened, I think the princess needs companionship right now, whether she believes that or not."

Starswirl nodded in agreement. "That's true. She lost the one person who's been by her side for her entire life, so she's certainly going to feel like she has nothing left."

"So we should remind her that there are still people here who care about her," Quill stated with an optimistic smile.

"Indeed. In that case, I'd like to accompany you. Besides, there are still some questions I'd like to ask about all of this."

"Just try not to overwhelm her. We're going to comfort her, not interrogate her."

Starswirl simply nodded, and the two unicorns headed for Celestia's tower. With the tower mostly unscathed and the sun shining brightly upon it once more, it was hard to tell that something so harrowing had happened only a few hours ago. Once they'd made it to their destination, Quill gently knocked on the sun-emblazoned door. There was a moment of pause before a voice called weakly from within.

"Come in."

Starswirl and Quill hesitated slightly, sharing concerned looks. The brief pause seemed to indicate that the princess contemplated whether or not to allow entry, making the two stallions feel a touch guilty about disturbing her. Nevertheless, they had been given permission, so they took it.

Cautiously opening the door, the pair stepped inside. The doctor and nurse were still present, examining Princess Celestia as she lay on her stomach on her roomy bed. Some of her bandages had been removed, revealing the extent of some of her injuries. There were a few small cuts here and there, nothing that would leave a scar. However, there were a couple of patches where her skin could be seen through her coat, a result of the magic burns she'd received. They weren't terribly noticeable, but it was likely they would be covered up for when the princess went out in public until the fur grew back.

"Did you need something?" The princess's voice was unnervingly distant and dismissive; she had barely even turned to acknowledge the identity of her visitors.

Starswirl was reluctant to say anything given Celestia's mood, but felt it best to try and lighten the atmosphere with conversation. "Well, we would ask how you're feeling, but I gather that's a question you'd rather not bother answering."

Celestia was quiet for a few seconds, but looked him in the eye with more of her usual gentleness. "I'm sorry. I know I've been fixating on my sister, but meanwhile you've all been worrying about me. If there's anything you'd like to ask, go ahead. We need to get this out in the open at some point."

Quill was the first to ask. "I'd like to address the immediate concerns first. Namely, your well being. Her injuries are not too worrisome, are they, Doctor?"

The doctor—a white unicorn stallion—shook his head reassuringly. "Just as she told you in the throne room, nothing severe. Her wing and leg are the worst cases, but even those will heal just fine. She should be able to fly again within the next couple of weeks."

"It's not exactly comfortable, though," Celestia complained, shifting awkwardly on the bed. "Even laying here like this is hurting my leg, and I can't imagine it'll be easy for me to sleep like this."

"You're strong, Your Majesty. I'm sure you can tough this out," Starswirl reassured her with a confident grin.

"It's not exactly the most concerning thing on my mind right now."

And just like that, the mood shifted again, and the room went quiet. It appeared that the topic was inescapable. Neither Quill nor Starswirl wanted this whole ordeal to hold Celestia down, so it was decided that they would have to address it outright.

Starswirl stepped forward. "Your Highness, I know it must feel devastating to lose your sister like this, but it's important for you to remember that you are not alone."

"We're all saddened by this loss," Quill added. "But you still have a kingdom that is looking to you for guidance in trying times."

"And while the workload—both physical and emotional—is going to feel immense, just know that you have people who are still here who are willing to help you with whatever you need," Starswirl assured her. "You needn't bear the burden alone."

Celestia was silent for a moment as she looked between her two trusted employees and friends. There was a moment where Starswirl and Quill were worried that their words had not reached her, but while she was quiet, she didn't appear depressed. In fact, she was staring at Starswirl, deep in thought.

Finally, Celestia managed a smile. "Yes, I know that. But it's certainly helpful to be reminded. Thank you for your kind words."

The two stallions smiled back, relieved to see their princess's spirits lifted, if only a little.

"Would you like some privacy so the doctors can finish their work?" Quill asked courteously.

"I'm willing to field more questions, if that's what you came here for," Celestia answered kindly.

While that was indeed what Starswirl had come for, at this juncture he didn't want to risk spoiling Celestia's mood now that she was smiling again. "I think we'd best be on our way. There's plenty of work that has to be done around here. Be well, Princess."

"Starswirl, wait."

The two unicorns paused as they turned to leave, looking back at the princess curiously.

"I have a request."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"Since your efforts toward time travel have hit a dead end, I presume you are looking into a new field to which to focus your studies."

Starswirl was admittedly intrigued by where this was going. "I am. Did you have anything in particular you wanted me to look into."

"I want you to learn as much as you can about the magic of friendship."

Starswirl blinked blankly, tilting his head slightly in confusion. "Um... Are you certain you didn't receive a concussion during your altercation, Your Highness?"

"I know we said that we'll do everything in our power to support you," Quill repeated. "But I don't think friendship is something you can really study in books."

Celestia continued to stare at Starswirl with the utmost seriousness in her eyes. "I know how it sounds, but friendship is a tangible force. Remember how I said that it was my bond with Luna that allowed us to utilize the Elements of Harmony. Love; friendship; compassion; determination; these are all sources of great magic. The tricky part is harnessing it. As unicorns, you two should both know that emotions can have a powerful impact on our magic. But combining one's emotions with those of others can amplify that magic and make it exponentially stronger."

Starswirl gazed at the princess skeptically, but maintained a curious interest. "Is that so? I suppose that would explain a lot about how the Elements are more powerful than even you and your sister combined."

"Precisely. Though it pains me to admit that perhaps those bonds had weakened over the years. You saw yourself how Luna's emotions caused her magic to alter her so drastically. And without her by my side, the Elements are now useless."

"So, are you suggesting that friendship is what will restore power to the Elements?" Starswirl inferred.

Celestia nodded. "I believe so. The Elements of Harmony represent the six virtues of friendship: honesty, loyalty, generosity, kindness, laughter, and magic."

"Magic?" Quill echoed in confusion. "How is magic itself a virtue?"

"Because friendship is magic," the alicorn assured him. "It is the glue that holds their bonds together. Ideally we would have six individuals who best represent these virtues wield the Elements separately, but it is possible to utilize them with fewer people who represent multiple virtues, as Luna and I did. But even so, the two of us only had the power to seal away disharmonious forces, not dispel them. If I hope to one day return my sister back to her old self, I may need to entrust the Elements to somepony who can use their power to their fullest. That is, assuming we can restore their power."

Starswirl stroked his beard in thought. "I see... Be aware, Your Highness, that this is not exactly a subject I've ever heard tell of over the years. Finding any preexisting texts on the 'magic of friendship' may prove challenging, and delving into the topic myself may be an arduous undertaking."

"I understand that, so I'm not asking that you devote one hundred percent of your attention to it—after all, we have a thousand years before Nightmare Moon returns. Like with your time travel spell, somepony may need to continue your work in the future, but any progress you make will be helpful in the long run, so I only ask that you make it a priority. Do whatever you can. Can I trust you with that?"

Starswirl took a moment to contemplate the request, but grinned reassuringly through his beard. "Of course. I'll see what I can come up with. Though, admittedly, I have no idea where to start."

"I'll help you wherever I can if need be," Celestia told him. "It would probably be conducive to the field to have a friend by your side."

"Indeed," Starswirl agreed with a chuckle. "Well, if that's all, I suppose we'll give you some space. Perhaps I'll even see if I can get a head start on this new project."

"Let us know when you are feeling better, Your Majesty," Quill requested as he followed Starswirl out of the tower.

With the conversation concluded, the doctor and nurse were able to finish up their work, reapplying new bandages before taking their leave to allow Princess Celestia to rest. Now that she was alone, she was able to focus her thoughts on yet another pressing matter that was nipping at her mind. A certain mare had gotten a little testy recently, and such behavior was unusual for her. With Luna now gone and Celestia's faithful student throwing a fit, the princess still had a lot she needed to work out emotionally.

***** ***** *****

Halberd breathed a weary sigh as he flew over the Everfree Forest. He and the other guards were on their way back from Canterlot after relaying the recent news to the townsfolk. The whole scene as it had been viewed from the capitol had many of the citizens on edge, worried for their safety. Thankfully, the royal guard were able to do a fine job of calming the populace down, but it still took quite a bit of effort to spread the word around the whole city. Halberd had to wonder how the neighboring towns were going to react to this news.

Halberd glanced around at the other soldiers. Spirits weren't exactly high, and even his usually laid back brother had a pretty serious expression on his face. Lance seemed to be taking this whole thing harder than anypony. Even Scabbard, who didn't know what had happened exactly until they returned to Canterlot on this task, was caught off guard by Lance's shift in attitude.

The squad of soldiers touched down outside the Castle of the Two Sisters, unhitching their chariots and preparing to head inside. Lance took off his helmet, laying it on one of the chariots as he let out a long sigh and ran a hoof through his wild, though sweat-soaked mane.

"So, what now?" Halberd asked his brother.

"I don't know," Lance answered quietly. "I wanna find out how the princess is doing, but after that, who knows? I think I'm gonna take a breather once I ask about Princess Celestia. You coming with?"

"Yeah, I'm just gonna put my chariot away first. I'll catch up."

Lance simply nodded as he and the other soldiers headed inside.

Halberd was the only one who had bothered to stay behind to deal with his chariot. The others were likely more concerned about the princess to want to bother with it just yet. And it wasn't as though Halberd wasn't worried, he just figured with everypony all going at once, he shouldn't pile on when the princess was probably so stressed out. So, hitching up his chariot again, Halberd went around the side of the castle toward the storage area near the gardens.

He was actually kind of surprised at how early it still was; this day felt pretty long already. Granted, it was the summer solstice, but the sun had only been up since noon, and even then Nightmare Moon had interrupted it. It was hard to tell exactly what time it actually was if it weren't for the clocks around the Canterlot streets. It was hard to believe that just this morning they were all having a good time at the Summer Sun Celebration that Sunset had planned. Thinking about that, Halberd had to wonder how Sunset was feeling.

As Halberd was about to reach the storeroom, a flash of light caught his eye. He paused, staring off in the direction of the statue garden. He could have sworn he'd seen something giving off an orange light just now. But just when he thought it was his imagination, he saw it again. The difference this time was the presence of a trail of smoke.

Slight panic hit Halberd as he hastily unhitched his chariot, galloping off toward the sculpture garden. Had a fire broken out? He took to the air to quickly fly over the tall hedges, swooping down over the statue garden. However, he halted in midair over the entrance arch.

There didn't appear to be a fire. In fact their didn't appear to be any damage whatsoever. But still, the garden wasn't empty. Oddly, he saw the figure of an amber mare standing in the garden by herself.

Halberd landed cautiously and curiously, approaching her from behind. "Sunset?"

The unicorn glanced over her shoulder. "Huh? Oh, hey, Hal. You guys are back already?"

Halberd didn't really respond to her question. He was a little too distracted by the smoke rising from Sunset's horn. "Uh..." was all he uttered, along with a point of his hoof.

Sunset turned her eyes up. "Oh." She curled her lip to blow up at her horn, causing the smoke to dissipate.

"What are you doing out here?" Halberd asked out of both curiosity and concern. "I thought you'd be inside trying to comfort Princess Celestia."

Sunset turned away in a huff. "Yeah, well, we had a little disagreement. I'm just trying to blow off some steam."

It was two short sentences, but both of them sounded puzzling coming from Sunset.

"Uh, alright... I was a little worried that a fire had broken out over here."

"Oh, yeah. That was me." Sunset demonstrated by lighting up her horn, but the normal teal glow was instead a deep red and not unlike a flame itself. Suddenly, a small flash of fire appeared in the air before quickly fizzling out.

Halberd stared in slight awe at the display. "Fire spells? I didn't know you practiced that kind of thing."

"It's not really a fire spell per se. I'm just concentrating my magic in one place, building up enough to generate heat and thus cause spontaneous combustion of the oxygen in the air," Sunset corrected.

Halberd raised an eyebrow, the explanation only raising more concerns. "So, that's what you meant by 'blowing off steam'? Causing literal explosions? In a place that's kind of flammable?"

Sunset scowled at what he was implying. "I know what I'm doing, alright? What, you don't trust me either?"

Halberd backed off, holding up a hoof defensively. "Whoa, I didn't say that. I'm just being a little cautious. Geez, whatever you and Princess Celestia were arguing about must've been pretty serious. I don't think I've ever seen you so... disgruntled."

The unicorn groaned, breaking eye contact again. "All I did was offer to help her out. With Princess Luna gone, she's gonna have a lot on her plate, and I'm just trying to take some of that stress off of her."

"That's kind of you and all, but don't you think it's a little soon to be talking about that?" said Halberd. "She probably needs some time to let this settle."

"Yeah, I know, but I just thought it was important to have the conversation now rather than put it off. And then she goes and tells me that I'm not 'responsible' enough to handle raising the sun," Sunset grumbled.

Halberd's eyes widened in surprise. "Wait, that's what we're talking about? You asked if you could take over raising the sun? But you haven't been able to since that day when you were a filly."

"And whose fault is that?!" Sunset snapped, causing Halberd to flinch at her sudden increase in volume. "Who knows how far along I'd be if Princess Celestia had just let me keep trying?"

"I mean, even if you did, aren't the sun and moon tuned to the princesses' magic? They're the ones who are meant to move them."

"But you just said yourself that I did it once, too, so we all know I have the capability. It's even how I got my cutie mark, for crying out loud! It's obviously what I was meant to do, but Princess Celestia is denying me my destiny!"

The increasing intensity of Sunset's tone and attitude was starting to become a little worrisome to Halberd. "That's putting it a bit harshly, don't you think? You make it sound like the princess is holding you back."

"That's exactly what I'm saying!"

Halberd was really starting to become uneasy about where this whole conversation was headed, and thought it best to try and diffuse Sunset before she went any further. "Okay, I think you need to cool your head a bit, Sunset. You're not acting like yourself here. Remember, this is pretty much what happened to Princess Luna before she turned into Nightmare Moon."

Sunset glared at him, insulted. "So, what, you think I'm gonna turn into a monster, too?"

Halberd felt backed into a corner, like any attempt to put out this fire was only going to fan the flames. "W-Well, no. I-I just don't want to see you go down the same path, that's all."

"That's exactly what I asked. And speaking of which, it was Luna herself that said that moving the sun wasn't all that difficult. After all, it's just a big ball of fire. I can handle a big fireball." Sunset demonstrated once more her ability to create a flame in thin air, but this time, manipulating it and swirling the fire around in a figure-eight pattern. "Control isn't a problem. I just need to strengthen my magic, that's all."

"I feel like there's probably more to it than that."

"And yet she won't show me! If she wants me to be responsible, then she should show me how! But you know what? This is an opportunity. I can show her myself that I'm ready. I'll prove without a shadow of a doubt that I can handle it, with or without her help!"

The mare suddenly felt a hoof press firmly on her shoulder. Halberd turned her toward him, forcing her to look him in his hazel eyes.

"Sunset, listen, I'm worried about you. I've known you for a long time, and I've never seen you act like this. I get that you're upset, but Princess Luna is not exactly the person you should be emulating right now. All I ask is that you take the time to think about what you're doing before you do anything you might regret."

Sunset turned away, still clearly frustrated, but with a hint of dejection in her eyes. "I just want to help Princess Celestia..."

"And the best way you can help her right now is to be there for her during this rough time in her life. You say she doesn't trust you, but I know she trusts you more than anypony else. Go talk to her. Apologize. I don't like seeing you like this."

Sunset stared into his eyes again. It was puzzling to her that everypony else was talking about how worried they were about Princess Celestia, meanwhile Halberd seemed like he was more concerned about her. However, she brushed his hooves off of her gently, letting out a regretful sigh. "You don't get it, Hal. I get that she's going through a hard time right now, but now more than ever she should know she can rely on me. But she still refuses to accept my help. I'm determined to show her that I can handle the responsibility, even if she's not willing to help me, because I'm tired of waiting. You don't know what it's like to chase after something your whole life—to have a goal that you dedicate everything toward—and constantly having it evade you."

And with that last somber statement, Sunset walked past him, heading back for the castle with an unreadable look in her teal eyes.

Halberd simply stood there, alone, in the statue garden as he watched her disappear through the archway. He hung his head, breathing a long, disheartened sigh. "Believe me, I know exactly how it feels..."

Chapter 12 - Invaders

View Online

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 12: Invaders

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"Mommy, why does Celie get to move the sun?"

"Luna, dear, it's not that she 'gets' to do it. You both have important tasks that you must perform. Raising the moon is just as important as the sun."

"And Mom and Dad named you Luna, so it'd be weird if you were in charge of the sun."

"Not the point, girls."

"Your father's right. We're teaching both of you how to raise both the sun and moon. The point is that you must work together. If day and night are not in balance, it could cause problems. You are both going to have to support each other in this endeavor."

"But..."

"Are you saying you like the sun better, Luna?"

"No, Dad..."

"Listen, I know it might seem less glamorous, but you will also learn to manage the stars in the sky. One day, you might even get to form your own constellations. How would like it knowing that people will one day look up and recognize the cosmic art you've created?"

"Mmm... Can I make one that looks like a bunny?"

"Uh, sure, if that's what you want, moon pie, haha."

"Celestia, Luna, you both have a lot of responsibility that will be thrust upon you. Just as we are teaching you, this world will be looking to you for guidance eventually."

"Why can't you guide them, Mommy?"

"Because we will not always be here."

"That's why we need to teach you girls these things. Eventually, the light we've created will go out, and the people will need a new light to follow."

"Do you think you two can set aside your differences and work together to make this world a better place?"

"Yeah, of course, Mom. Lulu might be a pain sometimes, but she's still my little sister."

"Hey!"

"Celestia."

"Mmm... Sorry..."

"Ha ha, nothing wrong with a little sibling rivalry. It'll keep the two of them motivated."

"So long as they remember at the end of the day that they will always be there for each other when they need one another. Isn't that right, girls?"

"Yes, Mom."

"I can raise the sun for Celie if she wants me to."

"Good to hear. But just try to remember that the moon has just as much importance and beauty as the sun."

"I will, Daddy."

"So, can we practice more now, Mom?"

"Of course, Celestia. Luna, do you want to go with your father?"

"Um, can we all practice together today?"

"I've got no problems with that. A day of magic training with my three favorite ladies sounds like a great day to me."

"Come on, Celie! I'll race you!"

"Yeah, like you can beat me! Try to keep up, Lulu!"

***** ***** *****

Celestia's eyes opened slowly, but she did not move, allowing herself a few moments for her vision to adjust to the darkness in her room.

Another dream. She'd been having dreams about her past every night since she had banished Nightmare Moon, all of them about she and Luna. It was obvious that the guilt and regret were gnawing at her subconscious, though she didn't need her dreams to tell her that; she'd been quite visibly distraught over the whole thing since it happened a few days ago.

Celestia stared wearily at the alarm clock beside her bed. There was only a few minutes until she was supposed to raise the sun, yet she didn't make to jump out of bed to do her duty. Instead, she remained swaddled in her bedsheets, her mind still too drowsy and her dream still fresh in her mind.

Reliving those moments from her past filled her with bittersweet nostalgia. At Celestia's age, it was hard to remember things that had happened so long ago, so she was thankful that those memories were still preserved in the back of her mind. On the other hoof, it just made her miss her sister even more. For as much as the two often bickered over the years, they still loved each other very much. Their sibling rivalry had lasted for as long as Luna had been born, but Celestia believed it was that rivalry that brought them so close and kept them together through all those years, especially after their parents passed away.

And that was another constant within those dreams. It wasn't just memories of Luna that her mind had conjured up, but their mother and father, as well. Unfortunately, just as Celestia had told Sunset when she was a filly, she could hardly recall what they looked like. The dreams, as lucid as they may have felt, were completely dark. Celestia could only hear the voices in her mind, but they were so distinct it was as though her parents were right there beside her again. Her mother's voice melodic and soothing, like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. Her father's voice deep and strong; they always felt safe when they could hear his voice.

How much had they forgotten over the years? While their parents' voices were clear as day in her head, the words were sometimes fuzzy when Celestia tried to recall them. Perhaps that was the purpose of these dreams: to remind her of the lessons they'd forgotten. The people they had become was a result of their parents' teachings and guidance. Celestia and Luna ruled Equestria together under those morals and virtues, but if they had kept those teachings in their hearts all this time, then why did this all happen?

The bells on Celestia's alarm clock shattered the wistful silence in her bedroom, and finally prompted the princess to rise from her mattress. She shut off the alarm and somnolently sauntered over to her balcony. The cool, morning air blew through her aurora of a mane, feeling both refreshing and chilling at the same time. She stared up at the moon in the sky, and the moon stared back. Celestia had found herself hesitating every morning since then, knowing that every single day for the next one thousand years she would have the embodiment of her guilt gazing down upon her.

But regardless of her personal feelings, she had a job to do. The moon was pulled down over the horizon, and the sun emerged to take its place, ushering in the morning for another day. And with that done, Celestia needed her morning cup of tea. After a brief stop at her vanity to make herself presentable, Princess Celestia made her way down her tower to head for the dining hall. Normally, Rosehip would bring her tea to her room, but Celestia had given the order that she'd like her mornings to be a little more private for a while.

Upon reaching the halls and starting toward her destination, Celestia was surprised to see somepony else wandering the halls this early, and it wasn't Sunset Shimmer. Rather it was Sunset's father. He happened to be passing by as Celestia stepped out of the breezeway, looking lost in thought as he didn't immediately react to the princess's presence.

"Good morning, Starswirl," Celestia greeted as amicably as she could manage given that she was still coping with the loss of her sister.

Her voice snapped Starswirl out of his ponderings, looking up at the alicorn and putting on a friendly smile behind his curly, white beard. "Oh, good morning, Your Highness. How's the wing this morning?"

Celestia glanced at her left wing, still supported by the medical sling. While her sprained leg and some of the wounds she'd received had healed over the past couple of days, her wing still needed some time. "More or less the same. My sleep is somewhat restless if I end up inadvertently rolling over onto it, but it's at the very least manageable."

Starswirl nodded. "Well, I suppose that's as much as we can hope for. We should thank our lucky stars that your injuries were not more severe."

"So, what are you doing up this early? You've always been more of a night owl."

"Yes, well, given recent events, my sleep has been somewhat restless as well," he admitted. "I was about to get myself a cup of coffee to stave off my tiredness, but ended up getting distracted by my musings and..." He glanced around to confirm where he was. "Wound up on this side of the castle somehow. I suppose this is what happens when you combine sleepiness, a busy mind, and caffeine withdrawal."

"Well, I was just headed to the dining hall for my morning tea. If you'd like, you can join me," Celestia offered with an inviting smile.

Her smile was returned graciously by the stallion. "That sounds lovely. Perhaps an engaging conversation along with a hot cup o' joe is just what I need to wake myself up."

Her offer accepted, Celestia gladly escorted Starswirl to the dining hall. There, they found that Rosehip was already waiting for the princess, a platter holding a teapot, cups, a bowl of sugar, and a small pitcher of milk already upon the long, elegant dining table. Rosehip was always enthusiastic about her job—if a bit scatterbrained at times—and kept a chipper demeanor despite the situation regarding Luna. And upon seeing that Starswirl was with the princess this morning, an added eagerness grew upon her face.

"Good morning, Your Highness!" Rosehip greeted cheerily, the volume of her voice perhaps a tad higher than was appropriate. "And to you, as well, Mr. Starswirl."

"Yes, good morning, Rosehip," Starswirl greeted back as he approached the table. There was a bit of reluctance in his voice, though Rosehip likely didn't notice—she never did. Even after all these years, he hadn't had the heart to remind her that her tea wasn't his... well, cup of tea. However, he thought it odd that there were already two cups on the platter. "Were you expecting the princess to have company?"

"Hm?" Rosehip glanced at the two cups, as though she hadn't realized the second one had been there. "Oh. Guess I'm still not used to Princess Luna not being around."

"Even so, how often did Princess Luna join her sister in the morning for tea?"

Rosehip blinked blankly. "Umm..."

"It's fine, Rosehip," Celestia assured her. "Besides, Luna was more of a coffee person anyway, as is Starswirl. So, would you mind putting on a pot for him?"

Rosehip turned to Starswirl, looking almost hurt. "No tea?"

Starswirl forced a smile to try and make her feel better. "Not today, thank you."

The maid nodded, quickly pouring up Celestia's tea just as she liked it before scurrying off to prepare Starswirl's coffee.

Celestia and Starswirl took their seats, the alicorn at the head of the table, and the stallion to her left side. The princess took a dainty sip of her tea. However, although Starswirl knew that Celestia usually enjoyed her morning tea, he couldn't help but notice the listless look in her eyes as she sipped, not savoring the flavor of the steaming beverage as she normally did. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was on her mind.

"I see you're still fretting over your sister," Starswirl assessed rather bluntly.

Celestia lowered her teacup, placing it back on its saucer with an almost inaudible clink. She let out a weary sigh. "A few days is nothing for somepony like me. This is going to be on my mind for the next millennium. But truth be told, there's something else bothering me."

"Sunset?"

Celestia looked up in surprise. Starswirl was gazing back at her, his eyes full of concern.

"I'd noticed she'd been acting odd lately," the stallion mentioned. "I've especially noticed that I haven't seen her by your side as much. I haven't inquired about it since she didn't seem upset herself. She's actually been in a rather chipper mood the last couple of days."

"Is that so? I see..."

"What happened exactly, if I may ask?"

"Sunset and I had an... argument," Celestia told him, turning her eyes away remorsefully. "On the day I banished Nightmare Moon."

Starswirl pressed a hoof to the bridge of his nose and groaned. "Don't tell me, is this about her training?"

Celestia nodded.

"Honestly, that girl... Why would she dredge up an old argument at such a sensitive time? There's a difference between 'dedication' and 'single-mindedness.'"

"I'm afraid I didn't handle the situation as well as I could have. Sunset now seems to be under the impression that I've no faith in her abilities."

"Then perhaps you should clear this up. You weren't likely in your right mind at the time."

"I fear she wouldn't listen to me. As you said, she hasn't come to me for anything at all since our argument. I think she may be purposely avoiding me."

"That doesn't mean anything."

Celestia quirked an eyebrow, puzzled by the assertion. "What do you mean?"

Starswirl smiled with the pride of a father. "Because I've raised her since she was a precocious, little filly. As well behaved as she was most of the time, all children have their rebellious side. Whenever Sunset and I had a disagreement, she would do everything in her power to avoid confronting me. It's actually kind of cute that she'd do the same with her mother-figure."

Celestia's eyes widened, her cheeks flushing red and her heart rate suddenly picking up. "M-Mother-figure...?"

"Of course," Starswirl chuckled. "Sunset's mother abandoned her after she was born, I told you about that. Without a significant female role model in her life, it's no surprise she clung to you. You've been perhaps the largest source of inspiration in her life—even more so than I."

The princess blinked, this revelation sounding like a foreign language in her head. "You think Sunset sees me as... a mother?"

"I see no reason to suspect otherwise. You've raised her just as much as I have."

Celestia took a moment to let that sink in, but eventually shook her head in disbelief. "No, you must be mistaken. Sunset isn't a little filly anymore. There must be another reason outside of childish stubbornness that she would act this way."

"Do you think so?"

The alicorn remained silent for several moments. Was that right? Was that what she thought? If that was what she truly believed, then why did she say the things that she did to Sunset?

"You know, just because she's grown up now doesn't mean she's mature," Starswirl continued. "She's still practically as rambunctious as she was as a filly. Honestly, I'd almost say she hasn't changed much at all over the years, not that that's a bad thing; she's always been wise beyond her years, though perhaps that would mean that wisdom hasn't advanced much in the meantime. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that she's still my little filly, no matter how old she is."

"She's still your little filly..." Celestia repeated those words in quiet contemplation, attempting to decipher what it meant to her. Perhaps the issue here wasn't with Sunset, it was with herself.

Starswirl observed the look on Celestia's face. The princess was deep in thought. She hadn't since touched her tea, and the steam was beginning to fade as it cooled. "Your Highness?"

A few more moments passed before Celestia responded. "Apologies, my friend," she started, slowly getting up from her chair. "I... have a lot to think about right now." And without another word, she stepped out of the dining hall.

Starswirl stared at the door for a few moments longer after she had disappeared behind it. Her expression had been one of deep contemplation. Based on that and what she'd said, he deemed it unlikely that she was going straight to talk to Sunset about this. If that was the case, then perhaps it would be for the best if he did so in the meantime. So, with that in mind, Starswirl followed suit and headed out of the dining hall.

Now that the room was empty, the door to the kitchen opened, Rosehip reentering with a pot of freshly brewed coffee. "Your coffee is ready, Mr. Starswirl." However, she was met only by silence, glancing around in confusion and slight disappointment. "Oh... My coffee's not that bad, is it?"

***** ***** *****

The door to Sunset Shimmer's bedroom opened cautiously, however, only the amber unicorn's head poked out. Her teal eyes scanned the hall carefully, then, upon seeing that the coast was clear, quickly slipped out of her room and shut the door behind her in one fluid motion.

Sunset put on a smile—almost prideful—and started making her way towards the castle's entrance. However, she didn't even make it out of the staff wing before she was interrupted.

"Sunset, good morning," came her father's voice from down the hall behind her.

"Oh, uh, hey, Dad. You're up early," Sunset greeted.

Starswirl picked up his pace to catch up to his daughter, walking alongside her to wherever she was headed. "How are you this morning, sweetie?"

"Mmm, pretty good," she responded with a genuine grin. "Why? Any reason why I shouldn't be?"

Starswirl hesitated for a moment, scrutinizing the expression on his daughter's face. "You aren't trying to play dumb, are you, Sunset?"

Sunset quirked an eyebrow. "Why would I play dumb? And to what?"

"Well, I just had a rather... enlightening chat with the princess. I know about the altercation between you two the day of Nightmare Moon's banishment."

"Oh, that. Right."

Starswirl was a touch befuddled by her rather unperturbed response to the subject, given what Celestia had told him of her reaction that day. He cleared his throat, intent to get right to his point. "Sunset, I feel I shouldn't need to remind you that these things take time. Yet as often as you say you've come to terms with that fact, it feels like you bring up the topic every couple of years."

"Look, all I can say is what I told Princess Celestia that day: I just want to help her," Sunset said resolutely.

"I understand that, but perhaps that's not the type of help she needs right now. This argument is only piling on to the distress that the princess is having to deal with. At the very least, I think you should apologize."

Sunset smiled compassionately. "Yeah, you're right."

Starswirl blinked, unsure if he'd heard that correctly. "Oh. Really? Hm, I thought it would take a bit more coaxing."

"I've had some time to think about it, Dad. I shouldn't have lashed out at her like that, and I will apologize."

Her father nodded, though there was still a bit of disbelief in his eyes. "Well, alright then. But what exactly made you realize that you were in the wrong?"

"Hm? Oh, I'm not admitting I was wrong. I just think I shouldn't have put that pressure on her."

Starswirl was puzzled and a little concerned by that answer. "What do you mean?"

"I'm still gonna help Princess Celestia, and I'm gonna learn to raise the sun. But who says she needs to be the one to teach me?"

That explanation sounded a little disconcerting to the concerned father. "Sunset, you're not implying that you're going to be attempting to raise the sun without the princess's permission, are you? I shouldn't have to remind you of what happened last time you did that."

Sunset chuckled at her father's rash assumption. "No, Dad. I just mean that I'm going to take my training into my own hooves. If she's got other more important things to deal with, then I'm not gonna bother her. It's not like I haven't been observing her for the better part of thirteen years. I'd like to think I've picked up a thing or two on my own over the years, so what's wrong with doing a little solo training?"

Starswirl thought about that for a moment. Something about the way she'd worded that sounded odd, but as long as she seemed happy and not spiteful and was willing to apologize, he saw no reason to argue with her. "I suppose there's nothing wrong. Just make sure not to overdo it, alright?"

Sunset rolled her eyes with a smirk. "You two have been telling me that for years. Will you relax? Trust me, I've got this figured out," she said, tapping her temple confidently. "Anyway, I was just on my way to get some more training in actually, so I'll catch you later, Dad."

"Ah, very well, then." Starswirl waved somewhat halfheartedly as Sunset galloped down the hall. Admittedly, that conversation had not gone how he'd expected, but he wasn't entirely sure if that was a good thing. It went almost too smoothly. But that last thing she'd said was perhaps the strangest: what exactly was it that she had "figured out"?

Sunset hurried off to the castle's entrance, eager to get back to training herself. As she told her father, she'd learned more over the years than just what Celestia had taught her. If anything, Celestia being emotionally indisposed could be seen as an opportunity. She'd heard that nagging warning from both of them for ages now: "Don't overdo it." But how could she overdo it when there was always somepony breathing down her neck? This was a chance to truly discover what she was capable of without having somepony looking over her shoulder the entire time. And she wasn't worried about going overboard. By now, Sunset was confident about her limits. And now, something felt different, but in a good way. Lately, it felt as though her magic had "evolved" somehow. She wasn't sure how or why, but she'd already proven to herself that it was exactly the breakthrough that she needed. Now, it was just a matter of honing it so that Princess Celestia could see she was ready for bigger and better things.

The eager mare hurried through the now-cleaned-up throne room, down the entrance hall, and only slowing her pace upon reaching the front entrance. She opened the doors and stepped outside, trotting briskly down the stairs to make for the sculpture garden.

"Good morning, Sunset."

Sunset nearly tripped down the short, stone steps at the sound of the unexpected voice. She glanced over her shoulder to find Scabbard shutting the entrance doors that she'd neglected to close behind her. "Oh, hey, Scabbard. Sorry, didn't see you there."

"You seem to be in an awful hurry. Why the rush?"

"Hm? No reason, I guess. I'm just off to do some magic practice. You know how it is."

Scabbard nodded, with a slight grin. "Aiming to improve yourself is a commendable endeavor in my eyes." However, his grin faded, and his eyes drifted to the other side of the doors, opposite his post. "Speaking of which..."

Sunset followed his gaze, but the spot at which he was looking was empty. "Where's Lance today? Does he have the day off, or something?"

Scabbard shook his head. "No, he took his brother and some other guards into the Everfree Forest to run some drills."

Sunset blinked, a little befuddled by that statement. "Lance? Running drills?"

"Believe me, I was just as surprised. Actually, Lance has been acting a lot differently ever since the Nightmare Moon incident. He's been taking his job a lot more seriously lately."

Sunset smirked coyly at the stallion. "What, don't tell me you miss the old Lance?"

"Don't get me wrong. I always thought Lance was a bit of a layabout, but if he wasn't a dedicated soldier, he'd have never made it out of boot camp. But he's been taking this whole thing pretty hard. It almost feels as though he blames himself for what happened to Princess Luna."

"Well, you can't say you didn't warn him."

"I've no intention of rubbing salt in the wound. As often as we'd argued with one another, I do consider Lance a comrade and a friend."

"You're worried about him, huh?"

"I can't blame him for wanting to bolster security around here—our efforts will be necessary if another crisis crops up—but he's... not himself." Scabbard shook his head. "Who knows? Maybe he's right when he says I'm too uptight. Maybe when this whole situation blows over, he'll be back to his usual lax self, for better or for worse."

"Get in the castle! Now!"

Sunset and Scabbard were caught off guard by the voice shouting from across the ravine. A squad of half a dozen soldiers were rushing their way out of the Everfree Forest in a panic. Lance was supporting Halberd as the brothers hobbled across the bridge.

"What's going on?" Sunset called out as she and Scabbard ran over to the bridge to meet them. However, once she got close, she noticed the trail of red liquid being left behind them, leading to Halberd's right hind leg. The silver coat around his leg was stained crimson with blood. "Hal! What happened?! Are you okay?!"

"There's no time!" Lance insisted. "We have to get inside! They're right behind—!"

His warning was cut short by the sound of unnerving snarls coming from the forest. A group of five bizarre creatures emerged from the woods, baring their fangs menacingly. They had the appearance of wolves, but their bodies seemed to be made of wood, like logs and branches stuck together to form an animal-like shape.

"What the hay are those things?!" Scabbard asked in shock.

"I don't know, they just came out of nowhere and attacked us!" Lance answered hastily. "Come on, we have to get inside!"

Sunset stared at the mysterious creatures, then to Halberd. His face was contorted in pain, and he was losing quite a bit of blood. She gave Lance a determined look. "You get Halberd inside. I'll take care of these things."

"Sunset, you don't understand, they're—"

She cut off Lance's warning with a confident smirk. "I can handle this. Just leave it to me."

"But—"

Ignoring any further precautions, Sunset simply set her sights on the wolf-like beasts. They were creeping toward the bridge, malicious looks in their glowing, green eyes and growling viciously. An aura of cyan magic swirled around Sunset's horn for a brief moment before she unleashed a bolt of magic straight across the bridge and striking the beast in the center of the group. The blast struck with enough force to completely shatter the creature's body into pieces, leaving shards of wood and bark littering the bridge. The remaining four took a step back cautiously, but kept their eerie, green eyes focused on the amber mare.

Sunset cast a cocky smirk back at Lance. "See? They're not so tough."

Lance rolled his eyes. "Wait for it..."

Sunset raised an eyebrow, turning back to the creatures. The splintered remains of the one she'd blasted began to glow with ethereal, green magic. The pieces shuddered and began to converge where the whole beast once stood, and it magically reassembled itself as if nothing had even happened, only now it seemed to be thoroughly ticked off, letting out a low, bestial snarl at Sunset.

"Oh..."

"We tried fighting them off, but physical force doesn't work!" Lance explained.

Sunset remained still, continuing to stare at the creatures as they menacingly started their approach across the bridge. They appeared to be acting cautiously in the face of their new threat, but blasting them with magic was only to going to slow them down at best. Whatever these creatures were, they appeared malicious, as though their only intent was to kill. If that was the case, then it was possible that even if Sunset could get rid of them—like tossing them over the side of the bridge and into the ravine—they may very well just come back. On top of that, the castle wasn't even entirely safe. After the damage that Nightmare Moon had caused, there were holes in the castle's walls that these beasts could sneak into. She needed to deal with them here and now to protect the castle and everypony in it.

To that end, she had an idea...

Sunset's horn lit up again, the intensity of her aura causing it to shift from cyan to deep red, flickering like a flame.

"Sunset, don't!"

Sunset stopped at the sound of Halberd's voice. She turned back to see the panic in his hazel eyes, and she, too, realized what she had been about to do. Under normal circumstances, anypony would agree that the best way to deal with something made of wood would be to burn it, and that's what she intended to do. However, Halberd realized the consequences of such an action before she did. If she had set them on fire, it was possible that they would rush back into the woods in a panic and set the entire Everfree Forest ablaze.

"Forget about it, Sunset!" Lance called out again as he carried his brother to the castle. "Just get inside and we'll get the princess!"

Sunset's mind raced. She couldn't just leave these creatures to their devices. She had to do something, or everypony she cared about could be in danger. Sunset backed up as the beasts inched closer, wracking her brain for anything she could think of.

With an aggressive bark, the five creatures suddenly broke into a sprint across the bridge, their sights set on Sunset.

Something in Sunset's mind prevented her from moving. Whether it was fear, or her dedication to protect everypony, she couldn't determine, nor did she have time to think about it. Instead, Sunset just acted without thinking.

The entire bridge was suddenly surrounded by a cyan aura. The wooden beasts halted in the middle of the bridge, confused and cautious of what was happening. Then, Sunset applied as much force as she could, causing a thunderous crack to echo through the air. Large fissures snaked all along the stone bridge, and once Sunset released her magical grasp on it, it began to crumble away. The wolves had nowhere to run as the bridge fell out from under them, collapsing into the ravine below and taking the creatures with it in a chorus of surprised yelps and whimpers before crashing loudly at the bottom.

Sunset approached the edge of the ravine where the bridge used to connect, a little shaken by the experience. She gazed down at what remained. Shards of splintered wood lay amongst the pile of rubble, not even one of the creatures remaining intact. However, just as expected, even such an impact was not enough to keep them down. Just like before, the wooden remains all reformed back into their wolf-like forms. They stared back at Sunset from below, continuing to snarl and growl indignantly. One of them let out a howl before the pack took off down the ravine in search of a way out.

Sunset breathed a sigh of relief, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. That situation was admittedly terrifying to her, but at least she knew it was unlikely that they'd be able to find a way up on the castle side of the ravine.

The doors to the castle swung open, making way for Princess Celestia, followed by Starswirl and Quill, who hurried outside to where the group of soldiers were gathered.

"What's all this commotion?" the princess inquired. Her eyes then immediately fell on the injured pegasus being supported by his brother. She let out a shocked gasp at the blood running down his leg. "Halberd! Are you alright?! Quill, fetch the doctor!"

Quill promptly nodded, rushing back inside.

"Get him inside, quickly!" Celestia instructed.

Lance was about to do just that, but Scabbard stepped up to him instead. "Lance, I'll take him. You need to report what happened to the princess."

Lance hesitated for a moment—this was his brother they were talking about, so he felt it was his obligation to see that he was well, but not wanting to argue about it, he just did as suggested, carefully handing off Halberd to Scabbard and entrusting him to his care. Scabbard then escorted the injured stallion inside.

"Lance, what happened to him?" Celestia asked with concern.

The guard took a breath to collect himself. As worried as he was for his brother, Scabbard was right: it was important to tell the princess exactly what happened. "We were running drills in the forest when these wolf-like creatures made of wood showed up and attacked us, unprovoked. We tried to fight them off, but even if we broke their bodies apart, they'd just magically rebuild themselves. Hal was clawed by one of them as we were trying to escape."

"I've never heard of any such creatures inhabiting the Everfree Forest," said Starswirl.

"Nor I," added the princess. "Where are these creatures now?"

"They'll probably head back into the forest once they find a way out of that ravine," Lance answered. "You can thank Sunset for taking care of them."

Princess Celestia finally looked over to where Sunset was standing, staring back at her from where the bridge used to be. And it was only now that Celestia noticed that the bridge was gone, hurrying over to assess the damage. "What happened to the bridge?!"

"I'm sorry, Princess!" Sunset apologized profusely. "I-I... I froze up! I didn't know what to do, so I just did the first thing that came to mind and..."

Celestia stared at her student incredulously. "Sunset, did you destroy the bridge?"

Sunset turned away, her face full of shame. "I... I was sure I could handle it. But then when they reassembled, I was suddenly out of ideas, and I was scared. When I was a kid, I said I wanted to be a hero, but now, when I actually had a chance to be one, I panicked. I'm sorry..."

Celestia observed the shame and regret on her student's face sympathetically. She turned to the group of soldiers that stood by, watching from a respectful distance. She gently placed a hoof under Sunset's chin, turning her towards her so she could see the reassuring smile the princess was giving her. "Sunset, do you see any of those creatures here now?"

Sunset wiped any shameful tears before they had a chance to dampen her face. She stared up at the princess, confused by the question. "Huh?"

"Your decision to destroy the bridge, while perhaps a bit rash, ensured the safety of everypony here. That's sounds pretty heroic to me."

Sunset continued to gaze into Celestia's comforting eyes with a newfound hopefulness. "You're not mad?"

Celestia simply shook her head. "No. The well being of my subjects in more important to me than some old bridge. I could repair it in little time myself if I wished, though with those beasts out there, I think it's better off in the ravine for now." Celestia looked out to the Everfree Forest with a more serious expression of contemplation. "But the very existence of those creatures is disconcerting. I'd like everypony to gather up all the castle staff to meet in the throne room. I wish to make an urgent address."

***** ***** *****

As the princess had instructed, everypony within the castle had congregated in the throne room. Princess Celestia had not yet arrived as there was a matter she wished to check up on first. Many of the staff were curious and concerned as to what this address would entail. Those who were not present for the situation earlier—such as the kitchen staff and servants—were given a brief rundown of what happened by the soldiers, giving them an idea of what this was going to be about, but also instilling worry as to what such news implied in regards to everypony's safety.

They had only been waiting for around ten minutes or so before Princess Celestia finally returned, taking up her usual position in front of the thrones to address her employees. "Thank you for your patience, everypony. I assume you've all been informed of what happened this morning."

The staff members that were not present nodded to confirm the princess's assumption.

"Very well, then I suppose I should get right to the point..."

However, before she began, Lance stepped forward worriedly. "Your Highness, before that... How's Hal? Is he alright?"

Celestia had expected Lance to inquire about his brother's condition, and considering how concerned he was, she figured it best to give him peace of mind; the only reason everypony had been left waiting was so that she could ascertain Halberd's condition. Celestia nodded sympathetically. "Halberd is fine."

Lance breathed a deep sigh of relief to hear that.

"His injury is not life-threatening in any way, though the gash he'd received was rather deep. He may have difficulty walking for a while. As such, I will be giving him a leave of absence from his duties until he has sufficiently recovered."

Lance hung his head in slight disappointment. "That's understandable. It's just a shame it had to happen so soon after he joined the guard. But as long as he's okay..."

Princess Celestia cleared her throat. With that out of the way, she shifted her focus back to the original topic. "Now then, as you've all been informed, Halberd's injury was caused by unknown creatures that have suddenly appeared within the Everfree Forest. The question on everypony's minds is: where did these creatures come from?"

"Indeed," said Starswirl. "The Everfree Forest has always been such a peaceful place. The very existence of these beasts is unprecedented."

Celestia nodded in agreement. "Yes. In all my years living here, I've never heard of such creatures existing within this kingdom, let alone the Everfree Forest. Which leads me to believe that they didn't 'come from' anywhere."

"How do you mean?" Quill inquired. "You sound as though you have a theory, Your Majesty."

The princess lowered her head slightly with a forlorn sigh. "I do. And unfortunately, it all comes back to Luna..."

"Princess Luna?" Starswirl echoed with a raised eyebrow. "You're saying your sister is responsible for this?"

"Not Luna per se. Specifically, Nightmare Moon and my sister's transformation into her. Based on the accounts of both the soldiers and Sunset Shimmer, these creatures appear to be magical in nature. The Everfree Forest is host to copious amounts of natural, magical energy. That magic has always been extremely malleable and easily affected by outside influence. It's magic is so tangible, one can practically feel it in the air around them when traversing the forest. Luna's transformation into Nightmare Moon was a result of my sister and her magic becoming corrupted by the negative emotions roiling within her. It is my belief that that corruption may have leaked into the Everfree Forest and tainted its magic as well."

"So, what do we do about this?" Quill asked. "Can we purge the corruption? Can perhaps your magic counteract it before it spreads too far?"

Celestia shook her head shamefully. "I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. As I'm sure I mentioned after my battle with Nightmare Moon, to purge such magic, I would need the full power of the Elements of Harmony. Even then, I would need a source to focus on, but I've never been able to locate any such source within the Everfree Forest throughout the years. Unfortunately, it would seem the forest is a lost cause..."

"What do we do then?" Starswirl inquired. "Those beasts may eventually find a way across the ravine, or worse, other malevolent creatures may spawn from the corrupted magic."

Celestia nodded resolutely. It was clear that the princess had already made a decision. "Which is why it us unsafe for us to remain here any longer. For the sake of everypony's safety, I am ordering that we expedite our move to Canterlot Castle. I wish for us to have evacuated this place by tomorrow."

Concerned murmurs broke out among the crowd of ponies.

"T-Tomorrow?! B-But, Your Highness—" Quill stammered.

"I realize this is asking a lot, but this a royal decree," Celestia stated seriously. "I will hear no arguments against my choice, so I suggest you all pack your belongings today in preparation for the move tomorrow. Are there any further questions?"

"But construction is still underway!" Quill reminded her. "Is it even safe to move in so soon?!"

"Safer than here, I would imagine," was the princess's answer. "The living quarters of the castle have been ready for some time, so I see no reason why we can't move in now. All that remains of our rooms is the furnishing, and most of the construction left is relegated to the outer walls. Anything else?"

Sunset stepped forward sheepishly. "Um, how exactly are we gonna get everything to Canterlot? I... kinda destroyed the bridge."

"Even if the bridge were still there, it's far too dangerous to travel through the Everfree Forest anyway," Starswirl added.

"I will arrange to have a company of pegasus movers transport all of our supplies to the new castle," Celestia told them. "Quill, that will be your task for the day."

Quill nodded with a nervous gulp, unsure if one day would be enough to prepare for such a big move.

"I've got one more concern, Your Highness," Scabbard spoke up. "We may be safe here for the time being with the bridge out, but what's to stop these 'wolf' creatures from attacking the people of Canterlot?"

"Admittedly, that is a grave concern," Celestia agreed with a sigh. "Personally, because these creatures are attuned to the magic of the Everfree Forest, it is my belief that that connection should confine them to their territory, and thus they should not be able to leave or their magic would fade. However, I do not actually have any basis for this theory as of yet, so until we can confirm that, we will likely have to post patrols along the path between Canterlot and the forest. Thankfully, due to the city's location, there's only one way in." There was a short moment of pause in the throne room following that, indicating that there were no more questions. "Now then, with that cleared up, I would suggest that everypony start packing. Tomorrow, we're moving to Canterlot."

***** ***** *****

Starswirl wiped his brow, exhausted after a long day. He was wearily making his way back to his room to do as everypony else was doing: grab his things and leave.

Following the princess's command, everypony was in the process of vacating the Castle of the Two Sisters. The previous day—when the incident with the creatures occurred—everypony had spent pretty much the rest of the day packing their bags for the move. Now that the day of the move had arrived, things were moving along. As the princess had instructed, a team of pegasi had been hired to airlift any heavy cargo, like furniture, and had been flying back and forth all day with everything that those who had lived in the castle wished to take with them. Starswirl didn't envy their job; heavy lifting was never a forte of his, and he was worn out just helping lug things outside for the movers, even with his magic.

This is what the better part of the day had been for everypony so far. Since the crack of dawn it's been nothing but ponies running back and forth with their belongings. The evening was approaching now, with the sun beginning to make its descent and the blue sky fading to an incandescent amber. It was only now that things were starting to wind down, with most of the heavy stuff already taken care of. For the most part, it was just a few ponies and their suitcases that were left; even the majority of the castle's staff had already been taxied to Canterlot for the day. There were only a few servants left, as well as several pegasus guards—preparing to give the remaining staff a lift to the city when they were ready—Quill, Starswirl, Sunset Shimmer, and, of course, Princess Celestia herself.

But as the end of their efforts was swiftly approaching, Starswirl was relieved that this would be his final trip through the castle. Though the more he thought about it, that notion was also rather bittersweet. This truly was the last time he was going to step hoof into this castle. He had little doubt that Canterlot Castle would be an even better place to live, but the Castle of the Two Sisters would always be an important place to him; it had been his home for the better part of thirteen years.

And Starswirl had to wonder how his daughter felt about all this. If anything, this place was more important to her than anypony else, save Princess Celestia. She must have been broken up about having to abandon the home she shared with her idol and mentor. He figured it may be best to check up on her before anything else, to see if she needed anything.

Having arrived at the staff quarters, Starswirl turned down the hall where his and Sunset's rooms were, stopping at his daughter's door first along the way. He knew she had gone ahead of him to finish her preparations, so she should still be there. He opened the door slowly, poking his head inside. Sunset was seated on the floor by her writing desk, her back turned to the door. It appeared she hadn't noticed him, and was packing her saddlebags. But something odd caught Starswirl's eye: there was a soft, iridescent, orange glow around Sunset, though he couldn't see what the source of it was because she was in the way.

"Sunset?"

"Gah!" Sunset jumped with a start, hastily closing the flaps of her saddlebags which resulted in the mysterious glow disappearing. She spun around to see her father at her door and held a hoof to her chest with a long sigh. "Geez, Dad, could you knock or something? You scared the horseapples outta me."

"Sorry, I'll keep that in mind," he apologized with an awkward chuckle. "I just wanted to see how you were doing."

"How I'm doing? I'm fine, why?"

"Oh. I just thought you'd be a little more reluctant to leave this place given its significance."

Sunset glanced around her room, then gave a dismissive shrug. "I mean, sure, I'll miss this place, but you've seen Canterlot Castle—that place is amazing! And I've got my own tower and everything! How cool is that?!"

Starswirl chuckled again to see his daughter in high spirits. He shouldn't have been surprised, really; Sunset wasn't really upset when they moved out of Canterlot when she was a filly either. She was the sort of person who could be happy anywhere, so long as Princess Celestia was there with her, he imagined. "I suppose that is pretty 'cool.' Perhaps I should have requested a tower of my own," he laughed jokingly. "Anyway, I think we're about ready to leave. The movers are loading up the statues from the sculpture garden as we speak, and after that, we'll be officially moved out."

"Great," Sunset said with a chipper grin as she threw on her saddlebags. She grabbed her packed suitcase from off her bed with her magic and headed for the door. "Then let's get this show on the road."

"Go on ahead, dear. I just have to grab my things first."

"Sure. See you outside."

With that, Sunset made a brisk trot down the hall. On her way, she took a moment once she reached the throne room to look around again. It was a odd thing to think that this throne room was the place where she first met Princess Celestia, but eventually became a battleground between Celestia and her sister. Maybe she was going to miss this castle more than she first thought.

Finished with her brief reminiscence, Sunset headed outside. Just as it had been since the sun came up, the area in front of the castle was still busy with people hauling cargo. A team of about two dozen pegasi were loading up large, wooden carts with furniture and securely hitching themselves up to the sides of the carts, two ponies to a side. It took a lot of muscle to lift all this stuff from one castle to the other, and as burly as all these movers were, the long day of work certainly looked to be taking its toll on them.

But the work wasn't finished quite yet. As Starswirl had said, they had moved on to loading up the statues from the sculpture garden—perhaps the most taxing endeavor yet, and maybe something that should have been done first before everypony was all worn out. But, the crew showed no signs of complaint, perhaps even seeing the job as a challenge. Or maybe they just didn't want to fuss and moan in front of Princess Celestia.

The princess was supervising as the movers hauled the statues from the gardens, even helping out herself by using her magic to effortlessly lift them onto the carts. As the first set of statues was being loaded, Celestia approached one of the movers. "Now, please be careful transporting these. I'd rather not see them damaged." At that point she noticed that the next statue coming up was the imprisoned Discord, furrowing her brow at the mere sight of him. "Except him. In fact, if his ride happened to be a little extra bumpy, or if some birds wanted to use him as a toilet, nopony would have to know." Celestia then discreetly passed along a few extra bits to the stallion, which he happily pocketed before the movers loaded it on.

"Princess."

Celestia saw Sunset trotting over to her and gave her student a smile. "Sunset, all ready for the move?"

The amber mare held up her suitcase. "You bet. Everything almost ready out here?"

"Just about. There are only a few more statues left to move."

"You know, you probably could've spaced out this sort of stuff over the course of a few days instead of all in one go. The statues aren't that important, are they?"

"From a material standpoint, no. But they hold sentimental value to me," Celestia answered wistfully. "The sculptors were friends of Luna and I back in the day, so they hold more meaning than just what they represent historically. When you live as long as I have, you know that your relationships are not going to last forever."

Sunset stared sympathetically as she watched Celestia's expression become somewhat crestfallen. However, the princess quickly shifted back to a small smile.

"That's why I make a habit of keeping mementos of the people close to me. I believe I mentioned long ago about how I wish I'd thought of that back when my parents passed away."

"Yeah, I remember. I understand," Sunset said quietly. She thought about all the odds and ends that had lined the shelves of Celestia's bedchambers. Given that that was where the princess had thought to keep the paper-mâché sun that she'd made for her way back when, Sunset had to wonder how many of the other trinkets were mementos of people she once knew.

"In any case," Celestia continued, "the other reason is certainly more pressing: I think it's imperative to get everything moved to the new castle as soon as possible before the corruption in the Everfree Forest spreads further. It's only been a few days since Nightmare Moon appeared, yet those creatures showed up so soon afterward. If we wait much longer, who knows what other sorts of beasts will manifest? Something avian would make transporting this stuff significantly more dangerous."

"That's true," Sunset agreed. "Anyway, I'm going to hitch a ride with one of the guards so I can get a head start decorating my room."

"Sunset, wait!"

Sunset had barely made it two feet before the princess had called out to her. There was a pensive and remorseful look on Celestia's face.

"I... I want to apologize."

"For what?" asked Sunset.

"For the way I acted the other day. I was in a very emotionally fragile state, and I just want you to know that what I said meant nothing in regards to my faith in you as my student or your potential. I want you to succeed at everything you put your mind to. That's my duty as your m—" Celestia caught herself mid-sentence, then quickly corrected herself. "M-Mentor..."

Sunset let out a long, shameful sigh. "Look, I'm the one who should be apologizing. I should've been more considerate of your feelings and kept my mouth shut so you could grieve. I've had some time to think about it and I've decided that it's not that important for you to focus on me right now. You said you trust me, right?"

Celestia blinked. While Sunset was grinning at her reassuringly, Celestia couldn't help but notice a bead of sweat running down her face, though perhaps she was still worn out from all the running around today. "Y-Yes, of course."

"Then you can trust me to make you proud," Sunset stated confidently. "I know that with all the guidance you've given me over the years, I can hold my own until you're ready to help me get back into the swing of things."

Celestia smiled softly at her student. It was like watching her grow up and mature all over again. She wasn't certain where this sudden shift in perspective came from, but who was she to argue? "I very much appreciate that, Sunset. And I will help you with your training once I'm feeling up to it again. I'm just not sure if my heart would be one hundred percent in it given everything else that's happening now."

"Take your time. I'm not in any rush. Except to deck out my new tower! See you at the castle, Princess!" Sunset bid her as she hurried over to where the guards were stationed with their chariots.

Celestia gave her a wave as she mounted a chariot and was carried off toward Canterlot. Admittedly, that was a load off her mind. Given everything she was dealing with lately, having one less source of stress was relieving. Honestly, it was surprising to her that Sunset had been so willing to reconcile, and it made her wonder why she'd been seemingly avoiding her these past few days if she'd been so ready to apologize. But she wasn't about to question it; she was just happy that it went so smoothly. Really, the only problem she had with that conversation just now was with herself.

She couldn't bring herself to say it. Even if Starswirl was so confident about how his daughter viewed her, Celestia hesitated to accept that it was the case. And despite what she'd told Sunset just now, there wasn't any point where she said she was wrong about feeling as though Sunset wasn't ready for the responsibilities ahead of her. But this may have been all the more reason to try and get her own act together and actually help Sunset out. After all, if Celestia had gleaned anything from their argument a few days ago, it was that she may not be the only person that Sunset is emulating, whether her student realizes that or not. Perhaps it was about time to prepare her protégé for the future that awaited her.

***** ***** *****

After a long day of running back and forth, hauling this and that with them to and fro, finally everypony could take a breather.

Everything had been successfully transported to Canterlot Castle, and every member of the royal staff had relocated. As Celestia had stated the day before, the new castle was still undergoing some construction, but thankfully that should be wrapped up within the next few weeks. Canterlot Castle was livable, and that's what mattered right now.

Unfortunately, it had taken all day just to move their things to their new home, so by the time the whirlwind had died down, it was already well within the evening hours. For most people, furnishing their personal chambers would have to wait until tomorrow at least, so the only thing everypony bothered with was getting their beds to their rooms. Even then, some were so wiped out from the move that they opted to only bring in the mattress and a few sheets and pillows, choosing to spend the night on the floor of an empty bedroom. It was at times like this that the staff envied people like Lance and Halberd, who didn't even live in the old castle and could just stay at home with their families; they barely had anything to move, though it wasn't as though Halberd was in any shape to do so.

Despite his injury, Halberd was in high spirits. While he wasn't too keen on having to take a leave of absence so soon after getting into the royal guard, Princess Celestia was kind enough to allow him to visit the castle anytime if he so chose, and he was exercising that privilege right now. Traversing Canterlot Castle's expansive halls with an impaired leg wasn't fun, but at least there was plenty of space to fly, so it wasn't too much of a hassle. He had offered to help anypony who was still moving stuff around, but, not surprisingly, everypony respectfully declined, not wanting to put the injured stallion out and risk him hurting himself. So, before he packed it in and headed home for the night, he figured he'd make one last stop.

The Castle of the Two Sisters only had two towers—those belonging to the princesses—but this new castle had several. Of course, there were towers established for the princesses as well, though obviously one of them would go unoccupied now. One tower was a dedicated reading space, intended to be a sort of private library for the princesses. Another would supposedly be used as the castle's treasury: a place to store the princesses' most valuable possessions.

But one tower in particular stood out, not in design, but in purpose. The living quarters of Sunset Shimmer, which was where Halberd was headed. He wanted to check and see if there was anything she needed before he left. He was also curious as to what the place looked like, since he hadn't been up there yet.

He entered the base of the tower, being met with only the elegant, spiral staircase leading up to the top. Given the condition of his leg, stairs right now were almost as scary as those beasts that had attacked him.

"Sunset?" he called out from below. "You up there?"

The fiery mane of his childhood friend poked down from the opening in the roof. "Hey, Hal! You still hanging around here? I figured you'd've gone home by now."

"Just wanted to check to see if you needed help with anything."

"Nah, I'm all good here. But do you wanna see what I've done with the place?" she offered.

"What, you've decorated already?" Halberd said in surprise.

"'Decorated' might not be the right word, but all of my stuff is here."

"Alright, I'll be right up." He glanced at the staircase again with a grimace. "Uh, you mind if I come in through the balcony?"

"Sure."

Halberd stepped back out of the tower, flying up from the breezeway to the tower's balcony. Sunset was waiting for him behind the glass doors, throwing them open to let him in.

"So, whaddaya think?"

Halberd had a look around the mostly-circular room. True to her words, the place wasn't exactly "decorated," as all the furniture was rather haphazardly arranged here and there. There were several bookshelves already lined with tomes of all sorts, a couch and a coffee table, a writing desk, and even a small tea table with matching chairs off to the side.

"This stuff is all yours?" Halberd questioned skeptically.

"Truth be told, the shelves, couch and coffee table were already here. I just added a few more shelves since my collection's gotten a bit out of hoof, and the tea table was a gift from Princess Celestia, but I can't exactly see myself using it. But my bed and vanity and bedside tables and all that are already in my bedroom," she said, pointing to the lone door in the room.

"You got all that stuff up here so fast?" Halberd said, somewhat stupefied by her efficiency.

"Hello? Student of Princess Celestia here," Sunset quipped with a smirk. "This stuff isn't anywhere near the heaviest stuff I've lifted. Plus, teleportation spells are pretty handy."

"Fair enough," the pegasus chuckled awkwardly. "I can barely move a chair in my condition."

Sunset's lighthearted demeanor suddenly shifted to concern and sympathy as she turned her attention to the bandages on Halberd's right hind leg. "How's your leg anyway?"

"It still hurts," he replied with a sigh. "The doctor said I shouldn't even be flying, but I don't exactly want to hobble around everywhere. They also wanna keep tabs on it. Since those wolf things were magical, the doctor wants to make sure there are no magical effects on me, but he said it seemed fine. They're just being extra cautious since we don't know anything about those things."

"That's good. Sorry you had to go through that. Must've been scary."

"Well, that's the kind of thing we're trained for. I mean, sort of. We weren't exactly prepared for creatures that could magically rebuild themselves."

"Never knew you could be so brave," Sunset chided with a mocking smirk. "You were always pretty quiet growing up."

Halberd straightened up, trying to look stoic and professional. "You have to be brave to be a royal guard. You of all people should know not to judge a book by its cover, right?"

"Right. I'm just glad you weren't hurt worse." Sunset leaned in to give Halberd a hug, prompting an unseen blush from the stallion as he accepted it.

"Well, I-I mean, you did your part, too," he said, slightly flustered as she released him. "Everything could've been worse if you hadn't stepped in. I might even say I owe you my life a second time."

"Now your exaggerating," Sunset claimed modestly. "Actually, I panicked back there. And if you hadn't said anything, who knows what damage I could've caused." She turned away from him in slight shame, her ears drooping.

With his thoughts brought to the fire that Sunset was going to utilize, it reminded him of their conversation from a few days ago, prompting him to change the subject out of concern. "How exactly are things between you and the princess now? Are you still mad at her?"

Sunset sighed, but managed a smile. "No, not really. I had a chat with her before the move and apologized. But I'm still determined to show her that she has no reason to doubt my abilities," she said with a confident smile. "To be honest, I've actually made some significant progress in these last few days."

"Seriously? What kind of progress are we talking here?" Halberd inquired curiously.

"Let's just say I've learned a lot from Princess Celestia over the years. Maybe even more than she'd expect. There's a lot one can learn through observation alone," Sunset hinted with a coy grin.

Halberd raised an eyebrow at how vague she was being, but if she was willing to share her exact meaning, she would have, so he chose not to question her further and trust in her judgment. "If you say so." He glanced out the balcony doors, noting that the purple veil of twilight had graduated to the deep blue of night. "Anyway, I should probably head home before my parents start worrying about me. They've been having a fit since they heard I was injured."

"Alright. I'm probably gonna turn in for the night, too. See you later, Hal."

Halberd bid her goodnight as he took off from the balcony again, gliding down from the castle to head home.

Sunset shut the glass doors behind him, keeping out the chilly night air. She let out a tired yawn as the day's efforts were finally starting to have a noticeable effect on her. She was looking forward to spending her first night in her personal tower, the thought of sleeping so high up an oddly serene notion to her.

Not bothering to spend anymore time rearranging furniture, she headed to her bedroom. She had laid it out mostly the same as her room back at the old castle, though there was marginally more space in her tower, giving her more room between her large bed and her writing desk and extra bookshelves. Also like her old room, there were no windows, but that didn't bother her as much as it had at the old castle; being able to watch the sunrise from her own balcony was more than enough reason to ignore the lack of bedroom windows. However, despite the absence of windows and the fact that it was nighttime, Sunset's bedroom was bathed in a rather soft, amber light.

Sunset stretched her legs with a satisfied moan as she hopped into bed, throwing the plush, purple sheets over herself and snuggling into her soft, feather pillows. Before trying to drift off to sleep, she thought about the day's events. Not necessarily the move, but her interactions with people. She spoke of the same thing with her father, Halberd, and even Princess Celestia about the argument she'd had with the princess a few days ago. Everypony seemed to be concerned about it, and, admittedly, so, too, had she been. She tried her best to convince them all things were fine, but she didn't fail to notice the hints of skepticism they gave her. The issue that caused the argument in the first place was Sunset's assertion that Princess Celestia didn't have faith in her. As upset as she was at the time, she knew now she was being childish—she didn't need the princess to tell her that. But Sunset felt no need to lose sleep over the issue. They may have been concerned or have doubts about her, but in due time she was going to show once and for all that she earned the right to be called Princess Celestia's protégé.

Sunset rolled over onto her side, staring at her bedside table. A proud smile creased her lips. "They don't have to worry about a thing," she whispered to herself. "They'll realize that soon enough."

Sunset closed her eyes, letting the warming light soothe her as she drifted off to sleep. Sitting on the bedside table was a glass jar, and inside that jar was the source of the amber light filling her room: a tiny, ever-burning fireball.

Chapter 13 - Reignited

View Online

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 13: Reignited

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For the first time in what felt like millennia—and baring special events like the Summer Sun Celebration—Princess Celestia had raised the sun from somewhere that wasn't her balcony at the Castle of the Two Sisters. The experience of lifting her golden orb while looking out over her kingdom as opposed to up at it had been admittedly disorienting. Thousands of years of standing in the same place at the same time every morning ingrained the action into her muscle memory, so she hadn't expected a simple change such as elevation and direction to throw her off so much. It was as though a seed had been planted in her mind so many years ago, grown into an enormous tree, and had gotten so big that transplanting it was an inconceivable task. Celestia had almost raised the sun on the wrong side of the horizon before she realized she was now staring in the opposite direction from where she'd used to look. She hoped that nopony noticed the slight amount of morning light that poked up from the east before she caught her mistake, though she expected at least one particular person to have taken notice.

After raising the sun, Princess Celestia had made her way down to the throne room. As this had been her first night in the new castle, acclimating to the light of morning was proving to be difficult. Compared to the darker colors of her former home, Canterlot Castle's pristine, marble walls reflected the sun's light rather well—too well perhaps. Thankfully, the purple accents helped to offset some of the blinding light, though the gold accents weren't doing any favors. Hopefully, when all the banners and other decorations were hung in the halls, they would help mitigate some of the strain on people's eyes.

The throne room was just as majestic as she had always thought it looked. The grand columns of marble lining the chamber gave it that distinct look of importance, the plush carpet leading up to the throne platform she'd hoped would make visitors feel welcome as they followed it towards her, and the large, as-of-yet-empty windows would look amazing once the stained glass art had been installed.

Celestia walked up the ramp to her new throne, lowering herself onto the plush cushion upon its seat—a luxury that for some reason she'd never bothered investing in for her old throne, despite the occasional discomfort on its hard seat. She stared out at the empty throne room before her, deep in thought.

It didn't feel right.

This castle had been in the works for years now. Celestia had had plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that she would be leaving her old home behind. It was mutually agreed that this was for the best, even though she and her sister had spent so much time building the Castle of the Two Sisters themselves. Celestia expected there to be a bittersweet aftertaste following the move, but not for the reasons she felt now.

The princess glanced to her right. At the old castle, whenever she looked that way from her throne, she'd always see her sister's throne sitting there nearby. But that was no longer the case. Luna was gone now, and so, too, was her new throne. Celestia had debated whether or not to leave it there in her memory, but ultimately decided against it as the sight of it would only dredge up the guilt in her mind for the next one thousand years. So, for the first time in countless centuries, Celestia ruled alone. It was as though fate had timed all of these unfortunate occurrences perfectly to make her feel as terrible as possible.

"Your Majesty?"

Princess Celestia raised her head suddenly, snapped from her thoughts by the meek voice addressing her. Rosehip was standing near one of the side doors near the throne platform with a tea tray.

"Sorry, you looked like you were thinking about something," Rosehip apologized. "Is this a bad time?"

Celestia inhaled a deep breath through her nose, then shook her head with a small smile. "No, it's fine. Just... reminiscing. I'm sorry I didn't stop by the dining hall first. I'll take my tea here."

Rosehip grinned and trotted up the ramp to deliver the princess her tea.

"You can leave the tray, dear. I may have more than one cup," Celestia said.

Rosehip nodded respectfully, leaving the tray beside the throne. "Okay. If you need anything else, just let me know, Your Highness," she said before taking her leave.

Just as she was about to go through the door from which she'd entered, Rosehip happened to bump into Starswirl as he was coming in. Literally. The mare staggered backwards, nearly falling down, but managing to maintain her balance.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Rosehip," Starswirl apologized.

Rosehip shook off the collision, flashing a friendly smile. She noted that Starswirl was not alone, as Quill was accompanying him. "No problem. I should probably watch where I'm going better. Anyway, good morning!" she greeted with a chipper chirp. "Can I get you two anything? Tea?" She glanced somewhat awkwardly at Starswirl. "Or... coffee maybe?"

"Maybe when I have breakfast," Starswirl answered with an appreciative grin.

"I'm fine, thank you," added Quill.

Rosehip looked a touch disappointed, but nodded and smiled again. "Alright. Just holler when you need me," she insisted as she scooched past them through the doorway.

"Good morning, Starswirl, Quill," Princess Celestia greeted from her throne, taking a sip of her tea.

"And to you, Your Majesty," Starswirl greeted in turn.

"How are you feeling this morning, Your Grace?" asked Quill as he and Starswirl walked up to the base of the ramp.

Celestia took another sip of her tea as she contemplated her answer. She'd spent so much time lately talking about the emotional turmoil that Luna's fate had caused her. Though she knew nopony would likely say so out loud, she was probably starting to become a tad insufferable, and didn't want to keep harping on the subject. "I'm well," she answered rather simply.

Both Quill and Starswirl exchanged knowing looks. "Your Highness," Starswirl began, "I think we've both known you long enough to know when you're lying."

The princess stared regretfully at them. They'd seen through her so quickly. She let out a deep sigh, then rose from her throne and walked down the ramp to join them, leaving her tea on the tray. "I suppose I'm not a very good fibber. The only person whose ever believed my lies was Sunset Shimmer... And I regret that deeply to this day."

"But I take it this isn't about Sunset," Quill surmised. "You're still coping with the loss of your sister, we understand. And, without her, having to leave the home you two built together."

"I simply don't want to burden anypony else with my grieving," Celestia insisted. "Nopony else should have to put things on hold because I can't accept the consequences of my actions."

"Unfortunately, that's not exactly how things work, though, is it?" Starswirl reminded her sympathetically. "As a princess—and now sole ruler of Equestria—your mental well being impacts the kingdom as a whole."

"Is this meant to be a pep talk, Starswirl? Because it isn't working," Celestia groaned with a defeated grimace.

"I simply wish to do anything I can to speed up your recovery. While the state of the kingdom is very important, of course, I'm actually more worried for my dear friend."

Celestia managed a grateful smile in response to his kind words. "That's nice of you to say, Starswirl. However, I fear this is something that is just going to have to run its course. You two have assured me already that I can rely on you if I need you in these trying times, but I don't think expediting this process is going to be possible."

"Actually, it may well be," Quill stated with a eager smirk.

"How so?" the princess questioned, doubtful, yet curious.

"I have an idea that may help take your mind off of all this unpleasantness."

"Don't keep us in suspense, Quill," Starswirl urged him impatiently. "Out with it."

Quill flashed the princess an excited grin. "I suggest that we revive the Grand Galloping Gala."

Celestia's eyes widened slightly at the mention of the name. "The Gala?"

Starswirl stroked his beard in thought. "Hmm... I seem to recall hearing of such a thing before. Wasn't the Grand Galloping Gala a party you and your sister threw after establishing Canterlot's founding some decades ago?"

"It was," Celestia confirmed with a nod. "We invited the citizens of the new capitol to the Castle of the Two Sisters to celebrate the occasion."

"Well, Canterlot's grown quite a bit since then," Quill continued. "And with a new castle erected, I think what we need right now to lift everypony's spirits is a grand house-warming party."

Starswirl chuckled in amusement. "Why, Quill, I never knew you were such a party animal."

Quill cleared his throat with an embarrassed blush as he awkwardly adjusted the bow tie on his vest. "I'm not, believe me. Besides, the Grand Galloping Gala was a formal event, not a college frat party."

"But is now really the best time to be doing such a thing?" Celestia argued with a dour frown. "The last time we held a large scale celebration... Well..."

"Yes, to hold another such event so soon would likely only serve to make people think about it more rather than take their minds off of it," Starswirl added.

"I had considered that," Quill said. "However, I believe we should try it anyway. This may be a good way to relay to your subjects that you aren't letting this whole ordeal keep you down."

"But that would be an outright lie," the princess countered, turning away in shame.

"Hmm... I do think Quill has a point, though," Starswirl postulated. "Whether or not it's true isn't the point. The purpose of the Gala would be to bring peace of mind to the populace. After that, you can focus more on your own recovery in your own time. One thing at a time, right?"

Celestia paused to think about it for a few moments. "I... suppose. After all, as a princess, my duty first and foremost is to my subjects and my kingdom. My own well being is secondary." She finally put on another smile, one of eagerness and even excitement. "Very well. We will revive the Grand Galloping Gala; a show of confidence in the face of adversity. Quill, I trust you're ready to make the preparations?"

"Of course, Your Majesty. I would not have made the suggestion if I weren't."

"Excellent. But since this is about the kingdom as a whole, I want to extend this beyond just Canterlot. I wish for news of the Gala to be delivered to the neighboring towns. The first Gala may have been a formal occasion, but this time I think it would be best to make it more inclusive to fit its purpose."

Quill bowed to acknowledge the request. "Understood. I'll begin the preparations immediately. If there are any other requests you have to improve it, just let me know and I'll do my best to accommodate."

"Duly noted."

With that, Quill promptly—and uncharacteristically exuberantly—exited the throne room.

Starswirl chuckled, amused by this whole scenario. "Well, it seems the mood's been lifted somewhat already, hasn't it?"

"The Gala was a rather enjoyable event back in the day," Celestia said with a wistful smile. "Though since Canterlot had only just been founded, we didn't have many guests then."

Starswirl gave her a preemptive look of sympathy as he readied his next question, unsure if he should ask for fear of spoiling the mood. "Out of curiosity, how did Princess Luna enjoy the Gala?"

"Luna? Hmm... Well, the Gala took place during the twilight hours, so she was more than willing to attend," Celestia explained. "As far as I can remember, she did seem to enjoy herself, though I don't quite recall what she'd been doing the whole night—I was too preoccupied with conversation with our guests."

"I see."

Celestia stared at Starswirl's contemplative face knowingly. "You wonder if she were here now if the Gala would help her earn favor with our subjects."

"It's hard not to hypothesize given the significance of her transformation," the stallion said quietly.

The princess nodded in agreement, turning her eyes down to the floor in remorse. "Yes, that I understand all too well. I fear there will be many moments over the next millennium where I'll wonder, 'What if Luna were still here?'"

Starswirl shook his head with an apologetic expression. "I'm sorry for bringing it up. We should be looking forward to the Gala instead of harping on 'what if' scenarios. After all, we don't want Quill's noble intentions to be ignored."

"Quite true," Celestia agreed with a light giggle. "I've never seen that stallion quite so excited. I almost want this to go smoothly more for his sake than my own."

"I think everypony deserves some peace of mind right now," Starswirl stated. "Hopefully the Gala can accomplish just that."

"Speaking of 'peace of mind,' do you know where Sunset is?"

"Sunset? Ah, you must still be fretting over your argument."

"Not so much, honestly," the princess responded. "We had a brief chat yesterday, and I think I'm feeling better about the situation. Although, I still feel guilty that I haven't been able to devote as much time to her as I'd like. With the castle's construction, my occasional teachings at the new school, and most of all what happened to Luna, I'm beginning to sense that Sunset may be feeling neglected."

"She has been acting oddly, if you ask me," said Starswirl as he stroked his beard in thought. "Even though when we spoke yesterday she promised to apologize to you..."

"Which she did."

"I still can't shake the feeling that she's keeping something bottled up."

"You got that impression, as well? Then perhaps there's some credence to that. She sounded genuine when we spoke, but at the same time there was a certain... dismissiveness in her words."

"Perhaps she simply wasn't feeling well," Starswirl postulated. "I went to her tower to see her before coming here, but when I knocked on her bedroom door, she said she wanted to sleep a little longer."

Celestia raised an eyebrow. "That's unlike her. Perhaps she's not used to her new living situation yet and didn't get much sleep. Admittedly, my sleep was a tad restless last night as well."

"Well, she did mention that she didn't sleep well, but she claimed it was because she had a bad headache in the middle of the night."

Celestia paused in silence for a moment, her eyes widening slightly in surprise and mild shock. "A... A headache? She said that? You're sure?"

Starswirl raised a puzzled eyebrow at the princess's sudden tone of disbelief. "Er, yes, that's what she told me. Why, is that strange for some reason?"

The princess turned away from Starswirl, as if she immediately forgot that he was there and began to pace in front of the throne platform, deep in thought and looking as though she were on the verge of panic. "This... I..."

Starswirl stepped forward, trying to snap her out of it. "Your Highness? Are you alright? What's the big deal about a little headache? Do you know something I don't?"

"I..." Celestia hesitated to answer, or rather, her mind was too busy to formulate a proper response. Instead she gave Starswirl a quick, apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I have to talk to Sunset immediately."

Princess Celestia said nothing more than that before hastily leaving the throne room. She hurried quickly through the halls towards Sunset's tower, her mind racing with the implications of this news. If what Starswirl said was true, and if this wasn't merely a coincidence, then this was a matter of utmost importance.

She entered the tower and ascended the staircase, taking a cursory glance around the living space. Sunset had not yet properly arranged her furniture, but that was of little concern. Seeing that Sunset was not present, nor on the balcony, Celestia called out to her. "Sunset?"

Her student's voice responded from her bedroom. "Princess?"

"Sunset, I have something I need to discuss with you," Celestia informed her. Though she attempted to remain calm, she couldn't keep the urgency out of her voice.

"Oh, uh, okay. Give me a minute."

Celestia could hear a bit of rummaging coming from the bedroom, but it only took a matter of moments for Sunset to come out to meet her.

The amber unicorn looked up at her teacher with concern in her eyes. "What's wrong? You sound kinda distressed."

The princess took a breath to steady herself; she didn't want to alarm Sunset, but this was a significant matter. Still, she decided it wise to be tactful with how she approached the issue. "Sunset, your father tells me you were suffering from a bad headache last night."

A look of relief suddenly came over Sunset's face, her lips curling into a small grin. "Oh, is that what this is about? Okay, yeah, I missed the sunrise this morning because I didn't get much sleep. Sorry. I know it's weird for me to miss it, and I feel bad everytime I do, but I thought you didn't care whether or not I missed it."

"This isn't about the sunrise."

Sunset observed her teacher's face. There was a surprisingly strong seriousness in Celestia's expression. "It's not?"

Celestia shook her head. She slowly walked over to the balcony doors, opening them to allow the fresh morning air inside. The princess stared up at her golden sun, speaking to, but not looking at Sunset. "There was a solar flare last night."

Sunset's eyes widened in surprise. "A-A solar flare?" She found herself trembling slightly, the mention of it dredging up her memories of that fateful day and the intense pain she'd experienced. "Wait, you're not accusing me of trying to raise the sun without permission, are you? Is that why you think I had a headache?"

"No," Celestia assured her, though her tone was not the least bit apologetic. "I don't believe you'd take such a risk after what happened last time. Besides, the flare was last night, not this morning. It had passed by the time I'd woken up, so I had no reason to delay the sunrise this time."

"So... what does this have to do with me having a headache, then?"

"Sunset," Celestia started, turning around to face her again. "When I first created the sun—my sun—I suffered headaches as well, even when not applying my magic to it."

Sunset gulped nervously.

"Over time, as my magic grew stronger, I built up a tolerance to it. However, even now, I still feel a slight pain on occasion, and that pain is what tells me when there is a solar flare."

Sunset almost instinctively took a step back from her teacher. Celestia was gazing at her with an uncharacteristic intensity.

"Sunset. You've been hiding something from me, haven't you?"

A bead of nervous sweat rolled down Sunset's forehead. She wanted to make an argument for herself, but under Celestia's critical eyes, the words were kept down.

"When did you tap into your latent power?"

"Huh?" Sunset was caught off guard by the question. "Wh-What do you mean?"

"There's no point in concealing it any longer. I know now that you've accessed at least a portion of the dormant magic within you. You must have realized it yourself, haven't you?"

Again, a slight wave of relief washed over Sunset, but she still hung her head remorsefully. "Uh, yeah, kinda..."

"When did this happen?"

"I think it was... right after our argument," Sunset admitted regretfully.

Celestia wasn't sure how to feel about that. Given the circumstances, it seemed that there may have been credence to Luna's "teachings" all those years ago, though Celestia didn't want to admit to that being a good thing. "Show me."

"Huh?"

"I want to see this power for myself. Show me as much as you can without hurting yourself."

Sunset didn't say anything in response and just did as she was told. Her horn lit up with cyan energy, but as she poured more into it, it shifted to a deep red, the gentle undulations of her aura beginning to flicker erratically like fire. But Celestia said to put as much into it as possible, so she kept going. Sunset's aura expanded, the "flame" growing until its magical hum sounded almost like a roaring fire.

Celestia watched in slight awe and disbelief. The color, the appearance, the heat; it was just like the flames that had engulfed her balcony when Sunset had been struck by the solar flare as a filly. Even if it still wasn't as intense as it was back then, that could merely have been a result of Sunset's improved control over her own power now.

Sunset let the magical fire die down again, looking up at her mentor and awaiting a reaction. She almost expected congratulations for achieving this milestone, but neither one of them were wearing a proud smile. Sunset had a feeling that Celestia didn't come here to celebrate the accomplishment.

"Sunset, I want to apologize."

The unicorn, again, was surprised by the princess's words. "What? Why?"

"Again, for our argument. You've made much more progress than I had imagined, and perhaps it was premature of me to say you weren't ready."

There was a hopeful look in Sunset's eyes.

"It's clear to me now that your magic has become attuned to the sun. Of course, you moved it once long ago, but the fact that you felt the solar flare is a significant indication of your progress. Luna went through much the same thing when we were learning to control each other's celestial bodies."

"So, what does this mean, then?" Sunset asked, her voice practically quivering in anticipation.

Celestia breathed a shameful and apologetic sigh. "It means that I'm the one who's been irresponsible. I made it my solemn duty to prepare you for everything that you wanted to achieve, but I will admit, I've been... neglectful. That fact has become painfully clear by the fact that you hid this from me."

Sunset suddenly felt her chest tighten.

Celestia's expression shifted back to its former seriousness, staring down at Sunset again with authority. "But my mistakes do not excuse yours. I've warned you time and time again that your power is dangerous, yet even when you finally gain some control over it, you chose not to tell me."

Sunset tried to stand firm. She didn't like this argument and wished it were over, but Celestia continued to harp on it. Sunset felt the need to justify her actions. "I just wanted to prove to you that I had what it takes to be your protégé. If I can learn to tap into and control my power on my own, then that would—"

"And what if you couldn't?!"

Sunset flinched.

"What if you had run off somewhere to practice and your magic had suddenly spiked and overwhelmed you? Who would be there to help?! If I hadn't been there when you were a filly, you might have died! You may be stronger now than you were back then, but that's no guarantee of your safety." Celestia's voice finally lowered in tone. She was still upset, but she was more concerned than angry. "I don't want to see you hurt yourself, Sunset, but that doesn't mean I don't trust you. Try to put yourself in my position as you've been aspiring to do since you were a filly. Would you do any different for somepony you cared about as much as I care about you?"

Sunset's ears drooped and she broke eye contact with the princess.

"Under normal circumstances I'd be ecstatic to learn of such a breakthrough in your progress. Had you told me immediately. I may have even taken back what I said about you not being ready, but this has clearly shown me that I was right from the start. You're still too irresponsible. I've never said this to you before, Sunset, and I wish I never had to, but... I'm disappointed in you."

Sunset shut her eyes tight, a piercing pain striking her chest. After all the effort she'd put in, to hear Celestia say that didn't just upset her, it hurt her. She felt like she wanted to cry.

"I feel like I've said this a thousand times at this point, but I can't hammer it home hard enough: everything I'm doing, I'm doing for your sake, Sunset. I'm not going to just stand by and watch you get yourself killed due to your own recklessness. But as I said, I'm not entirely exempt from blame in this matter. I accepted the responsibility of teaching and nurturing you when you were a child, and I intend to see that through. So, I will uphold my responsibility to ensuring that you are responsible enough to wield your power intelligently and, of course, responsibly." Celestia fell silent for a few moments. Sunset appeared to be on the verge of tears, but there was still a rather indignant look in her eyes. She obviously wanted to fight back, but couldn't muster the words. It hurt Celestia to have to keep attacking this issue, but sometimes the best treatment for a wound could sting the worse. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

The glower Sunset cast up at the princess was harsh, yet pained, evident by the sparkle of moisture in the corners of her eyes. Sunset refused to back down in this argument, but her silence was more than evidence enough to show Celestia that she knew her teacher was right. Sunset just didn't want to admit it.

"I will make good on my promise to continue aiding you in your training," Celestia continued, her tone uncharacteristically detached. "But you're going to have to have a little more patience. You've built this whole argument between us on the idea that I don't trust you, but I think it's about time that you trust me."

"I've trusted you from the moment I met you. More than anypony else," Sunset said quietly.

"Then show me you trust me," Celestia pleaded. "You blatantly disregarded my warnings. I know you may be feeling neglected right now, but stomping off in a huff isn't going to solve any problems. If anything, it creates more problems. Just ask Luna."

Sunset felt a twinge of anger. "I'm not going to become Princess Luna. Surely you have more faith in me than that."

"At this point, I'm not sure," Celestia stated bluntly, even surprising herself a little at how willing she was to admit that. "But if you keep acting the way you have, you may be inadvertently following in her hoofsteps. Remember that."

Unprompted, Celestia bent down and gave Sunset an unexpected hug. However, for what felt like the first time in the years the two had known each other, Sunset did not hug her back.

"I do trust you, Sunset. And it's because I trust you that this has been hurting me so much." Celestia released her student and stood up again, her gaze just as authoritative as before. "But we can't make any progress on this until you learn to straighten up. Am I understood?"

Sunset let out a reluctant huff through her nostrils. "Yeah..."

Though not exactly the most confidence-inspiring response, Celestia nodded in acknowledgement. "Good. Now, I suppose I should let you know that we'll be bringing back the Grand Galloping Gala in an effort to help everypony take their minds off of all of the recent unpleasantness. If you want to help with the planning, you're welcome to pitch in."

There was a slight look of curiosity on Sunset's face, but she said nothing. This conversation was taking up too much of her immediate attention to formulate any sort of response to it.

And with that, Celestia descended the staircase and left the tower without another word. Sunset let out a long sigh, and sauntered back to her bedroom. She walked over to her closet, opening the door. Her dark bedroom was then illuminated by a soft, amber light. Sunset sat down and picked up the glass jar she'd hidden in the closet, holding it in front of her face with her magic. Up until now, every time she had looked at the shimmering fireball within, her heart would swell with pride. But now, something felt different.

Perhaps it was guilt that pervaded Sunset's mind. Her actions had clearly hurt Princess Celestia, and she had no reason to believe that Celestia was willfully neglecting her. Maybe she knew, deep down, that everything Celestia had said was true.

But if that was the case, why was she holding this little fireball? Sunset had the proof she needed right there. The progress she'd made recently—her latent power coming to the fore and the creation sitting in front of her—was done without Celestia's help. Of course, she knew that showing this now would only result in another chewing out, as it only furthered Celestia's argument about Sunset being haphazard in her actions. But, still, there it was.

No, now was not the time. For as much progress as she had made in the past several days, Sunset knew that there was more that she could only learn from the princess. Celestia would eventually return to aiding with her training, presumably after the Grand Galloping Gala, and when her power and control over her magic had advanced enough to garner her teacher's approval, then she could confidently present her creation.

***** ***** *****

As puzzled and concerned as Starswirl was about Princess Celestia's odd behavior, he had decided to let her do whatever it was she had gone off to do. He had no idea what it was about a simple headache that would cause the princess such distress, but he assumed the answer would come soon enough.

Perhaps sooner than he thought even.

While moving through the halls of the new castle on his way to acquire his morning cup of coffee, Starswirl spotted Princess Celestia herself in the empty corridor ahead of him. However, she was not going anywhere. She was sat on the floor, leaning back against the marble wall and staring up at the ceiling, lost in thought.

"Your Highness? Are you alright?" Starswirl inquired with concern as he approached the ruminating alicorn.

Celestia didn't remove her gaze from the ceiling. "I just don't know if I'm handling this the right way."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. "Beg your pardon?"

"Sunset's been hiding the fact that she's tapped into her well of power, and has been trying to strengthen her magic by herself."

"Is that right? She did say she was doing some solo training, but I had no idea she'd made such progress on her own in such little time," Starswirl responded in quiet surprise. "Is that what had you so worried before?"

Celestia simply nodded. "I... I tried to express my displeasure with her decision to conceal it. I'm worried that I may have been too harsh with my words and especially my tone. I don't want her to think that I believe helping her is a chore."

"Well, sometimes children need a little tough love," Starswirl stated as he stroked his beard. "Coddling them too much can cause problems on its own. A parent has to decide when to use what approach. Admittedly, Sunset may not be as mature as she should be at her age, at least in some aspects anyway."

"But that's just it," Celestia said, finally looking Starswirl in the eye. "Sunset is not a child, and I'm not her mother. I don't have the right to speak to her the way I did. I need to stop treating her like a child. Otherwise, she may end up just like..."

As Celestia trailed off, Starswirl interjected to try and quell that particular concern. "The difference is how they both saw you. While they both care about you greatly, Luna is your sister, but Sunset sees you as a—"

"But you don't know that for certain." Celestia's gaze fell to the floor, and she sighed deeply. "If she truly saw me as a mother, then why would she hide such things from me? Why can't she just understand what it is I'm trying to do for her? Am I supposed to punish her? Do I have that right? Would that even solve the problem, or would it just widen the gap between us?"

Starswirl smiled compassionately. "And those questions right there are exactly why you could consider yourself Sunset's mother. You think I haven't asked myself the same questions over the years? Being a parent is not about knowing what to do with your child, it's about figuring it out along the way. It might just be a little more complicated in our case since perhaps Sunset doesn't even realize that she sees you that way."

"I can't believe that..." Celestia quietly said with a shake of her head. "I'm just her teacher and her role model, not her mother."

"But that's exactly what a parent is, Your Highness. Whether she realizes or not, and whether you choose to accept it or not, makes no difference in my eyes. I honestly can't say that I'd do much differently were I in your place. It's just a matter of getting the both of you to mutually accept it. And you know what I think?"

Celestia gazed into Starswirl's blue eyes expectantly, the stallion casting to her a reassuring and confident grin.

"I think the Gala may be just to place to do that. After all, the very theme of the event is putting things behind you. Whatever hurdle is standing between you two, you can overcome it there. Together."

The princess thought it over in silence for a few moments. "I suppose... But I'm still a little concerned that my words haven't gotten through to her. What if she continues to disobey me out of spite?"

"Then perhaps you should just do what she's been asking you to do and trust her. You do trust her, don't you?"

There was a slight moment of hesitation, and that moment caused Celestia to feel a stabbing pain in her chest, as though she had just had a knife plunged into her ribs, but by her own hooves. There was a tiny kernel of doubt in her mind, and it terrified her. Had she really lost her trust in Sunset?

Starswirl picked up on the worry that invaded Celestia's mind. Her silence spoke volumes. "Well, then, I suppose the most important thing at this juncture is for the two of you to work this out. Maybe you should talk to Sunset again, though I'd give it a little time to simmer first—a conversation like that should be done with a cool head."

Princess Celestia stood up, taking a long breath through her nostrils. "I'll try. But, can I ask that you keep an eye on her until then? I want to make sure that she isn't too hurt by what I said."

"I'll do what I can. After all, a mother and father should work together to raise their child," he said with a chuckle.

A red hue tinged Celestia's alabaster cheeks at the joke, and she cleared her throat awkwardly.

Starswirl picked up on her discomfort and quickly backpedaled, feeling a little embarrassed. "Er, sorry. Perhaps not an appropriate comment to make to a princess. I hadn't intended to imply anything."

"It's fine. Anyway, I was thinking I should aid Quill with the plans for the Gala," Celestia said, changing the subject. "Would you care to join us?"

"Once I've gotten my morning coffee, sure," Starswirl said with an amicable grin.

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer stretched her legs and back as she stepped out of her bedroom, letting out a tired yawn as she heading for the stairs. It had been a long time since she'd stayed in bed this late, though it wasn't like she'd actually gotten the rest she was hoping for. The headache she'd suffered during the night—apparently the result of another solar flare—wasn't the only thing keeping her awake.

After a thorough talking to from Princess Celestia, Sunset had a lot on her mind. She'd been hoping that their conversation the previous day had put their problems to rest, but it seemed the princess insisted on hounding her about her choices and "responsibility." But it wasn't like words alone were going to stop her. Sunset was confident that she knew what she was doing. If her magic was going to spike and go out of control, it would have already. That's what she told herself. It was just a matter of getting to the point where Celestia could see for herself that Sunset had total control over her power.

Sunset let out a spiteful huff as she descended her tower, fully intent on continuing her solo training without the princess. But she'd probably have to find somewhere more out of the way, or risk another lecture if she were caught. The statue garden—even if it was more expansive than it had been at the old castle—was not an ideal location. She'd probably have to go outside the city limits entirely...

Sunset headed for the castle's entrance, going outside and making for the outer gate, which was still under construction.

"Where are you headed at this hour?"

Sunset looked over her shoulder after having passed through the front doors of the castle. Lance was standing guard there, giving her a rather judgmental stare. Sunset could've mistaken him for Scabbard with that look on his face, lacking his usual lackadaisical smile.

"Why? Is there a problem?" Sunset replied, perhaps in a snippier tone than she'd intended.

"It's almost lunch time. Not exactly the time you usually see people heading out to run errands."

"Maybe I'm going to a restaurant."

"Are you going to a restaurant?"

Sunset narrowed her eyes at Lance. "What are you trying to do? You think I'm acting suspiciously or something?"

Lance let out a sigh, tilting his head to his left. "Your tower's not far from here, and your balcony doors were open earlier."

Sunset scowled at him. "What, you were eavesdropping? Kind of an inappropriate thing for a guard to do, don't you think?"

"Hey, I was just standing here at my post, doing my job," Lance defended with a dismissive shrug. "It's not my fault that Princess Celestia's voice carries when she's upset."

The agitated unicorn stared right through Lance. "I'm not in the mood for more lectures. I've had my fill for the day."

"I'm not planning on giving any lectures. But after what I accidentally overheard, if I suspect that you're going off to do something that might be against the princess's wishes, it'd be my duty to report it. If that means I get chewed out for eavesdropping, then, well, them's the breaks."

Sunset rolled her eyes with an annoyed sigh. "Alright, what do you want?"

Lance sneered at her insinuation. "You think I want a bribe? I thought you'd know me better than that by now, Sunny. What kind of royal guard would I be if I did something underhoofed like that?"

"Then what's this about?!" Sunset snapped, her patience reaching its limit. "Just get to the point already!"

Lance continued to stare at her sternly, her rise in tone not fazing him. However, his expression softened suddenly as he stared at the irate mare, her nostrils flared and her brow furrowed. He let out a defeated sigh. "What happened to you, Sunset?"

"Huh?"

"You used to listen to everything Princess Celestia said like they were the rules you lived your life by. But lately you two have been at each other's throats. To be honest, I don't like seeing you like this—either of you."

Sunset turned away with a defensive snort. "It's none of your business," she mumbled under her breath.

"Maybe not, but that's not gonna stop me from sticking my nose into it. See, when people I care about are having a hard time, I don't like to just sit by and watch it happen. Now, I heard the princess say how she didn't like the idea of you running off and practicing your magic on your own, but if I had to take a guess, that's exactly what you were about to do, wasn't it?"

"And what if it was?" Sunset grumbled quietly.

"Why?"

"'Why' what?"

"Why, after everything that Princess Celestia said to you earlier, is the first thing you do the exact thing she got upset with you for in the first place? The old Sunny I know would have apologized and hugged it out with the princess and then maybe went and got something to eat together. But this Sunset storms off in a huff intent on disobeying a direct request from Her Majesty."

"Because she doesn't get it," Sunset answered indignantly. "Everything I did recently to improve myself, I did by myself. I didn't need her. I was happy to apologize for my behavior the other day and put things behind us, but she insists on keeping me on a leash. How am I supposed to learn to control this power I have if she doesn't let me use it?"

"That's something you'll have to work out with her. I'm more concerned with the interpersonal aspect of the whole thing." Lance stared at her with a pleading frown. "This isn't you, Sunset. You're supposed to be cheery and optimistic, not spiteful and rebellious."

"You're one to talk," Sunset countered with a glower. "You haven't exactly been the same since Princess Luna was banished either."

Lance glared back. "The difference there being that my attitude shift is warranted. Maybe if I'd been a little more serious about my job, I could have done something to prevent that from happening. I don't actually know if that's true or not, but my point is that I'm not dragging anypony down."

"Tell that to Scabbard."

Lance blinked uncomprehendingly. "What?"

"Scabbard said pretty much the same thing about you as you just did about me. He thinks you're not yourself and he's worried about you."

The soldier's ears drooped slightly. "He said that? But... I mean, come on, he's been telling me for years to be more proactive about my job. I figured he, of all people, would be happy to see me take things more seriously."

"Yeah, but it's not 'you,' right?" Sunset quipped. throwing his words back at him.

Lance's stern glare came back, directed straight back at Sunset. "Hey, at least what I'm doing I'm doing to protect people."

"And how's that going?"

The pegasus raised an eyebrow at the question, but his eyes suddenly widened as the realization hit him. "Oh, crap. Hal..." He fell back onto his haunches as the guilt quickly hit him like a ton of bricks. "That was my fault, wasn't it? If I hadn't insisted on running drills in the Everfree Forest, Hal wouldn't've gotten hurt. He could've been killed—we all could've been killed. Because of me..."

Sunset only watched in silence as the regret set in. Admittedly, she felt sorry for him, and a little bad herself. She was just trying to make a counter-argument; she hadn't meant to do this to him. "Well... it's not like you knew those creatures would be there, right?" she said, trying to fix what she'd done.

"But after what happened to Luna, I should've been more cautious," Lance mumbled in self-pity. "I was so dead set on taking my job more seriously that I didn't even consider the consequences." He stood up again, looking Sunset in the eye once more. "I guess that's what you call 'irony.' Well, if anything, I can use this realization to help."

"Help who?" Sunset asked, puzzled by the statement.

"You."

Sunset blinked, vexed by the answer. "Me? What does that have to do with me?"

"You can use my experience as a cautionary tale," he told her firmly. "Kids your age like to think, 'It'll never happen to me,' going around thinking you're invincible. Maybe nothing's happened yet, but who's to say nothing will."

"I'm not a kid anymore, I can handle things myself," Sunset spat, becoming increasingly frustrated.

Lance leaned closer with a snide look. "Oh, yeah? Well, to use your own words: 'How's that going?'"

Sunset scowled at his insinuation. "What're you getting at?"

"I seem to recall you saying 'I can handle it' pretty recently. You remember when that was?"

She did, but she didn't respond. However, she did shrink back ever-so-slightly.

"You may have kept everypony safe by destroying the bridge to the castle, but you admitted yourself that you only did so out of panic. If that's how you're going to handle crisis situations in the future, then it's no wonder the princess doesn't trust you."

"Shut up!" Sunset shouted, her face contorted in anger, though Lance didn't so much as flinch at her outburst. "Princess Celestia said it was the right thing to do! I didn't have any other choice!"

"But if Hal hadn't said anything, you would've burned the whole forest down."

"That's—" She hesitated. Sunset tried to justify her thought process but came up with nothing. She turned away from Lance, to hide her remorse.

"You know, I do care about you, Sunset. I've known you since you were an adorable, little filly, so it's hard not to care about you. But the real reason I'm having this conversation with you is because of Hal."

Sunset stared at him, confused. "Hal?"

"For as much as I care about you, he cares about you more," Lance told her, his voice quiet and compassionate. "You've known each other since you were kids. You're his best friend. Hal always comes to me when he wants to talk about you, but you wanna know what he's been saying about you lately?"

She waited quietly and with a nervous lump in her throat.

"He's scared."

"Scared?" Sunset echoed in surprise and confusion. "Of what?"

"What else? Losing the best—and only—friend he has."

Sunset's expression fell, but she still maintained a somewhat confrontational look, intent on defending herself. "But I'm not going anywhere."

"Emotionally. Just like this rift that's started to appear between you and Princess Celestia, Halberd's worried that you're going to drift further away from him, too."

Sunset's gaze fell to the ground. "But, I'm not trying to—"

"You're not trying to fix it either. Do you care about Hal?"

"Well... Yeah, of course."

"And what about Princess Celestia?"

Sunset went quiet. Maybe she didn't notice it herself, but Lance certainly saw the twinkle of moisture in her eyes. If she really didn't feel like she needed the princess, then why did it hurt so much to hear her say she was disappointed in her?

Lance gave Sunset a look of empathy. "Everypony makes mistakes, Sunset, and sometimes it takes a shock to the system to make them realize it. I got lucky, since Hal was only hurt and not killed. And if you recall, Princess Luna made that same mistake. I think it'd be for the best if you stopped this now before anypony gets hurt."

"I... I don't want Princess Celestia to hate me..."

Lance finally managed a soft smile. "Honestly, I don't think she ever could. But maybe you should talk to her again."

Sunset let out a remorseful and defeated sigh. She hadn't been considering Princess Celestia's feelings as much as she should have. If she really cared about her as much as she'd been telling herself she had her whole life, then she wouldn't have let the princess torment herself by having to scold her. Sunset still had that chip on her shoulder, but if she could earn Princess Celestia's favor back, maybe that could make the process of proving herself go a little more smoothly. After all, she had dedicated her entire life to being just like her idol, so it stood to reason that she should show the same compassion that Celestia showed her. "Yeah... Thanks, Lance." She gave the pegasus a quick, grateful hug, then readjusted her course to head back inside.

Lance inhaled deeply, letting out a self-satisfied breath. "And that's how you be a big brother. Speaking of which, I probably owe Hal an apology... And Scabbard for that matter..."

***** ***** *****

"There's this restaurant back in Manehattan I used to frequent in my college days," Starswirl suggested as he took a sip of his coffee. "Delectable food, and the cooks are a friendly bunch."

Quill tapped his chin as he mulled over his colleague's recommendation. "I was thinking it'd be better for the caterer's to be local. As a celebration of Canterlot, the people here should be able to take pride in their work, cuisine included, and share their creations with visitors. It could also help build business relationships."

Starswirl chuckled. "Always the professional, eh, Quill? Trust you to see the economic and business opportunities in a party."

"It's my job," the mustachioed stallion stated pridefully. "As the princesses' adviser, I have to have the kingdom and it's people in mind, just as they do."

"I'm just saying, nopony would judge you if you wanted to cut loose a little during the Gala. Right, Your Highness?"

Celestia lifted her head from her hoof, glancing up at Starswirl with an uncomprehending blink. "Hm?"

Starswirl's jubilant grin suddenly vanished when he saw the absentminded look on the princess's face. The toasted bread of her breakfast sandwich was starting to lose its crisp, and the pulp had all settled at the bottom of her glass of orange juice. Since the three of them had come to the dining hall to both have breakfast and plan the Grand Galloping Gala, it was quite evident that Celestia had not fully shown up yet, proven by the untouched state of her meal while Starswirl and Quill were quite nearly finished theirs.

"Do you need another cup of tea, Your Majesty?" Rosehip offered, having been standing by diligently in case anypony wanted anything else brought from the kitchen. "Maybe with a little sugar? You seem kinda out of it this morning. Uh, n-no offense."

Celestia let out a weary sigh. "No, thank you. I'm just a little..."

"Distracted?"

She stared at the knowing look on Starswirl's face, but didn't continue her thought.

"You seemed quite eager about the Gala earlier," Quill pointed out with a quirked eyebrow. "What's troubling you, Your Highness?"

Celestia hesitated to explain. She'd gone over her feelings and concerns multiple times that day already—to Sunset and Starswirl—so she didn't really want to have to shove her personal problems onto anypony else if she didn't need to. The alicorn straightened up in her seat, taking a deep, steadying breath and putting on a more resolute face. "It's nothing. My apologies. We all came here to discuss the Gala, and that's exactly what we're going to do."

Starswirl and Quill exchanged skeptical and concerned looks. Quill spoke up first. "Your Highness, your problems are our problems. If there's anything we can—"

"No." Celestia firmly tapped her hoof onto the table. "There are some things I need to tackle myself. You have other things to focus your attention on right now, Quill. Whatever I'm dealing with can wait until later. The Gala is important, and I can't afford not to give it my full consideration. So..." she declared, forcing a steadfast smirk. "Let's get the gears turning." She punctuated her attempt to appear eager by taking an enthusiastic bite of her sandwich, only to pause and grimace as the unexpected texture of the soggy toast coated the inside of her mouth. She reluctantly swallowed the bite, then turned to Rosehip. "Could you have the chef's make another sandwich for me? Oh, and I will have that cup of tea."

Rosehip smiled widely, giving a courteous bow before excitedly hurrying off to the kitchen.

"Now then..." Celestia started, clearing her throat. However, even though she seemed to be preparing to make suggestions and comments on the Gala plans, she hesitated with an awkward smile, her ivory cheeks blushing. "Er, remind me what you've worked out so far. I haven't really been paying attention."

With an obliging nod, Quill looked over the notes he'd taken during the conversation. "Well, so far it's mostly been about catering and entertainment. We have a group of classical musicians in mind to provide elegant ambiance for the event. Decorators will need to be hired, as the castle is not yet in a state that I would personally consider 'presentable' to the public. Speaking of which, while we will extend invitations to the citizens of neighboring towns, I would recommend we limit the number of guests. After all, the castle is still under construction and likely won't be finished before the Gala comes around. And given the proposed purpose of the Gala, I don't think we should postpone it; the sooner the better."

Celestia nodded. "Agreed. Though some time will be necessary to spread the news. Perhaps a screening process will also be required to ensure no unseemly sorts are in attendance, though that would likely take some more time."

"We could send soldiers to each town to assess the reputation of those who wish to attend," Starswirl suggested.

Celestia mulled that over with some uncertainty. "Mmm, it was my desire to make the Gala inclusive, though it probably can't be helped. We only have so much space here, and we can't afford to have our guards watching for pickpockets and vandals all night; they'll make the guests uncomfortable. Very well. Preliminary background checks may be necessary."

Quill made a note of that on his scroll. At the same time, Rosehip returned with the princess's sandwich and tea, placing it before her on the table.

"So where does that put us currently?" the princess inquired, taking a sip of her tea.

"We were just about to discuss catering," answered Quill. "My recommendation was—"

Just then, the discussion was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. The three ponies at the table all turned their heads in unison to spot the sheepish face of Sunset Shimmer poking in. Celestia suddenly felt her stomach sink slightly, wondering what was going through her student's head right now. Sunset pensively entered the dining hall, her eyes locked onto Princess Celestia, though, to the alicorn's surprise, there appeared to be no hint of ire in her teal irises.

Maintaining a respectful distance, Sunset finally spoke up, her voice quiet and apologetic. "Um... Are you guys talking about the Grand Galloping Gala?"

Starswirl discreetly glanced at Celestia, though the princess never took her eyes off of Sunset. He cleared his throat and answered his daughter's question with an unassuming smile. "Indeed we are."

There was a brief moment of silence as Sunset and Celestia stared at one another, each one wondering what the other was thinking. Sunset didn't know if Celestia was still mad or not, but she decided to take a chance. A small smile creased her amber lips. "Can I join you?"

Celestia felt her breath come back to her, as though she'd been holding it from the moment Sunset walked in. Seeing the apologetic and genuine smile on her student's face filled her with relief.

"Of course, the more the merrier," Quill declared enthusiastically.

Sunset took a seat next to her father, but her attention remained focused on the princess. She didn't say anything to her, but instead let her smile do the talking for her. And Celestia responded in kind. Nothing needed to be said between them.

Rosehip eagerly approached the new pony at the table. "Something for breakfast, Lady Sunset?"

"Um..." Sunset glanced at the sandwich in front of her teacher. "I'll have what she's having."

Rosehip was about to run off, but was interrupted by the princess.

"That's alright, Rosehip. She can have this one." Celestia passed the plate with the fresh sandwich on it over to Sunset, then took up the one she'd let go cold for herself. "I don't really need two."

Sunset graciously took a bite of the sandwich, the sound of the toast crunching between her teeth more satisfying to Celestia than if she had eaten it herself.

"Sho..." Sunset mumbled with a full mouth, spraying toast crumbs onto the table. "Where are we right now?"

"Catering," Quill informed her.

"Aweshome," Sunset exclaimed, finally swallowing her mouthful. "Cuz I know a great place here in Canterlot that has the best pastries."

As the discussion continued, Celestia once again found herself distracted. However, this time was a little different. She couldn't stop herself from smiling as she absentmindedly watched her student happily engage in the discussion as though nothing had even happened that morning. Perhaps she was better at this whole "mothering" thing than she gave herself credit for.

Chapter 14 - Sun Dance

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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 14: Sun Dance

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Halberd stood outside the door to the royal archives, a pensive look on his face and beads of nervous sweat collecting on his forehead and neck. There were so many times already where he'd tell himself he was going to do it, but just as he'd reach for the door, he would deflect his movements and start pacing apprehensively. He knew this was no time to second guess himself. He'd attempted this a few times already, but had always encountered an obstacle that stood in the way, or made him lose his nerve. He couldn't let an opportunity like this pass him by; this could very well be his best chance.

With a deep, shaky breath, Halberd wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then, steeling himself as though he were preparing to charge into battle, he grabbed the handle of the door. Contrary to the vigor with which he grabbed it, Halberd opened the door slowly and cautiously, careful not to let the hinges make a sound. He discreetly poked his head inside, surveying the room.

The royal archives of Canterlot Castle were leagues above what they had at the Castle of the Two Sisters. The room was enormous, perhaps even larger than your run-of-the-mill public library. The bookshelves lining the walls and forming the aisles reached up to the height of a two-story house, and above that still were catwalks that stretched overhead, granting access to even more bookshelves. However, despite the size and number of shelves, the number of books was comparatively low, as only the books from the old castle had been cataloged, and those didn't even take up half of the shelves at ground level. It was likely that the princesses had the royal archives built to be so immense in anticipation of expanding their collection of tomes.

However, it was not the books that Halberd was concerned with. Rather it was the pony sitting at one of the many reading tables near the entrance: Starswirl.

The bearded unicorn sat with his back to the door, embroiled in his research. He was studying a book of some description while also, somehow simultaneously, taking notes of his own on a scroll. He hadn't noticed the pair of eyes observing him from the door.

Halberd took another deep breath, stood up straight, and fully entered the room. He wasn't able to entirely push back the nervousness in his expression, but he couldn't risk not doing this now. "Mr. Starswirl, sir?"

Starswirl glanced over his shoulder. He flashed a pleasantly surprised grin at the pegasus. "Oh, Halberd. Good afternoon. I didn't hear you come in. How's the leg?"

Halberd glanced back at his right hind leg, a large patch of gauze still adhered over his injury and partially obscuring his cutie mark. "It's getting better, but it still hurts to put pressure on it."

Starswirl chuckled. "Then you're lucky, aren't you?"

The younger stallion raised an eyebrow. "I am?"

"Yes, because as long as you have that injury, you don't have to work security at the Grand Galloping Gala. You can enjoy it as a guest like the rest of us."

Halberd cleared his throat. "A-Actually, that's sort of why I came here, Mr. Starswirl, sir."

Starswirl cast him an amicable grin. "Now, now, there's no need for such formalities around me, son. Just 'Starswirl' is fine."

Halberd was reluctant. "I... I think it would be in poor form for a pony of my station to speak so casually with a superior."

"'Superior'?" Starswirl laughed boisterously and shook his head. "My boy, we both work for the princess. As far as I'm concerned, we are colleagues of equal standing, regardless of age or experience. And besides, you act rather casually around my daughter, and she's Princess Celestia personal protégé."

Halberd's silver cheeks suddenly flushed red at the mention of Sunset. "A-Actually, that's sort of why I came here."

"You just said that, son. But you said it was about the Gala."

"I-It's both... Sir—I-I mean, Mr. Starswi—I-I mean, Starswirl!"

As amusing as it was to watch the kid trip over his words, admittedly, Starswirl was getting a touch impatient. Either way, though, he had a feeling he knew what this was about. "Come on, lad, out with it."

Halberd inhaled a breath through his nostrils, letting it out slowly before looking Starswirl dead in the eyes with utmost seriousness. "I would like to request your permission to ask Sunset Shimmer to the Grand Galloping Gala."

Starswirl blinked, his silence causing Halberd's resolute expression so contort to an awkward grimace as he nervously broke eye contact. "Permission? That's what you came here for?"

Halberd nodded.

"Why in Equestria would you think you needed my permission to do such a thing?"

"B-Because you're her father," the pegasus stammered. "I-I just thought it was the respectable thing to do."

Starswirl gave the young stallion a sympathetic smile. "As much as I appreciate the intent, it's ultimately unnecessary. Sunset is the one you need ask, not me. For what good would my permission be if she turned you down?"

Halberd gulped. "Y-You think she'll say no?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to plant any doubts in your mind. But, we won't know for sure until you ask her, right?"

Halberd let out yet another sigh—his lungs were getting quite a workout this afternoon. "Yeah... Sorry. I'm a little nervous if you couldn't tell."

"Hadn't noticed," Starswirl replied with a sarcastic chuckle. "But if my permission is really that important to you, then you have it."

A wave of relief washed over the pegasus. "Really? That was a little easier than I expected. I thought you'd put up at least some resistance. You know, to protect your daughter and all."

"Protect her from what? You?" Starswirl laughed. "No offense, my boy, but I don't think you're any threat to my little girl. If anything, you might actually be a good influence on her. Now, hurry along and find Sunset. I'll be disappointed if you put it off any longer."

Halberd gave an instinctive salute at the command. "Yes, Sir." And with that, he performed an about face and left the royal archives once more.

With renewed confidence, Halberd marched through the halls of Canterlot Castle with purpose. He already knew where Sunset was. He'd gone over all of this with his brother early that day, and Lance agreed to keep Sunset busy while he talked to Starswirl.

And sure enough, the two of them were still hanging around the castle's entrance, Sunset with a pair of saddlebags on her back. Lance kept her occupied by discussing the Grand Galloping Gala, as Sunset was helping to plan the event and Lance was being appointed head of security for the evening. But, once Lance saw his little brother approaching with a perky smile on his face, he knew it was time to put an abrupt end to the conversation.

"Anyway, I'm sure we got this covered, Sunset," Lance assured her dismissively. "I'll make sure the royal guard is extremely vigilant."

"You guys are free to mingle, too, you know," Sunset told him. "But I guess I'll leave that up to you."

Lance nodded, bowing to her in a rather exaggerated fashion, which was an unusually formal gesture for him to give her. "Whatever you say, m'lady. But I don't wanna hold you up any longer. You've got errands to run, right?"

"Oh, right! Heh, almost forgot. Thanks for reminding me. I can get distracted pretty easily with the plans and stuff—"

Lance brusquely cleared his throat to interrupt her.

Sunset straightened up, nodding more seriously. "Right, sorry."

"But before you go, don't you think it would be nice to have some help?" Lance suggested.

The amber mare quirked an eyebrow. "I don't think it would be good idea for you to leave your post to help me, Lance."

Lance simply tilted his head to the side, directing her attention to the silver pegasus standing nearby.

"Oh, hey, Hal. Didn't see you there," Sunset greeted cheerily.

"I, uh... I hear you need help with something," Halberd said meekly, but with a friendly smile.

"Well, it's not like I need help," she responded, lolling her head back and forth. "But if you wanna tag along, I'm not going to stop you."

"Alright, then get to it," Lance commanded, giving his brother a firm and impatient slap on the back. Halberd staggered forward a few steps, getting him moving along while Sunset followed alongside him. "And don't come back until all your errands are done. The Gala's tomorrow night after all."

Sunset gave him a wave as she and Halberd made for the castle's outer gate.

Despite Halberd's intentions, the two of them were pretty quiet at first, but once Sunset passed through the gate, she realized why. She glanced over her shoulder to find that Halberd was lagging behind a bit, so she stopped to let him catch up, noticing the slight limp he had.

"Sorry," she apologized with a sympathetic smile. "I guess your leg's still bothering you, huh? I'll try to slow down so you can keep up."

"It's alright," he assured her with a smile of his own as they continued on their way into the city. "I know you're excited about the Gala, so I can't blame you for being a little impatient. I guess you're looking forward to a night of quiet elegance and sophistication."

"Eh, I'm not really that kind of girl. Fancy parties aren't really my thing." Her expression suddenly became more serious. "But the Gala is still important to me."

"How so?" Halberd inquired curiously.

"Princess Celestia said that the whole purpose of the Gala is to help reassure the people of Equestria that everything is going to be okay, even after what happened to Princess Luna. To put it in more broad terms, it's about putting the past behind us."

Halberd saw the somber, regretful look on his best friend's face, and had a feeling he knew what she was getting at.

"Princess Celestia and I haven't exactly been getting along great lately, and while I don't think my own actions are entirely unjustified, I do feel bad about what she's been going through and the extra stress my behavior has put on her."

"So you wanna use the Gala as a means to make amends with the princess," Halberd inferred.

Sunset let out a solemn sigh, speaking barely above a whisper. "I just want things to go back to the way they used to be... Everypony was happier before all this stuff with Nightmare Moon, and I can't help but feel a little responsible for it. The Summer Sun Celebration was the straw that broke the camel's back."

"I'd tell you that it's not your fault, but I have a feeling you've been told that already."

"The princess has been talking a lot about responsibility lately. So maybe it's my responsibility to get things back on track. If she's upset that I'm practicing my magic on my own, then I should do everything in my power to help us push forward so that she can get back to helping me with my training." She smiled at Halberd again. "I think that'd be the best thing for both of us, wouldn't you say?"

Halberd smiled back. "I can't disagree."

By now, Sunset and Halberd had found themselves amongst the hustle and bustle of the Canterlot streets. Posters had been affixed to streetlights and store windows advertising the Grand Galloping Gala, and it was likely that the citizens of the capitol were preparing for the event. Since the Gala was being hosted inside the castle, obviously it would be unrealistic to think everypony in Canterlot could attend. So, to compensate, it appeared that many people were preparing the city itself as a sort of auxiliary locale for those who couldn't get into the party itself, or to give visitors a taste of the capitol's goods and services. The Gala might inadvertently be a boon for Canterlot's tourism.

"Alright," Sunset said as she removed a note from her saddlebags. "First item on the agenda: catering. I've gotta meet with the caterers to see how meal plans for the evening are coming along." She looked to Halberd. "So, should we tag-team these errands, or divide and conquer?"

Halberd simply stared at her for a moment in silence, eliciting a puzzled look from the mare. He couldn't forget the reason he came along with her. If she got too distracted with these errands, he might never get the chance to ask her. He'd let too many opportunities slip away from him already. It was time to man up and just do it. "Um, actually, Sunset... Before we get started, there's something important I need to ask you."

Sunset tilted her head in curiosity. "What's up?"

Halberd swallowed the nervous lump in his throat. "Will you... accompany me to the Gala tomorrow night?"

Sunset simply raised an eyebrow. "What kind of question is that?"

The pegasus suddenly felt his confidence falter.

She gave him a playful smirk. "You say that like I wasn't planning on going. We're both going to the Gala, right? Who cares who we go there with? I mean, I know you're not going to be on duty or anything, but it's not like you need an escort."

Halberd could only stare at her in dejected bewilderment. There was a time when he might have considered Sunset's obliviousness a cute quirk, a glimmer of childhood innocence. But the more time went on, the more painful it became for him. She likely didn't realize it herself—rather, he knew she didn't realize it—but every time this sort of thing happened, it was like he was getting punched in the heart. It was really starting to look more and more like she just wasn't interested in romance on any level. Maybe it was his own fault for wording it the way he did; his request was too vague, so she'd interpreted it incorrectly. But at this point, he was ready to just give up. Maybe it was about time to accept the fact that he'd been relegated to being "just a friend" a long time ago.

"Right, stupid question..." Halberd murmured dejectedly. "Let's, uh... Divide and conquer, I guess..."

"Okay." Sunset tore her list down the middle, passing one half to Halberd. "We'll get this done quicker so we can help with things back at the castle."

And with that, she hurried off toward a nearby restaurant, leaving Halberd alone with his half of the list and what little was left of his self-esteem.

***** ***** *****

Lance was admittedly getting a little impatient. He couldn't remain still at his post and instead paced back and forth in front of the castle's grand entrance. Luckily Scabbard was stationed elsewhere that day, otherwise the unicorn guard would have likely gotten a bit irritated by his comrade's fidgeting. But Lance couldn't help it; he needed to know how things were going between Halberd and Sunset, and the wait was killing him.

But, thankfully, he'd have to wait no longer. A pair of figures—amber and silver—entered through the unfinished outer gate, and an anxious grin spread across Lance's face. He wanted to run out and meet them halfway, but resisted the urge to abandon his post.

Sunset skipped up the short stairway to the entrance with a chipper smile, ignoring Lance for the most part and heading inside. However, in stark contrast, Halberd sauntered up the steps lethargically, and with a distant, apathetic look in his eyes.

Halberd was about to just walk right by Lance without a second look as Sunset had, but Lance wasn't about to let him go past without finding out what happened between the two of them. The older brother stepped in front of Halberd to cut him off.

"So? How'd it go?" Lance asked impatiently.

Halberd gave his brother a long, listless stare. "She said no..." he answered quietly and dismissively as he brushed past his brother.

Halberd felt a hoof grab him firmly by the shoulder, turning him back around forcefullly. Lance was giving him a rather skeptical and stern glower.

"Like hay she did. You wussed out again, didn't you?"

With an aggravated scowl, Halberd pushed his brother's hoof away. "Lay off," he hissed as he tried to go on his way again, only to be pulled back once more.

Lance prodded an armored hoof against Halberd's chest. "No, I'm not going to 'lay off.' What's wrong with you? You keep coming up with excuses to put it off, and you're only hurting yourself like that."

"Look, it's not my fault that things keep getting in the way, like Luna interrupting us, or turning into Nightmare Moon," Halberd argued defensively.

"Yeah? Well, Luna's not around for you to blame anymore, so what's your excuse this time?" Lance challenged.

Halberd just stared straight into Lance's judgmental eyes with an argumentative glare, though the glimmer of pain was visible behind his defensive attitude. "She's not interested."

"You didn't ask her. I know you didn't," Lance countered.

"I did! I asked her, I swear! I mean, I probably could have made it a little more clear, but anypony with common sense should've been able to tell that I was asking her on a date!"

"So, what, you're saying she's stupid? That's your excuse?"

"No, obviously not! She's oblivious to it, that's all!"

"I refuse to believe that!" Lance argued with another firm prod. "She's just waiting for you to make a move! All you need to do is ask her!"

"Well, you're obviously wrong!" Halberd shouted in his brother's face. "We've been friends since the day we met! If she hasn't noticed by now the way I look at her, the way I care about her—the way I feel about her—then she clearly doesn't feel the same way.

"Then show her how you feel! If she can't see it, do something to make her see it!"

"It's not as simple as that! Anything I could do, she'd just be blind to it! You don't realize just how painful it is for me to try, only to have her ignore me. So, I'm done."

Lance stared at him, vexed by his declaration. "What?"

"I'm done. I'm done chasing after her. Like you said, I'm only hurting myself."

Lance let out a low growl at his brother's defeatist attitude, but kept his tone low. "So you're giving up, just like that? Then why bother coming back here with her? Why not slink back home with your tail between your legs?"

"Because even if she isn't interested in me romantically, she's still my friend. She's not some goal for me to achieve, like you seem to be making her out to be. She's a person."

Lance grit his teeth at the accusation. "Watch it. I care about her, too, you know. I'm just as invested in this whole thing as you are—or at least I thought I was. Obviously you don't care as much as you say you do. I've been behind you the whole way, giving you advice and encouragement, and now you're just gonna quit?"

"I don't even know why I'm taking advice from a guy who can't hold a girlfriend for more than a couple months!"

"Hey! At least I'm not too much of coward to ask a girl out! Thinking about it now, I can't blame Sunset for not being interested in somepony who doesn't know how to express his feelings. Honestly, I don't know how somepony with no conviction managed to become a royal guard in first place."

Halberd let out an insulted snarl and violently shoved Lance back, his hoof clanking loudly against the golden armor. Lance only staggered backward, glaring icily back at his brother. Halberd took a step back, expecting Lance to retaliate, but he didn't budge.

"Don't come to me looking for anymore advice," Lance growled. "Figure it out for yourself. If you're so willing to just give up, then why should I put myself out trying to help you?"

Lance turned his back on Halberd, returning to his post by the door and planting the shaft of his spear forcefully onto the stone step. Halberd sneered at the back of his brother's head before turning his own back on him and heading into the castle to rejoin Sunset.

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer eyed herself up in a standing mirror, analyzing every aspect of her look. She wasn't normally one to put much stock in outward appearances, but for tonight, she was willing to put some effort in. That said, she knew little about making oneself presentable for formal occasions—one of the few things that Princess Celestia knew that she had little interest in—so the princess had recommended some ponies to help her find a style fit for the Grand Galloping Gala.

Three ponies had been sent to Sunset's tower to help her prepare for the evening: a seamstress, a hair stylist, and a makeup artist. The latter of the three had little work to do, both due to Sunset's own natural, youthful beauty, and her client's aversion to makeup in general. The stylist, similarly, believed that Sunset's mane matched her character to a T, but its wild and fiery nature may not match the serene atmosphere of a formal ball. As such, he had simply styled Sunset's mane into a wavy ponytail that spiraled down over her shoulder.

But it was the seamstress that had outdone herself. As expected of the mare that Princess Celestia commissioned for all of her formal wear, the seamstress had put together an exquisite number for Sunset Shimmer. The dress was a flawless white with a silky sheen, and the hem was elaborately designed with identical reds and yellows to Sunset's mane. Sunset didn't exactly have an eye for fashion and never really had the ego to boast about her natural good looks, but as she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she couldn't help but grin at the mare staring back at her.

"Are you satisfied, Lady Sunset?" asked the seamstress for the three ponies.

"Absolutely!" Sunset exclaimed. "I can't wait to get down to the ballroom and show Princess Celestia."

"Run on ahead, darling," the flamboyant stylist insisted with a smile. "We'll clean everything up here."

Sunset gave a nod, but before heading toward the stairs she stopped at her balcony, stepping outside in her new dress.

The night air couldn't have felt more refreshing. Of course, the weather ponies had made sure that the conditions of this evening were perfect at the request of the princess, but it still felt unnaturally calm. What little breeze there was blew through Sunset's ponytail, swaying it gently as she stared out over Canterlot.

Despite the evening hours, the capitol was aglow with light. With the Gala underway, people from all over Equestria had come to enjoy the event, and Canterlot was buzzing with activity as a result. Sunset imagined the atmosphere within the castle would be much more subdued, but a part of her also wanted to check out what was happening in town. But that could wait until later.

If there was one thing that seemed out of place on this otherwise perfect evening, it was the moon. Sunset's smile faded briefly when she looked up at it. Given the intention behind the Gala, it seemed counter-intuitive to have the silhouette of Nightmare Moon staring down upon them all night. Princess Celestia had considered leaving it obscured behind the horizon for the night, but opted against it as she believed doing so would be disrespectful to her sister. Nevertheless, the light that it cast over Equestria was just as soft and calming as it always was.

Having lollygagged long enough, Sunset hurried back inside and down the stairs of her tower. While she was eager to show off her new look to the princess, she wanted to stop by her father's room first so they could arrive at the Gala together. A quick trek to the staff wing of the castle and Sunset found her father's room, knocking on the door, but not waiting for a response before entering.

"Dad? You ready yet?"

"Just about, dear."

"Then let's get going. I don't want to wait any—" Sunset cut herself off suddenly once she laid eyes on her father—or rather, what he was wearing.

Starswirl was wearing a cloak in two shades of blue, decorated with many golden stars and crescent moons. He also wore a matching pointed hat with a similar design, the front of the round brim upturned by his horn. But perhaps most offensively were the many, many golden bells affixed to the outfit. The hem of the cloak was lined with them, and so was the top of the hat's brim; more still hung down from the brim, swaying whenever he moved his head. There was even a larger bell hanging from the point of the hat that caused it to sag slightly. Starswirl turned to face his daughter with a proud grin behind his curly beard, the bells on his outfit jingling as he moved.

Sunset could only stare, flabbergasted, mortified, and only a little amused by the sight in front of her. "What... are you wearing?" she asked, her lips fighting between laughter and horror.

"Do you like it? I had it custom made," he stated proudly with a hoof to his breast.

"You look like you're about to go on a quest to fight the dark lord of all evil," Sunset mocked with a smirk.

Starswirl took umbrage with the childish comparison, turning his nose up at the insult. "I'll have you know that many great scholars in Equestrian history wore very similar ensembles. I'm simply following tradition."

"So, what, you're some 'great, royal sorcerer' now or something? You got a fancy name picked out yet, like... 'Starswirl the Bearded'?" Sunset laughed openly.

Starswirl stroked his prized facial hair thoughtfully. "You mock me, but I think I quite like the sound of that."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Could you at least lose the bells? People might think somepony brought their cat to the Gala."

"I'll consider it," he answered dismissively. He then took the time to look over her own attire for the evening, a soft, prideful smile showing through his beard. "But I must say, Sunset, you look positively stunning tonight. I suspect you'll be turning quite a few heads, and not just because you're the princess's student."

Sunset blushed bashfully, but couldn't keep the grin off her face. "Thanks, Dad. The people Princess Celestia hired to fix me up really knew what they were doing."

"I would think so. Only the very best for the princess, and by extension, you."

"Well, anyway, I was going to wait for you so we could get there together, but I'm, uh... gonna go on ahead," she informed him with a stifled snort. "I'm not sure I wanna be associated with you tonight. But don't worry, I'll let you know if I meet a warrior, a rogue, and a cleric to join your merry band of adventurers."

Starswirl grimaced slightly as he listened to his daughter laughing the whole way down the hall, but he didn't let it get to him.

As entertaining as that was, Sunset quickly put her father's questionable fashion sense to the side. She was much too eager to arrive at the Gala proper and join Princess Celestia. She first headed for the castle's entrance, as guests were not being guided through the front doors. The ballroom was located on the side of the castle overlooking Canterlot Valley, so soldiers were directing attendees around the outside of the castle to a side entrance than lead straight into the ballroom. And sure enough, when Sunset stepped outside, there was already a line of elegantly dressed mares and stallions making their way there. Sunset followed suit, though her pace was notably faster on account of her enthusiasm, earning her a few odd looks from the visiting ponies as she zigged and zagged her way through the crowd.

At the side door to the ballroom, Scabbard was assessing each guest as they entered. As was discussed during the Gala planning meetings, all guests who would be permitted into the castle had undergone brief checks and approvals and had their names written down, a list that Scabbard was checking with each visitor that approached. Of course, he had no need to check the list when an exuberant, amber unicorn trotted up to him.

Scabbard gave Sunset a polite smile. "Good evening, Sunset. You're looking lovely tonight, if I may say."

"Why, thank you, kind sir," Sunset responded in a voice of mock sophistication, holding her nose up excessively high.

He gestured for her to head inside and she did just that.

Despite the sheer number of people in the ballroom and still yet to arrive, the space was more than accommodating. The ballroom was practically as big as the throne room, but gave off more of an air of elegance as opposed to grandeur. A statue of a mare sat at one end of the room opposite the door in front of a set of large, curved windows that gave a clear and breathtaking view of Canterlot Valley below. To the right of the entrance was a fancy, carpeted stairway that split at the wall, leading off to two separate doors. The left wall was almost entirely comprised of glass, with multiple sets of doors that lead outside. These doors were kept open as there were guests going in and out to enjoy the night atmosphere in the gardens. A stage had been set up in one of the corners of the ballroom, and a four-pony ensemble of a cellist, pianist, tuba player, and a harpist were providing sophisticated ambiance for the Gala goers.

Finally, there were many small tables placed about the room, though not in the way; places for people to sit and chat or enjoy the food on offer, of which there was much. Most of the catering consisted of hors d'oeuvres and dessert pastries, with royal servers making the rounds with silver platters to offer morsels to the conversing guests. But for anypony who wanted to prepare a plate of their own, a long table with an assortment of delectable, bite-sized snacks was available, even featuring a chocolate fondue fountain.

Sunset was grinning ear to ear as she looked around the ballroom. As much as she insisted that she wasn't a particularly fancy or sophisticated individual, she couldn't help but feel comfortable at the event. A few guests even stared at her from a respectful distance as they talked; no doubt word had spread of Princess Celestia's protégé, and it seemed some people were recognizing her based solely on word of mouth. But she paid it no mind. When it came right down to it, the guests didn't matter to Sunset. This night was about Celestia and the kingdom as a whole, and was Sunset's opportunity to properly patch things up with her mentor. And speaking of whom, Sunset noted that the princess was not present as of yet. However, she did spot one familiar face amongst the crowd: a silver pegasus who looked like he was trying to blend into the marble walls.

"Hal! Over here!" Sunset called out, waving her hoof and earning a few raised eyebrows from the guests.

Halberd perked up immediately at the sound of Sunset's voice, making his way over to her and carefully avoiding bumping shoulders with any of the other guests. "Thank goodness you're finally here," he said with an embarrassed grin. "You have no idea how out of place I feel right now."

Sunset looked over the suit he was wearing. It wasn't anything elaborate—just a run-of-the-mill, black suit. "How come you didn't wear your armor? I thought soldiers usually dress in uniform for formal occasions." She glanced around at all the other soldiers present, stationed in various locations around the ballroom and keeping a vigilant—but not unwelcoming—eye on the guests.

"I'm not on duty, so I didn't see the point," Halberd answered. "Besides, in my condition, if something were to happen, I wouldn't be able to do much, so I don't want to mislead anypony here."

Sunset shrugged. "That's fine. You look pretty spiffy in that suit anyway."

Halberd blushed at the compliment. "Uh, thanks." He then found his own eyes wandering over Sunset's attire—perhaps lingering a bit too long. "And you look... radiant tonight, too."

"Thanks. You can thank Princess Celestia for that. She arranged all this," she said, bouncing her curly ponytail with a hoof. "If I had had to prepare myself for this, I'd probably end up looking like a clown."

"Well, you'd be the most beautiful clown here." Halberd suddenly froze when he said that, not realizing what he was saying before it came out of his mouth. He needed to remember that he had given up on vying for her affection. She was a friend, and nothing more. But despite his genuine compliment, Sunset let out a snort in amusement.

"Yeah, I guess by default I would be," she laughed.

Halberd forced an awkward smile, but let out a sigh. As oblivious as ever...

Sunset's ears suddenly perked up. She could have sworn she'd just heard the sound of bells jingling, and rolled her eyes with a groan. Sure enough, when she turned around she spotted a pointed hat sticking up above the crowd, the golden bell hanging off its tip swaying back and forth as it made its way over to her and Halberd.

"Good evening, Halberd," Starswirl greeted the pegasus with a chipper grin, oblivious to the looks he was getting from the guests.

Halberd, too, was a bit caught off guard by Starswirl's getup. "Uh, you, too, Mr. Sta—er, Starswirl."

"Dad, I thought you said you were gonna take off the bells," Sunset reprimanded him under her breath.

"I said I'd 'consider it.' And I did remove some of them."

Sunset noted that the only ones he'd removed were the ones that had been hanging underneath the brim of his hat. "That's not what I—you know what? Forget it."

Starswirl glanced around, looking for something. "Has the princess not arrived yet?"

"Scabbard said she'd make her entrance when all the guests had arrived," Halberd told him.

The bearded unicorn glanced back at the entrance. Scabbard appeared to have just let the final guest in, as the line of ponies had finally stopped flowing into the ballroom. "Then I suspect she'll be showing up any minute."

As if on cue, one of the doorways at the top of the stairs opened and a hush fell over the room. A pair of stallions—Quill, in a snappy tuxedo, and Lance in his golden armor—entered the ballroom. While Lance remained at the door, Quill stepped down to where the branching stairs met, overlooking the room with a barely-contained, ecstatic smile. The mustachioed stallion straightened himself up and cleared his throat.

"Presenting Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia!"

Quill gestured to the door as the princess made her entrance. Celestia looked out over the crowd with a motherly smile as she slowly descended the stairs to where Quill stood, her wings spread majestically and her flowing, purple and gold dress carrying elegantly behind her. While she wore most of her usual regalia—primarily her golden, metal slippers and, of course, her iconic, royal tiara—her golden chest piece was absent. Her mane and tail were untouched, however, but it wasn't likely anypony would complain; they were radiant enough without having to be styled. The crowd of ponies all bowed in unison in the princess's presence.

"Fillies and gentlecolts, esteemed guests," Celestia started, her voice soothing and comforting, yet reverberated with authority throughout the ballroom, "it is my honor to welcome you all to the Grand Galloping Gala. Tonight is to be a celebration of this new castle, and a testament to our hardiness as a people to persevere in the face of adversity and strife."

As Celestia gave her speech, Sunset couldn't help but notice that Quill was discreetly mouthing every word along with her. It looked like somepony had written her speech for her.

"With that in mind," the princess continued, "please enjoy the Gala to your hearts' content. Thank you."

With that, the guests gave their ruler a modest applause and went back to their mingling.

"Brief, but effective," Halberd commented with a small grin.

"Everypony came here to have a good time. I like listening to Princess Celestia's speeches, but even I think she can get a bit long winded sometimes," Sunset said with a joking giggle. "Right, Dad?" She turned to her father, but Starswirl wasn't paying attention. He seemed to be staring in the direction of the doors leading out to the gardens, a look of disbelief on his face. "Dad?"

"Oh, er, yes, of course, sweetheart," he responded absentmindedly. "Er, if you'll excuse me..." And that was all he said before disappearing into the crowd.

Sunset raised an eyebrow at her father's peculiar behavior, but a voice kept her from chasing after him for answers.

"I see Cross-Stitch did a wonderful job with your dress, Sunset," said Princess Celestia as she made her way down the steps toward her student and Halberd, Quill and Lance following behind her.

"More than 'wonderful,' it's awesome!" Sunset beamed. "Your dress looks amazing, too, Princess. Oh, and you're looking mighty handsome in that tux, Quill."

Quill adjusted his bow tie proudly. "I try," he stated with mock modesty, too satisfied with how the Gala was turning out to not have a smile on his face.

"So, how are you feeling about tonight, Princess?" Sunset inquired.

"Well, it's hard to say just yet—the night has only just begun. But I have a feeling that, while it may be exhausting by the end, it will wind up being a lot of fun."

As Sunset and Celestia continued their conversation, Halberd and Lance shared a brief glance, but neither of them said a word. Lance had been appointed head of security at the Gala, but was also acting as the princess's personal bodyguard for the night. That being the case, Halberd was going to try and keep clear of Celestia if he could help it. Lance gave his little brother a discreet, judgmental sneer, then looked up at the princess, interrupting her chat with Sunset.

"Your Highness, you said you wanted to mingle and speak to your guests?"

Celestia turned her attention away from her student reluctantly. "Oh, yes, I suppose I should remember why we're doing this." She gave Sunset an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Sunset, I promise I'll make time for us by the end of the night."

Sunset waved her apology off with an understanding grin. "Don't worry about it, we got all night. Keeping all these people happy is your job."

"Indeed. A burden that weighs heavily on one's shoulders after a time," Celestia responded with a sigh, already exhausted by the pure notion of having to converse with all of these ponies in such a relatively short time span. "But, a princess must do what she needs to for the good of her kingdom. Come along, Lance."

Her guard nodded, gave Halberd one more slight scowl, then followed the princess.

"What was that?"

Halberd looked at Sunset. "What?"

"That was a pretty sour look your brother just gave you," she pointed out.

The pegasus grimaced. That she notices? "Uh, yeah, we kinda... had a fight yesterday."

Sunset glanced at Lance across the room, then back to Halberd, as though they were two pieces to a puzzle and she couldn't fit them together. "You two? Fighting? Really? I have a hard time believing that."

"I remember thinking something similar about you and Princess Celestia not long ago," Halberd reminded her.

"Fair enough. What are you two arguing about anyway? Maybe I can help."

Halberd felt his chest tighten a little. As much as he wanted to get over her, he was finding it to be a monumental endeavor. But he had to push through the pain. "No, that's okay. We'll get over it eventually. It's not really something you need to get involved with anyway."

"You sure?"

Halberd nodded.

Sunset paused for a moment, but shrugged. "Alright, if you say so." She looked around, seeing if she could spot her father anywhere, but even his goofy hat was nowhere to be seen. "I'm gonna go see where Dad went. Catch up with you in a bit, okay, Hal?"

"Sure."

Sunset began to weave her way through the crowd. She knew she saw her father headed for the gardens, so that's where she decided to start her search, snatching up a few snacks from the servers along the way and stuffing them into her mouth. She eventually managed to squeeze her way outside where the population of ponies was considerably less dense.

The gardens were illuminated by firefly lanterns hanging from the hedges and trees, and the stone patio leading inside was connected to a wooden platform that extended out onto the grass so the guests' dresses and suits didn't brush with the grass and get stained. More tables with food and drinks were set outside as well, so people had little need to maneuver back and forth into the castle if they were feeling peckish, unless they wanted to see the princess, which may have been a contributing factor to the smaller number of people outside. Even still, it was difficult to walk around without brushing alongside somepony, or outright bumping into them.

Sunset craned her neck up to get a better view of the area. Sure enough, the golden bell hanging off her father's hat shimmered in the light of the fireflies—perhaps the only good thing about his attire: he was easy to find. Sunset squeezed her way further into the crowd to go meet up with him, but paused once she got a clearer view of him.

He wasn't alone. Starswirl was talking to somepony. Despite the dim lighting in the garden