Chapter Twenty Seven - Sunset Shimmer
I looked up as I heard a pony – a light-gray unicorn mare, it seemed – other than the bartender approach my table. Not many ponies had the courage for that, especially while I was drunk. I glanced to the side just to make sure the world hadn’t flipped upside down, and I was unsurprised to find everypony casting furtive glances my way. While I was mildly curious, in this particular case, misery did not love company.
“Go away,” I slurred. I didn’t know what bottle of wine I was on anymore, but it had to be at least the seventh. I sort of remembered casting six sobering spells. Probably. I knew I was seeing double; maybe I was remembering double. Was that a thing?
Eh, whatever. I magicked some more wine into my mouth and swallowed.
Heedless of my warning, I heard the mare sit down across from me. Obvious solution: teleport her away.
Ugh. Whoever this was canceled my magic instead of accepting her fate like a good little filly.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Sunset,” the mare said. Her voice was clear and high; she could be a singer for sure. “I think you’re a little too drunk to risk using that much magic.”
“Shut up. What do you know?” I lifted my head from the table as my voice grew in strength. “I’ve mastered my magic. I can do whatever I want now. I’m not going to flare or nothing.”
“Oh dear, oh dear. You’re a little too far gone for conversation, aren’t you? Would you mind if I sobered you up?”
“I would. Now go awa–”
Before I knew it, there was a trash can in my face, and it appeared just in time to stop me from making a mess all over the table. It was held aloft in a pure white glow of magic, the same glow the mare across from me had at the tip of her horn.
Struggling to remain conscious, I moaned, “Go ahead, dammit.”
Ugh, as soon as I’d said those words, painful clarity returned to me. I went for the bottle immediately.
“Are you feeling any better?”
I finished an especially long drink. “Obviously not. Who are you anyway?”
“Ah yes, please forgive me for not introducing myself earlier, but you were a bit indisposed.” The mare fidgeted with her pale blue mane as she continued. “My name is Crystal. I’m a bit of a jeweler with an interest in famous gemstones.”
“Never heard of you. What do you even want? I’m kind of trying to work the good old brain beach magic.”
A faint smile arose on Crystal that attested to the pity behind it. I scowled in response.
“If your problem were that simple, you would have simply erased those memories with magic. But to answer your question, in my line of work, you have to take an interest in history. With that comes an awareness of a particular pattern. Princess Celestia’s apprentice is dangerous. Princess Celestia’s apprentice is bad news.”
I couldn’t deny there was a certain truth to Crystal’s words. “So what? That’s not news to anypony here. Do you want me out of Manehattan?”
“Oh stars, no! Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t believe danger follows you around. No, I believe you follow danger around. And for that, I am quite grateful.”
It took me a second to believe I’d heard Crystal correctly. I couldn’t remember the last time somepony had simply thanked me for what I do like that. Usually I had to save their life first, or put out a fire, or defeat some terrible beast from the Everfree or Tartarus.
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
“Thank you? Don’t you mean you’re welcome?”
“No.” My voice still wouldn’t rise above a whisper. “Thank you. Ah, but I’m still not sleeping with you.” Not even if she’d come up with the best pickup line possible.
Fighting her giggles, Crystal said, “Oh, is that what this was? I think I have some other approaches. Let’s see… Ah yes. You seem to be trying to drink yourself to death. If you don’t want that life, perhaps you might give it to me?”
“That was the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard.”
“Well if that didn’t work, what if I said I had a customer who’s looking for the greatest gem in history, and you are the crown jewel?”
Heh. “That’s pretty bad, but I don’t think it’s as bad.”
Crystal sighed dramatically, a hoof raised to her head in mock distress. “Oh, whatever will I do now? My heart burns with passion for thee, and no other can sate it.”
I just rolled my eyes.
“As regrettable as it is, I suppose it’s for the best you’ve rejected me. You’re a little too young for my tastes.”
“Too young?” That was absurd. Crystal couldn’t be more than twenty. She might not even be old enough to legally drink. I had to be at least a decade older than her. “Are you a grave robber?”
“No, no,” Crystal said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “I’ve never taken well to adventure. The last – and only – one I went on must have been a hundred years ago. I almost died in the Fortress of Talacon, and I swore off adventures right after.”
A hundred years? “Sunbutt? Is that you?”
Crystal, who may or may not be Celestia, snickered, but she tried to hide it behind her pint of ale.
“I’d heard rumor that there was somepony who dared refer to Princess Celestia as ‘Sunbutt’, but I never imagined it would be true, let alone that it would be you, Sunbutt.”
“Hey! My sun represents magic, not, you know, the sun. It’s different!”
Humming, Crystal tilted her head to the side. “Maybe I didn’t get that sobering spell quite right.”
“I heard that, and I’ll have you know I’m painfully sober right now.”
“Ah, is that so? Then perhaps we should make sure there isn’t some sort of befuddling spell on you.”
“Alright, alright.” This joke of a conversation was running entirely too long. “If you’re not trying to get me to raise my tail, then what do you want?”
“Well, I must admit I could leave now and be happy just with having brought a smile back to your face.”
I was smiling? Oh, I was. No, I couldn’t be smiling; I was supposed to be brooding right now. I made an effort to frown again, but it wasn’t coming naturally anymore.
“But if you wish to know my initial intentions, they’re nothing nefarious. I walked into an anonymous bar in Manehattan, a city oh so far from Canterlot, and found Sunset Shimmer of all ponies. Anypony with half a brain would be curious what terrible fate you were busy protecting the city from. And then I thought I might offer whatever help a pony such as myself could, if you would have it.”
“Are you serious?”
And now that pitying smile was back again.
“You’re not very used to nice ponies, are you? If Canterlot is anything like Manehattan, I can understand that.”
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t find it in me to say anything on the topic. Instead, I asked, “So what are your intentions now?”
Crystal’s smile fell. “Well, now I think your problem is personal. I would be willing to lend a sympathetic ear, if you wished. I wouldn’t mind if you erased my memory of the conversation after either, if you wanted to.”
I wanted to reject the offer on principle alone. I’d made it this far in life with just Celestia; I could make it through this as well. But Celestia wasn’t here, and I’d been through enough of her lectures about facing your problems to know drinking wasn’t a real solution.
Well, there was one thing I could ask for. Call it…testing the waters, perhaps.
“You said you would help,” I began. “Would you be willing to do something for me?”
“I can’t promise you the moon myself” – Crystal’s smile came back – “but I would like to think my answer will be yes.”
“Would you be willing to lend me two-thousand bits?”
Crystal raised an eyebrow. “Princess Celestia didn’t…fire you, did she? Is that even the right word?”
“No, not exactly. I’m” – I searched for the right words, but they weren’t coming – “sort of, kind of running away right now. I usually just bill everything to the treasury, but I want to stay lost.”
“Are you sure you don’t need more?” Crystal asked, glancing at the numerous bottles scattered around me. “I’m pretty sure that isn’t cheap wine.”
“I opened a tab,” I whispered. “As you said, I’m Sunset Shimmer. I’m good for the money.” Or more specifically, Equestria was good for the money. So long as I never made Celestia really, really mad, she’d always be there for me financially.
Crystal opened her mouth to say something but seemed to think better of it, a good call on her part. She’d probably been about to invite me to stay with her. If she had, this conversation would’ve been over.
Instead, Crystal said, “If you’ve never been to Manehattan before, my friends usually recommend the Arabian Palace. It’s on Highland Avenue, not too far from Main Street.”
“I’ve been to Manehattan several times.”
“Well in that case” – Crystal downed the rest of her pint in one big gulp – “I’ll be right back. It’s only a few minutes walk to the bank from here.”
As soon as Crystal turned away to leave, I let myself smile again, silently whispering another thank you.
I walked into a small hotel far from the beaten paths of Manehattan tourism. If two bits could buy me a cherry, two-thousand could buy me all of two hours’ stay in the kind of places I usually patronized. At least here at the homely little Moonlit Inn, I could stretch that into two weeks with enough left over for food.
“One please,” I said to the stallion working the desk. “Duration unknown.”
“Of course, ma’am. It’ll be fifty bits a night. Is that okay?”
“Yes, yes. Just give me the room number.” I’d already scryed the layout of the building, and I just wanted to teleport into bed and die.
“If I could just get a name?”
“Sunset Shimmer,” I replied without thinking. I’d wasted a perfectly good opportunity to let this stallion continue not recognizing me, although who knew how long that would’ve lasted. Maybe it was better this way. They’d have no ‘legal’ grounds to kick me out for giving a false name.
“A-ah, yes. Um…here’s the key. It’s room three-oh-seven.”
And practically at the end of the hall on the top floor, safely out-of-sight, just like always. It happened far too often for it not to be deliberate. But really, who would want a pony who could blow up manticores with her mind sleeping next to them?
Bah! Nopony was skittish around the police or the Royal Guard. But they a pony could at least see coming, unlike me.
Whatever. I wasn’t in the mood to complain. I took the key and teleported into my room, landing on my back on the bed. Even the high-class places didn’t usually ward against teleports. I’d only taken the key at all in case I came back too drunk to work any magic, which after tonight, was an unpleasantly likely possibility.
I raised a hoof into the air and stared at it. Given that I could only see one, I must have done a good job casting a sobering spell after I’d left the bar.
My hoof crashed back onto the bed beside me as I sighed. Maybe I should just run away to Los Pegasus and get a job in special effects. I was far more than just a qualified illusion mistress. Everypony would be begging for me to work with them.
Heh. Yeah, right. They’d be begging whatever disguise I made for myself to work with them, not me, and then maybe not even that. Illusion specialists were usually pretty good at their jobs. They could give me a serious run for my money.
I levitated up the napkin with an address I’d taken from the bar.
After the last one when I was still a teenager the press had had a field day with, I’d sworn off one-night stands completely, let alone the mess I’d stir up if I slept with a mare after establishing I liked stallions. Ugh. I never wanted to see a journalist or a press conference again.
Still, I really needed something right now. A lover, a friend, it didn’t matter. Anything would do. Maybe I should have gone home to Trottingham. It’d been a long time since I’d visited Mom and Dad.
Sigh. No, I couldn’t go home. That’d be the first place Celestia looked for me, if she came looking at all. I didn’t want to be there in either case. I’d have the same problem visiting Cadance or Blueblood.
And like that, the only pony I had left who was willing to listen was this Crystal mare. If she was trying to get a date, she’d certainly pulled all the right levers. Despite my better judgment, I might just agree if she asked.
Ha! What even would my home life be like?
‘Honey, I’m back!’
‘Sunny, you’re home! You’ve been gone for a week.’
‘Yes, well, this brute of a hydra ate a pony, and it took forever to track it down. Can you think of any uses for a three story hydra carcass? I have a few spare heads sitting outside. No? Oh well. I’ll just take them out with the trash.’
I sighed again. The day Sunset Shimmer found a husband was the day Sunbutt would forget to raise the sun in the morning. If I wanted love, I was going to have to run off somewhere with an alias.
And there was no way Crystal was actually interested in me that way anyway. There were plenty of other reasons to be interested in a pony with as much magic as I had and who had the…who had had the ear of Celestia.
But then Crystal had been right. I wasn’t used to nice ponies. Maybe she was just a nice pony. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a chance. Maybe she could even help me feel better. Celestia was always hounding me to play nice and make friends. Maybe I should finally listen.
I pulled the blankets out from beneath me and tucked myself in. Maybe tomorrow everything would be better.
I almost couldn’t believe I was doing this, even as my hoof knocked on the door. I was standing in front of Crystal’s house on Elm Street. It was kind of small and pretty far out of the way, which made me think she had another place within the city proper, but this was the address she’d written down for me to repay her at.
No answer came. Maybe I was too early in the day for this. Or maybe she’d intended for me to just leave the bits in her mailbox or something. Not that I had the money to repay her right now. I was just hoping she was still willing to listen to me complain.
Oh, or maybe she was barely ever here, and she’d thought I’d just give up repaying her eventually. She’d made it pretty clear when she’d come back to the bar that she didn’t care when I repaid her, if ever.
I was about to teleport away after waiting at least two minutes when the door finally opened.
“Oh, Sunset Shimmer,” Crystal began, “what a surprise! Are you going home already? I’d have thought you’d be out and about for a while longer.”
I opened my mouth to tell her why I’d come, but I just couldn’t. Talking about…feelings and stuff was the kind of thing I never did with anypony but Celestia, much less a casual acquaintance. But that was why I could. She was somepony I didn’t know, and when I was done, I’d never come back. It was like talking to a stuffed animal. Or at least, it should have been.
After that horribly long and awkward silence, one in which Crystal had waited very patiently, she asked, “Well, would you like to come in? I’m not quite ready for company yet, so you’ll have to excuse the mess.”
Mess? Oh. I stepped inside and found it littered with cardboard boxes. Just as the door closed, I asked, “Do you want me to come back later? If this is a bad time, that is.”
“Oh no, oh no. Don’t worry about a thing. I moved a season ago, and I’ve been unpacking as I need things. It’s not exactly the most efficient system, but it works.” Sneaking past stacks of boxes, Crystal continued, “If I don’t get lost in this jungle again, the couch should be somewhere in this general direction.”
I knew this was just a delaying tactic, but I asked, “Do you want any help unpacking? I do owe you a favor.”
“Ah, please don’t feel obligated to clean up my mess. I’m sure you’ll more than repay any debt you own me in the future, if not directly.”
To me at least, Crystal’s smile screamed ‘go home’. Or failing that, it at least expected me to go home at some point. I looked away and investigated the nearest box. It was filled with the miscellaneous knickknacks a pony collected during the course of their life.
“I’ve got nothing better to do. I spent the whole morning sitting in the park bored out of my mind, idly staring at the clouds.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose we could start in the kitchen.”
I nodded and followed Crystal through the labyrinth that was her home. Eventually, we came into the kitchen, and I only knew that was the case because we’d gone from carpet flooring to tiles. A firefighter would faint if she walked into this place.
“No offense,” I began, “but how is your house still standing?”
Crystal giggled with a hoof over her mouth. “Just some simple fire proofing spells. If you could find a box with the plates or pans or anything of the like, they all need a quick washing before being put into…well, any cabinet would be fine. Probably one close to the stove would be best.”
“Alright,” I said before setting about my task. It wasn’t difficult to find what I was looking for. A basic light spell and some scrying let me look inside of boxes without bothering to open them.
Then the sink was…somewhere. Oh. What a surprise. It was buried underneath a wall clock. How could I have expected anything else?
“What do you want done with this?”
“Oh, stars!” Crystal took the clock from my magic, blushing furiously. “Please pretend you didn’t see that. I wasn’t going to wash it or anything, and – just please forget about it.”
The clock disappeared in a teleport. From the amount of power put into it, I’d guess it only went upstairs or something. Just far enough for me to forget about, I supposed.
Shrugging, I set about the mindless task of washing dishes. The dish soap was, thankfully, already unpacked and nearby, so I didn’t have to hunt for it. Meanwhile, Crystal set about emptying another box of kitchen towels and various foodstuffs.
I was on my fifth bowl when my brain finally remembered to make conversation. And it only remembered because it was being left to think about whatever it wanted again.
“So did you go to Celestia’s school? Wait, no, you said you’ve never been to Canterlot, right?”
“Oh no,” Crystal replied, “I’ve been there one or two times, but I’ve never lived in Canterlot. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious, I suppose. It’s not often I meet ponies that are skilled enough with magic to teleport.” Or to stop me from teleporting them, if I was remembering yesterday correctly. Her cutie mark was an amethyst – or some other purple gem – so it was pretty unusual she could perform actually useful magic instead of just a small wingful of spells she was naturally good at.
“There’s nothing special about it, if that’s what you’re wondering. No tricks, or private schools, or anything. I’ve just got a lot of practice.”
“That can’t be the whole story,” I said. “If practice made perfect so easily, every unicorn would know how to teleport.”
“Well…I suppose I could admit I was a bit of a study nut when I was young. With an eye for the ‘cool and dangerous’ spells, I’m afraid.”
Ah, the teenage years. I did not remember them fondly. I had far too many self-injuries from flares that Celestia had needed to calm down, let alone all the other problems being her student caused me. At least none of my flares were ever as bad as the first. Celestia didn’t find me until after that one had run its course.
But she did ask me to be her student then, so it wasn’t the worst day ever. Or maybe it was both the best and the worst day ever.
“But you survived though, right?” I asked. Sometimes you never knew. “You’re not some kind of lich or zombie, are you?”
“Does this look like the face of a lich to you?”
I turned my head around to find Crystal doing what was likely her best impression of a sad puppy.
“Heh. No, I suppose not.”
“I did have help with the whole surviving thing though. Another talented spell caster took an interest in me, and she knocked some sense into the foolish youth that was myself, because, and I quote, she wanted somepony halfway intelligent to talk to.”
I snickered before I could stop myself.
“Would you believe that’s how she introduced herself to me?” Crystal added.
“Oh, no way. Are you serious?”
“It’s true! There I was, an impressionable young pony, and out of nowhere, this old hag comes along and just waltzes into my life, telling me I was just smart enough to not be a simpering idiot.”
I glanced in Crystal’s direction and found her with a pot on her head and a fierce look on her face. With an accent I couldn’t quite place, she said, “Come Crystal. Join me, and I can teach you the wonders of the lost magics you so desperately crave. In return, I ask only for loyalty and sanity.”
Wait, that couldn’t be. “Was that supposed to be a Middle Equestrian accent?”
“She sometimes spoke Middle Equestrian,” Crystal said, levitating the pot over to me along with a couple boxes of pots and pans. “In a word, she was a relic.”
Well, I supposed that was what happened to a pony who read up on old magic everypony else had forgotten. Not that I would know anything about that. Celestia never let me into the old and or restricted sections of the Canterlot Archives.
No, I wasn’t going to think about that. Instead, I said, “I’d love to meet this mare. Is she still…”
“Alive?” Crystal finished for me.
“Pft. Yeah, she’s alive. You and I will die long before her, I’m sure. She’s definitely immortal.”
“Well, I wish she’d share her secret. I could go for a little immortality myself. And some more books on magic. And a better teach–” No. I snapped my mouth shut. Not talking about it. Not thinking about it.
Crystal’s hoof touched my withers. “Do you want to talk?”
“Yes.” The word escaped me. “Some other time, but…yes.” I turned on the facet again and pulled some of the water into my dry mouth. “I don’t… For now, could I just listen to you complain about your own teacher?”
“If that’s what you want,” Crystal said, her tone strangely sad. “I suppose I should begin by saying she wasn’t my teacher. She taught me one or two things, of course, but mostly she just wanted somepony to talk to…”
“I’ll be honest, Sunset, I’d never have guessed you knew how to cook.”
Crystal and I sat down at her considerably less messy dinning table with two bowls of my best spaghetti topped with the most unhealthy white sauce I could put together. It was a far cry from my usual recipe, but I didn’t have my usual ingredients.
“I never wanted to learn,” I said before taking my first bite. As I’d suspected, it was a success. “Celestia insisted I cook and clean for myself when I was young. It was supposed to be so I could practice using small, controlled amounts of magic, but I always got the feeling she had some other reason.”
“I can think of a few reasons. How young were you?”
“Young enough that she couldn’t have intended for me to cook for a lover.” I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.”
“Nonsense,” Crystal said through a mouthful of food, her fork dramatically sweeping out an arc like a sword. “Perhaps there really isn’t anything more to it, but your feelings are real. And if you’re worried about it, you must have a reason to be.”
I sighed again. This was the moment. Good food, a homely atmosphere far removed from Canterlot posh, and even good, if new, company: I wasn’t going to find a better time to talk about my problems with anypony.
“Do you promise not to tell any of this to Celestia if she ever comes to ask you?”
“No promises about torture or magical compulsions” – I rolled my eyes – “but anything short of that, I do so promise.”
“I…” Alright, Sunset, this shouldn’t be this hard. Just say it already. And don’t cry. “I’ve… You see… It’s – it’s been nearly thirty years since Celestia made me her student. I’ve worked hard the whole time, I really have, but…”
Seeing me freeze up, Crystal guessed, “But it’s not what you want to do?”
I shook my head. “I love magic. I love what I do. I…love Celestia like my own mother.” I stopped fiddling with my meal and buried my muzzle in a forkful of noodles. Anything to not say the next words.
Crystal, for her part, hummed thoughtfully, no doubt attempting to divine what I wanted to say.
“Ah! You worked hard, but you never did your best? Is that it? You feel like she’s holding you back on purpose?”
I gulped, then nodded.
“To be honest, I think that’s a common problem among ponies that get too close to Princess Celestia.”
That’s not at all what I wanted to hear. Crystal might as well have told me I was being an wangsty teenager.
“Please don’t misunderstand,” Crystal said in a rush. “I don’t mean your problem isn’t real, just that it is not uncommon. Forgive me, I’m thinking of one of those friend of a friend stories, but would you mind if I made a few guesses from something similar?”
“Go ahead,” I finally whispered.
“Alright. Please stop me if I say something wrong.” Crystal stopped to take a drink before continuing. “You are the prized student of Princess Celestia, not quite her equal on paper or in public, but she listens to you, and you listen to her.” She paused a moment and pulled my gaze up to hers. “Except she’s a lot older than you, and ultimately, she has authority over you. You have to do what she says, and she always thinks she knows best. And maybe she does. But if she does, then she won’t explain herself to you, and that hurts.”
Not going to cry. Not going to cry.
“And the public certainly hasn’t made it any easier on you. If I were to summarize in two words what my friends think of you, it would be noble and terrifying. They know you as Equestria’s sword, not as a hurting scholar. Princess Celestia hears about something terrible happening, and soon after, you show up and the problem disappears.
“The real” – Crystal made a pair of air quotes – “newspapers don’t dare to say anything bad about you directly, but there’s always a crazy story out there. Maybe it’s your fault for not behaving like sunshine and rainbows in public to counteract the fierce warrior image you’ve developed, but it shouldn’t have to be your responsibility at all. You’re only helping, after all.”
Crystal bopped me on the nose with a spoon, drawing my gaze back up again. “Of course, PR isn’t really my thing; you’ll have to ask somepony else about that. My question then, is why Princess Celestia is underutilizing you, not how she justifies it. I think if you get that answer, you’ll feel a lot better. It might not stop you from feeling underappreciated by everypony, but it’d be a step in the right direction.”
I sniffed and nodded. I’d already tried that and failed, but at least I knew I wasn’t crazy for trying.
“But,” Crystal began, “you didn’t come here to listen to me play at being a psychologist, did you?”
No, no I hadn’t. Not at all.
“Why don’t you try just talking?” Crystal suggested. “Just talk and see what comes out.”
“I – I don’t know. Maybe. I…I remember rinsing off a teapot. Would you mind if I–”
“I’ll go start the kettle,” Crystal interrupted.
While I was alone, I cleaned myself up and then polished off what little remained of my meal. And then I downed my entire glass of milk for good measure. And then I noticed that my chair was a little tiny bit off balance. Wait, no, it was the floor. I fixed that with a little fancy telekinesis. I could really appreciate the millimeter of difference.
And now I was totally, completely ready to run away.
“I found a–”
“Sunset,” Crystal began, her voice laced with patience, “if you don’t want to talk, that’s perfectly alright.”
“No! Uh, I mean, no, I want to. That’s why I came here. I just – this isn’t something I normally do. It’s hard.”
“Well of course it is.” Crystal settled into a gentle hug from behind me. “Talking about feelings is always hard, and you strike me as a loner, so double that.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. “But you should finish your supper before it gets cold. I can angst at you later.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m supposed to be on a diet anyway.” Pulling me up from my seat by the hoof, Crystal continued, “Why don’t we find a more comfortable spot in the living room?”
I nodded, and just like that, we were off into the unknown maze again. It took us far too long, but eventually we stumbled upon the living room couch and coffee table, which naturally, were very far apart and had to be moved together. Once that was done, the two of us sat down facing each other, our backs supported by the arms of the couch.
“I don’t even know where I should start.” There were too many little things to put together into a coherent narrative. So many tiny slights and concerns that had built up over the years.
“If you want my opinion, I think you should start with whatever is most bothering you right now.”
I bit my lip for the longest time before I finally decided to speak. “You can’t tell anypony about this ever. Celestia would be furious if she ever found out I’d said anything. Are you…comfortable with that?”
“Not terribly, but I know how to keep a secret.”
“Alright.” I took a deep breath to prepare myself. This was just the latest in a long line of hurts, but it was by far the freshest. “Have you heard of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?”
“Of course I have. She’s been all over the press for a whole season now.”
“Yes, yes she has. And all of it’s singing her praises…” No, this wasn’t the time to travel down that gloomy road. “Anyway, when I think of a princess – no, when I think of an alicorn, she’s…not it. She’s charmingly sweet, and her heart is big enough even for me. She’s only half my age, and sometimes I think she’s the only pony in Canterlot who pays attention to me. But she’s not it.”
“You’re jealous?” Crystal said, the skepticism in her voice palpable. “Aren’t you the kind of pony that just works twice as hard when somepony else has something you want?”
The flattery brought a small smile to my face. “I like to think so. But no, I’m not jealous, not exactly.”
No, I wasn’t jealous of Cadance. I was almost certain that alicorn…ism wasn’t in limited supply. Not unless Cadance had lied to me about what had happened to her and Celestia hadn’t given me the runaround. I wanted what Cadance had, but I didn’t want to take it from her any more than I wanted to take it from Celestia.
“Crystal, is it greedy to want ponies to smile at me for once? For them to do what I ask because I’m me, not because I’ll tell Celestia if they don’t? I know I can be kind of jerk, but I’m so tired of always being the bad pony, of always having to ‘know better’. Don’t I deserve something?”
A soft pressure of magic grew on my wither, and I realized I’d gotten to my hooves on the couch.
“Sorry,” I said, collapsing back onto my haunches.
“It’s perfectly alright, Sunset.” Crystal dabbed a hoofkerchief at my eyes, and I took it afterward to blow my nose. “So you asked Princess Celestia to make you an alicorn?”
“No…sort of. I asked her to tell me how I could make myself an alicorn. It’s different. I didn’t just demand to be made one. I was willing to work my horn off to get my wings if I had to.”
“I imagine she didn’t take that well.”
I shook my head. Celestia did not not take things well. I’d only seen her really mad once, and that hadn’t happened yet in the tale.
“She’s been doing the same thing to me for years,” I whispered. “Always I’m not ready yet, or we need to do this first. And when she f-finally agrees to something, there’s always some disaster I have to go stop for her. And t-then I get back two weeks later, and if I haven’t forgotten, she always finds some new excuse. I – I can’t figure out if she even – even cares for me anymore.”
While I tried to get my ragged breath to even out, Crystal said, “You said she’s like a mother to you. I don’t see how she couldn’t feel something in return, even if your relationship is strained at best.”
“I – I k-know. But I can’t feel it any – anymore. Something has come between us, and I can’t…” No, I’ve been down this train of thought far too often. I didn’t want to go down it again. “A-anyway, this time was no different. It was the same old you’re not ready speech, but with words like fate and destiny instead.”
“And then you ran away?”
“No. Not yet. It’s – it gets – no.” It got far worse before I left. “I tried asking again several times. I thought if I could find just the right argument…” Deep breath, Sunset, deep breath. You could do this. “Nothing worked. I got mad. I said things I regret. She got mad. S-stupid Sunbutt s-said things I can only hope she regrets. I – I don’t even know if I’m w-welcome at the castle any–”
I was interrupted by a hug, a nuzzle, and a much needed shoulder to cry on. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do this, but it was too late. I couldn’t even summon up the energy to teleport to some solitary corner of Manehattan.
“Shh… It’ll be alright,” Crystal whispered near my ear, rubbing my back. “I’m sure everything will work out.”
“Y-you d-don’t k-know that!” I whispered, my voice already hoarse.
“I do.” The sheer force Crystal put into those words almost made me believe her.
And then the kettle started whistling.
“Oh stars. Wait just a moment, and I’ll go take that off the stove.”
When Crystal was already halfway to the kitchen, I finally managed to ask, “Can – can I still have the tea?”
“Of course! Be right back.” A half-second later, she asked, “Oh, do you want milk, or sugar, or anything? The tea I have is pretty bitter. Not exactly what a mare would want to feel better after a good cry.”
“Lots – lots of milk, please.”
“Coming right up!”
It only took about a minute before Crystal came back with her tea set, although it felt like an hour. I was still silently sobbing and sniffing all the time when she got around to pouring my cup. I took hold of the milk carton and poured and poured until my tea was nearly white. If Celestia were here, she’d ask me if I wanted any tea with my milk.
But she wasn’t, and if I wanted milk, I’d have milk. I brought the cup to my lips and downed half of it before Crystal had even finished preparing her own. It wasn’t good manners, but at this point I didn’t care. After all, I’d probably already left my mucus on her. How much ruder could I–
“Sunset?” Crystal’s eyes widened. “Sunset, what’s wrong?”
I collapsed half on the table, half on the couch, and half on nothing, breaking who knew what in the process and cutting myself on something sharp. I didn’t hold that tenuous position long, but Crystal caught me before I fell to the floor.
“Sunset, can you say something? Anything? Please?”
I tried, but only wheezing noises came out. I tried to summon my magic to do…I didn’t even know what, but something. But when I did, my head felt like it’d been split in half. My vision blacked out, and then I couldn’t hear Crystal anymore.
Somepony was shaking me.
“Twilight, honey, it’s time to get up. It’s a bright new day out.”
I opened my eyes. Momma was right there. She stopped shaking me.
“Glad to see you’re finally up, Sleepyhead. Miss Smartypants is happy, too.”
Miss Smartypants? Must be my doll. Of course it was. How could I forget?
“I’m making pancakes for breakfast. Go wash your hooves, and then you can come downstairs to eat.”
Wash my hooves? Why? How? Wait, no. I needed clean hooves to eat. Momma said so. And pancakes were delicious.
“Okay. I can do it.”
I stumbled out of bed with Momma helping. She saw me to the bathroom and then left. I stopped on the top of my step stool waiting for water to come. It occurred to me that wanting it wasn’t enough. I had to turn the knob by hoof.
One clumsy washing later, and I was ready to eat. I skipped downstairs and followed my nose into the kitchen. Daddy was waiting there, and Big Brother was already eating.
I licked my lips and hopped up onto my chair. I didn’t even have to get help! A pile of three delicious pancakes was waiting for me. I smiled.
Today was a good day.
I snapped out of the memory, left with the warm, contented feeling of pancakes with my family. My heart was still playing catch up with the panicked demands Sunset’s final moments had placed on it, but it was settling quickly. It didn’t need to do anything. And as my thoughts and emotions returned to my own control, one word occurred to me.
Not, oh, I felt betrayed. Not, oh, that made sense. Not, oh, my life is a lie. Not even, oh, I could use this.
No, it was just an oh. Or maybe it was all of those ohs at once. I really didn’t know. At this point, in this place, right now, it was just one more burden on the heap.
I certainly didn’t remember that last day in that memory – the one I’d woken up for the very first time on – but I must have been at most two or three in the memory, so that wasn’t all that surprising. And the memory had to have been one single sequence of events. It’d followed exactly one pony around: me and Sunset Shimmer.
Whatever had happened to…the – the pony in-between us must have involved a lot of alchemy and memory magic. But she either had been unconscious through it all, or enough damage had been done that even the Æthereal Realm couldn’t summon up those memories. If I were guessing, I’d guess the former.
“Ugh,” I moaned. I could still feel the hole in Sunset’s heart in my own. I’d bet Cadance or Dash wouldn’t have nearly the same level of ache after witnessing that. Magically erased memories were gone, but that didn’t necessarily mean all their consequences were, too.
My brain must’ve run this pain through me for years when I – this body, that was – was still Sunset, and it’d apparently gotten really good at it, as it was now so wonderfully demonstrating. Who knew what effect having a pre-beaten, potentially decade long trail of misery and paranoia in the neurons of my brain had had on me?
Ponyfeathers. The last thing I needed right now was another pony’s depression. If Sun – Celestia. Yes, Celestia. Definitely Celestia. If Celestia had just said, ‘I’m holding you back so you don’t become talented enough to ascend so that you can use The Elements of Harmony to kill or banish my sister for me,’ everything would’ve worked out perfectly between her and Sunset. It’d been as simple as that.
But no, that stupid Su… Ugh, curse alliteration. Celestia had had to be as manipulative as always. She’d had to keep all the information to herself. If she’d just been open with Sunset the way Luna normally was with me, everything would’ve been fixed between them. They would’ve gotten along wonderfully and happily.
But she hadn’t, and then Quartz had come along. I was pretty sure that Crystal mare was him, considering her claimed age and her demonstrated magical abilities. Sunset hadn’t had a clue what he’d been talking about. I’d thought her thoughts. I knew she hadn’t.
I was still trying to process everything I’d heard, but I’d already counted at least three times when he’d brazenly slapped Sunset with the truth. If Celestia had just told her what was going on, Sunset would’ve understood and could’ve…saved herself, maybe? Well, not likely. But if she had, then I – I wouldn’t be…be…
Oh. Oh my. I descended into a fit of laughter, actually falling onto my barrel on the wisps below me and rolling around. ‘If I die, Sunset Shimmer dies with me.’ Chrysalis couldn’t have put it more literally. She must have been laughing her head off in the hive mind. That was too good. Oh wow, I needed to check my cheek, because I’d been slapped pretty hard myself.
I let the giggles run through me for all they were worth, knowing that Sunset’s depression was waiting for me after they finished. If nothing else good came from this, at least I wouldn’t feel bad if I poked into Sunset’s memories for information.
Heh. Heh heh! Speaking of information, my brain had kept going without me and had connected two obscure facts. I suspected I’d just figured out an old puzzle. I raised a hoof into the air the same way I’d seen Sunset do it. In the memory, it’d vaguely felt like something she’d done fairly often, but the gesture wasn’t all that appealing to me.
Anyway, the puzzle. Had I – stars, had Sunset left notes behind about Luna, or ascension, or something along those lines? If she had and if Celestia hadn’t found all of those notes, that would explain how Trixie had managed to ‘find out stuff she wasn’t supposed to’ on Hearth’s Warming Eve all those years ago.
I sighed as I gently lowered my hoof back down. For all that I had to be thankful for her death, and even if I wasn’t reliving her dull pain, sharpened and focused by my own feelings and knowledge, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Sunset.
She’d been Luna’s primary threat, both as a fully trained Flare and the future bearer of the Element of Friendship. It would’ve been foolish not to deal with her somehow. But she couldn’t be trusted. There was no way Luna could ever trust Sunset to not betray her. Sunset loved Celestia. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been hurting.
And – and I still remembered Chrysalis’s words to me when we first met. Luna and I had been desperate. I’d denied it, but…but we had been. We hadn’t had many options, and twenty years earlier, Luna would’ve been alone and without any real hope. I – I knew exactly how that felt; Twilight Sparkle the earth pony had been a horrifyingly real experience. I would’ve done anything to escape that.
“Anything,” I whispered, my hooves reflexively wrapping around me as I shivered.
Luna wasn’t the kind of pony who’d leave a big gaping hole in her plans to escape, and later, to live. I should’ve known she’d lied to me about Sunset in some way when she’d told me she’d given up on finding Sunset. I would’ve if I’d been more thoughtful and caring. If Luna made mistakes, it was my job to catch them. I was the only pony close enough to her to do that.
But I hadn’t. I’d failed Luna. And she’d known and hadn’t said anything, because she couldn’t.
I curled up into a little ball, my tail naturally finding it’s way into my hooves. Luna must’ve been doubly disappointed with me that day. If only I’d given her an excuse to lecture me on that as well.
B-but I couldn’t change the past. All I could do was try to be better in the future. I wanted to be a better friend. I could be a better friend for Luna, too.
And – and even though I couldn’t be her friend – the two of us couldn’t exist together – I could at least understand Sunset’s pain, with or without any biological quirks I had. My own experiences with Celestia weren’t the same as hers, but I could at least wrap my mind around her feelings of abandonment.
And I had all the sympathy in the world for her, too. She’d been in pretty much the same position as Luna a thousand years ago: underappreciated and underloved. She’d even been undermined, too, if in a different way. And their jobs weren’t all that different either. They were both, as Quartz had put it, Equestria’s sword.
Okay, okay. Keep it together, Twilight. Keep it together. This wasn’t nearly as bad as staring death in the face or finding out you’d destroyed half a city. Before I did anything else, I needed to ask myself the all-important question. Did this matter?
It was sad Sunset had died. I probably would’ve gotten along well with her…if it were possible. But there was no way I’d ever go back in time to save her. I wasn’t suicidal. And I was still me. Even if I found I still had a bunch of Sunset’s mannerisms, I wasn’t her; that wouldn’t be any different then picking up habits from Mom or Dad.
Yes, that was a good way to look at it. Definitely. Sunset was something like a mother who’d died in giving birth to me. But unlike most foals who lost their mother in foaling, I had a chance to really get to know Sunset. I still loved Mom and Dad, and they were my parents, but I could at least carry the memory of Sunset for her. It was the least I could do for her.
But the question. I was certainly upset I had to find out about…all this here and now, but beyond that, no, this didn’t matter. I understood why Luna had Sunset assassinated. And even if it felt…weird being made of recycled pony, who was I to complain if Luna had used the leftovers?
Sunset couldn’t complain either. A corpse didn’t have wants or desires to trample on any further.
And it wasn’t like Luna could instead lie back and say, ‘Okay, go ahead and lock me away forever until I go mad and or you decide to kill me.’ That would be insane. Sunset had had to be dealt with. Celestia had already demonstrated she was willing to sentence ponies to extended solitary confinement at that point in Luna’s life. That was worse than just killing a pony; Luna had gotten lucky enough to avoid that torture. Who knew what more Celestia would be willing to do this time, or the next time, or the time after that?
So was I going to drop the matter completely? No, of course not; I’d still have to think about this, and maybe do some literal omphaloskepsis.
Did I have questions for Luna? Yes, I had plenty. The first would be, ‘Were you ever going to tell me?’ I’d be very put out with her if she’d never planned to, even after we’d beaten Celestia. It was kind of obvious this wasn’t one of those things she wanted me to discover myself.
And it wasn’t like I didn’t already know dozens of Luna’s secrets. If I got cornered and were forced to give them all up, it wouldn’t hurt her any more if my secret got out too. She could’ve just told me when I’d unknowingly brought the subject up years ago. She’d been honest and open with me about everything else.
I sighed before slowly clambering to my hooves. I supposed it wasn’t really my secret in the most literal sense. It was about me, but it was more Luna’s and Sunset’s secret than mine. At the heart of the matter, it wasn’t really any of my business. The only difference between my birth any anypony else’s was I didn’t come out of a womb.
How did you even go about telling a filly something like that? ‘Oh, hey, Twilight. I just thought you should know this pony died so you could live.’ I – I supposed that could’ve been really traumatic for filly me.
I just… I just wished Luna would’ve told me. I really, really wished she would’ve told me.
With measured steps, I started the long walk back toward Cadance and Dash.
Still, even though I really needed to talk with Luna, this didn’t change my overall goals at all. I still needed to help Luna; I still needed to escape Celestia with Dash; I still needed to talk to Cadance. I’d just traded a little bit of difficulty from the second for a lot in the last. That was all.
So yes, I was Twilight Sparkle; I had no looming identity crisis. Even Cadance recognized me as my own pony when she’d first met me.
I took a long breath as I stopped in front of the first of Sunset’s many memories on display. And naturally, given my luck, the window depicted a cozy, hilltop picnic. What I assumed must be Sunset’s parents were sitting side by side, an adorable filly Sunset tucked in-between them as they watched the sunset, a…a half-eaten butterscotch cookie hovering near Sunset’s mouth.
Unable to stop myself, I whimpered as I reached out with a hoof. This was going to hurt.