The Sun Also Sets

by SaddlesoapOpera

Chapter 1: You Can't Go Home Again


By Saddlesoap Opera

Sunset Shimmer swept her fingers across the polished marble of the statue’s plinth and watched ripples of warm, gleaming magic distort her reflection. She took a breath.

“Are you sure about this?” Twilight Sparkle asked from behind her. “I feel like this is… like you’re only doing this because of me.” She looked down and fidgeted. Her thick glasses slid lower on her nose.

Sunset turned away from the portal for a moment and faced her anxious new friend. She put her hands on Twilight’s shoulders and offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

“It’s not you. Well, not just you. It’s the other Twilight. And me. And everypo—” She caught herself. “Everybody else Celestia has messed with. You never would have been through all that trouble if She hadn’t treated me the way She did. None of us would.”

Twilight pushed her glasses back into place with a finger. “But… you also never would have made all your friends here, right? And, uh… n-neither would I.”

Sunset sighed. “You’re right. And I wouldn’t trade you all for anything. But that still doesn’t excuse Her. You can’t imagine the power She has, Twilight. More than everything we unleashed at the Games. You can feel it when She walks into a room, even with your back turned. It’s like dawn breaking. The air gets warmer around Her. You can feel it on your hide. On your Cutie Marks. In your horn. Do you understand?”

Twilight's eyes were supportive, but her brows knitted in confusion. “Um… not really?”

Sunset released Twilight. “Ah. Right. I guess not.” She cleared her throat. “The point is, She can’t keep throwing Her students into crazy situations just because She can’t be bothered to fix them Herself. She can’t keep risking our lives on a whim. Before me, there was Stellar Sheen. Moonbeam Glow. Secret Fire. And after I left, Equestria’s Twilight Sparkle. And now Twilight is a Princess, one of four, and still so busy doing all the dirty work that she couldn’t even answer a letter! It’s… IT’S NOT FAIR!”

Twilight cringed back, throwing her hands up.

Sunset’s anger drained away and left her sagging in its wake.

“I’m sorry. But I have to do this. Twilight mentioned the mirror is back in Canterlot for some scholars to study it, so there'll never be a better time. Even if I stay here with all of you forever, I can’t let this go on. Twilight deserves better than this. We all do.”

Sunset pulled Twilight into a hug, and then let go to turn around and stride toward the portal with firm resolve.

• • • • •

The world coiled like a corkscrew until the twisting hub of the universe reached out, touched Sunset’s bare brow, and stuck there. There was a fiery splash and a chilling crackle, and she stumbled out of the looking glass and fell down onto all fours.

Her unshod hooves skidded and clattered on the ancient polished stone as she whipped a tail she’d forgotten she had and struggled to unclench fists that were no longer there. Her ears pinned back, her hide twitched, and then the wash of dizzyingly familiar scents and sounds drowned under the tidal-wave return of her sixth sense.


Sunset faltered and collapsed. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the glare of magic. Power soaked through every brick and hummed in every breath. She gritted her teeth as her horn ignited, and nearby carpets and tapestries and statuary all glowed pale green and shuddered apace with her pounding heart.

The Unicorn shook her head side to side and groaned under the weight of magical theory and equations surging through her mind. Her Cutie Marks throbbed on her flanks, calling forth concepts and castings that had been lost in a numbed fog in that hornless, markless world of fingers and toes, save for those special moments of triumph when the lifeblood of Equestria had welled up like a geyser…

The double doors to the room burst open, and a pair of armoured Pegasus stallions galloped inside.

“Halt!” the white one on the left barked. “Who goes there?”

Sunset tensed up and drew her limbs in tight, all at once acutely aware of her unclothed body. The glow on the fixtures stilled and faded out.

“I… I…”

Her voice felt clumsy. Her tongue too long, her lips too loose. She silently cursed herself; she’d waited far too long.

She took a slow, deep breath, and then carefully got to her hooves and faced the guards.

“I am Sunset Shimmer, former student of Princess Celestia Herself. I’m here for an audience. Now.

• • • • •

The more Sunset trotted, the firmer her gait became. After three corridors accompanied by a pale and blonde-maned Unicorn mare seneschal, she marched with a confident stride to match that of the guards following behind them.

“It’s really not the best time,” the hoofmaiden repeated for the third time. “There are delegations from three foreign nations visiting today, and the Princesses have Their hooves full with—”

Sunset snorted derisively. “It doesn’t matter. Celestia will make time for me. You’ll see.”

She picked up the pace, forcing the mare and the guards to canter to keep up. The vast, gilded double doors leading into the audience chamber loomed ahead, flanked by another pair of near-identical guards.

“P-please!” the breathless hoofmaiden begged. “You really can’t just barge in there! You haven’t been announced! There are… p-protocols!”

“Don’t worry,” Sunset said grimly. “I’ll handle my own introduction.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes and lit up her horn, calling forth all the magic that had gone unused for so long. The guards moved to block her passage through the doors, but the green glow of her power washed over guards and doors alike, and the next moment the whole mess was tumbling into the vaulted chamber with a deafening crash of splintering wood and clattering armour.

“CELESTIA!” Sunset bellowed as she leaped forward and stood upon a door that lay upon a guard, inclining the surface like a ramp.

Dozens of eyes turned to focus on the golden Unicorn with the red-striped mane. None of them were the iridescent pink of a summer dawn. Dozens of limbs shifted awkwardly. None of them were shod in pure gold forged with light blazed through polished mirrors and enchanted lenses. The room was full of noble and important Ponies from all across the land.

Princess Celestia was not among them.

A roaring silence filled the enormous chamber, drowning out everything. After a long, noiseless moment, a single Pony softly coughed.

The sound seemed to break the spell, and soon the chamber erupted with a din of shouts and complaints and accusations and outrage. Angrily stomping hooves shook the marble floor.

The hoofmaiden and the guards rushed into the hall behind Sunset, all panting for breath.

“Sunset Shimmer, that’s enough!” shouted the grey Pegasus guard while his white comrade caught his breath. “You are under arrest!”

Sunset cautiously backed down off the sloped door. The guard underneath it groaned. She hung her head and drooped her ears. Her tail tickled the bare backs of her legs.

“Wow,” she said under her breath. “Déjà vu.”

• • • • •

Sunset stood on her hind legs, with her front hooves resting on the sill of the holding cell’s window. It was the only thing worth looking at in the spartan little cube, with its smooth stone walls etched with magic-warding sigils and its iron-shod hardwood door and its fresh pile of hay for snacking and sleeping.

The warm late-summer breeze carried the scent of a nearby copse of dogwood trees, and not a trace of exhaust or asphalt. The sapphire sky was vast and vivid, bluer than it could ever be in the other world.

Sunset closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, feeling the slow return of familiarity with her original body. Already the reflex to touch or manipulate objects was slipping away from her lost hands and back to her restored horn. Already the play of her muscles and joints felt like home again. It was so easy to go back to it all. Equestria was just as she’d left it, save perhaps for an odd surge in the number of Princesses. It was so easy to fall back into the—

The door unlocked.

Sunset’s ears flicked. Her hooves shifted on the stone sill. She frowned, angry with herself for briefly forgetting her anger.

“So what’s up?” she glumly asked without turning around. “Did Twilight pay my bail, or something?”

“She didn’t have to. I’ve pardoned you.”

Sunset whirled around in a humanoid gesture that her equine hips and back couldn’t quite execute. Her hind hooves skidded on the flagstone floor, and she fell down hard. Her tail pinched painfully between the stone and her rump. She winced.


Sunset stared at the regal silhouette in the doorway, so tall that it filled up the view from top to bottom even with the Princess sitting down on the floor. The constant flow of that shimmering mane. The effortless grace. The gentle, understanding tone to that wise, matronly voice. All of it had blindsided her. It had been years, and the high school’s principal had been the palest of imitations. Sunset felt a lump form in her throat. Her carefully planned tirade melted on her tongue.

“I … I came back. I wanted to … I … w-wanted … t-t-to …”

Shame set Sunset’s cheeks ablaze. She hung her head and swallowed hard, willing herself not to weep at the sight of her royal mentor. She fought to keep hold of her anger. She gripped the emotion hard, until its prickles made her heart hurt.

Celestia tilted Her head a little and offered a soft, enigmatic smile.

“It’s an adjustment for you, I’m sure. Why don’t you have a trot and clear your head? I’ll meet up with you after the delegates are seen to. Please excuse me.”

The Princess turned and departed. She left the door open and didn’t wait for a reply.

Sunset hustled out of the cell and into the basement corridor, but by the time she did, the far taller Alicorn was already out of sight. Sunset frowned.

She remained silent on the walk up the stairs, through two doors, down a hall, and out into the fresh air. No guards challenged her.

The courtyard spurred a rush of memories that hit Sunset as hard as the return of her magic had. She wasn’t far from the School for Gifted Unicorns. Everywhere she looked, every hoofstep she took, moments from her old life rose up like ghosts. And in those memories, the Princess was there. A huge, overwhelming figure, larger than life. The Sun at the centre of the orrery.

Sunset paused at a low stone bench, where she’d had a venomous debate with the elder student, Secret Fire. Some stupid disagreement about spell matrix terminology, or something. Sunset couldn’t even remember anymore, and yet the emotions pinned to the reminiscence boiled up as raw and tender as ever. They’d shouted and slung insults and threatened certamen, until the Princess had broken them up and chided them. Sunset turned away and trotted on.

She passed by a pear tree that had been raided by Unicorn foals so often that most of the branches within reach of novice magic were permanently stripped. The damage gave the thing an umbrella-like shape. Sunset remembered using it for just that, taking cover from a rainstorm she’d forgotten hearing about, hugging her personal spell journal close to keep it dry. And, when the clouds had been shaken empty, she had chewed the grainy, juicy sweetness of an overripe pear while reviewing for yet another test. She had studied hard, so she could impress the Princess.

Sunset stomped a hoof on the flagstones and then moved on.

She came eventually to the soaring structure of the Canterlot archives, that stately and ancient, interlocking chain of buildings and towers that housed ten thousand tomes for every living soul in Equestria, or so the saying went.

She approached the vast double doors and bent at the threshold to touch her horn to the stone floor with barely any break in her stride. The show of deference to the knowledge inside still came naturally.

The smell of hundreds of thousands of ancient tomes and scrolls worsened her nostalgia. Sunset was a filly again, remembering racing from shelf to shelf, reference to reference, trying to break her own spell-scribing record. She recalled straining to keep the glow of her horn soft while pinning a forbidden snack to the ceiling, out of sight, until later. And of course, the sad spectacle of shouting at the ruler of all of Equestria while scholars and archivists stared in mute horror.

Sunset strode past shelves packed with memories, deeper and deeper into the library. She passed through halls less and less occupied until she came to the advanced materials and the Star Swirl the Bearded Wing. The vast central hourglass hissed its ocean-tide hiss, like always. She stopped not far from it, in the ring-shaped central aisle. She sat, weighed down by the load of her memories, and watched the grains fall for a time.

“He’d have hated this place.”

Sunset yelped in surprise, stiffening upright; for a moment, she’d been back in class, nodding off after a night of studies and sneaking out and magicking cherries into fireworks with other mischievous Unicorn fillies…

“Star Swirl, I mean,” Celestia clarified as She came up next to Sunset and sat down with her, facing the hourglass. “He’d have hated this place. He was always so… pressed. There were never enough hours in the day for him. A reminder like this would have bothered him intensely.”

Sunset couldn’t think of a reply. She just sat there, next to the divine matriarch of the world, and watched the sands fall. Her reflection in the glass looked so small next to Celestia’s.

“What’s all this about?” Sunset finally asked. She kept her voice low out of old habit.

Celestia looked down at her. “Shouldn’t I ask you that, my former student? You came to find me, after all.”

The hot blush returned to Sunset’s face, but far hotter anger followed soon after, burning the shame up like flash paper. Sunset trembled.

“I want answers,” she said firmly. “You’re not being fair, and I need to know why.”

Celestia did the same old head-tilt again. That quizzical angle that meant She was pondering things for a moment.

“Not being fair?”

Sunset frowned. “Yes. You have more power than any Pony alive. You’re the Dawn-bringer. The Dusk-keeper. You can do things casually that would take Ponies a lifetime. But You don’t.

Sunset stood up and faced the Princess. Her tail swished behind her.

“Instead, You send us. All Your protégés. You let us risk everything, when You could save the day in a heartbeat! You let Twilight Sparkle go through Hell for You, over and over, while You sit back and watch! And if I hadn’t left, You’d have done the same to me!”

Sunset’s voice carried far in the circular library wing, bouncing off shelves and echoing down aisles. The sound of her furious breathing drowned out the rustling of the hourglass.

“Even now, You’re playing games! Cloaking Your magic so I don’t feel You coming. Springing me from jail with a smile. Acting like everything’s just like it always was. You gamble with the fate of Equestria, just so You can leave the worst of the worst to us. Why, Celestia? Why? WHY?

The question hummed in the central device’s glass and echoed in the silent chamber. Sunset was panting, enraged, squinting against tears and trembling with tension. Just like last time. At least there were no witnesses, now.

Just for a moment, like a cloud passing across the Sun, a shadow of anger darkened Celestia’s face. But then it was gone, and that statue-like, placid mask was back. She spread Her wings and shook them out before folding them again. She took a slow, even breath and closed Her eyes.

“Because I’m dying, Sunset.”

Sunset stomped a hoof. “I’m being serious, damn it! This is no time for your little jokes!”

Celestia opened her eyes, those pearly-pink, soulful, motherly eyes, and met Sunset’s gaze.

“I’m not joking.”

Sunset’s tail swished again. Her ears pinned back. She sat down.

“You… You’re…”

Sunset squeezed her bitterness again, but this time the angry thorns offered a desperate comfort. She scowled.

“What do You even mean? Is this another mission? Is that it? I’m barely back through the mirror, and You’re ready to send me off to fetch some panacea? Crystal berries… frost irises… Dragon’s tears… which is it? What do You need?”

“There’s no mission, Sunset. There’s no panacea.” She looked back at the hourglass. “There’s no cure.”

Celestia’s tone was impossibly smooth. Maddeningly calm. Resigned, even.

Sunset clenched her jaw. The trembling returned. “That doesn’t make any sense!” she shouted. “You’re the most powerful being in Equestria! You’re not… You can’t just… Y-You...”

She took a shaky step back. The whisper of the hourglass roared like a tidal wave. The domed ceiling soared above, nauseating in its height. The stacks loomed and closed in. Sunset couldn’t breathe.

Celestia was speaking, but the thundering hourglass drowned Her out. Sunset turned and ran, slipping and stumbling on the polished floor. She drew close to a wall and ignited her horn. With a green flash, she vanished.

• • • • •

The lonely, out-of-the-way tower that Sunset had aimed to teleport into had been blasted to pieces during the Changeling invasion the year before; she blazed into being in midair and promptly tumbled ten feet down onto a tarp-covered pile of bricks on the floor below.

Sunset grunted in pain as she scattered the pile on impact and rolled to a stop with the tarp settling over her and fallen bricks jabbing her stomach and shoulder. Unthinking, she tapped a brick with a hoof and tried to close phantom fingers around it. Her hoof pulled away and left the thing behind. She moaned softly and pushed bricks out from under herself with magic instead.

Once the half-finished mosaic floor beneath her was clear, she flopped onto her back and took stock of her many bumps and bruises. It hurt to breathe; she was fairly sure she’d fractured a rib. The panic of the moment in the archive faded a little, and the lost adrenaline made the pain surge. In an instant, she was much, much more sure about the rib.

She moaned louder and curled up on her good side, hoofing at the partly placed tiles and shuddering from the intensity of the day’s events. Her body, her wounds, her return home, and the impossible revelation from her old mentor.

Sunset looked up at the deep blue sky ringed by the broken columns of the missing tower. The Sun was there, obediently awaiting orders from its mistress.

Sunset dropped her head and hid under her forehooves, curling up tighter still. Her magic tugged the tarp over herself completely, and there, in the clammy, dust-scented shade, she choked and hiccuped and whimpered until an exhausted and dreamless sleep claimed her.

• • • • •

Sunset awoke to the sound of a light rain pattering on the tarp. She moved to rise, but a stab of pain from her side pushed her back down again. Groaning, she moved more gingerly and crawled out into the open air.

Dusk was coming. The sky was already darker, and the rain made things even shadier. Sunset could see the tiny dots of flying Pegasi herding and coaxing the clouds above.

She sighed as deeply as her wounded rib would allow, and then limped toward the archway back into the neighbourhood-sized complex of the Canterlot Royal Palace.

Nopony halted her this time. The guards remained as frozen as statues, and none of the hoofmaidens or scribes or other functionaries paid her more than cursory notice. She was free to leave. Free to stay. Free to do as she pleased.

She went looking for the Princess.

Sunset found Celestia a hundred times before she got to Her. The Princess was etched into stone. Cast in bronze. Depicted on tapestries and stained glass, captured in oils and watercolours. One hallway was flanked by two rows of statues of the Alicorn. A stairwell landing held the oldest surviving depiction of Her: a triumphant, spread-winged pose, now chipped and worn and headless and three-legged.

Sunset looked up past the thing, only to catch sight of an intricate painting on the ceiling depicting the Sisters battling King Sombra. She sighed.

Eventually Sunset emerged back into the rain, which was falling harder now. At first she warded off the wet with a dome of magic, but she soon gave up and let it soak her to the skin. Her mane hung heavy, clinging to her neck. Her tail dragged.

She plodded along a high rooftop walkway that offered a commanding view of the entire capital and the lush vista below; Sunset kept her eyes on the stone in front of her hooves. She soon stopped at a crenelated tower-top and sat. A shiver made her wince.

Just then, a long-lost, soothing warmth touched her back. An even, golden, sunny heat that made her Cutie Marks tingle and her horn hum.

Sunset tensed and straightened, her reddened eyes wide. She cast about for the Princess, sure She’d be there again, finally uncloaked in all Her majesty and ready to apologize for Her cruel and sickening prank.


Sunset frowned. Facing the warmth pointed her at a nearby, higher tower, and when the warmth grew stronger, Sunset looked up.

The Princess was there.

Sunset cantered as quickly as she could across the walkways and up the spiral stairs, past a triple row of guards who shifted as if to block her path but then drew back upon recognizing her. She passed the open glass doors and trotted out onto a vast stone balcony.

Celestia stood near the edge facing west, with Her wings spread wide and Her horn pointed skyward. Her ancient, divine magic flowed and pulsed around Her like molten gold. The Pegasi above respectfully ensured that no rain fell upon the balcony itself.

Slowly, smoothly, as naturally as in the world beyond the mirror, the Sun pulled down below the clouds and slipped toward the horizon until it set the sky ablaze.

Sunset sat in silence and watched her namesake, basking in the Princess’s power. The heat of the magic soothed her injuries.

The Sun was gone, now only a fiery pink memory at the edge of the world. On the tower at the far side of the Palace, Princess Luna started calling forth the night and raising the Moon. Celestia waved a wing to Her sister and offered a warm smile.

From her closer vantage point Sunset watched Celestia’s tail flick slightly and Her alabaster hide subtly twitch. She saw the blazing golden aura waver a little, like heat-haze.

Only when the waning Moon had risen and Luna had trotted back down into the Palace did Celestia end the display.

She fell to her knees.


Sunset galloped over to the Princess and offered support while she struggled to sit upright. Up close, right against her, Sunset felt the shocking contrast between the near-painful heat of Celestia’s golden peytral, and the sickly cold of her trembling, beautiful hide.

It took Celestia three tries to rise. Her weight threatened to bowl Sunset over, but the far smaller Unicorn fixed her stance and pushed as hard as she could until the Princess was vertical again, wobble-kneed and droop-winged and shivering. Her shaking made her golden shoes scrape against the stone floor. Her breath came in short little wheezes.

Sunset sat down facing her, just inches away, and stared up into her glassy eyes. Sunset’s strained muscles and cracked rib made her whole chest feel like it was on fire, but she barely noticed.

“Celestia…” she repeated more softly. “What happened? Who did this to you?”

Celestia focused on catching her breath for a long moment before she replied.

“Nopony did this to me, Sunset. I just… got old. Too old. That’s all.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Sunset drew back and stood up. “Alicorns don’t age! You’re eternal! Forever! You can’t die!” Her lower lip trembled. She sat back down. “Y-You can’t.”

“There is no wrong, here,” Celestia said with a gentle smile. “I chose my own fate. For ten centuries, I did the work of two Alicorns. I stewarded my Sister’s prison, when my Cutie Mark told me I was only meant to herd the Sun. In the time before, a single dawn-bringing and dusk-keeping would leave a whole council of Unicorns so drained that they barely survived. I couldn’t let anypony else shoulder that burden. It was inevitable that my choices would… take a toll.”

Sunset slowly shook her head. “It’s not possible. It’s not! I remember you! Only a few years ago! It hurt to look at you in the daylight! You had so much power…”

Celestia’s head lowered a little. She shifted forward and raised a foreleg, offering a hug.

Sunset moved forward without thinking and accepted the embrace. She tensed for a hard squeeze on her wounded chest, but there was hardly any strength in Celestia’s hold.

“A lot has happened in the past few years, Sunset. There have been battles. Discord, Queen Chrysalis, King Sombra, the Demon Lord Tirek… all of our buried foes, risen again to menace us. But this time, I couldn’t stop them.”

Her magic-warmed golden shoe stroked over Sunset’s back. The rain soaking her mane hissed.

“When Chrysalis defeated me, I knew I could no longer hide from the truth. I knew I needed to find somepony I could trust to watch over Equestria… to watch over Luna... when I was gone. I had felt it for centuries — the drain of my duties. I’d kept it a secret, to maintain peace and order until I could properly prepare. But in that moment I knew I had to hurry, or I wouldn’t be strong enough to see it through. Twilight Sparkle is more than my first absolute success, Sunset. She is my last hope.”

Sunset pulled back in the hug a bit, so she could face Celestia. She frowned.

“Your last…? Wait. Why are you telling me this? Is this all because… because I left? If I’d stayed, i-if I’d listened to you… so you could act s-sooner, before things got so bad...” Tears shone in Sunset’s saucer-wide eyes. “It’s all my fault!”

“Sunset, NO.” Thunder rumbled in the sky with that word.

Celestia snared the Unicorn in a tighter embrace, and for a moment the ageless, supreme, perfect Princess was back. Power flared in her limbs and boomed in her voice. But it all faded away so very quickly.

“I was beyond saving before your grandparents were even born. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you, or Secret Fire, or Moonbeam Glow, or Stellar Sheen, or Aurora Gleam, or any of the others. None of you. This wasn’t your destiny. I could never force a responsibility like this on somepony. You didn’t fail me, Sunset. Not when I taught you, not when you left, and not now. I’m so proud of you. All of you. And I always will be.”

Sunset hugged back, heedless of the pain in her side. She rubbed her tear-streaked cheek against the hot, polished gold of Celestia’s peytral. An anguished sound burst from deep in her throat, too forceful to choke back. “I’m sorry! I’m s-so… so sorry!” She coughed out the words between deep, racking sobs. “I m-missed you so much!”

Celestia silently held Sunset until the worst of it passed, and stroked her back while the Unicorn heaved and gasped and sniffled her way to an eye-of-the-storm calm.

Sunset slowly backed out of the hug and sat in the same hunched pose as her mentor, breathing in wheezes for her own reasons. She swallowed hard.

“Celestia… Princess… you said you kept it a secret. Why did you tell me?”

Celestia looked up at the silver slash of the Moon and then back down into Sunset’s eyes.

“I hadn’t planned to. But you asked. And I knew you wouldn’t be denied. You were the most willful student I’ve ever had. Always unafraid to question everything. I had to be honest with you.”

Sunset hung her head, staring at Celestia’s gold-shod front hooves. Were those long, elegant legs graceful? Or emaciated?

“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. “What do I do? What will any of us do?”

Celestia reached out a wing under Sunset’s chin and gently nudged her head back up to meet her gaze. She smiled.

“Ponykind is far older than I am. Society survived before me. It will survive after me. But that is why I have asked so much of my most trusted, my most skillful and clever, my most wonderful students. Because I can trust you to do what I no longer can… while I am here, and when I am gone.”

Sunset choked up again, but she fiercely swallowed down the surge of feeling. She took a moment before asking the next question.

“Princess… how long…?”

Celestia looked up at the waning Moon again.

“I can’t be sure, any more than anypony can. But it’s been worsening these past few years. Speeding up. I won’t be accepting any further personal students at the School.”

Sunset took a step and sat down next to Celestia. She looked up at the Moon and ignited her horn. She could feel it up there, just barely. Ancient and vast and cold and heavy beyond reckoning. Touching it with her magic felt like pressing a hoof against a mountain. She tried to imagine pulling it across the world three-hundred-thousand-odd nights in a row.

“I want to help.”

Celestia rested a wing over Sunset’s back, soft and reassuring.

“You don’t have to do that. I’ve heard about your times in the other world. You’re doing a lot of good there.”

Sunset took a slow, wheezing breath.

“Please. You said you’ve been having your students do what you can’t do anymore. If I’d only known, I never would have—”

Sunset felt the old familiar burn of shame in her chest, hotter and closer and more intimate even than the ache in her rib. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment, tensing all over, and then sagged again.

Please. Please, Princess. I’ll keep this secret until you’re ready. I’ll carry it with you. Just let me help. Give me a task. I’ll do anything!”

Celestia smiled, and then dipped her head to plant a soft kiss on the top of Sunset’s rain-soaked head.

“Very well, my most stubborn student. There is one thing. Something you can still do, that I no longer can...”

• • • • •

The next morning, Sunset trotted down the winding streets of the capital, nodding to friendly passersby, waving off concerned glances at the thick bandages wrapped around her chest, and making searing eye-contact with the aristocratic Unicorns who looked down their noses at her bumpkin-like lack of clothes.

The day was crisp and bright, refreshed by last night’s rain. The Sun shone proudly, sitting alone in the cloudless blue sky.

Sunset trotted into the lower district of the city, not far from the railway station. The air smelled of steam and oil and the nostril-stinging tingle of magical boilers. She made her way into a cul-de-sac ringed with multi-story blocks of flats and approached the oldest one at the end of the lane.

She came to number nine, and gave the door five firm raps with a hoof instead of using the bell; a quick rhythm of one, one-two, one-two. She sat on the welcome mat and waited.

After a long pause, the door glowed pale green and swung inward. Beyond, the cozy, sparse apartment revealed little. A weathered couch. A small dining table with a single chair. A wall hung with dozens of framed photographs and diplomas and certificates. The apartment was dusty; none of the frames were.

A red-orange Unicorn stallion with shocks of grey in his short golden mane and the unkempt whiskers on his chin stepped into view. He looked at Sunset through a smudged pince-nez balanced on his nose. His green eyes widened. He gasped. The still-glowing door quivered, pulsing apace with his pounding heart.

“H-hi, Daddy,” Sunset whispered. “Long time, no see.”


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