“Keep this up, and you just might not be a total waste of time.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence… I think.”
Sunset smiled sweetly at the filly.
“You should know that’s high praise from me.”
“Uh-huh. And how do you think normal ponies would react to ‘praise’ like that?”
She shrugged. “Don’t really care. Normal ponies bore me.”
Moon Dancer shook her head and adjusted her new glasses. Though they had the classic nerd look with giant black frames, Sunset admitted they didn’t look half bad on her. Not that she’d tell Moon Dancer, since it was none of her business.
The filly stuck out her tongue as she carefully levitated a small vial of barilla over the tiny bubbling cauldron. Sunset watched silently, a faint smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. This was the moment of truth, after all. If Moon Dancer hadn’t been paying attention during their time together, this would explode in a lovely bit of chaos magic.
Which would be hilarious. She’ll learn the lesson one way, or the other.
A single drop of the shimmering liquid fell from the vial into the concoction. Within seconds, the bubbling solution began to froth and seethe. Moon Dancer backpedaled a bit as it threatened to boil over the lip of the cauldron. She froze when a brief burst of white smoke erupted up from the surface.
Sunset chuckled. “Not bad, kid.”
The muddy brown sludge burbling in the cauldron had been replaced by a clear liquid that glowed in the dim light of the alchemy lab. The faint aroma of roses wafted up from the still surface of the potion.
Moon Dancer peered into the cauldron for a long moment. “It actually worked?”
Sunset’s horn burned as she enveloped the cauldron in her teal magic and concentrated. In a few moments, the identification spell finished its work, and a small symbol appeared in teal above the table: a hoof standing on a wave.
“Looks like you made a passable waterwalking potion.”
Moon Dancer slumped into a chair with a faint sigh of relief, her eyes never leaving the glowing symbol.
“I can’t believe it worked,” Moon Dancer muttered. “The ratio of rock salt to sea salt was off.”
Sunset shrugged. “Yeah. It was. But, that part of the potion has a little room for error. Now, if you’d messed up the elemental components… well…” Sunset chuckled, “I’d be laughing my tail off since you couldn’t keep your hooves under you for a good three hours.”
“Complete reversal of friction. You’d love that.” Moon Dancer glowered.
“Oh yeah, totally!” Sunset cackled. “Especially since self-levitation isn’t taught until the fourth year. You wouldn’t be able to even sit in a chair without sliding off!”
The pale filly’s eyes narrowed. “So sorry to disappoint you by not making an idiot out of myself.”
“Well, I can’t always get everything I want,” Sunset replied. “I’ve come to accept it.”
“Work in progress.”
Sunset fell into the chair and looked over the table at the results of the last hour. If she was any judge—and since she was Sunset Shimmer, she was an excellent judge—the potion was actually on par with a fifth-year’s work.
Not with my work, of course, but it’s decent. Good, even. One day, you might just get as good as me, kid.
She blew the hair out of her face as Moon Dancer scribbled the results of the session in her study journal. Sunset stifled a yawn as the stuffy lab began to weigh down on her. She had dragged herself out of bed before dawn yet again after being up past midnight… yet again.
Stupid alchemy exam.
She shook her head, rubbed her eyes and refocused on Moon Dancer.
Despite her best efforts, the kid was actually starting to grow on her. Moon Dancer had a snarky streak a mile long buried deep under her somewhat shy, yet prickly demeanor. Every time she managed to tap into that, Sunset saw a little piece of herself. She had so much more potential than the rest of these brats.
The other students were hopeless. As usual, Sunset had made the right call and picked the only student in the school that had a shot at actually keeping up with her. Granted, she stumbled a lot, but she couldn’t be expected to be as amazing as Princess Celestia’s prized student.
Really, who could?
“So, what’s next?” Moon Dancer asked, carefully pouring the new potion into a series of flasks.
“Next?” Sunset laughed. “You canter off and play with your dolls, or whatever it is little fillies do. I have to get some real work done.”
Moon Dancer glared at her. “You’re only two years older than me, Sunset. Drop the act and tell me: what else should I know for the final?”
Sunset leaned forward, her wicked grin on her face. “Oh, are you finally asking for a little insider’s information? Have I really succeeded in corrupting the sweet and innocent little filly into something as dark and evil as cheating?”
She let out a little cackle of delight.
Moon Dancer slammed her journal closed. “No.”
“No? I won’t tell anypony.”
“Aw, you’re no fun,” Sunset leaned back with a pout. “I even have the exam in my saddlebags over there, and you don’t want to take a peek?
“I want to be prepared, Sunset!” Moon Dancer barked, her quill snapping in her magic. “Not cheat! I know you! You’ve got something crazy hard for us. I bet you’ve been waiting for this chance to show everypony how much better you are than the rest of us!”
“Hardly. There’s no point. Why would I waste my time? Everypony already knows.”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you love reminding us who you are. You used to do it all the time, before. In fact, that’s the last thing you said to me before you offered to tutor me.”
“All I remember is giving you a little pep talk. What’s wrong with that?”
“You practically spit in the face of my friends and I. You told us we were studying for nothing, and then marched off with your muzzle in the air. It was the same day we tried to compliment you on your mid-ter—”
“I told you never to talk about that day!” Sunset roared, slamming her hoof on the table. The waterwalking potions bounced, clattering together. They jostled each time Sunset drove her hoof down as she punctuated each word. “Don’t. Ever. Talk. About. That. Day. Dammit!” She rammed the table with a telekinetic thrust. The potions leapt back and forth, shadows dancing crazily in the teal light of her magic. “You’re a second-year at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns! Here I thought you were good at remembering important things.”
With another savage shake of the table, the bottles shifted the wrong way and smashed to the ground one at a time. Moon Dancer’s eyes widened and her pupils shrunk to pinpricks. She looked even paler than normal, and her ears were plastered to her head.
Good job, Sunset. Screaming at the only filly around this place who actually tolerates you, the little whisper in the back her mind said.
She gritted her teeth and forced herself to take a breath. She was better than this. She had dealt with angry nobles and furious griffon ambassadors. This was just some second-year with a glimmer of talent. She could handle this.
I’m Sunset Shimmer. I can handle anything.
“Look…” Sunset sighed. “There’s no point talking about the past. You want to know about the future? Well, the future I see is that you get a passing grade on the alchemy test. I have more important things to do than hold your hoof.”
Professor Polish is triple-checking everything I do, so even if I wanted to have a little fun, I wouldn’t get away with it.
Sunset ground her teeth together. There had been so much potential when Polish forced this assignment on her! So many little pieces she could push, so many wheels she could put into motion… all wasted.
By Celestia, I hate this job.
“Fine!” Moon Dancer shouted. With a surge of her magic, she shoved her books into her saddlebags. “Be as self-obsessed as everypony says! I don’t want passing! I want to be better than that! I’m not asking to cheat, I’m asking for a bit of extra help! If you won’t help the filly you’re supposed to be tutoring, I’ll find somepony who will! Somepony who’s not so full of themselves that she might collapse into a singularity!”
“Newsflash, Moon Dancer. The world doesn’t revolve around you.” Sunset couldn’t hold back the laugh. “As for trying to find somepony even close to my level? Good luck with that.”
Moon Dancer’s eyes blazed. “And here I was, foalish me, thinking maybe, just maybe, you’d changed.”
“Perfection doesn’t change, Moon Dancer. It just is.”
Moon Dancer snarled something Sunset couldn’t make out before stalking out of the alchemy lab and slamming the door behind her.
Sunset glared after her.
What in Tartarus is her problem? How dare she talk to me like that?
Her mind twisted around that thought for a few minutes before some impulse finally got her tail in gear, and she moved to clean up the mess she’d—
This wouldn’t have happened if she’d kept her mouth shut!
—Moon Dancer had caused. She had just finished washing out the cauldron and setting it to soak, when the rest of her anger snapped like a frayed violin string.
“Dammit,” Sunset groaned, banging her head against the counter. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. I’m Sunset Shimmer. I’m not allowed to have buttons ponies can press so easily!”
If that day wasn’t so damn important to everything… if it didn’t hold secrets that would determine my entire life! But no! Celestia has to be tight-lipped, and my little plan to spur things along by tutoring that twit hasn’t earned me anything but a stupid smile.
Still, it had been a good smile.
Sunset stared into the water inside the cauldron. An amber pony looked back at her. Gorgeous red and gold hair, brilliant teal eyes. The face of a leader. Somepony brilliant, strong and powerful.
Somepony who was too damn tired.
Sunset dashed her hoof through the water, scattering droplets everywhere. She watched the reflection twist and distort from the ripples. There was just a blur of red and gold as her image reformed. For just a second, the eyes seemed different.
You know, you could always try apologizing.
The tiny whisper from somewhere deep in her mind was back. The same voice that had been pestering her for months. It was quiet, polite, and all alone, but it was like the buzz of a fly in an otherwise silent room… she just couldn’t ignore it.
It was also annoying as all Tartarus.
“I don’t need to apologize to anypony. If anything, she needs to apologize to me. She knows the rule. She broke it.”
A rule you set up because you can’t face what you did. And didn’t Moon Dancer seem a little out of it tod—
Sunset let out a low growl and spun away from the cauldron. She didn’t need lessons on pony feelings today, least of all from some insignificant whisper.
She had work to do. She grabbed the mop with her magic and tidied up the rest of the room. The tinkle of broken glass and swish of wasted potion buzzed in her ears. It wasn’t until she scooped up the glass in a separate telekinetic field that she noticed it.
A single flask of Moon Dancer’s waterwalking potion remained undamaged.
She huffed. I’ll give it back when she apologizes. A little souvenir to remind her who she is… and who I am.
A few minutes later, Sunset stormed out of the alchemy class and into the bustling hallway of Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Most students—and a few of the teachers—were smart enough to get out of her way as she moved through the crowds.
Damn that Moon Dancer, anyway! How dare she resent me and my work! Sunset shook her head. For pony’s sake, what is her problem anyway? I finally get a chance to actually do something vaguely important in that blasted class and—
Sunset’s ears tracked the shout as coming from her right and she wondered what idiot would dare call her that in public. She hated that nickname. Of course, somepony yelled it as she entered an intersection, which distracted her just long enough to plow headlong into another pony. They both fell over each other, landing in a heap.
A filly groaned on the floor, books scattered everywhere as Sunset glared at her.
Purple hair. Brown coat. Moon Dancer’s age. One of Polish’s students.
She cast around in her head for a name and found one.
“What’s wrong with you, Cinnamon Tart?” Sunset growled. “Can’t you watch where you’re going?”
The filly’s eyes went wide and her skin paled under her coat as she scrambled backward.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it!” she squeaked.
Sunset got to her hooves and swore as she realized her own saddlebags had come undone. A week’s worth of homework, her own studies on arcane energy transference, her copy of The Alchemy of Chemistry, and the exam she’d spent the last two weeks working on lay scattered all over the floor.
And a flask of glowing blue liquid had slid to a stop at Cinnamon’s hooves.
“Look what you made me do,” Sunset growled as she snatched the flask in her magic. “I swear, a year ago, you would have paid for this.”
Sunset’s eyes narrowed. “Be happy I’m trying to be a little nicer.”
She took a deep breath and forced herself to pause. No sense harping on the obvious. She grabbed all of her papers, the book and the flask. With a grunt, she jammed them all into her saddlebags.
She left Cinnamon Tart in the middle of her scattered textbooks. Those were her problem.
“I’m sorry!” Tart squeaked again. “Please… whatever you did to Moon Dancer… I’m not worth it!”
Sunset froze, and slowly turned to face the filly.
“What did you say?”
“W-well, Moon Dancer came out of that room crying and—”
“Impossible. There’s absolutely no reason for Moon Dancer to be crying!” Sunset roared. “Where do you get off making up stories like—”
About thirty ponies, most of them students, were just staring at her with mixed expressions of shock and terror. There were a couple professors mixed in and every single one looked either horrified or furious. One of them, a visiting teal pegasus instructor for weather magic, was just gaping at her.
She swallowed her anger, buttoned her saddlebags, and marched off.
It took every bit of willpower not to run from the accusing stares.
What is wrong with me today? Sunset groaned as she darted around a corner. I’m supposed to have the thickest skin in this entire school, and I’m acting like a foal throwing a tantrum!
She’d almost made it to the safety of the lower teacher’s lounge when a sharp voice pierced her thoughts.
Sunset swore under her breath as she turned to face the cold-eyed stallion bearing down on her.
Dean Silver Slate adjusted his granite-colored half-moon spectacles as he approached. He was a tall pony with a mane as silver as his name implied. As always, he looked every inch the ‘distinguished professor,’ a guise he used with ruthless precision to protect his favored students and to pressure ‘difficult elements’ into toeing the line.
‘Elements’ like Sunset. She hated how he always loomed over her, like a crumbling cliff overhead ready to crash down at any moment.
Good to see you too, you old jerk.
She was smart enough not to say it out loud.
There were two ponies already in the lower’s teacher lounge: a magenta earth pony and a thin wisp of a pegasus. Sunset didn’t recognize either of them, but with a single glance from Dean Slate, both of them were gone in ten seconds flat.
Slate slowly closed the door, and turned to Sunset. His cold blue eyes bored into her while the afternoon sunlight made his coat an even duller gray than normal.
“Can I help you, Dean Slate?”
“Oh, absolutely. You could depart my school and never return.” Slate pulled off his glasses, conjured a small cloth and cleaned them. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening at present, so why don’t you tell me why you were screaming at that little filly?”
“Last I checked, the school’s name started with the words Princess Celestia.”
He put his glasses back on and didn’t even bother to respond to Sunset’s jab.
Dammit. He really is peeved.
“Fine,” she sighed, “I lost my temper. I’ve been up late every night and waking up before dawn for almost two weeks preparing the second-year Advanced Alchemy final exam for Professor Polish.”
“And sleep deprivation gives you leave to berate a junior student in the middle of school and reduce them to tears? Scant minutes after reducing the filly you’ve been tutoring to tears? Dare I suggest you are going for a new record?”
“Moon Dancer and I just got into an argument! She wasn’t crying!”
“Most students know not to cry around you, Miss Shimmer. You tend to pounce on whomever you perceive as weak. It’s become an unspoken law during your reign here.”
“I’ve gotten better! Both of us know that!”
...More or less.
“Miss Shimmer, a chimera cannot change its stripes!” Slate stomped a hoof, his eyes narrowing. “Especially when it comes to crushing weaker students and leaving them shells of what they once were! Has it ever occurred to you that such activity is simply not acceptable behavior?”
“I lost my temper!” Sunset shouted. “Ponies are allowed to screw up occasionally, Slate!”
Slate’s eyes went as cold as a windigo’s breath, and Sunset cursed herself for crossing that damn line again.
“You have been instructed in the proper way to address your superiors, Miss Shimmer. You seem to think you and I are equals. Allow me to remind you that, while Princess Celestia might see some speck of potential in you, this does not give you leave to run roughshod over my school. If this behavior persists, I will bring it up to the Board of Regents.”
“Don’t bore me, Slate. You already played that card last year. It didn’t get rid of me then. It’s not going to get rid of me now.”
The dean dropped the act as his lips curled into a snarl. Sunset was grateful. She hated the false civility game.
“You constantly challenge my authority, Sunset Shimmer. You disrupt my school. You terrorize my students. You make a mockery out of everything this institution stands for. Frankly, I don’t care if you are Celestia’s successor. I will be rid of you. You tormented my eldest granddaughter for three years. She cannot wait until she leaves you behind.
He snapped his glasses off again and stood over her, a dark look crossing his harsh features. “And now you dare to harangue my youngest granddaughter? In front of the entire school, no less?”
Oh horseapples, Tart is Slate’s granddaughter?
“You are a plague on this campus, certain in your faith that, no matter how many reports I send to Celestia, she will not remove you.”
He stood straighter, blocking the afternoon sun and plunging Sunset into shadow. “One day, Shimmer, you’re going to slip up so badly even the almighty Princess won’t be able to save you. I pray I am here to see it. You’ve defied me for four years, and I will not take it anymore. I vow to you, the day you buck up is the day your time in Canterlot ends. I will make sure you are expelled from these hallowed halls of learning. And then?”
His chuckle was low and dangerous, like the first pebbles of a rockslide. “Then, my dear, I’m going to make sure Celestia wished she’d never laid eyes on you.”
Slate’s glare could have melted iron. Thankfully, Sunset was made of stronger stuff. She returned the glare with a cool indifference, adding a cocky little smirk to drive home how little his rant bothered her.
Snarling, he leaned over and stabbed her in the chest with a hoof. “You’re a monster, Sunset Shimmer, and things like you never change. Don’t think this little act you’ve been playing at all year has deceived anypony. Even if you somehow gained enough arcane knowledge to rival Celestia herself, you’d still be the monster under these foals’ bed. It’s your nature.”
Slate shoved past her. Sunset opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
He’s really spit his bit now. Maybe I—
No! It’s not my fault! How was I supposed to know she was his granddaughter?
Slate didn’t bother turning around as he shoved open the door and stalked out. “I’m going to make sure the Princess realizes just what a monster you are,” he spat.
He slammed the door in Sunset’s face. The ringing in her ears sang about how far over the line she had really gone.
I may have overplayed my hoof this time.
And somewhere in the back of her head, she heard a sad little sigh.
How’s that ‘handling anything’ going for you?