• Published 16th Aug 2016
  • 4,945 Views, 104 Comments

Grading on a Bell Curve - Amber Spark



After a minor magical mishap with Moon Dancer, Sunset Shimmer heads to the lounge for some tea to unwind. However, there she finds a young teacher walking down a path she once walked, giving Sunset a unique opportunity…

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Advanced Foal's Play

“Take a step back, Moon Dancer. Stop, take a breath and just let it go for a bit.”

Sunset Shimmer did her best to keep her voice even, but Moon Dancer was not making it easy today. Still, the other unicorn did finally drop her magic field around the long cotton string, allowing it to fall onto the table between the two ponies.

“This shouldn’t be so hard,” Moon Dancer growled, glaring at the string as if she could make it spontaneously combust with sheer annoyance. “This is a foal’s game!

“It’s also what Princess Celestia used for me when I had trouble with advanced telekinetic field manipulation,” Sunset repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. “I know it feels foalish, but it’s actually one of the best possible ways for you to practice and fine-tune your levitation skills.”

Moon Dancer’s violet eyes locked onto Sunset from behind her trademark black glasses. Sunset really wished she could convince the mare to get rid of the muzzle padding, but nothing she said would work. Moon Dancer claimed it ‘helped her focus.’ Sunset claimed it made her look even more like a nerd. Moon Dancer usually threw something at her after that point.

“I don’t care anymore,” Moon Dancer snapped. “Can we try something else?”

“What, like picking locks? I’m sure that’s something the school would be delighted to have you practice. Something definitely worthwhile to use later in your life while you’re gallivanting around Equestria.”

Moon Dancer gave her a flat stare and Sunset just laughed.

“And how is playing cat’s cradle going to help me later in life?”

“Well, if you ever find yourself needing to knit a really good sweater—“

“Sunset!” the other mare whined. “Come on, there has to be another way!”

Sunset just sighed and shook her head. “I’ve talked to Professor Logic Gate, Moon Dancer. He told me that in his day, this was the primary method of teaching this level of fine manipulation. It’s been accepted at the school for decades. Some teachers even use it as an actual exam at the end of the semester.”

Moon Dancer groaned and banged her head against the dark oaken table.

“Okay, that’s enough of that.” Sunset laughed. “Drama queen. Try those focusing exercises we did last week. Get your mind clear. The more flustered you get, the harder this is going to be.”

“Yes, Mom,” Moon Dancer groaned. Still, she did as Sunset asked. The other unicorn sat up, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and focused. Immediately, a nearly invisible glow began to shimmer around her horn.

“Good!” Sunset grinned. “Now keep it up for a few minutes. I’ll be right back. Just need to get a drink of water.”

Moon Dancer didn’t answer, which was a step forward for her. She had a tendency to get distracted easily. Meditation exercises did not come easily to the student.

Then again, I wasn’t all that better. Celestia had to actually blindfold me to hammer Rhubarb’s Centralized Axis Mantra into my head.

Snickering to herself—and glancing at the blindfold peeking out of one of her saddlebags in the corner—Sunset rose and went to the far side of the reading room toward the water cooler.

Sunlight filtered through the dark wooden slats along the west window, sending shafts of light into the dim room. The space was filled with little else but chairs, cushions, pillows and couches. Set off in a secluded corner of the main library of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, it had always been Sunset’s favorite studying spot. She’d even run some students out of here once or twice—okay, maybe half a dozen times a month—before she’d moved to her pre-graduate studies with Celestia herself. When one got to choose nearly any room in Canterlot Castle for studying, the possibilities were practically endless.

Her problem then was simply she couldn’t read in Celestia’s private study, the Castle Archives, the Arboretum and the Royal Observatory all at the same time.

Woe is me, Sunset laughed at herself.

Sunset’s eyes wandered around the floor. Suddenly, she stopped in the middle of the wood-paneled room and stared at a spot on the plush crimson carpet. A faded black ink splatter lay where one of the overstuffed brown sofas usually sat. Some student had moved the sofa to make a circle with a few other pieces of furniture and had forgotten to move it back. As if in a trance, Sunset stepped over to the splatter and touched it briefly with her hoof.

“I’m sorry!” the terrified first-year squeaked. “I didn’t know! I’ll go! Just please! Don’t tell anypony! I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be here!”

Sunset didn’t respond. She just kept her eyes locked and her jaw set. Words weren’t necessary at this point.

The poor filly shook so hard trying to shove her materials back into her saddlebag, one of her inkpots had managed to escape her levitation. Sunset could have caught it. It would have been just a casual flick of magic. She didn’t for the express reason of seeing the filly’s look when it shattered on the carpet.

Her keening wail as the black ink soaked into the rug brought a tiny smile to Sunset’s lips. It was only a small one. After all, she wasn’t a monster. Sunset just wanted to make sure those beneath her knew their place. It would make things easier for them in the long run.

The filly had tried to blot the stain away, but with Sunset hovering over her with a glower she had stolen from Celestia herself, the filly had lasted less than a minute before she scampered from the room. Sunset could have busted her for not cleaning up the mess, but then she’d need to explain why she’d ran the filly off in the first place.

No, the filly’s memory of this moment would be more than enough. With a flare of her magic, Sunset shifted one of the couches over the ink stain and then settled down in the fading sunlight to read.

Sunset swallowed as the memory faded away, replaced by a gut-wrenching sickness with which she was becoming all too familiar. It had become a constant companion in the last several months. Every time she looked at one of the students she had bullied, everything she had done to them came back. Every word, every action, every manipulation and every lie.

And the angry little pony in her head was there, like always, screaming and whining about how this was all Celestia’s fault. She didn’t push the guilt away. Or the angry little pony. She deserved a lot worse than the two of them.

After she was done with Moon Dancer, she’d need to look up that filly’s transcripts. Sunset had already discovered she had run two students out of Gifted Unicorns. She needed to know if she deserved another on her conscience. If so, she’d go to Celestia—again—and beg for them to be allowed back into the school.

Sometimes I wish Celestia would just do something about what I did. Punish me somehow… instead of making it feel like I always have a debt to repay. Instead, she just insisted I do what seems right to make up for my mistakes.

But when you’ve made as many mistakes as me, it seems like an impossible task.

For a moment, she just stared at the spot and then back to the sofa. Then the sun emerged from behind a cloud. A beam of light shot through a window and struck the stain. In the light of the sun, the spot didn’t look nearly as bad. In fact, it barely seemed there at all. It was only when the light wasn’t striking it that the shadow seemed to deepen. That made the choice easy.

Sunset left the sofa where it was and continued to the water cooler. Stifling a yawn, she pulled her water bottle from one of her saddlebags across the room and slipped it under the spigot. Another teal aura flipped the latch, and the cool spring water began to flow. The light from Celestia’s sun caught the royal seal of Gifted Unicorns etched into the metal surface.

Celestia must be trying to make a point today.

Or her imagination was running away from her as usual.

Once the bottle was mostly full, she brought it to her lips and took a long sip. The cool water washed away some the fatigue. She’d been up far too late last night reviewing Mason Stone’s Experimental Magic Constructs for her own exam with Celestia next Tuesday. As usual, it had been another case of ‘just one more spell, just one more spell.’

She had ‘just one more spelled’ her way to two in the morning before she finally collapsed from exhaustion.

Sunset took a longer drink and refilled the container to the brim. With a twist of her magic, she sealed the bottle and carried it back with her as she sat down across from Moon Dancer. She quietly sipped the water and wished for the eighth time she hadn’t forgotten her canteen of tea this morning. A good jolt of caffeine would do her a world of good. But because she had been in such a hurry, it mean she needed to get her fix from either the dining hall or the lower teacher’s lounge.

Maybe after I’m done with Moon Dancer.

Another minute or so passed while Sunset fought back another yawn. Finally, Moon Dancer let out a long breath and opened her eyes.

“Better?” Sunset asked.

“I think so,” Moon Dancer muttered. “I don’t know how you can do all those meditation and focusing exercises, Sunset. I would go insane from boredom.”

Sunset winced. “Actually, I’m usually terrible at them. I only use them when I need something big.”

“And the truth comes out at long last.” Sunset’s friend stuck out her tongue.

Friend. There’s a word I wouldn’t have used a year ago. I don’t think I would have even used it before the whole fiasco with Cinnamon Tart and her merry little band at the end of last term.

Sunset shook herself from her memories and pasted a cocky grin on her face. “Now, are you ready to try again?”

Moon Dancer nodded. Her eyes narrowed and her entire body tensed. Sunset saw it instantly. Before Moon Dancer could begin, Sunset raised a hoof.

“No, no, no! Relax. You know what happens if you try too hard. You really want to risk a chaos surge?”

“No, Mom,” Moon Dancer muttered.

The younger unicorn relaxed, but only about half as relaxed as she should have been. But after a few months of tutoring, Sunset knew Moon Dancer well enough to know this was as much as she was going to get for now.

“Okay, now first, describe the image you’re trying to create,” Sunset recited, just as the Princess had done for her. “Step by step and slowly.”

“Princess Celestia, raising the sun in front of Solar Sigil,” Moon Dancer said in a bored voice. “You know, the same thing everypony does for their first advanced level set?”

Sunset snickered. Yeah, that was true. There was something iconic about seeing Celestia raise the sun at the Summer Sun Celebration. The picture never left you.

“Okay. Now take it slowly. Construct it in your mind first and then allow the magic to breathe through that image.”

For once, Moon Dancer didn’t have any snarky comments. Her horn ignited, and the long bundle of string rose into the air. It caught a shaft of light from the window, glowing twice over from Moon Dancer’s magic and Celestia’s sun. For just a moment, Sunset could feel the amplified hum of potential on the string. After all, Celestia was the most powerful magic wielder in all of Equestria and the world. She could harness the power of the sun itself.

Then again, so can you. Just imagine what else you could do with—

Deserved or not, the voices in her head were annoying as hell.

Moon Dancer’s brow furrowed slightly. Sunset reached out with her own magic, a light vapor-like field surrounding both Moon Dancer and the table. It was a spell taught only to aides and specialized tutors for the express purpose of allowing somepony to sense the shape of the magic being cast by another.

In her mind’s eye, she could see the image set perfectly in Moon Dancer’s mind. The projection was rock solid. Now came the most difficult part: allowing the image to become reality.

The string began to move of its own accord. Sunset smiled and realized Moon Dancer was getting close to mastering this technique. The pinkish-gray magic wove the string into increasingly complex shapes and patterns. The Solar Sigil appeared in the background layer, complete with the eastern skyline beyond Canterlot. That was a nice touch.

Now, while holding the magic of the background layer in place, Moon Dancer started weaving the string into a pattern of the Princess herself. The level of detail required for advanced telekinetic field manipulation studies was extremely high, to the point of requiring the individual feathers in Celestia’s great white wings.

At least Moon Dancer didn’t need to worry about the master’s level for another year. For a pony to even be considered for entry into that tier, they were required to add illusionary color on top of all the detail of the construct.

The younger unicorn let out a grunt. Sunset saw and felt the magic falter. She blinked and shifted her sight from her magical perspective into her mundane one.

Instantly, Sunset knew she’d made a mistake. She should have been watching the mare and not the magic.

Moon Dancer’s eyes were squeezed tight in concentration. Her forehead was as wrinkled as old Head Archivist Ink Method. Sweat poured through her coat, beading down her face and chest.

What was worse was the layer of overglow burning around Moon Dancer’s horn.

Unstable overglow.

“Moon Dancer, stop, you’re going to cause a—”

A blinding flash of light erupted from the telekinetic cat’s cradle. The sheer force of it sent Sunset sprawling backward over the sofa and collapsed on to the soft carpet. She heard things falling around her as she tried to clear her vision and sit up.

She eventually managed to sit up, but she still couldn’t see. Her eyes were being blocked by a massive curtain of red and gold.

“—chaos surge,” Sunset finished with a sigh.

Sunset managed to finally part her mane just enough to see the damage. Most of the sofas and pillows had been blasted to the edges of the room. Thankfully, nothing appeared to be broken. The only thing was… where was Moon Dancer?

“Ugh…” came a raspy voice from a mound of cushions beneath the windows. “Have I mentioned how much I hate cat’s cradle?”

Sunset got to her hooves, only to instantly come crashing down to land flat on her back. Frowning, she conjured a mirror above her to get a good look at what the chaos surge had done.

Just like every chaos surge she’d ever seen—including her own—transfiguration played a significant role in the after effects. Celestia had always been a bit on the cagey side on exactly why chaos surges had that particular effect. In fact, the Princess had never really given Sunset a straight answer.

That being said, this one was new.

While Sunset usually kept her mane somewhat on the longer side, it had always been within reason. Nothing so long a few spells couldn’t take care of in the morning or—if worse came to worst—a few strokes from a brush.

This was no longer the case.

Sunset loved Princess Celestia’s mane. When she’d been a filly, she’d actually hidden in it a few times much to the amusement of her teacher. Despite her fondness for Celestia’s style, Sunset knew she could never pull off a style even half of Celestia’s length. After all, the Princess had the omnipresent power of the sun flowing through her, a power that brought life to the shimmering multicolored mane.

However, Sunset’s mane now could probably conceal a small squadron of Royal Guards. Her tail wasn’t any better. In fact, as she lifted the mirror a bit higher, she found her entire side of the room was now a mess of red and gold hair, covering two sofas, fourteen cushions and three tables. Most of it was behind her, which is why she hadn’t seen it earlier. It was a minor miracle she could move her head at all with that much weight attached.

Moon Dancer’s head poked out of the impromptu fort of cushions and Sunset blinked.

The other unicorn’s mane had been turned into a patch of daisies and for reasons only Harmony knew, she also now wore a mustache made entirely from the same flowers.

They both stared at each other for several long seconds. Moon Dancer broke first, but Sunset didn’t last much longer. Within moments, they were both in tears of laughter, sputtering and chortling. Every time one of them tried to compose themselves, a single look at the other would induce further giggles.

Sunset wasn’t quite sure how long this went on, but eventually, they both regained control over themselves, save for the occasional snicker.

“You’re lucky I know the counterspell for surges, Moon Dancer,” Sunset said with a snort. “Or else you’d have to go out there like that.”

I’m lucky?” Moon Dancer countered. “I’ll bet you can’t even move with that mane!”

“Keep it up and you’ll have daisies for a mane for a week.”

Moon Dancer lifted her hooves in surrender. “I give, I give!”

“Good. Now, shush. This spell doesn’t come easily to me.”

Despite Celestia’s best efforts, Sunset had never been able to cast the counterspell effectively until recently. Even now, it usually had half-hearted results. It always worked better on somepony else than it did on herself. So, she got the easy part out of the way.

A flare of teal magic flashed around Moon Dancer’s head, and the familiar reddish mane with the twin streaks reappeared in a puff, leaving a small shower of petals from her former mane and mustache to cascade around her friend. Moon Dancer grinned and then did her best to extricate herself from the mess. The moment she had and looked up, she froze.

“Didn’t expect that…” she mumbled.

Sunset followed her gaze. Where they had been sitting was a floating construction of string. It was a perfect replica of the Solar Sigil, complete with the background of the cliffs of Canterlot. It was floating in a faint glow vaguely reminiscent of Moon Dancer’s magical aura.

The background was nigh perfect.

However, the crude stick-like figure of Princess Celestia made of string in front of it was noticeably less so.

Moon Dancer couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing again, falling to the floor in near hysterics.

Sunset just rolled her eyes and smirked as she focused her magic on herself.

“Looks like you’re halfway there,” Sunset commented as her horn began to burn with light.

“You’re taking this better than I would have expected,” Moon Dancer commented.

“What can I say?” Sunset grinned. “I happen to like daisies.”

She unleashed the counterspell upon herself. There was a brilliant teal flash. Then to Sunset’s surprise, the mirror still floating above her revealed most of the extensions to her tail were gone. Her mane was still a lot longer than she was used to, but it would be manageable with the help of some chopsticks and pencils.

Make that a lot of chopsticks and pencils.

At least she could move again.

About thirty minutes later, Moon Dancer finished the ‘repairs’ to the reading room, shifting the final couch into place. Sunset had spent the time trying to pin up most of her hair into a massive tangled bun. She’d ask Princess Celestia to finish the counterspell after she raised the moon for Sunset’s evening lesson.

After all, I think I can survive one day with mane extensions, even if it looks like there’s a small construction project on the back of my head.

“So, Moon Dancer,” Sunset said with a bright and cheery smile. “I think we should take a bit of a break from this particular project, don’t you?”

The younger unicorn winced and blushed a bit. “Um… yeah. Probably a good idea. In fact, I should probably be heading back to the dorms. It’s been a... long day.”

Sunset glared at her and Moon Dancer just grinned back. “Too soon?”

“Go on, get!” Sunset snapped with a laugh. “I swear, Moon Dancer…”

Moon Dancer’s grin didn’t fade as she floated her saddlebags onto her back. At the door, she winked at Sunset, which earned her a thrown cushion.

It missed.

Author's Note:

Sassy Moon Dancer is sassy.

And yes, there is a reason why Sunset's not very good at casting that counterspell on herself. :pinkiegasp:


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