Grading on a Bell Curve

by Amber Spark

First published

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…

  Sunset hates dealing with chaos surges, no matter how amusing Moon Dancer finds them. After a particularly annoying surge while tutoring Moon Dancer in her advanced telekinetic studies, Sunset takes refuge in the teacher’s lounge. Though she was only looking for a cup of scalding hot tea, Sunset finds a pony walking down the same path she once walked, giving her an opportunity she’s never had before…
  To help somepony not out of guilt, but just because it’s the right thing to do.

Featured on Equestria Daily on September 19, 2016!

Historian’s Note: Set in a timeline where the Sonic Rainboom never happened, Bell Curve occurs in Sunset’s second year as an aide for Professor Apple Polish at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and several years before the events in The Application of Unified Harmony Magics.

Cast: Sunset Shimmer, Cheerilee, Moon Dancer & Professor Crystal Clear with Philomena as herself.

Stories set in the Wavelengths Timeline in chronological order:

Origins Arc
The Alchemy of Chemistry
Bards of the Badlands
Grading on a Bell Curve
Habits of the Equestrian Phoenix
How Not To Use Your Royal Prerogative

Applications Arc
The Application of Unified Harmony Magics
Princess Celestia: A Brief History
The Cloudsdale Report

Dreamers Arc
Tactics of Snowbound Unicorns
A Study in Chaos Theory
Teahouses of Saddle Arabia
As the Raven Flies

Cover Credits
Cover Design by Amber Spark using Pixelmator
Sunset Shimmer Vector by Midnight-St4r
Cheerilee Vector by J-Brony
Sunset Shimmer Cutie Mark by MillennialDan

Editor & Beta Reader Credits
Ebon Quill - Worldbuilding Writer on The Manehattan Project
Little Tinker - Sysadmin at Poniverse
Painted Heart

Special Thanks:
Orbiting Kettle - For some sorely-needed advice on getting something approaching a good synopsis for this tale!

Advanced Foal's Play

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“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.

The Grey and the Green

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Before leaving the reading room—making sure to leave it in the proper condition—Sunset stepped over to the ink spot. Moon Dancer, in her efforts to fix the room after the small explosion, had moved the sofa to cover the spot again. For reasons even she couldn’t put a hoof on, Sunset shifted the sofa just enough so the spot was visible. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

She should try to remove the stain, but it felt… disrespectful, somehow. As if such an act would be intentionally forgetting what she had done to that poor filly.

After all, she did come in here a lot. And it was important she never forgot things like this.

“…a pony who isn’t powerful enough, somepony who could be great, powerful—”

No, Sunset snapped at the little voice she’d come to call her ‘angry little pony.’ Leave me alone.

I’m part of you, Sunset Shimmer. I always will be. You can’t deny it. One day, you’ll choose your destiny. I am that destiny. We were meant to rule. And we will.

Sunset hung her head and stared at the ink stain. But she couldn’t force herself to make the voice shut up. She needed it. She needed it to remind her of what she had once been. What she could be again if she wasn’t careful.

Who would have thought being made a teacher’s aide would change everything? Sunset—the real Sunset—thought to herself. Little moments in time.

She needed a drink.

Specifically, she needed a scalding cup of Earl Grey. And she needed it now. There were only two places to get such a thing. The first was the public dining hall. At this time of day, students would be there. She didn’t want to face any students right now. She needed somewhere quiet.

Which left only the lower teacher’s lounge.

As Sunset left the reading room and entered the vaulted hallways of the library for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, she breathed in the heady scent of hundreds of thousands of books. One of the greatest smells in all of creation. Every aspect of scent filled her with a sense of calm that eased some of the frustration still bubbling inside her brain. She closed her eyes and allowed it to envelop her. She knew these corridors so well, she didn’t even need to have her eyes open to know exactly where she was going.

She turned the corner to enter the central atrium and immediately went sprawling to the ground.

Sunset’s eyes popped open in surprise at being on her back for the second time in an hour. A few feet away, a young lavender unicorn around the same age as Moon Dancer was squinting while patting the ground around her. Sunset blinked again when she realized the pony almost looked like Moon Dancer’s twin, only shifted into purple hues.

“Sorry,” Sunset said as she pushed herself to her hooves. “I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going.”

The other pony didn’t respond at first. She was too busy patting the floor until she found her glasses. Her magic flared and the pair of thick black glasses flew onto her muzzle. She took one look at Sunset and paled.

“Let me—” Sunset began and started reaching for the younger unicorn’s books, but the other pony cut her off.

“I-I’m sorry, Miss Shimmer,” the unicorn squeaked, scrambling upright with nearly inequine speed. “I promise… it won’t happen again!”

The lavender unicorn’s horn flared as her books and saddlebags instantly levitated into a giant ball of paper and cloth. Before Sunset could get another word out, the unicorn darted around the corner at a full gallop.

Sunset stared after her and wondered what in Tartarus had just happened. That unicorn had looked familiar. Maybe she’d been in one of Professor Apple Polish’s classes? Or maybe Sunset had just passed her in the hallway at some point? She knew her... but at the moment, the name just wouldn't come to her.

She shook her head, her ears drooping.

Great, another pony who’s terrified of you. And for once, you can’t even remember tormenting this one! You’re so awesome, Sunset.

She really needed that cup of tea.

The thought of slipping into the professor’s lounge to snag something a bit harder crossed her mind, but since she had a class with Celestia tonight…

…Yeah, showing up tipsy to a private class with the ruler of all Equestria was not a good way to start her evening.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip to the lower teacher’s lounge was uneventful. In fact, most of the school was deserted. It was a Friday afternoon, and most of the faculty had already left for the day. As for the students, they were probably enjoying the crisp winter air or huddled in the warmth of the dining hall.

Though Hearth’s Warming was still several weeks away, it hadn’t prevented from some of the more festive-minded students to start decorating. Sunset smiled faintly when she saw the wreath on the lounge door.

With a twist of her magic, she opened the door and her smile grew as her second favorite scent filled the air. This one was of old teas, dark wood and well-used furniture, with just a hint of ink. It reminded her a bit of home. At least the good parts of home, when she cared to remember that particular part of her past.

The lower teacher’s lounge had been both a gift and a necessity. While the professors had the safety and comfort of the Professor’s Lounge on the third story and the enormous Staff Room on main floor, the aides had been metaphorically left out in the cold. With nowhere to dig through the copious amount of homework, essays, thesis papers and other bits handed off to the aides, a few years ago, a large group of aides had all but begged for a space of their own. Considering how many teachers and professors made their academic beginnings as an aide at Gifted Unicorns, at the end of last year, the faculty had finally remembered their own time at GU, relented and allowed the all-but-forgotten lower teacher’s lounge to go to the various assistants and aides.

The lounge was designed in the same manner as the reading room of which Sunset was so fond. Dark wood paneling, slats on the window panes, bookcases lining the walls and plenty of couches, sofas and chairs along with a comfortable number of tables.

But most important was the immense magical hot water dispenser in the corner next to the coffee machine. Some days, Sunset would succumb to temptation and toss back a cup of black coffee, but that only happened when she was on a really bad study binge. And that usually resulted in Celestia threatening to take her off of caffeine for a month. Sunset didn't blame her, mainly because of what had happened at the end of last year. She wasn’t quite at that point today.

Today, she knew exactly what she wanted—scratch that—what she needed.

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Those four words were all that mattered.

However, upon entering the lower teacher’s lounge, Sunset stopped short at the sight of another pony. Sunset had mentally prepared for the room to be occupied. She hadn’t prepared for the occupant to be an earth pony mare.

Earth ponies weren’t common in ranks of teacher’s aides. After all, the school was for gifted unicorns. Nevertheless, something overrode her curiosity about the pony’s race.

The fact the mare was quickly wiping away tears just as Sunset entered seemed far more important.

“Are you okay?” Sunset asked, thoughts of tea temporarily derailed.

“Oh,” she coughed in a sweet voice. “Oh, yes, I’m just fine. Sorry, I sometimes get really into my books.”

Sunset glanced down at the table where a book was propped up so the earth pony could easily read it.

The title was Grading on a Bell Curve.

Sunset knew the book. It had been required reading in her first year as an aide. Anypony working in education knew it. It was about different academic scoring systems. It was filled to the brim with statistical charts, dry data analysis and stuffy proclamations on the ‘proper’ way to grade a class of ponies.

Frankly, anypony who could get emotionally moved by data charts probably needed to have their head examined.

“I never found Glamour Bell’s work to be all that… engaging,” Sunset said casually as she levitated her saddlebags off of her back and onto the floor near an overstuffed lounge chair. “Theories on test results aren’t exactly riveting.”

Sunset walked closer and only by a quick application of telekinetic thrust did she avoid faceplanting into the carpet. At some point, part of the construction project that pinned her mane up had come loose, and she’d nearly tripped on the massive length of hair.

The other mare sniggered just a little, though her eyes were still red and her coat matted on her cheeks.

“You know, I’ve always found a more practical hairstyle to be in favor in teaching,” the mare pointed out. “Especially in a place like this where you occasionally need to move very quickly.”

Sunset sighed and plopped down into the chair across from the earth pony.

“Chaos surge,” Sunset said simply.

“Ah.” The mare smirked a little and nodded in commiseration. “Oh yes, those are so very wonderful.”

The other pony looked maybe a few years older than Sunset and had a soft magenta coat with a two-toned rose mane. Celestia had once taught her a pony’s manestyle could reveal a lot about pony. The first word that came to to Sunset’s mind at the sight of this pony’s style was ‘practical.’

And not somepony who usually sits in an old teacher’s lounge on a Friday afternoon crying over a book of grading techniques.

“Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met,” Sunset began. “I’m—”

“Sunset Shimmer.” The other mare nodded. “Oh, I know. I’m Cheerilee.”

“I can’t remember the last time I was able to actually introduce myself properly to somepony,” Sunset muttered.

“You’re the personal student of Princess Celestia.” The voice held no sympathy whatsoever. “Not to mention widely regarded as the most gifted and powerful unicorn born in… ohhhh I don’t know… centuries.

Sunset went scarlet in an instant. “That’s not true.”

Cheerilee cocked an eyebrow. “That’s not something the Sunset I’ve heard so much about would say.”

Now Sunset was blushing and slumping in her chair. “I’m trying to not be that pony anymore.”

Cheerilee looked like she was ready to throw another barbed comment at Sunset before she deflated. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. You just… caught me at a bad time. I didn’t think anypony would be down here on a Friday afternoon.”

“I really just came for a cup of tea,” Sunset offered. “Tell you what, let me just get it. I’ll get out of your mane and—”

“No!” The protest was so sudden Sunset jumped. “No, that’s… that’s okay. Please, stay.”

It was Sunset’s turn to cock an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

Cheerilee nodded emphatically. “Yes. I… well, if it’s not too much trouble, I could use some company.”

“I’m not sure if I’m the company you’d want to keep right now.”

The other pony was quiet for a time, so quiet that Sunset felt a need to fill the empty space with something, anything.

“So the only reason you’d be in here is if you’re a teacher’s aide. Who’s your professor?”

“Huh?” Cheerilee blinked owlishly as if she had forgotten Sunset was there. “Oh, um… Professor Crystal Clear.”

Sunset gaped. “You’re the aide for the head of the psychology department, the Associate Dean and the Chairpony of the Examinations Board? How come I haven’t seen you around before?”

“I’ve been assisting with admissions process for various academies throughout Equestria for the last few months.” Cheerilee shrugged. “The professor’s had me going everywhere lately. I only came back to Canterlot a few weeks ago.”

“If you’re helping with admissions, you must be at the end of your apprenticeship, right?”

Cheerilee nodded. “Last year before I’m accredited.”

“Congratulations then!” Sunset beamed. “You must be thrilled.”

Cheerilee’s face fell. “Yeah… thrilled…”

“Ah.” Sunset winced. “That’s what’s wrong, isn’t it?”

“So!” Cheerilee suddenly grinned and jumped to her hooves. “You’re an Earl Grey mare, right? I’m partial to green tea, myself. I’ll go get us some!”

Cheerilee bustled over to the wonderful, magical water boiler and its enormous stock of teas from every corner of the world. With the practiced ease of an earth pony, she filled two teacups to the brim and dunked the appropriate teabags into them. She was going to bring them over when Sunset grabbed both in her magic, floated them out of the other mare’s reach and placed them next to Grading on a Bell Curve, still lying on the table where Cheerilee had been sitting.

Cheerilee just watched as the teacups settled and the teal glow vanished.

“I should have just gone home,” Cheerilee muttered.

“You didn’t,” Sunset pointed out. She might be new at this whole playing-nice-with-other-ponies thing, but there were some signs even she couldn’t miss. “That means you needed somepony to talk to. I’m probably not the best pony, but I’m here.”

“What would you know about it?” Cheerilee demanded, stalking back over to sit stiffly on the couch. “What do you know about questioning everything you are and everything you thought you knew about yourself?”

The question caught Sunset so off guard she did the only thing she could do. She laughed.

Cheerilee’s eyes narrowed. She looked ready to fling the cup of tea in Sunset’s face before Sunset raised a hoof and sputtered an apology.

“I’m so sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you,” Sunset gasped. “You just described my entire life for the last year or so.”

“Have you spit your bit or something?” Cheerilee snapped. “You’re the Princess’s prized student. You’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter! All you need to do is show up somewhere, and everypony’s fawning over you. I’ve seen it. I remember the school’s Celestial Ball fundraiser a year ago. You played two dozens nobles like they were puppets and had them eating out of your hoof the entire time.”

Sunset blanched. She hadn’t thought about the Celestial Ball in months. Ironic, considering her old self thought it had been one of her crowning achievements. It had been a testament to her manipulative skill. A skill she wanted buried somewhere deep in the back of her mind.

“Yeah, well,” Sunset snapped back. “When you get put face to face with your own mistakes and realize that everything you’ve been doing for years has been worthless, it is sort of hard to take!”

Horseapples!” Cheerilee retorted. “I’ve heard the stories. I know what you’ve done. Some professors talk about you like you’re Celestia in miniature, and yet I’ve met students who cower at the sound of your name!”

I know! And I’d do anything to take it all back!”

Sunset hadn’t realized she’d been screaming until she swallowed and felt her raw throat. She took a drink from the teacup. It wasn’t as strong as she liked it yet, but the scalding liquid helped soothe her throat a bit.

“You want the truth?” Sunset asked after a moment. “I don’t want to be here. I asked Princess Celestia if I could stop being an aide a week after the start of term. She refused. Said there were still things I needed to learn. Things that were best learned here. How would you like to walk down the hall, bump into somepony and have them run off in terror the moment they get a good look at you? Because that happened less than fifteen minutes ago!

Cheerilee looked ready to respond, but Sunset cut her off.

“I remember when I was first assigned as an aide here. I found out two weeks after starting none of the professors wanted me. The only professor who was willing to give me a chance was Apple Polish. Only mare willing to give me a shot and that was only because Celestia herself asked her to do it. At first, that didn’t bother me, but in the last several months, it’s started to bother me a lot.”

Sunset laughed, though there was no warmth in her voice.

“I was forced to do this at the beginning of last term. I was miserable so I tried to make everypony else miserable. But… eventually I figured out I actually enjoyed being an aide. The downside? I started to see just how much damage I’d done. At least two students left GU because of me. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.”

Cheerilee’s eyes went wide at that little proclamation. Her jaw snapped closed.

“So… if you’re asking what it’s like to question everything you know… yeah, I’ve had some experience.”

Cheerilee was quiet a long time as the weight of Sunset’s confession hung in the air. Sunset wondered if she was going to have a lot of conversations like this. She had been a such horrible aide at the start of all this. And before that? She’d been an unholy terror to the students.

How many apologies will I need to make? How many ponies will I need to get forgiveness from? How many ponies will even bother forgiving me?

She wondered if the day would come when she forgave herself.

Probably best if it doesn’t.

“When I was first sent on these admissions consults,” Cheerilee began quietly. “I was delighted. Thrilled even. I got to see parts of Equestria I’d never seen before. I’d never even left Ponyville before coming here to get my teaching credentials. But the more places I went, the more I realized that me being an earth pony was considered a curiosity at best… and an aberration at worst.”

Sunset was about to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. After all, even she had thought it odd an earth pony had been here just a few minutes ago.

Cheerilee didn’t miss the change in Sunset’s expression. “Exactly. Good job on hiding it, but I saw. Don’t apologize. You at least looked surprised, instead of disturbed.”

The earth pony paused to take a swig of her tea. Sunset did the same and noticed just how precise Cheerilee had to be with her hooves to take a sip from the teacup when Sunset could just use her magic.

“Did you know seventy percent of all teachers and professors in Equestria are unicorns?” Cheerilee said with a heartless laugh. “I’ve checked the numbers. It used to be a lot worse, actually. And it’s because unicorns can not only handle their own magic, but they’re better equipped to cope with pegasi and earth pony magic. Only ten percent of teachers are earth ponies and half of those live in rural areas in schools dedicated to ‘the earth pony way.’”

Another sip of tea. Cheerilee stared at her book again, not meeting Sunset’s eyes.

“After all the looks I got in all those schools, I got back and started to wonder… is that what the staff here think of me? Are they just too polite to say I shouldn’t be here? That an earth pony has no business being in education?”

Sunset took a gulp of the tea after using her magic to heat it a bit more. She’d intentionally left the bag in longer than usual and the taste kicked like a mule in addition to burning down her throat. She needed the punch to her senses right now, especially since a yawn right now would probably not be a good thing.

“You’re talking about racism,” Sunset began slowly. “Do you really think that Princess—”

“This isn’t about racism!” Cheerilee snapped. “I know all about Hearth’s Warming Eve! I know how the three tribes learned to work together. Every colt and filly knows the story. But you know what? Pegasi are still masters of weather control, even though a unicorn might be able to do the job. Earth ponies are still the best farmers, even if pegasi could control the rain for their crops. And unicorns…”

“Are the best teachers?”

“Maybe.” Cheerilee sighed. “I don’t know anymore.”

“What are you looking to teach anyway?”

Cheerilee shrugged. “At first, I was considering high school, but that was for only about six months after I first graduated. Now I’m aiming for grade school. Something small. Maybe I’ll just end up teaching ‘the earth pony way.’”

The earth pony put her teacup down and looked Sunset square in the eye.

“Everypony has a special talent. Now, that might not be what they’re destined to do occupationally, but it’s going to be woven into their lives at a fundamental level. Fighting against that would be like fighting the wind. Maybe this is the same thing.”

“And what about your special talent?”

“I used to think it meant guiding ponies to grow and help them bloom.” Cheerilee looked at her flank and the three smiling flowers. She didn’t smile back at them. “Maybe I was wrong. I won’t be the first pony to misunderstand her mark, and I definitely won’t be the last.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize this was probably all a big mistake.”

Sunset took a deep breath. This was out of her league. At the very least, Sunset knew her talent was magic. Her own mark showed an affinity for solar-based magic, but Celestia had told her clearly a long time ago there was nothing beyond her reach. She’d never questioned that. Being a unicorn was part of the core of her very identity. Even everything that had happened in the last several months hadn’t changed any of that.

She liked to think she could tackle any problem, handle any obstacle and overcome any challenge. But she was starting to figure out she couldn’t—and didn’t—need to do it alone.

It was hard for her to admit something was beyond her. But some things were simply too big for her to handle.

I probably couldn’t have accepted that last year, Sunset thought with a sigh.

You shouldn’t have to accept it now! You’re stronger than that! Your problem right now is you’re wasting time on this stupid filly! Just get up and walk—

Sunset downed the last dregs of Earl Grey and shuddered as the hot, bitter taste drowned the evil little voice and most of her hesitation.

Cheerilee watched her. The mare’s eyes were still red from tears. She looked exhausted. She’d probably been up for days struggling with this. Well, that was another thing Sunset could relate to. She’d had a lot of sleepless nights over the summer… and a lot more since coming back.

“Cheerilee, I don’t think I can help you,” Sunset confessed when she managed to find her voice. “But I might know somepony who might.”

Sunset had a lot of things to make up for. But this wasn’t one of them. For once, she didn’t have to undo the damage she had caused. For the first time in a long while, she had a chance to help somepony, not because of guilt or some selfish desire, but because it was simply the right thing to do.

“Come with me.” Sunset rose to her hooves and took a step forward to encourage Cheerilee.

That proved to be a mistake. In her haste, she had forgotten about her mane. So she tripped. Again.

And fell face-first into Grading on a Bell Curve.

Despite Cheerilee’s mood, the earth pony burst out laughing.

External Perspective

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The top floor of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns held three important things: the astronomy tower, the Dean’s office and the Associate Dean’s office.

This was the only place in the school—aside from Records—where there was any sign of Professor Clear’s status within the school. On the right side of the intricately carved wooden door was a brass plaque with all of Clear’s current titles and degrees. Despite her status, she hated being called anything other than ‘Professor.’

Teaching for almost five decades probably makes a pony rather set in their ways, Sunset thought as she walked from the stairwell toward the door.

Cheerilee glared between the entrance of Professor Clear’s office and Sunset as they trotted across the hardwood floor. At the base of the stairs to the third level, Sunset had paused to write a quick note in her journal with Cheerilee staring at her quizzically. Halfway up the stairs—the moment she had figured out where Sunset was taking her—Cheerilee tried to stop. Sunset practically had to shove her the rest of the way up.

“What are you planning?” Cheerilee hissed for the fifth time as they came to a stop.

Sunset stifled another yawn, wishing she had had time for another cup of tea. Maybe then this plan would make more sense in her head. But right now, she was acting more on instinct, so she didn’t reply to Cheerilee. She only knocked on the door.

“Come,” the calm and muffled voice of Crystal Clear said through the thick wood.

Sunset gently opened the door and stepped into the sunlit chamber. As with most private offices in the school, it was lined with bookshelves.

Every bookshelf held at least one memento from Professor Clear’s days as a teacher abroad, be it an ancient book, a snowglobe, a piece of jewelry or some arcane artifact Sunset couldn’t identify. Despite all the knickknacks, there was a sense of perfect order to the room, all highlighted by the massive floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the south side, looking out over the vast expanse of Canterlot lit by the afternoon sun.

The professor sat at her enormous wooden desk. A mass of neatly organized paperwork lay before her as she peered down half-moon spectacles. Her bushy pink mane nearly glowed in the sunlight, while her bright yellow coat made her seem to burn like a second sun. A pencil floated in the air beside her, and she scribbled something on a sheet of paper before putting it in the outbox. Finally, she looked up, and her normally hard eyes softened, a faint smile appearing where there was usually a stoic line. It wasn’t an expression Sunset had often seen on the professor.

It would have been nice if Professor Clear had directed it at Sunset, but it was directed at Cheerilee. Cheerilee didn’t see it. She was looking at the desk, the bookshelves and the windows. Anywhere but at Professor Clear.

“Miss Shimmer? Cheerilee?” Professor Clear blinked in surprise and consulted a Saddle Arabian timepiece on her desk. “What in the world are you two doing here at this hour?”

Sunset opened her mouth to answer when she felt a familiar buzz in her left saddlebag.

“Sorry, Professor. Just one moment.”

The look of warmth quickly shifted to a frown as Sunset levitated out the journal with her cutie mark on it. The moment she opened it, the bright pink glow and the loud buzzing stopped. She flipped to the appropriate page and found what she sought.

Fifteen minutes.

Sunset smiled, and the sun outside seemed just a bit brighter.

“Sorry, Professor,” Sunset repeated. “But you know one should never ignore a message from her.”

Crystal Clear had seen the journal before. She knew who had its counterpart. So the professor only nodded.

“What’s this all about, then?”

“Don’t ask me, Professor,” Cheerilee murmured, still not meeting Professor Clear’s eyes. “Sunset Shimmer wouldn’t tell me.”

This is probably a terrible idea. Oh well, that’s never stopped me before.

“Have you told Professor Clear about your concerns, Cheerilee?” Sunset asked.

Cheerilee immediately paled. “No! I’m not going to bother her with such… such…”

“What concerns are these?” Professor Clear’s eyebrow shot up her forehead. “If there is a problem, Miss Cheerilee, I expect you to notify me. I cannot have an aide who conceals important matters from me.”

“I-it’s really nothing,” Cheerilee stammered. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I’ll leave you—”

Sunset was ready for Cheerilee’s attempt to bolt. Her horn was already glowing, jamming the door to the professor’s office. Cheerilee didn’t even bother trying to open it when she saw the magical aura. The earth pony just shot a look at Sunset that might have incinerated her on the spot if Cheerilee had been a unicorn.

“Do you mind if we sit down?” Sunset asked, not even acknowledging that she was casting a spell. “It is rather important.”

Professor Clear’s eyes narrowed. “I have heard good things about you from Professor Polish as of late, Miss Shimmer. I do hope the professor has not been exaggerating. You are playing at something, and I would know what it is.”

“Ma’am,” Sunset said slowly. “I think you’ll find there’s a very good reason for this.”

There’d better be,” Cheerilee growled under her breath, pitched so only Sunset could hear it. The ‘or else’ was implicit in the comment.

Professor Clear looked at the paperwork at her desk and then up to the two mares. She shrugged and gestured to the pair of chairs in front of her desk.

“It’s a Friday afternoon. I can spare a little time.”

Sunset took the left chair, leaving Cheerilee to either stand there awkwardly or sit. She eventually chose to sit.

“Professor, I know this is a little strange,” Sunset began, hoping that the rest of this half-formed plan would crystallize at the right moment. “But if you don’t mind me asking… could you give me your opinion on my performance under Professor Polish, specifically for last term?”

Crystal Clear stared at her. “Shouldn’t you be asking Professor Polish this? She is the one who has been doing the reports.”

“I’d like an outsider’s opinion. A second pair of eyes.”

After another glance at Cheerilee, the professor leaned forward and stared even harder at Sunset. Sunset did her best to keep herself steady. Professor Clear hadn’t only been teaching for nearly half a century, she also had a doctorate in psychology. She knew how to read ponies, be they students, faculty or aides. Which also meant she understood Sunset didn't want to have the events at the end of term brought up. At least, Sunset hoped so.

In the end, Sunset knew her only chance was the truth.

After nearly a minute, Professor Clear looked a bit less suspicious, though she was obviously still curious.

“If you had asked me that question at the start of last term, I would have said abysmal,” Professor Clear said bluntly. “You were decidedly hostile toward both Professor Polish and her class in general. That is not counting your school-wide attitude.”

Sunset winced. I had that coming. I needed to take that hit.

“I received four requests by Apple Polish to have you removed,” Clear continued in a dispassionate tone. “However, Princess Celestia appointed you to the position, and as she is the head of this institution, her word is law. She denied each request, despite what... others may have thought.”

Polish asked to have me removed four times? I didn’t know about that. Ouch.

“And then?” Sunset asked, doing her best to keep her voice even.

“While it would be nice to say there was a singular event during last term that caused an alteration in your decidedly poor attitude, Miss Shimmer, such an event did not occur. Over the course of a few months, I received fewer and fewer complaints. Then to my surprise, I received a positive report. The one of you deciding to tutor Miss Dancer, I believe. Since then, you have had your problems, but nothing near your previous issues, save for that incident at the end of the year, which we do not need to discuss. You have done fairly well for yourself, though I admit you still have not convinced most of the faculty you have turned over a new leaf.”

With a glimmer of her magic, Professor Clear removed her glasses. Her eyes bored into Sunset, an eyebrow cocked as she waited for an explanation.

At least no surprises there, Sunset sighed. Not fun, but deserved. Now, let’s shift the perspective.

“What is this about, Miss Shimmer? Why is my personal aide here? I would not think you would have wanted this information shared.”

“I know…” Sunset faltered. She had no idea if this was going to work or not, but she was too far in to back out now. “I know this isn’t standard procedure, but I was hoping you might be able to tell me your thoughts on your aide.”

Cheerilee muttered a curse under her breath and glared another disintegration blast at Sunset.

“Why?” The professor’s eyebrow threatened to leave her face altogether.

And here I thought I might be lucky enough to get away with you not asking that. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

“When I was a filly, I always worried my magic was… well, not good enough.” Sunset looked down at her hooves. “I had this voice in the back of my head telling me I was terrible, worthless and an utter waste of space. Why I had that voice in my head doesn’t matter. What matters was it was there. It hounded me, ate at me, made me doubt every second of every minute of every day. Every time somepony said how talented I was because of some new trick or spell, I never really believed them.”

Sunset finally looked at Cheerilee, meeting her gaze. Cheerilee was staring in open shock at her. Sunset’s expression was just earnest. At least, she hoped it was. Because this was turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than Sunset had expected.

“That voice told me everypony around me was lying. That I really was as bad as I feared and nopony had the guts to say it to my face.”

Professor Clear coughed. “I’m sorry, Miss Shimmer, but you seemed to have lost me. How does that answer my question?”

Sunset’s eyes never left Cheerilee. “It wasn’t until my entrance exam and my acceptance to this school… that was the point that little voice was all but silenced.”

Yeah, that voice was silenced. Sunset mentally added. Now, I have a new one to keep me company. Yay.

“The faculty here didn’t ‘care’ about what I thought of myself,” Sunset continued. “They didn’t ‘care’ about my feelings. They cared about the results.”

Sunset finally looked back to Crystal Clear. For a moment, she knew Professor Clear was seeing the same thing Sunset was seeing in her mind’s eye: Sunset’s entrance exam. She’d been the Chairpony of the Examinations Board then too.

The flare of magic. The incredible warmth of the sun flowing through her. The world becoming a glorious rainbow of color, growing ever brighter until she cried out in pain—

Sunset swallowed and pushed ahead. “You asked why you should share your thoughts on Cheerilee as your aide. Well, I happen to know you were without an aide for five years before you took on Cheerilee. You picked her out for a reason.”

Sunset finally turned and looked at the wide-eyed earth pony. “I think Cheerilee needs to know that reason.”

Professor Crystal Clear looked at her aide. Cheerilee looked at her hooves. Sunset looked at both of them as the awkward silence filled the room.

Then an explosion of blinding crimson and gold over their heads grabbed everypony’s attention.

Philomena, you are always such a damn showoff. Sunset did her best to hide her smirk. Still, great timing and great entrance. Ten for ten.

The phoenix took one loop around the room and let out a musical cry. Crystal Clear had seen Philomena plenty of times before, so Sunset knew she wouldn’t be startled by the bird’s sudden appearance. Cheerilee, on the other hoof, almost fell out of her chair.

Philomena finally settled on Sunset’s back and nibbled at her ear affectionately. Sunset laughed a little, replying by way of scratching the bird under her fiery chin. The phoenix sang a little note in greeting then dropped the scroll she’d been holding. Sunset caught it in her magic and levitated it over to Professor Clear.

“This is for afterward, Professor,” Sunset said.

While Crystal Clear might have been familiar with Celestia’s pet phoenix, having a mythical firebird sitting in the same room can be somewhat distracting. It took a moment for Crystal Clear to get her brain back on track. Sunset stifled another chuckle.

“Miss Cheerilee.” Professor Clear coughed, pulling Cheerilee’s attention from the phoenix. “From what I gather from Sunset’s… unusual request, you have some doubt as to your place in this institution…” She paused and cocked her head. “No, that’s not it, is it? You’re having doubts as to your calling.”

Cheerilee, still sneaking glances at Philomena, just nodded.

“Considering this new information, I shall give you an abridged version of the report I have compiled for the Equestrian Educational Board of Directors. While there is still plenty of time left in the term, I drew up a draft from your behavior and conduct in my classes in addition to your performance while on your recent assignment assisting with winter admissions across Equestria.”

Cheerilee said nothing. She could have been a colorful statue for all the life she showed.

“It is my opinion you have the makings of an excellent teacher, Miss Cheerilee. The Board will make you fully accredited by the end of the term, of this I have no doubt. But beyond that, you will also receive something I have only given to a hoofful of aides in the last fifty years: my personal endorsement.”

Cheerilee let out a little squeak.

“Beyond your meticulous and well-crafted study plans for the various students, your constant drive, cheerful attitude and rock-solid work ethic, there is one unique characteristic I value more than any other. It is something I often find in very short supply in the field of education. Something I admit to struggling with myself.”

Crystal Clear placed her glasses on the desk, and the professor leaned forward. The formal mask dropped away, and she transformed from the stern Associate Dean of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns into a matronly mare doting on one of her favorite grandfoals.

“It’s your compassion for the students. I’ve seen you late to class because you were quietly comforting a sobbing filly out in the hall because of the actions of a bully. I’ve seen you carry a colt’s science project home in the pouring rain because his parents were called away for a shift at Canterlot Hospital. I’ve seen you help first-year and last-year students in the same patient, loving manner to which most educators can only aspire. Time and time again, I have received multiple reports about you going above and beyond to show kindness to those under your charge. More importantly, you’ve done this when you believed nopony was watching.”

Cheerilee’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates. Professor Clear coughed back something that might have been a hitch in her voice before continuing.

“In truth, Cheerilee, the Board of Directors has been watching you for years. They recommended I take you on as my aide, and I wanted to see you in action for myself. The Board is eager to see where you will apply your talents. You could surely gain tenure at some of the most prestigious universities in all of Equestria in half the usual time. Those whom you have helped love you… as have those you have served in your capacity as an aide. Myself included.”

“But… but…” Cheerilee stammered. “You’re… you’re a unicorn! I heard what the others said about me while on assignment! They don’t think—”

“Oh, not this old song and dance again,” Professor Clear scoffed. “I am so very weary of this stereotypical nonsense. It’s the whole earth pony thing, isn’t it?”

Cheerilee only nodded. Sunset could see tears in her eyes.

“Let me be frank with you, Cheerilee.” She leaned forward a bit more to make sure she had Cheerilee’s full attention. “It does not—and would not—matter if you are an earth pony, a pegasus, a unicorn, a griffon or a draconequus.”


“Cheerilee, you are simply adored within the halls of this institution. I haven’t seen a member of the faculty so loved by both students and staff since Professor Inkwell. By Celestia, if you so desire to teach here, I will personally make it happen.”

“That’s… that’s impossible.”

Professor Clear grinned. Sunset found herself liking this version of the professor.

I wonder why she doesn’t let this part out very often. Maybe it’s just for special occasions. I’m glad this qualified.

“In truth, it does not matter to me you are an earth pony. If you desire to teach here for mathematics, advanced astronomy, alchemy or any other field, you will have my blessing in full. No matter what field you wish to work in, you have my support. Indeed, I have even begun creating a revised and expanded curriculum designed to familiarize young unicorns with the magic of pegasi and earth ponies. While I already have a pegasus lined up as an instructor, the earth pony position is yours if you want it.

“However, if you take this assignment, you cannot take it as an earth pony. You may only accept it as a teacher. Your race does not matter to me, only your calling, your skill and your heart. I will not have you thinking you are GU’s ‘token earth pony.’ You are far too valuable to allow backward ideas to pigeonhole you into such a mindset.”

A grin broke out on Sunset’s face. She almost felt like dancing.

“Indeed, I had planned on offering you a position within this school after you passed your final accreditation courses, but it seems somepony thinks you need a bit of encouragement.”

Crystal Clear shot a sideways glance at Sunset. Sunset just smiled sheepishly. But there was no anger in the professor’s gaze. If anything, there was only gratitude.

Meanwhile, Cheerilee looked utterly lost. Her mouth just kept opening and closing over and over again as if her brain was misfiring. Sunset couldn’t help but chuckle at the aide’s behavior.

I don’t think she was expecting that. Celestia, I wasn’t even expecting that.

“Now, that concludes my preliminary report,” Professor Clear leaned back and broke the seal on the scroll, apparently taking no notice of Cheerilee’s current state. “Let’s see what this scroll has to say.”

Philomena’s head popped up. Apparently, she was curious too.

“Looks like a letter from the Princess,” Crystal Clear said in a casual tone that convinced absolutely nopony. “Hmmm… ‘To Miss Cheerilee, current aide to Professor Crystal Clear of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. In a recent meeting with the Equestrian Educational Board of Directors, your name came up several times, specifically concerning your excellent work during the latest series of winter admissions across Equestria. There have been some concerns raised over the admissions process by parents as of late, and the Board recommended you as an excellent point of contact for the potential revision of this program on a nationwide scale. Please inform Professor Clear I would like to see you on Monday at noon at Canterlot Castle to discuss any thoughts you might have. Yours sincerely, Princess Celestia.’”

Damn, Princess. When you’re good, you’re good.

The best part was Sunset knew Princess Celestia wouldn’t have made this up. If she just wanted to meet the mare to encourage her, she would have offered a ‘casual’ meeting over tea. The Board had recommended Cheerilee for this. Sunset had a sneaking suspicion Professor Clear might have had something to do with that.

“Well, it appears I shall have to handle one day of classes alone,” Professor Clear said with a deep and heavy sigh. “I suppose I’ll muddle by as long as I can find the chalk.”

Cheerilee still hadn’t moved, save for occasional blink and shift of her jaw.

Finally, Professor Clear dropped the act.

“Oh dear,” she commented. “Miss Shimmer, I believe we may have broken her.”

The Legacy of Compassion

View Online

It had taken almost twenty minutes to get Cheerilee anything remotely resembling functional again. After a half dozen assurances that no, this was not a dream, Cheerilee respectfully requested Professor Clear send a message back to the Princess thanking her for the opportunity and confirming Cheerilee would be delighted to see her on Monday.

Philomena had fluttered around Cheerilee for a bit before vanishing with the unique brand of phoenix magic Sunset still didn’t fully understand. She’d never seen another phoenix teleport, but they were rare enough that she’d only seen one other. Celestia also liked keeping details on phoenixes a bit mysterious. Probably to add to Philomena’s mystique, something of which Sunset was sure Celestia’s pet wholeheartedly approved.

Meanwhile, Cheerilee had simply been mesmerized by the mythical bird.

Finally, as the sun began to slip toward the horizon, Sunset realized if she didn’t get going soon, she’d be late for her evening study with the Princess. Professor Clear had also mentioned there were a few things for her to do before heading home for the weekend. Still, Sunset had offered to have tea—in a proper teahouse—with Cheerilee tomorrow morning.

Cheerilee had readily agreed, while insisting on paying tomorrow in addition to walking Sunset to Canterlot Castle tonight.

As they headed for the door, Professor Clear spoke up. “Miss Shimmer, a moment of your time, please? Cheerilee, I promise I won’t keep your friend for long.”

Cheerilee still had a silly grin on her face and just nodded happily. It looked like she was still trying to process the revelations Professor Clear had delivered.

The moment Cheerilee had closed the door, Crystal Clear was on her hooves and coming around the desk. The professor stopped in front of Sunset with a strange expression she couldn’t quite identify. Sunset took a step back, her ears going flat against her head.

After studying Sunset for what felt like hours, Professor Clear reached out a hoof. Sunset gingerly took the outstretched hoof, and the professor shook it passionately.

“Thank you, Sunset,” Crystal Clear said, her voice earnest, almost as if she were fighting back tears. “I had no idea Cheerilee was having such doubts. Maybe I’m getting rusty in my old age to have missed it. You really are a different pony than the one I accepted all those years ago.”

“It was nothing.” Sunset swallowed. “I just… I know what’s it’s like to doubt yourself. I recently realized almost everything I had been doing was for the wrong reasons. When I saw Cheerilee had the same doubts… but there was no basis for them, well, I knew me just telling her that wouldn’t do much good.”

“You were right.” Crystal Clear nodded. “Everypony has times when we need a third party to say something important into our lives. A messenger of truth, if you will. Cheerilee has driven herself very hard to get to this point, but I’m worried about her. I’m worried without support, she’ll burn out. There’s only so much we can do for her.”

Sunset frowned. “If you’re asking what I think you’re asking… you have to know I’m probably the worst choice you can make…”

“You contacted the most powerful being in Equestria to help a pony in need without any thought to what you would gain from it, Sunset.” Crystal Clear beamed at her. “That’s called generosity. And that’s called kindness. Those are traits you once lacked. I think you’re starting to find them. I think you’re finally on the right road.”

“Maybe.” Sunset dug at the carpet a little, unable to meet the professor’s eyes. “But if that’s the case, I’m only at the start of that road.”

“It is a long road,” Crystal Clear said, her warm smile never fading. “But it is a great deal easier if you do not walk it alone.”

Sunset nodded and chewed her bottom lip a bit. “Thank you, Professor.”

“You are quite welcome, Sunset.”

With that, Sunset left and met Cheerilee in the hall outside the professor’s office. To her surprise, Cheerilee had her book out again. She closed it and slipped it into a saddlebag, trying surreptitiously to wipe the tears from her eyes while doing so.

This time, Sunset was pretty sure they were tears of joy, if Cheerilee’s smile was any indication.

Sunset grinned. “I’m sorry, but I still can’t see how you can find Grading on a Bell Curve to be that emotional.”

Cheerilee laughed, and they headed down the stairs. It wasn’t until they had finally left the school grounds and entered into the twilight of Canterlot itself that she spoke again.


“You looked like you needed a friend,” Sunset admitted. “And because… I’m starting to wonder if all the stuff I’ve gone through, the mistakes I made… well, maybe the reason I went through all that was so I could help other ponies.”

Cheerilee blinked at her a few times as they passed under a lamppost. “That’s a much more mature attitude than I expected from you.”

“I don’t know.” Sunset shrugged. “I’m not any good at this friendship thing. Tartarus, I’m barely qualified to even talk to other ponies. But I need to try. I have a feeling I’ll screw up a lot while doing it.”

“Well, you didn’t screw up today,” Cheerilee said. “I don’t know if I’ll take Professor Clear up on her offer or not. I have this little dream about a classic red schoolhouse on a grassy hill somewhere. Maybe back home in Ponyville.”

“Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll be great at it.”

Cheerilee smiled. “You know, for the first time, I think I can actually believe it when somepony says that.”

“I’m glad. It sucks to have that little voice in your head.” Sunset rubbed the back of her head.

Now if I could only get rid of my little voice...

“So there’s a great new coffee and teahouse on Galloping Gateway called The First Cup,” Sunset said. “I think you’ll—”

“Um… Sunset?”


Sunset turned to look at Cheerilee, which was precisely the wrong thing to do. Because when she had rubbed the back of her head, it had once again loosened the architecture holding the massive construction supporting her mane. So, of course, that single turn was enough to get it to wrap under her hooves.

She went down in a heap and with a groan.

Cheerilee’s laughter exploded up and down the street.

“I swear, I’m going to throttle Moon Dancer,” Sunset muttered as Cheerilee knelt to help her get untangled. “I’ll bet she did this on purpose.”

“Who’s Moon Dancer?” Cheerilee asked as she did some quick work with her hooves and reinforced the construct on the back of Sunset’s head.

“Oh, just one of the few friends I’ve managed to make,” Sunset said as she slowly began to move forward. At this point, she was convinced her mane was out to get her.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, you’ve just made one more.”

Sunset smiled—making sure not to do anything to loosen the pins in her mane—and turned to Cheerilee.

“Thank you. That actually means a lot.”

“After all,” Cheerilee said with a twinkle in her eye. “Anypony who could do that to your mane and get away with it either has to be a very close friend or a very close enemy.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sunset said, rolling her eyes. “Moon Dancer’s going to love you.”