"Now then, class, can anypony tell me the main difference between a hydra and a dragon?" Hooves shot up across the classroom. Cheerilee scanned the room, smiling. "Hmmm, Scootaloo?"
"Dragons have one head, and Hydras have, erm…" she trailed off, rubbing her chin. "A bunch?"
Cheerilee nodded her head. "Very good, Scootaloo! Hydras can have any number of heads, although you find them mostly with somewhere between six and eight."
Cheerilee's entire class was sitting up, paying close attention to the lecture. The very idea of happy, attentive students was more than enough to energize her. After spending weeks on grammar—subject that the fillies, if their glazed-over eyes and snores were anything to go by, were clearly bored of—Cheerilee had felt that a break was necessary. And as luck would have it, a perfect scenario presented itself: just days earlier, a Hydra that had taken residence in Froggy Bottom Bog was finally moved. It gave Cheerilee the opportunity to cover a far more interesting subject: the various wild creatures that populated Equestria.
Her musing was interrupted by Apple Bloom jutting a hoof into the air. "But Miss Cheerilee, mah sister said that the Hydra she saw a few months ago had only four heads."
"Yes, Apple Bloom, but then again, Hydras don't usually show up in Froggy Bottom Bog. That one was certainly an oddity! That's why the Canterlot Wild Animal Patrol were down there on Tuesday to transfer it off to the Caballus Swamp, much further away from civilization, so it won't be able to attack anypony."
Cheerilee took the pointer in her hoof and turned to the class, gesturing at the Hydra she had drawn on the chalkboard. Every filly's eyes were wide, their posture perfect in eager anticipation of the rest of the lesson. Cheerilee's cheeks were starting to hurt from her smile; she hadn't seen the class this interested in a lesson in quite some time. "See, class, Hydras are technically herbivores. That means they only eat plants. However, they are also fiercely territorial. They will go after anypony—or for that matter, any creature—that enters what it considers its territory. That's why several months ago, it attacked a group of ponies who were visiting Froggy Bottom Bog. Any questions?"
A hoof in the front of the room ponderously raised.
Scootaloo looked around the room a bit, making sure that the other fillies were listening closely. "Is it true that if you cut off a Hydra's head, it grows back?"
Cheerilee's jaw dropped slightly. "Scootaloo, where did you get that information?"
The pegasus filly grinned ear to ear. "Rainbow Dash!" Scootaloo leaned forward in her desk, her voice cracking slightly with excitement. "She was telling me all about how she would have beaten that Hydra that showed up, and she mentioned that Hydra can regenerate heads! Is it true?"
Cheerilee's face grew thoughtful as she mulled it over. The more detailed information about Hydras might not have been the most appropriate information for fillies, but it was important. She took another moment to gather her thoughts, knowing she would have to word this just right.
"Actually, Scootaloo, there's more than that: if a Hydra's head gets cut off, two heads grow back!" The gasp that rose from the room encouraged Cheerilee to continue. "The cells inside of a hydra grow at such a rate that they duplicate the head within a fraction of a second."
Cheerilee couldn't help but giggle a little as she saw the entire classes' eyes widen. Scootaloo's hoof shot up again, almost instantaneously.
"But then how do you stop a Hydra? If their heads can grow back, doesn't that mean there's no way to stop it?"
Cheerilee shifted her weight awkwardly onto her right side, blushing and slightly averting her gaze from the class. "Oh, well, I don't know if that would be appropriate for you all."
Groans shot up around the room, along with begs and cries of "Pleeeaaaaaaaase!" Cheerilee cautiously smiled.
"Well, a fire spell is the best way to stop a Hydra. It will incapacitate the Hydra for long enough for a pony to escape. In fact, in some cases, the fire spell will stop the Hydra's heads from regenerating!"
Cheerilee chuckled again as the collective eyes of the class widened, and a "woaaaaahhhhh," rose up from the students. She opened her mouth again, but her eyes wandering around the surprised classroom suddenly fell upon the clock on the wall, and she let out a dismayed sigh.
"Oh, goodness, it's already 2:55? My my, this day certainly went by quickly," she said with a smile. "Alright, does anypony have any announcements they'd like to make before the weekend?"
A hoof shot into the air, then wildly waved back and forth. "Ooh! Oooh! Ooooooh! Miss Cheerilee, Miss Cheerilee!"
Cheerilee chuckled again. "Go ahead, Twist."
Twist jumped up on top of her desk, spinning around to try to address everypony in the room at once. "I just wanted to tell everypony that my mom's furniture thtore is having a thuper thale this weekend! You all thould totally…"
Twist was interrupted by another voice from across the room.
"A 'thale?' I'm sorry, I don't know what a 'thale' is."
Silver Spoon giggled at her own joke. Cheerilee rolled her eyes as she turned to her.
"Now Silver Spoon, that's no way to talk to one of your fellow students!"
"But furniture is boring," Silver Spoon said with dismissive wave of her front hoof. "Have you seen Twist's mother? Her Cutie Mark is a chair! She's probably the most boring pony ever!"
"Hey, furniture is thuper thwell," Twist protested, her eyebrows tilting upwards as she leaned towards Silver Spoon.
Before the discussion could descend into an argument, Cheerilee stepped in between the two fillies.
"Silver Spoon, come on now. You can't judge a pony's personality based on their Cutie Mark."
Just as the words escaped her lips, Cheerilee felt a knot form in her throat. Giving a quick shake of her head, she swallowed and opened her mouth to speak again, only for Silver Spoon to cut her off.
"But even so, Miss Cheerilee, Cutie Marks help you identify what ponies are good at," she said with a slight giggle. "Last week, my dad hired a pony to help fix the roof of our house. He had a guitar as a Cutie Mark, but insisted that he could fix walls, and he ended up ruining the wall even more! Turns out he was some out of work musician, looking to make a few bits!"
Cheerilee felt the knot in her throat return as the class laughed, but this time, the knot didn't go away as quickly. Biting her lip a bit, Cheerilee glanced up at the clock again.
"Well, if there aren't any more announcements, that's all for today. Don't forget your homework this Monday!"
The knot slowly disappeared again as Cheerilee walked her students out of the schoolhouse. As they moved outside, Apple Bloom's eyes lit up.
Apple Bloom broke away from the students exiting the school house and jumped at her bigger sister, hanging off of her neck with a big hug.
"Hiya Apple Bloom," Applejack said, tussling her sister's hair. "Thought I'd stop by and walk ya'll home from school. How was yer day?"
"Great! But I wasn't plannin' on goin home just yet." She dropped off of Applejack's neck, taking a few steps back. "Me an' the Crusaders were headed over to Sugarcube Corner to meet Pinkie Pie. She's gonna teach us how to bake biscuits!"
Sweetie Belle ran out of the classroom and jumped in front of Apple Bloom.
"Yeah. Cupcakes, cakes, pies, bread, brownies, fudge, and muffins were all busts," Sweetie Belle said, jumping up and down with a massive smile on her face. "But she's got a really good feeling that we're natural biscuit makers!"
Applejack couldn't hide her eye roll as Scootaloo leapt over her two Crusader friends, landing in front of them and dramatically pointing a hoof towards Ponyville.
"Come on, Crusaders! We got Biscuit Baking Cutie Marks to earn!"
With a burst of energy, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo took off towards downtown Ponyville. Apple Bloom chased them for a few steps before screeching to a halt and turning back to her big sister.
"Ya'll wanna come, sis? You could help us!"
"Sure, I'll join ya! Just run along ahead, I'll catch up with you fillies."
Apple Bloom took off to join her friends, and Applejack turned to the teacher.
"Howdy, Cheerilee!" she said with a friendly tip of her hat. Cheerilee returned the smile.
"Hello, Applejack, good to see you." Cheerilee said, beckoning Applejack to follow her through the door back into the classroom. "That was nice of you to walk all the way from Sweet Apple Acres to walk your sister home."
As Applejack stepped in to the schoolhouse and spoke, her voice began to take a more somber tone. "Actually, Cheerilee, to be honest, I wanted ta talk to you about something."
Cheerilee turned back to Applejack, turning her head to the side in concern. "Oh? Is everything alright?"
The smile on Applejack's face slowly disappeared, and anxiety shot through the back of Cheerilee's mind.
"Well, no." Applejack said, kicking at the ground lightly. "Listen, the past few weeks, Apple Bloom's been comin' home in an awful state. The way she looked some days, I reckon she was cryin' on the way back to the farm. When I talked to her, she told me there was a pony here at school that had been botherin' her and callin' her awful names, pony's name was Silver Spoon?"
Cheerilee nodded. "Oh yes, I completely understand. Silver Spoon can be a little, well, abrasive."
Cheerilee smiled at Applejack, but the smile wasn't returned.
"Abrasive?" Applejack scrunched her face, an eyebrow slightly raising. "What do y'all mean by abrasive?"
"You know, a little rough."
"A little rough? A little rough?" Applejack's voice grew louder as she stepped forward. "Cheerilee, sandpaper is 'a little rough,' Sthis Silver Spoon filly is bein' a bully, and it's hurtin' mah sister. Now I need to know if ya'll are gonna do somethin' about this. I woulda figured you'd've noticed it by now, seein' as this has been goin on for a while now."
Cheerilee stepped back slightly from Applejack, putting on a smile to try to diffuse the situation.
"I've mentioned to Silver Spoon to try to be a little nicer, but she's also a bit stubborn." She turned, starting to gather some papers on her desk. "I think it's just a phase she's going through, you know how little fillies can get. Hopefully she'll grow out of it soon."
Cheerilee turned back, and found herself face to face with Applejack. A shadow had grown across her face, and her eyes were now narrow and hard.
"Hopefully she'll grow outta it? Cheerilee, she's tormentin' Apple Bloom! I can't just stand by and watch mah little sister be upset like this!"
Applejack stepped forward towards Cheerilee, her hoof coming down on the wooden floor of the school house with enough force for Cheerilee to feel the floor tremble in her own hoof. "This filly's makin' her miserable, and there ain't no dad-gum reason for it! Now i gotta put my hoof down and demand that you, as her teacher, do somethin' about it!"
Cheerilee's jaw hung, quivering ever so slightly. Applejack could be stubborn, but it was especially rare to see her angry. It was quite a shock, but what stung all the more was knowing that it was her fault. Silver Spoon could certainly be quite rude, but she hadn't realized how much it could be hurting one of her students. The knot in her throat returned as she tried to look directly into Applejack's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Applejack. You're right, I'll talk to Silver Spoon, I'll get her to stop." Cheerilee said, her voice starting to crack. "But Applejack, please, accept my sincerest apologies. I had no idea that Silver Spoon was hurting her that badly. To think that Apple Bloom was leaving school in tears… I'm so…"
As Cheerilee began to stumble over her words, the anger on Applejack's face quickly melted away. She turned away slightly, removing her hat and holding it in front of her mouth.
"Listen. I'm sorry for gettin' so upset, Cheerilee. But shoot, that's mah sister, she means the world ta me." Applejack turned to face Cheerilee, putting her hat back on. "When I see her down like that, it makes me just as sad. Heck, makes everypony in the Apple family sad. I trust ya'll will be able to help, Apple Bloom talks about ya'll all the time, she loves ya."
A warm smile grew across Cheerilee's face. Applejack returned the smile and patted Cheerrilee on the shoulder.
"I know I can trust ya'll to solve this. Yer a good, honest teacher. I know Silver Spoon'll listen to ya."
Cheerilee's smile didn't waver, but she felt another pang of anxiety at the phrase "good, honest teacher", and every nerve in her body suddenly became focused on keeping the smile on her face.
"Thanks, Applejack. I'll make sure to talk to her."
"Thank ya kindly, Cheerilee," Applejack said with another tip of her hat. "Well, I'ma go catch up with the girls 'fore they burn Sugarcube Corner down. See ya around!"
Applejack turned and walked out of the classroom, trotting off towards downtown Ponyville. Cheerilee sat down behind her desk, cleaning up a bit before pulling out the student's homework assignments. The very first assignment had the name Apple Bloom on top, and she couldn't help but smile again at Applejack's comment that Apple Bloom had said "she loved her." Knowing her students looked up to her like that was the greatest part of her job, but her thoughts shifted to the image that Applejack had put into her mind: Apple Bloom walking home alone, in tears. Cheerilee's ears slowly drooped and her head lowered slightly as the image stuck in her mind.
"I can't believe I could miss something like that. What kind of teacher would let that happen?" Cheerilee thought… and with that, something that one of her students had said entered her mind.
"But even so, Miss Cheerilee, Cutie Marks help you identify what ponies are good at!"
The words reverberated in Cheerilee's head. Talking about Cutie Marks was something Cheerilee never liked; it put her on edge. The only reason she had taught a lesson about them to her students was because it was required by the school district.
"I'm certainly not the one who should teach them about Cutie Marks," Cheerilee muttered to herself with a sad sigh. Her mind wandered back to all the times that she had told ponies about her Cutie Mark. As the years had gone on, it had become easier and easier to repeat the same story. It was simple to just tell everypony that she had been studying teaching for months, and that it appeared overnight after a late night of studying, finally confirming her dream. Over time, it had become more and more natural for her to simply repeat that story word for word, rather than tell anypony the truth.
A part of her had wanted to tell somepony the real story for quite some time, to finally get it off of her shoulders, but she always chased that thought away quickly whenever it snuck into her mind. After five years of teaching in Ponyville, and after a lifetime of telling that story, certainly any trust that ponies had for her would be ruined if she suddenly told them the truth.
She continued to grade Apple Bloom's worksheet, but found that she just couldn't focus; her mind was anywhere but grammar worksheets. Her eyes began to wander, and settled on the clock: Three Fourteen PM. She had hoped to get the papers graded in a few hours and have the entire weekend free, but with the stress that was now circling her mind, her thoughts drifted, until they suddenly landed on something else: Ponyville Spa. She paused, looking down at the papers in front of her, then back up at the clock.
"Oh, these can wait until tomorrow. What I need right now is to relax."
As Cheerilee quickly began to gather her things, her thoughts stayed with the Spa. Normally she would go in for a quick hair styling or, on a rare occasion, a Pony Pedi, but what she needed now was something more: The Deluxe. Pedicure, hair style, face mask, back massage, and most importantly, full hot mud bath. Cheerilee imagined herself slipping into the boiling mud, letting all her cares melt away, and it was simply too tempting to pass up.
Her cleanup around the school house lead her to the blackboard, beginning to erase the multitude of drawings that had populated it over the course of the day, but once again, her mind drifted to the Spa. Thoughts of soaking in the hot tub carried her away, and she lazily rubbed the eraser against the blackboard, completely losing herself in the thought of relaxation.
The sudden sound of a pony clearing his throat snapped Cheerilee back to reality, and she whipped around, accidentally letting the eraser fly out of her hoof. It soared across the room, directly into the face of the source of the throat clearing. The stallion it hit let out an angry sigh as he reached into the pocket of the tailored suit he was wearing, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped the chalk dust from his thick rimmed glasses.
Cheerilee quickly calmed down, then let out a gasp as she made eye contact with the stallion. "Oh my goodness. Mr. Headmaster! I'm so sorry, you startled me. Are you okay?"
Headmaster stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket in a huff. "As okay as a pony with chalk dust in his mouth can be."
Cheerilee slowly got over her shock, approaching Headmaster.
"Um, I really wasn't expecting you, sir. What are you doing here?"
Headmaster glared over the top of his thick glasses at her. "Cheerilee, I oversee every school in the area. I'm more than allowed to visit and check in on the teachers. Quite frankly, I'm a bit surprised you would ask me what I was doing here."
Headmaster looked around the classroom as Cheerilee crossed her front legs nervously. Headmaster came to a large wall charting the height changes of the students in the class. He rolled his eyes, then turned back to Cheerilee.
"So, Cheerilee, how exactly have things been going here in Ponyville?"
The nervousness began to melt away, as Cheerilee's eyes brightened a bit.
"Oh, just wonderful! I've started to incorporate a "Family Appreciation" day, where students bring in family to tell stories. Just a few weeks ago, one of them brought in their eldest relative, and as it turned out, she was one of the ponies who founded Ponyville! Such an interesting story! And, let's see, last week the students got to visit the Canterlot Archives for the first time. They all got to read about the most famous Equestrian sorcerers, historians, political figures, oh you could just tell how excited some of them were to learn about the history of Canterlot!"
As she talked, Cheerilee's ears perked up and her voice rose in confidence. She loved talking about her students; seeing their growth was the biggest thrill of her job. She picked up speed with her monologue, and began to go through her desk to find some of the assignments the students had written about their Canterlot Archive visit.
"And speaking of, one of my good friends actually is the protege of Princess Celestia, and she says that the Princess would most likely be more than happy to come speak to the kids," she said with an extra perk in her voice. "I'm trying to work out a special date where she can come down and—"
She looked up from her search, and was met with a half bored, half angry glare from Headmaster. She quickly closed her mouth, and Headmaster just shook his head.
"I don't care about any of that. Just show me the current grade chart, Cheerilee."
Cheerilee bit her lip, swallowed her desire to talk back to her boss, and instead started looking through her desk for the grade chart. Cheerilee had always tried to be nice to everypony she met, and really strived to like everypony, but that didn't exactly apply to Headmaster. He struck her as being far too by-the-books and businesslike, too detached from the work that he did. She had never seen him smile once, and he certainly never seemed to care about any of the many students at the schools he oversaw. Rather, he was just about the bottom line: the letter grades, the financial side of the schools, running them the same way a pony would run a retail chain. She felt that it was quite the poor attitude for any teacher to have, especially a pony who oversaw so many schools.
She pulled out the grade chart and handed it to the stallion, who began to scan it. An awkward, tense silence filled the room as Cheerilee hoped that that would be all Headmaster wanted, and she could get to the Spa, but Headmasters face scrunched in confusion, stopping her hopes dead in their tracks.
"Cheerilee, what is with all of these comments on the side?" he said, pointing to several of the names on the list. " 'Diamond Tiara, B-, but beginning to show B+ effort'? 'Sweetie Belle, A- with an A+ heart?' "
Cheerilee chuckled. "Oh, those are just little notes I put day to day for the students. I find it hard to track the growth of the kids with just letter grades, you know?"
Headmaster looked over the top of his glasses at Cheerilee, and shook his head slightly.
"No, I don't know. Seems simple to me. If the students do well on assignments, they get good grades. And if not, then they get bad grades. There's not much more to track than that, if you ask me."
Cheerilee rolled her eyes as Headmaster tossed the grade sheet onto the desk.
"Looks fine to me, other than those silly comments. Any concerns on your part?"
Cheerilee opened her mouth to say "no" and hopefully get rid of Headmaster, but as she did, she glanced around the school house, and a thought entered her mind.
"Actually, yes. I've been considering doing a little redecorating around the classroom."
Headmaster raised an eyebrow. "Redecorating?"
"Yes," she happily proclaimed, gesturing around the classroom. "With Spring here, I was thinking it might be fun to spruce up the room! Maybe some new curtains, some themed decorations on the walls, maybe finally fix up the back window, just something to make it a little nicer."
Headmaster remained silent. Cheerilee couldn't read his expression; most of the time, he had the same look of exasperation on his face.
"Hmm, I suppose that's up to you. If you want to redecorate, that's your decision. I personally don't see the point, but it's your call."
Cheerilee could hardly contain her grin.
"Wonderful! So, what kind of budget is available for me to work with? I really don't think I'll need much."
She was interrupted by a loud, semi-cruel laugh, and the grin disappeared from her face.
"What kind of budget? Cheerilee, I have no interest in funding something as pointless as decorations. The budget is zero. If you want to redecorate your classroom, you can pay for it out of your own pocket."
Cheerilee's jaw nearly hit the floor. "My own pocket? Surely there has to be a few bits available somewhere!"
"There are, but not for things as petty as 'beautifying' a classroom. If you needed a new textbook or a set of rulers, I could free up some money, but other… than…"
Headmaster trailed off as something caught his eye. He walked over to the chalkboard, to a large drawing of a Hydra that Cheerilee had drawn for the class. He looked it up and down, adjusting his glasses.
"Cheerilee. Is this..."
She blushed slightly. "A Hydra, yes."
"Hrm." Headmaster adjusted his glasses. "I'm surprised one of your students would know about a Hydra, especially at their age." He pulled a small notepad out of his pocket, mumbling to himself. "Tell me, which one drew it?"
"Um, actually, Headmaster, I drew it. Today's lesson was about some of the creatures that live around Equestria!"
Headmaster spun around, his jaw slightly agape.
"You cannot possibly be serious."
Cheerilee swallowed nervously. "Is there a problem?"
"A problem? A problem? Cheerilee, let's ignore the fact that I wanted the schools to be teaching grammar these last few weeks, what possible reason could you have for teaching young fillies about Hydras? They're giant, dangerous creatures, hardly the kind of information that fillies need! You'll be giving them nightmares!"
Cheerilee cocked her head to the side. "They seemed quite interested in the lesson to me. They were all bored with grammar non-stop, so I thought I would mix things up a bit. Plus, there was a Hydra incident here in Ponyville just a few months ago, and the Hydra was transported to the Caballus Swamp quite recently to ensure that another incident wouldn't happen."
"Cheerilee, I am not paying you to 'mix things up'!" Headmaster yelled, stomping his hoof on the floor. "There is a lesson plan, and I want you to stick to it. And more importantly, I don't give a damn if it's a current event or if it happened 5,000 years ago, Hydras are not appropriate for a classroom of young children! How much did you teach them?"
"Just basic facts. Where they live and what they eat, their origins; you know, the most obvious facts about Hydras."
"Obvious facts?" Headmaster paused before his jaw dropped even further. "By obvious facts, you don't mean cutting off their heads, do you?"
A slight chill hit Cheerrilee's face. "Well, it's important information! When you think of Hydras, their amazing regenerative abilities are usually he first thing to come to mind! That, and the way to properly stop one."
"The way to properly st—" Headmaster interrupted himself, shaking his head. "Cheerilee, are you telling me that you taught your students about how to slice Hydra's heads off, and then how to cauterize the wound to kill them? Good lord!"
Cheerilee kicked at the ground lightly, averting her gaze from Headmaster. "Well I certainly didn't get THAT detailed! I just said that when Hydra's head is cut off, two grow back, and I said the best way to stop a Hydra is with a fire spell." Turning back to the stallion, she put on her strongest face, ready to defend herself. "Headmaster, don't you think you're overreacting? These are important subjects that my class was genuinely curious about, and the whole point of teaching is to provide knowledge about the world around them."
"I don't give a damn about the "point of teaching". It is wholly irresponsible of you to not only go against my lesson plan, but to teach the students something that I don't think is appropriate!"
Headmaster shook his head, his voice angrily raising. "For Celestia's sake! For a pony with a teaching Cutie Mark, you don't seem to know much about teaching!"
A sharp chill shot up Cheerilee's spine, rendering her entire face numb. As she felt her body start to tremble, she desperately tried to think of something—anything—to say, but no words were able to reach her mouth. She struggled to even form a complete thought, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
"I-I just was… I'm sorry, I was... I didn't…" she stammered.
Headmaster pulled the handkerchief back out of his pocket and carelessly tossed it onto the desk next to her. Cheerilee slowly took it in her hoof, dabbing her eyes as Headmaster simply rolled his.
"Pull yourself together. Look, Cheerilee, don't go teaching the little fillies about things like that, it's irresponsible. In the name of Celestia, stick with the lesson plan that the other schools are going with. I don't want to hear that you've been teaching the students things like dark magic and how to kill bunnies, do you understand me?"
Through tears, Cheerilee slowly nodded her head. "… Yes, I do."
Headmaster reached out, plucked his handkerchief from Cheerilee's hoof and put it back in his pocket.
"I don't want to have to have this lecture with you again."
"You… you won't."
"I certainly hope not. Goodbye, Cheerilee."
Headmaster turned away without so much as a nod and walked out of the classroom, leaving Cheerilee alone. Shakily, she sat down behind her desk, tears still clouding her vision, her body giving up and refusing to move any more the second that she sat. Silver Spoon mentioning Cutie Marks had given her pause. Applejack calling her a "good, honest teacher" just caused a little anxiety. But Headmaster's words were a direct attack to a part of herself she didn't talk about. There was no way he could have known the truth, but the words hurt her more than anything anypony had said to her in a long time.
After minutes of silence, she felt feeling return to her body, and she slowly grabbed her saddle bag, placed her student's papers inside, and exited the school house. She briefly glanced towards Ponyville Spa in the far distance before turning away; she just wanted to go home. She closed the door to the small schoolhouse and began her walk home, all the while, Headmaster's words rang in her head, over and over.
"For a pony with a teaching Cutie Mark, you don't seem to know much about teaching!"
The walk from the school to Cheerilee's cottage was a walk that most residents of Ponyville would be jealous of. The path around the school was lined with flowers and trees, while the actual road went right behind Sugarcube Corner, which always had the enticingly sweet scent of various confectionaries. Her house itself was a quaint old cottage a little outside of the Everfree Forest. Although ponies were generally afraid of the forest, dangerous creatures rarely came close to the cottage, and even more rarely to the edge of the forest itself. It meant that the path in front of it, leading straight up to the cottage, was the best and safest view of the beautiful outside of the Everfree Forest that a pony could see from Ponyville. It was a walk that Cheerilee enjoyed every single day.
Cheerilee's head hung the entire walk home; the only thing that she saw was the dirt road below her. Even if she had looked up once, she wouldn't have been able to process anything around her. Instead, the same three sentences were playing in her head on a loop.
"But even so, Miss Cheerilee, Cutie Marks help you identify what ponies are good at!"
"I know I can trust ya'll to solve this. Yer a good, honest teacher."
"For a pony with a teaching Cutie Mark, you don't seem to know much about teaching!"
The knot that had formed earlier in Cheerilee's throat wouldn't go away, and every time one of the sentences popped up in her mind, it tightened. She tried to get something else on her mind, but she was unable to; it always went back to the past hour or so. The image of the class laughing at Silver Spoon's story of a pony working against his Cutie Mark, Apple Bloom walking home in tears, Applejack calling her a "good, honest teacher," and most painful of all, Headmaster's words. The kind of thing that Cheerilee wished no pony would ever have to hear. She couldn't believe he would accuse her of not knowing about teaching, that he would hurl an insult at her like that.
But hardest of all for her to swallow was the niggling thought that perhaps he was right.
Cheerilee finally arrived at her cottage and nudged the door open, closing it behind her and dropping her saddlebag to the ground before sitting down on her couch. She started to take deep breaths, looking to put her troubled mind at ease, but as her eyes scanned the room for something to focus on, they instead fell upon a mirror across the room. As she stared at herself, her Cutie Mark came into vision, and with that, Headmaster's words rang in her head again.
"For a pony with a teaching Cutie Mark, you don't seem to know much about teaching!"
As the sentence played over in her mind, Cheerilee felt tears begin to stream down her face again. She abandoned all attempts to calm down, lowering her head to let the tears come. She remained motionless on the couch for a few minutes, her eyes shut tightly as she wept. All she wanted to do was let out the anxiety that had been plaguing her for so very long.
Minutes later, the tears finally slowed down, and she was left in silence once again. She laid her head down on her couch and tried to clear her mind, but this time, her eyes were again drawn across the room to the mirror. She looked herself in the eyes for a few moments, before her gaze shifted to the reflection of her Cutie Mark. She stared at the three smiling flowers on her flank for several moments, before turning her body so she wouldn't have to look at the mirror anymore. She couldn't stand to look at those smiling flowers.
She hated her Cutie Mark.
Ever since the moment it had appeared, it had brought her nothing but aggravation, anxiety, and shame… and worst of all, she knew there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn't cover it up, remove it or change it. It was permanently affixed to her, a constant reminder of her lie.
Cheerilee's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a knock at her door. She hadn't been expecting any visitors, nor was she really in the mood to talk to anypony, but she still got up and walked to the door anyway.
Taking deep breaths, she composed herself as best she could and pulled the door open, and found herself greeted by a purple Unicorn with a big smile on her face.
Cheerilee put on her best smile. "Hello, Twilight. What can I do for you?"
"I am soooo sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you had a copy of Spells and Sorcery of the Pre-Classical Era? I need it for a report I'm working on, but the only copy at the library is checked out right now."
"Oh, yes, I think I have a copy. Come on in."
Twilight Sparkle happily trotted into the cottage, and followed Cheerilee towards a large bookshelf on the wall. Even though Twilight was one of her closest friends, Cheerilee wasn't in the mood to talk to anypony, not after the day she'd had. She started scanning her bookcase to find the book Twilight was looking for, when Twilight spoke up.
"So, how was your day?"
The knot in Cheerilee's throat tightened ever so slightly. She swallowed, trying to make it go away. "F-fine, just fine. Yours?"
"Great! I just finished reading A Brief History Of Pegasi, Volume 5." Twilight's eyes shimmered. "Just a wonderful read, and has one of the most extensive bibliographies I've ever seen! There is a whole chapter about the Great Pegasi Exodus, which is what led directly to the founding of Cloudsdale! See, the pegasi had grown tired of living on the ground and—"
Twilight's description fell on deaf ears, as Cheerilee couldn't focus long enough to pay attention to her friend. As much as she liked talking with Twilight, Cheerilee just wanted to be alone, and had no interest in prolonging Twilight's visit. She finally located the book that Twilight was looking for and pulled it off the shelf, turning back to Twilight.
"Here's the book, Twilight."
"Thanks so much, Cheerilee, I, uh…"
Twilight cocked her head slightly, leaning in towards Cheerilee a bit.
"Cheerilee, is everything okay? You don't look so good."
"Really? You look like… like you've been crying."
A number of excuses quickly shot through Cheerilee's mind, but when she looked into her friend's worried eyes, she shook them out of her head and merely sighed.
"Is it that obvious?"
Twilight gasped. "Oh my gosh! Cheerilee, is everything alright? What's wrong? What happened?"
"I just had a bad day, that's all. I'm fine now, Twilight."
Cheerilee smiled again, but Twilight shook her head, resting her hoof on her friend's shoulder.
"Cheerilee, you shouldn't keep your feelings from your friends. Do you want to talk about it? It could make you feel better."
There was a pause. Cheerilee hadn't wanted to talk to anypony, but looking into her friend's eyes, there was something warm and inviting there. The knot that had been plaguing her throat slowly disappeared, and she smiled: this time, sincerely.
"Yes… I would like to talk about it."
When Twilight Sparkle had taken over as Ponyville Librarian upon her move, Cheerilee figured that getting to know her would be a no-brainer. After all, Ponyville's resident teacher was also Ponyville's resident bookworm, spending much of her free time relaxing with a good story. What she hadn't figured was that the new librarian would share the exact same passion for books, maybe even moreso than Cheerilee, and from there, a close friendship had formed. Twilight loved hearing Cheerilee talk about her students and the strides in their studies, while Cheerilee was always there to help Twilight come back down to earth after another one of the incidents that seemed to follow her around since she arrived in Ponyville. As such, Cheerilee felt comfortable telling Twilight about the bad day she had had; in fact, the more she thought about it, there was no pony she would rather tell than her.
So, over a cup of tea, Cheerilee talked to Twilight. She told her all about what Applejack had said to her, the fact that her sister had been tormented by a bully, while Cheerilee had sat by, not realizing how much it had hurt her. She told Twilight how down it had made her to imagine even one of her students having a bad day. But more importantly, she talked of her meeting with Headmaster… specifically, what he had said to her. Cheerilee told Twilight how horrible it was to hear those words, how the tears had come from hearing another pony question her talents as a teacher. There was so much more that Cheerilee wanted to tell Twilight, but every time she started to, something stopped her. She just couldn't bring herself to tell Twilight about her Cutie Mark, about the truth. If Twilight found out she had been lying for so long, surely she would never want to speak with her again.
Once she finished her story, Twilight let out a sympathetic sigh.
"Oh, Cheerilee, I'm so sorry. I hate having bad days, everypony does."
"Thanks, Twilight. It's nice to be able to tell somepony about it."
Cheerilee sipped her tea, shaking her head.
"I just can't believe I could be so blind as to miss such blatant bullying! And to see Applejack that angry about it..."
Twilight patted Cheerilee's front hoof with her own, smiling.
"Everypony makes mistakes, Cheerilee. You know what you have to do now. You know how to stop it from happening again, and that's what is important. And as far as Applejack goes... well, you know how protective she can be of Apple Bloom. I'm sure she didn't mean to get that upset at you."
She took another sip of tea.
"But then what Headmaster said…"
Twilight Sparkle's face grew serious as she looked directly into her friend's eyes.
"Cheerilee, don't listen to what a pony like that says. Anypony who talks to another pony like that is someone who isn't worth listening to."
"But Twilight, what if I was wrong to teach the students about Hydras? What if he's right?"
"Cheerilee! Don't pay any attention to him. If you ask me, he sounds like a jerk."
Cheerilee chuckled a bit. She had never heard Twilight refer to another pony as a "jerk" before.
"Twilight, thanks for talking to me about this."
"That's what friends are for, aren't they? If you have a bad day, your friends will always be there to help you up."
Cheerilee's mood began to lift again as she sipped her tea. Twilight shook her head.
"I really can't believe he would treat you like that. And that comment about your Cutie Mark was so unnecessary!"
Cheerilee's hooves tightened around the cup of tea as she felt the knot return to her throat. She desperately hoped that Twilight wouldn't continue—the last thing she wanted was to talk about Cutie Marks—but the look in Twilight's eyes said she wasn't about to stop.
"That's just so rude! Making any sort of comment about a pony's special talent, as if they somehow don't know what they're good at! I wonder how he would like it if some pony told him that his Cutie Mark was a lie!"
Cheerilee's vision of the world around her began to quake. She opened her mouth to try to get Twilight to stop talking, but the only thing that came out was "Twilight…"
"Sorry, Cheerilee, but I just can't get over that. Was he trying to imply that you misinterpreted your own Cutie Mark? I can't even imagine…"
The knot finally snapped. Cheerilee slammed her tea cup down on the table.
Twilight was completely caught off guard by the sudden burst of emotion from Cheerilee, jumping back in her chair slightly.
"Please, Twilight, stop talking about Cutie Marks! I don't... I don't want to hear it!"
Cheerilee felt her eyes well up with tears again. Twilight, getting over her initial surprise, leaned forward.
"What? What's wrong?"
Cheerilee fell quiet, realizing the impact of her outburst. She stared down into her teacup, her hooves trembling. Twilight shook her head.
"Cheerilee, what is going on here? Why don't you want to talk about Cutie Marks?"
To Cheerilee, the ensuing pause felt like an eternity. "I-I don't want to…"
Twilight shook her head. "Cheerilee,what's wrong? Please, you don't have to hide things from me, I'm your friend!"
Cheerilee's vision blurred. There was nothing she could do, there was no way that Twilight would just ignore an outburst like that. It was a scenario that she had played over and over in her head over the years… but she had always thought—hoped—that it would never happen. Finally, she spoke, her voice quietly trembling.
"Twilight. Haven't you ever thought that my Cutie Mark story is odd? That I just woke up one day, and it was there? Every other pony in Ponyville, they had a grand revelation when theirs appeared. But mine just appeared overnight?"
Twilight tilted her head to the side."Um… I mean, it's certainly a different story, but I don't see how—"
"And the fact that it's flowers. I'm a teacher, Twilight…why wouldn't I have a chalkboard? Or an equation? Or something more associated with, you know… teaching?"
Twilight remained silent for a moment, staring at her upset friend. She reached over, placing a hoof on Cheerilee's shoulder.
"Cheerilee… look at me."
Cheerilee looked up, and was met with a smile from her friend.
"Cheerilee. I know that what Headmaster said was rude—heck, it was downright horrible—but don't let it get to you," she said, smiling warmly. "If you're trying to say that you're worried you misinterpreted your own Cutie Mark… well, Cheerilee, that doesn't happen, and you know it."
"It doesn't matter if how you got your Cutie Mark is "different". And it doesn't matter if it's flowers. You know deep down that it represents your love of teaching…and there's simply no way to misinterpret something like that."
Twilight smiled warmly… but her smile disappeared when she saw that Cheerilee had turned away from her.
"Twilight, it's not about that. I know I didn't misinterpret my own Cutie Mark."
Twilight shook her head.
"Then Cheerilee, I'm sorry, but I don't know what to say. Why are you so upset? What is going on here?"
Cheerilee turned away more. Twilight leaned forward.
"Please, Cheerilee, I'm worried about you. Just tell me what's wrong."
"I didn't misinterpret my Cutie Mark, Twilight… I... I..."
Cheerilee's lip quivered, and the words caught in her throat, refusing to be spoken. Her hooves shook harder than ever, and she closed her eyes, letting out a long, defeated breath.
"Twilight, just come with me, please," she said, standing up. "There's… there's something I need to show you."
She slowly walked out the back door of her cottage, with Twilight following close behind her, a look of concern for her friend on her face. As they walked forward towards the trees, Twilight stopped.
"Wait, you're going into the Everfree Forest?"
"It's not far in. Dangerous creatures don't come that close to the edge."
There was something about Cheerilee's voice that gave Twilight pause. Normally, her voice was upbeat, full of life and happiness. But here, there was no happiness, no cheer. It was empty and lifeless, the voice of a pony who had given up on something.
The walk through the Everfree Forest was silent. Twilight was too concerned about her friend to say anything, while Cheerilee merely continued forward, her head low. Just as Twilight was getting ready to ask where they were going, Cheerilee stopped at a large bush. She looked back at her friend sadly for a few moments before turning back and nudging the bush out of the way, walking through. Twilight followed, and as she exited the other side of the bush, her eyes widened.
Standing before her, in a small clearing in the trees, was one of the most beautiful gardens she had ever seen.
Light shone down through breaks in the canopy, illuminating an expansive rectangular patch filled with large, vibrant flowers. Every color of the rainbow seemed to be present in the flowers, all of which were in full bloom. Twilight stepped forward, amazed.
"Wow. Cheerilee, is this your garden?"
Cheerilee paused, slowly nodding her head. Twilight remained confused, but felt her friend needed some encouragement. Twilight walked towards the garden, marveling at the beauty before her.
"It's beautiful! I've never seen a garden like this! Look at these flowers! You have Pink Whirls, Wildcat Orchids, Calla Lilies... and they're all so vibrant and pretty! It's so rare to see flowers like that growing together. And they're all in full bloom! Cheerilee, you really must have a great mind for… for… "
Twilight trailed off as another group of flowers caught her attention. Her eyes widened as she carefully stepped into the center of the garden towards the object of her attention: a large group of golden flowers. Despite a relative lack of natural light, each flower was brilliantly shimmering, giving off a golden glow that illuminated all the flowers around them. Twilight, completely transfixed on the flowers, carefully leaned forward and examined them.
"Oh my. Are these Canterlot Golden Daisies?" She sniffed them, becoming momentarily lost in their heavenly scent. "They are! Goodness, I've never even seen these grown outside of Princess Celestia's garden!" She looked up at her surroundings. "And you're growing them here in the Everfree Forest, where there's so much canopy cover, it's nothing short of amazing! Cheerilee, this is one of the best… "
Twilight turned with a huge smile on her face, but the smile fell as she saw her friend. Cheerilee stood at the edge of the garden, head low to the ground and turned away in shame. Twilight approached her friend, shocked and confused to see tears in Cheerilee's eyes.
"Cheerilee, I'm sorry, but I don't understand. Why are you so upset by this, why is this such a secret? Please, just tell me what's wrong! I'm just not getting—"
All at once, a thought entered Twilight's mind, quieting her immediately. She turned back to the garden, one of the most beautiful she had ever seen, the kind of garden that only a professional gardener or botanist could even hope to grow, especially in the forest. She returned her gaze to Cheerilee, who just minutes before had been in tears just discussing the matter of Cutie Marks. Twilight turned her head slightly, looking down at her friends flank, and the mark that adorned it.
Twilight remained silent as she began to put her thoughts together quickly. She looked at the garden again, then back to Cheerilee, shaking her head slightly.
"Wait… wait. Cheerilee. Have you—"
Cheerilee panicked and turned away before Twilight could finish her sentence. It was playing out exactly the way that she was afraid it always would. She wanted to prolong any friendship she could possibly have with Twilight before it all came crashing down, even if it meant simply leaving. With tears streaming down her face, she turned away and clumsily pushed through the bush and away from the garden. Twilight opened her mouth, but all she could muster was "Cheerilee…" as she followed her friend.