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It had taken some convincing, mostly involving pointing out the lack of suitable substitutes, but Minuette had at last gotten Berry to stumble back upstairs and collapse on the bed again. Minuette had kicked the towels into a corner in an effort to make the couch frame look as unenticing as possible. Not because she wanted to make Berry uncomfortable, just the opposite. Minuette could feel several places in her back and around her withers where her muscles had knotted in the night.
With Berry hopefully asleep again, resuming unpacking was how the Unicorn chose to occupy the rest of the afternoon. She had at last cleared a big enough space in the dining area to situate her grandfather's table properly, and the smaller plastic one she and Berry had eaten on was shunted back into the living room and quickly covered in opened containers and spools of wiring tied together in bundles. Chairs were uncovered and put into place, lamps plugged in, carpets laid down, and a great deal of things simply moved to the cellar, still in their boxes.
The work was satisfying, and she could feel herself at last making a dent in the unpacking. It had taken her days to box up the store back in Canterlot, though how much of that was the genuine volume of material and how much was just...having to choose, again and again, between things she loved, Minuette was not sure. At least that part of the process was over now, and it was about getting the things she had saved situated. Making everything right and in its proper place again.
Minuette paused in her shuffling things about to run a hoof over the deep carved surface of the mahogany dinner table, the wellings of old varnish and lacquer, reapplied again and again till they formed waxy looking encrustations in the nooks and crevices of the patterns. Layer upon layer upon layer. Her grandfather, her father, her. As Minuette traced the pattern, the table's bum leg creaked.
I really should just knuckle down and drill some brackets into this thing. It's a miracle that glue has held on this long.
Minuette added it to her ever growing mental list of things yet to be done.
A few minutes more of rummaging found the portable clock radio from her old bedroom lodged in a rice cooker she had unpacked with the other kitchen things half an hour ago. It wasn't very loud, but with Berry sleeping upstairs that wasn't a bad thing. Minuette's stereo was probably still in the pile of boxes near the living room window.
By about 4:30 PM, Minuette noticed she was getting hungry again. Having missed breakfast entirely on account of being unconscious for half the day, this was hardly surprising. That chicken she had almost cooked earlier was sounding more and more delicious by the minute. And, as an added bonus, she had located her spice rack, shoved in the bottom of a box filled with books no less. She really had been a blubbering mess when she packed this all up hadn't she?
Minuette gleefully levitated out the spices and began gathering pans to the tune of [Looking Glass]. All the best classic rock and oldies stations were thankfully coming in quite clear, if a little tinny.
Minuette's friends did not share in her musical tastes, Melodia being a classical music buff with a sinful (from her perspective) and (mostly) secret love of the occasional country song. Moondancer, like most things, kept up with the modern styles and the club scene, and was heavily engrossed in something relatively new called "Dubstep."
The Unicorn swished her tail, placed pans and tossed vegetables to the beat. Even singing along a bit...with her own improvisations.
"And there's a girl in this harbor town,
And she works layin' whiskey down.
They say 'Berry, fetch another round.'
She serves them whiskey and wine.
The sailors say 'Berry, you're a fine girl,
What a good wife you would be.
Yeah your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea!'
Minuette rather self-consciously tapered off about the moment she caught herself using the jar of sea salt as a microphone, sheepishly placing it back on the counter.
Berry may have said she doesn't want to impose on me for dinner as well, but there's no harm in giving her a bit of salad for the road when she leaves for her evening shift at Cafe Celeste is there? Especially if I'm making one anyway.
Her friend had indeed turned out to be a vegetarian, though Berry had in her words "cooked so many meals with meat you wouldn't know it from smelling me in a kitchen." Then, added as an afterthought: "I do love milk though." Something she and Minuette had in common it seemed.
I guess a carrot and a glass of milk under her nose would have been well received then.
So does that mean that Ruby is the one that likes meat?
Minuette gasped and raised the knife she had been using to cut chicken before it touched the cucumber she was about to chop.
Nothing like a touch of Salmonella to put a damper on one's evening. Focus girl.
Keeping the first blade floating a safe distance away, she levitated out a fresh one from the box of silverware she had (at last) located and diced the cucumber and tomatoes.
Her magic had recovered well. Like a muscle, sometimes a little work was just the thing to make it feel better, and levitating boxes around for an hour or two had banished all pain associated with it. Though her original headache still persisted somewhat. Minuette swore that as soon as she found the box with the contents of her medicine cabinet, she was downing several aspirin tablets, oh yes.
Minuette had been listening to the background hum of the radio while she cooked, but she furrowed her brow as the current song abruptly changed.
That's strange, I don't remember Calf Steven's Peace Train having a chorus that was quite so...lame.
Oh, that's the doorbell again. Damn that's loud! New project, gut that stupid thing and install the old chime from the Canterlot store.
Minuette turned the radio off as she exited the kitchen, swinging open the front door to reveal two ponies. One Minuette knew, the eccentric mailmare Ditzy Doo, and one that Minuette was quite sure she had never met before, but nonetheless...seemed familiar somehow.
"Celestia's boiling...I didn't mean like that Derpy!" The new pony was staring in horror at Ditzy Doo, who was withdrawing a hoof from where it had hit the doorbell ringer.
The grey Pegasus looked down in chagrin. "But...that's what doorbells are for..."
Ditzy's companion facehoofed.
Minuette smiled in welcome. "Hello Derpy! I'm very happy to see you again so soon."
Ditzy looked up, expression warming instantly. "Hey Miss Romana! Nice to see you too. Um, dry and stuff."
"What? Oh yes, all better now. And your friend here, I don't believe I've met her." Minuette gave the newcomer an unsure smile.
Ditzy's companion, an infuriatingly familiar looking Earth Pony with bright magenta coloration was looking about half a meter above Minuette, where she abruptly realized she was still levitating a pair of glistening kitchen knives.
The magenta pony's expression was one of...deep concern.
"Oh! I'm sorry, I'm doing a bit of cooking." Minuette blushed and stretched out the sparkling field of energy, flinging both knives into the sink with a dull clang.
The other pony followed their arc with her eyes, only returning to look at Minuette when they disappeared over the lip of the sink.
Belatedly the newcomer stuck out a hoof. "...Not a problem. I'm Miss Cheerilee, one of the teachers at Ponyville Elementary."
Minuette took the hoof with a brief nod. "Minuette Romana. A pleasure."
With introductions complete, the seconds stretched into a pregnant silence. Punctuated by the trickle of what appeared to be crumbs from Ditzy Doo's mouth. Presently the grey Pegasus mare blurted into speech again.
"Hey! I have something for you Miss Romana! Um-again. Because we...erm, I forgot your mail. Though in a completely unrelated fashion to the way in which your stuff was misplaced last time."
Ditzy smiled. "So, worst case, I end up exhausting all possible ways to forget your mail, and then after that you get your mail on time every day. Which means that...hang on...carry the six...you only have to deal with misplaced post for the next four hundre-oh."
Ditzy deflated slightly. "...Nevermind, I'll try harder next time Miss Romana."
Minuette giggled. "It's no trouble Derpy, I only moved in yesterday, you can take some time to get used to my being here. As long as you keep coming by when you forget it's fine."
The grey Pegasus grinned and shoved a small stack of mail into Minuette's hooves: A letter from Melodia, statements from Canterlot Central Bank about her change of address, mane extension advertisements and a home gardening periodical from somepony named "Mr. Greenhooves."
Minuette looked up from the brochure, wincing at the comparison between the beautifully cultivated front yard in the picture on its cover and the rather dilapidated state of her own.
Somehow it hadn't looked quite so...dead in the housing pamphlet.
The picture the real estate agent gave me was probably months old, and nopony has been tending this yard since.
Minuette slid the brochure back into the mail stack, promising herself that fixing up the yard would be added to her *sigh* ever increasing pile of upcoming tasks.
It's not like my shop would attract any customers with a yard like this.
THAT thought firmly planted gardening somewhere near the front on her list. Luna's knickers...and she had thought unpacking was going to be the end of this debacle.
Cheerilee politely cleared her throat, interrupting Minuette's thoughts.
"Hm? I'm sorry, did you need something?" Inquired the Unicorn as she placed the mail next to her still unused house key on the living room end table.
Cheerilee reached into her saddlebags, pushing about what appeared to be paperwork of some kind till she produced a small photo. In it was Cheerilee herself at a beach, the Equestrian South Coast perhaps? She was smiling, standing next to a surfboard and-
Berry! Wow but she looks um... snug in that wetsuit.
"Have you seen the pony in this picture with me? She's my sister Berry Punch, and she's been missing since last night."
Minuette looked up, eyes wide.
Oh crap, it would look like that wouldn't it?
The voice came, unbidden to her brain, almost gleeful to remind her.
...If you were a stallion, this would be beyond creepy.
Minuette managed a slightly panicked smile. "Oh...she's not missing. She's here."
It was Cheerilee's turn to stare. "What?! Why? How did she get here?"
I stole her away from her home in a drunken stupor.
Minuette scratched the gravel with a hoof. "She's um...sleeping over? We had dinner last night, got to know each other a bit and afterward...came here."
Oh gods above that sounds exactly how I was afraid it sounded.
Cheerilee's eyes went wide for a moment. "I...see."
Oh no you don't, but if I try to set you straight it will only make things worse. Oh Celestia's mercy, and after Berry went apoplectic at the thought of-
"May I see her? She's had me and her daughter Ruby very worried." Cheerilee did a dead ringer of Berry's cocked eyebrow.
Perfectly reasonable request. Can't be denied. Got to stall for time, explain to Berry.
Minuette hoped Cheerilee could not see the sweat beading down her temples.
"Won't you come in? I apologize for the mess, there's uncovered chairs in the living room. I'm still looking for the sofa cushions, think I might have accidentally put them in the cellar with the-"
You're panic babbling again.
Minuette kept the smile on as Cheerilee and Ditzy came in and seated themselves. "I'll go up and get her, she's asleep at the moment you see." Minuette quickly trotted up to the second floor landing.
"This is a really nice house Miss Romana!" Called Ditzy Doo from the bottom of the stairs. "Much bigger than Harvest's and mine!"
"Why thank you Derpy, I rather like it too!" Minuette responded. She gave her bedroom door a quick rap with a hoof "Berry?"
After a few seconds the door slid open, revealing the bleary eyed lavender Earth Pony, hair dementedly askance from being sandwiched between a skull and an improvised pillow.
"Mbfugin...is it five thirty already?" Berry scratched her flank with a forehoof, clutching the same big brown comforter as before.
Minuette hustled her back into the bedroom. "No, but your sister is here."
Berry gave an incredulous sputter. "What?!"
"She and Ruby have been looking for you all day, ever since you er...didn't come home last night. I'm so sorry Berry! This is my fault..." Minuette shut the door behind her with a bit of her magic. "They've been very worried about you."
Berry shook her head and threw the comforter back on the bed. "No, no, not your fault. Aw, hell. Of all the days she had to-oh. Damn it. She's making sure I...damn it."
Berry seemed to look far away for a moment, at some distant memory. "Why can't she just leave me be? She doesn't have any business..."
Silent brooding abruptly gave way to a much bleaker expression. "You said...you said Pinchy was worried?"
Minuette nodded. "Cheerilee said that yes."
"Oh...oh no. I don't...want that." Berry sank to her knees, Minuette following her down. "Not that..."
Minuette put a hoof on Berry's back. "Well, the important thing is you're fine and the sooner Cheerilee and Pinchy see that the better right?"
And the sooner my poor choice of words makes you furious with me again.
Berry looked up at Minuette, fear in her eyes. "Minuette...Colgate, If Cheerilee sees me like this, hell, if she smells me like this, she'll know I went drinking last night in a big way. I...promised her I wouldn't, I really wasn't going to, but...but..."
Minuette gave Berry a reassuring hug. "It's ok. What do you need me to do?"
Berry looked around, grabbing one of her rolled up towel-pillows. "I need you to stall her while I take a quick shower and get the stink of last night off me."
Berry stopped for a moment, as if remembering decorum. "Uh...is it all right if I borrow your shower Colgate?"
The Unicorn released the embrace. "Yes it is Berry, that's fine. I...think it would help if you gave your sister a quick hello from up here before you went in though."
"Good idea." Berry opened the door after doing the best she could to smooth out her hair. "Hey Cheerilee!"
The magenta Earth Pony below them jumped in her seat, spilling pills she appeared to be about to ingest. Cursing briefly and then looking up, she waved at Berry from the living room. "There you are! You had me worried sick you heartless...damn it Berry you know how I get when you go AWOL like that!"
Looking at her from behind, Minuette could see Berry's shoulders slump as Cheerilee's words hit home.
"I'm...sorry sis, I really am." Berry scratched the back of her head.
"You're always sorry Berry, I'm tired of it. And I'm not the only one." Cheerilee pulled out a fresh pair of pills and downed them. "Miss Romana, may I use your faucet to get some water?"
Minuette stuck her head out so Cheerilee could see. "Of course, feel free! The glasses are in that box on the table."
"Listen, Cheerilee, I gotta get ready for my shift, so I'm gonna freshen up and then I'll come down and you can grill me to your heart's content m'kay?" Berry stared for a moment, confused by Cheerilee's sudden blushing.
From the kitchen the magenta Earth Pony said: "Um...yeah, that's fine Berry do what you need to do."
As Berry closed the door, scratching her head she spoke to Minuette, "It's strange, she didn't ask if I'd been drinking."
Minuette gulped. "Berry. I...ah, may have inadvertently given Cheerilee an...incorrect impression."
Berry did her eyebrow thing. "Yeah?"
"...About the nature of our relationship." Minuette braced for the explosion.
For an interminable moment Berry was silent, expressionless.
Then she spoke the last thing Minuette thought she was going to ever hear: "I'd rather her think that than I went back to hitting the booze, roll with it."
"Y-you're sure? I feel so bad about how upset you were earlier..." Minuette slumped onto her bedroom desk cushion, her knees suddenly weak.
Berry waved dismissively. "Misplaced concern and unreasonable panic on my part." Berry trotted over to the bathroom and turned on the shower, pausing as she gathered soap to turn back to Minuette, her expression unreadable.
Minuette felt like her cheeks were hot enough to toast bread. "I...uh. I better go entertain your sister, lest she come up here and investigate herself."
Berry watched her for another moment, then gave a small nod, and was gone into the cloud of gathering steam.
Be still, my beating heart.
"While we wait, I'd be happy to offer you some snacks or drinks." Minuette said on her way back down the stairs and to the kitchen.
"Got any muffins?" Ditzy exclaimed from Minuette's recliner chair. Cheerilee had taken a seat near the front door, on one of the swivel stools that had not yet made it into the kitchen.
"I'm sorry no, Derpy. But I do have salad, would that be all right?"
"Salad's fine too. Can I get mine with extra croutons?" Ditzy Doo started fiddling with the recliner lever till she got the chair to spring open, letting the Pegasus fully stretch herself out with a contented sigh.
"Oh! Um...sure." Minuette grabbed some bread and shoved it into the toaster. Slicing them up would make for passable croutons.
"Something to drink Cheerilee? May I call you Cheerilee?" Minuette busied herself gathering bowls and forks.
"You may, and the water I have here is fine." Cheerilee quietly took another sip, eyeing Minuette over the lip of the cup.
For a time, the only sounds were the soft clank of the clocks and the ting and scrape of china as Ditzy inhaled three bowls of salad. Minuette was forced to chop up a second head of lettuce just to have enough for herself and Berry when she finally came out.
"So...Miss Romana." Cheerilee began.
"Yes?" Called Minuete from beneath the counter, where she was putting away dishes that weren't being used.
"You moved to Ponyville from...Canterlot?"
Minuette stuck her head up. "Is...is my accent that obvious?"
"Oh no, It's just I hear it almost every week from the older sister of one of my students. She's worked very hard to cultivate one." Cheerilee took another sip.
"Yes, you mentioned you were a teacher. It must be very rewarding, helping all those children on the path to success, 'Fostering a thirst for knowledge and a questioning heart' as my father used to say." Minuette began sorting silverware into their proper drawers.
"It's a trying profession at times, but I love it, and I have very...enthusiastic students." Minuette did not see the vein on Cheerilee's neck distend momentarily.
"My daughter Dinky has Cheerilee for a teacher. She's encouraged Dinky to pursue her talent for painting. I hope that with Cheerilee's help, my little muffin will have her cutie mark soon." Ditzy said between bites of salad.
"Your daughter is indeed very adept Derpy, you should be proud. I only wish all my students were so accepting of their talents..." Cheerilee rested her chin on a hoof, venting a tired sigh.
"Some of your students can't acknowledge their gifts?" Minuette frowned from behind the counter.
"Without going into detail or naming names, since that would be quite improper, three of my students, dear friends to each other and wonderful little fillies besides have all had trouble with this." Cheerilee rubbed her forehead in exasperation.
"One is contending with the fact that her family has a long tradition of a certain profession, one for which I suspect she will have little or nothing to do with." Cheerilee ran a hoof over the end table speculatively. "I can't tell how much is pressure from her family and how much is self inflicted though."
"Another wants nothing more than to be closer to her sister, a pony who is very kind and especially generous with anypony, but remains aloof and distant, evidently even with close family. She has trouble expressing her feelings I think. And her little sister, rather than demanding the attention and validation of who she is herself, seeks to close the gap by imitating her elder sister as best she can. Often without much success."
Cheerilee accepted a refill of her water glass from a pitcher Minuette levitated over to her, taking a few sips before beginning again. "And the third, a classic case of juvenile hero worship for a frankly questionable role model." Cheerilee looked at Minuette. "What is it with kids today and being obsessed with looking cool or being hip? You can be the coolest pony in town and it won't get you into college." Cheerilee grumbled at the floor. "It certainly didn't get her into college..."
"All of them fundamentally made the same mistake. They all want to be someone else, or be something they're not for someone else." Cheerilee then waved a hoof in qualification. "Don't get me wrong, they're searching for their cutie marks with a broad brush too, it seems every week they've concocted some new disastrous experiment to find their special talent. I've had to put a stop to some of the more dangerous ones, but sometimes I worry..."
Minuette nodded in sympathy. Ditzy just nodded vigorously.
"And what were the circumstances of your move here, if I may ask? Not many ponies move from a place like the capital to Ponyville." Cheerilee took another swig.
Minuette winced slightly, she didn't really enjoy telling this story. "The short, blunt version is my business in Canterlot failed and I had to leave the city, seek opportunities elsewhere, where I wouldn't be outcompeted by the giant name-brand stores. I'm a carpenter by trade, a dying art some would say in this modern age of mass production."
Cheerilee tilted her glass in acknowledgement, requesting no more detail. "I'm sorry your arrival here was rooted in such a painful decision. Hopefully you'll find your time in Ponyville enjoyable."
Minuette brightened. "Well your sister has made me feel very welcome. Truly the best evening I've had in months."
Cheerilee's sympathetic smile became more awkward. "Yes...you'll excuse me if I'm a little bit surprised by...that. Given the circumstances."
Minuette swished her hair with a hoof. "Well, I'm told I can be quite charming when I want to be."
Hopefully I've made her uneasy enough that she won't ask me to go into detail about what exactly dinner entailed. I haven't had to bold-facedly lie to her yet, and I'd like to keep it that way.
Indeed, Cheerilee had taken the pause to strike up a conversation with Ditzy Doo, who seemed almost shocked that someone would want to address her at all, but nonetheless jumped in with gusto, extolling the virtues of education. Minuette wasn't really paying attention after about a minute, instead focusing on getting the food ready; but she caught the tail end of Ditzy's rather spirited exposition.
"...Why if we didn't have ponies like you Cheerilee, we wouldn't get any high school students, and by extension no college students, and by extension no researchers at places like Hoofington Nuclear Laboratory, and they wouldn't publish their monthly journal about particle physics!"
Ditzy flew over to take Cheerilee's hooves in her own. "You are directly responsible for making me the happiest mare in Ponyville every fifth of the month when I get my copy of Quarks, Quasars and Quantum Quandaries."
Ditzy's eyes were watering. "Thank you Cheerilee, from the bottom of my heart."
From the second floor a voice came. "Colgate? Can you come up here for a moment?"
Minuette put down the jug of water, taking a quick draught from her cup and wiping her mouth with a hoof. "Coming Berry!"
When Minuette walked back in to find Berry brushing her mane at the mirror, Minuette caught a whiff of her own shampoo.
"How is she?" Berry asked.
"Oh she's fine, very pleased to see me, her daughter Dinky is quite the artist evidently." Minuette grinned into the wet towel flung into her face.
"Ha ha. I meant my sister."
"Cheerilee is nice, very dedicated to her students. She seems to care about you a lot." Minuette rapped Berry on the back of the head. "And for the record, I do not enjoy playing the part like that."
Berry stopped brushing. She looked away from Minuette's stern reflection behind her. "I'm sorry Colgate. I won't ask you to do something like that again."
After another moment she said, "Tell you what, if ever you need a favor from me, I'll do it, no questions asked, just like you did for me now."
"Berry, you don't need to set up a tab with me, I'm helping you because I want to."
Minuette englufed the brush with her magic and began tugging at the places Berry couldn't easily reach. Her floppy curls evidently became quite knotted if left to themselves.
"Got a spare toothbrush?"
Minuette pointed with a hoof. "Right drawer behind the Q-tips. I always keep several in case I drop mine or something."
Berry chuckled into her toothpaste. "Yeh sure deh hahe gerhs Colghae."
Minuette rolled her eyes and gave a particularly matted tangle on Berry's mane a yank.
"Heya again Cheerilee!" Berry gave her sister a wink as she descended the stairs in front of Minuette.
"Heya yourself sleeping beauty." Cheerilee gave Berry a light punch on the arm in greeting. "I'm glad you had a good time last night but a note or something would have been appreciated so I wouldn't have been plagued by fear for your safety all morning. And sank half my medication for the month. Again."
Minuette trotted over with a Tupperware full of the last of the salad, Ditzy having gone back for fourths and fifths while Minuette had been upstairs.
"Here you go Berry, just something to tide you over during your shift. Don't worry, I've got dinner for myself all ready too. And you can return the box tomorrow or whenever you get the chance."
Berry took the Tupperware and situated it on her back. "Thanks a bunch Colgate! It looks delicious. This way I won't have to buy dinner from Horte."
With that, both Earth Ponies and the Pegasus headed out the door, Ditzy turning around on the way out to poke her head inside the vestibule again.
"Sorry I kinda emptied your fridge Miss Romana! I'll ask Harvest if we can have you over for lunch sometime!"
Before Minuette could say anything, Ditzy was off again, this time cartwheeling dangerously close to the property across the street before she achieved enough lift to carry her fully aloft. Minuette couldn't help but wonder if Ditzy ever accidentally crashed.
Oh! I bet I could borrow that Daring Do novel from Twilight after dinner! I still need to visit her after all. That's the ticket. After all this unpacking, curling up with a good book sounds amazing.
We are coming up on the end of the first part of the story now. There will be two, perhaps three more arcs of similar length to this. Told you that we were in for a long haul.
For the record, yes I do love all of the music genres just mentioned and yes, I'm doing that thing that the lovely and wonderful DawnFade does and throwing in some music on occasion.