“I apologize. I believe it’s my fault that we got off on the wrong foot because I allowed another to convince me that giving you a flowery greeting would entitle us to get along, but it looks like she was wrong. Let me properly introduce myself. My name is Victory Jam and I can be an easy person to get along with or I can be your worst nightmare. While I am here, I am not your substitute. I am your teacher. And you are my students. When I order you to do something, you do it without any question. When I say jump, don’t waste my time asking me how high, you just jump.”
The class didn’t move nor made any sound. They all sat at their desks and stared at the icy figure standing at the head of the class. Jelly, their only advocate in the room was sitting dejected at the desk.
It had been a stupid prank that shouldn't mean anything, but why was it that she wanted nothing more than to flee from the class, and run all the way back to the ship. What had promised to be a good day was ruined for her and she felt ashamed that it bothered her so much.
“Next is history and social studies and she had you reading a two chapters and answering the questions in your textbooks, but you know, I don’t think we’ll follow this assignment. Instead I want you to write a report on something about your world that you like and how you would improve it. I want the report to be ten pages long.” Victory walked before the class studying the faces as she spoke.
Jaws dropped at the lengthy assignment. They had written reports before, but usually they were two to three pages long.
“And if you don’t finish, that’s fine. You can spend recess finishing it. You won’t be having recess today.”
A collective gasped burst from the class and Diamond Tiara smacked a hoof on her desk, “You can’t do that!”
Big mistake. Victory smiled, taking pleasure in putting an insubordinate in its place. “Make that a fifteen page report. No, twenty pages.”
“Shut up, Diamond!” Silver Spoon hissed.
“Yeah! Diamond, just shut up before she makes it thirty pages!” Another filly echoed.
There were more calls for Diamond Tiara to shut her mouth and the pink filly sunk into her desk with a crimson face. Victory nearly beamed with pride as her students took care of the insurrection themselves. “Take out your paper and pencils and get to work.”
Apple Bloom stared hard at the mare behind the desk. She knew something. She was sure of it. She had other sketches in her book and Apple Bloom wanted it, but how to get it? Apple Bloom tore her eyes off the mare just enough time to pull out her leaflet of papers and a pencil.
Victory walked among the rows sending shivers down the back of any foal she passed. Then she spotted a foal standing at the back of the classroom. “Why aren’t you at your desk?”
The little foal laid its ears against its head as it shrank back. Victory noticed that it was a very small foal, smaller compared to the others. “Jelly, get over here. I think we got an extra.”
The class halted in their assignment to look over their shoulders at the newcomer with a creak of chairs and pencils rolling across desktops.
“He’s not in our class.” One colt pointed out.
“He’s the fire station chief’s foal,” a filly said.
“Ember?” Jelly trotted to the back. At the mention of his name, the foal lifted its ears as he recognized her. “I know his father. You know, from the party.”
“Oh, you mean that guy that you were chatting with?” Severe disapproval carried heavily in her tone.
“Yes, him. He’s probably looking for him right now.” Jelly gave Victory an even look. “Does anyone know where the fire station is?”
“Ah do!” Apple Bloom thrust her hoof up so fast she nearly toppled off her seat.
“We’ll take Ember back to his father.” Jelly was eager to get out of the school for a while.
It took some cajoling and gentle words, but the foal calmed and followed Jelly outside. They had to walk slowly for his smaller strides to keep up with theirs. Apple Bloom eyed the satchel hanging at Jelly’s side as they walked across the schoolyard and toward the street.
“Ah saw your sketch book,” Apple Bloom said.
“My sketch book?” Jelly had to raise a leg to keep from stepping on Ember who had stopped to look at a yellow flower.
“It fell out of your bag.” Apple Bloom pointed her hoof toward it. “May Ah look at it?”
“What? Oh no, it’s not a sketch book. It’s just a notebook, nothing special.” Jelly put a hoof on Ember’s back, “No, no, don’t put that in your mouth. Nasty.” Ember looked up at her with the flower in his mouth. Despite Jelly’s protests, he drew the flower into his mouth and ate the petals. “No, no, nasty! You’re going to get sick.”
“Ya don’t get sick eatin’ flowers,” Apple Bloom muttered frustrated. She contemplated reaching up and digging into the bag for the sketch book herself.
Jelly nudged Ember along with a foreleg, “Well, we don’t have many flowers up north.”
“What else do ya have up north?” Apple Bloom asked, her eyes slanting suspiciously.
“Uh . . .rocks and snow.”
“More rocks and snow?”
“And what else?”
“Not much else, it’s pretty boring up north.” Jelly was curious about where all this attention was coming from. Apple Bloom had so far shown no interest in her, so why the twenty questions game? “Why don’t you tell me about Ponyville? It’s pretty interested with friendly people.”
“Why do you talk weird? You keep saying words like people and person. Is that how they talk in Caneighda?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s how we talk.” Up ahead, she caught a glimpse of a brick building with a large red fireman hat set atop of the building. “That must be it.”
As they headed toward the station, a frantic stallion galloped down the street. He swung his head as he looked around, even taking a moment to glance behind a row of trash cans set against the fire station. “Ember!”
“He’s over here!” Jelly called waving a hoof toward him.
Smokey froze, his head swinging towards them. When he saw the colt at her hooves, he galloped to them. He galloped so hard, his hooves kicked up dust and dirt behind him. He nearly skidded to a halt, his hooves leaving grooves in the path.
“Ember!” He shouted so hard, his back hooves left the ground. “You do not leave the station without daddy!”
Ember lay on the front, his chin on his fetlocks. His ears lay back against skull if he was trying to make himself as small as possible with his large eyes peered fearfully up at his father whom towered over him.
“Do you have any idea of what I went through for the last twenty minutes? I thought you were hurt or lost for good! Bad colt! Bad!” Smokey’s voice strained as if the effort of yelling was making him angrier.
“It’s alright.” Jelly stepped forward as the sight of Ember frightfully prostrating before his father was breaking her heart. “He must have seen the school kids and wanted to join them. He’s not hurt.”
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t understand, you don’t have any foals.” Smokey shook his head, looking more exhausted and strained.
Jelly began to worry about him, “Yelling at him won’t help. He doesn’t understand why you’re upset with him. You’re only scaring him.”
“Look, I don’t need parenting advice from someone who doesn’t have a foal . . .” his eyes passed over her bare flank for the first time and the information went from his eyes to his mouth completely bypassing his brain where his common sense is kept. “ . . . and no cutie mark.”
Apple Bloom would later swear she heard a snap before Jelly’s anxiety, humiliation, and anger exploded.
“I am 23 years old. I’ve finished high school, attended a university before I transferred to the mil . . . to here. I’m not a saint, but I do try to be kind and considerate as my grandparents taught me. I’m not gorgeous, but I like to think I’m pretty.” With the foals at their hooves forgotten, Jelly stepped closer; bringing her face close to Smokey’s who was trying to stammer out an apology.
“I’m s-sorry. I-I didn’t mean to . . .” Apple Bloom could see that Smokey deeply regretted his words, but she could also see that it was too late.
“I don’t need a brand on my ass to define me.” Jelly felt the warm wetness pricking at her eyes. “I know who I am and what I want in my life. What I want is respect and not to be ridiculed for something I’m not or don’t have.”
Jelly spun on her hooves and trotted away. Apple Bloom stayed back glancing between Jelly’s retreating tail and Smokey’s bright red face, and then she galloped after the unicorn, her smaller legs churning to keep up with the long strides of the elder pony.
Jelly didn’t go back to the school. She drifted a small ways from the street along away from the path to school. The unicorn couldn’t return to the school with her eyes wet and her face distraught. Victory will want to know what happened and then ream her for being sensitive. She noticed Apple Bloom following her, “You can go back to class.”
“Ah . . . Ah’m sorry. Ah know how ya feel. Ah don’t have a cutie mark either and Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon give me a hard time too.”
“Eh, it’s okay. It’s just stress. Go ahead and tell Victory that Ember is back with his father and I’ll be there shortly.”
Apple Bloom lingered quietly before she retreated back to the school. Jelly glanced to make sure she was gone before she dropped onto her haunches her head dipping low as tears rolled down her face.
“You were right, Grandma,” Jelly whispered in a hush prayer. “The military wasn’t for me and I went into it for all the wrong reasons. She wasn’t what I thought or wanted her to be. She’s horrible. God, I wish I was home now.”
When Jelly returned to the school, Victory gave her a look, but said nothing. The students wrote their reports in misery. Jelly passed the time by glancing through a pony literature text book while Victory flipped through a social studies book. When they felt the change coming on, they retreated into a broom closet with a story of looking for cleaning supplies.
“This is like a scene from a horny high school teen’s fantasy: two naked women in a closet at school.” Mikala held up an old poster announcing a talent show between them for modesty reasons.
“Bad news, Mikala does Ponyville, this is the last of it.” Laotaner held up her syringe. “Six to eight hours and we’ll change back to our natural selves and stay that way.”
“Do we have everything that we need?” Mikala sat on a stack of mats. She was relieved that the mission was almost over, but she was also sad to see it end.
“Yes, I’ll send what we have back to the brains in HQ and let them decide the best course of action to take, then follow that. And I’ll sign your discharge request once we dock back in Havens space.” Laotaner was leaning against a shelf with clay pottery molded by small hooves.
“Whoa.” It was dimmed inside the closet, but it didn’t take much to see how wide Mikala’s eyes were. “How did you know of that?”
“Nothing happens on my ship without my knowing it.” Laotaner picked up a clay sculptor of a pony and studied. It was crudely made, but it held the basic shape of an equine. It was no different than one a human child would make. “I think it’s a very wise decision on your part to leave. The military life isn’t for everyone.”
“Yeah. It was a mistake, I see that now.” Mikala rubbed the spot on her leg where she injected herself. “May I ask you a personal question?”
“You may, but I can choose whether or not I answer it.” Laotaner set the clay figure back.
“What were you before you enlisted?” Mikala felt her body starting its change. “I mean, did you have a job or did you enlist straight out of school?”
Even though a fine coat was spreading over her body, she felt a chill stir in the room. She knew Laotaner was staring at her, but it was heavier and icier compared to her previous stares. Mikala had touched on something sensitive and taboo for the elder woman. Maybe this time, she had gone too far.
“Social worker.” Laotaner’s horn threaded through her hair. “I worked for a little district called Winslip.”
Mikala, now Jelly, sat in stunned silence. She had just received more information from that one sentience than her hours of research and hacking had collected. And Noa Laotaner was a social worker? The most evil bitch commander held such a compassionate job?
“Why did you leave it?” Jelly asked, standing on her four hooves.
“I had this stupid notion that people needed help, but then I realized that what they needed was something else.”
Winslip burned thirty years ago. Jelly felt as if chunks of ice were being dropped into her stomach. 600 people died. Thousands injured.
There was a tentative knock on the door. “Mrs. Jam? Did you find the surface cleaner? It was on the right shelf on the third row, like Bandy Legs said.”
“We found it.” Victory opened the door just as a filly was hurrying back to her desk. They both stepped before Jelly remembered to reach back in for the cleaner. She forgot what they were supposed to clean and consigned to clean the desk top.
Apple Bloom eyed them over her paper. They were in that closet for twenty minutes looking for that spray bottle. Why did it take two of them to look for an item that they were given detail instructions of its location? She had brief hoped that Jelly would leave behind the bag, but alas she took it with her into the closet. In afterthought, Apple Bloom realized that she couldn’t go through a bag while the whole class looked on.
She glanced at over at Sweetie Belle and an idea sparked.
School ended, and the foals practically fled through the front doors. Victory stacked the papers into a folder and used her magic to tie it with string. Jelly stood by the door feeling sadden that the smiling happy foals looked distressed at the prospect of having to come back to Victory’s tutelage tomorrow. As she watched them hurry away under the afternoon sun, she was tempted to ease their fears by telling them that they will never see Victory after today.
Sweetie Belle stopped by the door and said, “Are you going to go pick up your new dress from Rarity?”
“Dress? Oh, you mean the one I tried on yesterday?” She had completely forgotten about her appointment. It wasn’t necessary now, since today would be their last day in Ponyville and they would certainly miss the dance altogether.
“Rarity is really looking forward to show you the dress.” Sweetie Belle leaned forward with a tilt of her head. “I saw it this morning and it looks great. You gotta see!”
“I don’t think I’ll able to do that today.” Jelly felt too tired to go through another fitting and Victory seemed anxious for them to return to the inn.
“You gotta come! Please!” The adorable filly sat back, her eyes large, with a slight tremor to her bottom lip.
Why was it so important for her to go to a fitting? “Okay, I’ll meet you there. I have to speak with my mother right now.”
“Alright!” Sweetie Belle galloped off, her little legs carrying her off toward her friends. She came to a near screeching halt between Apple Bloom and Scootaloo and plopped her rear on the dirt path. “She said she was going to the boutique. Why was it so important for her to go?”
“Because she can’t wear that bag and try on a dress at the same time,” Apple Bloom explained. “She gotta take it off and then we can grab that book.”
“No way! We can’t do that!” Sweetie Belle blurted as she jumped to her hooves. “Rarity never lets me inside her workroom when she has a client and if she catches me stealing . . . she’ll ground me till I’m older than Granny Smith!”
“It ain’t stealin’!” Apple Bloom stomped a hoof so hard she left a deep imprint in the dirt. “Those are muh pictures she got and I want ‘em back.”
“Are you sure those drawings are yours? Do you think you made a mistake?” Scootaloo asked.
“If this is the first time that Jelly Jam has come to Ponyville, then how does she know what me and muh sister look like? It has muh name in muh mouth writing!” Apple Bloom marched away from the school. “Ah gotta get that book or Ah’ll never find out what happened to me.”
“Wait, Apple Bloom, you can’t leave the school. I thought your sister told you to stay.” Sweetie Belle followed her friend.
“This is too important! She’ll understand when Ah show her. Ya’ll see.”
As the fillies trotted off, Jelly found herself yet again under the searing glare of Victory. * “I really hate it when you look at me like that.” *
*”Like what?” * Victory inquired casually, though her eyes were as hard as granite.
*”Like you are contemplating how I would look with my head twisted off.”* Jelly looked away, feeling the weight of that look. * “If you don’t want me to go, I won’t.” *
*”No, no, go ahead and go. Just be back at the inn by 7:00. We’ll wait until 8:00 and then return in the night. Our cover is that we are going out to eat and we’ll really go into the Everfree forest.” *
*”I’ll be there, promise.” *
*”Remember, we don’t’ have any more nanites. If we change here, we can’t change back into ponies and that would be very very bad.” * Victory shoved the folder with the reports into her satchel. Then she shot Jelly another look and said again, * “Very bad.” *
As Jelly trotted up the front steps of the boutique, she wondered why there was a plate of chocolate truffles on the bottom step. She had been seeing this everywhere in Ponyville, but she didn’t understand what it was for and inquiring about it may give herself away as not being what she seemed. As she entered the shop, she failed to notice the shifted of the bush leaves near the edge of the bottom step.
To Jelly’s dismay, she wasn’t the only one coming in for a fitting. Smokey was there on the dais where Rarity was using a measuring tape to see the length of his legs and body. “I believe that I may have the right bard tux in stock. Some adjustments may be necessary, but it’ll certainly be ready by Winter Welcome.”
She turned when Jelly stepped inside, “Ah, Miss Jam, what a pleasant surprised. I have your dress in the back. Let me make sure it’s ready while you have a nice chat with Mr. Smokey.”
Jelly noticed that the seamstress pony was batting her lashes a lot as she gave them a knowing smile. What she knew, the human turned unicorn had no idea.
After Rarity disappeared into the back room, slipped the bag off her neck and laid it across a nearby table. She tried to not look at him, as if he wasn’t there. If he wanted to look at her bare flank, then he was free to do so as much as he wanted.
Jelly considered ignoring him completely, but doing so would only make her look childish. She turned around and replied neutrally, “Yes?”
“I’m sorry. It was wrong, rude, and terrible of me to yell and insult you. I can’t do anything right in my life.” Smokey stepped off the dais, but stayed away, respecting her space. “I can’t do anything right. I couldn’t keep my wife healthy, I couldn’t handle doing my job, keeping our home, and raising my son alone. I just hope that you don’t allow my slip in judgment influence how you feel about me.”
Again, she had to look away. It was a good apology and it did ease her hurt heart. “It’s alright. I shouldn’t have reacted that way. Today hasn’t been a good day for either of us, I supposed.”
“So, are we okay?” Smokey inquired hopefully.
“Yes, we’re fine.” She surprised herself by meaning it.
In the next room, Rarity was humming delightfully to herself as she gave the magic of romance time to bloom in the next room. The dress was clothing a mannequin ready to be viewed. Rarity had already selected accessories that she believed would look marvelous with the dress gown and had them in a small box on a small table. She busied herself with recording Smokey’s measurements in a client book in case she needed to make some adjustments.
She caught movement from the corner of her eye, “Sweetie Belle, what are you and your friends doing here?”
The foals were looking through the doorway that led into her fitting room. All three of them looked at her with guilt and anxiety behind their eyes. Sweetie Belle spoke up, “Nothing. We wanted to see who was out there.”
“Don’t bother them. Isn’t there something you can do elsewhere? I have a lot of work to do with the Winter Dance coming up.” Rarity arched an eyebrow smelling something ahoofed. “Apple Bloom, does Applejack know you are here?”
“Uh, yes, she does. She said it was alright for me to come over.” Apple Bloom certainly wasn’t the bearer for the Element of Honesty.
Rarity gave her a hard suspicious look and Apple Bloom silent prayed to both Celestia and Luna that her face was neutral and didn’t betray the panic that was causing her heart to flutter like a panic bird. For what seemed like forever to the nervour fillies, Rarity relented, “Very well. Just stay out of the way and don’t bother Jelly or Smokey in there.”
“We won’t,” all three fillies said in unison.
“Good. Now you’ll have to leave this room while I’m working.” Rarity shooed them out before she called out to the adults in the next room, “I have the clothing ready if you want to see.”
The fillies tried to look as innocent as newborns as they trailed into the fitting room while Smokey and Jelly walked past them. And Apple Bloom’s eyes landed on the bag sitting on a table. She looked back at the doorway and saw that the curtain cover it had fell into place, blocking them from view.
She trotted to the bag, keeping herself from galloping in fear that galloping hooves would be heard and rouse suspicious. Sweetie Belle stayed near the doorway, watching and motioned for Apple Bloom to hurry.
“So what do you think, Jelly Jam? I may have brought up the collar too much, so I’ll need you to try it on so I can see.”
Their voices carried easily through the curtain.
Apple Bloom opened the bag with Scootaloo standing nearby nearly pacing frantically.
“I . . . I mean . . . it’s beautiful, you really shouldn’t have. . .” Jelly’s voice was cracking.
Apple Bloom drew out the items. A few of the items were strange: rectangle book like item that didn’t open at all, a watch too small for any adult pony’s foreleg, and a syringe with a cap on it. Did Jelly have an illness?
“What’s the matter, darling? You don’t like it?”
“Apple Bloom, hurry up!” Scootaloo hissed as her hooves rocked on the floor. Apple Bloom found the sketch book and flipped it opened.
“I never had a dress like this before,” Jelly’s voice chocked.
The yellow filly flipped through the pages. A lot of them were of landscapes, a large city like Canterlot but of dark colors instead of gold and white, and some animals on a farm.
“Just take the book.” Scootaloo whined.
“Ah can’t, she’ll know if it’s missin’. This way it’ll be a while before she realizes.” Apple Bloom found what she was look for at the end and saw more of her drawings. She began pulling them out with her teeth, “Quick, hold out my bag.”
“There there, it’s alright.”
“I’m sorry. It’s been an emotional day for me. I’ll need to lie down once we’re done here.”
“Alright, you go ahead to the fitting room and I’ll bring the dress along. Mr. Smokey, please feel free to browse through the tuxedos. I’ll be in the next room if you need me.”
“Apple Bloom, grab it and go.” Scootaloo edged toward the door while Sweetie Belle frantically waved her hooves at them.
Apple Bloom barely looked at the last page she shoved into her bag. She swung it onto her back and galloped to the door. Sweetie Belle followed close, her own legs churning to carry her through the door.
Jelly push past the curtain in time to see Sweetie Belle dart across the room. Her eyes landed on the open sketch book on the table next to her bag and the realization of what had happened cut into her gut. “Apple Bloom!”
She galloped across the floor leaving a surprised Rarity behind her. The fillies clopped down the steps, but then froze in sheer terror at what was coming toward them.
Applejack was storming along the path with her ears laid back and air whistling through her nose as she snorted. She spotted Apple Bloom and electricity crackled through her eyes. “Apple Bloom! Ah told ya to wait at the school!”
Behind them a wire which had been laying slack across the top step was pulled taut and stretched across the doorway and in front of the bottom step a blue blur swooshed by leaving behind a large rock the size of a pony’s head. A second later, Jelly’s front legs caught on the wire and the speed of her gallop threw her forward off the top step. She banged her back legs against the steps and her head plummeted toward the rock.
All the ponies heard the sickening thunk as her head collided with the hard rock. Jelly lay still as a streamer of blood rolled down the side of her face and down her neck.
Silence as heavy as a grave followed, broken by a chirruping sound that could have been crickets or the sound of tiny wicked laughter.