“This game’s harder than I remember,” I admitted, sinking into the booth across from Cheerilee. “How in the hay did I get so many high scores?”
“Littler hooves?” Cheerilee suggested with a giggle.
I flopped backwards into the vinyl and let out a sigh of despair. “You’re right. I’m past my prime,” I said wearily. “Just another washed-up cabinet gamer with no future. Helpless. Hopeless. Brainless. Fameless.”
Cheerilee snickered again. “The age old story, hm?”
“Ya got that right.”
It was getting late.
Hour twelve of arcade gaming was looking pretty bleak.
The crowds in the Haybuger were thinning and changing, though not vanishing completely the way I’d hoped. I guess I sort of forgot about the wave of ponies with post-party munchies looking for something quick, cheap, and greasy.
They were loud, but not in the screaming kid way. They were messy, but… also not in the messy kid way. I guess I could just cope better with adults acting stupid. Or maybe it was just the closest thing to a change of scenery I was going to get in here.
“When are you gonna go home?” I asked.
Cheerilee looked up, her eyes a bit glassy and blank. “Hm?”
“Home?” I repeated. “It’s super late. Aren’t you tired?”
Cheerilee let out her own weary sigh. “A little. But I’d really rather just stick around until I’ve finished these.” She paused, then forced a smile and a cheery tone: “I’m more than halfway there!”
I chuckled. “Convincing.”
“Ugh.” Cheerilee hung her head. “I swear, if I have to read one more essay about perfectionism, I’m going to… well, I don’t know what I’m going to do! Just… keep grading them, I suppose.”
I cocked my head. “What are these essays about? I thought they’d be about like… books or something.”
Cheerilee put her pen down and flopped back in the booth, her forelegs limp at her sides, her head rolled to the ceiling. “At the end of each semester, I ask my students to write me an essay about what they think they learned, and what they want to improve on next semester,” she explained. “The problem is that… well, they’re so young. They don’t know how to self-evaluate like that, try as I might.”
“Um…” Cheerilee scratched her head. “Well, let me put it this way: a foal is never going to admit to their teacher that they’re no good at their times tables. Though I suppose all of these say pretty strongly that my little ponies need to work on their grammar.”
I nodded slightly. “Oh. Right.”
Cheerilee gave me a pained look. “I’m making more of it than it is. Procrastinating, you know?” she said softly. “I don't even have a good reason for it, honestly. This is just how I get sometimes."
I nodded again. "Yeah… I know what you mean," I said.
Cheerilee gave me a sympathetic half-smile, then looked back down at her papers.
"Uh… hey!" I said, leaning forward. "Why don't I help you out some?"
"Oh, no." Cheerilee waved her hoof dismissively. "No, no. I couldn't ask you to do that. Plus, I'd need to show you how—"
"You don't need to show me anything," I said, reaching across the table and grabbing a chuck of essays off the unfinished stack. "I know what I'm doing. I'm teaching now, remember?"
Cheerilee's mouth hung open.
But she didn't stop me.
I know that move. I mostly know it because I've had a lot of ponies stop me super fast from doing something super dumb, so when somepony hesitates it means they actually really want you to do what you're about to do.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I can clear the sky in ten seconds flat, I think I can get these papers graded in the next hour.”
“But, Rainbow, I—”
“Bup, bup!” I held up a hoof to stop her. “Nope. I’m helping.”
“What about your game?”
I hesitated, hooves hovering over the papers in front of me. “It’s just a game,” I said. “It’ll still be there when we’re done. I wanna help you.”
Not waiting for an answer, I snatched a red pen away from Cheerilee and set to work.
“Thank you,” Cheerilee said. “Really. It’s nice to have somepony to work with.”
I chuckled. “Yeah. Sure is.”
I set the end of my pen under the first line of the first essay and started to read.
This semester, I learned a lot about the environment. The environment is cool because there’s lots of different kinds of biomes in it. For example, the taiga biome is a biome you can find in the environment.
If I’m honest, that’s really the last thing I remember before I fell asleep.
My dreams smelled like hayburgers.
I sniffed softly and batted away the unwelcome hoof in my face.
"Rainbow, wake up."
I opened my eyes.
There she was: nestled in beside me on my side of the booth, nudging me gently, looking a bit dazed and confused herself.
"Oh, hey," I murmured. “What’s up?”
Cheerilee giggled. A small snort snuck out. “You fell asleep! In the middle of the first essay!” she laughed some more. “Then I fell asleep. I think we pushed it a little too far.”
I pushed myself up from the booth. “You fell asleep too?”
“You just looked so cozy!” Cheerilee argued, her face flushing.
I smirked, but said nothing.
Cheerilee’s face crumpled into a scowl of disappointment, and she buried her face in her hooves. “Ugh. Sometimes I just wanna make up the grades and be done with it,” she muttered. “I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t take a good guess. I know my students.”
I shrugged. “So do it. Make some stuff up. At least buy yourself some time.”
“I can’t!” Cheerilee argued, still muffled by her hooves.
I grimaced. “Uh… why?”
“Because!” At last, Cheerilee lifted her face to look at me again. “I can’t do things halfway! I can’t cut corners. I either do it the right way, or not at all. Right?” She looked up at me expectantly.
I sighed. “Yeah. Right. I get it.”
Cheerilee huffed once more, then set her jaw and straightened up. “Okay. I’m going to need a coffee.”
“Gotcha covered,” I said.
I didn’t wait for Cheerilee to move, just leapt up and climbed lizard-style over the back of the booth and dropped to the tile on the other side. Cheerilee made a small squeak, but I expertly ignored it.
The super-early-super-late shift at the Hayburger isn't exactly a crack team. When I got up to the counter, the colt standing there was drumming the counter and softly (but passionately) singing along to the rock music playing over the speaker system.
"Hey," I said.
He didn't hear.
He looked at me like he was personally offended that I would interrupt his jam.
"Can I get a coffee, and, uh…" I looked over the menu. So many greasy weird foods. I sighed. "Can I get two coffees?"
"What size?" he grumbled.
"The biggest one you have."
He didn't say a word, just turned and walked back into the kitchen.
I waited a second for him to realize he'd left without me paying, then quickly scooped out the right amount of bits and dropped them on the counter. He'd figure it out.
Back at the booth, Cheerilee had managed to haul herself into a sitting position and was staring blank-eyed at the papers in front of her. Her mane was a mess. The dark circles under her eyes were so heavy and large that it looked like she'd gone ten rounds with a goat.
"She's still here?"
I looked over my shoulder and saw the colt waiter placing two enormous coffees on the counter.
"The pink one," he said, nodding to Cheerilee. “She’s been here for days. Never stayed overnight, though. Wonder what her deal is.”
I furrowed my brows. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
The kid didn’t say anything. Honestly, he probably thought I was losing it a bit. No way he hadn’t seen me doing battle with the stupid arcade cabinet for the past sixteen hours or so.
I picked up the coffees and zipped back over to the booth with Cheerilee.
She looked up at me with a weak smile. “Thanks.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She blinked. “Um. As okay as I can be after a night sleeping in a booth.” She laughed a little, light and airy and not at all convincing.
“Yeah, but…” I scooted in beside her. “I mean, how long have you been here?”
Cheerilee stiffened. She sighed, gathering her papers up into a stack and sliding them off to the side. “You know what? I’ll make you a deal,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what I’m avoiding if you tell me what you’re avoiding,” she said.
Then she looked at me and she smiled. And it’s hard to explain, but it was a different smile than the one she’d been giving me all day or night or whatever. That one was kinda… fake, I guess? But this one, with the glassy eyes and the messed up mane and the dark circles, seemed a lot more real. Sincere, I guess.
“I-I’m not avoiding anything,” I lied.
Her smile changed. Sincere to sympathetic. “Well… then neither am I.”