“This game is impossible,” I muttered.
"Well, no duh," Starlight said. "Nopony would voluntarily stay in a Hayburger overnight playing an easy game."
"I didn't stay overnight!" I argued.
Starlight arched a brow.
"I mean, I… I slept," I quickly amended.
Starlight's eyes narrowed to mere slits.
"Listen, these booths are more comfortable than you'd—"
"You're insane," Starlight said. "Do I need to have somepony take you home by force? Should I call your supervisor?"
"No, no…" I murmured, leaning back in my seat and folding my hooves over my chest. "Look, Cheerilee stayed here overnight, too."
"Yeah, and so did the drunk guy who's too afraid to go home and face his wife," Starlight hissed, gesturing to a stallion slumped in a corner booth. "What's with Cheerilee, anyway? Isn't she, like… smart?"
I glared at Starlight.
She returned a look of disdain.
"Cheerilee's just hanging out 'til she finishes grading," I explained. "She fell asleep by accident."
"Is there no one working here who's at all worried about the number of unconscious customers?" Starlight asked no one in particular. "Oh, who am I kidding? There's no way they're paid enough for that." Starlight put her head in her hooves and slumped down onto the table.
I really didn’t have a response for that. I just grunted.
Still vigilant in her booth from earlier, Cheerilee sat hunched over her work, though her pen wasn’t moving quite as fast as it had been the day before.
I felt kinda bad. I dunno, maybe she really wanted to talk about something. Or… maybe she didn’t really have anything on her mind, and she was just trying to get me to talk. She’s a teacher, right? She probably cares about that stuff. And notices that stuff.
I notice that stuff, too.
Why hadn’t I asked?
“Okay, so… exactly how long should I let this go on before I physically drag you out of here?” Starlight asked.
"You're not!" Starlight argued. "You're acting crazy, you're miserable, you slept in a booth--"
"Look." I grit my teeth. "I just… I really need a win right now, okay?"
Starlight was quiet. She gave me a weird look, almost scared, and said, "okay. Sorry."
"It's fine, I just--" I paused, drummed my hooves on the table, and tried to think of what to say. "Y'know what? Never mind."
Before Starlight could stop me, I jumped up from the booth and set off at a determined trot towards Cheerilee.
At some point, she looked up at me, and just watched as I came skidding to a halt in front of her.
"We're gonna go play some Hoof-to-Hoof, okay?"
Cheerilee's mouth opened, but no sound came out. She looked down at her papers, up at my face, then back down at her papers. "But… Rainbow, I still have grading to do."
"I know," I said. "I just feel like we have some stuff to talk about. Might as well do it over a game, right?"
"Um…" Cheerilee's gaze wandered to the cabinets at the back.
"Oh, just come on," I said, grabbing Cheerilee around the arm and giving her a strong tug out of the booth.
She made a small squeak, but quickly found her footing on the tile. "Rainbow, seriously: I have things I need to--"
"It can wait for one game," I said, giving her another tug. "C'mon."
Sensing that this probably wasn't going to let up any time soon, Cheerilee relented, allowing me to drag her across the restaurant and over to the arcade cabinets in the back. She stood there like a lopsided stack of wood blocks while I loaded bits into the machine.
"We'll do three rounds. Me against you," I said. "You wanna be player one?"
Cheerilee stepped up to the controls. She tested up and rested her hooves on the buttons, giving the joystick an experimental swirl. She then gave me an expectant look.
I squeezed in beside her, flank to flank, and put my own hooves on the player two controls.
"Choose your character!"
I clicked through the choices without much thought and selected my go-to.
Cheerilee was a little more thoughtful, considering each fighter as she scrolled through the options. After only a single pass through, she settled on one of the bottom-of-the-barrel choices.
I snorted. "Mystery Mare?"
Cheerilee cast me a cocky glance. "Have something to say about that?"
I shook my head. "No, no! She's, uh… she's cool. Not that popular."
Cheerilee shrugged. "What can I say? I guess I like the unpopular ponies."
Cheerilee's whole body stiffened. She sort of ducked down, almost getting into a fighting stance of her own. Her tail swished over the tile and grazed my rear hooves.
Mystery Mare landed a hit right out the gate.
I panicked, rolled backwards, and tried to get in my go-to move.
Quarter-circle-B to charge and--
Mystery Mare expertly disrupted the charge and landed another hit.
I made a small sound of distress.
"So." Cheerilee fought a smile as she looked over at me in my panic to hold my own. "You wanted to talk?"
"I, uh--" Duck, duck, dodge. "Yeah. I wanted to tell you I-- y'know, I'm in the Wonderbolts."
Mystery Mare landed another perfect hit.
"You wanted to tell me you're in the Wonderbolts?"
"Sorry to tell you, Rainbow, but I did recognize you from your posters."
I laughed a bit too. "No, no. I know," I said. "But I-I'm in the Wonderbolts and I'm… pretty good!"
"So I've heard."
Quarter-circle-B, crack on the jaw from Mystery Mare.
"And, y'know, I like being good. The best, even," I continued. "It feels good. I mean, who doesn't like being the best? And in the Wonderbolts I'm like--I'm literally the best of the best. Y'know?"
Cheerilee nodded. "Mhm,” she hummed. “Still sounds like you’re trying to show off. I’m afraid non-students can’t earn the title of teacher’s pet, Rainbow.”
“No, I—” I sighed. Cheerilee gave me a smirk that made me forget why I was mad. "Just… lately I've been thinking, like… not many ponies stay in the Wonderbolts as they get older," I said.
Mystery Mare stayed her hoof from another devastating blow.
Wyldfire ran for a first aid kit.
"I know there's a clock on my time as a Wonderbolt. I'm not pretending I'm the exception to the rule," I said. "But a few weeks back, they moved a newbie up to lead one of the maneuvers that I consider my best."
Cheerilee took her hooves off the controls.
I glanced over at her. "Hey, the match isn't over!"
"You got pushed to second," Cheerilee said. "And then you came in here, and you saw--"
I set my jaw and hung my head.
"Oh." Cheerilee shuffled her hooves. "I see."
I sighed. "Are you seriously done playing already? Because--"
"Rainbow, I'm the one who beat your score."
Wasn't expecting that.
I stepped down from the machine and looked at Cheerilee, who once again looked like a dog caught doing something it shouldn't have been. She gave me a half smile.
“TMM—it’s me,” she said. “It stands for ‘The Mystery Mare’.”
Words failed me.
I just stared at her.
She stared back.
Then she laughed. “I’ve been here every day for… for a while,” she admitted. “The teenagers who work here are starting to recognize me. And they’re checked out from most of reality about eighty percent of the time.”
Cheerilee sighed and covered her face with one hoof. "It's been hard lately to… I don't know." She looked down at the floor. "Twilight's school is getting so much recognition. It's hard not to feel like I might be, um. Wasting my time?"
I shook my head. "What? Wasting your--huh?"
"I'm not as good!" Cheerilee said. "I-I don't teach the big important things that Twilight does! I'm just a grade school teacher trying to get foals to learn to write legibly…"
I didn't know what to say. Cheerilee's face was absolutely glowing with embarrassment.
"I just wonder sometimes why I'm not teaching there," she said. I was starting to recognize the Twilight stress tone—it’s the sort of thing you’re trained to recognize when you’re friends for so long. “If teaching is my special talent, then shouldn't I be doing it at the best school? And… and if I can't teach at the best school, should I even be teaching at all?"
She reached up to tug mindlessly on her mane, eyes still glued to the floor.
All I could do was laugh.
At first, Cheerilee seemed hurt. She looked at me with this sort of shattered look in her eyes that broke my heart all at once.
"Cheer, that's nuts!” I said quickly. Then, just to diffuse the tension, “I thought you were supposed to be smart or something."
She giggled at that. An involuntary thing.
"You can't seriously think foals don't need to know the basics,” I argued. “I mean… how else are they supposed to do good in a school like Twilight's? I shudder to think what my teaching would be like if I couldn’t spell properly."
Cheerilee rolled her eyes. "To be fair I think the same could be said for the Wonderbolts,” she said.
I scowled. “Uh… I don’t follow.”
“It's not exactly the same experience with only one pegasus flying, is it?" she said, nudging me gently in the side.
I looked at her.
She was taller than me.
She looked down at me.
That was… I dunno.
I laughed. Just a little laugh that was kind of weird and awkward and sad.
She didn’t seem to mind.
“That’s different. That’s—”
“It’s not.” Cheerilee smiled. Gently. “We support the next generation, right? Students, Wonderbolts… at some point we have to step down and let the new best-ever step up.”
I bit my lip.
The game we’d been playing had long since ended. The cabinet now ticked through its few preset screens: the title slide, the character selection grid, and the high scores.
High scores topped by TMM.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “Fine. Eventually somepony has to replace me. And… and maybe I do make them look good by being the best of the best beside them.”
“But this!” I said, pointing one hoof emphatically at the screen.
Cheerilee jumped back and looked at the cabinet, eyes wide.
“This is—it’s not that!” I stuttered. “This is you beating me at Hoof-to-Hoof because you’re—I dunno, you’re crazy good at video games for some reason.”
“My sister is Mystery Mare,” Cheerilee said.
She blinked back at me.
“She has one of these in her house!” Cheerilee gestured to the cabinet. “I’m basically the master of it.”
My mouth hung open.
She tossed her mane over her shoulder.
I was starting to feel a bit woozy, though I tried to ignore it.
“Okay,” I said.
Cheerilee’s smirk faded. “That’s it?”
“Uh… no.” I swallowed hard. “I, uh… I just came up with a great way to reinforce this life lesson, though.”
Cheerilee faked a gasp. “Don’t tell me you’re teaching?”
“Heck yeah I am,” I said. “And you’re going to teach me how to play this game like a master. Because teaching matters.”
Cheerilee made a face and clicked her tongue. “It’s flimsy. Maybe a C on argument logic.”
“Don’t care,” I said, grabbing her by the hoof and leading her back to the game. “Let’s do this.”
She gave me a look.
I looked back at her.
She was taller than me.
I liked it.