You toss your saddlebag onto the dark green sofa in your living room. It was always heaviest this time of the week. What is it your students say? "TCIF." Thank Celestia indeed. At the end of the school week, Cheerilee was always all smiles and walking out with her students like she was a grade-school filly again. You, on the other hand, were completely wiped out by five days of explaining the differences between Manehattan and Fillydelphia. Just the other day, you'd given the snarky answer, "Well, ponies actually WANT to live in Manehattan." That got you in a little bit of trouble with one of the parents, apparently born there herself. You thought about the episode, took a deep sigh, and mumbled under your breath, "If you liked it so much, why did you come to Ponyville?"
No matter. Questions were done for the week. The toughest choice on your mind is what to listen to while you sit on the sofa. You pick out Colt A, one of your favorite albums, and put it in your stereo. The foreign-sounding pony sings about everything being in its right place, and as you lay yourself down next to your bag of papers to grade, you agree with him. You start to nod in time with the music, then with drowsiness, and soon you fall asleep.
BANG BANG BANG
You wake with a start. The second song on the disc is just ending, so you haven't been asleep for long. What exactly was that?
BANG BANG BANG
You glance at the door. Who is visiting you? Hay, who even knows where you live? "Please don't be a salespony, please don't be a salespony," you murmur to yourself, remembering the last one to come around. She was pretty and batted her eyes at you, and the next thing you knew you had four magazine subscriptions. You take a deep breath and open the door.
No one. Then you hear a small cough from below. You look down, and a small pink head pokes out from behind the door frame.
"Cherry?" you say, recognizing your student.
"Can I come in, sir?" she says, very obviously nervous.
You scan the area for any adult ponies. "Where's your mother, Cherry?"
She looks up at you, and her eyes get big. "Pleeeease?"
You feel a lump in your throat, but you nod. After she enters your house, you look around outside one more time before closing the door. Cherry's a personal favorite of yours. She seems genuinely interested in the lessons you give, and she does better at memorizing cities than most of the class. But usually she's confident and full of energy. Not like now. "What are you doing here, Cherry?"
She looks at your stereo and scrunches up her face. "What exactly are you listening to?"
You turn off the music and turn to face her again. "You're avoiding the question. How did you know I live here?"
"Mom and I live just a couple houses down. I've seen you come here after school before."
You nod. "Okay, that's one mystery solved. Now, why don't you tell me why you're here?"
BANG BANG BANG
Cherry runs into your kitchen at the sound of hooves at the door, much firmer than last time.
"Open up! I know you're in there!" shouts a female voice.
You swallow hard. You thought you were done being yelled at for the weekend. "I'm coming..." you choke out, trying to sound like you're not terrified by what's waiting on the other side. Something worse than an Ursa Major and a Hydra combined: an angry mother. You open the door. "Hello, Miss Punch..." you start to say, but she pushes past you.
"Where is she?" She's already in your living room, looking under your couch. "Romana said she saw her come over here, so where is she?"
You take a deep breath. "Miss Punch, I..."
Berry walks right up to you and looks you right in the eyes, her own filled with fury. "I don't want to hear any excuses. This has nothing to do with you. Just tell me where she is."
Your first instinct is to tell her she ran into the back, so that she'll go grab Cherry and take this whole terrifying situation out of your hands. But then you remember that you have a certain responsibility to your students, to keep them safe, whether at school or elsewhere. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Miss Punch."
She practically snarls at you. "What?"
"Until you calm down, I'm just not comfortable letting you-"
For a second, you see nothing. Just blackness, accompanied by an immense pain to the side of your face. Then you're looking at blurs, a growing patch of red on a background of brown. Things start to clear up, and you realize you're looking at the floor of your house, and the red is dripping down your muzzle. You look up at Berry Punch. She has tears in her eyes. "Oh no. Oh Celestia. Oh, I am so so sorry!" She looks around, biting her lip, and runs out of your house.
You hear Cherry's voice from the back. "I'm coming out now! Has she calmed... what happened?" she cries in shock, seeing your wound. You want to answer her, but you're not entirely sure yourself. Suddenly, Berry Punch appears in the doorway again, accompanied this time by a blue unicorn. Cherry cringes a little, but she sees the tears in her mother's eyes and approaches her slowly.
Berry speaks up. "Sweetie, I know you're upset at me. And you have every reason to be upset at me. I understand if you don't want to talk to me right now, so would you mind going with Romana for now?" Cherry turns and looks at you as if asking permission, and you nod slowly. She stands next to the unicorn. "I'll be by in a little bit to properly apologize to you, but first I need to apologize to your teacher, okay? Mommy... mommy has put him through a lot." Romana and Cherry walk off together, leaving you alone with Berry Punch. She grabs a rag from your kitchen table and approaches you. You flinch as she lifts her hoof to your face. She wipes away the excess blood. "I think it's stopped bleeding."
You finally summon up the courage to speak again. "Miss Punch, I..."
She laughs nervously. "Please... please don't call me Miss Punch right now. I've never done anything like that before."
"You can't just..."
She interrupts you again. "I know, I know. I can't. I shouldn't. I don't know what happened. I just know that I'm sorry." The tears are building up again. She turns her back on you, ashamed, with the pretense of rinsing the rag out. She comes back and begins wiping the rest of the blood off of your face. "I'm so sorry."
In spite of the pain you've just suffered, you find that you really do believe her. But questions nag at your mind. "What exactly happened back there?"
Berry shakes her head. "It's nothing."
You give her a sideways glance. "Clearly that's not true."
She puts the rag down. She walks over to your sofa and sits down, then with a hoof waves you over. You take a seat next to her and look at the sorrowful expression on her face. "She was playing with that Scootaloo again at recess today."
You vaguely remember Cherry being one of the group that the little orange pegasus had challenged to a race that afternoon. Nothing particularly unusual about it, but you don't want to instigate things, so you just nod.
"Cherry's going to get hurt, playing with that one." Her voice softens, and its clear she was trying to choose her next words more carefully. "If I tell you this, can it stay between us?" Again, you nod. "I had a rough day today, so when I got home I had a bit of wine. Okay, more than a bit. I don't normally drink like that, honest. But like I said, it was a rough day, and when Cherry came home and told me about the racing, I just lost it. I yelled at her. I said things I shouldn't have. And then, I bucked a vase across the room. That's when she ran to you."
You say nothing for a moment, searching for the right things to say. "Has this sort of thing happened before?"
She shakes her head. "I've been upset with her before, but I've never let it get the better of me like this."
"Hmm..." you murmur, not sure what to say. She takes your silence as a judgment.
"I really mean it. I'd never hurt her. I still can't believe I did that to you." She sniffs, and her eyes moisten. "I was just so scared of losing her. I thought she'd run away from me and she'd never come back."
You look at Berry as tears start to roll down her cheeks. Not that long ago, you were terrified of her, but now you see just how vulnerable and fragile she really is. You pause for a moment before you reach out and wipe one of the tears from her face. "I don't think you need to worry about that. She loves you. She was just scared, is all." You smile at her, hoping it will cheer her up a little bit.
She looks up at you. Her lavender eyes sparkle with tears. "I'm not a bad mother, am I?"
You shake your head. "No, Berry, no. But you have to keep this sort of thing from happening again."
She sniffs. "How do I do that?"
"Just start tackling your problems one at a time. I've known ponies going through similar circumstances. And if you want, I'd be happy to help you." Again, you smile at her, and this time she smiles back. Its a beautiful smile. You're so distracted by her smile that you almost don't notice that she's pushed her nuzzle within an inch of your own.
"Thank you so much," she says softly. You can smell the faint aroma of red wine and you feel her hot breath on your lips. You try to think of something to say, but the only thing you're thinking seems... improper. You get up from the sofa.
"Well..." you squeak out. You clear your throat. "I'm glad we were able to reach an understanding. Maybe we can talk more about this tomorrow?" You are trying hard to hide your awkwardness with what almost happened, but you know you're not doing a very good job. The expression on Berry's face proves how correct you are, a mixture of nervous amusement and shame.
"Yeah," she says, slowly making her way towards the door. She looks up at you. "I'm sorry about that, about all of this. I am truly serious about getting better. Cherry is the most important thing in the world to me."
You nod. "And I'm serious about helping you. But its going to take time."
"Whatever it takes," she says firmly, and walks out the door toward Romana's house.
You close the door behind you, and rub the sore spot on your head. You hope that you're not making a big mistake.
• • •
The next morning, you're woken up early by a knock on the door. Your head feels a little puffy on the left side, but at least you're not feeling any pain. When you open the door, Berry is standing there with a basket. Her initial smile fades as soon as she looks at your eye.
"Oh Celestia, it looks awful! Its all black and swollen! I'm so so sorry!"
You wave the apology away with your hoof. "Its okay, I've had worse." Truthfully, you haven't had worse, but after seeing how upset it made her last night, you're happy to forgive her for the incident. You look down at the basket. "So what did you bring me?"
It takes her a moment to collect her thoughts after being confronted with your shiner, but she eventually remembers her package. "Oh! This is the rest of the wine from my house. I don't want it around me anymore, but I hate to throw something away when another pony might want it."
Opening the package, you find three bottles, each an impressive vintage. "Wow," you say, genuinely impressed. "This is some quality stuff you have here."
Berry turns her nose up at the suggestion. "Its all dragon sweat as far as I'm concerned. It makes me act terribly and I will not have it in the same house as my daughter."
"Good girl," you say, your face turning red once you realize what you said. Berry just smiles at you. You invite her inside, putting the basket in your kitchen while she makes herself comfortable. "So, did you talk to Cherry last night?"
She nodded solemnly. "Yes, I did. It was a long time coming."
"And... she said she was sorry for running, but she was scared. She told me that was the first time in her life she'd ever been scared OF me."
Berry's lower lip started to tremble. "She said that she's spent a long time being scared FOR me. She said she knows I'd never hurt her, but that she doesn't know whether or not I might hurt myself." She looks at you with tears in her eyes. "Do you know what that must be like for a little filly? What do you do when your mother is more scared of the world than you are?"
You feel a pressure in your chest. If there's one thing you do know, its how terrible it is to watch someone you love self-destruct. "The three years before I left Manehattan were the worst in my life. Before then, my father had always been strong, the strongest stallion I had ever known. But one day, something changed. His moods became unstable. I couldn't predict whether he'd react to something I said with laughter or yelling. Either way it was frightening. Eventually, he didn't even speak normal words anymore. Just mumbled in his own little language. Then he disappeared one morning. Without a trace. Left me, my mom, and my sisters looking all over for the week until he washed up on the shore of the Hoofson. We still don't really know what happened." You feel a sting on the left side of your face as a salty tear rolls past your wound.
Berry looks at you sympathetically. "I can't do that to Cherry. She deserves better than that." She collapses into sobs again.
You walk up to her and wrap a hoof around her. "You won't. You're stronger than he was." And she squeezes you as if holding onto you will keep her safe forever.
• • •
The visits become routine. You can expect to see Berry at least twice during the weekend, and sporadically during the week. Sometimes the visits consist of nothing but basic conversation. Sometimes she cries on your shoulder. One time, you cry on hers. She brings over cookies from Sugarcube Corner, while you make coffee. You talk about everything under the sun: the mayor, Winter Wrap Up, Princess Celestia. You talk about Cherry, and she talks even more about Cherry. But mostly you talk about her, and you get closer and closer.
One time, she invites you out to watch a meteor shower. Another time, she shows up at the school during recess just to chat. You see some of the fillies giggling, amused that their teacher has a female visitor during school hours, but Cherry doesn't seem to care and just waves at the two of you.
And after every visit, she gives you a hug. A hug that you find yourself looking forward to more with each passing day. Every time, you're more reluctant to break that embrace, and soon you find yourself daydreaming of your muzzle in that mulberry mane.
• • •
Well, the time has come. School is done for the year, and you're almost as glad as the students are. They think its all fun and games for you, but exam week chafes your flank almost as much as it does theirs. There's only one thing you know you'll miss this summer...
"Hello?" comes a familiar voice.
"Sorry for letting myself in like this, I just wanted to stop in and say thank you one more time."
You smile. "Its quite alright. You know my door is always open for you."
She plops herself down on the sofa next to you. "Are you excited that its finally over?"
You let out a big breath of air and chuckle. "You have no idea. I swear, I can't simplify Canterlot's districts any more than I already have."
She echoes the laugh. "Well, I know Cherry had a good time in your class. It was a good year for her."
"Where is she now?"
"Playing with Scootaloo and the other Cutie Mark Crunchers."
"Crusaders," you correct.
Berry shrugs. "Whatever. In any case, they're having fun."
You sit up and look at her seriously. "And no problems?"
She smiles. "I still get worried. But I handle it much better now." She pulls you in for an embrace. "Thanks to you."
You close your eyes and sigh contentedly. "You did all the hard work. You deserve the praise." She pulls her head back, and you expect her to release you, but when you open your eyes, you find her looking deep into yours. You gulp.
"You alright?" she says coyly. This time, there's no trace of alcohol on her breath, just a sweet scent that you find more intoxicating than the contents of any of those bottles she left with you. You can't quite catch your breath, and all you can think about is sharing your next gasp of air with her. As if reading your mind, she says "yes." And you push your lips against hers, and she returns the kiss with equal fervor. You feel her tongue pass into your mouth and you take it in, letting her explore while you do the same. You place your hoof behind her head as you lay her on her back. You break the kiss to look at her, draped across your sofa, wanting you. She has the faintest trace of moisture in her eyes, but she's smiling. "I really am sorry about your head."
You smile back and kiss her softly on the nose. "You've more than made up for it, Berry." You embrace each other and the world dissolves.
• • •
Much later, while she lazily traces circles on your chest with her hoof, she looks up. "What time is it?"
You shrug, and go to embrace her again, but she hops off of you and runs to the window. She gasps. "It's dark outside! I can't believe I lost track of the time like this! I gotta go pick up Cherry!" She's halfway out the door when she stops and turns around. She gives you an embarrassed look. "I'm really sorry to run out on you like this. But I promised her we'd spend tonight together." She straightens her back out and stands as if at attention. "It took me a while, but I know that while she's growing up, that little filly still needs me."
You smile back at her. "I got news for you, Berry."
She crooks her head to the side. "What do you mean?"
"She's not the only one."
Berry's face flushes as she smiles. She lets out a little squeal of glee and then skips out the door and into the night.