The early-morning sunlight fell over the waking town of Ponyville, illuminating the scenery still wet from the previous night’s storm. Cheerilee and Twilight walked together through in this landscape, threading their way through the puddles that still filled the streets. Life in Ponyville started early, and the streets were already starting to fill with ponies beginning their day.
“So where are we starting?” Cheerilee asked. Her stomach let out a faint rumbled at that moment, and she laughed and shook her head at herself as she realized she hadn’t had anything to eat yet. “Alright, scratch that. Where can we get some food?”
The Princess walking beside her smiled happily, practically bouncing with every step she took. Twilight had already given up on Cheerilee staying, and had been wonderfully surprised when the earth pony had given her a chance to convince her to stay. “Let’s head to the market. We can grab something to eat from Applejack, and maybe one of your students will be there since there’s no school today.”
Cheerilee gave Twilight a sidelong glance, her hooves squishing wetly in the wet streets. “I haven’t agreed to anything yet, Twilight.”
“Oh…” Twilight looked crestfallen for a moment before she perked up again. “Well, I’m sure you’ll agree in the end.”
Something about that statement struck Cheerilee as vaguely ominous, but she chose not to comment on it. They continued on in silence after that, the number of ponies in the streets seeming to sharply increase the closer they got to the marketplace. Even this early in the morning, the market was the hub of life and activity in the town and the hustle and bustle of the place could be heard even from blocks away.
Right before they entered the market, Cheerilee turned to look at the mare walking alongside her. “One thing, Twilight,” she said seriously. A thought had occurred to her, and she wanted to test it out. “So long as I’m here, my name is ‘Bright Flowers’, alright? I’m still not comfortable with the idea of letting ponies know I’m back.”
“Huh?” Twilight asked in surprise. “Why?” When Cheerilee remained silent, staring meaningfully at Twilight, a weak little uncertain smile formed on Twilight’s face. “Well… alright, I guess. Bright Flowers. If that’s what it takes.” Her smile quavered a little as she continued into the crowded market. “Come on then, Bright Flowers. Let’s get something to eat.” Leading Cheerilee behind her, she headed to a small apple stand that didn’t have any lineup.
Cheerilee instantly recognized the earth pony sitting behind the apple stand. If the mare’s bright orange coat and blonde mane and tail tied up in ponytails hadn’t been enough to give her away, than the distinctive Stetson hat perched on her head definitely would have. She perked up as she saw the pair approaching her stand, her bright green eyes shimmering brightly. “Well, howdy Twilight,” she said, a strong twang of an accent in her voice. “Don’t usually see ya around here this early in the morn’.”
“Morning, Applejack,” Twilight replied with a broad happy smile as she walked up to the cart. “Just thought I’d try something new. Could we have two apples, please?”
“Sure thing.” Reaching into the cart and grabbing a pair of bright, shiny apples, Applejack tossed them over to the two other mares. “Enjoy. It’s on the house.” Her gaze swivelled towards Cheerilee as the purple earth pony took a bite out of her apple. “So who’re ya, stranger?”
“Oh, this is Cheer- I mean.” Twilight coughed, Cheerilee giving her a flat stare. “This is Bright Flowers. She’s just arrived in town, and I thought I’d show her around.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Cheerilee interjected, smoothly slipping between Twilight and Applejack. If she stayed in the background, Twilight would just blow her cover. Thankfully, the past five years had made her pretty good at lying. “I just arrived in Ponyville for a little vacation, and Lady Twilight was kind enough to show me around town.”
“’Lady’ Twilight, is it?” Applejack said with a smug glance at Twilight as the alicorn blushed. “Ya certainly sound fancy. You one of those nobles Twilight’s always moseying about with?”
“Oh no,” Cheerilee replied with a casual smile. “I would never think so highly of myself. I’m just a simple florist. My greatest achievement is keeping my garden free of weeds.”
Applejack laughed, nickering slightly. “Somepony who talks like Rarity but isn’t afraid of a little dirty work. I think I like you, Miss Flowers.”
“Just Flowers is fine,” Cheerilee said, biting into her apple. “Or would you prefer I call you ‘Miss Applejack’?”
Applejack grimaced, her expression looking like she had just bit into an apple only to find half a worm in it. “Nah, I think I’ll pass.” She squinted at Cheerilee, her eyes narrowing at the newcomer. “This your first time in Ponyville, Bright? I feel like I’ve met ya before.”
Cheerilee smiled brightly, perfectly hiding her trepidation. “I assure you, Applejack. If I had, I would certainly remember eating such magnificent apples as these.”
“Well, you’ll find no better apples in all of Equestria.”Applejack flashed Cheerilee a grin as she gestured at the full cart of apples. “Stop by before ya leave. Y’all can buy some for the ride home.”
“That sounds nice,” Cheerilee said, biting into her apple. “I think I just might.”
Twilight coughed, awkwardly cutting into the conversation. “Right, well, um.” She coughed again, obviously trying very hard to be subtle. And failing very badly at it. “Applejack, how’s, um, how’s your sister doing?” Cheerilee had to resist the urge to facehoof at Twilight’s transparent press for answers. Even a child would notice such an obvious question.
The smile vanished from Applejack’s face, and her expression darkened. She sighed and took her hat off her head, holding it tight against her chest. “Same as always. I just don’t know what’s going through her head. Whenever we ask her to do something, she’ll do it cheerfully. Hay, I often find her doing things that need to be done without needing to ask. But if we ever ask her to do something that involves leaving the farm, she’ll just flat refuse. Granny and Big Mac are just as confused as I am.”
Twilight nodded, looking down at the ground. “I’m sorry, Applejack. I guess I had just hoped… forget it.”
“Yeah.” Applejack put her hat back on her head. An obviously false smile appeared on her face as she turned to look at Cheerilee. “Aw, shoot, look at me. I shouldn’t be dumping this stuff on ya on yer vacation. So, anything else I can do for ya today?”
“No thank you, Applejack.” Cheerilee said, crunching the remnants of her apple. “We should be going. The apple was delicious. Your family is obviously very talented.”
Applejack beamed at Cheerilee. “Ya obviously have good taste, Flowers. Apples are the Apple family’s pride and joy. Hope ya enjoy yer time in Ponyville. See ya both around.” Another pony walked up to the stall, and Applejack turned her attention to him.
Cheerilee turned her head to look at Twilight as the two of them slipped away from Applejack’s stall. “So now wha- Unf.” She grunted as she walked smack into another pony’s hindquarters. Rubbing her nose, she took a step back to see who she had just walked into. “Excuse me, Mister…?”
The stallion, a tall brown earth pony with a white mane and tail, snorted in Cheerilee’s face. He looked like he was about to say something, but then he spotted Twilight standing behind Cheerilee. His nostrils widened as a flash of anger crossed his face before he snorted and stormed away. Before he vanished into the crowd, Cheerilee saw that his mane had been shortly cropped into a mohawk and a police badge sat proudly upon his flank.
“Pleasant sort,” Cheerilee mumbled as she put her hoof down. “And who was that fine example of Ponyville hospitality?” she asked Twilight sarcastically. “I don’t think I’ve met him before.”
“Vigilance,” Twilight said, frowning in the direction the stallion had disappeared. “I don’t see him around town much, but we… Well, we don’t get along.” The anger in her face faded slightly. “I’m not even sure why. There’s just something about him that I don’t like. It’s not scientific, but…”
Cheerilee grunted. “Trust your instincts. They usually won’t lead you astray.” She gave her body a little shake, loosening the muscles that had tightened when the stallion had glared at her. “Well, that’s enough about him. It’s too nice a day to spend worrying about grumpy stallions.”
Twilight chuckled. “Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking her shoulders out and flexing her wings, she looked over at Cheerilee. “By the way, ‘florist’?” The air quotes lingered in the air between them. “Is that what you call it?”
Cheerilee tossed her head back and barked out a loud laugh. “It’s not quite a lie.” She smirked sidelong at Twilight, her eyes twinkling merrily. “I wasn’t sure how much I could away with telling Applejack. She is the Element of Honesty, after all.”
Scratching uncomfortably at the back of her head, Twilight stared off into the distance. “We don’t really think much about that, to be honest. It’s just not part of our daily lives.”
“Yeah, I remember.” The twinkle in Cheerilee’s eyes shifted from merry to mischievous as she decided to start needling one of the most powerful living creatures in existence. “Six of Equestria’s greatest heroes living together in a single town. One of them is even a Princess. And nopony thinks anything of it. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a little strange, don’t you think?”
Twilight coughed uncomfortably into her hoof. “Yes, well, that is, you see, there’s…” Her eyes rapidly skimmed across the marketplace before they landed on a pair of ponies sitting on the side of the fountain in the center of the marketplace. “Hey look!” she exclaimed, grateful for the opportunity to change the conversation. “There’s some of the students I want you to meet! Let’s go talk to them!”
Cheerilee shook her head as Twilight skidded off, a small half-smile spreading on her lips. Twilight really had a long way to go as a Princess. If she wants me to stay here, she better be ready to face the consequences. Wait… Her smile faded as she realized what her mind had just said. You make it sound like you’ve already agreed to stay here.
Frowning at herself as she considered what her thoughts meant, she just caught the tail end of what Twilight was saying. “…Flowers. She’s going to be in town for a little while, so I thought I’d show her around.” Hearing her adopted name, Cheerilee looked up two see two judgmental pair of young eyes looking back at her.
The first was a young male earth pony; no longer a colt, but not quite a stallion. His coat was white and spattered with greyish brown splotches, giving him a distinctive pinto pattern. His short-cropped mane and tail were a deep chocolate brown with lighter brown stripes running through them. His mane was cropped in a fringe that fell just low enough to cover one of his deep ruddy brown eyes. From what Cheerilee remembered, his name was Pipsqueak.
The other sitting by the fountain was a mare slightly older than Pipsqueak. She peered at Cheerilee through a pair of thick-rimmed glasses perched upon her large nose, the purple of the rim offsetting her light pink eyes. Her wild and frizzy mane and tail were a bright crimson, and her coat was an off-eggshell white. An open box of candies sat next to her, her jaw moving slowly as she sucked on a candy cane half sticking out of her mouth. Cheerilee recognized her as Twist, one of her former students.
“So what are you two doing out here this early?” Twilight asked.
Twist and Pipsqueak glanced at each other. Pipsqueak nodded at her before turning away to look out at the crowd, and Twist popped the candy cane out of her mouth. “We’re waiting for Sweetie Belle. Dunno what’s keeping her.” There a faint lisp in her voice when she spoke, but it was nowhere near as strong as Cheerilee remembered from five years ago. Twist peered closely at Cheerilee, shifting her glasses on her face as she tried to get a better look. “Are you sure this is your first time in Ponyville?” she asked curiously. “I think I know you from somewhere.”
Cheerilee shrugged, her expression remaining calm enough to cool cucumbers. “I’m just passing through. I don’t intend to be here for more than a few days. But I must say, this is a lovely little town you’ve got. So much different from my home in Neigh York.”
“You’re from Neigh York?” Twist asked curiously, her eyes brightening. Beside her, Pipsqueak’s ears twitched as he listened in on the conversation, despite all of his attention apparently being focused out into the market. “What’s it like? I’ve never been there before.”
A friendly little smile grew on Cheerilee’s face as she took control of the conversation. “Oh, yes. Everypony should go there at least once. It’s the largest city in all of Equestria, and definitely the most populous. With nearly three times as many ponies as Canterlot, nowhere else comes even close.” She stared up into the sky as she reminisced about the place that had her home for the past several years. “The skyscrapers reach up into the sky like the reaching claws of a gryphon, and are so tall that pegasi can leash their clouds homes to the top.”
“I’ve heard that there are a lot of museums as well,” Twilight interjected, jumping into the conversation. “Not as many as Canterlot, but it still has some of the largest museums in the world.” Her wings twitched slightly, like she wanted to unfurl them and fly all the way to the city right away. “I’m going to be going there to meet some dignitaries next month. I can’t wait to see the place.”
Cheerilee nodded absent-mindedly, still staring up into the sky. “Oh yes. But what really makes the place special, rather than the buildings, is the ponies that live there. Or,” she chuckled deeply, “maybe that’s a poor choice of words. Not just ponies live there. There are the usual earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi, but there are also horses from Saddle Arabia, minotaurs, gryphons, buffalo, diamond dogs, and seaponies. There’s even a small but growing community of changelings. Though most of the other species don’t really like them,” she added ruefully.
“Really?” Twist asked, leaning in closer to Cheerilee. “How do they keep so many species in check? It sounds like nopony would know anypony else.”
Letting out a sigh, Cheerilee watched as a slow-moving cloud leisurely slipped over the sun. “That’s right. Crime’s a pretty big problem in the city. It’s depressing, but we’ve also got the largest police force in the world.” Tearing her gaze away from the few fluffy white clouds that drifted across the sky, she looked down at the pair staring at her with undisguised curiosity. “Speaking of which,” she said casually, the tone of her voice making it sound as if it was an issue of no real concern, like she only discussing the weather. “I bumped into a friend of yours yesterday. Sweetie Belle, I believe her name was? Does she always shoplift?”
Pipsqueak and Twist glanced down at the ground as a cough rang out from behind Cheerilee. “You know, you could just ask me yourself.”
Twilight and Cheerilee wheeled around to see the young mare in question standing directly behind them. “Sw- Sweetie Belle!” Twilight stuttered. “When did you get here?”
Sweetie Belle looked at her, her eyes shimmering with amusement. “Why? Talking about something you don’t want me to hear?” As Twilight sputtered, Sweetie Belle waved her down. “Nah, I’m kidding. I got here just after you did.” Turning to Cheerilee, Sweetie Belle extended a hoof in greeting. “Sorry about running you over yesterday. The name’s Sweetie Belle. You?”
Cheerilee reached out and shook Sweetie Belle’s extended hoof. “Bright Flowers. I’m here on vacation from Neigh York.” As she released Sweetie Belle’s hoof, she made a show of looking Sweetie Belle over from top to bottom. “You’re surprisingly polite for a shoplifter. Most of the ones I meet are happy to shout in my face and tell me to beat it.”
Striding past Cheerilee, Sweetie Belle walked next to Twist and Pipsqueak. “Rarity always talked about the importance of being polite. I guess that’s just stuck with me. Neigh York sounds like an amazing place. Maybe if we run into each other again, you can tell me about it.” She turned to look at her friends as they hopped off the side of the fountain. “You two ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Pipsqueak said, Twist picking up the box of candies beside him. “What kept you?”
Sweetie Belle shrugged her shoulders, giving her neck a little crack. “Oh, I just ran into Scootaloo outside the market. We talked a bit. Then we shouted a bit. Then she ran off. Now come on, the day’s not going to last forever.”
“Hold on,” Twilight said as the trio began to walk away. “Where did you see Scootaloo?”
“Oh, she ran off somewhere in that direction.” Sweetie Belle casually waved her hoof off to her right. “She was probably heading to Fluttershy’s.” Looking over her shoulder, she winked back at them. “If you hurry, you just might catch her.” With a wave of her tail, she led the other two into the surround crowd.
Cheerilee stared after the young trio, thoughtfully chewing on the inside of her cheek. “Twilight,” she said after a few seconds. “What’s your friend Rarity doing right now?”
Twilight blinked at Cheerilee, a confused expression on her face. “Rarity? Well, she’s a fairly successful fashion designer. It’s always been her dream, and she really gives it her all.” She nickered sadly, shaking her head. “But this thing with her sister had been worrying her lately, and I’m afraid she hasn’t been able to concentrate.”
A little while later, the earth pony and alicorn pair approached Fluttershy’s front door. The sun slowly crawled through the sky above them, gradually approaching its zenith. Despite Sweetie Belle’s recommendation to hurry, Twilight had taken her time in walking along the trail to Fluttershy’s home on the outskirts of town. Cheerilee wondered if Twilight actually hoped to avoid running into Scootaloo.
Fluttershy’s house was pretty much the same as Cheerilee remembered it; absolutely riddled with tiny animal homes. The trees were filled with birdhouses, the lawn was filled with holes for borrowing animals, Cheerilee knew all sorts of muskrats and the like were living in the little creek that wound underneath the small bridge, and there were even holes in the trees themselves for more animals to live in. I like animals too, but sheesh. I could never leave here. The birdsong alone would drive me nuts.
Twilight confidently strode up the path. Knocking on the doorway, she called inside. “Fluttershy! Are you in there?”
After a few seconds’ pause, a tiny little voice quietly emanated from the inside of the house. “Oh. Yes, just a moment please.” A few more seconds passed before the door slowly creaked open, revealing the timid homeowner.
With her light golden coat and bright pink mane and tail, the shy pegasus looked pretty much as beautiful as Cheerilee remembered. Her long mane hung down over her left eye, hiding it from sight. Her one visible eye was a greenish-blue, and deep enough for a pony to lose themselves in. Her wings were furled up against her sides, and Cheerilee remembered that Fluttershy didn’t use them very often. Fluttershy wasn’t well-muscled or fat, instead she was simple… soft, gentle, and welcoming.
“Oh, hi Twilight,” Fluttershy greeted them as the door swung wide. “What are you doing- Eep.” She had just caught sight of Cheerilee standing behind Twilight, and recoiled back in surprise with a squeak. A hurt expression appeared on Cheerilee’s face, and Fluttershy visibly blushed and started to stammer out an apology. “Oh, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean… you just startled me. I’m…” She slowly tapered off into silence, ashamedly looking down at the floor.
“Right.” Twilight coughed, cutting into Fluttershy’s silence. She gestured at Cheerilee standing beside her. “Fluttershy, this is Bright Flowers. She’s in town for a few days on a vacation from Neigh York, and I’m just showing her around.”
“Are you sure?” Fluttershy peered uncertainly at Cheerilee from behind her overlong mane. “She looks just like- Well, if you say so.”
“Fluttershy, we heard that Scootaloo ran this way.” Twilight said, with what Cheerilee thought was with all the tact of an angry buffalo in a china shop. “Have you seen her around?”
“Scootaloo?” With a nod of her head, Fluttershy gestured down in the hallway behind her. “Yes, she’s just inside. Should I get her? Um, nevermind.”
Scootaloo stepped out into sight, rubbing at her hooves with a clean cloth. She apparently hadn’t noticed the group standing in the hallway, distracted as she was by cleaning her hooves. Her bright orange coat and solid purple mane and tail looked much the same as ever. A tiny, stunted pair of wings were pressed tightly against her sides, and Cheerilee’s unprofessional opinion was that they wouldn’t be able to support her weight. She walked with a slight limp, appearing to favor one of her forelegs.
“I’ve finished, Fluttershy,” Scootaloo said, folding up the cloth and putting it aside. “Who’s at the… Oh.” The temperature of her voice seemed to drop several degrees when she spotted the group, to the point that Cheerilee wouldn’t have been surprised to see icicles forming from her mouth. “Hello, Twilight,” she said coolly. “What are you doing out here.” The tone of her voice made that less of a question and more of a statement.
“Do I need a reason to visit one of my friends?” Twilight said in much the same tone. “But I guess you wouldn’t know about that, since you don’t have any friends.” She and Scootaloo exchanged angry glares while Cheerilee and Fluttershy glanced from one to the other, unsure if they should step in or if that would only make the situation worse.
Scootaloo broke first, whipping her mane back with an angry toss of her head. “Hmph. Well, not all of us have as much free time as you do, Princess,” she sneered, her voice dripping with vitriol. “So, if you’ll let me pass, there are things I need to do.”
“Oh, far be it from me to keep you here.” Twilight stepped back, clearing the doorway for Scootaloo to pass. “I’m sure you have many, important things to do.”
A deep growl formed in Scootaloo’s throat, cutting off as she looked over at Fluttershy. “Anyways, I’m done for the day. See you later, Fluttershy.” Her head held high as she left the building, she openly glared at Twilight. She was so focused on the alicorn that she failed to notice Cheerilee standing in her path, and the former teacher had to quickly scurry out of the way to avoid being run over.
Cheerilee watched until Scootaloo vanished from sight before turning to Twilight with a cocked eyebrow. “Well, that was immature.”
Fluttershy gave her head a sad little shake. “That poor girl…” she said quietly.
Twilight turned to look at Fluttershy, her angry glare swiftly giving way to shock. “Poor girl?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “Fluttershy, she hospitalized her teacher! And that’s not even counting what she did-”
“And she’s very sorry,” Fluttershy interrupted, cutting Twilight off. As the two started arguing, Cheerilee remained silent, staring off in the direction Scootaloo had disappeared.
Hospitalized her teacher? Cheerilee mused. Twilight’s reaction suddenly made a lot more sense. To the ever-diligent student, surely there could be no greater crime then hurting an instructor. One comment of Twilight’s had really caught Cheerilee’s interest, however. Didn’t Scootaloo have one friend? Wasn’t there been one mare that Scootaloo had always been close to? “What about Rainbow Dash?” Cheerilee asked aloud, interrupting Twilight’s and Fluttershy’s argument. “I thought the two were always close.”
The other two glanced at her in surprise before quickly exchanging a meaningful look that Cheerilee wasn’t able to discern the meaning of. “Rainbow Dash-” Twilight started before cutting herself off and starting again. “After Dash joined the Wonderbolts, she and Scootaloo just kinda drifted apart. Scootaloo can’t fly, so there’s really not much for them to connect on.”
“Is that so…?” Cheerilee mumbled, staring off into the distance. Her gut instinct told her that there was more to that story; that Twilight was deliberately hiding something from her, though she had no idea what that could be.
Fluttershy looked from Cheerilee to Twilight and back again before timidly speaking up. “Well, um, if you like, you can stay here for lunch. We could talk over wheat and sandwiches. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Thanks for lunch, Fluttershy. It was delicious.”
“Oh, you’re quite welcome, Twilight. Feel free to come back any time.”
Choosing not to participate in the conversation, Cheerilee stared out of a window of Fluttershy’s home. Her gaze panned over the peaceful town of Ponyville, and her thoughts inevitably drifted to home. But her thoughts were fuzzy, indistinct. No matter how much she tried to think of the spiralling towers of Neigh York, they shifted and burred, fading in and out to be replaced with the tiny houses of the town in front of her.
Home, huh. It was funny, really. Only yesterday, she had only wanted to leave the town as quickly as possible. Now she was already starting to think of this place as home once again. Her memories slowly coalesced, showing her scenes from her times as a teacher in the little schoolhouse. Back then had been a simpler time, a happier time. A small smile started to spread as she started to lose herself in the thoughts of the past before Twilight’s voice suddenly cut across her memories.
“Cheerilee, are you ready to go?”
Cheerilee shook her head, dispelling the stray thoughts. Darker thoughts took their place, overwhelming her in a suffocating grip. What’s wrong with you? So things have become hard for the kids. So what? You think you can help them? You? “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.” Her voice sounded a little choked to her ears when she spoke; sounding like something was strangling her.
Twilight either didn’t notice the oddity of Cheerilee’s voice or simply chose not to comment on it. Wrapping one of her forelegs around Fluttershy in a fond gesture of farewell, Twilight excited the building into the afternoon light. Her head was held high as she led the way back towards Ponyville. Cheerilee followed after her, and Fluttershy waved goodbye to them both.
Plodding dully after her guide for the day, Cheerilee stared down at her hooves. Her mind scrambled wildly as it tried to sort out the myriad thoughts that clambered for her attention. They rattled wildly throughout her skull, mocking her with their incessant noise. Not even the fading bird song from Fluttershy’s house behind her could distract her. Not even the high-pitched whistle of something tearing through the air towards her could distract her.
Spotting something fly at her out of the corner of her eye, Cheerilee was barely able to dive out of the way as a multi-coloured blur sped through the spot she had just vacated. Her legs buckled as she landed, and she dropped to the ground. The object continued on before crashing into a nearby bush with a mighty cacophony of breaking branches.
“Cheerilee!” Twilight yelled, anxiously running over to where the earth pony lay. “Are you okay?”
“I’m alright. It just grazed me.” Despite her reassurances to Twilight, Cheerilee quickly checked over her body to make sure she hadn’t been hurt. There was a small bruise on her leg that hadn’t been there before, but she was uninjured other than that.
“Hey, sorry about that.” A cyan pegasus forced her way out of the bush, a contrite expression on her face. Her bright purple eyes were clear and honest, and she looked disappointed with herself. Her mane and tail were streaked with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, and leaves and twigs fell out of it as she ran her hoof through it. “Captain keeps telling me to be more careful. Guess I’ve still got a long ways to go.”
Twilight squealed excitedly, pouncing on the pegasus. Her wings curled and unfurled wildly, though she didn’t seem to notice. “Rainbow Dash! What are you doing here!?”
Dash grinned broadly, barely reacting to the additionally weight of her bookish friend landing on her shoulders. “Captain Spitfire and Soarin’ have some sort of press conference today, so us low-level recruits got the day off. Thought I’d visit you guys. Rarity says hi, by the way; she’ll be in town next week. How about you? What are you up to?”
Releasing Dash, Twilight gestured at over Cheerilee. “Oh, I’m just showing a visitor around town. Dash, this is-”
“Hello, Rainbow Dash,” Cheerilee interrupted, greeting Dash herself. “It’s been a while.”
Dash goggled as she got a clear look at the earth pony mare she had nearly run over. “Cheerilee? Is that really you? I haven’t seen you in three years! What are you doing here? I thought you were living in Neigh York now.”
Cheerilee shrugged. “Twilight asked me here. She said she wants me to teach some students.”
A puzzled frown grew on Twilight’s face as she looked from Dash to Cheerilee and back. “Is there something I should know?” she asked uncertainly. “You two seem awfully friendly.”
“Oh,” Dash coughed in embarrassment, blushing faintly. “I don’t really like to talk about it, but Cheerilee basically helped me when I was in a little trouble. Nothing I couldn’t have handled on my own, of course,” she hastened to add.
Cheerilee snorted in amusement, seeing an opportunity to prick the bubble of Dash’s pride. “I suppose you call ‘being drunk off your ass’ something you could have handled on your own.” She sighed and gave her head a theatrical shake. “If that little tidbit had gotten out, you might have been thrown out the Wonderbolts.”
“It was a onetime thing!” Dash protested. “I’m clean now. I don’t drink anymore. Well, not as much, anyway.”
“Oh Dash,” Cheerilee looked mournfully at the pegasus, her mannerisms completely sincere. For all intents, she looked like she meant what she was saying. “You have to admit you have a problem. You don’t need to be so proud. Try talking to your friends, ask them for help.” A devilish smile blossomed on her face as a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes. “How about Appleja-?”
“Hahahahahoookay, I think that’s enough of that,” Dash interrupted, blushing furiously as Twilight burst into laughter. She gave the laughing alicorn an annoyed glare. “Okay. Okay, you can stop now.” Twilight just kept laughing and Dash rolled her eyes, grumbling as she looked back at Cheerilee. “Yeah, yeah, yuk it up. Why’d you have to go and bring that up? That was years ago!”
Cheerilee covered her mouth, trying to hide her giggles behind her hoof. “Sorry Dash. It’s just not every day the mayor forbids somepony to drink alcohol within town limits.”
“Get in one drinking competition and you never live it down,” Dash griped. She glared at Cheerilee, her mouth curling down in an annoyed frown. “You’ve gotten snippy in your old age.”
Dropping her hoof, Cheerilee let Dash see the full force of her unrepentant grin. “Not my fault if you can’t keep up, Speedy.”
“Oh, you did not just go there.” Rearing back on her hind legs, Dash spread her wings out as wide as she could. Whinnying threateningly, she punched at the air in front of her. “Come on! I’ll take you on!”
“Dash!” Twilight protested, leaping between Dash and Cheerilee. Her face was grim and serious, devoid of the mirth she had just been expressing. “You can’t just get into fights with whoever you disagree with! Somepony might get hurt! Again!”
“But Twilight...” Dash protested, dropping down to all fours and her wings furling at her sides.
Twilight stomped her hoof, cutting Dash off. “No buts! You’re a member of the Wonderbolts now, and you shouldn’t be fighting in the street! Save it for the ring.”
“I’d listen to her if I were you,” Cheerilee spoke up, deliberately tossing a little more fuel on the fire. “Twilight’s a Princess now; she’ll probably be giving you your orders one day.” As Twilight stammered in protest and Dash glared at her, Cheerilee gave a little shake of her head. “But that’s still a while off, and you should spend some time with your friends. I’m going to wander the town for a bit, so go ahead.”
“You don’t mind?” Twilight asked. “There are still some more kids I wanted to show you.”
“I’ve seen enough already,” Cheerilee reassured Twilight. “You youngsters go off and have fun while I think. I’m sure your other friends will be happy to see Dash.” Giving them a goodbye smile, she turned and started walking down the path towards Ponyville.
“Awesome!” Dash leapt in the air with a single beat of her wings, her annoyance at Cheerilee forgotten. “Come on, Twilight, let’s go see Pinkie first. Bet she’ll want time to throw a party.” As Twilight flapped her wings clumsily, slowly rising up to where Dash flew, the sporty pegasus snorted with laughter. “Haven’t gotten any better at flying, huh?”
Twilight wobbled in the air, nearly falling to the ground before she managed to catch herself. “I don’t get much opportunity to practice.”
“Yeah, those books you’ve always got your nose in would make flying pretty hard.” Dash snarked, hovering in front of Twilight. “Now are we going to fly or are you going to keep lumbering through the air like Tank on a bad day?”
Twilight’s response was lost to Cheerilee as they vanished from sight, their path through the air faster than Cheerilee’s own sedate pace. Left alone with her thoughts, Cheerilee let her hooves lead her towards an unknown destination. Maybe some time alone would help her come up with an answer.
Several hours later and Cheerilee still hadn’t come up with an answer. The sun already hung low in the sky, preparing to disappear beyond the horizon to clear way for the moon and the night. Cheerilee lay on her back underneath a lush pine tree, its needle-bearing branches swaying gently in the wind. Pinecones and fallen needles dug lightly into her back, but Cheerilee ignored the sensation, consumed as she was by her own thoughts.
Two roads spread before, and the decision she made would shape her life forever. The first was the life she had now. It wasn’t very bright, but at least she felt safe. She could keep everypony at a distance. The second was the one she had thought she’d abandoned; her life as a teacher. She couldn’t deny that those had been some of the happiest years of her life, no matter how painfully they had ended. But was she ready? Was she really able to let those kids back into her life, to open her heart to them?
She didn’t know.
Cheerilee played with the little purse tied around her neck, absent-mindedly winding the string around her hoof. It caught after a few minutes, and she had to stop to untangle it. Struggling to unwind the cord from around her hoof, she accidently knocked the top of the purse open, making it drop all of its contents into the dirt.
A single golden object fell out, glittering in the late-day sunlight before landing heavily at Cheerilee’s side. Cheerilee stared down at it, the cord wrapped around her hoof forgotten. It was such a simple object; nothing more than a lump of golden-plated iron. But it made her heart ache just by looking at it.
What had she accomplished these past five years? What had she achieved?
Shaking the tangled cord off her hoof, she scooped the little item up and returned it to its resting place inside her purse. She didn’t want to see it anymore. To her, it signified nothing more than an empty existence, a life that just wasn’t hers. It was safe, familiar, and comfortable, yes, but it just wasn’t her. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn’t fit.
Cheerilee laughed bitterly at herself as she realized the road her thoughts had taken.
She had her answer.
Celestia help her, she had her answer.