Cheerilee sat in her office, rubbing her temples. That Scootaloo, she thought.
It wasn't the first time the filly had troubled the teacher. She was dreadfully inconsistent. If a subject caught her fancy, she was the most devoted, active, curious student one could ask for. If it didn't...
Grass: green and leafy.
Oak: green and leafy.
Ivy: green and leafy.
Hazel: green and leafy.
Daisy: green and leafy.
Beech: green and leafy.
Dandelion: green and leafy.
Stinging nettle: green and leafy. Also stinging.
Maize: green and leafy.
Maple: green and leafy. Wait. That one's red, isn't it?
Cheerilee let out a sigh. She had asked for descriptions of ten types of leaves because she had already covered five in the day's lesson, so they had been giveaways to any student paying even the slightest attention.
Sweetie Belle had at least been creative, though Cheerilee didn't really see how leaves crudely sewn onto a dress could be considered "describing."
Most of the other colts and fillies had done a decent, if uninspired, job. A few had done as she had primed them for, and written a short sentence describing what they saw in each leaf, while others had made crayon drawings, often quite undecipherable, but still it had made them take a closer look at the leaves than they normally did. Others again had merely glued ten different leaves onto their papers, with the name of the plant written next to it. Cheerilee considered that at least a partial success, since the pupils had hopefully reflected at least a bit over the shapes they were holding in their hooves as they worked.
And then there was Apple Bloom.
The filly had really outdone herself this time. Not only had she pasted representative samples from each plant, reflected on the defining traits for each type, and drawn several pages of close-ups and variations, she had also written a small essay comparing the types most alike and explaining how to distinguish them from each other. She had clearly had help, but Cheerilee had read enough from Apple Bloom's mouth to be certain that the small farm pony had formulated the sentences herself, and the impulsiveness of the descriptions revealed that they stemmed from observations rather than just copying from a textbook or somepony's dictation.
Cheerilee wondered who could have helped the filly. Applejack wouldn't have had the patience to let her sister come to all her conclusions herself, so she would probably have dictated at least a part of it in order to get her going. Big Mac had the patience, but Cheerilee couldn't see the stoic stallion nudging Apple Bloom along to some of the deeper reflections in the paper. Whoever had guided her had done so with the utmost regard for her learning process. The teacher saluted the unknown pony silently in professional respect.
Now, what to do with Scootaloo? She could lead a pony to water, but not make her drink. The pegasus had no interest in biology whatsoever. What she needed was...
A knock on the office door broke Cheerilee's train of thought. She walked over and opened it, revealing Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie.
"Good afternoon, you two," she said, inviting them inside.
"Good afternoon, Cheerilee," Twilight answered. She fidgeted. "We... er, we have an idea we would like to discuss with you."
"And what an idea!" Pinkie Pie acted with much more confidence than her friend. She pulled out a easel from... somewhere... with a graph of a rather complex differential equation showing the relationship between "Self-Esteem (X)," "Friendship (♡)," "Purpose (☀)," and "Happiness (☺)." While the overall tendency seemed plausible, Cheerilee wasn't sure that you could muffin a vector with a balloon.
"It’s about Zecora," Twilight blurted, ignoring Pinkie's presentation. "We have been thinking about how to get her to feel more welcome in Ponyville."
Oh, the zebra. Cheerilee felt a pang of guilt. Like almost everypony else, she had been caught up in the scare of the foreigner, and like almost everypony else, she had felt incredibly stupid once Twilight had confronted her with her prejudice. Perhaps even more than most ponies, since she took pride in teaching her pupils to make informed decisions, and her reaction to the stranger had been all but that.
"What can I do to help?" she asked without reservation.
Pinkie Pie flipped the page.
This is brilliant, Cheerilee thought as they trotted towards the Everfree Forest. Trust Twilight Sparkle and her friends to come up with something that so elegantly could make everypony happier, she mused. Even though Twilight was the relative newcomer, most ponies thought of the tight-knit group that had saved Ponyville several times as "Twilight Sparkle and her friends." The unicorn truly had a talent for bringing forth the best in everypony.
Twilight knocked on the door to the herbalist's hut. Cheerilee had only been there once before, to purchase a remedy for a rather embarrassing rash. Back then, the strangeness of the zebra's decor had seemed scary and foreboding, but now, together with Twilight and Pinkie Pie, she just found it exotic and interesting. The hollowed-out tree even seemed more welcoming - it was cleaner and neater, as if it was a completely different home.
The "evil enchantress" of Cheerilee’s memory opened the door, wearing a flowered apron with a potato masher in the utensil strap and a pleasantly surprised expression. Cheerilee wanted to bury herself.
"Twilight, Pinkie and Cheerilee! How kind of you to visit me." She let the three in with a smile.
As if to mock Cheerilee's shameful memory of the hut, everything inside seemed to not only be in neat order, but as clean and tidy as Cheerilee's own house was only the day before Hearth's Warming Eve, after an entire day of housework. The teacher could almost feel herself shrink from embarrassment.
The zebra quickly set four cups on her table, then hesitated.
"My chai pot has been brewing long," she said, lifting the lid on a kettle over the fire. "For your taste it might be too strong..."
Cheerilee searched her memory. Tea was an important part of zebra culture, that much she knew. Not being able to serve a cup right away might discomfit Zecora. Was an unannounced visit problematic?
"It is quite all right," Twilight Sparkle said, easing both the shaman's and the teacher's minds. "I would love to sample real Zebrabwean chai."
Relieved, Zecora carried the snout-less black kettle to the table, and poured it using a beautifully engraved silver ladle, not the copper one hanging next to the fire, Cheerilee noticed. The liquid was tan and opaque, unlike any tea the earth pony had ever seen before.
Noticing her puzzled look, Twilight lectured, "Chai is a strongly infused, sugared tea that the zebras brew for a long time in a mixture of water and milk. It is supposed to be very spicy and sweet."
Pleased with her visitor's knowledge, the zebra added, "Twilight, while what you say is true, I take it stronger than most do." She placed a sugar pot and some teaspoons next to the ponies' cups.
Pinkie Pie took a sip and instantly widened her eyes and lifted the lid off the sugar pot. She then unceremoniously poured five spoonfuls into her cup and stirred vigorously.
Wiser from the pink mare's experience, Twilight and Cheerilee both poured a spoonful of sugar before they tried the tea. It was still a very spicy drink, but the sweetness of the sugar and milk offset it nicely. Cheerilee usually took her tea plain, but in this drink the sugar and milk added to the experience, rather than distracted from it. She said as much, and the host smiled.
"I'm glad you think so, Cheerilee. Now, what brings you out here to my tree?"
Cheerilee had been wondering how to present the idea, and decided that the best way would be to make the zebra think that she was the one doing a favor. From what the other two had told her, Cheerilee was certain that interacting with the Ponyville foals would be good for the hermit, but she didn't know the zebra well enough to suggest just that.
Instead, she said, "Well, Miss Zecora. These next few weeks I am teaching biology, and as you know, we have been going through plant lore. Some of my pupils find this field rather boring, and I am at a loss as how to inspire them. I was thinking that maybe a guest teacher could give them a fresh perspective.” She paused, gauging Zecora’s reaction, but the zebra merely smiled attentively.
“Twilight Sparkle told me that you had been the one who helped little Apple Bloom with her assignment for today. I was really impressed with what she delivered, and thought that perhaps your expertise could spark something with my other pupils."
Until this moment, Cheerilee had never seen Zecora show more emotion than a faint smile. So much the more shocking was her reaction, when in a few seconds her usual stoic demeanour cracked completely. Eyes wide open, staring, yet looking at nothing, she stood completely still. Then a tremor rose through her right foreleg. It started as a slight tapping of a hoof and gained vigour as it took over first one and then another leg. As it reached her chest, she started breathing in rapid, sharp whiffs. Her tail whipped back and forth, cracking in the air in an uneven, increasing tempo. As the shakes overtook her entire body, she started shifting weight from hoof to hoof, almost beginning to canter in place as sweat sprang from her brow. Now clearly hyperventilating, her eyes flickered from one pony to another. They were watching her horrified; compassion and helplessness painted in their faces.
Winning back a bit of composure, Zecora stomped a hoof to the floor. She reached for her chai and emptied the cup in one long gulp. She blinked, strangely asynchronous, while trying to regain control of her limbs, steadying one hoof with the other. Ever so slowly, she calmed down, panting heavily.
It took a long time before she spoke, and when she did, she sounded like somepony who had just run a mareathon.
"I'm flattered you would think of me," she almost whispered, her voice at the edge of cracking. "But I'm not the mare you'll have me be." She sighed.
Twilight, who had risen from her seat when she sensed something wrong and had lingered just outside Zecora's personal space, took her last few steps towards the disheartened zebra. They had expected some reluctance, but nothing near this. In their minds, it had seemed a perfect match. What could she have she been through to instill this kind of fear into her? She had been shunned in Ponyville, but wouldn't teaching the foals something she felt at home with be bringing the interaction into her comfort zone?
Twilight put a hoof on Zecora's shoulder, and a slight jolt went through the zebra at the unexpected contact.
"Oh, Zecora. We didn't think you would take it like this. We really thought it was a good idea," she said quietly. Cheerilee could see the zebra holding back a sob. Pinkie Pie, who had somehow gotten to the other side of Zecora, pulled the mare into a hug, which she barely registered. Cheerilee had no idea what to say.
She walked over to the three and put her hoof on Zecora's other shoulder. She didn't know the mare very well, but seeing the limp zebra in Pinkie's forelegs was heartwrecking.
"I'm so sorry..." she said softly. Not knowing what to add, she just stood there, hoof on shoulder, feeling incredibly insensitive.