A quiet hush filled the air of Sweet Apple Acres. Time felt frozen in the land surrounded by apple trees, their protecting boughs shutting out the land outside. Standing within the rolling fields of the farm was like being in a separate world, far removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Cheerilee silently weaved her way between the apple trees, her hoofsteps leading her without purpose. She walked for the sake of walking, almost completely heedless of her surroundings. It wasn't until she heard a dull thump off to her right that she realized she had wandered into an area where some trees had already been harvested of their apples.
There was a long pause before another thump reached Cheerilee's ears, and this time she caught the sound of many quieter thumps following it. Lacking anything better to do, Cheerilee turned towards the direction the sound had come from. Within less than a minute, she reached the source of the noise. A young mare stood next to an apple tree, carefully sizing it up before turning and giving the tree a swift kick. The strength of the kick was enough to make the tree release its hold on the ripe red apples within its branches, dropping them into baskets assembled at its base as the young mare watched their descent with satisfaction.
The mare hadn't noticed Cheerilee's presence yet, so the school teacher took the chance to silently observe her. She was a muscular earth pony with a faded yellow coat, her red mane and tail streaked with sweat. A large red bow sat perched on her head, and bobbed with every movement the young mare made. Her lively eyes, which were a brilliant orange, widened at seeing Cheerilee staring at her.
"Who are you?" the mare asked, taking up an accusing stance. "What're you doin' on my farm?"
Cheerilee cleared her throat awkwardly. "Oh, I was just..." What was she doing? "...Passing through," she finished lamely.
"Is that... hang a hoof." The mare narrowed her eyes, peering at the school teacher in suspicion. "Miss Cheerilee?" she asked after several seconds. "Is that you?"
Cheerilee sighed. So much for going unnoticed. She put on her most winningest smile, the one she gave all her students. "Hello, Apple Bloom. It's been a while."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom turned and bucked another tree, causing the apples to fall neatly into the waiting baskets. "It has."
Resisting the urge to sigh again at Apple Bloom's short answer, Cheerilee tried again to engage the young mare. "So what are you doing out here?"
Oh yeah, Cheerilee thought sarcastically, this is going to be great. Seeing that Apple Bloom had started to pile the full baskets of apples onto a nearby cart, she moved in to help. Apple Bloom didn't say anything as Cheerilee lifted a basket, silently watching with an upraised eyebrow as the teacher helped her out.
"Looks like you know a little bit 'bout hard work," Apple Bloom conceded as Cheerilee quickly dropped the last basket into place. "Good ta see that city life of yours hasn't made ya go soft."
Cheerilee's response was a cocky smile. "As if it could. I may have left Ponyville, but I'm still an earth pony born and bred."
"So I see. So what brings ya all the way out here?" She tied herself into the harness as the front of the wagon, and, with the complaint of heavily burdened wheels, started to haul the cargo back towards the farm. "You finally ready ta tie the knot with Big Mac?"
Cheerilee felt her face warm up and tried desperately to ignore the growing flush on her face. "Why is that the first thing everypony asks?" she muttered under her breath. "I feel like I've stepped into a trap on this farm."
Apple Bloom laugh, a light tinkling laugh that held no unpleasant feelings. Cheerilee smiled to hear it; since it meant Apple Bloom was starting to feel comfortable around her. "Aw, heck, no talkin' like that. Yer pretty much family already; just need ta marry in ta make it official."
And now Cheerilee was the one left feeling uncomfortable. "Well, yes, but... It's complicated," she finished lamely.
"Is this the type of complicated that adults say when they don't want to explain something because they fear it'll sound silly if they say it aloud?" Apple Bloom asked with a far too innocent smile.
"When did you become such a smart ass?" Cheerilee asked with a grumpy glare.
Apple Bloom just laughed, recognizing Cheerilee's act for what it was. "Who knows? Ah suppose Ah just had a good teacher."
Cheerilee coughed awkwardly. They were starting to stray into terrain that was still a little sensative to her. "Apple Bloom, I'm sorr-"
"It's alright," Apple Bloom interrupted Cheerilee's apology with a quiet smile. "Ah know ya didn't mean ta abandon us. Ya did what ya had ta do; there ain't nothin' wrong with that."
Abandon us. Despite Apple Bloom's light tone, Cheerilee could still hear the accusation in her voice. Closing her eyes, she shook away the negative feelings. This wasn't what she was here for.
"Apple Bloom," Cheerilee said firmly. "Stop trying to distract me. You know what I'm here for."
Apple Bloom's expression didn't change, but Cheerilee could tell that she flinched, just the slightest bit. "Distract you?" she asked. "I don't know what you're talking about. Why would I be trying to distract you from anything?"
"I think you know," Cheerilee replied. "Apple Bloom. When was the last time you left the farm?"
"Tch." Apple Bloom clicked her tongue. "You're here about that, ain't ya? You're just going to come barging inta my life, thinking you know everything, and that you can tell me what to do? Well, you can forget it. I'm a grown mare now, and I don't need to do what anypony tells me!"
Cheerilee didn't respond to the anger in Apple Bloom's voice. Shouting at her will only make her shut down. I need to find out the actual issue here. She adopted a soothing tone in her voice. "Apple Bloom. I'm not telling you to do anything. I'm simply asking why you don't want to leave the farm."
"Well, see for yourself." Apple Bloom jerked her head at the rows upon rows of apple trees all around them. "There's too much work to do. The Apple trees are the Apple Family's pride and joy. Somepony's gotta be working on them."
"What about your brother and sister? I'd think they'd be able to take care of the farm on their own, especially with Granny Smith's help." Apple Bloom's ears flicked back the moment Cheerilee mentioned Granny Smith. There's something there, the schoolteacher thought.
"Well, so what if they could?" Apple Bloom protested. "I'm an Apple too, ya know. I need to pull my own weight."
"Pull your own weight?" Cheerilee repeated, not bothering to hide her scepticism. "Or pull somepony else's?"
"I-I-I-." Apple Bloom stuttered before she quickly composed herself. "No. I do it because I want to."
Cheerilee groaned internally. Augh. I thought I had her.
"Besides," Apple Bloom continued, unaware of Cheerilee's thoughts, "somepony needs to keep an eye on the fields at all times, you know. Applejack's a national hero, and often has ta leave to help Twilight with whatever she needs doing. I can't expect Big Mac to take care of everything by himself."
Now I know you're hiding something from me. "But what about when Applejack's here?" Cheerilee asked. "There's nothing stopping you from going to hang out with your friends."
"I-" Apple Bloom kicked at an apple that had rolled in front of her. "I don't have any friends," she said quietly.
"THEN MAKE SOME!" Cheerilee shouted. Screw not shouting, she thought. This needs to be said. "So you had a fight with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo! So what? There are other ponies out there, who are just looking for friends of their own!"
"Oh yeah?" Apple Bloom interrupted, angrily baring her teeth and getting in Cheerilee's face. "Like who? I think you're just sayin' that. You don't actually know anypony that needs friends. All you want is to make me get off this farm so you can pat yerself on the back, just like everypony else!"
A broad grin spread across Cheerilee's face. "Sorry to disappoint you, Apple Bloom, but I can think of two ponies that need friends. That argument isn't going to cut it with me."
The younger mare blinked, surprised at how quickly Cheerilee went from shouting to smug calmness. Her confusion showed on her face, and led to her accidentally dropping her guard. "That... Huh? Who?"
"Two ponies, neither of which have friends in their age group." Cheerilee chuckled quietly and shook her head. "Well, I suppose one of them isn't a pony. I'm talking about Spike and little Dinky. You know them, right?"
"Well, Spike, yeah. He comes up on the farm from time to time with Twilight. But Dinky..." she scrunched up her face in thought. "Isn't that the mailmare's filly?"
"That's the one." Cheerilee nodded her head. "Her mother even asked me to try and find friends for the little filly. I was thinking of introducing her to Spike later. Would you like to come along?"
"Well... that's..." Apple Bloom looked tempted, but then she shut her eyes and shook her head. "No," she stated firmly, her eyes brimming with determination. "I'm not leaving this farm, and you can't make me."
Looks like we're reaching the heart of the matter. Cheerilee licked her lips. I'm going to have to tread carefully. One wrong step here could ruin everything. "Why are you so determined to not leave this farm?" she asked. "Earlier, you mentioned others trying. I'm guessing I'm not the first pony that your sister's asked to convince you to spend some time in town. Tell me a little about them."
"Hah," Apple Bloom scoffed indignantly. "You mean those fools Twilight called in from Canterlot. None of them cared about me, you know. All they were interested in was being able to say that they had helped a Princess. That would be something they could brag about for years."
Cheerilee remained silent, but internally, she was shouting at a certain winged-and-horned purple pony. Thank you Twilight, for making my job harder.
"They all left pretty quickly, once sis realized what they were like," Apple Bloom added with a laugh. "You don't try to fool my sis. She didn't bear the Element of Honesty for nothing, you know. Ain't nothing she hates more than a liar."
"And what about when that liar is one of her own family?" Cheerilee asked harshly. "What would she do then?"
Apple Bloom flinched away from the sudden verbal assault, acting like Cheerilee had just physically struck her. "Wha- Th- I-"
"You're lying to me, Apple Bloom," Cheerilee continued, not letting up for an instant. "There's an actual reason you feel forced to stay on the farm, and it's not just because you feel like it. Something happened, something that makes you feel obligated to remain here!"
"That-You-" Drops of sweat were starting to bead all over Apple Bloom's coat. The tough farmfilly was clearly starting to feel the pressure. "You're making that up! You don't know anything!"
"You're right, I don't." Apple Bloom perked up at the comment, her mouth starting to spread in a victorious smile, but then Cheerilee went in for the kill. "But how long do you think it would take me to find out? Something happened on the farm shortly before you stopped going into town. And I'm willing to bet it involves Granny Smith!"
"No! Nonononono!" Apple Bloom was sweating profusely now, and she started to back away from the older mare. "Nothing happened! Nothing at all! You're wrong! You're completely wrong!"
"Apple Bloom!" A old, wizened voice shouted out suddenly from the surrounding trees, causing both Apple Bloom and Cheerilee to jump in surprise as Granny Smith herself hobbled into view. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" the old mare scolded. "I didn't raise you to be a liar like this!"
"No, but, Granny, no, that is-" Apple Bloom glanced from side to side, desperately seeking a way to escape the elderly mare's anger.
Good to see the matriarchal position is still very secure, Cheerilee thought with no small amount of amusement as she watched the formerly tough filly getting chewed out by her elder.
Eventually, Granny Smith's tirade ended and she turned to Cheerilee. Her face was old and tired, showing the weight of every one of her many years. "I'm afraid this is all my fault," she said contritely.
"Your fault?" Cheerilee repeated. She had expected as much from the moment she had seen Apple Bloom's reaction to Granny Smith's name, but it seemed she was going to hear it directly from the horse's mouth. So to speak. "Where did you even come from?"
"I followed you here," Granny Smith said dismissively. "Now be quiet, I'm talking. You already know that Apple Bloom hasn't been off the farm in years, correct?"
"That's why I'm-" Cheerilee started.
Granny Smith wasn't having any of it. "Shush. Just as you guessed, there was an incident shortly before Apple Bloom started refusing to leave the farm. We never really thought those two occasions were connected, but now that you've pointed it out, it makes sense."
"What happened?" Cheerilee asked, only for a cane to crack her over the skull for her trouble.
"I'm getting to that! Don't rush me!" Granny Smith scowled at her for several seconds before her gaze softened, becoming reminiscent as she looked up at the sky. "I'm an old mare, you know. I've lived on the farm for a long time, longer than most ponies in town have been alive."
Cheerilee didn't see anything safe to say to that, so she decided silence was the best course for her to take.
"About three years ago..." Granny Smith sighed. "I had a heart attack. There was a big to-do about it, and I got my fool self rushed off to the hospital." She shook her head. "I still think my grandfoals overreacted, though."
"You were in the hospital for four months, Granny," Apple Bloom suddenly protested. "Of course we were worried!"
"Bah!" Granny Smith scoffed. "I was fine after the first month! Those durned doctors were just too fool to see it!"
Cheerilee loudly cleared her throat, interrupting the growing argument before it could escalate any further. "I think that's enough. Thank you, Granny Smith, for telling me this." The shrivelled old mare nodded her head in acknowledgement as Cheerilee shifted her attention to the youngest mare present. "Now, Apple Bloom, I think I have a clear picture of what's going on. Will you admit it, or are you going to force me to spell it out for you?"
"I don't know... what you're talking about," Apple Bloom muttered. Her protests were quiet, without any real force behind them. She was beaten, and she knew it.
Cheerilee sighed. "Very well. It all comes down to a simple choice you made."
"Family?" Applejack repeated. "What's that got to do with anything?"
They were seated in the main dining area, where Cheerilee had gathered all the members of the Apple Family.
"Everything," Cheerilee replied simply from her seat on the very corner of the table, as far away from Big Macintosh as possible without actually leaving the room. "The Apple Family is a strong believer in family values, correct?"
"Darn tootin'," Applejack happily proclaimed. "The Apple Family looks after our own. But I'm still not sure what you're getting at, Miss Cheerilee."
"Then let me put it this way." Cheerilee leaned back against her chair and tilted her head back so that she was staring up at the ceiling. I need a smoke, she thought regretfully. "If you were forced to choose between your family and your friends, what would pick?"
Applejack blinked in surprise. "Well, Ah would hope Ah would never have to make that choice, y'know?"
"And if you felt like you did?"
"Ah-" There was a sharp inhalation of breath and Cheerilee knew Applejack had figured it out. "Ya don't mean..." She swiveled her head to look at where Apple Bloom was sitting off in a corner all by herself. "Oh, Apple Bloom..."
"Well, Apple Bloom?" Cheerilee asked the youngest mare. "Do you want to explain from here on, or shall I keep going?"
Apple Bloom hung her head in defeat. "No... No, I give. You're right. About everything." She stared at the floor as she spoke, not able to look any of her family members in the eye. "It's just as Miss Cheerilee says. After Granny's heart attack, I thought I had to help out more around the farm. I started hanging out with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo less and less, and then there was that big fight we had... I just lost any reason I had to go into town after that."
"You should have told us," Big Mac stated in that firm voice of his that gave Cheerilee chills to hear.
A bitter laugh was Apple Bloom's reply. "Told you? Yeah right, what would I have even told you?" She smiled in a silly, over-the-top parody of herself. "'Hey Big Mac, just thought I'd tell you that I ain't going into town any more, and that I don't want to ever see my friends again.'" Dropping the exaggerated grin, she went back to staring at the floor. "Please. None of y'all would have listened to me."
She's still dodging the issue, Cheerilee thought sourly. "Well, of course-"
For a split second, there was the whistle of something slicing through the air followed by an incredibly loud SLAM of wood against wood. Apple Bloom looked up from the hole in the floor between her legs, up the wooden cane leading from that hole, and up into the infuriated eyes of the Apple Family matriarch. "Granny..." Apple Bloom quailed under that gaze.
"Of course we wouldn't have listened to you," Granny Smith shouted, filled of indignant fury. "That's cause you're still spoutin' empty words! Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo ain't got nothing to do with this! You're still tryin' to cover the real reason up!"
"Granny, I..." Apple Bloom said.
Granny Smith's gaze softened and she leaned down to give her youngest granddaughter a firm hug. "You darned fool. You shouldn't be spending your whole life bein' worried about me. I ain't goin' in the grave for a long time."
"How?" Apple Bloom tearfully whispered. "How can you know that? How can I know that I won't go off one day, and come back and you'll be... and you'll be..."
Granny Smith shook her head. "You can't. But you can't let your fear control you. You've got your own life to live, and you can't spend it shivering at home like a lost little foal."
If a foal's at home, wouldn't that mean they're not lost? Cheerilee thought but didn't say. Seeing that everypony's attention was on the weeping young pony, Cheerilee quietly slipped out the door. Her job was done; the stubborn door to Apple Bloom's heart had been forced open. It would be up to her family from here on end.
Family, huh? Cheerilee thought. She tilted her head back and stared up at where Celestia's sun was starting its descent towards the horizon. For the first time in a long time, she found her own thoughts drifting back to her own family; of warm hooves and warmer hugs.
Cheerilee heard the heavy hoofsteps behind her, but didn't turn around to look, knowing there could only be one pony with steps that heavy. "You know, she never knew her parents," Big Mac's distinct voice drawled out.
There was a pause, and Cheerilee felt that he was looking back at the farmhouse behind them. "I suppose it makes sense. When Granny had that heart attack, it would have hit her extra hard."
Out of the corner of her eye, Cheerilee could see Big Mac awkwardly looking around for something to talk about. Despite herself, she had to restrain a giggle. Here was Ponyville's definitive example of the strong, silent type, frantically casting about for something to say. She found the idea so adorable that she couldn't help but take pity on him.
"I've taken up work at Ponyville Elementary again," she told him, finally breaking the silence. "If you're ever in the area, why not come by for a visit? I'm living with Princess Twilight at the library, so I'll be there if I'm not at work."
Silence was the only thing she heard from behind her until... "Eeyup."
With a quiet smile, Cheerilee started walking the long, lonely road back to Ponyville. She could feel Big Mac's eyes following her, and her hips might have swayed justa little more than usual when she walked, her tail flicking tantalizing from side to side just the slightest amount.
She giggled. Perhaps her time back at Ponyville wasn't going to be as horrible as she had feared.