Bare. That's the first word that came to Applebloom when she thought of Cheerilee's office. So bare as to be kind of threatening. Cheerilee could have used the 'Ten-items-or-fewer' checkout when buying her own furnishings for the office. Sounds, once made, lingered as they bounced around the room. Few objects existed to halt their echoing. A desk, two chairs, two filing cabinets, a picture of a generic landscape hung lopsided on the wall. Spartan in many senses.
Applebloom occupied one of those chairs, the smaller one in front of the desk. It's purpose was to make whoever sat in it feel inferior to the one on the other side of the desk. At that moment, it happened to be Cheerilee herself in the other chair, playing with a drinking bird. If she was pleased, she hid it well.
“I don't know whether to write you a distinction or put you in detention.” Cheerilee said. “It's a tough choice.”
Applebloom didn't say anything. It wasn't time to comment, not yet. She would wait until all the chips are down, until Cheerilee had shown her cards.
Cheerilee pursed her lips. “I might have to do both, but first, I want an apology.”
Applebloom rubbed her hoofs together. She hadn't expected Cheerilee to react the way she did, turning red as a cherry, losing control. Maybe it's you that should be apologising, Cheerilee, for losing control of yourself, Applebloom thought. She didn't dare say it. Extended time in Anon's company had made Applebloom better at reasoning, but had it come at a cost? A cost to her empathy, to gauge the feelings of others in pursuit of the truth? Perhaps. There was no denying, however, that it was funny to see Cheerilee so flustered.
“Ah'm sorry Miss Cheerilee.” Applebloom said.
Cheerilee arched an eyebrow. “What for?”
Don't say it don't say it don't say it.
“Fer makin' yer all embarrassed an' all. But, ah wasn't tryin' ter be mean! Anon really is a-”
Cheerilee held up a hoof. “-I'm sure he is. Applebloom, you can't go around pairing up ponies. You'll hurt someone's feelings eventually.”
Applebloom recalled the time she and her wayward, mark-less friends tried to set Big Mac up with Cheerilee. In many ways, that was a greater transgression than her spontaneous attempt at pairing Anon and Cheerilee. She got off without so much as a severe talking-to. Unfair, she thought, that she could earn a trip to Cheerilee's imposing office just by commenting on the connection that already existed between them. A relationship that might only need a gentle push in the right direction to make it blossom.
“Ah'm real sorry miss.” Applebloom said, her chin pressed against her chest, as though she were talking to her own legs. Cheerilee was silent for a time, absorbed in her thoughts.
“I'm impressed though, Applebloom. Seems like you have a knack for deduction. Remember that there's a time and a place for it though.”
“Which is why you're going to write me an essay about it.” she said. Applebloom shouted the worst curse she could imagine in her head, many times over. “You have one week, and the title is 'How to do inductive reasoning'.”
“Ah'm not in detention?”
Cheerilee thought for a bit. “No.”
“And about that distinction?”
“I'm still thinking about it.”
The chips were down now, and the cards shown. Applebloom, however, never played a fair game in her life, an ace always hidden up a figurative sleeve. Today was no different.
“So, I guess you are goin' out fer dinner with Anon?” she said.
Cheerilee, who had taken to playing with an executives toy during the lull in conversation, had never looked so colourless. The drinking bird creaked amidst the heavy silence that descended with Applebloom's last comment. Hoofsteps echoed in the corridor. Applebloom's skin prickled with delight, Cheerilee's with shock.
“How'd you-” she began. Detention, for sure, thought Applebloom. Maybe multiple detentions, and another essay. Worth it. Oh, it was so worth it.
“-Did anything I say sink in, Applebloom?”
“Who goes fer two hooficures in the same week? Or changes their perfume twice in one week?”
“-Also there's still brush marks in yer mane. How many times have yer done gone brushed it today? Five? Six?”
“Alright fine! Yes I am. He wanted to apologise for embarrassing me yesterday and suggested dinner.”
Applebloom wanted to grin. To laugh even, but she recognised that she'd gone too far. It's much too easy to get swept up in the heat of the moment, like there's another pony that takes command.
Cheerilee rested her elbows on the desk and buried her face in her hooves, groaning as she went. If this is what Applebloom could do to her, she didn't want to even think about the conclusions that Anon would make. She imagined he could tell how many hours a pony had slept from something as innocuous as a stray mane hair. Fortunate, she thought, that Anon wasn't the stallion counterpart to Rarity the gossip queen. If he was, there wouldn't be a single secret in town.
Applebloom, following her power high, experienced the come-down. Changelings from every corner of the continent could probably taste the guilt.
“Ah-” she said. “Ah guess ah'm in detention now?”
“Yep.” Cheerilee said through her hooves.
“More than one?”
“You gonna write a letter home?”
Cheerliee let go a solitary laugh. “Go on, get out. You'll be hearing from me later.”
Applejack stood outside the front gate, in that weird way that makes it look as though she'd fall over in a breeze. Even from a distance, she could see that Applebloom had done something bad. A slight change in gait, head hung a little low, a small change in facial expression. Her perceptiveness was legendary.
“What'cha done now?” Applejack asked as her sister came within talking distance.
There's no point lying to the element of honesty. Not only is it wrong, it also doesn't work.
“Ah, er, ah said some mean things ter miss Cheerilee.” Applebloom said, walking as she talked. Applejack walked beside her.
“What kinda things?”
“Well, ah went n' figured out she had dinner plans, but ah was kinda rude about doin' it.”
“Her private life ain't none a' yer business. Ah hope y'all apologised?”
“Yeah.” she said. “She set me this real hard essay and she's gonna go put me in detention.”
“Ah hope ya learned yer lesson.”
The walk back to Sweet Apple Acres passed in silence, broken by a little small talk. Between conversation, Applebloom thought more about Anon. In five months, he never mentioned a marefriend to her, nor had she seen him talking with a mare more than once or twice, if you discount Applejack and shop-owners. She supposed that uncovering private lives of others was not her business, like Applejack said. That didn't mean she couldn't ask, though.
On the approach to the farm, the sisters could hear heavy grunting from the barn. A two-pony saw stood in the open barn door, around which floated flecks of sawdust. The familiar smell of fresh-cut wood and sweat lingered in the air. A loud thud rung across the fields.
“Come on Anon, y'all can lift that!” shouted Big Mac.
“Manual labour isn't my thing!”
“Y'all wasted away after yer left the farm!”
“No, unless I can use the axe.”
The sisters peered through the door. On the ground was a large crossbeam, me at one end, Big Mac at the other. I had propped myself up against the flat end where we cut the beam earlier, panting and sweating buckets.
“Y'all still doin' this?” Applejack asked, walking in.
I nodded, but Big Mac Spoke. “Ah reckon a breezie could lift more than him.”
“Fffffff-” I began, preparing to unleash blue murder, until Applebloom appeared from behind her sister. “-ffffocus! I need to focus.”
Big Mac and Applejack laughed while Applebloom approached me, oblivious to the torrent of profanity I was about to start.
“Yer not plannin' on goin' out smellin' like that are ya?” she asked.
“You-” I coughed. “-you what?”
“Miss Cheerilee's made a real effort ya know. Y'all should do the same.”
I didn't know whether to faint or laugh. The choice was faint from exhaustion, or laugh because she'd somehow worked out my plans for the evening. The result was a strange mixture of delirium and glee, like ecstasy.
“Okay miss, how'd you know?”
“Cheerilee were all spruced up. Ya know, she changed her perfume again the day after ya came to talk?”
“Yeah. She got all flustered and dropped yer name.”
I laughed. “That's one of the best ways to learn things, keep annoying them until they get mad and say more than they meant to. Seems like you figured that out all by yourself.”
A short silence passed. Applejack spoke to Big Mac at the other end of the crossbeam, their conversation inaudible. I glanced at my watch; it was quarter-to-five. I would meet Cheerilee at seven. I was aware that unwritten and unspoken rules existed for dinner dates, adherence to which make for a successful night. I didn't know any of them, but I imagined a shower would be a good start. This meant I'd need to leave soon.
“Anon?” Applebloom asked. She was waving her hoof in front of my face. It seemed I was miles away.
“Sorry, I was in my own little world for a moment there. What is it?”
Applebloom is bad at hiding her tells. Shifting her weight around, rubbing the floor with one hoof. Her actions speak so loud that I'm convinced she and her sister can have a conversation through body language alone.
“Just say it Applebloom.” I said.
“Do ya like miss Cheerilee?” she said, at Pinkie Pie speed.
I searched for a diplomatic answer. “I think she's nice.”
Applebloom shook her head. “Nuh-uh I mean, like, y'know, do ya 'like-like' her?”
“You've got it all wrong Applebloom. This is just my way of apologising to her, since I did have a hoof in embarrassing her after all.”
“Yes! What is this, the Spaneighsh Inquisition?”
Applebloom relented. That foal can be scary when she wants to be, I thought.
I got up and walked to Big Mac and Applejack, explaining my plans for the evening and that I had to leave now if I didn't want to turn up smelling of creosote and sweat. I was only a few paces outside the barn when Applebloom pounced me with more questions.
“Who then?” she asked.
“Y'all must like someone. Who?”
I stopped walking for a moment. Applebloom walked into my back legs. I turned to her and brought my face down to hers. I could hear her breathing, feel her breath on my face, we were that close.
“You're the detective.” I said. “You tell me.”
I turned again and started walking, proud of myself for talking down a filly. Those final words became my worst mistake that week.