• Published 1st Nov 2014
  • 20,636 Views, 1,634 Comments

A New Sun Rises - CommissarAJ



Sunset Shimmer has never needed anyone or anything - she had her magic, she had her ambition, and she had intellect. Others just stood in her way or held her down. So what do you do when your plans for world domination fall through?

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Act VII-II

“Okay, so just sign here, here, and here; then date here, and finally list all the subjects and grade levels you’re willing to offer. Put your most preferred subjects in the first column, and then your ‘less preferred but still willing to sell yourself’ in the second.”

The school’s tutoring program was more thorough than I had envisioned; though to be fair, I had no idea what to expect when I approached Ms. Yearling after class the day after my fruitless expedition to the mall. Everyone else had long since stormed out of her class once the bell rang, so we were able to talk candidly without intrusion.

After filling out a half-dozen forms, she double-checked all of my grades, and then ran me through a test she liked to call ‘explain it to me like I’m five,’ where I had to elaborate on complex subjects in simplified terms. We were finished in less than half-an-hour, though Yearling explained to me that it only went that quickly because she already knew how good of a student I was.

“Now I gotta warn you, you’re kinda late to the party,” Yearling said when I handed the signed forms over. “The big rush for snatching up tutors to prepare for the final exams was last week. Pretty much everyone who’s looking for help has already signed up and been assigned a tutor.”

I felt an all-too-familiar pang of despair beginning to gnaw at my insides. “Is there… really nobody left?”

“I didn’t say there was nobody left,” Yearling reassured me, although her uneasy expression didn’t fill me with confidence. “There’s always a few late stragglers, but those are usually the less serious studiers. If you’re looking to make money, I can’t guarantee you’ll get much from this. You’re basically scrounging for table scraps at this point.”

That only served to sink my spirits faster than going for a swim while wearing concrete sandals. It was foolish to think that I was the only person who’d try to take advantage of the final exams to fatten up the holiday coffers. I had to start considering whether I’d even be able to afford presents for my friends, let alone establish a reasonable budget for it. If it came down to it, however, I was willing to forgo gifts for my friends in order to get something for Celestia. I knew my friends would understand how important that would be to me.

“Is there anything you can do to help? Maybe some of the others might be willing to… loan me their students?”

I knew my words sounded desperate, but I was; if I thought it would help, I would’ve dropped to my hands and knees to beg for it.

“I’ll ask around: there might be a few tutors who’ve bitten off more than they can chew,” Yearling said. It was a small hope, but a hope nonetheless, and I’m sure the look of relief on my face did not go unnoticed. “Everyone’s always so worked up about what they’ll get for the holidays, and here you are trying your hardest to be able to give something to others. Good to see some kids still remember the holiday spirit.”

“Technically, I’m learning it for the first time,” I said with a sheepish smirk. With the subject of the holidays now on our minds, I decided to distract myself by indulging in a bit of curiosity. “So what are your plans for the winter break?”

“Well, with sis in graduate school, I was planning to go visit her with Blondie,” Yearling said as she took my papers and began sifting through them. “However, apparently she and Caballeron are out in the field for the next month or so, which she neglected to tell me until the last second.”

“I take it that’s not the usual sort of plan you have?” My follow-up question was met with a puzzled stare from my teacher. “I’m new to holidays, so I’m curious what other people typically do.”

Anyone else asking something like that would’ve probably been dismissed offhand or seen as nosey, but my inexperience was well-understood by those around me. Even someone as private as Yearling was willing to help with my extra-curricular learning.

“I’ve never been much for big gatherings, to be honest,” she admitted, which didn’t surprise me in the least. “Blondie doesn’t have any family, and, until recently, I wasn’t close to mine; so we would just spend the holidays together with a big bucket of caramel popcorn and our favourite Hearth’s Warming movies.”

“Which are?”

“Nightmare Before Hearth’s Warming, and Die Hard.”

“Those don’t sound very festive.”

“Well, Blondie and I aren’t much for tradition,” Yearling said, followed by a quiet chuckle. “Or rather, we didn’t have any traditions to rely upon, so we started making our own.”

I had to admit, there was a definite romantic appeal to the idea of forging new traditions with the people you cared about. Being new to this world, I had no legacy or heritage to call upon; nobody in this world would care about old pony traditions, even if I had bothered to remember any from when I was one. All the more reason I wanted to make this Hearth’s Warming into something worth remembering in the future. I wanted to be able to one day look back and say, ‘this is when it all started.’

To that end, I had to start asking the questions that were bothering me the most. “Miss Yearling, could I… um, ask you about Celestia?”

“Doing some sleuthing for gift shopping, I take it?” Yearling asked with a playful little grin.

“That obvious, huh?”

“If you had wanted to know for the sake of knowing, you would’ve gone straight to the source. I’m surprised you need to ask at all; you’ve been living with her for a while now.”

Yearling pointing that out only served to deepen my sense of shame. While I had picked up little bits and pieces about my caretaker in those weeks, I still felt like I only knew the bare minimum. It was like staring at a lake, but never knowing how deep it went.

“I guess I’ve been… avoiding it,” I admitted with great reluctance.

“Scared?”

“Wh—I’m not scared! What do I have to be afraid of?” I snapped back, perhaps a bit too defensively.

Unsurprisingly, Yearling wasn’t dissuaded by my denial, offering an indifferent shrug at first. “Being known? Being vulnerable to someone?” she speculated offhandedly. “You’ve gotten close to your friends, but Celestia isn’t just a friend: she’s been your keeper. Unlike everyone else, she holds power and authority over you still. You could avoid Rainbow Dash if she ever makes you uneasy, but at the end of the day, you sleep under the same roof as Celestia.”

I hadn’t envisioned that my quest to learn more about my caretaker would require such self-reflection. It was surprising how close to the mark Yearling was: unlike my friends, a part of me was still… afraid of Celestia. It wasn’t a fear in the traditional sense, but rather a wariness because I still felt compelled to protect myself.

“Guess I’ve still got a lot to learn, huh?” I muttered, more to myself than the person sitting opposite of me.

Yearling leaned forward to rest her chin upon her palm, cupping a hand over chin and mouth. She then flashed a whimsical smile through the gaps between her fingers. “You and Tia have a lot in common in that respect.”

“Meaning…?”

“Despite being such warm and kind-hearted people, the two of you still keep people at an arm’s length,” she elaborated. “I’ve known her since college, and I still barely have a complete picture. I can’t recall her ever getting in touch with anyone she knew from high school, and I’m pretty certain that I’m the only person from college that she still keeps in regular contact with.”

My first reaction was an understandable, ‘that can’t possibly be right! Celestia is a social butterfly for whom people would flock to like a throng of hungry students to the cafeteria on Frogurt Friday.’ Once I thought about it, however, I began to realize I couldn’t name a single friend of Celestia’s aside from Yearling. Everyone she spoke to on a regular basis either lived or worked with her. Granted, there were probably lots of people who lived their lives like that, but even still, it felt unsettling to acknowledge that Celestia didn’t appear to have many close friends. Lots of work friends, lots of acquaintances, but close friends?

“So what was she like in college?” I asked, growing ever more curious.

“I’d say she was a lot like she is now, except less tempered by age and experience,” Yearling answered, followed by a sudden flash of laughter. “Or maybe I was just a bad influence on her.”

You were a bad influence?” I remarked in disbelief.

“Try not to let it shatter your worldview, but once upon a time Tia and I were young, wild girls just like you and your friends.” I still found that hard to believe, despite all logic saying otherwise. “Of course, by the time I met her, she had already lost her parents, so she was running her household, working a part-time job, and looking after a little sister who decided to enter a rebellious phase.”

I remembered how that story ended: with Celestia being pulled in so many directions that she let her own sister go to juvenile detention just to keep a grip on things.

Yearling rested back in her seat, which creaked under the shifting weight. Her eyes drifted upward as if in a nostalgic daydream. “I remember when we met; she seemed like the perfect student: elegant… polite… responsible… beautiful…”

“Geeze, you sound like you had a crush on her,” I said with a playful laugh.

“She might’ve helped me realize that I was into girls,” Yearling admitted as a hint of red flashed across her cheeks. “Despite all her responsibilities and commitments, she still had a childish side to her. It took me a while, but I eventually learned how to coax that part out of her.”

It still felt alien to be thinking about Principal Celestia anything remotely like how I or my friends would behave, but I had to remind myself that she wasn’t always the responsible, dutiful school administrator I know her as today. I had to spend a moment just to force myself to picture her young, vibrant, and carefree—or at least as carefree as Celestia could get—surrounded by other teenagers while gossiping about the latest bands or who was dating whom. A part of me still doubted that Celestia did any of that even when she was a teenager.

“What sort of things did ‘childish’ Celestia do?”

“Oh, you know… silly things,” Yearling continued, still sporting a dopey grin. “She used to be a huge prankster back in college. Like, one time I accidentally spilled some water on her bedding, and she got upset. I told her that ‘it’s just a little water.’ The next day after class, I open the door to my room and every single inch of flat surface in my room has these tiny little cups, like this big.” She quickly gestured with her fingers a span of about two inches, which made it sound like those plastic cups that nurses use to hand out pills. “Every single one of them was filled to the brim with water. Like, perfectly, too. More than perfect. You know when you fill something right to the top and then it has that little bulge that goes just a bit higher than the brim but stays in because of the surface tension? That was every single cup!”

“That… must’ve takens hours.”

“All. Freaking. Day.” Yearling had this look like she couldn’t decide whether to be angry, despite the event having happened years ago, or laugh out loud. “To top it all off, halfway through cleaning it up, Celestia walked by and said, ‘it’s just a little water.’”

“That is some serious dedication to the pranking arts,” I remarked in a mix of awe and disbelief. Even Rainbow Dash, the most prolific prankster in our group, never went to lengths like that. She would’ve gotten bored before she even finished setting it up.

“She pitched in with cleaning up, though, which is so typical of her. Even when she purposefully inconveniences you, she has to help people out.”

As odd as it was picturing Celestia behaving so childishly, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. Those days might be long gone, but it was clear by the way Yearling told it that it was still a cherished memory of hers. However, it didn’t get me any closer to figuring out a present for her, not unless I wanted to try and resurrect this prankster side of her.

Then, almost as if she could read my mind, which in itself was a terrifying thought, Yearling said, “Guess that kind of story doesn’t help you much, does it?”

“It was still nice to hear.”

“All this talk is making me thirsty,” Yearling announced before she rose to her feet. She gestured for me to follow suit, which I would’ve even without the prompt. As classes had ended, the halls were almost completely deserted, save for the custodians and a handful of club members. “Have you considered getting her a book? I know she really likes gardening and mystery novels.”

“Luna already suggested that.”

“Figures.”

While I had expected to be led to the nearest vending machines or a water fountain, instead I was taken to the teacher’s lounge. Yearling strode in without apprehension, naturally, but I hesitated at the boundary. The lounge had always stood as a sort of mystical ‘no-go zone’ for students: the final refuge of the faculty to get away from the insanity and chaos that was the high school student body. It felt almost sacrilegious for me to enter.

Sensing my apprehension, Yearling took me by the wrist and pulled me in. “Come on already, we don’t bite.”

Inside the lounge was a surprisingly plain-looking room. I had envisioned some kind of oasis, but it was a room just like every other one at Canterlot High, with the same blue linoleum flooring, the same tacky teal-coloured walls, and even the same humming overhead fluorescent tubes. We weren’t alone in the room either: on the far side of the room, Ms. Harshwhinny was taking a nap on an old leather coach; Ms. Cheerilee and a couple other teachers were sitting around a table in the center of the room playing some sort of board game; and off in the corner, Mr. Cranky was trying to have a private phone conversation with his wife on a smartphone that he still hadn’t quite figured out how to use.

None of them even paid any attention to me.

As I gawked at my teachers like a child staring at a zoo exhibit, my attention was snapped back to reality by the application of ice-cold tin against the nape of my neck. I yelped and leapt forward an inch, only to realize that it had been Ms. Yearling, who had a can of cola in each hand and a sly grin upon her face.

“You okay?” she asked before handing me one of the colas. “You looked a little spaced out for a second.”

“Sorry, it’s just a little… odd. Seeing you teachers hanging around like this, I mean.”

“Why’s that?” Yearling’s tone was inquisitive, but I got the sense she knew what my answer would be.

“Everyone here just seems so… so…” I trailed off as my attempts to put my thoughts into words eluded me somehow.

“Normal?” Yearling suggested, followed by a sharp crack and a hiss as she opened her drink. “When most of the adults you interact with everyday are either teachers or your parents, it’s easy to forget that we’re not too different from you teenagers. Sure, we’ve got a bit more experience, but there isn’t some yawning chasm between us. We’re still prone to making dumb decisions spurred on by irrationality. Take Cheerilee for example, she still fumbles and blushes like a schoolgirl when she tries to ask someone out.”

Yearling’s remark was promptly answered by her co-worker throwing an empty soda can at her head, which bounced harmlessly off amidst a chorus of laughter.

Once again, I felt foolish for not realizing something that seemed like it should’ve been obvious. The people in this room weren’t fundamentally any different than my friends. I could just as easily see Applejack and Rainbow Dash playing board games, Rarity texting on her phone, and Fluttershy taking a nap on the couch. This scene could easily be me and my friends, save for it being a teacher’s lounge.

As it was starting to get late, I thanked Yearling for the drink and her advice and headed back to my locker. Yearling followed along, though I didn’t know why at first: it looked like she had something else to say, but every time she opened her mouth it just hung empty for a second before closing up again.

“You know, Celestia used to play the guitar,” she finally spoke up, just as I had finished gathering my things from my locker.

“Really? I’m guessing she wasn’t the rocker type, right?”

“She knew a few of the popular songs of our day.” Yearling paused again, that same pensive look on her face she had a few minutes earlier. I opted for patience, despite an overwhelming urge to grab her by the collar and shout ‘out with it!’ “It’s how she first met Sombra, actually.”

“Captivated him by song, eh?”

“More like hit him in the head with the guitar case. Knocked him down a flight of stairs, too.”

“Ouch.”

“You should… um, you should talk to him if you really want to know more about Celestia. Just don’t tell anyone that you got this from me? It’s always been a sore subject with her.”

Her last remark explained why she had been so hesitant to start with. I could still recall what happened when I first witnessed Sombra and Celestia having a conversation, if one could call it that. It was one of the times I had seen her avoid a subject not because it was difficult or not appropriate, but because she was ashamed of herself.

“Aren’t most ex-boyfriends?” I said with a knowing chuckle.

“True, except he’s her ex-husband.”

If I had an answer, all rational thought took a backseat as the revelation took a sledgehammer to my brain. I stood in the school doorway for about half a minute doing my best impression of a lobotomy recipient.

“Ex… husband?” I murmured to myself in a stupor. “Her… him… marriage? I don’t—what happened?”

“Those answers, I’m afraid I don’t have,” Yearling said as she gently eased me out the door. “I was at the wedding: wore the tackiest yellow dress as the Maid of Honour, too. But afterwards I went globetrotting with my sister and doing all the stuff that eventually became the Daring Do books. When we met up again, they were separated, and she wouldn’t tell me anything.”

I couldn’t help but notice the melancholic undertone in her voice; a despair that brewed from a feeling of isolation and impotence when a close friend shuts you out. I had a feeling that was a sensation that I had unknowingly inflicted on my friends as well every time I was too pig-headed to face my problems head-on.

If I were to find answers, I would have to go behind Celestia’s back and speak to the only other person who knew the truth.

********************

Given the nature of my request, I didn’t feel right making my case over text messages. If I just showed up at Headmaster Sombra’s home or workplace and started asking questions, I suspected I would get shut down faster than I could say ‘divorce settlement.’ I would need help with the matter, and the first and only person that came to mind was Twilight. She was one of his prized pupils, after all, so I hoped that would be enough to at least get him to listen to me.

I was grateful that Twilight was willing to make time to entertain a visit to her home. She, too, was in the midst of preparing for the final exams, and unsurprisingly she took it with a level of focus and determination that would’ve been more at home during bomb disposal. Then again, to her, failing the exams would be just as destructive to her life as any explosive. However, when I first asked if we could have a get together, she sounded reluctant to have me come visit. At the time, I figured she just didn’t want to interrupt her study schedule.

It was Wednesday after school when I arrived at her home, though I was surprised when the front door opened and I was greeted by someone else entirely.

“Hey, Sunset! Long time, no see.”

It was Shining Armour, which in itself wasn’t too surprising except that he also happened to be wearing the second-ugliest sweater I had ever seen. It was adorned with colourful images of candy canes and gingerbread men, and all across it were little brass bells that jingled with every movement he made. I would’ve thought that kind of wardrobe would’ve been reserved for punishment of unspeakable evils like saying ‘yes’ when your girlfriend asks if her pants made her butt look big.

“What are you wearing?” I blurted out without a second thought.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen an ugly Hearth’s sweater,” Shining answered with a carefree grin. If my rudeness had bothered him, he did an excellent job of hiding it.

“I know of them, but I’ve never seen someone wearing one that didn’t involve losing a bet.”

“Call it something of a family tradition around here,” he said before gesturing for me to enter. Once he closed the door he turned to the nearby stairs and shouted, “Twily, your friend is here!”

“Just tell her to come up to my room,” Twilight’s voice echoed back.

To my surprise, that remark appeared to ruffle his feathers far more than what I had said moments earlier. “Twilight, your friend is here. The least you could do is greet them at the door.”

There was a pronounced silence until eventually a dreary, “... Fine.”

“And you better still be wearing your sweater.”

Fiiiiiine.”

A few moments later, Twilight’s head poked around the corner at the top of the stairs, as if to confirm that I had, in fact, arrived. However, rather than be reassured at my presence, she shrunk back at the sight of me.

“Come on, Twily, don’t be shy now.”

Twilight’s reluctance at her brother’s last remarks had caught my attention and curiosity. I had said that Shining’s sweater was the second-ugliest sweater I had ever seen, and that was because the grand prize belonged to my friend, who wore a sweater of bright greens and reds and decorated with a large, cutesy caricature of a windigo that was dolled up in bells, ribbons, and a big stocking cap. Beneath the mythical horse were the words ‘Warm your heart’s hearth’ in big, block letters. One thing I could never quite get about the human world was how they managed to take something as terrifying and dangerous as a windigo and turn it into something cute and marketable.

“Heya Twilight,” I greeted whilst trying to hold down my snickering.

Without even saying a word, I could already tell that Twilight did not enjoy being seen in her current state. In a show of sudden assertiveness, my friend came down the stairs and took me by the wrist. “Come on, we’ve got no time to waste,” she said as she dragged me off to the her room.

“You two have fun!” Shining called out.

Twilight’s room was in a surprising state of disarray, which was a stark contrast to the methodical, organized fashion that my friend usually conducted herself with. However, as we sat down and made ourselves comfortable, I realized that the ‘mess’ was organized in its own way. All about her room were stacks of papers, notebooks, open texts, and assorted flashcards, and each section pertained to a different subject, and, as I would learn later, it was all organized in chronological order of the exams. Go figure that her at her worst would still be more organized than me at my best. There was even an hour-by-hour schedule scribbled on a nearby whiteboard, which had her studying for the next hour and a half before she would be afforded a fifteen minute break.

“Okay, we’ve only lost two minutes and forty seconds of studying time. We can get back on track if we buckle down and skip the next scheduled break,” Twilight said. She took a seat at her desk while I made myself comfortable on her bed. As she gathered her next batch of study material, I fished out of my bag whichever textbook my hand happened to find first. I figured I could study for a while before I asked her about getting in touch with Sombra.

“I’m fine, by the way.”

“What?” Twilight muttered, already nose-deep in a book. It took her another second to remember what social etiquettes were. “Oh, right! S-sorry, I guess I’m a little distracted.”

“You’re probably used to studying on your own, aren’t you?”

She nodded.

“Me too,” I reassured her. “I just hope I don’t slow you down: I heard Crystal Heart’s curriculum is way tougher than mine.”

“Considering how much of Gilda’s school work you used to do for her, I’m sure you’d be fine.” We both had a good laugh. I still remembered how bad I felt when Twilight first found out about my old job. It was reassuring to see that she could crack jokes about it now. And she was right: I had plenty of experience with her school’s mock exams and assignments, and I had never had much problem with them.

Once the ice had been broken, we were able to maintain a measure of smalltalk while we studied. After a while, however, my curiosity finally got the better of me. “So where’d you get a sweater like that anyways?”

Twilight flinched a bit, a combination of surprise from the subject but also the sudden break in her focus. “O-oh, this? I… uh, Shining got it for me,” she admitted. “Looks pretty stupid, doesn’t it?”

“You can take it off if you want while we study. I won’t tell him.” In all honesty, I thought discarding her sweater would have been the first thing she did once we were safe in the sanctuary of her room. It wasn’t even the right size for her, which seemed like an odd mistake for an older brother to make.

My friend paused to look down at herself and the gaudy woolen garment she wore. Her fingers curled around the edges of the sleeves, which were a touch too long for her frame, before she drew her arms in. “He’s always gotten me a sweater for Hearth’s Warming,” she explained meekly. “It just started out as a mistake when he ordered the wrong item from a catalog. I was embarrassed by it at first, so he ran out and bought himself a sweater that looked just as bad. Since then, it’s sorta been a, um…”

“Tradition?”

“Yeah,” she said with a slow nod. “I know they look really stupid.”

“Honestly, I’m kind of jealous.”

“Really?” replied my skeptical friend.

“I’ve never really had a proper Hearth’s Warming,” I explained. Much like the subject of my old job, details of my former life were much easier to discuss now that I was no longer living in fear of my past. “I’ve never had any traditions, family or otherwise. This is my first real holiday, so everything is kind of new to me.”

Without a word, Twilight got to her feet and rushed over to her closet. I watched in growing curiosity as she sifted through her wardrobe and returned to me holding a bright red sweater with a picture of a cat wearing holiday attire.

“I know it’s not much, but would you like to join our tradition?” she asked as she held out the sweater for me. “If only just for the afternoon?”

And that’s how I wound up spending the afternoon in my own ugly Hearth’s Warming sweater. We even took a few pictures together, if only so I could send them to Rarity and see what kind of reaction it spurred. I never imagined wearing something so gaudy would be enjoyable, but friends could make even the strangest things fun. It was nice to get a taste of another family’s tradition. It made me wonder if I would ever be a part of something like that.

We returned to our studies, and when the first scheduled break arrived, I took the opportunity to finally discuss my problems with Twilight.

“Say, Twilight,” I began whilst nibbling on one of the shortbread cookies we had gathered for a mid-afternoon snack, “would you be able to help me get in contact with Headmaster Sombra?”

“Sombra?” my friend replied in such surprise that she spewed out a flurry of shortbread flechettes. “Why do you need to speak with him?”

“I’m trying to think of a good gift to get Celestia, but I realize I don’t really know enough about her. There’s only a few people who really know her, and the only one I haven’t spoken to yet is him.”

“I suppose I can try asking him tomorrow at school,” Twilight replied with a nervous fidget of her hands. I could tell she was a little wary of the nature of the request, but her desire to help out a friend compelled her to agree.

“It’d really mean a lot to me if you could,” I tried to placate her concerns. “It’s not like I’m asking for a biography: I just need better ideas for a gift.”

“Have you considered getting her a book?”

“Of course you would suggest that.” Even that idea was beginning to feel a bit outside my reach, thanks to my financial situation. I let out a sigh and shoveled a few more shortbread cookies into my mouth in order to quell my despair, which must’ve caught Twilight’s attention.

“Is there something wrong?” she asked.

I shouldn’t have had issues discussing problems with my friends, but for some reason I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed as I answered, “I’m… kind of broke right now. Even if I figure out what to get, I probably won’t be able to afford it.”

“Have you tried looking for part-time work?”

I nodded. “Everybody’s already hired holiday staff. I’ve tried signing up to do some tutoring at school, but I think everybody who’s looking for help has already found one.”

There was no expectation of a solution when I told Twilight of my plight, nor was I looking for sympathy—although a hug or a reassuring pat on the back would’ve been nice. Instead, though, my friend hopped to her feet and bolted to the door.

She opened the door and stuck her head out into the hallway to shout, “Hey Shining, you said someone on your team needed a tutor, right?” I couldn’t make out the response, but Twilight followed up with, “Could you come up and tell Sunset what you told me earlier?”

A moment later, Shining Armour stood in the doorway. “You’re looking to do some tutoring?” he asked, to which I nodded. “Well, one of my players could use some help. Her grades have been slipping lately, and if she doesn’t do well on her exams, I might be forced to suspend her from the team.”

“You suspend players for poor grades?”

“Crystal Heart has rather strict guidelines about maintaining grade point averages while in any extracurricular activity,” he explained. “I’ve been pushing for her to get help, but she says she doesn’t want anyone to find out she’s struggling, which I suppose is to be expected when your student body is as competitive as ours.”

“And you think I can help? Aren’t there professional tutors that she could turn to?”

“She doesn’t want her father finding out either.” The frustration in his voice was understandable; I would too if I were trying to help a friend who just threw up one excuse after another. I hoped none of my friends ever felt that way when I was being obstinate.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out how I could be the ideal solution to this problem. “So if I tutor her instead, then nobody at Crystal Heart finds out, and I can just be passed off as a friend if her family sees me.”

Interpreting my quick thinking as a sign of interest, which it was rapidly becoming, Shining put on a bright grin. “I can run the offer by her and arrange the first session if you want,” he offered.

I didn’t want to sound like my only interest in this situation was the money, but it’d be a lie to say that it wasn’t one of my top priorities. Time was money, as the saying went, and I had little time to spare before Hearth’s Warming was upon me, so I needed to know if that time would be adequately compensated.

“How much are they willing to pay?”

“I’ll cover the expenses,” Shining offered, which caught me by surprise. He was really going out of his way for one of his players. I would’ve said something, but I reminded myself that helping me had likely cost Celestia a fair bit as well. “I’ll give you fifty up front, and another fifty once the exams are done.”

A hundred dollars may not have sounded like much, but for a teenager it was nothing to balk at. I could afford some nice gifts with that kind of extra cash in my pocket, and if Yearling came through in getting me a few clients to teach, my financial troubles could be solved.

“You’ve got a deal! Just tell me when and where!” Perhaps I was a little too enthusiastic. “Oh, thank you both so much! You have no idea how much this is going to solve all of my problems. By the way, who’s the student?”

“Lightning Dust. That shouldn’t be a problem, right?”

Knowing full well that the future of the holidays hinged on this job, I had no choice but to muster up all the sincerity I could fake when I replied, “Of course not. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

This Hearth’s Warming season was going to get a whole lot worse before it got any better.