• Published 28th Aug 2016
  • 8,063 Views, 237 Comments

Strange Gifts - Rocinante



Sometimes you're given what you wanted most, without ever knowing you wanted it.

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Starting Place

Cheerilee paused on the path leading up to Mary’s home. She started to pull out Spike’s letter again, but she knew there was nothing new to learn from it.

Mary was a strange creature, a predator by design with the temper of a manticore when provoked. Rumor had it there were a few diamond dogs that still winced at her voice, and only called her Ma’am.

Still, for all the chaos her “righteous indignation” had caused, she’d made many friends. Friends that were proud to call her friend, and didn’t hesitate to rely on her.

Trotting up to the door, Cheerilee tucked back her mane before knocking.

“Coming.”

Heavy hoof... footsteps sounded as the human walked around inside, stopping only a moment before the door opened. Cheerilee’s eyes drifted up from Mary’s bare feet, to the simple dress covered by a cooking apron spotted with dark stains, and then to the long knife in her hand.

Cheerilee backpedaled, landing on her butt as she tripped on her own hooves.

“Oh! Sorry.” Merry hid the knife behind her back, but somehow that only made it worse. “I’m cooking supper. Can I help you?”

Taking a breath, Cheerilee let her instincts fade to the back of her mind. “I’m Cheerilee, the town’s teacher and social worker. Spike told me you were taking care of an orphaned griffon chick.”

Mary smiled. “Lambert? He’s upstairs.” Turning around, Mary motioned for her to follow. Thankfully not with the hand holding the knife. “The spa sisters were nice enough to give him a coat brush and some preening oil, so I sent him upstairs to use it.”

Getting to her hooves, Cheerilee took the invitation. Inside she found the house clean, if not a little bland. Peering into the kitchen, she watch Mary stir a pot before slicing some rolled-out dough into ribbons.

“Can you tell me about Lambert?” Cheerilee asked.

Craning her head, Mary looked towards the stairs before speaking. “His parents were killed by timberwolves, and he’s scared of pretty much everything. He was living in my cherry tree till I... found him.”

Cheerilee winced. “Oh stars. I’ll arrange for a psychologist.” Pulling a notepad from her saddlebag, she made a note to add the request to the letter she’d have to write Foal Services. “You don’t know how long he was living alone?”

Mary shook her head. “Since early spring, I think. I haven't had the nerve to ask for details. Do you want to stay for supper? I normally have three or four friends over for Sunday, but it’s just Lambert and me today.”

It took a moment for the question to register, but Cheerilee nodded. It would give her a chance to watch Mary with the little one. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Mary said, giving her a bright smile.

Taking a set, Cheerilee waited patiently. The click of a door upstairs drew her attention to the stairs, but Mary had crossed the room before she could even fully turn her head.

“Lambert,” Mary called, standing halfway in the stairway. “We have a guest; Ms. Cheerilee. She’s the School Teacher. She’s going to have lunch with us before taking you to Princess Twilight.”

“Oh,” Cheerilee cleared her throat. “Princess Twilight will be out of town till next week. I’m here to approve you as the interim foster home.”

Mary stared blankly at her. “He’s going to live with me?”

A very fluffy and glossy griffon stuck his head between the stair rails to also look at her. “I can live here longer!?”

Suddenly aware of a lack of communication, Cheerilee chose her words very carefully. “Mary and I need to talk outside just a moment, before I can answer you,” she said, looking at Lambert, but gesturing with the head for Mary to follow her.

As soon as they had privacy on the porch, Cheerilee sighed. “I’m sorry. I talked to several ponies in town, and they all seemed to think you’d taken him in. I can find another home though.”

“I...” Confusion twisted Mary’s features, making her seem almost scared. It was a hard contrast to her usual reputation. “I assumed you’d take him to his next of kin.”

Sitting down, Cheerilee shook her head. “The griffons don’t have a government, no records either. The only way we’d ever find his family is if they came looking for him. Spike checked yesterday, no missing griffons have been reported to the crown. He’s an orphan.”

“Oh.” Mary bent down, then sat with her legs crossed. “So he’ll go to a foster home, if I don’t keep him?”

“An interim home. Till we can we can find a foster home. From there, we’ll try to place him in a permanent home.”

Mary stared at something miles away. Silence hung over the porch for a long while before she broke it. “So he’s going to get bounced around from place to place.”

It was a harsh way to put it, but Cheerilee saw no reason to sugarcoat it. “Unless the interim home decides to fully adopt; which is an option they always have.”

Taking a deep breath, Mary closed her eyes. Silence hung heavy for a moment, then she nodded as she let out the breath. “Can I be his foster home, till a permanent one comes up? I don’t want him being moved more than necessary.”

Cheerilee studied the human again. She could see why her friends were so proud to have her. “You don’t have to register as a foster home, if you're just keeping one fo—chick. It’s not uncommon for special-needs cases to stay with their interim family, till a permanent one is found.”

Mary stood, but slowly. “We better go back inside before something on the stove burns.”

Following Mary back in, she found Lambert staring at them, still perched at the top of the stairs. His expression of hope and fear was heartbreaking.

“Lambert,” Mary said, returning to the stove to tend her pots.

“Yes, Miss Mary?”

“Come on down. Miss Cheerilee and I need to talk to you.”

Like one marching to their grave, Lambert descended the stairs. “Yes, Miss Mary,” he said, sitting down next to Cheerilee.

Judging that none of the pots needed more immediate attention than being turned down or off, Mary left to stove to join them in the living room.

Standing in front of Lambert, Mary’s serious expression faded to a crooked smile. “How much of that preening oil did you use?” she asked, running her fingers through his head. “You look shiny as a songbird.” Looking at her hand, she examined how much oil had rubbed off, only to seem surprised that very little had.

Taking a knee, Merry’s expression held its whimsical grin as she looked Lambert in the eyes. “Until Miss Cheerilee can find you a proper adoptive family, would you like to live with me?”

Lambert nodded his head frantically, his freshly groomed feathers shaking like a pompom. “Yes, Miss Mary!”

Resting a hand on Lambert’s shoulder, Mary calmed the excited chick. “Then as long as Cheerilee approves, I’d be happy to take care of you for a while: under one condition.”

Mary said the last bit with surprising sternness, making Lambert stiffen with attention.

“And that would be...” Cheerilee asked for the stunned chick.

“You have to stop calling me Miss Mary. Just Mary, please.” Looking from Lambert to Cheerilee, Mary scratched the back of her neck in embarrassment. “No offense, but it makes me feel like a schoolmarm.”

Cheerilee laughed. “Believe me, I understand.” Looking to Lambert, she watched the chick fidget, nearly beside himself with happiness. As much as she wanted to call it done and enjoy a home-cooked meal, she still had work to do.

“While I think this will be a good home for you,” Cheerilee said, meeting Lambert's eyes. “I still need to ask you some questions in private.”

“Let’s eat first,” Mary said standing back up. “Then I’ll go to the gym while you two talk. Sound good?”

Cheerilee nodded. “Works for me.”

- - -

After eating way too much, Cheerilee sat in Mary’s living room with Lambert. Mary had excused herself to Bulk’s gym for an hour to, “Work the heavy bag.”

Across from her, Lambert sat, trying hard not to fall asleep in the sofa.

“Who did you live with, before?” she asked.

“My parents,” he answered reflexively.

“Your mother and father?”

Lambert nodded, his eyes studying the floor.

“Can you tell me their names?”

“Gertrude and Gerald...”

Writing down the painfully common names, Cheerilee repressed a sigh. “Did you know your grandparents, aunts, or uncles?”

Lambert just shook his head.

“Can you tell me where you lived?”

“We moved a lot. Dad is,” Lambert blinked, his eyes slow to reopen, “was a woodwright.”

Cheerilee sat her notebook down and gave Lambert her full attention. This was going to be the difficult part. “Now Lambert, I know this is going to be hard, but I need you to tell me what you can about the night your parents died.”

The deflated little chick nodded his head, his eyes still on the floor. “We were moving again. The wind got bad, so mom was carrying me as we flew. I’m a bad flyer...

“Then it got really cold and windy. Mom couldn’t carry me and fly anymore, so we landed. We’d just found a place to hide from the rain, when the wooden wolves attacked.”

Lambert went silent, his breath becoming fast. He tried to speak again, but his voice cracked. The squeak drew into a whine that shuddered into all-out sobbing. “They’d still be alive,” his voice hiccupped, the words coming out in rasps, “if I could have flown better.”

“Shh...” Cheerilee cooed, moving to sit beside him. “It’s not your fault. You don't have to say anymore. Do you remember where you first came out of the forest, when you found Ponyville.”

“An apple farm,” he managed to say between sobs.

She let him cry himself out after that, staying beside him for support.

After a few minutes he gathered himself and looked back up at her. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Cheerilee said, patting his hind paw. “You need to talk about it, cry it out.” Lifting her hoof, she touched his chest. “It's how you heal in here.”

Lambert nodded, genuinely seeming to understand what she meant.

“That’s why I’m going to ask Doctor Open Page to come talk with you tomorrow. He’s a psychologist here in town, and I’m sure he’d be happy to help you.”

Again, Lambert nodded, this time more in resignation than acceptance.

“Also, school started back last week. You’ve been living alone for too long, and hiding in the house with Mary isn’t much better. You need to relearn how to socialize. As soon as Open Page says you’re ready, you need to start coming to school.”

Flush with panic, Lambert shook his head. “Too loud,” he protested, shrinking into the corner of the sofa.

Lowering her voice, Cheerilee gave Lambert his space. “Don’t worry. We’ll take it slow. I’m not just going to drop you in the middle of class. I’m going to let you and Doctor Page set the pace.”