Five years after quitting teaching, Cheerilee finds herself pulled back to Ponyville to teach once again.
Five years. Five years have passed since Cheerilee chose to quit as a teacher. She had thought that life was behind her, but finds herself drawn back in, compelled to help her former students through their teenage years.
She will discover more about both them and herself then she thought possible.
Carrying more emotional baggage than her students, she will find that the journey to self-forgiveness, while not an easy one, is not one that can be ignored.
“Next stop, Ponyville. Please prepare for a sudden stop. Repeat; next stop, Ponyville.”
Cheerilee yawned as the cool female voice came on over the intercom, breaking her away from her restless sleep. Lifting the sleeping mask off her face, she tucked both it and the pillow she had been using in the space between her seat and the side of the train. Near silence filled the empty train car; only the wheels running along the train tracks beneath her and the rain beating on the roof above her prevented the silence from being total.
The falling rain beat an irregular drumbeat against the train window, running in rivulets down the clean glass and warping her view of the outside world. Deep grey clouds covered the sky, offering nary a gap for sunlight to pour down and illuminate the lush rolling hills and gently swaying trees. As the train turned a corner, the earth pony mare could see the fast-approaching buildings of her destination in the distance.
Shifting her gaze slightly, Cheerilee caught sight of her own reflection in the rain-spattered window. Saggy bags ringed her light green eyes, and a closer look revealed lines criss-crossing the rest of her face. A sad sigh escaped her lips as she stared at the face in the window. When did I get to be so old? Lifting one of her forelegs up as she leaned back against the seat back, she stared at it despondently. Her light purple coat and two-toned pink mane and tail were as lush as ever, but the effects of the march of time were still clear on her face.
Letting her hoof fall, she heard a crinkle as it hit a solitary piece of paper she had left on the seat beside her. Picking up the paper and smoothing it out, her gaze slowly skimmed across the meticulous hoofwriting that had been written on it. Unfortunately, the words didn’t reveal any more then they had when she had first read it after receiving it unexpectedly in the mail.
Dear Miss Cheerilee,
I realize this letter may seem out of the blue, but there is something important I want to talk to you about. I would prefer to speak to you face-to-face, so please come down to Ponyville at your earliest convenience.
Enclosed, you should find enough money to pay for the train ticket as well as any amenities you may need. I will await you eagerly.
Yours, Princess Twilight Sparkle.
Cheerilee sighed as she let the letter fall. Five years. It had been almost five years since she had last thought of Ponyville, and she wasn’t looking forward to returning. She would have preferred to simply turn Twilight down, but one did not refuse the request of a Princess without at least hearing them out. Like Twilight had said, there had been more than enough money with the letter for Cheerilee to take first class all the way to Ponyville and, after some thought, Cheerilee had gone out and purchased a ticket.
The intercom crackled to life once more, and the cool feminine voice once again filled the train car as the train started to slow down.
“We are now arriving at Ponyville Station. Please be careful when removing your luggage, as it may have shifted in transit. We thank you for riding the Friendship Express, and hope you have a nice day.”
Cheerilee unsteadily stood in the center of the aisle as the train rode to a squealing halt. One of her legs had fallen asleep during the ride, and she gave it a quick shake to return feeling to it. She didn’t have any luggage, since she intended to leave Ponyville as soon as she had heard Twilight out. A tiny purse with a single small item in it and a small bag with a few necessities were all she had brought with her from her home.
After a few seconds’ pause, the doors smoothly slid open with a faint hiss. Cheerilee stepped out into the rain, her hooves splashing in the puddles that covered the wet cobblestones. Cheerilee closed her eyes and tilted her head back, enjoying the feeling of the cool water running down her body. Inhaling through her nose, the fresh scent of the surrounding fields tickled familiarly at her senses.
Despite her desire to leave as soon as possible, she had to admit she enjoyed the smell and feel of the town. There were never any moments like this in Neigh York. The Big Apple always smelled of industry and smoke, and there were always dozen of ponies bustling around everywhere. She could never take a moment to just enjoy some peace and quiet and she could feel her worries washing away, even if it was just a tiny amount.
A nearby female voice spoke up, bringing Cheerilee back to the present. “Miss Cheerilee?”
Looking where the voice had come from, Cheerilee saw Twilight Sparkle walking towards at her. The earth pony could see herself reflected in the young Princess’ violet eyes, and her mind drew an immediate connection to a bug trapped in amber. Twilight’s wings were pressed tightly against her sides, the purple feathers smoothly transitioning into her purple coat. A sharp horn spiralled out of her deep blue mane, and a purple stripe ran through both her mane and tail. Her horn was glowing faintly, and an umbrella floated above her, wrapped in the same raspberry coloured glow.
Cheerilee inclined her head, bowing slightly. “Princess Sparkle.”
Twilight giggled awkwardly, floating the umbrella over above Cheerilee’s head. “Please,” she said, “call me Twilight. All those formalities make me itch. I don’t know how the Princesses can handle it. Er, the other Princesses. I mean...” Blushing furiously, she gave up as Cheerilee laughed.
“Still haven’t got used to your title?” Cheerilee teased gently. Even five years ago, Twilight had always tried to downplay or flat-out ignore her own position.
“It doesn’t come up much,” Twilight huffed indignantly. “Anyways,” she said with a meaningful look around the station, where ripples danced across the surface of the surrounding puddles from the heavily falling rain. “Why don’t we head back to my place? I can make some tea and we can talk there.”
“Lead the way,” Cheerilee said with a wave of her hoof. With Twilight slightly in the lead, the two mares slowly began making their way through the muddy streets towards the library where Twilight lived.
“It wasn’t easy finding you,” Twilight said after a few minutes, trying to make casual conversation. “What have you been up to?”
“Oh, this and that,” Cheerilee said, shrugging off the question. An awkward silence filled the air between, neither of them sure how to fill it. Before the silence could become too deep, a shout rang out from a nearby building as they passed.
Something charged out the door of the building, slamming into Cheerilee and throwing her to the ground with a wet squelch. Cheerilee grunted as something heavy landed on her chest. Turning her head to see what it was, Cheeriliee’s sight was filled with a pair of large greyish-green eyes looking back down at her.
“Not again…” Twilight groaned. The pair of eyes looked in her direction, and Cheerilee saw they belonged to a white unicorn mare. The mare’s mane and tail were two-toned, half light purple and half rose coloured. She looked young, only a few years away from foalhood.
“Oh, hey Twilight,” the mare squeaked. A shout from the store she had just left drew her attention, and the white unicorn glanced in that direction. “Sorry I can’t stay to talk. See you around.” She smiled sheepishly down at Cheerilee as she jumped off of her. “Sorry about that, Miss.” With a wave of her tail, the unicorn disappeared around a corner as an angry bright orange stallion barreled out into the street.
Cheerilee stared in the direction the young mare had vanished. An almost-forgotten memory tickled at the back of her mind before she was finally able to place it. “Wasn’t that Sweetie Belle?” she asked Twilight uncertainly from her position on the ground.
“Yeah…” Twilight said with a heavy sigh. “Rarity and her parents aren’t sure why she’s doing it.” Something in the mud beside Cheerilee began to glow with Twilight’s distinctive magical aura before floating up into the air. “Looks like she dropped whatever she took. I’ll just go return this.” Walking over to the angry stallion, Twilight intercepted him before he could chase after Sweetie Belle.
Her mind drifting to thoughts of her former student, Cheerilee slowly climbed out of the mud. From what she could remember, Sweetie Belle had always been one of the most honest students she had ever taught. Why would she be shoplifting? Cheerilee shook her head, mud flying free of her mane. No, she scolded herself, it doesn’t matter to you. That’s not your life anymore.
“Sorry about that,” Twilight said, walking up to her. Behind the alicorn, the orange storeowner had returned to his domain, heavily slamming the door behind him.
“It’s not your fault,” Cheerilee said, brushing some of the sticky mud off her sides. Twilight’s magical aura wrapped around her and all the mud covering her abruptly disappeared.
“I still feel responsible. You’re here because of me.” Picking up the dropped umbrella, she levitated it above Cheerilee again. “Let’s get to my place and I’ll try to make it up to you.”
The pair continued walking, their hooves leaving imprints in the increasingly muddy streets. Large puddles that had started formed in the middle of the road, and they would occasionally have to go around them. Cheerilee eventually broke the silence after several minutes, posing the question that had been plaguing her mind. “What was that all about?”
Twilight shook her head, her wet mane slapping limply at her sides. “I’m not really sure,” she admitted. “We’ve tried asking her, but she refuses to talk to us about it.”
“Have you tried talking to her friends? She might have said something to them.”
“No luck,” Twilight said. “Pipsqueak and Twist aren’t very close to her, and they say she hasn’t told them anything either.”
“Pipsqueak and Twist?” Cheerilee asked curiously before she could stop herself. “What about those other friends of hers? Apple Bloom and Scootaloo?” Stop it! she scolded herself again. Stop asking questions! It doesn’t matter to you, so quit it!
Twilight laughed bitterly, unaware of Cheerilee’s mental turmoil. “Yeah right, that’s a laugh. Apple Bloom hasn’t left the farm in years, and the less said about Scootaloo, the better.” Twilight coughed awkwardly, giving Cheerilee a sidelong glance. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You see…”
“Oh look, we’re here,” Cheerilee interrupted, cutting Twilight off. She was pretty sure she knew why Twilight had asked her here now, and there was only one way that conversation could end.
Twilight grunted, seeing that they had indeed reached the tree library without her realizing it. Walking up the stairs, she pushed the doors open as she folded up the umbrella. “Spike!” she shouted inside. “Our guest’s here!”
A deep male voice drifted out of the building, its booming impressiveness somewhat undercut by the way it broke at the end. “Coming, Twilight! Tea’s just finished.” As Cheerilee entered the library, the source of the voice walked out of the kitchen.
Adolescence had been kind to Spike, the once-pudgy dragon much leaner and sleeker than he had been five years ago. Standing on his back legs as he carried a tea tray with two empty cups and a steaming kettle, he was almost three times as tall as Cheerilee or Twilight. Passing through the doorway, he needed to duck to avoid banging his head on the frame. His purple scales and green spines were well maintained, and his green reptilian eyes blinked down at the two mares. A pair of green wings the same color as his spines hung limply at his sides, and Cheerilee suspected they were as long as she was when fully extended.
Spike nodded his head in greeting, giving Cheerilee a closed-mouth smile that kept his fangs hidden. Placing the tea tray on a table in the center of the room, he turned and quickly disappeared through an open doorway.
Cheerilee gave the doorway Spike had vanished through before turning it to Twilight. “That was a little strange,” she said as they sat down. “Was it something I said?”
Twilight smiled uncomfortably as she poured the tea, its gentle fragrance filling the room. “It’s not your fault. Spike’s just not good with ponies he’s not used to. They usually start screaming and calling him a ‘monster’.” She frowned and Cheerilee could see the kettle quivering in her magical grip. “If I ever catch any of them, I swear I’ll show them what a monster is.”
Cheerilee coughed, trying to interrupt Twilight’s line of thought. The idea of being the only pony in a room with an angry Princess was not a pleasant one. “What about the ponies in Ponyville? Surely they’re not scared of him? It’s been five years, and I still remember him as that chubby little reptile that followed you and Rarity everywhere.”
Twilight laughed fondly as she returned the kettle to the table. “Don’t worry. Most ponies around here see him the same way. It’s just whenever we have to go somewhere for something official that there’s a problem. He shouldn’t have to hide at home because of some arrogant bigots.” Picking her cup up, she simply watched the thick steam that slowly drifted upwards. “It’s not right,” she mumbled.
Picking up her own tea, Cheerilee blew on it as she surreptitiously watched Twilight over the brim of her cup. It was obviously something that meant a lot to the young alicorn. Taking a sip of the tea, Cheerilee was pleasantly surprised by the subtle wealth of flavors that flooded her mouth. “This is good tea,” she told Twilight. “Is it Zecora’s?”
“Yeah.” Twilight said, holding her own cup in her hooves. “Princess Celestia told me that good tea is one of the few pleasures of a long life, but I dunno. I just can’t get into it.” Putting her untouched tea back on the table, she turned to look at Cheerilee. “But we’re not here to talk about tea. I’m sure you’re curious, so I’ll get right to it; I want you to teach a class at the Ponyville Schoolhouse.”
“I refuse,” Cheerilee said flatly, pointedly taking another sip of tea.
Twilight gave the mare sitting across her a pained look. “Please, Cheerilee,” she all but begged. “I’m out of ideas. You’re my last hope.”
Cheerilee stared down into her cup of tea, seeing herself in the reflection. “I’m no longer a teacher, Twilight. If you put so much energy into finding me, you should already know that. I’ve retired from that life.”
“Don’t say that,” Twilight pleaded. “Didn’t you used to say that your cutie mark symbolized your care for your students and how you loved to watch them grow? Don’t you want to do that again?”
Cheerilee looked down to where her cutie mark proudly adorned her flank. The three bright yellow flowers smiled up at her, and Cheerilee sighed deeply before looking back up at Twilight. “I’m retired,” she restated. “If you need help for those kids, it should be easy for you to get help from Canterlot. You’re a Princess; throw some weight around. Surely you can find somepony better than some no-name former teacher.”
Twilight shook her head sadly, looking down at the table. “We already tried that. Some of the best professionals Canterlot has to offer tried to tame that class. All of them were sent packing within the year. Apparently, some of them even quit their jobs. That class is vicious to their teachers, and Diamond Tiara and Scootaloo are the worst of the lot. I asked you here because you were the last teacher who was able to control them.”
Giving her teacup a little shake, Cheerilee watched as her reflection danced within its china confines. Her expression looked back at her, placid yet firm. “I see,” she said after a pause. “That’s a very sad story, but unfortunately it has nothing to do with me.”
“Cheerilee!” Twilight exclaimed, slamming her hoof against the table. Her teacup rattled in its saucer, but she ignored it. “How can you say that!?”
“I’m not an educator anymore, Twilight,” Cheerilee said calmly. Affecting to ignore Twilight’s outburst, she took another sip of tea. “Somepony like me has no right to teach those kids.”
“Cheerilee…” Twilight said in a strained voice. Sighing sadly, she relaxed and the tension seemed to drain out of her body. “I heard about what happened,” she said. Cheerilee visibly tightened at that, but didn’t say anything. “It was terrible, but what happened wasn’t your fault.” An angry tink cut her off as Cheerilee put her teacup down.
“That doesn’t matter,” Cheerilee said firmly, standing up. From her higher position, she glared down at the still-sitting Princess. “I’m not a teacher anymore, and that’s final. If that’s all you wanted from me, then I’m afraid you’ve wasted both your time and mine.”
“I…” Seeing no sign of give anywhere in Cheerilee’s face, Twilight was forced to give up, though unwillingly. “…Fine. But won’t you at least stay the night?” She gestured outside, where the rain was coming down harder than ever. “It’ll clear up in the morning.”
Several hours later, Cheerilee was staring up at the ceiling of the library’s main room, listening to the patter of the rain outside. She lay on Twilight’s guest bed, which was little more than a mattress tossed on an open spot on the floor. The room was almost pitch black, illuminated only by the lanterns outside. Twilight had already gone to bed hours earlier, but Cheerilee was unable to get to sleep.
“A teacher, huh…” she mumbled. She had to admit that she didn’t find her current life as fulfilling as she had when she had lived as a teacher. The cute sleepy faces of her students in the morning and the happy noises they made as they played had never failed to bring a smile to her face. All she had to look forward to now was her small cramped apartment and the hustle and bustle of the crowded street.
Grunting, Cheerilee rolled over, pulling the covers up over her head. What are you thinking, girl? she asked herself. How many times do you have to remind yourself that that is no longer your life? It’s over. That’s all there is to it. Her mind was already made up. Why are you even thinking about this?
Rolling out onto her back, Cheerilee huffed at her thoughts. There’s nothing to think about, she told herself firmly. In the morning, you’re leaving. Just say your goodbyes and leave.This was a wasted trip. Having made up her mind, Cheerilee let her mind blank out, quashing any opposing thoughts as they threatened to form. She listened to the soft drumbeat the rain made as it beat against the walls and windows, letting it relax her. The pitter-patter was very soothing, and Cheerilee soon felt herself drifting off to sleep.
Cheerilee’s ear twitched sharply as the grip of sleep released her entirely. That wasn’t rain. Quieting her breathing, she focused her hearing and tried to hear the noise again.
That was definitely the sound of somepony crying. It sounded like it was coming from just outside, the weak noise almost drowned out by the sound of the pouring rain. Knowing she would never get to sleep without finding out what that noise was, Cheerilee threw the covers off her body and climbed off the bed. Walking slowly in the unfamiliar territory, she cautiously made her way through the darkened room towards the door before quietly pushing it open. A blast of wet air slapped her face as the door swung open, and she stepped through the doorway into the howling storm outside.
The crying was louder outside and Cheerilee was easily able to find its source. A fairly young mare sat pressed up against the side of the library, shivering as she hid from the cold rain. The mare had a light greyish violet coat with a light blonde mane and tail, and her flank was adorned with the image of a bow and arrow. She had her back to Cheerilee, and hadn’t yet noticed the former schoolteacher’s appearance. Her shoulders shuddered as unsuppressed sobs tore through her body.
“Are you alright?” Cheerilee asked. The young mare swung around at the noise, and Cheerilee was able to get a better look at her. A tiny horn poking out of the mare’s mane proclaimed her to be a unicorn, and her golden eyes were red and puffy from crying. Something about her looked familiar to Cheerilee. “…Aren’t you Dinky?” Cheerilee asked, thinking she recognized her from the schoolhouse.
“Yes,” Dinky sniffled, rubbing at her eyes. Her tears wiped away, she looked up at Cheerilee. “Who’re you?”
“I’m…” Cheerilee hesitated. She didn’t want anypony to know she had been in Ponyville, and had hoped to leave without talking to anypony at all. “I’m a friend of Twilight’s,” she said instead, gesturing at the library beside them.
“Oh,” Dinky said simply. Silence filled the gap between them as the rain pounded the ground only inches away, splashing them both with a cool spray. Dinky shifted uncomfortable under Cheerilee’s gaze before looking down at the ground.
Seeing that Dinky wasn’t going to say anything else, Cheerilee decided to ask some questions. “What are you doing out here this late at night? Isn’t your mother going to worry about you? What was her name…?” Cheerilee tapped her forehoof against the ground, trying to remember the name of Dinky’s mother. “That’s it! Derpy! Isn’t Derpy worried about you?”
“She’s not Derpy!” Dinky shrieked, her voice rising to an ear-splitting pitch. “Her name’s Ditzy!” Cheerilee took a step back from the force of the yell, as well as the anguish that filled it. A single tear rolled down Dinky’s cheek, and she sniffled before looking down again. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but the others always make fun of her and I just… I just….” She sniffled again.
Cheerilee quickly spoke up, wanting to prevent Dinky from breaking into tears. “It’s alright. I didn’t know. I apologize.” Seeing Dinky give her a quavering little smile, Cheerilee gave a reassuring smile in return. “But I’m certain that your mother is very worried about you. Come on.” Leaning down, she helped Dinky stand up. “Let’s get you home.”
Dinky wiped her eyes before slowly nodding her head. “…’k.”
Pushing Dinky out into the rain, Cheerilee walked alongside her. The two walked side by side in silence, the cold rain running unchecked along their manes and backs. The streets were faintly lit by the lanterns that lined the roads, and they had to be careful not to step in any of the larger puddles.
After they had walked for several minutes, Cheerilee looked over at Dinky. “So you going to tell me what that was about?” she asked. Her mind screamed at her. NO! Stop asking questions! It’s not your concern! She grimaced, mentally screaming back. Shut up! The voice silenced itself, retreating into the recesses of her mind.
Dinky sighed, looking up at the sky. The rain pooled in her upturned eyes before running unimpeded down her cheeks. “It’s stupid,” she said after a few seconds had passed. “I know crying doesn’t help anything, but I just can’t help it. Whenever they say those things about my mom, I just get so mad. I guess I just feel helpless.”
“Do you want to tell me what they said?” Cheerilee asked kindly.
Dinky shook her head. “No. I just want to forget they said it.” She turned off the main road onto a little walkway leading up to a house. “We’re here,” she said, nodding up at the house. “Won’t you come in? My mom’ll probably want to thank you.”
Cheerilee shrugged – it wasn’t like she had anything better to do right now – and followed after Dinky. The lights were still on inside, so Der- Ditzy was probably still awake.
The young unicorn led the way to the front door before pushing it open. “Hi Mom!” she called inside. “I’m home!” The doorway opened into a fairly unremarkable corridor, a set of stairs at the end leading upstairs.
“Muffin!” came a somewhat boyish cry from inside, followed by a loud crash. A grey pegasus flew down the hallway, leaping on Dinky and wrapping her up in an enthusiastic hug. “You worried me!”
“Sorry, mom,” Dinky replied fondly, returning the hug and resting her head against Ditzy’s shoulder. The two held each other like that until Ditzy released the hug and stepped back, letting Cheerilee get a good look at her.
Ponyville’s resident mailmare looked pretty much the same as Cheerilee remembered her. Her bluish grey coat covered her coat and feathers, topped by her light greenish yellow mane and tail. But it was her eyes that really stood out. Running a gradient, they were coloured differently on the top than they were on the bottom, going from a rusty brown to a light apple green. One stared up at the ceiling while the other one focused on Cheerilee. “Who’s your friend?” Ditzy asked her daughter.
“Oh, right.” Dinky stepped aside, letting Ditzy see Cheerilee. “Mom, this is a friend of Twilight’s. She found me outside the library and walked me home.”
“Well, any friend of Twilight’s is probably a good pony,” Ditzy said with a beaming smile. “Thank you for helping my daughter. But,” she added, looking at Dinky, “what were you doing outside the library at this hour?”
Dinky looked down, not willing to meet her mother’s gaze. “Nothing.”
Ditzy grabbed Dinky’s chin, lifting her head and forcing her to meet the pegasus’ gaze. Seeing Dinky’s puffy red eyes, Ditzy sighed and released her grip. “Muffin…” she said sadly. “You can’t let them get to you. I’ve told you that. ”
“I know, Mom. But they’re just so mean.” Covering her mouth with a hoof, Dinky tried and failed to suppress an enormous yawn. She had a slightly shocked expression on her face, which was quickly overcome by a cute little giggle.
Ditzy giggled as well. “Sounds like little Muffin is tired,” she said fondly, stepping to one side of the hallway. “Go get yourself some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Dinky affectionately nuzzled her mother’s cheek. “Love you.”
“I love you too, muffin,” Ditzy said, nuzzling her daughter in return. As Dinky walked past her towards the stairs, Ditzy turned to look at Cheerilee. “Thank you so much for bringing my little Muffin home,” she said gratefully. “How can I repay you?”
“That’s alright,” Cheerilee said with a smile and a slight shake of her head. “I just did what anypony would. If you’ll excuse me…” She turned and walked towards the open door.
With a single beat of her wings, Ditzy flew over Cheerilee’s head and shut the door before the earth pony could reach it. “Out in that?” Ditzy protested. “You’ll catch a cold. Let’s get you dried off. You can stay the night.”
Before Cheerilee could respond, she found herself bodily pushed inside. She could escape if she wanted to, but she allowed herself to be hustled into Ditzy’s house. The lonely walk back to Twilight’s in the rain wasn’t that appealing, anyway.
Swept inside Ditzy’s living room, Cheerilee took a look around the small room. Like the hallway, the room was mostly barren, with only a few small pictures adorning the walls. Most of them were child-like scribbles, and had probably been drawn by Dinky. A small sofa sat in the middle of the room, lying on its back with its legs up in the air. A potted fern was placed beside the sofa, its green leaves offering a solitary splash of color to the otherwise unremarkable room. Cheerilee wondered how much money Ditzy made on a mailmare’s salary.
Ditzy easily picked up the sofa, putting it back upright and straightening the cushions. “Go ahead,” she said, gesturing for Cheerilee to have a seat. “I was just about to have some cocoa. You want some?”
“That would be lovely,” Cheerilee said, sitting down. As Ditzy walked out of the room, Cheerilee noticed the small puddle she was making on the cushion. “If it’s not too much bother, could I have a towel as well? I don’t want to make a stain on your lovely couch.”
“Sure thing,” Ditzy called back. Cheerilee could hear the pegasus moving around the kitchen, bangs and clatters marking the path of the somewhat clumsy mare. After about half a minute of this, Ditzy strode back into the living room, a platter with two steaming cups balanced on her back and a towel held in her mouth. “Thanks,” she said as Cheerilee took the towel. Placing the platter down on the middle of the sofa, she sat on the end opposite Cheerilee. “Help yourself, though I don’t know if you’ll like it. It tastes a little funny. I just don’t know what went wrong.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Cheerilee reassured. Picking up her own cup and taking a sip, Cheerilee had to fight the urge to spit it out immediately. Unlike her host, she did know what went wrong. The well-intentioned mare had accidently added salt instead of sugar. Seeing that Ditzy was staring blankly at the opposite wall, Cheerilee immediately took advantage of the opportunity and dumped the contents of her cup on the nearby fern.
“Did she… did she say what happened?”
Cheerilee looked over at Ditzy, and saw that the pegasus had put her own cocoa cup down. The wall-eyed mare had slouched out, her head resting on the sofa back as she stared up at the ceiling. Cheerilee blinked before deciding how to answer. “…No,” she said at last. “I just found her and brought her home.”
To her surprise, Ditzy chuckled at that. “It’s fine. You don’t have to lie about it.” Turning her head towards Cheerilee, one of her pupils locked on her guest while the other stared down at the floor. “It was about me, wasn’t it?”
“…Yes,” Cheerilee admitted. She had hoped to hide the truth from Ditzy, since she was afraid knowing she was the reason for her daughter’s distress would only hurt the loving mother. “I’m sorry.”
“I already knew,” Ditzy said, leaning forward and staring down at the ground, her blonde mane catching against her ears. “I know everypony thinks I’m clumsy, that I’m a klutz. That’s why they call me Derpy.”
Cheerilee stared down at the ground, unable to say anything. After all, she had thought the exact way.
Catching onto her guest’s silence, Ditzy laughed it off. “Oh, I don’t mind. I know it’s true. I know you think the same, Miss Cheerilee.”
Cheerilee’s head shot up, and she gave the pegasus a wide-eyed stare. “How did you…”
“Know?” Ditzy shrugged. “I’m clumsy, not forgetful. Being the mailmare has some advantages. It’s been five years, but I haven’t forgotten anypony who’s lived in this town. Or was it supposed to be a secret?”
Slowly shaking her head, Cheerilee relaxed against the sofa. “Not really, but I guess I just didn’t want anypony to know I was here. I’m only here because Twilight asked me to and I’m leaving in the morning.”
“I see. That’s disappointing.” Ditzy sighed, letting her mane fall forward over her face. “I thought… well, nevermind. I won’t tell a soul you were here.”
“Thanks, Der- Ditzy.” Cheerilee grimaced at her slip of the tongue. And things had been going so well. No wonder you’re a failure of a teacher.
Despite Cheerilee’s trepidations, Ditzy’s only response was to laugh. “Don’t worry about it. I told you, I don’t care. I actually kinda like the name. I think it suits me.”
“Really?” Cheerilee asked in surprise. “From the way Dinky reacted, I thought you would hate it as well.”
Derpy sighed, the cheerful smile sliding off her face. “The other kids pick on her a lot. Tell her that I’m a pathetic excuse for a pegasus that shouldn’t even be allowed to fly. Things like that.” She waved her hoof carelessly.
Cheerilee gasped in shock. Had any kids said something like that to her about her mother when she was growing up, she would have beaten them black and blue. No wonder the little unicorn had been so sensitive. “But what about her friends at school? Surely they could help her?” Her ear twitched as she remembered she had asked a similar question about Sweetie Belle only this afternoon.
“Dinky doesn’t have any friends at school,” Derpy admitted quietly. “She hates the place. The only reason she goes at all is because I make her.”
“I… but… what…” Cheerilee’s mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. How could anypony hate school? she wondered, her mind whirling with questions. Ponies of her age should have friends they can hang out with. “But… how can she not have any friends?” She decided to focus on the most prudent question. “I remember her always being in a large crowd of ponies. She always seemed to be fairly popular. I would think she would have plenty of friends.”
Derpy seemed to shrink at that, recoiling away from Cheerilee. “I’m afraid that’s my fault,” she admitted. “I always tried to be everything for her, and she never really tried to get close to anypony else. I was her best and eventually her only friend.”
“But she should still want to have friends her own age,” Cheerilee protested.
Derpy laughed mirthlessly, sitting upright and brushing her mane out of her eyes. Her loose eyeball wobbled slightly before focusing on a spot directly above Cheerilee’s head. “Miss Cheerilee,” Derpy said seriously. “Do you know how old I am?”
Cheerilee blinked as the unexpected question caught her off guard. She had never put much thought into it, but she did have to admit the mare seemed rather young. “I don’t know. Maybe thirty five?” she guessed.
“I’ll be twenty nine this spring.”
If Cheerilee had still been drinking her cocoa, she probably would have spat it all across the room. “Wha- What!?” But that- that means…” She quickly started doing some hasty mental math in her head.
“I had Dinky when I was fifteen,” Derpy said, answering Cheerilee’s unanswered question. “I had already split up with her father by the time I realized I was pregnant. At first, I thought I was just getting kinda fat, and by the time I realized what was happening it had already been five months. When I talked to her father about it, he said he wanted nothing to do with her.” Derpy hugged her middle, smiling with a fond reminiscence. “I decided then and there that I would give my daughter all the love I possibly could. I had to drop out of school and move to Ponyville so I could raise her, but my parents gave me enough money to buy a house and start a new life. It was hard, though, and I don’t want Dinky to have to go through what I went through. That’s why I make sure she keeps going to school even though she hates it. She knows why I do it, so she doesn’t complain. I really am lucky to have such a wonderful daughter. I just wish she could have at least one friend her own age. She deserves that much.”
Throughout the entire speech, Cheerilee had remained silent, staring openly at Derpy. She had never imagined the clumsy mailmare had such a complicated past. “But why?” she asked. “Why would you go through so much trouble for her? You must have ruined your own life, so why…?”
Derpy blinked owlishly at Cheerilee, looking somewhat confused by the question. “Isn’t it obvious?” A brilliant smile blossomed on her face, seeming to light up the room with its mere presence. No matter what life she had lived, her look of supreme happiness she wore was as sincere as could be. “It’s because she’s my little Muffin.”
“Where did she go, Spike?”
Inside Twilight’s library, the illustrious librarian was madly dashing back and forth. When she had woken up shortly after sunrise to discover that her guest had vanished, she had panicked. Guests didn’t just vanish! Where did she go?
“I dunno, Twilight,” Spike sleepily mumbled from his room. “Now let me sleep. Don’ wake up fer ‘nother hour.”
A loud knock against the front door broke through Twilight’s worry. Zipping over to the front door, she pushed it open with her magic. “Cheerilee!” she exclaimed in relief, seeing her missing houseguest on her front doorstep. “Where did you go? I was so worried about-”
“Let’s go,” Cheerilee said, jerking her head towards the center of town and cutting Twilight off.
Twilight tilted her head, not sure what Cheerilee was referring to. “Huh?” she said unintelligently.
“I said let’s go.”Cheerilee paused as she needed to swallow a lump that felt like it had suddenly grown in her throat. “I want to see the students you want me to teach with my own eyes. I’ll make my decision then.”
“Really?” Twilight asked, a smile developing on her face as she realized what Cheerilee was saying. “You’ll think about it? You mean you might decide to teach them after all? That’s great!” She clapped her hooves together, her eyes twinkling with excitement. “Spike!” she shouted up the stairs. “I’m heading outside for a bit.”
“Yeah, sure, great. Have fun.”
“Then let’s go.” Twilight beamed at Cheerilee as she stepped out into the early morning sunlight. “What made you change your mind?”
Cheerilee shrugged, “I guess I just had…” An image of Derpy’s brilliant smile flashed in front of her eyes, and Cheerilee released a tiny sigh. “…an epiphany.” As Twilight looked at her curiously, Cheerilee instead turned her eyes up to the clear morning sky. Could I ever achieve such happiness? she wondered glumly as she watched a few stray clouds drifting lazily in the calm morning air. And would I even deserve it?
Even if such happiness was unachievable, she knew she would regret it forever if she didn’t at least try.
The early-morning sunlight fell over the waking town of Ponyville, illuminating the scenery still wet from the previous night’s storm. Cheerilee and Twilight walked together through in this landscape, threading their way through the puddles that still filled the streets. Life in Ponyville started early, and the streets were already starting to fill with ponies beginning their day.
“So where are we starting?” Cheerilee asked. Her stomach let out a faint rumbled at that moment, and she laughed and shook her head at herself as she realized she hadn’t had anything to eat yet. “Alright, scratch that. Where can we get some food?”
The Princess walking beside her smiled happily, practically bouncing with every step she took. Twilight had already given up on Cheerilee staying, and had been wonderfully surprised when the earth pony had given her a chance to convince her to stay. “Let’s head to the market. We can grab something to eat from Applejack, and maybe one of your students will be there since there’s no school today.”
Cheerilee gave Twilight a sidelong glance, her hooves squishing wetly in the wet streets. “I haven’t agreed to anything yet, Twilight.”
“Oh…” Twilight looked crestfallen for a moment before she perked up again. “Well, I’m sure you’ll agree in the end.”
Something about that statement struck Cheerilee as vaguely ominous, but she chose not to comment on it. They continued on in silence after that, the number of ponies in the streets seeming to sharply increase the closer they got to the marketplace. Even this early in the morning, the market was the hub of life and activity in the town and the hustle and bustle of the place could be heard even from blocks away.
Right before they entered the market, Cheerilee turned to look at the mare walking alongside her. “One thing, Twilight,” she said seriously. A thought had occurred to her, and she wanted to test it out. “So long as I’m here, my name is ‘Bright Flowers’, alright? I’m still not comfortable with the idea of letting ponies know I’m back.”
“Huh?” Twilight asked in surprise. “Why?” When Cheerilee remained silent, staring meaningfully at Twilight, a weak little uncertain smile formed on Twilight’s face. “Well… alright, I guess. Bright Flowers. If that’s what it takes.” Her smile quavered a little as she continued into the crowded market. “Come on then, Bright Flowers. Let’s get something to eat.” Leading Cheerilee behind her, she headed to a small apple stand that didn’t have any lineup.
Cheerilee instantly recognized the earth pony sitting behind the apple stand. If the mare’s bright orange coat and blonde mane and tail tied up in ponytails hadn’t been enough to give her away, than the distinctive Stetson hat perched on her head definitely would have. She perked up as she saw the pair approaching her stand, her bright green eyes shimmering brightly. “Well, howdy Twilight,” she said, a strong twang of an accent in her voice. “Don’t usually see ya around here this early in the morn’.”
“Morning, Applejack,” Twilight replied with a broad happy smile as she walked up to the cart. “Just thought I’d try something new. Could we have two apples, please?”
“Sure thing.” Reaching into the cart and grabbing a pair of bright, shiny apples, Applejack tossed them over to the two other mares. “Enjoy. It’s on the house.” Her gaze swivelled towards Cheerilee as the purple earth pony took a bite out of her apple. “So who’re ya, stranger?”
“Oh, this is Cheer- I mean.” Twilight coughed, Cheerilee giving her a flat stare. “This is Bright Flowers. She’s just arrived in town, and I thought I’d show her around.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Cheerilee interjected, smoothly slipping between Twilight and Applejack. If she stayed in the background, Twilight would just blow her cover. Thankfully, the past five years had made her pretty good at lying. “I just arrived in Ponyville for a little vacation, and Lady Twilight was kind enough to show me around town.”
“’Lady’ Twilight, is it?” Applejack said with a smug glance at Twilight as the alicorn blushed. “Ya certainly sound fancy. You one of those nobles Twilight’s always moseying about with?”
“Oh no,” Cheerilee replied with a casual smile. “I would never think so highly of myself. I’m just a simple florist. My greatest achievement is keeping my garden free of weeds.”
Applejack laughed, nickering slightly. “Somepony who talks like Rarity but isn’t afraid of a little dirty work. I think I like you, Miss Flowers.”
“Just Flowers is fine,” Cheerilee said, biting into her apple. “Or would you prefer I call you ‘Miss Applejack’?”
Applejack grimaced, her expression looking like she had just bit into an apple only to find half a worm in it. “Nah, I think I’ll pass.” She squinted at Cheerilee, her eyes narrowing at the newcomer. “This your first time in Ponyville, Bright? I feel like I’ve met ya before.”
Cheerilee smiled brightly, perfectly hiding her trepidation. “I assure you, Applejack. If I had, I would certainly remember eating such magnificent apples as these.”
“Well, you’ll find no better apples in all of Equestria.”Applejack flashed Cheerilee a grin as she gestured at the full cart of apples. “Stop by before ya leave. Y’all can buy some for the ride home.”
“That sounds nice,” Cheerilee said, biting into her apple. “I think I just might.”
Twilight coughed, awkwardly cutting into the conversation. “Right, well, um.” She coughed again, obviously trying very hard to be subtle. And failing very badly at it. “Applejack, how’s, um, how’s your sister doing?” Cheerilee had to resist the urge to facehoof at Twilight’s transparent press for answers. Even a child would notice such an obvious question.
The smile vanished from Applejack’s face, and her expression darkened. She sighed and took her hat off her head, holding it tight against her chest. “Same as always. I just don’t know what’s going through her head. Whenever we ask her to do something, she’ll do it cheerfully. Hay, I often find her doing things that need to be done without needing to ask. But if we ever ask her to do something that involves leaving the farm, she’ll just flat refuse. Granny and Big Mac are just as confused as I am.”
Twilight nodded, looking down at the ground. “I’m sorry, Applejack. I guess I had just hoped… forget it.”
“Yeah.” Applejack put her hat back on her head. An obviously false smile appeared on her face as she turned to look at Cheerilee. “Aw, shoot, look at me. I shouldn’t be dumping this stuff on ya on yer vacation. So, anything else I can do for ya today?”
“No thank you, Applejack.” Cheerilee said, crunching the remnants of her apple. “We should be going. The apple was delicious. Your family is obviously very talented.”
Applejack beamed at Cheerilee. “Ya obviously have good taste, Flowers. Apples are the Apple family’s pride and joy. Hope ya enjoy yer time in Ponyville. See ya both around.” Another pony walked up to the stall, and Applejack turned her attention to him.
Cheerilee turned her head to look at Twilight as the two of them slipped away from Applejack’s stall. “So now wha- Unf.” She grunted as she walked smack into another pony’s hindquarters. Rubbing her nose, she took a step back to see who she had just walked into. “Excuse me, Mister…?”
The stallion, a tall brown earth pony with a white mane and tail, snorted in Cheerilee’s face. He looked like he was about to say something, but then he spotted Twilight standing behind Cheerilee. His nostrils widened as a flash of anger crossed his face before he snorted and stormed away. Before he vanished into the crowd, Cheerilee saw that his mane had been shortly cropped into a mohawk and a police badge sat proudly upon his flank.
“Pleasant sort,” Cheerilee mumbled as she put her hoof down. “And who was that fine example of Ponyville hospitality?” she asked Twilight sarcastically. “I don’t think I’ve met him before.”
“Vigilance,” Twilight said, frowning in the direction the stallion had disappeared. “I don’t see him around town much, but we… Well, we don’t get along.” The anger in her face faded slightly. “I’m not even sure why. There’s just something about him that I don’t like. It’s not scientific, but…”
Cheerilee grunted. “Trust your instincts. They usually won’t lead you astray.” She gave her body a little shake, loosening the muscles that had tightened when the stallion had glared at her. “Well, that’s enough about him. It’s too nice a day to spend worrying about grumpy stallions.”
Twilight chuckled. “Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking her shoulders out and flexing her wings, she looked over at Cheerilee. “By the way, ‘florist’?” The air quotes lingered in the air between them. “Is that what you call it?”
Cheerilee tossed her head back and barked out a loud laugh. “It’s not quite a lie.” She smirked sidelong at Twilight, her eyes twinkling merrily. “I wasn’t sure how much I could away with telling Applejack. She is the Element of Honesty, after all.”
Scratching uncomfortably at the back of her head, Twilight stared off into the distance. “We don’t really think much about that, to be honest. It’s just not part of our daily lives.”
“Yeah, I remember.” The twinkle in Cheerilee’s eyes shifted from merry to mischievous as she decided to start needling one of the most powerful living creatures in existence. “Six of Equestria’s greatest heroes living together in a single town. One of them is even a Princess. And nopony thinks anything of it. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a little strange, don’t you think?”
Twilight coughed uncomfortably into her hoof. “Yes, well, that is, you see, there’s…” Her eyes rapidly skimmed across the marketplace before they landed on a pair of ponies sitting on the side of the fountain in the center of the marketplace. “Hey look!” she exclaimed, grateful for the opportunity to change the conversation. “There’s some of the students I want you to meet! Let’s go talk to them!”
Cheerilee shook her head as Twilight skidded off, a small half-smile spreading on her lips. Twilight really had a long way to go as a Princess. If she wants me to stay here, she better be ready to face the consequences. Wait… Her smile faded as she realized what her mind had just said. You make it sound like you’ve already agreed to stay here.
Frowning at herself as she considered what her thoughts meant, she just caught the tail end of what Twilight was saying. “…Flowers. She’s going to be in town for a little while, so I thought I’d show her around.” Hearing her adopted name, Cheerilee looked up two see two judgmental pair of young eyes looking back at her.
The first was a young male earth pony; no longer a colt, but not quite a stallion. His coat was white and spattered with greyish brown splotches, giving him a distinctive pinto pattern. His short-cropped mane and tail were a deep chocolate brown with lighter brown stripes running through them. His mane was cropped in a fringe that fell just low enough to cover one of his deep ruddy brown eyes. From what Cheerilee remembered, his name was Pipsqueak.
The other sitting by the fountain was a mare slightly older than Pipsqueak. She peered at Cheerilee through a pair of thick-rimmed glasses perched upon her large nose, the purple of the rim offsetting her light pink eyes. Her wild and frizzy mane and tail were a bright crimson, and her coat was an off-eggshell white. An open box of candies sat next to her, her jaw moving slowly as she sucked on a candy cane half sticking out of her mouth. Cheerilee recognized her as Twist, one of her former students.
“So what are you two doing out here this early?” Twilight asked.
Twist and Pipsqueak glanced at each other. Pipsqueak nodded at her before turning away to look out at the crowd, and Twist popped the candy cane out of her mouth. “We’re waiting for Sweetie Belle. Dunno what’s keeping her.” There a faint lisp in her voice when she spoke, but it was nowhere near as strong as Cheerilee remembered from five years ago. Twist peered closely at Cheerilee, shifting her glasses on her face as she tried to get a better look. “Are you sure this is your first time in Ponyville?” she asked curiously. “I think I know you from somewhere.”
Cheerilee shrugged, her expression remaining calm enough to cool cucumbers. “I’m just passing through. I don’t intend to be here for more than a few days. But I must say, this is a lovely little town you’ve got. So much different from my home in Neigh York.”
“You’re from Neigh York?” Twist asked curiously, her eyes brightening. Beside her, Pipsqueak’s ears twitched as he listened in on the conversation, despite all of his attention apparently being focused out into the market. “What’s it like? I’ve never been there before.”
A friendly little smile grew on Cheerilee’s face as she took control of the conversation. “Oh, yes. Everypony should go there at least once. It’s the largest city in all of Equestria, and definitely the most populous. With nearly three times as many ponies as Canterlot, nowhere else comes even close.” She stared up into the sky as she reminisced about the place that had her home for the past several years. “The skyscrapers reach up into the sky like the reaching claws of a gryphon, and are so tall that pegasi can leash their clouds homes to the top.”
“I’ve heard that there are a lot of museums as well,” Twilight interjected, jumping into the conversation. “Not as many as Canterlot, but it still has some of the largest museums in the world.” Her wings twitched slightly, like she wanted to unfurl them and fly all the way to the city right away. “I’m going to be going there to meet some dignitaries next month. I can’t wait to see the place.”
Cheerilee nodded absent-mindedly, still staring up into the sky. “Oh yes. But what really makes the place special, rather than the buildings, is the ponies that live there. Or,” she chuckled deeply, “maybe that’s a poor choice of words. Not just ponies live there. There are the usual earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi, but there are also horses from Saddle Arabia, minotaurs, gryphons, buffalo, diamond dogs, and seaponies. There’s even a small but growing community of changelings. Though most of the other species don’t really like them,” she added ruefully.
“Really?” Twist asked, leaning in closer to Cheerilee. “How do they keep so many species in check? It sounds like nopony would know anypony else.”
Letting out a sigh, Cheerilee watched as a slow-moving cloud leisurely slipped over the sun. “That’s right. Crime’s a pretty big problem in the city. It’s depressing, but we’ve also got the largest police force in the world.” Tearing her gaze away from the few fluffy white clouds that drifted across the sky, she looked down at the pair staring at her with undisguised curiosity. “Speaking of which,” she said casually, the tone of her voice making it sound as if it was an issue of no real concern, like she only discussing the weather. “I bumped into a friend of yours yesterday. Sweetie Belle, I believe her name was? Does she always shoplift?”
Pipsqueak and Twist glanced down at the ground as a cough rang out from behind Cheerilee. “You know, you could just ask me yourself.”
Twilight and Cheerilee wheeled around to see the young mare in question standing directly behind them. “Sw- Sweetie Belle!” Twilight stuttered. “When did you get here?”
Sweetie Belle looked at her, her eyes shimmering with amusement. “Why? Talking about something you don’t want me to hear?” As Twilight sputtered, Sweetie Belle waved her down. “Nah, I’m kidding. I got here just after you did.” Turning to Cheerilee, Sweetie Belle extended a hoof in greeting. “Sorry about running you over yesterday. The name’s Sweetie Belle. You?”
Cheerilee reached out and shook Sweetie Belle’s extended hoof. “Bright Flowers. I’m here on vacation from Neigh York.” As she released Sweetie Belle’s hoof, she made a show of looking Sweetie Belle over from top to bottom. “You’re surprisingly polite for a shoplifter. Most of the ones I meet are happy to shout in my face and tell me to beat it.”
Striding past Cheerilee, Sweetie Belle walked next to Twist and Pipsqueak. “Rarity always talked about the importance of being polite. I guess that’s just stuck with me. Neigh York sounds like an amazing place. Maybe if we run into each other again, you can tell me about it.” She turned to look at her friends as they hopped off the side of the fountain. “You two ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Pipsqueak said, Twist picking up the box of candies beside him. “What kept you?”
Sweetie Belle shrugged her shoulders, giving her neck a little crack. “Oh, I just ran into Scootaloo outside the market. We talked a bit. Then we shouted a bit. Then she ran off. Now come on, the day’s not going to last forever.”
“Hold on,” Twilight said as the trio began to walk away. “Where did you see Scootaloo?”
“Oh, she ran off somewhere in that direction.” Sweetie Belle casually waved her hoof off to her right. “She was probably heading to Fluttershy’s.” Looking over her shoulder, she winked back at them. “If you hurry, you just might catch her.” With a wave of her tail, she led the other two into the surround crowd.
Cheerilee stared after the young trio, thoughtfully chewing on the inside of her cheek. “Twilight,” she said after a few seconds. “What’s your friend Rarity doing right now?”
Twilight blinked at Cheerilee, a confused expression on her face. “Rarity? Well, she’s a fairly successful fashion designer. It’s always been her dream, and she really gives it her all.” She nickered sadly, shaking her head. “But this thing with her sister had been worrying her lately, and I’m afraid she hasn’t been able to concentrate.”
A little while later, the earth pony and alicorn pair approached Fluttershy’s front door. The sun slowly crawled through the sky above them, gradually approaching its zenith. Despite Sweetie Belle’s recommendation to hurry, Twilight had taken her time in walking along the trail to Fluttershy’s home on the outskirts of town. Cheerilee wondered if Twilight actually hoped to avoid running into Scootaloo.
Fluttershy’s house was pretty much the same as Cheerilee remembered it; absolutely riddled with tiny animal homes. The trees were filled with birdhouses, the lawn was filled with holes for borrowing animals, Cheerilee knew all sorts of muskrats and the like were living in the little creek that wound underneath the small bridge, and there were even holes in the trees themselves for more animals to live in. I like animals too, but sheesh. I could never leave here. The birdsong alone would drive me nuts.
Twilight confidently strode up the path. Knocking on the doorway, she called inside. “Fluttershy! Are you in there?”
After a few seconds’ pause, a tiny little voice quietly emanated from the inside of the house. “Oh. Yes, just a moment please.” A few more seconds passed before the door slowly creaked open, revealing the timid homeowner.
With her light golden coat and bright pink mane and tail, the shy pegasus looked pretty much as beautiful as Cheerilee remembered. Her long mane hung down over her left eye, hiding it from sight. Her one visible eye was a greenish-blue, and deep enough for a pony to lose themselves in. Her wings were furled up against her sides, and Cheerilee remembered that Fluttershy didn’t use them very often. Fluttershy wasn’t well-muscled or fat, instead she was simple… soft, gentle, and welcoming.
“Oh, hi Twilight,” Fluttershy greeted them as the door swung wide. “What are you doing- Eep.” She had just caught sight of Cheerilee standing behind Twilight, and recoiled back in surprise with a squeak. A hurt expression appeared on Cheerilee’s face, and Fluttershy visibly blushed and started to stammer out an apology. “Oh, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean… you just startled me. I’m…” She slowly tapered off into silence, ashamedly looking down at the floor.
“Right.” Twilight coughed, cutting into Fluttershy’s silence. She gestured at Cheerilee standing beside her. “Fluttershy, this is Bright Flowers. She’s in town for a few days on a vacation from Neigh York, and I’m just showing her around.”
“Are you sure?” Fluttershy peered uncertainly at Cheerilee from behind her overlong mane. “She looks just like- Well, if you say so.”
“Fluttershy, we heard that Scootaloo ran this way.” Twilight said, with what Cheerilee thought was with all the tact of an angry buffalo in a china shop. “Have you seen her around?”
“Scootaloo?” With a nod of her head, Fluttershy gestured down in the hallway behind her. “Yes, she’s just inside. Should I get her? Um, nevermind.”
Scootaloo stepped out into sight, rubbing at her hooves with a clean cloth. She apparently hadn’t noticed the group standing in the hallway, distracted as she was by cleaning her hooves. Her bright orange coat and solid purple mane and tail looked much the same as ever. A tiny, stunted pair of wings were pressed tightly against her sides, and Cheerilee’s unprofessional opinion was that they wouldn’t be able to support her weight. She walked with a slight limp, appearing to favor one of her forelegs.
“I’ve finished, Fluttershy,” Scootaloo said, folding up the cloth and putting it aside. “Who’s at the… Oh.” The temperature of her voice seemed to drop several degrees when she spotted the group, to the point that Cheerilee wouldn’t have been surprised to see icicles forming from her mouth. “Hello, Twilight,” she said coolly. “What are you doing out here.” The tone of her voice made that less of a question and more of a statement.
“Do I need a reason to visit one of my friends?” Twilight said in much the same tone. “But I guess you wouldn’t know about that, since you don’t have any friends.” She and Scootaloo exchanged angry glares while Cheerilee and Fluttershy glanced from one to the other, unsure if they should step in or if that would only make the situation worse.
Scootaloo broke first, whipping her mane back with an angry toss of her head. “Hmph. Well, not all of us have as much free time as you do, Princess,” she sneered, her voice dripping with vitriol. “So, if you’ll let me pass, there are things I need to do.”
“Oh, far be it from me to keep you here.” Twilight stepped back, clearing the doorway for Scootaloo to pass. “I’m sure you have many, important things to do.”
A deep growl formed in Scootaloo’s throat, cutting off as she looked over at Fluttershy. “Anyways, I’m done for the day. See you later, Fluttershy.” Her head held high as she left the building, she openly glared at Twilight. She was so focused on the alicorn that she failed to notice Cheerilee standing in her path, and the former teacher had to quickly scurry out of the way to avoid being run over.
Cheerilee watched until Scootaloo vanished from sight before turning to Twilight with a cocked eyebrow. “Well, that was immature.”
Fluttershy gave her head a sad little shake. “That poor girl…” she said quietly.
Twilight turned to look at Fluttershy, her angry glare swiftly giving way to shock. “Poor girl?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “Fluttershy, she hospitalizedherteacher! And that’s not even counting what she did-”
“And she’s very sorry,” Fluttershy interrupted, cutting Twilight off. As the two started arguing, Cheerilee remained silent, staring off in the direction Scootaloo had disappeared.
Hospitalized her teacher? Cheerilee mused. Twilight’s reaction suddenly made a lot more sense. To the ever-diligent student, surely there could be no greater crime then hurting an instructor. One comment of Twilight’s had really caught Cheerilee’s interest, however. Didn’t Scootaloo have one friend? Wasn’t there been one mare that Scootaloo had always been close to? “What about Rainbow Dash?” Cheerilee asked aloud, interrupting Twilight’s and Fluttershy’s argument. “I thought the two were always close.”
The other two glanced at her in surprise before quickly exchanging a meaningful look that Cheerilee wasn’t able to discern the meaning of. “Rainbow Dash-” Twilight started before cutting herself off and starting again. “After Dash joined the Wonderbolts, she and Scootaloo just kinda drifted apart. Scootaloo can’t fly, so there’s really not much for them to connect on.”
“Is that so…?” Cheerilee mumbled, staring off into the distance. Her gut instinct told her that there was more to that story; that Twilight was deliberately hiding something from her, though she had no idea what that could be.
Fluttershy looked from Cheerilee to Twilight and back again before timidly speaking up. “Well, um, if you like, you can stay here for lunch. We could talk over wheat and sandwiches. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Thanks for lunch, Fluttershy. It was delicious.”
“Oh, you’re quite welcome, Twilight. Feel free to come back any time.”
Choosing not to participate in the conversation, Cheerilee stared out of a window of Fluttershy’s home. Her gaze panned over the peaceful town of Ponyville, and her thoughts inevitably drifted to home. But her thoughts were fuzzy, indistinct. No matter how much she tried to think of the spiralling towers of Neigh York, they shifted and burred, fading in and out to be replaced with the tiny houses of the town in front of her.
Home, huh. It was funny, really. Only yesterday, she had only wanted to leave the town as quickly as possible. Now she was already starting to think of this place as home once again. Her memories slowly coalesced, showing her scenes from her times as a teacher in the little schoolhouse. Back then had been a simpler time, a happier time. A small smile started to spread as she started to lose herself in the thoughts of the past before Twilight’s voice suddenly cut across her memories.
“Cheerilee, are you ready to go?”
Cheerilee shook her head, dispelling the stray thoughts. Darker thoughts took their place, overwhelming her in a suffocating grip. What’s wrong with you? So things have become hard for the kids. So what? You think you can help them? You? “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.” Her voice sounded a little choked to her ears when she spoke; sounding like something was strangling her.
Twilight either didn’t notice the oddity of Cheerilee’s voice or simply chose not to comment on it. Wrapping one of her forelegs around Fluttershy in a fond gesture of farewell, Twilight excited the building into the afternoon light. Her head was held high as she led the way back towards Ponyville. Cheerilee followed after her, and Fluttershy waved goodbye to them both.
Plodding dully after her guide for the day, Cheerilee stared down at her hooves. Her mind scrambled wildly as it tried to sort out the myriad thoughts that clambered for her attention. They rattled wildly throughout her skull, mocking her with their incessant noise. Not even the fading bird song from Fluttershy’s house behind her could distract her. Not even the high-pitched whistle of something tearing through the air towards her could distract her.
Spotting something fly at her out of the corner of her eye, Cheerilee was barely able to dive out of the way as a multi-coloured blur sped through the spot she had just vacated. Her legs buckled as she landed, and she dropped to the ground. The object continued on before crashing into a nearby bush with a mighty cacophony of breaking branches.
“Cheerilee!” Twilight yelled, anxiously running over to where the earth pony lay. “Are you okay?”
“I’m alright. It just grazed me.” Despite her reassurances to Twilight, Cheerilee quickly checked over her body to make sure she hadn’t been hurt. There was a small bruise on her leg that hadn’t been there before, but she was uninjured other than that.
“Hey, sorry about that.” A cyan pegasus forced her way out of the bush, a contrite expression on her face. Her bright purple eyes were clear and honest, and she looked disappointed with herself. Her mane and tail were streaked with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, and leaves and twigs fell out of it as she ran her hoof through it. “Captain keeps telling me to be more careful. Guess I’ve still got a long ways to go.”
Twilight squealed excitedly, pouncing on the pegasus. Her wings curled and unfurled wildly, though she didn’t seem to notice. “Rainbow Dash! What are you doing here!?”
Dash grinned broadly, barely reacting to the additionally weight of her bookish friend landing on her shoulders. “Captain Spitfire and Soarin’ have some sort of press conference today, so us low-level recruits got the day off. Thought I’d visit you guys. Rarity says hi, by the way; she’ll be in town next week. How about you? What are you up to?”
Releasing Dash, Twilight gestured at over Cheerilee. “Oh, I’m just showing a visitor around town. Dash, this is-”
“Hello, Rainbow Dash,” Cheerilee interrupted, greeting Dash herself. “It’s been a while.”
Dash goggled as she got a clear look at the earth pony mare she had nearly run over. “Cheerilee? Is that really you? I haven’t seen you in three years! What are you doing here? I thought you were living in Neigh York now.”
Cheerilee shrugged. “Twilight asked me here. She said she wants me to teach some students.”
A puzzled frown grew on Twilight’s face as she looked from Dash to Cheerilee and back. “Is there something I should know?” she asked uncertainly. “You two seem awfully friendly.”
“Oh,” Dash coughed in embarrassment, blushing faintly. “I don’t really like to talk about it, but Cheerilee basically helped me when I was in a little trouble. Nothing I couldn’t have handled on my own, of course,” she hastened to add.
Cheerilee snorted in amusement, seeing an opportunity to prick the bubble of Dash’s pride. “I suppose you call ‘being drunk off your ass’ something you could have handled on your own.” She sighed and gave her head a theatrical shake. “If that little tidbit had gotten out, you might have been thrown out the Wonderbolts.”
“It was a onetime thing!” Dash protested. “I’m clean now. I don’t drink anymore. Well, not as much, anyway.”
“Oh Dash,” Cheerilee looked mournfully at the pegasus, her mannerisms completely sincere. For all intents, she looked like she meant what she was saying. “You have to admit you have a problem. You don’t need to be so proud. Try talking to your friends, ask them for help.” A devilish smile blossomed on her face as a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes. “How about Appleja-?”
“Hahahahahoookay, I think that’s enough of that,” Dash interrupted, blushing furiously as Twilight burst into laughter. She gave the laughing alicorn an annoyed glare. “Okay. Okay, you can stop now.” Twilight just kept laughing and Dash rolled her eyes, grumbling as she looked back at Cheerilee. “Yeah, yeah, yuk it up. Why’d you have to go and bring that up? That was years ago!”
Cheerilee covered her mouth, trying to hide her giggles behind her hoof. “Sorry Dash. It’s just not every day the mayor forbids somepony to drink alcohol within town limits.”
“Get in one drinking competition and you never live it down,” Dash griped. She glared at Cheerilee, her mouth curling down in an annoyed frown. “You’ve gotten snippy in your old age.”
Dropping her hoof, Cheerilee let Dash see the full force of her unrepentant grin. “Not my fault if you can’t keep up, Speedy.”
“Oh, you did not just go there.” Rearing back on her hind legs, Dash spread her wings out as wide as she could. Whinnying threateningly, she punched at the air in front of her. “Come on! I’ll take you on!”
“Dash!” Twilight protested, leaping between Dash and Cheerilee. Her face was grim and serious, devoid of the mirth she had just been expressing. “You can’t just get into fights with whoever you disagree with! Somepony might get hurt! Again!”
“But Twilight...” Dash protested, dropping down to all fours and her wings furling at her sides.
Twilight stomped her hoof, cutting Dash off. “No buts! You’re a member of the Wonderbolts now, and you shouldn’t be fighting in the street! Save it for the ring.”
“I’d listen to her if I were you,” Cheerilee spoke up, deliberately tossing a little more fuel on the fire. “Twilight’s a Princess now; she’ll probably be giving you your orders one day.” As Twilight stammered in protest and Dash glared at her, Cheerilee gave a little shake of her head. “But that’s still a while off, and you should spend some time with your friends. I’m going to wander the town for a bit, so go ahead.”
“You don’t mind?” Twilight asked. “There are still some more kids I wanted to show you.”
“I’ve seen enough already,” Cheerilee reassured Twilight. “You youngsters go off and have fun while I think. I’m sure your other friends will be happy to see Dash.” Giving them a goodbye smile, she turned and started walking down the path towards Ponyville.
“Awesome!” Dash leapt in the air with a single beat of her wings, her annoyance at Cheerilee forgotten. “Come on, Twilight, let’s go see Pinkie first. Bet she’ll want time to throw a party.” As Twilight flapped her wings clumsily, slowly rising up to where Dash flew, the sporty pegasus snorted with laughter. “Haven’t gotten any better at flying, huh?”
Twilight wobbled in the air, nearly falling to the ground before she managed to catch herself. “I don’t get much opportunity to practice.”
“Yeah, those books you’ve always got your nose in would make flying pretty hard.” Dash snarked, hovering in front of Twilight. “Now are we going to fly or are you going to keep lumbering through the air like Tank on a bad day?”
Twilight’s response was lost to Cheerilee as they vanished from sight, their path through the air faster than Cheerilee’s own sedate pace. Left alone with her thoughts, Cheerilee let her hooves lead her towards an unknown destination. Maybe some time alone would help her come up with an answer.
Several hours later and Cheerilee still hadn’t come up with an answer. The sun already hung low in the sky, preparing to disappear beyond the horizon to clear way for the moon and the night. Cheerilee lay on her back underneath a lush pine tree, its needle-bearing branches swaying gently in the wind. Pinecones and fallen needles dug lightly into her back, but Cheerilee ignored the sensation, consumed as she was by her own thoughts.
Two roads spread before, and the decision she made would shape her life forever. The first was the life she had now. It wasn’t very bright, but at least she felt safe. She could keep everypony at a distance. The second was the one she had thought she’d abandoned; her life as a teacher. She couldn’t deny that those had been some of the happiest years of her life, no matter how painfully they had ended. But was she ready? Was she really able to let those kids back into her life, to open her heart to them?
She didn’t know.
Cheerilee played with the little purse tied around her neck, absent-mindedly winding the string around her hoof. It caught after a few minutes, and she had to stop to untangle it. Struggling to unwind the cord from around her hoof, she accidently knocked the top of the purse open, making it drop all of its contents into the dirt.
A single golden object fell out, glittering in the late-day sunlight before landing heavily at Cheerilee’s side. Cheerilee stared down at it, the cord wrapped around her hoof forgotten. It was such a simple object; nothing more than a lump of golden-plated iron. But it made her heart ache just by looking at it.
What had she accomplished these past five years? What had she achieved?
Shaking the tangled cord off her hoof, she scooped the little item up and returned it to its resting place inside her purse. She didn’t want to see it anymore. To her, it signified nothing more than an empty existence, a life that just wasn’t hers. It was safe, familiar, and comfortable, yes, but it just wasn’t her. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn’t fit.
Cheerilee laughed bitterly at herself as she realized the road her thoughts had taken.
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. -Buddha saying
The rustling of papers reverberated through the silent office, the whispering noise heard only by the two ponies present. A large mahogany desk separated the pair, nearly lost underneath the mountain of paperwork. Almost a week had passed since Cheerilee had decided she was going to teach again, and she was scheduled to start that afternoon. They just needed to make sure all the paperwork was lined up.
Opposite Cheerilee sat the principal of Ponyville Schoolhouse, his elderly eyes squinting as he tried to read the fine print on a piece of paper in front of him. Cheerilee had never found out his real name; she always just called him “Principal”. As far as she knew, everypony else called him that as well. Including his wife.
The principal nodded in satisfaction before putting the paper aside. Leaning forward and clasping his hooves together, he peered at Cheerilee through the pair of oversized spectacles resting on his snout. “It looks like everything is in order. Welcome back to Ponyville Schoolhouse, Miss Cheerilee.” The creases on his face deepened as a happy smile blossomed brightly on his face. “It’ll be good to have you back.”
“Thank you, Principal,” Cheerilee said, placing the sheaf of papers she was holding down on one of the few bare spots of the desk. She looked up at the clock hanging above the door, the edges of her mouth curving down slightly. Only an hour had passed since they had started. “Is that everything?” she asked uncertainly. “I had thought this would take longer.”
The principal twitched his hoof, waving her concerns away. “Don’t worry about it. This is just a formality, really. A little something to keep those pencil-pushers in Canterlot from getting offended and trying to transfer you away again.” He chuckled grimly. “Not that there’s anything they can do about it. Not with all four Princesses backing you.”
Cheerilee’s ears flattened against her skull. “Four?” she asked hoarsely. She had known about Twilight, but Twilight was different. She had lived in Ponyville for years, and was just another one of the citizens. The idea that the others might be interested in what she was doing terrified her. To her, they had always been a large presence far removed from her own life. At most, she might see one of them at a distance during some important yearly event, though she had spoken to Princess Celestia once before. Hearing that they were suddenly paying attention to her made her feel like an ant underneath a magnifying glass. “What- what do you mean?” she asked, desperately hoping she had misheard.
“Well,” the Principal coughed, “maybe that’s not completely correct.” He gestured at the bookshelf behind him. There, among books about instructing students and several model ships, three scrolls stood out to Cheerilee’s eyes. They were carefully laid out, the three of them taking up a shelf by themselves directly above and behind the principal’s head. Each had been carefully re-rolled so that anypony who looked would be able to see the insignia on their broken wax seals.
The one on the left was made of yellow paper, almost appearing to glitter a brilliant gold. Its seal had been emblazoned with a bright shining sun surrounded by a wavy stylized corona. The middle one was composed of dark paper, black as the darkest night. The wax had been imprinted with a crescent moon surrounded with twinkling stars. The last one was made of pink paper, and had been adorned with the image of a crystalline heart.
“These came in over the past few days,” the Principal said while Cheerilee stared open-mouthed at the scrolls. “Basically, they’re saying that Twilight has full authority in this matter. Since Twilight personally came to ask me to reinstate you, that indirectly means that the three of them support you as well.” He leaned back in his large plush chair, looking up at the three scrolls. “Though I got the impression none of them knew the others had sent a note.”
“Bu- but why?” Cheerilee stuttered. “Why would they be interested in this? In me? Surely this is too small to interest them!” Princesses Celestia and Luna were two of the mightiest figures in Equestria, and Princess Cadance was the co-ruler of a neighboring empire. When they willed it, mountains moved. Since two of them were literally responsible for controlling the sun and the moon, Cheerilee was pretty sure that wasn’t a figure of speech.
The Principal clasped his hooves together, staring down at them before looking up at her after a few tense seconds. “I understand your feelings. Honestly, I was pretty confused when I got those scrolls before I figured it out. You probably don’t know this, but this is the first time Twilight has used her authority as a Princess for anything.”
“Wait!” Cheerilee said. “That can’t be right! It’s been almost six years since Twilight became a Princess, and I know she’s been going to other countries as a dignitary. So how can this be the first time she’s used her authority?”
The Principal barked out a laugh, which quickly turned into a dry hacking cough. “It’s Twilight,” he explained after he had recovered. “She’d rather stick her nose in a book then meddle in the day-to-day running of the town. Hay, everypony knows she’s far more interested in seeing the others countries and reading their books than she is in actually talking to them. That’s why Celestia sends some diplomats with her to do the actual work.” He waved back at the scrolls behind him. “I think the others just want to support her in this; make sure she doesn’t fail. I’m sure they won’t actually pay any attention to us, so there shouldn’t be any repercussions if something goes wrong.”
Cheerilee swore she heard him mutter “I hope” under his breath, which did nothing to help her suddenly frazzled nerves. Had she known this was going to happen, there would have been no way she would have taken the job. Now, no matter what happened, she couldn’t walk away.
Her head thudded dully on the papers covering the principal’s desk. “I need a drink,” she mumbled. The paperwork didn’t respond.
Cheerilee stood outside of her classroom, her heart aflutter with a mixture of anticipation and dread. This is it, girl. Time for you to stop running. All she had to do was push open the door and everything would begin. She would pick up the pieces of the life she had thought she’d abandoned, returning to the classroom once again. She could already feel it on her; the title of ‘teacher’ fitting her like a comfortable old jacket.
She could hear the voices of her students through the doorway, awaiting her arrival. ‘Her’ students. Cheerilee still couldn’t get over that. The idea was a strange one, and it only intensified her feelings of anxiety. It was like a rainbow, calming and welcoming in the sky, promising clear skies and bright futures after a long and dreary rainstorm. It was also like a hissing serpent, its fangs ready to pierce her skin and spew deadly venom that would wind its way through her bloodstream and seek out her heart.
If it hadn’t been for the knowledge that the Princesses were going to be keeping an eye on her, Cheerilee might have turned and fled at that very moment. As it was, she considered it for only a moment before tossing it regretfully aside. No matter how much the idea of the class might fill her with trepidation, the idea of four angry alicorns on her case was far, far worse.
Hardening her will, Cheerilee slid the door to her classroom open. All conversation in the class abruptly cut off as every eye turned towards her, curious to see who their newest teacher was. Several pairs of eyes widened in recognition, much to Cheerilee’s amusement. Maybe they were as nervous as she was. If so, maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as she feared.
She carefully watched them out of the corner of her eye as she strode to the blackboard, making sure that they didn’t realize what she was doing. The principal had said that this was the oldest group in the school and this was their last year before graduation. Some of them she had already seen during her time in the town, while others she only recognized from five years ago. Sweetie Belle, Twist, and Pipsqueak sat in a group by the windows. Scootaloo sat opposite them, as far from their group as it was possible to get while still remaining in the classroom. A few seats in front of her sat little Dinky, all by her lonesome at the front of the class.
Next, a pair of young unicorn stallions sat In the middle of the class. One was short and rather chubby with a blue coat, an orange mane and tail, and a pair of scissors on his flank. The other was much taller and lankier with an amber coat, a turquoise mane and tail, and a snail for a cutie mark. Both of them stared at her somewhat dully. After wracking her brain for a moment, Cheerilee remembered that the duo’s names were Snips and Snails; Snips was the shorter one and Snails was the taller one.
Finally, way at the back of the class sat a duo of young earth pony mares. They watched her silently, judging her. Cheerilee could already tell these two were going to be a headache in the making. She remembered the duo well. The class bullies, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. How Cheerilee had longed to throw them over her knee and spank them until their bottoms were red. Unfortunately, Diamond Tiara’s father was Filthy Rich, the richest pony in Ponyville, and Cheerilee had often been forced to look the other way while the fillies picked on their classmates.
Diamond Tiara sat back with her rear hooves up on her desk, her coat a light shade of pink. Her well-cared for purple and white-streaked mane gently billowed in the wind blowing in through the open window. The diamond tiara on her flank was matched by the glimmering one adorning her skull, and her bright blue eyes openly sized up Cheerilee as she walked toward the blackboard.
Sitting up straight beside her, Silver Spoon was her opposite in many ways. While Diamond Tiara was bright and uncontrolled, Silver Spoon was far more stiff and muted. Her coat, mane, and tail were all similar shades of grey. The small pink hairband in her mane, her silver-spoon cutie mark, and the thin-rimmed blue glasses covering her greyish violet eyes were the only notable splashes of colour breaking up the monotonous grey.
Picking up a piece of chalk, she reached up and scrawled her name on the large blackboard at the front of the class. “Good afternoon, everypony,” she said to them. “My name is Miss Cheerilee, and I’m going to be your homeroom teacher from now on.” Her cheeks hurt from the rictus grin locked on her face, but she refused to let it falter in case she revealed her true emotions. “I hope we can get along.”
“-and I was asked to come out of retirement to teach once more.” The afternoon bell went off as Cheerilee finished, calling an end to classes for the day. She had spent the entire afternoon answering questions about what she had been doing and what life in Neigh York had been like. Well, I had expected as much.
“Perfect timing. Alright, everypony, storytime’s over.” She clapped her hooves together as the class made sounds of disappointment. “Tomorrow, we’ll begin studying the works of Dockvid Hilbert, Poll Dirac, and John von Neighmann and their theories on the role of the observer. Oh,” she called out as the class shuffled towards the doorway, “just a minute, Sweetie Belle. I want to talk to you about something.”
“Ohhhh,” Diamond Tiara teased as she filed out past Sweetie Belle. “First day, and you’re already in trouble with the teacher. Try to stay out of trouble at least a little bit, wouldn’t you? You’re making the rest of us look bad.”
Cheerilee let out a tiny, unnoticeable sigh. Diamond Tiara hadn’t changed a bit.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Sweetie Belle shot after Diamond Tiara’s retreating form. “You don’t need my help to make yourself look bad.” Clearing the doorway for the rest of the class, she waved for Twist and Pipsqueak to go on ahead. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up with you two later.”
The duo filed out, leaving Cheerilee and Sweetie Belle alone in the classroom. Sweetie Belle walked over to one of the front desks, hopping carelessly on it. “So? What did you want to talk about, Miss Cheerilee? Or would you prefer Bright Flowers?”
“Just Cheerilee is fine, Sweetie Belle,” Cheerilee said. She could hear the drumbeat of her heart echoing in her ears as a muscle in her flank twitched rapidly, nearly cramping her leg. She smiled instead, refusing to show any hint of stress. “But we’re not here to talk about me. I wanted to talk about you. Namely, your shoplifting habit.”
“Ugh, not this again,” Sweetie Belle groaned. She fell back against her desk, her head and hindlegs hanging limply over the edge. “Did Twilight put you up to this?” From her tone, she didn’t sound like she particularly cared about the answer. “Did my sister?”
“Nopony asked me to do this, Sweetie Belle,” Cheerilee reassured calmly. “I haven’t even spoken to your sister since I arrived.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Sweetie Belle stretched her forelegs above her head. “Rarity doesn’t get back until tomorrow.”
Cheerilee raised an eyebrow at that. “You forgot that your sister isn’t even in town?”
“Sure, why not?” With a grunt, Sweetie Belle heaved herself to a sitting position. Gripping one of her knees, she pulled it up to her chest, her other hindleg swaying back and forth beneath her like a pendulum. “It wouldn’t matter even if she was in town. Besides, it’s not my job to keep track of what she does. She can do whatever she likes. I don’t care.”
“Is that so?” Cheerilee asked sceptically. A loose strand of her mane drifted in front of her face, and she reached up and smoothed it back into place. “Well, that’s not really important right now. We’re here to talk about-“
“My shoplifting,” Sweetie Belle interrupted, her voice brimming with disinterest. “Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time. Let me guess, this is the part where I spill my guts? Where I tell you some sob story about how it’s not my fault, how the world has forced me into it? How I’m the victim here, just a victim of circumstance?” A sarcastic smirk grew on her face. “That’s how Twilight tried to spin it. It was almost funny, really, in a pathetic sort of way. She kept consulting her books every time she wanted to ask another question. It was almost worth putting up with her questions to watch her flounder about. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m bored and it’s fun. And that’s all I have to say.”
Cheerilee walked the lonely trek back to the library alone, her head hanging low and her thoughts scuttling among themselves like so many confused spiders. True to her word, Sweetie Belle had refused to say anything more and Cheerilee had eventually been forced to let her go. She was certain there was something Sweetie Belle was hiding, but had been unable to pry it out of the unwilling mare. At the horizon, the sun cast its final rays as it prepared to be relinquished of the grip of the sky, released into the mysterious unknown that it went to during the night. The setting sun seemed to laugh at her pathetic attempts to understand her student’s psyche, and part of her wished she could follow it to its quiet destination.
Cheerilee slapped herself, realizing how fragmented and disjointed her thoughts were becoming. Alright, get a grip. The sun’s not laughing at you and you don’t wish you could follow it. That’s crazy pony talk. You’re just imagining it. Just… just get some sleep.
“Miss Cheerilee! Wait up!”
Cheerilee sighed as she felt her longed-for bed slipping out of her grasp. All she wanted at the moment was to get back to Twilight’s and succumb to the blissful emptiness promised by those cushy pillows. Even if it was just a mattress on Twilight’s floor, it was still hers. She’d be able to move to her own house once her stuff got shipped in from Neigh York, but she was relegated to floor mattress until then.
A grey blob crashed to the ground directly in front of Cheerilee, throwing up a large cloud of dust and causing the schoolteacher to let out a surprised whinny. The object shifted slighted, and Cheerilee was able to make out enough features to see that it was a grey pegasus with its head stuck in the ground. She sighed. “Yes? What is it, Derpy?”
The clumsy pegasus’ head came free of the ground with a loud pop, and she shook her head as she tried to regain her bearings. Her loose eye rolled around in its socket, and Cheerilee felt somewhat nauseated just watching it. She had no idea how Derpy must deal with it. Cheerilee could see a single solitary letter was sticking out of the feathers of one of Derpy’s wings.
Derpy unsteadily looked around the area, her eyes brightening as they landed on Cheerilee standing directly in front of her. “Ah! Miss Cheerilee. Good evening. I wanted to tell you something.”
There was silence after Derpy’s last words, and Cheerilee quickly started tapping her hoof against the ground impatiently. “Yes?” she asked after a few seconds with a small degree of irritation tainting her voice. “What is it?”
“I forgot,” Derpy admitted, frowning thoughtfully. “It had… something… something to do with… muffins. Something to do with muffins. Hmmmm…” Her wobbly eyeball rolled around until it was looking at Cheerilee. “You don’t happen to have any muffins on you?”
“No,” Cheerilee said through gritted teeth. It was the end of a long day, and she really didn’t need this right now. “If that’s all, then I’ll just…”
“That’s it!” Derpy exclaimed excitedly. “Muffins! Thank you for agreeing to take care of my Muffin! She was so surprised to see you at school today.”
“Really?” Cheerilee asked sceptically, cocking an eyebrow. “I didn’t get the impression that Dinky was more surprised than any of the others.” The class had seemed rather accepting of her sudden return. Cheerilee wouldn’t admit it, but she had been somewhat disappointed.
“Oh, she’s very just shy. When she got home, she was more excited than I’ve seen her in a long time.” Derpy smiled brightly. “I knew I was right to trust you.” She looked up at the setting sun, and her bright smile faded slightly. “Sorry I can’t stay to talk, Miss Cheerilee, but I have to go deliver a message to Miss Cheerilee.”
Cheerilee blinked as she tried to decipher Derpy’s garbled sentence, but as she opened her mouth to say something, the mail pony turned and ran off. Cheerilee groaned as Derpy disappeared around a corner. I could chase her… Nah.Too tired. Bed calls. Staggering towards the library, which she could now see in the distance, she tried to rationalize away Derpy’s bizarre actions. If it’s important, she’ll find me tomorrow. She could be anywhere in town by now.
“Miss Cheerilee! Wait!”
…Including right behind me, apparently. Cheerilee turned to see Derpy running up behind her. “Yes, Derpy?” Cheerilee asked patiently. “What is it?”
“Hello, Miss Cheerilee,” Derpy said cheerfully. “I’ve been looking for you all over town. I’ve got a message for you from Neigh York. Express stuff, very important.” Digging out the letter that Cheerilee had spotted early, she passed it over to the bemused schoolteacher. Her wings flared out, and she took off into the sky. “See you later!”
As Derpy vanished over a nearby building, narrowly avoiding crashing into a smokestack, Cheerilee looked over the letter she had just received. The postmark told her it had come from Neigh York. Strange, she thought, tearing it open, I wasn’t expecting any letters. There was only a single piece of paper inside, which she promptly unfolded.
“’Dear Miss Cheerilee,’” she read aloud. “’Current resident of one Miss Sparkle’s residence’, blah, blah, blah…” Skimming the letter, she skipped ahead until she found the actual message. “Ah, here we go. Let’s see… ‘We at the Neigh York Postal Service regret to inform you that, because of a filing error, your package had been accidently… shipped…’ WHAT?” She gripped the letter firmly between her hooves, staring at the page as if she could change the meaning of the words if she glared at them hard enough. Her gazed sped along the page, taking in only small tidbits of information at a time. “’…no fault of our employees…unfortunate and unprecedented mistake…truly regrettable…returned to you at no extra expense…Crystal Empire…’”
“You… you…” she sputtered, her eyes bulging at that last line. With a snarl, she crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it as hard as she could at the side of a nearby building. “YOU SHIPPED EVERYTHING I OWN OUT OF THE COUNTRY?” she yelled at the wad of paper. “HOW DO YOU EVEN DO THAT?”
The crumpled letter fell to the ground, ignoring her angry outburst. With a final huff, Cheerilee stormed away from the discarded message. Grumbling to herself, she stamped up to Twilight’s house, bringing her hooves down on the steps as hard as she could with every step. It didn’t help her situation, but it made her feel a little better.
Can’t believe this, she fumed. That’s not just some little package, that’s everything I own! What’s with this ‘some clerical error’ nonsense? You don’t just send everything a pony owns on a cross-country trip on a whim. I swear, if I ever get my hooves on the pony responsible for this, I’m going to-
As Cheerilee opened the library door, a wave of noise and confetti blasted out to greet her. A party popper went off right in front of her, its colorful streamers hitting her like a sharp slap to the face. Four individuals stood in the library, waiting to greet her. Inside, Cheerilee saw Twilight, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Spike standing together underneath a giant banner that read in bright glittering letters; “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR FIRST DAY OF CLASSES, CHEERILEE!”
Cheerilee stared blankly at the scene in front of her for several seconds before slowly and firmly closing the door. That’s it, she decided. I’m sleeping in the bushes.
Turning away from the doorway, she instantly found herself bumping nose to nose with another earth pony. “Yah!” Cheerilee exclaimed in surprise, backing away from the new pony. Unfortunately, the library door opened when she bumped it – she must not have shut it as firmly as she thought – and she found herself backpedaling into the library.
The new pony bounced into the library after her. Her unkempt mane and tail flailed around with every hop she took, her legs acting more like springs then any proper limb possessing bones. Her mane, tail, and coat were all a bright shade of pink, her baby blue eyes and balloon shaped cutie mark the only interruption in the visual assault on the senses. “Happy surprise party, Cheerilee!” the persistently perky pony proudly proclaimed. “Were you surprised? I knew you would be!”
Recovering from her surprise, Cheerilee gave the pink pony a flat look. “Yes, Pinkie,” she said drolly, her lips quirking at the other’s antics. “I was very surprised.”
“Oh, I knew you would be!” Pinkie proclaimed, bouncing excitedly around Cheerilee. She rambled on, her mouth moving at a mile a minute. “I wanted to throw you a larger party, maybe invite everypony in town, but Twilight said you would prefer something smaller. I thought that was strange, why would anypony want anything small when bigger is obviously better? But that’s okay; that just means I’ll have to do something even bigger when your class graduates.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Cheerilee said, picking up a nearby cup and filling it with punch. Much to her surprise, she actually was looking forward to it. Pinkie’s parties could cheer anypony up.
Loud music blared from a corner of the library, and Pinkie’s ears perked up as her head swivelled around to look at it. “Ohh!” she said excitedly. “I love this song!” Bounding over to a corner of the room, she grabbed Twilight and Fluttershy and dragged them out onto the dance floor. Within seconds, the three of them were dancing away. Well, Pinkie was dancing away. Twilight was doing some sort of uncoordinated flailing that Cheerilee would be unwilling to call dancing no matter how much alcohol she consumed and Fluttershy quickly snuck away from the other two.
Speaking of alcohol… Cheerilee looked around at the row of drinks until she found what she was looking for. Swapping out her punch for a cup of Sweet Apple Acres’ alcoholic cider, Cheerilee downed the whole thing in one go. “Ahhhh…” she said, coming up for air as she poured herself another cup. “That’s the stuff.”
“Enjoying yourself?” A drawling voice with a twang of an accent asked as another cup of cider vanished down Cheerilee’s throat. Stepping into Cheerilee’s field of vision, Applejack walked up to the drink table and poured herself a cup of punch. “Pinkie knows how to throw a party, don’t she?”
“Yeah,” Tossing back another cup, Cheerilee felt a happy warmth wash over her. By Celestia, I needed that, she thought as she regretfully put her cup down, not willing to give herself fully over to the embrace of drunkenness.
Applejack smirked at Cheerilee’s flushed expression. “Rough day?” she asked.
“Yes!” Cheerilee groaned. “I just found out that all my stuff was accidently mailed out of the country, so I’m going to be stuck with Twilight and Spike for now.” She looked around the room, the reminder making her notice the absence of one adolescent dragon. “Speaking of which, where is Spike? I know I saw him earlier.”
Applejack gestured at the stairs with the cup in her hoof. “He went upstairs. I don’t think he knows how to act around you. I think he’s scared of you, to be honest.” She laughed at the disbelieving look Cheerilee gave her. “I know, I know, sounds ridiculous, right? Why would a dragon be afraid of you? But he’s really not good around ponies that aren’t in our little circle. Hay, I think he might be worse than Fluttershy.”
“I’m standing right here.”
Applejack wheeled around to look at the pegasus standing behind her. Her smile withered slightly from the baleful look shot at her from Fluttershy’s one visible eye. “Oh… um… hey Fluttershy,” she stuttered. “I didn’t see you there… Uh…” She quickly started shuffling away. “Well, love to stay and chat, but I see Pinkie’s set up some cupcakes so… Yeah!” She sped off, her tail practically tucked between her legs.
Fluttershy glared after Applejack for a second before her façade cracked and she giggled. “Oh, that was mean of me. I’ll have to apologize to her later.”
Cheerilee chuckled. “She’ll be fine. She’s a tough mare.” Something occurred to her, and she banged her hoof on the table. “Oh, that’s right. Fluttershy, I had a talk with Sweetie Belle this afternoon.”
A pained expression appeared on Fluttershy’s face. “I see…” she said quietly. “And what do you think?”
Cheerilee’s hoof tapped repeated against the table, creating a dull beat that undercut the music blaring from the far corner. “I don’t know what to think,” she admitted at length. “So much has changed about her. And… about me.”
“Do you still believe in her?”
“I…” Cheerilee stood in silence as she pondered, Fluttershy remaining quiet and motionless, watching Cheerilee to see what her reaction would be. After nearly a full minute had passed, Cheerilee reached out and poured herself another shot of cider. Tossing back the drink, she planted the cup on the table with a loud thud. “Yes,” she said after another long pause. “Yes. I do.”
Fluttershy smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. I’ll meet you tomorrow after school’s finished. I’ll try to explain what I can then.”
Before Cheerilee could respond, Pinkie’s head popped out from underneath the table between them. “Heeeey,” she said. “What are you two wallflowers doing back here? Come on! Enjoy the party!” Hustled onto the dance floor, Cheerilee gave up and gave herself over to the music. The rest of the night passed in a pleasant blur of drinks and games.
Cheerilee woke with a groan, a dull throbbing pain shooting through the back of her eyeballs. She lay face down on her mattress, the remnants of the party all around her. Streamers, balloons, and confetti of all colours and shape lay discarded through the library, clinging to the books and shelves. The banner had torn at some point during the night and was left hanging limply from a single nail.
A loud clatter suddenly rang out from the kitchen, and Cheerilee whimpered as she buried her head underneath her pillow. It felt like an army of ponies with sledgehammers had been trapped in her skull and were desperately trying to get out. The pounding her head shot to an agonizing peak as she moved before it quickly tapered off to a more bearable intensity. As the pain reached a tolerable level, Cheerilee tried to remember what had happened the previous night. The last thing she could remember was talking to Fluttershy about… something.
A shadow loomed over Cheerilee, blocking out the light. She stuck one red eye out from underneath her protective pillow to see an amused-looking dragon staring down at her. He held a coffee pot in one clawed paw and a white mug in the other, steam billowing out of the pot’s spout.
“Sounds like you had a fun night,” Spike said as he poured some of the steaming coffee out into the cup. He passed it down to Cheerilee, who gratefully reached out to take it. Her covers fell off her upper body, pooling atop her hindlegs as she sat upright. Spike sat down and waited as Cheerilee greedily guzzled down the entire cup.
“Ahh!” Cheerilee proclaimed as the last of the coffee disappeared into to her greedy belly. “I feel like a new pony! More?” She tentatively held out her cup and Spike poured her another cupful. Pulling the cup back to tack a sip of the dark, rich wonder held within, she stared at her companion over the rim. “You know,” she said after she put the cup down, “I didn’t see you at the party last night. You vanished pretty quickly.”
Spike leaned back with a shrug, supporting himself against his long, prehensile tail. “I usually don’t go to any of Pinkie’s evening parties, especially not when it’s adults-only. Not a fan of alcohol, you know?”
Cheerilee cocked an eyebrow at him. “Really?’ she asked. “Twilight doesn’t mind you drinking?”
“Dragon,” Spike explained, gesturing at himself with the tip of his spaded tail. “It does absolutely nothing for me. All the alcohol is evaporated by my flames before I can process it.” To prove his point, he spat a stream of emerald flames towards the ceiling, which danced in the air for a moment before it vanished into a wisp of smoke and warmth.
“Mmm,” Cheerilee said as she enjoyed another mouthful of coffee. She hadn’t taken the time to enjoy it before, but it was just as she liked it; pitch black without a drop of cream or sugar. A single drop of milk is all it takes to destroy the pitch black magic in the cup, she thought happily, taking another swig. Her gaze slowly shifted from the coffee to the dragon sitting in front of her. I wonder…Spike, what’s your drop? “You know,” she said, “I had a little talk with Applejack last night. We didn’t talk much, but she did tell me something interesting. She said you’re afraid of me.”
“Applejack says a lot of things,” Spike replied defensively, crossing his arms over his chest. Cheerilee’s eyebrow rose a little further and Spike sighed, throwing his paws up in the air. “Alright, alright. I admit it. I was scared of you. But I’m not anymore. Happy?”
“How come you’re not afraid of me anymore?” Cheerilee questioned, tilting her head curiously.
Spike snorted in laughter, a whisper of smoke escaping from his nostrils as he waved a paw dismissively in her direction. “Scared of somepony who looks like they just lost a fight with a wagon?” he teased her. “Who looks like they have half of Fluttershy’s animals nesting in their mane?”
Cheerilee glared at him, running a hoof through her mane. Like he had said, it was a tangled mess, sticking wildly in every direction. “Hmph,” she grunted at him, hastily smoothing down her wild mane. “Alright, fine. But you still shouldn’t be afraid of me in the first place. You can’t be afraid of every new pony you meet.”
“Hey!” Spike protested, beating a paw against his outthrust chest. “I’m not scared of nopony! I just…” he hesitated before looking down at the ground, “don’t like meeting new ponies. That’s all.”
Cheerilee held her cup under her nose, letting the delectable bitter scent waft into her nostrils. She could tell that, no matter how black and bitter the coffee before her, it was nowhere near as dark as whatever Spike was holding close to his heart. She could see he was hiding something from her. That he was in pain. Even though he was three times her size and covered in scales, she just wanted to pull him close and tell him everything would be alright.
No! she told herself, squashing those feelings. What do you think you can do? You? You’re pathetic, a failure of a teacher! You couldn’t help a single one of your students! Who do you think you’re trying to fool, teaching again? You’re only going to hurt yourself again. And you’ll just hurt him more.
The pair sat together in mutual, unshared pain. When Twilight came down the stairs a few minutes later, she found them sitting together in heavy silence.
Cheerilee let out a thankful mental groan as the school bell rang, signifying the start of lunch. Hiding her emotions beneath a smiling façade, she cheerily smiled at the class. “Alright class, close your books and we’ll pick up after lunch.” As the schoolbooks vanished to be replaced with boxed lunches, Cheerilee slid open a drawer of her desk and pulled out her own lunch. She licked her lips at the thought of it. Spike had made her a daffodil and sunflower sandwich. She still felt guilty about leaving him alone to clean up the library by himself. I’ll have to make it up to him later.
“Um… excuse me… Miss Cheerilee?” Cheerilee stuck her head up to see who was talking to her. Little Dinky stood before her desk, a timid expression on her face. Her mannerisms reminded Cheerilee of a scared little animal.
“Yes?” Cheerilee asked in a soothing tone of voice. She felt that if she scared Dinky now, the little unicorn might bolt. “What is it?”
“It’s… um…” Dinky glanced at the class behind her. The other students were starting to tear into their own lunches, uninterested as to what was going on at the front of the class. Dinky turned to look at Cheerilee. “Could we… could we talk outside?”
“Alright.” Leaving her sandwich behind, Cheerilee followed Dinky out into the hallway. Out in the empty hallway, the sound of the classroom they had just left was muffled as Cheerilee slid the door closed. “So?” she asked, looking at the grey unicorn. “What can I do for you?”
“I…” Dinky stared down at the floor before she looked up at Cheerilee. “I wanted to ask you… Did you meet my mom last night? How was she?”
Cheerilee thought back. Most of the previous day was a blur of stress and cider, but she could still remember Derpy’s bizarre actions. “She was acting rather strange,” Cheerilee admitted. “Der-Ditzy said at one point that she had to leave at one point because she had to go deliver a message to me.” She offered a silent gratitude to anypony that might be listening that she remembered not to use the name ‘Derpy’ in front of Dinky.
“Oh…” Dinky sighed, her gaze dropping to the ground. She slumped against the wall, falling against it like a puppet with its strings cut.
“Are you okay?” Cheerilee crouched down beside Dinky, uncertain what she could do for the little mare.
Dinky’s eyes were brimming with pain when she looked up at Cheerilee. “I…” she choked, needing to take a moment to start again. “My mom’s… sick. I think. The doctors don’t know what wrong with her.” The words tumbled out of her, like blood pouring from a wound. “Grandpa told me the story once. When I was just a baby, before we moved here, my mom was involved in a horrible accident. She tried to fly in a storm. I don’t know why, and she won’t tell me, but I know. She tries to laugh it off, tries not to worry me, but I know… “
Dinky trailed off into silence. Cheerilee noticed a few telltale glitters falling from the young unicorn’s cheeks down to the hardwood floor but chose not to comment. After a few seconds, Dinky started again, her words as halting and broken as her choked voice. “She was struck by lightning. She should have been fine. Pegasi are stuck by lightning all the time. They can usually walk it off with a day or so. No problem, no biggie. But something happened. We don’t know what. Ever since, she hasn’t been the same. She isn’t even the same from day to day. She’ll be clear and lucid one day to confused about where our home is the next. And she’s getting worse.”
“Are you…” Cheerilee hesitated. She knew what she was about to ask would only hurt the little unicorn more, but she had to know. “Are you… scared of her?”
“What?” Dinky stared at Cheerilee in disbelief, her shock clear on her face. “Why would you even… oh.” She sighed, wiping at her eyes. “I guess you know. No, it’s nothing like that. She’s never like that. She would never harm me, never harm anypony. I just… thought you would want to know. Why my mom was acting so strangely last night, I mean.”
Cheerilee stared down at Dinky, her eyes full of pity. A mother and daughter, brought together by love. Their hearts torn apart by that very same love. And she couldn’t think of a single thing she could do for them. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Dinky reached up and grabbed Cheerilee’s shoulders, pulling her teacher’s face close to her own. “Could you be her friend?” she asked sincerely. “I know it’s a lot for me to ask, but please. She trusts you.”
Cheerilee stared deep into those earnest eyes, Dinky’s pleading gaze boring into her. She felt a laugh building deep within her, struggling to escape as she thought about the request that Derpy had made. They really are mother and daughter… Removing Dinky’s hooves from her shoulders, Cheerilee held them in her firm grip. “All right,” she told Dinky.
Dinky sniffled, her pain and fear overflowing in the form of tears that rolled unrestrained from her quivering eyes. She leaned forward, burying her face in Cheerilee’s chest. “Promise?” she asked in a quiet voice.
Cheerilee wrapped a forehoof around Dinky’s head, pulling the little unicorn close. Dinky’s horn jabbed painfully into her skin, but she ignored it. “I promise.”
Nearly a minute passed before Cheerilee let go, stepping back from Dinky. Reaching down, she ran her hoof across Dinky’s cheeks. “Now,” she said with a kind smile, “let’s dry those tears of yours. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sandwich waiting for me and I’d hate to disappoint it.” Dinky giggled and Cheerilee felt her heart go out to the little loving unicorn. Maybe… maybe I really can help these kids…
After classes had finished for the day, Cheerilee was left alone in the empty classroom. She picked up dropped pieces of paper, either returning them to the students’ desks or tossing them in the trash. The last two days had been a whirlwind of excitement and she savoured the opportunity to enjoy a moment’s peace.
A happy hum developed in her throat as she went about cleaning the room, eventually developing into a full-blown song. The song was one of her favorites from a play she had often watched back at Neigh York. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens~” she sang, skipping cheerily down the empty aisles. Her bright, colorful voice filled the empty room as she finished cleaning, eventually ending just as she wiped the blackboard clean. She had thought she was alone throughout the impromptu recital, which was why she was so surprised to hear applause coming from the open classroom door.
“That was wonderful,” Fluttershy said, coming into the room. A saddlebag lay on her back, covering her folded wings. “I didn’t know you sang so well.”
Cheerilee scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. “It’s just something I do for fun.” She didn’t feel comfortable knowing that somepony had been watching her sing. She felt like she had just unintentionally bared her soul. “What are you doing here, Fluttershy? You don’t have any family in my class, right?”
“You forgot?” Disappointment flashed across Fluttershy’s face for a split second before she abruptly giggled. “Actually, I suppose that makes sense. You were a little out of it last night.”
“Huh?” A flash from the previous night popped up in Cheerilee’s mind, half-hidden behind a haze of stress and stress relief. “Oh, that’s right. You wanted to talk about Sweetie Belle.”
Fluttershy smiled thankfully, her one visible eye shimmering brightly. “Yes, that’s right. I think you’ll be able to help her.”
“Help her?” Cheerilee scoffed. “She barely let me talk to her. Besides, Twilight told me that you girls have already been trying to get to her. What do you think I can do that you couldn’t?”
“So are you just going to abandon her?”
The question cut to the very core of Cheerilee’s being, a spasm of pain shooting through her heart. She physically flinched away from Fluttershy, her sorrowful gaze dropping to the floor. “I… No.”
Fluttershy reached out, resting her hoof on Cheerilee’s shoulder. “I know,” she said kindly, her voice brimming with sincerity. “It hurts, I know. You can’t stand to stand by and just watch their pain. You’re like me. Those kids may not be away of it, but we have to be there for them. Because if we aren’t, then who will?”
Cheerilee laughed bitterly. “You’ve changed, Fluttershy.” The mare before her bore little resemblance to the meek mouse of a pony she remembered. Now, the pegasus stood firm, her eye brimming with confidence. Cheerilee kicked at the floor as she turned away, shrugging off Fluttershy’s hoof. “But I’ve changed, too. I’m not the mare I once was. What am I trying to prove, thinking I can help these kids? Who am I trying to fool?” She collapsed in her chair, her head lolling back as she stared up at the ceiling. The words she hadn’t wanted to admit even to herself flowed out. “I’m just a washed-up failure trying to relive my past.”
Fluttershy remained silent for several minutes, staring sadly at Cheerilee. Eventually, she reached up with a single hoof and held it in front of her face. When she spoke, it was in a quiet voice that nevertheless seemed to fill the entire classroom “We all bear scars, Miss Cheerilee. It’s how we work through them that make us who we are. But we can’t do it on our own. That’s what friends are for.”
“Oh yeah?” Cheerilee challenged sharply, glaring at Fluttershy. Who are you to tell me to ‘get over’ my problems? She mentally raged. You have no idea what happened to me! “And? What’s your sc…” She felt her voice die in her throat as Fluttershy pulled back the fringe of her mane that covered her face. Cheerilee’s anger dissipated in the breeze as she saw what had been hidden behind the thick pink mane.
Fluttershy’s right eye was a clear greenish-blue, deep enough to get lost in. It welcomed the world, returning kindness to everything it saw. But her left eye, which was normally hidden from sight, was a cloudy, milky bluish-white. Scar tissue surrounded it, giving the eye an ugly, outlandish appearance. The eye stared emotionlessly forward, revealing nothing and taking nothing in. Cheerilee’s stomach churned at the sight and the taste of bile filled her mouth. “What happened?” she asked breathlessly after she managed to get her churning gut under control.
Fluttershy released her mane, letting it fall limply over her blind eye like a curtain being pulled over a broken window. “I made a mistake,” she said simply, her one good eye remaining firmly locked on Cheerilee’s own. “I’m just grateful I was the only one who got hurt. It could have been so much worse.” She pressed her hoof against her mane, over where Cheerilee now knew her blind eye was. “The doctors were able to reconstruct my eye, but there was nothing they could do to give me my sight back. But that’s fine with me.” She let her hoof fall, and a small distant smile bloomed on her face as her gaze shifted to the open window. “I don’t need my eyes. So long as I have my friends, there’s nothing I’m afraid of.” Her view returned to Cheerilee, and she held her hoof out to the other mare. “You don’t have to be afraid, either. It’s okay. Let me help you.”
Cheerilee stared blankly at Fluttershy’s outstretched hoof, not really sure about what she should do. For years, she had gotten by by holding everypony at arm’s length. Now Fluttershy was laying siege to the walls that surrounded her heart, not with a battering ram, but with simple kindness. Almost against her will, Cheerilee’s own hoof slowly inched towards the offered appendage and what it promised. She tentatively brushed against the yellow hoof, almost flinching away as the simple touch seemed to send an electric shock speeding through her leg. The barriers around her heart shuddered and crumbled, helpless against the gentle touch of the friendly pegasus.
Fluttershy reached forward and cupped Cheerilee’s hoof, bringing it up to the side of her face. She leaned against Cheerilee’s hoof, letting it press into her cheek as she closed her eyes. “You see?” she said, a serene smile on her face. “I knew you could do it.”
Cheerilee just stood there, her hoof resting against Fluttershy’s cheek. Warm… she thought. Had Fluttershy always been so warm? Wait, no, that wasn’t right. The warmth wasn’t coming from Fluttershy, it was coming from within Cheerilee. A happy warmth slowly spread in the hearth of her heart, where only ashes had been for years, suffusing her blood and her body with a feeling she had nearly forgotten. Friendship. “Thank you.” Cheerilee extracted her hoof from Fluttershy’s grip, laying it down on her desk beside her. It felt like a great load on her shoulders had been lightened for the first time in years. “Thank you, Fluttershy.”
“You’re very welcome, Cheerilee.” Fluttershy looked up at the clock just above the door, gasping in shock as she saw how much the arms had moved since she arrived. “Oh dear. That took longer than I thought it would. Sorry, but I can’t stay to talk,” she said apologetically. “I’ve got an appointment at the spa this evening.” She took a single step towards the doorway before looking back at Cheerilee, a speculative expression on her face. “Actually,” she said as if the idea had just occurred to her, “would you like to come along? It’s a good way to relax, and I can tell you what I wanted to tell you about Sweetie Belle.”
“You know…” Cheerilee rolled her shoulders, the bones and muscles creaking and shifting over each other. Her burden may feel lighter than it had in years, but she could still feel it pressing down on her nonetheless. Go ahead. What could it hurt? “You know, I think I might like that.”
After closing up the schoolhouse, Cheerilee and Fluttershy walked next to each other towards the Ponyville spa and massage parlour. Thin clouds covered the sky, giving several pegasi a place to perch as they watched the crowds walking below them.
Seeing these pegasi, Cheerilee turned to look at her companion… no, her friend. Cheerilee looked over at her friend walking beside her. “What’s it like?” she asked the butter yellow pegasus, gesturing at the pegasi above them. “Being able to fly, I mean.”
“Oh, it’s…” Fluttershy hesitated to frame her answer, and Cheerilee held her breath in anticipation as she waited. “…nice,” Fluttershy said eventually. “I don’t really fly very much,” she admitted. “You’d probably be better off asking somepony else. Sorry”
Cheerilee sighed in disappointment at the non-answer given to her. Taking the ability to fly freely through the air unrestrained by the constraints of gravity and calling it ‘nice’ felt a little anti-climactic. “I was just curious,” she confessed. “I’ve seen the world pretty high up before from the skyscrapers of Neigh York, but I’ve never really thought about what it must be like to fly.” Her voice dropped to a quiet whisper. “The world must look so different from up there…”
“I think it looks beautiful either way.” Fluttershy stopped, looking at a tiny flower growing right next to the road. The flower hadn’t blossomed yet, its petals still held firmly closed. Carefully digging into the ground around it, Fluttershy delicately pulled it out by its roots. “But you can see everything so much clearer from down here. It may not seem like much, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Cheerilee gave Fluttershy a wry smile. “Wise. Seems like I’ve learned something today. Maybe I should watch out; you might try to take my job.”
Fluttershy giggled as she slipped the small flower into her saddlebag. “Not me. I wouldn’t be able to handle so many children at once.” She pointed at a building ahead of them with a drooping purple roof and clean white walls, giving it a tent-like appearance. “We’re here.” She led the way into the spa, Cheerilee following after her.
A pair of earth ponies sat behind the counter, and both of them looked over as the little bell hanging above the door gave a quiet ring. Both of them were mares, their manes carefully tied back so they wouldn’t dangle in front of their faces. One had a pink coat and a blue mane and tail, while the other had a blue coat and a pink mane and tail. “Ah, Miss Fluttershy,” the blue-coated one said, a strong accent in her voice. “We have been waiting for you.”
“Sorry, Lotus Blossom,” Fluttershy apologized, hanging her saddlebags up on a hook on the wall. She gestured at Cheerilee standing in the doorway, who was looking blankly around the large open room. “Is it all right if Cheerilee joins us? I don’t want to be a bother…”
“It’s no bother at all, Miss Fluttershy,” the pink-coated one – Cheerilee vaguely remembered that her name was Aloe – said. Both of them looked over Cheerilee with curious interest. “We had heard the prodigal teacher had returned. It’s good to see the rumours are true.” They momentarily shared a meaningful glance before turning those gazes back to Cheerilee. “We can tell that you need this, so we’ll give you our special discount for this and any future visits.”
“Thank… you?” Cheerilee asked, unsure whether or not she had just been insulted. Are they saying I need a bath? As she surreptitiously sniffed at herself, a nearby door burst open, disgorging a white unicorn with a towel wrapped around her head into the room.
“Fluttershy!” the newcomer excitedly proclaimed, leaping past Cheerilee and wrapping Fluttershy in a enveloping hug. The unicorn’s purple tail was done up with rollers, and Cheerilee could see the effects of cleaning products shimmering on her coat. “You came! I was starting to- I mean, I wasn’t worried at all! I knew you’d come!”
Fluttershy squeaked in surprise at the sudden contact. After she realized who was holding her, she smiled and happily returned the hug. “Sorry, Rarity. I didn’t mean to make you wait.”
“Hmph,” Rarity sniffed, disentangling herself from Fluttershy. “Don’t worry about me; I’m just glad to see you again. It’s been nearly four months since the last time we did this and I’ve really been looking forward to it.” She sighed theatrically, holding her hoof up against her forehead. “Work has just been so stressful lately, positively working me to the bone. But nevermind that, dear, because I think I’ve finally got my big breakthrough! Fancypants come to me just last week, and he said he wanted to be my official patron! Can you believe it?”
“That sounds nice,” Fluttershy said, finally finding a break in Rarity’s ramble. “I’m sure you’ll do great.”
“But of course, darling.” Rarity snapped a pose, her hooves outstretched and her head flung back. “I will wow the fashion world with my dresses! I will show them designs that will wow them with magnificence!” She dropped down her hooves, looking Fluttershy in the eye. “But we can talk about that later. Tell me, is it true? Did Miss Cheerilee really return? Or is Rainbow Dash just pranking me again?”
Deciding it was time for her to speak up, Cheerilee loudly cleared her throat. “You could just ask me yourself.”
Rarity gratifyingly leapt into the air in surprise, whirling around to look at the teacher standing behind her. “Miss Cheerilee?” she asked hesitantly, staring at the earth pony as if she was some sort of apparition. “Miss Cheerilee!” she proclaimed, throwing her hooves around Cheerilee’s neck and clinging to her like she was a drowning mare and Cheerilee was a life raft. “You’ve got to help me!” she wailed, tears pouring down her cheeks like a pair of miniature waterfalls. “I just don’t know what to do!”
Cheerilee looked down at the unicorn hanging off of her neck before looking up at the other three ponies in the room for support. Fluttershy looked apologetic while Lotus and Aloe only smiled amusedly before slipping out of a nearby door. Seeing that no help was forthcoming, Cheerilee awkwardly peeled Rarity off by herself. “I’ll be happy to help, but first you’ll need to tell me what’s wrong.”
Rarity sniffled, looking like she was about to burst into tears agian. “It’s my sister,” she said. “I just don’t know what to do about Sweetie Belle.”
“I thought Rarity might be able to explain things better than I could,” Fluttershy told Cheerilee. She walked next to Rarity and gave her friend a comforting rub on the shoulder. “I invited Miss Cheerilee to join us. I hope that’s alright with you.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Rarity dabbed at her eyes with the corner of the towel wrapped around her head. “I just…” She shook her head, catching sight of her tear-streaked face in a mirror. “Heh, look at me,” she laughed ruefully. “My makeup’s running. Lotus! Aloe! We’re starting again.”
“Right this way, Rarity,” the twins simultaneously said from directly behind Cheerilee. Cheerilee leapt away from them in surprise, shocked that they could have snuck up on her so quietly. The twins gestured towards the open doorway that Rarity had first appeared from and Rarity strolled in that direction.
Cheerilee followed, feeling herself pulled along by the sheer force of the unicorn’s personality. Before the teacher was able to form a protest, she found herself buried up to her withers in a mud bath. The cool mud felt nice on her stressed body, and Cheerilee closed her eyes and rested her head back against the side of the bath. She could feel the tension seeping out of her body, leaving her a limp puddle of pony.
Rarity and Fluttershy sunk into their own mud baths, the mud closing up to their necks. Rarity giggled at Cheerilee’s blissful expression. “Why darling, don’t tell me that teaching a room full of belligerent foals is stressful,” she good-naturedly teased. “Surly a teacher of your caliber would be able to whip even Ponyville’s class into order.”
Cheerilee made a strange, non-committal noise, too wrapped up in her mud bath to actually pay attention to what Rarity said. A few seconds passed, and Cheerilee’s expression changed as Rarity’s words slowly penetrated her skull. “Wait…” she said thoughtfully. “I keep hearing that those kids are really troublesome, but I haven’t really seen anything that makes me think they’re bad. Why is that?”
“Well, that’s…” Rarity hesitated before turning to their other companion, “Fluttershy, help me out here.”
Fluttershy rested her muddy forelegs on the side of the tub, then resting her chin on top of them as she looked at Cheerilee. “It’s not that the whole class is seen as bad. It’s just that there are a few… I suppose they would be called bad apples?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Rarity leaned back as one of the spa ponies placed a pair of cucumber slices over her eyes. “Most of them are good kids, but there’s a few that just make the whole class look bad. Diamond Tiara, Scootaloo, and, well…” Her words waned and eventually disappeared into silence, as if she didn’t want to speak the last name aloud.
Unfortunately for her, Cheerilee already knew enough to fill in the blanks. “Sweetie Belle,” she said, finishing Rarity’s sentence. “What happened? She always seemed like such a sweet kid.”
“She was such a sweet kid.” Rarity sighed and Cheerilee heard the voice of a mare who had been so battered that she no longer knew which way to turn. “I just want my sister back…” she said, her voice sounding like somepony who had been beaten and battered by life and was all but ready to accept defeat. There was a tiny ember of determination in her voice, but Cheerilee could tell that if that ember ever went out, it would be nearly impossible to light it again.
“Anyway,” Cheerilee said, trying to get the topic back on track, “what happened? If you told me that, I might be able to figure something out?”
“Really?” Rarity asked in the tone of a pony on the verge of dehydration being given a full canteen of water. “You really think you can help?” When Cheerilee nodded, Rarity squealed in delight. “Oh, darling! If you really can help, I’ll give you anything you want! I’ll make you enough dresses so you can wear a different one every day for the rest of your life!”
Cheerilee shook her head, her lips quirked in a half-smile. “You don’t have to go that far,” she said soothingly. “Just tell me what happened.”
“Alright, well, um…” Rarity floundered for a moment before managing to settle on a place to start. “Well, I suppose it begun a few years after you left. As you probably remember, my parents have never been very close to Sweetie or myself. They’re usually off on vacation somewhere or something. The first time she ever stole something, it was when they were out of town. I gave her an earful about it, believe me, and even told our parents about it. At the time, I thought that was the end of it, but a few months later, I heard she had stolen again…”
Cheerilee closed her eyes and listened, letting Rarity’s words flow over her. Rarity continued talking, apparently unaware of her audience’s unreceptive state. And throughout the entire event, Fluttershy only remained silent and watched.
“…And now I just don’t know what to do,” Rarity said, finally wrapping up as Aloe and Lotus began to work at cleaning her hooves. “I just can’t concentrate on my dresswork when I’m stressed like this. I don’t understand why she’s doooooooing thiiiis,” she wailed dramatically, throwing her hooves in the air and unintentionally splashing Aloe and Lotus with mud. “Please Cheerilee, you’ve got to help meeeeee...”
Cheerilee remained silent, the thoughts behind her closed eyes remaining hidden to the four other ponies present. The seconds ticked slowly past before a small devious smile spread upon her lips. Interesting... she thought. You know, I’m starting to feel like I can help these kids after all.
“You… you have an idea?” Rarity asked hopefully. “Something- anything to fix her? So I don’t need to worry about her anymore?”
“Yeah,” Cheerilee laughed grimly, opening her eyes and tilting her head so she could see Rarity. “You’re not going to like it, though. But if it works, you won’t need to worry about your sister anymore. Are you prepared?” Seeing Rarity nod, Cheerilee stood up, the mud falling off of her body in streams and rivulets. “Alright, there’s no school tomorrow, so here’s what we’re going to do…”
Sweetie Belle woke to the sound of twittering songbirds right outside her window, their chirps and peeps floating into her room with the morning sunlight. Blearily scooting out from under her bed covers, her tangled bed-mane falling limply over her face, she strode over to and shut the windows, blocking out the sound of the birdsong.
Can’t believe I forgot to shut the windows last night, she grumbled. Since there was no school today, she had been hoping to sleep in. Well, so much for that. Tossing her mane out of her face with a toss of her head, she walked over to the door of her room. The door swung open silently when she pushed on it, opening the way for her into the clean hallway.
The hallway was as clean as pristine as always, though Sweetie Belle would have chosen the word ‘sterile’. Whether it was the jewel-encrusted picture frames on the wall or the glittering vases filled with beautiful flowers, everything was careful placed to bring out the most beauty.
The whole thing disgusted Sweetie Belle.
Walking through her sister’s house and into the washroom, Sweetie Belle felt her heart fill with anger and despair. The house felt the same as it had always felt; empty. Rarity had probably already locked herself in her ‘workroom’, and wouldn’t be coming out until lunch. And even then, she would only be out long enough to grab some food before disappearing again. What a sister.
Stepping into the shower, Sweetie Belle turned the nozzle to full blast. Water poured out of the showerhead, and Sweetie Belle tilted her head back and enjoyed the feeling of the warm water beating against her body. It felt like her anger was being washed away, leaving her with only a bitter emptiness. The feeling was a comforting one, welcomed for its familiarity. Steam quickly filled the small room, fogging the mirrors and the windows.
Sweetie Belle stood like that, simply letting the warm water run over her body before disappearing down the drain. After several minutes had passed, she knew she would have to face the day and regretfully turned off the water before reaching for a towel. After quickly drying herself off, she finished her morning ablutions and headed for the kitchen.
Grabbing a quick breakfast of toast and butter, she made her way outside into the streets of Ponyville, the piece of toast clenched in her teeth. She didn’t want to spend any more time in the Boutique than she had to, and intended to put as much distance between herself and it as soon as possible. Now then, what should I do today…? she thought, looking up at the early morning sun. Twist and Pipsqueak wouldn’t be awake yet, and she didn’t really want to go wake them up. Guess I’ll just kill some time.
“Sweeeeetie Beeeeelllllllle.” The call came from down the street, and Sweetie Belle saw Miss Cheerilee running towards her.
Gah, Sweetie Belle thought. Not her. All she wanted was to spend the peaceful day somewhere quiet. And here came her nosey teacher to ruin that. She probably wants to talk about my shoplifting or something stupid again. I’ll just pretend I don’t see her.
“Ah, wait, don’t go!” Cheerilee shouted as Sweetie Belle sprinted in the opposite direction. The speed of her hoofbeats increased as she pursued after her rebellious student.
Hah! Sweetie Belle laughed internally, seeing Cheerilee chasing after her. You really think you can catch me? I haven’t been chased by every storekeeper in Ponyville just for show. I know the streets of Ponyville like the back of my hoof. Every street corner, every doorway, every trashcan is like a close friend. Not even Rainbow Dash can catch me!
There, I think that’s far enough. Sweetie Belle jogged to a halt behind Twilight’s house, a cocky grin plastered on her face. No way she could have followed me this far. She shook her mane out of her eyes, looking up at the position of the sun. Twist’ll be waking up soon. Guess I’ll head-
“Sweetie Belle, you shouldn’t run from me.”
Cheerilee poked her head out of one of Twilight’s windows, frowning down at the unicorn below her. Sweetie Belle stared at her for only a split second before turning and running once again.
Okay, that was weird.But it must have been a coincidence. No way she could follow me here. Leaping into a bush beside Featherweight’s house, she cautiously peered out into the surrounding streets. Seeing no sign of the purple schoolmare, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Hmph, that’s what you get, she thought, falling back into the bush. It had been months since anypony had almost caught her and she wasn’t about to let that record be broken now. Her stomach rumbled faintly and she realized she had dropped her toast at some point during her run. I’ll just grab something at Twist’s. Pushing the branches aside, she easily climbed out of the bushes… and nearly walked straight into Miss Cheerilee standing in the middle of the road.
“Ah, there you are,” Cheerilee said with a smile. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Sweetie Belle gaped up at the mare in disbelief before she dashed past her and sprinted down the streets as fast as she could.
Her sides heaving as she panted for breath, Sweetie Belle slid to a stop behind Silver Spoon’s house. The place was practically a mansion, and was easily the second largest house in town after the one belonging to Diamond Tiara’s family. The house was in a mild state of disrepair, the paint on the walls starting to peel and the hedges beginning to encroach on the walkways.
No way will she find me here. Not that I even want to be here in the first place, she mentally added. She and the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders had never really broken out of their rivalry with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Even once their friendship broke apart, the bonds of ‘enemy of my enemy’ still held true.
Agh, what am I thinking about? she chided herself. This is no time to think about the past. I need to grab something to eat before- “Oh, come on!”
“Sweetie Belle, there was something I wanted- Hey, don’t run away from me!” Cheerilee yelled after the rapidly retreating unicorn.
Sweat matting her coat, Sweetie Belle stumbled towards her goal. Her tongue lolled out her open mouth as she gasped for breath. The rays of the sun high above her pressed against her like a heavy weight, increasing her fatigue and tiring her out even further. It was already noon and she had been running almost non-stop since dawn with no food or water. It felt like heavy chains were tied around her legs, dragging against the ground with every step she took. “But… heh… there’s no way….” she panted, the sides of her mouth curving slightly upwards. “No way… she’ll be able to find me here.”
Before her was the old clubhouse she had used back when she was a little filly. It had already been three years since she had last laid eyes on it. Three years since that fight with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. Never thought I’d be coming back here. The place had seen better days and was starting to show the effects of time. The shutters hung loosely and forlornly, some of the shingles had been blown away by storms, and there were cracks and fractures spiderwebbing through some of the windows. The place truly looked like it had been abandoned.
Her hooves tiredly scraped against the walkway leading to the entrance of the clubhouse as she climbed towards her goal, just like they had so often done, years ago. I’m thinking of something useless again. It felt like she had been thinking of the past more often of late. Was it because of the new teacher? Because of Miss Cheerilee’s sudden reappearance? Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure. All she knew is that she didn’t like it. She would have preferred if those thoughts had remained buried in the past.
Pushing the door open, Sweetie Belle stopped and stood frozen in the doorway. Like an apparition from a nightmare, Cheerilee sat on a rocking chair in the center of the room, disinterestedly crunching an apple with a newspaper held open before her. She seemed to pay no attention to Sweetie Belle’s arrival, focusing only on the newspaper in front of her while her chair creaked back and forth.
“Hmm,” she mumbled to herself, taking a bite out of her apple, “looks like that new Iron Mare movie’s been getting some pretty good reviews. I was thinking about going to see that. Pity there’s still no theaters in Ponyville, though.” Without looking away from her newspaper, she picked up a water bottle beside her chair and tossed it over to Sweetie Belle. “Drink. You look thirsty.”
Sweetie Belle caught the bottle reflexively, but she only held it limply while continuing to stare open-mouthed at Cheerilee. “How-” she finally managed to force out, “how do you keep finding me?”
“Teacher sense,” Cheerilee said simply, folding up her newspaper and dropping it beside her chair along with the remnants of her apple. With a wave of her hoof, she gestured at the bottle Sweetie Belle was holding. “Go ahead and drink. We can’t talk with you looking like you’re about to pass out on me.”
Giving up, Sweetie Belle cracked open the bottle and downed a mouthful of the water inside. She didn’t know how Cheerilee had managed to follow her for so long, and she felt that, Miss Cheerilee would just track her down again if she ran. Might as well get this over with. “What do you want?” she asked bluntly.
A small amused smile spread on Cheerilee’s lips. “Straight and to the point. As you wish. I wanted to talk to you about your shoplifting.”
“I already told you,” Sweetie Belle said rudely, step fully into the clubhouse and shutting the door behind her, “I don’t have anything else to say about that. I do it because it’s fun. That’s all.”
Cheerilee let out a chuckle. “Yes, that is what you said. But you know,” her gaze hardened, “you really shouldn’t lie to me.”
“Wha-” Sweetie Belle protested, recoiling instinctively and taking an unintentional step back. “I’m not lying! You’re just trying to find something when there’s nothing to find! You’re just making stuff up! Well, why don’t you all just get off my back and leave me alone!?”
“’Nothing to find’?” Cheerilee repeated, cocking an eyebrow. “You’re certainly getting defensive if there’s nothing for me to find. I thought I was just making stuff up, so there should be nothing for you to worry about.”
Sweetie Belle groaned and looked down at the floor, unable to come up with a comeback.
“Going to keep quiet?” Cheerilee asked. “That’s fine. You don’t have to say a word. I’ve already figured everything out. All you have to do is stay there and listen. Maybe you started shoplifting because you were bored. After all, your first theft was shortly after your big fight with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. But that was when you realized something, wasn’t it? You-”
“SHUT UP!” Sweetie Belle screamed. “Just… shut up! What do you want from me!?” she asked frantically. “Do you want me to apologize? To say I’m sorry? To beg for forgiveness? Well, I’m not!” She stamped a hoof firmly. “And I won’t!”
Cheerilee went silent, watching Sweetie Belle’s reaction. “Is that what you think?” she asked eventually. “That throwing a tantrum is going to make everything better? That you can just act as you like without any repercussions coming back to you? That all the pain you’ve caused will just be swept under the rug if you ignore it?” Slamming a hoof against the arm of her chair, her voice suddenly rose to a shout. “You need to grow up! You can’t be a brat forever!”
“What do you know?” Sweetie Belle shrieked furiously. “You think you know me, but you know nothing about me! You don’t care about me, you never did! You never cared about any of us! Why did you even come back!?”
Cheerilee sighed, leaning against the back of her chair. The anger went out of her eyes as she stared at the furious young mare before her. “…You’re right,” she admitted at length. “I never really cared about any of you. I only thought I did. Maybe if I had, I never would have let myself get transferred out. Maybe none of this would have happened if I had.”
What is she saying? Sweetie Belle wondered. Her anger slowly faded like a roaring fire, unable to sustain itself without being continuously fed. “So what now?” she asked warily.
“We can do nothing to change the past,” Cheerilee pulled out a sheet of paper from where it had been hidden in her mane, “so we can only focus on the future. Namely, your future.”
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. Oh boy, here it comes, she thought sardonically. Been down this road before. Now she’s going to yak about how I need to ‘shape up’, but she’s not actually going to do anything about it.
“Which is why,” Cheerilee continued, waving the piece of paper. “I had a little talk with Rarity last night. From what she told me, neither she nor her parents have been paying you a great deal of attention, is that right?” She gave Sweetie Belle a look.
Sweetie Belle shrugged carelessly. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Cheerilee returned her gaze to the paper. “I thought so. It seems to me that what you need is more adult interaction. Somepony that can give you the attention you need.”
“Uh-huh.” Sweetie Belle grunted, barely listening to what Cheerilee was saying.
“And that’s why,” Cheerilee wrapped up with gusto, clearly savoring the bombshell she was about to drop, “I persuaded your parents and your sister to grant me full legal authority over you.” She smirked predatorily. “You’ll be moving in with me from today on.”
“That’s ni- WHAT!?”
“Oh, it wasn’t easy,” Cheerilee said, dismissive of Sweetie Belle’s panicked reaction. “First, I had to convince Rarity that this was necessary, and then I had to convince Twilight to teleport me to your parents so I could convince them as well. Really,” she muttered to herself, “unicorns get all the fun, and alicorns are even worse. Teleportation, telekinesis, invisibility, flight… I tell you, Sweetie Belle, life just isn’t fair.”
Sweetie Belle’s mind had tangled itself into a cluttered mess, unable to sort her thoughts into any reasonable order. I- But- I can’t- No way- This- They wouldn’t just- “You’re lying!” she screeched, clinging on to that last thought, her voice rising to a fever pitch. “They wouldn’t abandon me like this!”
“’Abandon’?” Cheerilee repeated, one eyebrow slowly rising. “When did I say that? This is only temporary, just until I can fix your behavior trouble. Well, you won’t be able to see them until we’re done, since you might fall back into bad habits, but that’s alright. It shouldn’t take more than a few months to fix you.”
“I-I don’t need to be fixed!” The world felt like it was closing in on Sweetie Belle. She felt the cool wood of the door bump into her rump as the edges of her vision started to fade. This can’t be happening! It can’t- This has to be a dream! Wake up! Wake up! Despite her earnest wishes, the room remained distressingly solid around her.
“What’s wrong?” Cheerilee asked, leaning forward in her chair. “You seem distraught. I thought you didn’t care about your family, especially your sister? Surely it shouldn’t matter to you if you don’t have to see them? If you cared about them, why did you deliberately do something that would hurt them so much?”
“I… I just…” Tears pooled in the depths of Sweetie Belle’s green eyes. Her knees shook beneath her, threatening to give out on her. This- I never meant for this to happen! I… I… “I…”
“Yes…?” Cheerilee pressed, her eyes shimmering with interest. “You just…? Just what? Go on,” she added, her tone slightly more gentle than before. “Say it.”
“I JUST WANTED MY SISTER TO NOTICE ME!” Sweetie Belle screamed. She glared at Cheerilee, tears falling unheeded from her eyes. Her knees had stopped shaking, and she stood firm as she shouted at her teacher. “She’s always locked away, working on her dresses! She’s never willing to so much as give me the time of day! Even now that I live with her, I’m lucky to see her even once a day. It’s like she doesn’t even know I exist! At least she talks to me now!” After years of bottling it up inside her, her emotions poured out of her in an uncontrolled torrent. “So what if she’s angry with me? At least she acknowledges my existence!” Sweetie Belle was reduced to breathless panting after her emotional outburst, feeling emotionally drained and empty.
Cheerilee remained unfazed throughout Sweetie Belle’s screaming, her expression only revealing a mild interest. The seconds slowly ticked past before she released the paper she was holding, letting it flutter to the ground in front of Sweetie Belle. “There it is,” she said calmly. “That’s the reaction I was looking for.”
Sweetie Belle looked down at the paper, her eyes narrowing in confusion. It clearly stated that Cheerilee would be responsible for taking care of Sweetie Belle from today’s date on. What was strange about it was that the entire page had been written in crayon.
Before she could ask what Cheerilee meant, Sweetie Belle felt somepony grab her from behind and pull her into a tight hug. Looking up at whoever had suddenly grabbed her, she gasped in surprise at the sight of the familiar white unicorn holding her. “Ra…rity?” she asked, her voice shaking unsteadily from the emotional purge she had just gone through.
“I’m sorry,” Rarity whispered, holding Sweetie Belle as tightly as she could. “I am so, so sorry. I had no idea I was hurting you so much. Could you ever forgive me?”
“When did you get here?” Sweetie Belle asked, still too shocked by Rarity’s sudden appearance to realize what it meant. “When did you even get here?”
“Oh Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said, pulling her head back so she could look Sweetie Belle in the eyes. Her blue eyes glistened with unshed tears that she was obviously fighting to hold back. “I’ve been here from the beginning. I got here even before you did.”
“I- But- Huh? What?” Sweetie Belle asked, now thoroughly confused. She had been sure when she entered the building that there had been no one inside besides her and Cheerilee.
“I said it earlier,” Cheerilee said, climbing down from her chair and making her way towards the sisters. A genuine smile spread on her face as she looked down at the confused young unicorn held the elder mare’s grip. “Unicorns are dirty cheaters, and alicorns are even worse. Flight, telekinesis, invisibility...” Stressing the last word, she walked past the pair, opening the doorway and exiting into the afternoon sunlight.
Closing the door behind her, Cheerilee let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t been sure that would work, nor how hard she could have pushed without breaking poor Sweetie Belle. She had nearly cheered when she heard Sweetie Belle’s anguished declaration, since it meant that she wouldn’t need to act like the bad pony anymore. Her job was done. Whatever happened now, it would be up to those two to make it happen.
“Thanks for your help,” she said to no one in particular. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
The air beside Cheerilee shimmered and blurred, the light stretching and warping as something slowly appeared in its place. A flash of violet appeared, quickly spreading until Twilight’s form was suddenly standing on the wooden walkway. The alicorn looked back at the closed door behind them, her expression reflecting her unease. “Do you think they’ll be able to handle it?”
“They’ll have to,” Cheerilee replied, stepping off the walkway and onto the dirt beyond. “If we try to force change on them, we won’t be able to do anything to change their hearts. They’ll have to do that on their own.” She smiled. “At least now they’ll have each other.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.” Twilight stretched her wings, her feathers ruffling in the slight breeze. “It just seems like there’s more that we should do.”
“Trust your friend a little, Twilight,” Cheerilee chided. After she had heard the story from Rarity, it had been easy for her to figure out the cause. It was a common story, one she had heard in many a student before. The only problem had been getting Sweetie Belle to admit it in front of Rarity. Having Twilight cast an invisibility spell over herself and Rarity had solved that problem easily. “Now that she knows what the problem is, I don’t think there’ll be any need to worry. After all,” she let out a little laugh, “that was why you asked me here.”
“Huh?” Twilight asked, suddenly flustered. “What do you- what do you mean?”
“Oh, come off it, Twilight,” Cheerilee said, giving the Princess a small half-frown. “Don’t even try. I know you brought me here to fix your friends’ problems with their sisters. If all you wanted was for me to teach a class, you wouldn’t have gone through all the effort of lying to your friends about who I was that first day or asking the principal to let me teach. It was obvious that you had some sort of personal stake in having me here. Once I figured that much out, the rest was easy.”
Twilight hung her head in shame. “I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice.
Cheerilee brushed off Twilight’s apology. “I forgive you. You were just being a good friend.”
“Okay, well, um…” Twilight scratched at the dirt awkwardly. “About Applejack…”
“Ha!” Cheerilee let out a bark of laughter. “You really do have high expectations of me. Don’t worry, I’ll visit Applejack’s tomorrow, see what I can do for Apple Bloom. Can’t have one of my students playing truant, after all.”
“Thanks.” Her worries put to rest, Twilight shot Cheerilee a sardonic little look. “By the way, what was that crack about unicorns earlier?
“’Fraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cheerilee said with a chuckle. Her body suddenly felt a lot lighter and she could no longer feel the scratching of the dirt against her hooves. Looking down, she saw that Twilight had grabbed her with her magic and floated her into the air. She crossed her forelegs and glared playfully at Twilight. “Oh, you mean the ‘dirty, cheater unicorn’ comment? I stand by it.”
Twilight laughed before gently placing Cheerilee back down on the ground. “Aw,” she said teasingly, you’re going to make me cry.”
“Uh huh.” Rolling her eyes, Cheerilee suddenly turned to look at Twilight. “Oh, do you mind if I borrow Spike for the afternoon?” she asked. “There’s something I want his help with.”
Twilight tilted her head, surprised at the sudden request. “Well, alright, I guess. You’ll have to ask him, but it’s okay with me. What do you want him for, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Cheerilee gave Twilight a furtive grin. Brushing her mane back out of her eyes, her hoof lingered for a moment over her right eye. Pushing her feelings aside, she quickly shook them off. “I’ve got a promise to keep,” she said secretively.
“Aww,” Twilight groaned in mock disappointment, “spoilsport.” The pair continued teasing each other all the way back to Twilight’s library, neither of them truly realizing that at some point along their walk, they quickly became close friends. Cheerilee wouldn’t realize it until later, but this would be a turning point in the chaotic upcoming months of her life.
Birds twitted and flew about Cheerilee’s head as she walked down the empty road. She frowned and waved a hoof at them, chasing the irritants away. “It’s way too early to deal with this,” she grumbled. Her bleary eyes blinked sleepily as she nearly staggered off the pathway. “The sun’s not even up. Why am I awake before Princess Celestia?”
“Life on th’ farm starts bright and early,” a sickeningly cheerful voice said from behind her. Cheerilee turned her head to glare at the creature walking behind her, a demon in pony form, who had cruelly stolen her away from her comfortable bed to go on this unwelcome excursion. Oh, she might wear a friendly face, but no reasonable mare could possibly be this perky at this time of day.
“Do I look like a farm pony?” Cheerilee complained, her tail sharply swishing back and forth in irritation. “If there isn’t any coffee waiting for me at the end of this road, I’m going to find a tree and fall asleep in it.”
Applejack chuckled, slapping heartily on Cheerilee’s back. “Well, all ya need is some toughening up. Good food always tastes better after a hard day’s work.”
“And good coffee always tastes better before doing anything,” Cheerilee grumbled. “Why am I out here without any coffee?” Her voice took on a plaintive whine as she shot Applejack a pleading look, silently begging for the cruel mare to release her from her torment.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Applejack assured her, oblivious to Cheerilee’s silent pleas. “We’ll get ya yer coffee. We got a big pot on the boil waiting for ya at the farm.”
“Super,” Cheerilee said flatly. Despite her complaints, her pace picked up quite a bit and Applejack almost had to start jogging to keep up with her. “So why am I out here without any coffee, again?”
“Well, I had heard what ya did fer Rarity and Sweetie Belle,” Applejack began, “and I was hopin’ ya could work yer magic on Apple Bloom.”
“Uh huh,” Cheerilee said, not really paying attention to what Applejack was saying. She was starting to doze off even as she walked and her steps were becoming erratic and uncertain.
“That’s right,” Applejack said, misunderstanding Cheerilee’s grunt as a request for more information. “She just won’t leave the farm anymore. Ah’m at my wit’s end.” She reached up and pulled her hat down over her face. “Ah’m ashamed to have to ask fer help, but Ah don’t know what to do. Could you…” She pushed her hat back, but stopped when she realized that the purple teacher that had been walking in front of her had vanished. Turning around, she saw that Cheerilee had stopped in the middle of the road with her head down. “Hey. Are ya okay?” Applejack asked, walking back to Cheerilee.
“Ah!” Cheerilee proclaimed, slamming her empty coffee mug on the table in front of her. “I feel like a new mare!”
“Ah’ll just bet,” Applejack said from her seat beside Cheerilee. Her sides were streaked with the faint hint of sweat, and her breathing was just a little bit heavier than usual. “Ah can’t believe Ah had to carry ya all the way here. Ain’t never seen anypony just fall asleep in the middle of the road like that before. Thought’d be simple, but nooooooooo, have to make this difficult. ‘Specially since ya weigh a lot more than Ah thought ya would. It was like trying to lug Big Mac around.”
“Why, Applejack,” Cheerilee said, adopting a snooty, high-class posh accent and sticking her nose in the air. “Don’t you know it’s rude to talk to a lady about her weight?” The two of them sat at the dining table inside Applejack’s house, an empty coffee pot sitting in front of Cheerilee’s seat. The light yellow drapes fluttered gently in the early morning breeze, giving the room a very down-to-earth feeling.
“Does a lady normally drink enough coffee for four ponies?” Applejack asked sarcastically, gesturing at the empty coffee pot. “Granny’s the only pony here who normally drinks that stuff.”
Taking the hint, Cheerilee stood up to start making more coffee. Pouring about one cup’s worth of beans into the grinder, she grabbed the hoof-crank on the side and started turning it. “So,” she asked Applejack as the sound of grinding coffee beans filled the kitchen, “what’s the problem with Apple Bloom? I know she hasn’t been showing up to school lately, but that’s about it.”
Applejack groaned, staring despondently at her hat on the table. “What’s the problem with Apple Bloom? Ain’t that the million-bit question?” With a depressed sigh, she began to run her hoof in circles on the tabletop. “Ah think there’s something she’s scared of, but that’s all Ah really know fer sure.”
“Scared?” Cheerilee repeated, looking over at Applejack. The sound of grinding stopped for a few seconds before it started up again. The purple mare’s tail twitched as she glanced over at the other mare. “What’s she scared about?”
“Ah wish Ah knew,” Applejack said with a groan. “Ah asked her about it once, and she just acted like she didn’t know what Ah was talking about.” Her head thudded dully against the table, and her next words were muffled by the wooden counter. “Ah’m jest at the end of my rope, here.”
“Fear, huh?” Cheerilee mused quietly to herself as she turned her attention towards the coffee grinder. If Apple Bloom was refusing to leave her house, then fear was certainly the likeliest reason. But what could the filly be so scared of? As she was pondering that question, a masculine voice with a slow drawl filtered into the kitchen.
“Applejack, the jars of honey are ready for storage. Where do you-” The voice cut off, followed by the sound of breaking glass. “You!”
Cheerilee sighed and turned around, already knowing what she was going to see. As she expected, Applejack’s older brother stood in the kitchen’s entranceway, his short blonde mane failing to cover his clear green eyes. Big Macintosh was the buffest pony in town thanks to all the work he did on the farm, and was arguably the cornerstone of Sweet Apple Acres. Five years ago, his muscular physique and handsome features had made him the most sought-after stallion in town. He wasn’t the greatest conversationalist in the world, but he had always been there if you needed an ear to bend.
He looked almost the same as Cheerilee remembered, other than the gobsmacked expression on his face. If anything, the intervening years had only added more muscle to his frame, giving him an almost rugged look. He stared in shock at the school teacher, taking a slow step towards her, completely heedless of the broken glass all around his hooves. “Cheerilee,” he whispered quietly, as if he could barely believe what he was seeing.
“Big Mac,” Cheerilee said simply, returning her attention back to the coffee grinder.
“It is you,” he said softly, standing beside her. Cautiously reaching out a hoof as if he was afraid she might vanish at any moment, he gently ran his hoof through her mane. When she didn’t respond, he reached up and gently tucked her mane behind one ear. “I thought I would never see you again.”
“Maybe that would have been better,” Cheerilee said, stepping out of his reach. She continued to stare down at the floor, either unable or unwilling to look him in the eye. “I’m not the same mare you used to know.”
“No,” Big Mac replied, stepping closer to her and laying his hoof lightly on her back. “You’re still the same mare I fell in love with.”
With a quick shake of her body, Cheerilee threw off his hoof. Before he could react, she ducked under the outstretched limb, nodding at Applejack as she strode out the door. “I’ll go talk to Apple Bloom,” she said curtly. “If I need to ask you anything, I’ll let you know.”
Applejack stared at the doorway before slowly turning he gaze to her brother. She had known there had been… something between her brother and Miss Cheerilee back in the day, but it looked like things were different then she had thought. “Is there something Ah should know about?”
Big Mac turned away from her, gripping the coffee crank and slowly beginning to turn it. “Nope.”
Cheerilee made sure she was out of sight of the house before she ducked behind a nearby apple tree, collapsing on her hindquarters. Stupid! she thought, mentally cursing herself. Of course he would still be here! Where else would he have gone? She pressed a hoof over her heart – she could feel it pounding like it was about to leap right out of her chest. When Big Mac had touched her, she had nearly broken down right then and there. She just wanted to hug him tight, to apologize to him. For him to hold her and tell her that everything would be alright, just like he always had.
“No,” she whispered to herself. Her head dropped, her chin falling limply against her chest. Big Mac deserved far better than her. She had caused too much pain, too much suffering for everything to ever be alright ever again. Cheerilee wrapped her forelegs around her hindlegs, drawing her knees in close to her body.
“What do you think you can do for him?” she whispered harshly, her voice quivering with suppressed emotion. “He’s a wonderful stallion. You?” She laughed bitterly, smiling despite the tears that threatened to pour from her eyes. “You’re a failed teacher. You’ve got nothing. Everything you’ve got now is only because somepony’s given it to you.”
Her body started to shake as she hugged her hindlegs even tighter against her. “You own nothing in this world. Big Mac deserves far better then you. He deserves somepony who can be there for him, who can help him when he needs it. What could you possible do for him? Could you comfort him when he needs it? Could you be a pillar for him to stand on?”
“Of course not,” she said, answering her own question. “You’re a pathetic wreck of a mare that couldn’t even do the one thing she set out to do. What could you possible give him? What could I possible give him?” A frantic edge entered her voice as she finally stopped referring to herself as “you”, completely destroying the disconnected dispassion she had tried to hold. She clenched her head in her hooves, her voice rising to a high pitched shriek as her emotions finally broke. “I’m nothing more than a worthless murderer!”
Tears began to run down her cheeks, big fat drops slowly falling to stain the ground below. “What students?” she choked out, barely suppressing a sob. “What teacher?” They didn’t know what she had done. If they had, there was no way any of them would have let her anywhere near the children. Maybe she should just run away.
Maybe that would be best.
“Well, there’s a face I never thought I would see again. You’re that teacher, ain’tcha?”
Cheerilee’s head shot up at the unexpected voice. Her tears blurred her vision, preventing her from making out the speaker. Wiping them away, she blinked as the other pony quickly came into focus.
With her light green coat and white mane and tail down up in a bun, Granny Smith was an unmistakable figure in Ponyville. By far the oldest living pony in town, her saggy skin limply held onto her shriveled frame. She pushed a walker in front of her as she slowly made her over to Cheerilee. Cheerilee made to stand up as the elderly mare approached, wanting to treat the venerable figure with respect.
Granny Smith was having none of it. “Now don’t you go standing up on my account,” she complained. “In fact, I think I’ll join you. Just wait right there.” Granny Smith slowly shuffled over to Cheerilee’s side at the base of the tree before lowering herself onto the ground, her joints cracking and popping as she inched her way down.
Cheerilee watched the whole process with concern. As Granny Smith began to sit down, Cheerilee moved to help her but a stern look from the elderly mare had her beating a quiet retreat.
“Ahh,” Granny Smith sighed as she reclined against the tree trunk. “That feels good. I tell you, youngster, don’t ever let yourself get old. It’s not worth it.”
“Are you sure you should be out here?” Cheerilee asked in concern. It looked like the mere act of walking was a trial for the old pony.
Granny Smith snorted in annoyance. “Hmph. Don’t go burying me yet, youngster. I get enough of that from my grandkids. I had to sneak out of the house just so they would stop hounding me. I just want to walk in peace, thank you very much.”
Cheerilee laughed weakly. “I see. Sounds like you’re doing well for yourself.”
“’Course I am,” Granny Smith said, sounding satisfied with herself. “I helped my pappy grow this farm with my own four hooves when I was just a filly, and I’m going to keep walking it ‘till the day I die. What about you?” she asked, looking over at Cheerilee. “What are you here for? Going to finally patch things up with Big Mac?”
“I…” Cheerilee trailed off in the silence. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. No.”
Granny Smith gave Cheerilee a meaningful look before turning her attention upwards, watching the morning sun through the gently swaying leaves. Minutes passed in silence as the breeze played in the trees, the shadows dancing on the ground like playful parasprites. “You hurt him, you know.”
Cheerilee stared down at the ground, unable to say anything.
“He kept hopin’ you would write him back,” Granny Smith continued. “Month after month, he would keep writing to you, hopin’ that one day you would finally return. As the months turned into years, he finally gave up.” She sighed, groaning as she absently kicked at her walker. “I ain’t never seen him that sad since the day his pappy died.”
Cheerilee remained silent, still unable to say anything. She knew what Granny Smith was talking about. She had received the letters, but she had never opened a single one. “Maybe that’s all I’m good for,” she muttered quietly. “Hurting ponies.”
Cheerilee stared at Granny Smith in surprise, not sure if she had heard the elderly mare correctly. “…Pardon?”
“You heard me. Hooey.” Granny Smith poked her hoof hard into Cheerilee’s chest. “You’re a sweet mare, and don’t you be thinking otherwise. My grandson wouldn’t fall in love with just any dame off the street.”
Grinning in rueful amusement as she rubbed the sore spot on her chest, Cheerilee decided to try teasing the older pony. “It takes a special dame off the street for your grandson to fall in love?”
Granny Smith snorted. “Too right! And don’t give me any of this woe-is-me pity party. I don’t want to hear it. You’re a kind mare who would easily go out of her way to help anypony in need.”
“I just… I don’t know,” Cheerilee sighed, slumping forward. “Maybe I used to be, but now? What could I possible do for anypony else? OW!”
“I said no pity party,” Granny Smith said, giving her hoof a little shake.
Cheerilee silently stared at the older mare in surprise, rubbing the sore spot on her forehead where Granny Smith had just struck her.
“Now you listen up, and listen good,” Granny Smith said, a scolding tone entering her aged voice. “You keep talking like you’re not good enough, but that’s a big ol’ pile of nonsense. You think nopony’ll be hurt if you just up and vanish? Hooey!” She hocked and spat on the ground beside her. She became more and more animated the more she talked, spittle flying freely from her mouth “Ya already got ponies that care about ya, and I know fer a fact ya’ve already made a difference it at least one young life. And there’s a lot more that’re just waitin’ for ya, even if they don’t know it.”
An image of Sweetie Belle flashed in front of Cheerilee’s eyes before she could suppress it, the cute young mare crying openly as she hugged her older sister. One memory led into another and soon a parade of images sped through Cheerilee’s mind. From Rarity to Fluttershy, to Twilight, to Pinkie. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo, Dinky, Derpy, Pipsqueak, Twist, Snips, and Snails. Even Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara passed through her mind for an instant before fading out, blow away by the cool wind rustling through the apple trees.
Cheerilee sighed, letting her head sag forward. “Maybe you’re right,” she admitted.
“’Darn tootin’ I’m right!”
Cheerilee smiled at the green pony’s confident proclamation. “So then what?”
Granny Smith shrugged. “Not my problem. You figure out what you’re going to do with Big Mac. And go talk to Apple Bloom! That’s what you’re here for, ain’t it?”
“I… alright.” Letting her head rest against the cool bark of the apple tree, Cheerilee reached up and rubbed away the last traces of the tears staining her face. When Granny Smith put it that way, she only had two real choices. She could stay in Ponyville and try to be the teacher the children needed, or she could return to her old life. Using the tree as leverage, Cheerilee pushed herself to a standing position. She wouldn’t return to that life. “Anything I can get you before I go?”
Waving off Cheerilee’s offer of assistance, Granny Smith leaned back against the apple tree. “Just let me know when you patch things up with Big Mac. And do it quickly! I want grandfoals before I die.”
“You have grandfoals,” Cheerilee pointed out with a smile.
“Great-grandfoals, then,” Granny Smith huffed without any hesitation, crossing her forelegs and shooting Cheerilee an annoyed look.
Shaking her head in amusement, Cheerilee began walking through the rows upon rows of apple trees. Maybe a good walk was what she needed to help clear her head.
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.
Silence filled the first floor of the town library, the only sound the scratching of quill against parchment as Cheerilee wrote out her lesson plans for the next week. Helping her students overcome their personal problems was fun and all, but she still had her duties to them as an educator to think about. There was a storm going on outside that was blowing hard enough to make the windows rattle, making today a perfect day to stay inside and focus on work. Yes, today was all about productivity. Absolutely nothing would be allowed to distract her.
"Cheerilee!" The door to the library burst open with a howl of wind as Twilight threw the door open, a strong gust of wind screaming into the library and blowing the parchments Cheerilee was writing on in every direction possible. Her hard work flying through the air like leaves in autumn, Cheerilee turned to give the new arrival a flat look.
"Ehehehe, sorry." Twilight sheepishly laughed before using her magic to gather up every loose piece of paper and placed them in a neat pile in front of Cheerilee.
Cheerilee sighed and cleaned the ink off the tip of her quill. "It's alright, Twilight. I was nearly finished anyway."
Grabbing a nearby towel and quickly drying herself off, Twilight walked up beside Cheerilee as the schoolteacher slid the quill out of sight. "So what are you working on?" She skimmed the first page and her face lit up like a candle flame. "Oh, are you planning lessons for the children? Any idea what you're going to teach them?"
"Nothing yet," Cheerilee admitted. She slid her chair back and stood up, her back and limbs popping in a pleasant manner as she moved for the first time in hours. "I need to know how everypony's doing first. I'm making up some tests that should give me an idea on how far they are."
"Mmm." Twilight distractedly flipped through the pages Cheerilee had written out. "It looks like you've got a good variety of subjects. History, math, biology, social studies..."
Feeling somewhat self-conscious, Cheerilee hurriedly took the sheaf of papers out of Twilight's grip. She was mostly comfortable with the idea of Twilight being a Princess, but there was something in her that made having a Princess go over her lesson plans just feel wrong. "Right." Cheerilee coughed before putting the papers aside. "Anyway, what were you so excited about earlier, Twilight? And what were you even doing out in this-" She had to pause as a booming blast of thunder echoed throughout the house. "-this weather?"
"Oh, that's right!" Cheerilee squeaked as Twilight threw herself on her, the bookworm grabbing Cheerilee in a most unprincessly hug. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
Cheerilee tried to squirm out of Twilight's grip, but the strength of the alicorn meant that would be impossible without hurting her. "What - oof - What are you - agh - What are you thanking me for?" She felt something inside her give and cried out in pain. "My ribs!"
Twilight realized she was squeezing a bit too hard and quickly jumped off of Cheerilee. "Ohmygoodness, are you okay? I'm sorry, I didn't mean it!"
"It's- it's fine," Cheerilee reassured Twilight as she stood up, giving the flustered mare an encouraging smile. "See? No harm done." That's going to leave a bruise.
"Are you sure?" Twilight asked, looking contrite. Her head was lowered apologetically, her ears were pressed flat against her mane, and even her wings drooped sorrowfully as she looked up at the earth pony with eyes that pleaded for forgiveness. Altogether, she looked exactly like one of Cheerilee's students that had done something wrong and was sorry for it, so much so that Cheerilee couldn't help but release a snort of laughter.
"It's fine, Twilight, it's fine. No harm done." She scooted over to the large plush couch that stood off by its lonesome on one side of the library - perfect for ponies who wish to read something in comfort, so Twilight claimed - and dropped herself on it. "So what are you thanking me for? And no hugging this time."
Twilight still look regretful, but sat down next to Cheerilee anyway. "I was over at Applejack's farm," she explained. Seeing that Cheerilee nodded in understanding, she continued with more confidence. "Applejack told me what you had suggested for Apple Bloom, so I brought Spike over to see her. After what you did... Applejack's family looked happier than I've seen then in months!"
"Spike?" Cheerilee asked, noticing for the first time that Twilight had come home alone. "Where is that oversized reptile, anyways?"
Twilight giggled. "Cheerilee, that's terrible!"
Cheerilee flashed an unrepentant smirk. "You laughed," she pointed out.
Twilight smiled ruefully, shaking her head. "Spike's staying at the farm tonight. When I suggested the idea that he make friends with Apple Bloom, he was so eager to get started right away." A relieved smile spread across her face as she back against the couch cushions. "He's really so helpful."
Unnoticed by Twilight, Cheerilee was staring at her with unfriendly eyes. Are you really so blind, Princess? However, Cheerilee chose to keep her personal thoughts private. Scolding a parent or family member was something she was used to doing, but doing the same thing to a Princess was something she didn't feel her position was secure enough for, especially since Spike wasn't actually one of her students.
However, he is my friend, she scolded herself. Memories of that day after she returned to Ponyville, of that clumsy, earnest dragon three times her size looking down at her with concern in his eyes as he handed her a cup of coffee came to her.
"Cheerilee?" Twilight asked, noticing the teacher's sudden silence.
But am I sure this is the right idea? Cheerilee silently wondered, ignoring Twilight's concerned looks. Do I really think I know better than the Princesses? "Twilight?" Cheerilee asked, making sure to keep her emotions out of her voice. Twilight might be completely oblivious when it came to other ponies' emotions, but Cheerilee wasn't going to take any chances. She didn't want to risk offending Equestria's youngest Princess, and she already knew this was a bit of a sore point for the alicorn. The easiest, and safest, thing Cheerilee could do would be to let the subject lie where it was. But... "What is Spike to you?"
"Huh?" Twilight blinked. "Well, he's my Number One Assistant, obviously."
"And?" Cheerilee pressed. "Is that all he is to you? You don't think of him like family?"
"Of course he's family!" Twilight protested, offended. "He's like the little brother I never had!"
"Brother, huh..." Cheerilee hopped off the couch. Twilight followed her with her eyes as the older mare crossed the room and popped open the small bag that hung from a small hook. Since all her material possessions from her old home had gotten shipped to the Crystal Empire in a clerical error, this one bag that she had brought with her was now all she had. A moment's digging led to her finding what she was looking for, and without any hesitation she pulled out a cigarette and popped the end in her mouth.
Twilight wrinkled her nose as Cheerilee pulled out a box of matches. "Do you have to do that inside?" she grumbled as Cheerilee lit up.
"It's raining outside," Cheerilee pointed out. Taking a deep inhalation, she let the smoky substance fill her lungs for several seconds before releasing it. She knew it was bad for her body, but it helped her relax, and right now, she needed to be as relaxed as possible. lest she say something she'd regret. "Getting back on topic, if you're Spike's sister, than who's his mother figure?"
"Well, that would be..." Twilight considered for a second, tilting her head thoughtfully. "Probably Princess Celestia. She was the one who took care of him before I was old enough to, after all."
Thought so. Cheerilee felt absolutely no satisfaction in being right. After all, there was no reason to be happy over what she saw as the worst-case scenario. "Have you ever considered enrolling Spike in school?"
"Huh?" Twilight scratched the back of his head. "Well, no," she admitted. "I've been home-schooling him myself and taught him everything he needs to know. He's probably seven or eight years ahead of most ponies his age. Why do you ask?"
Because he desperately needs the company of ponies in his own age group, and if you're too much of an idiot to notice that, my respect for both you and his mother is going to plummet, Cheerilee most certainly did not say. Insulting a Princess? Bad idea. Insulting two Princesses in a single breath? Worse idea. Insulting two Princesses, when Cheerilee barely had a bit to her name and was currently living under the roof of one of those Princesses? Absolutely horrible idea.
Thankfully, Cheerilee had a second avenue of offensive she could take. "It's for Apple Bloom's sake," she said, lying through her teeth without an ounce of regret. "If her friends are going to school with her, I think it'll be easier to keep her from locking herself on the farm. Surely you, of all ponies, can understand the power of friendship?" Except when the issue's right under your nose, apparently, she mentally added with more than a hint of scorn.
"Well..." Twilight was clearly wavering on the idea, so Cheerilee decided to push a little harder.
"I'm a little worried," she added, forcing as much concern as she could into her voice. Seeing that Twilight was hanging on her every word, Cheerilee paused to take a deep drag on her cigarette. "Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are going to be in the same class, after all," she pointed out, blowing out a lungful of smoke. "I don't know how Apple Bloom's going to react when she sees her former friends again, but I know she'll do better with friends of her own at her side."
"I... you're right." Twilight's horn lit up and a piece of parchment and quill floated past Cheerilee to her. "If it's for Apple Bloom's sake, I'm sure Spike will agree." Scratching filled the library as Twilight started to write. "I can send Princess Celestia a letter and ask her what she thinks. She'll probably go along with it, though." The scratching stopped and Twilight stared at Cheerilee over the floating parchment. "But are you sure about this, Cheerilee? Spike probably already knows everything you'll be teaching the class, so he'll probably get bored pretty quickly. Do you really think you'll be able to handle him?"
"I'll think of something," Cheerilee said with a casual shrug. Truth be told, she wasn't too worried about having a bored dragon desperate for something to do in her classroom. That wasn't something to fear. That said, she now officially dreaded the next parent-teacher meeting: 'Hello Princess Celestia, I need to talk to you talk to you about your son.'
"Cheerilee," Twilight said, sounding unimpressed. "This is important. Do you really think you can take care of Spike?"
Well, Cheerilee? the earth pony mare asked herself. Do you? If you go through with this, there will be no turning back. Do this, and you'll be putting yourself squarely in the line of sight of all the Princesses. Any hope you had of avoiding them will be lost. Maybe it's not as bad as you think it is. Maybe Spike'll be able to get himself through this without any help. Any even if he couldn't, what makes you think you'd be able to help him?
There was silence in the library for several seconds as Cheerilee seriously considered Twilight's question. She was about to open her mouth and tell Twilight that she didn't think it was such a good idea when she thought she heard something through the pounding rain. Her ears flicked and she strained to hear it again, but when it didn't repeat, she realized she had only imagined the sound. After that, it only took her a few seconds to realize what the imagined noise had been.
It was the sound of a certain dinky little unicorn filly, crying miserably in the rain.
Cheerilee couldn't help but laugh at herself. I've already lost my chance to go back, she admitted silently. It wasn't a pleasant thought, but nor was it entirely unpleasant. The only way for me to get out of this is forward.
"Yes," she said resolutely. "I'm sure."
"Where do you want this?" Spike asked. In his claws, he held Twilight's spare desk above his head, careful not to drop the piece of furniture on the much smaller individual present.
Cheerilee glanced over the basement before pointing at the wall. "Just slip it over there, that should give me plenty of room." She stayed out of the way as the dragon carefully placed the desk on the floor. "Thanks for helping me, Spike." she said as she helped slide it into place. "I really appreciate it."
It was a day later, and Twilight had decided to give Cheerilee the basement to use as a workspace. School had already ended for the day and Cheerilee was pretty sure she has a good idea on the education level her students were at. There were a few topics each of them could improve on, but overall, they were at the level they were supposed to be. Knowing that was a weight off the teacher's back since it allowed her to plan for the future without needing to worry too much about who was falling behind. Apple Bloom still hadn't shown up to school, but Cheerilee hadn't really expected that she would.
"No problem, Miss Cheerilee." Spike smirked, giving her that not-quite comfortable looking grin of his that pointedly hid all his teeth. "Or I should I call you Teacher from now on?"
"Cheerilee's fine," the mare in question grunted as she gave the heavy desk a push. "I'm still not comfortable being called a teacher." Satisfied with the placement of her desk, she hopped up on it. Standing tall on her hind legs, she was just able to look Spike in the eyes. She wasn't used to the position, though, and had to use her forelegs to steady herself against the dragon's chest. "But what about you, Spike? I know Princess Twilight and Princess Celestia are on board with this, but I never got a chance to ask you your opinion."
"It's alright." Spike shrugged casually. "It's for Apple Bloom's sake, right? Applejack was so grateful when I- oof!" He rubbed at the scales on his chest where Cheerilee had just slugged him.
"That's not what I asked," Cheerilee scolded as she pulled her hoof back for another punch. "I asked if you were okay with this?"
"Isn't there a law about teachers not hitting their students?" Spike grumbled under his breath.
"I'm off the clock. You going to answer the question honestly, or do I have to hit you again?"
"Wouldn't most teachers just threaten to go tell the student's family?" Spike asked, trying another tack.
Cheerilee raised an eyebrow. "Really? You want me to go talk to your family? I don't think Twilight would be happy to hear how you've been hiding your feelings from her for so long."
Spike stiffened before sagging in defeat. "What gave me away?" he asked, looking at Cheerilee with pitiful eyes.
"'Gave you away'?" The earth pony scoffed. "Please. I've worked with so many children and adults trying to hid things from me that I've become pretty good at spotting hidden emotions. Just because you're a dragon doesn't make you any different." She lightly tapped her hoof against Spike's chest. "Guess you're more like us ponies than you fear you are, aren't you?"
Spike laughed. "I wish it were that simple," he admitted with a rueful shake of his head. "But do you really think this is such a good idea? I mean, Twilight probably already told you that I probably already know everything you'll be teaching."
Cheerilee rolled her eyes. "So long as you finish your homework assignments on time and pass all your tests, I could care less if you fell asleep in class. That's not what this is about."
"But what about..." Spike fiddled with his claws as his voice dropped to a scared whisper. "What about the parents of your students? Won't they be upset about having a dragon near their foals?"
Cheerilee's raised eyebrow rose even further, almost disappearing in her maneline. "Let me guess," she said in a complete monotone. "'Ahh, scary monster. Celestia save us from the rampaging dragon. Lock the doors and hide your children. The horror, the horror.' I get that right?"
Spike snorted at Cheerilee's utterly deadpan delivery, releasing a small plume of smoke into the windowless basement. "Something like that."
"I'm not worried." Cheerilee hopped off the desk and walked past Spike, heading for the basement staircase. "If those fools want to complain about one of my students, then I'll deal with them when the time comes." She smirked up at him. "Of course, if they really annoy me, I'll just point them in Twilight's direction and let her deal with it."
Spike burst out laughing. "That's evil," he crowed happily, clutching his sides as he tried in vain to restrain his giggles. "Those poor ponies won't know what hit them."
"Oh, that's not it." Cheerilee's grin turned malicious, a sight that most of her students would have been shocked to see on the formerly kind schoolteacher's face. "I'll be doing to protect them. If they're stupid enough to try and tell me how I should run things in my classroom and have the gall to insult one of my students to my face, then I'd be doing them a favour by letting Twilight Sparkle take care of them."
"Uh... hmm..." Spike nervously shuffled away from Cheerilee, suddenly feeling very aware that he was trapped in a very small room with her between him and the only exit.
"You worry too much, Spike," Cheerilee stated, the anger from a moment before dissipating as quickly as it had appeared. She quickly ascended several steps of the staircase, before turning around when she was about halfway up and able to look down on the dragon. "You're still young; you should enjoy yourself more. Leave the worrying to us adults."
"If only it were that simple," Spike muttered, his hand unconsciously coming up to his own cheek.
Cheerilee climbed the rest of the stairs, gesturing for Spike to follow her. "I see words alone aren't enough. Then I guess I'll just have to prove it to you."
Spike blinked. "How?"
"Hello, Dinky," Cheerilee said brightly. "Is your mother in?"
Cheerilee had dragged Spike out into town with her, ignoring the dragon's protests, and had hauled him all the way to Derpy and Dinky's home. Dinky had been the one to answer when Cheerilee had knocked on the door.
Dinky nodded with a cheerful smile on her face. Having her new teacher show up on her front porch with absolutely zero warning had clearly thrown the young mare for a loop, but she had recovered with impressive speed. "Uh huh. Let me go get her." Turning, the small unicorn vanished into the house.
Spike stood beside Cheerilee, hunched over in such a way as too make himself look smaller and his eyes flicking from shadow to shadow as if he expected somepony to leap out and scream at him at any time. "I really don't think this is such a good idea," he nervously told Cheerilee. "You know what, I'm heading back to the library. Let me know how it goes." Spike tried to make his exit, but a firm yank on his tail caused him to overbalance and fall on his back.
"None of that," Cheerilee mildly scolded as she released the scaly appendage without bothering to actually look in Spike's direction. "If you're too afraid to make the first step, nothing will change. Are you really content with the way you live now, hiding away in your little home and watching as life passes you by?"
Hypocrite, she silently rebuked herself. Those words apply to you just as much as they do him.
"I'm not letting life pass me by." Spike tilted his head so he could frown at Cheerilee from where he lay on the ground. "I have friends, you know."
"You have your sister's friends," Cheerilee countered, pressing her muzzle against Spike's nose. Which is more than I have. Quickly squashing her own personal feelings, she let her voice slip into her lecturing tone. "You hang out with them from time to time but you're not really part of their group."
Spike bared his teeth and let loose a deep, bone-rattling growl from the pits of his throat. "Don't you say that about them," he rumbled with all the anger an insulted dragon could muster. "Don't you dare-"
"Dare what?" Cheerilee snapped. "Speak the truth? Tell you like it is? You act like a pony, but you're not, Spike! You're a dragon! That's a truth you can't simply look away from!"
"Maybe I don't want to be a dragon!" Spike roared loudly that Cheerilee felt her teeth rattling. "I just want to live quietly with my friends!"
"But you are a dragon, Spike," Cheerilee pointed out, offering no room for a rebuttal. "You can't simply pretend that you're not and hope nopony will notice. You can't deny who you are and hope that life will work out for you. You have to trust others enough to believe that they will accept you for who you are. Hiding your feeling, emotions, and even your true self from others is the same as saying you don't trust them at all! You have... to..." Cheerilee choked on a sob, teardrops spilling from her eyes.
Spike stared at the mare standing above him, all his fury disappearing like mist in a rainstorm as he felt the earth pony's tears splattering against his thick scales. "Cheerilee?" he asked, his voice filled with uncertainty. "Are we still talking about me, or...?"
"Um... is this a bad time?"
Cheerilee and Spike looked up to see Derpy standing in the entranceway. The pegasus's gaze slowly shifted from one to the other, giving both of them a confused look.
"No, not at all," Cheerilee said, quickly wiping the tears out of her eyes as she moved away from Spike. "I... um... just wanted to say hello! Yes. That's right. How are you doing, Der-" Cheerilee spotted Dinky glaring at her from over her mother's back and hastily edited what she was going to say. "Ditzy? I said Ditzy."
"Oh. I'm doing well, thank you. And hello to you both." Derpy's mouth spread in a honest, happy smile. "What can I do for you?"
Cheerilee shuffled her legs nervously, suddenly left feeling very unsure about what she was going to say. The mental script she had penned had been tattered and filled with holes by her emotional outburst, leaving her to try and hastily scrape something together. She never was good at improv. "Well, I was wondering..." Was wondering WHAT? "If you... um... wanted to... toooooooooooo... drink coffee!"
Derpy cocked her head. "Coffee?"
"Yes! Coffee! Drink! With me!" Realizing how sporadic she was sounding, Cheerilee stopped talking and took a moment to collect her thoughts. "Ditzy," she said after taking a deep breath to calm herself. "Would you like to go get some coffee with me?"
"I don't know," Derpy hedged, looking uncertainly back at her house. "I should start making supper soon."
"No worries," Cheerilee said with a smile. "Spike can take care of it."
Spike blinked, suddenly hearing his name dragged into the conversation. "What?"
Cheerilee grabbed Spike's head, pulling him down so that she could whisper into his ear-frills. "You wanted proof that ponies won't care about you being in my class?" she hissed. "Here it is. If Derpy is willing to trust you enough to leave you alone with her daughter while she and I go into town, then I would think that would be more than enough proof."
"She's not going to just agree to that," Spike hissed back. "That's way too suspicious."
Cheerilee and Spike turned to stare at Derpy. "What?" Spike said blankly for the second time in a row.
"I said okay," Derpy replied with a cheerful smile. "If it's Spike, I'm sure everything will be okay."
Dinky interceded from behind Derpy, giving her mom a odd look. "Huh? But mom, you-" That was as far as she got before being interrupted by a mouthful of feathers.
"Shhh, Muffin," Derpy shushed her daughter with a pleasant grin and an upraised wing. "I'll just be gone for a little while. You'll be fine with Mister Spike, right?"
"Well ,yeah but-"
"Great!" Moving faster than Cheerilee would have thought the clumsy mare capable of, Derpy grabbed Cheerilee and rocketed into the sky before the schoolteacher could think to protest.
"Wait, Derpy, wait!" Cheerilee screamed as they vanished into the sky, her voice reaching a staccato screech. "I'm afraid of heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeights...!"
Spike and Dinky watched the two adult mares disappeared behind a cloud, Cheerilee's helpless screams slowly fading away. "So, uh," Spike said awkwardly, rubbing his claws together. "Should... I...?"
Dinky blinked. "Huh? Oh right." She disappeared into her house, gesturing for Spike to follow her. "Come on in. We can talk about books or something until they get back. Or gems, maybe. I dunno."
Despite how bizarre his day had turned out, Spike felt an honest smile spreading his lips. For the first time in years, he smiled wide enough to reveal his sharp, pointed fangs. "You know what?" he said carefully, lumbering after the much smaller unicorn. "I think I'd like that."
Cheerilee's hooves squelched in one of the many muddy dirt roads that lined Ponyville as Derpy finally put her down. The normally ground-bound schoolteacher managed to restrain from throwing herself in a nearby puddle and hugging the unmoving earth as tightly as she could -- barely -- but that didn't stop her from digging her hooves into the soft muck. Oh, my sweet, sweet earth, she mentally cooed as the cold mud swept over her lower legs. I swear, I am never ever leaving you again.
Cheerilee's happy smile turned into an unimpressed frown as she heard something splat in the muck behind her, and she turned around to see her unwanted pilot, already covered head to toe in mud from her own impact with the ground, smiling brightly at her. "That was fun!" Derpy crowed in happy excitement before quickly shaking the mud off her body, unintentionally spattering the bedraggled teacher with the gunk.
Deep breathes, Cheerilee thought, doing just that. She didn't mean it, getting mad at her won't help anything. "Yes," she said instead, the smile she wore feeling as fragile and brittle as glass. "Yes, it... was." I need to hurl.
As Cheerilee cast about for an appropriate bush, Derpy looked at the buildings around them with a blank smile on her face. "So, what are we here for, again?"
"We're... Urp!" Cheerilee blocked her mouth with a hoof, keeping the contents of her stomach down with sheer force of will. "We're going to get some coffee, remember?"
The sides of Derpy's mouth shifted slightly downwards in a confused frown. "Coffee? But I don't drink coffee."
Cheerilee blinked at the mailmare. "Huh? But you..." were acting oddly before we left. And there was that thing Dinky wanted to say before Derpy interrupted her. Cheerilee sighed, realizing that Derpy had read her like a book and had gone along with it, simply because Cheerilee had asked her to. How can she possibly trust me so easily? Cheerilee couldn't understand it. Deciding to think on it later, she gave the mailmare a smile that was far more sincere than before. "Well, we can spend some time in town until it's time to go back. Is there anywhere you'd like to go?"
Derpy's face lit up like a flicked-on lightbulb, her smile almost bright enough to outshine the sun. "Yeah! It's just this way! Follow me!" she shouted as she took off.
Her stomach still not quite settled, Cheerilee followed after the energetic pegasus at a more sedate pace as she was led on a cheerful romp through Ponyville's streets. For the most part, Cheerilee was content to simply remain slightly behind Derpy's lead, enjoying the feeling of following somepony else for once, though she quickly interceded when the clumsy mare nearly walked into a lightpost.
"Here we are!" Derpy said brightly, stopping in front of one of the buildings that lined the street. For her part, Cheerilee stopped next to the mailmare with a surprised expression, her jaw hanging wide open.
The building was unlike any she had ever seen. From the cylindrical shape to the way the carefully shaped chimney jutted out to the side, all the way down to the way the wide curved wooden beams had been paint, was all clearly meticulously designed to invoke a certain image.
In short, the building looked like a giant beer mug.
"Well," Cheerilee said, shaking off her shock. "I suppose that's certainly one way to advertise."
Derpy nodded, her happy smile never changing. "Come on, let's go inside!" Merrily ignoring the bright red CLOSED sign hanging on the door, Derpy pushed the door open and went inside.
"Derpy, it says...! Ah, never mind." Following after the other mare, Cheerilee was treated to a surprising sight. A soft yellow light illuminated the hardwood floor of the building, and there were several round tables that showed signs of wear and tear sporadically scatted throughout the area. A well-stocked bar lay to one side of the room, though Cheerilee couldn't see anypony behind it at the moment.
"Aw, for crying out loud," a grumpy, female voice emanated from behind the bar, giving lie to Cheerilee's assumption that there was nopony there. "That sign says 'CLOSED' for a reason. Can't you stupid mooks read?"
While Cheerilee had the grace to look and feel abashed, Derpy only giggled. "Don't be such a grouch, Berry. We came all this way to see you."
As Cheerilee watched, a dark purple earth pony mare the colour of grapes climbed out from behind the bar and gave the pegasus a wry smile. "Derpy," she said with a friendly shake of her head. "Should have figured it was you. You never did pay attention to open hours."
"Nope. And look who I brought with me!"
"Well, well," the purple mare said, spotting Cheerilee. "So the teacher that's got the whole town talking has finally shown up on my doorstep. Well, welcome to Berry's Punch! If you find yourself needing to drop some of your worries, or are just looking for a good drink, you've come to the right place." She leaned against the bar, her forelegs resting on the hardwood surface. "Do you remember me?"
"Yeah," Cheerilee said slowly. "You're Berry Punch. Berry Pinch's mother, right?" She looked around the large, immaculately-cleaned pub all around them. "You've certainly done well for yourself."
"I always did have a passion for the best drinks a mare could find," Berry Punch admitted. "Eventually, I tried selling the drinks I made, and well, here I am." She waved at the room with a hoof. "Proprietor of Ponyville's largest watering hole."
"It's also the only watering hole in Ponyville," Derpy happily pointed out as she hopped up on a nearby stool, the seat swivelling a full rotation before coming to a stop.
Berry Punch gave a very put-upon sigh. "Yes, thank you, Derpy. How could I have forgotten to mention that?" Reaching under the bar, she pulled out a tall glass and grinned at Cheerilee. "So? What's your poison? Normally, if anypony came in before opening hours I'd throw them out on their ear, but I'll make an exception since you're with Derpy."
"Anything's fine" Cheerilee replied. "I'm in the mood for something light and fruity."
"Got it." Berry Punch pulled a couple of bottles off the shelf as Cheerilee took a seat next to Derpy. Within seconds, by means of an impressive display of dexterity for an earth pony, there were full glasses filled with different coloured liquids on the counter. "A Maretini for the erstwhile schoolteacher, and a Cloudy Pegasus for our resident mailmare. Drink up."
"Mmm, my favourite." Derpy easily scooped up the cup in front of her and took a deep swig.
Feeling slightly unsure how she felt about the 'erstwhile' comment, Cheerilee carefully sipped from her own drink. The cool liquid smoothly slid down her throat and into her belly, leaving behind a pleasant aftertaste. "You certainly know how to make your drinks, Berry," Cheerilee complimented, putting the almost half-empty cup down on the counter. Considering the appearance of the building outside, she felt the need to ask about it. "Is that why you made the place look like it does?"
"What, you mean the beer mug look?" Berry Punch laughed. "Hey, after seeing how successful the Cakes were with making Sugarcube Corner look like a cake, I thought to myself; ' Berry, why don't you do something like that for your store?' It was an investment, but did it ever pay off. I swear, you can find half the town in here some nights."
"It's great!" Derpy suddenly exclaimed, loudly slamming her drink on the counter. "Everypony comes, and it'll be a whole big par- part- get-together." She hiccupped, her face showing a distinct tinge of red.
Cheerilee slowly shifted her gaze from the slightly tipsy pegasus, to the completely empty glass in front of her, before turning a flat look on the pony behind the bar. Berry Punch easily spotted the look, and returned a reassuring one of her own. "Don't worry. The Cloudy Pegasus is one of my specialities. It hits pegasi like a runaway wagon, but it'll be out of her system by the time she gets home."
Cheerilee still felt doubtful, but saw no reason to argue. "Very well." A lull in the conversation followed, and Cheerilee quickly took the opportunity to fill it. "By the way, Berry, what does your daughter feel about you running a bar?"
"What, you mean if it bothers her?" Berry Punch gave a raucous laugh. "Are you trying to psychoanalyze me, Cheerilee? Sorry to disappoint, but we're a happy family. No issues here."
Cheerilee blushed, burying her muzzle in her mug to hide it. "I see," she mumbled quietly.
"Aw, don't worry about it," Berry Punch said with a grin. "I heard what you did with Sweetie Belle. Heck, by now, I think the whole town's heard the news. We really can't thank you enough for getting her to stop her thieving ways." She leaned in with a smile. "In fact, I think you should consider setting up some parent-teacher sessions soon. Everypony's eager to meet you once again."
"It was nothing," Cheerilee said, her blush growing in size. "But speaking of Sweetie Belle, I was wondering, how come she was allowed to keep stealing for so long? Back in Neigh York, the police force would have grabbed her in an instant. Is it so different here?"
Berry Punch snorted rudely. "Oh, it's no different here. The Police Chief wanted to nail her, and nail her hard. It was no secret. However, he couldn't do anything because absolutely nopony pressed charges."
Cheerilee blinked in surprise, her blush fading away. "Really?" she asked. "Nopony at all? I would have thought at least one pony would have wanted to press charges."
"Oh, we all wanted to press charges, there's no doubt of that." Berry Punch shook her head ruefully. "But there was a reason we couldn't."
"And what reason was that?" Cheerilee prodded quietly.
Berry glanced from side to side to make sure nopony was listening in before leaning forward, gesturing for Cheerilee to do the same. "Princess Twilight Sparkle," the barmare whispered. "Whenever Sweetie Belle stole from somewhere, the Princess would always be there within a day, returning whatever was stolen and tearfully begging us not to press charges. There's no way we could act against a Princess's wishes, so there was nothing we could do."
Cheerilee's gaze hardened. "She would abuse her position like that?" she hissed roughly, her voice filled with anger.
Berry Punch quickly shook her head. "I don't think she even realized what she was doing. She still thinks of herself as Celestia's student, and even then she's not aware of how much power she holds."
"I like Twilight," Derpy happily added. "She's nice."
A twisted half-smirk spread on Berry Punch's lips. "There is that. As far as she knew, she was a mare asking us to do something on behalf of her friend, not a Princess giving orders to her subjects."
"But that's how she came across anyway," Cheerilee pointed out.
"Aye," Berry Punch agreed with a solemn nod. "It is."
Several hours later saw Cheerilee lying back the couch in Twilight's living room. Night had already fallen, yet sleep was persistently eluding her. After several drinks at Berry's, Derpy had passed right out, leaving Cheerilee to carry her home. With an understanding smile, Berry had seen them out the door after giving Cheerilee a bottle of Sweet Apple Acres' finest alcoholic cider to take home, which currently rested on the floor next to the couch, awaiting the schoolmare's pleasure.
Just as Berry had promised, Derpy had woken up shortly before they reached her house. The pegasus was completely sober without so much as a hangover -- much to Cheerilee's unspoken irritation -- and happily bounced into her house with the earth pony in tow. Spike and Dinky had made supper while they were gone and, after everyone gathered around the table to enjoy it, Spike and Cheerilee had returned to the library. Dinky had even offered to hang out with Spike some time, which Cheerilee had taken as a positive sign.
None of this was doing anything in helping her get to sleep, however.
Rolling on her side with an unhappy grumble, Cheerilee buried her face in the back of the couch and tried to will herself asleep. To her displeasure, if not her surprise, it didn't work. After several minutes of fruitlessly seeking sleep's embrace, she quickly sat upright and climbed off the couch. Her blankets fell limply on the floor as she walked over them and silently headed towards the kitchen. Maybe getting something to drink will help.
Moving carefully, trying not to awaken either of the other occupants of the house, she dug through the various cupboards until she found what she wanted. Pouring herself a glass of milk and warming in on the stove, she allowed a small smile to spread on her face as she took a small sip of the warm liquid before returning back to the living room.
That smile fell off her face with impressive speed the instant she passed through the doorway and saw somepony who hadn't been there when she had left. Instead of saying anything at first, she placed her glass of warm milk down on a nearby countertop. The new arrival's eyes silently followed the angry earth pony as she strode to the couch, pulled out her bottle of cider, and took a swig of the fortifying liquid directly from the bottle. "What do you want?" Cheerilee asked roughly without looking at the individual she spoke to.
A bright yellow magical aura wrapped around Cheerilee's abandoned milk glass and lifted it up into the air. It floated across the room before being pressed up against a pair of perfectly white lips. There was the sound of a dainty sip, and the glass was carefully placed down on a nearby table before the lips opened up again. "Would you believe me if I told you I wanted to see how you were doing?"
"No," Cheerilee said bluntly, taking another swig from her bottle. Her hooves stomping loudly with every step she took, as she was angry enough to no longer care if the others in the house woke up, she strode over to the table and slammed her bottle against it as loudly as she could. "You never do anything without a second meaning to it. What do you want, Celestia?"
Princess Celestia, immortal ruler of Equestria and raiser of the sun, sighed at the look of anger being directed her way. Her sun-marked posterior sat in one of the chairs surrounding the dinner table, and her flowing rainbow-like mane constantly moved and shifted as if in an ethereal wind. She was as naked as Cheerilee was, completely devoid of the symbols of her rank that she normally wore. "I just wanted to talk, Cheerilee."
"Too bad," Cheerilee growled, her voice filled with anger. "Because I'm not interested in talking."
"Then I'll talk, and you can simply listen," Celestia offered. Cheerilee's look of anger remained unchanged, but she sat down on a nearby chair. Celestia inclined her head in gratitude before continuing on. "I can tell that you don't want me here, so I'll skip the pleasantries. Twilight told me that you wanted to accept Spike into your class. Is that correct?"
Cheerilee inclined her head, similar to how Celestia had moments ago, though her scowl remained firm.
"I see." Celestia's gentle smile would have been enough to cause even the most hardened of criminals to fall to their knees and confess each and every one of their sins, all while tearfully praising the divine visage before them. If Cheerilee was affected by it in the slightest, she most certainly didn't show it. "I confess," Celestia added, "I had hoped you would take Spike into your fold from the moment I had heard you would be returning to teaching. Does this mean you are finally starting to forgive yourself?" she added hopefully.
A tightening around the eyes was Cheerilee's only response.
If it were anyone other than the immortal ruler of the sun, who had lived for centuries and had long since learned how to keep her emotions from showing, one would have said she flinched. As it was, her expression turned sad as she considered the glass of milk before her before taking another sip -- which she most certainly did not do because she needed something to calm her nerves. "Cheerilee," she said with uncharacteristic somberness after returning the milk to the table. "Do you remember that time we met, four years ago?"
Cheerilee didn't say anything, but she did grab her bottle of cider and took another deep swig from it.
"I suppose you wouldn't have forgotten," Celestia said sorrowfully. She stared deep into her glass as she spoke, her gaze blank and empty, as if she was seeing something far away. "I had read about you in my student's friendship reports, back from when she was still sending them to me. Whenever you came up, she always stressed how great a teacher you were for the foals in town. She admired you. I think most of the town did."
"...You know," Celestia added after several minutes passed in complete silence. Her flowing mane covered half of her face, hiding most of her expression from view, but there was no mistaking the regret in her voice. "I think I admired you a little as well. The way you always did everything you could for your students, the way you were willing to do anything for them, anything to protect them and help them grow. I admit, I saw a lot of myself in you."
Celestia limply saw against her seat back, her wings hanging limply at her side. Even her mane seemed to flow with less energy than before. "And then, five years ago... that incident happened. You quit teaching and walked away from everything you had ever done. If I hadn't happened upon you a year later, living on the streets of Neigh York, we might never have known what became of you."
Cheerilee lifted the bottle of cider to her lips and upended it, swallowing for several seconds before returning it atop the table.
Celestia silently watched the schoolteacher with sorrowful eyes as she attempted to drink herself into a stupor. "You know it wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done."
Cheerilee's now-empty bottle flew through the air, it's sudden flight halted as it smashed against the far wall. "There must have been something I could have done," she protested with more than a hint of a drunken slur, saying something for the first time since she had sat down. "I was his teacher. What good is a teacher than can't even save a single student? I failed him, Celestia. I failed him as surely as if I had killed him with my own hooves."
"The teacher's pain," Celestia agreed quietly. "I've had more than my share of students over the years and, one by one, I've lost each and every one of them. It never gets any easier."
"Don't speak so freely of pain, Celestia," Cheerilee scolded, turning her back on the Princess. "You manipulate and use your students just as easily as you do everypony else. How many of them ever recognize what you are doing? How many see you for what you are?"
Celestia sighed. "I do what I must for my students, my subjects, and my country. You'd do the same if you were in my position!" She hesitated, as if something had just occurred to her. She spoke slowly, almost tasting the sound of each syllable before it left her mouth. "You would do exactly the same if you were in my position, wouldn't you? I see a lot of myself in you; I wonder, do you feel the same? I'm not the one you hate so fiercely. I'm just a convenient-"
A sudden ear-splitting crack cut her off, and she looked down to see that the table they had both been sitting at had split right down the middle. Cheerilee, her forehoof held directly above the split in the table, glared at Celestia with no attention paid to the broken furniture. "This conversation is over." she growled, low and threatening. "You will leave. Now."
Celestia shifted her attention from Cheerilee's rage-filled eyes to the teacher's raised forehoof. "You're bleeding," she pointed out, keeping her tone mild.
"I'll wrap it later," Cheerilee said without so much as a glance at the wound. "Leave."
"What is-? Princess Celestia!"
The Princess and the teacher looked up the stairs, in the direction the voice had come from. Spike and Twilight, unquestionably awoken by the noise, stared down at the scene in their living room with no small amount of surprise.
Spike was the first to speak. "Um, what's going on?"
"Nothing," Cheerilee said with enough venom in her tone to make Spike recoil. "The Princess was just leaving. Weren't you?" This last was added with a glare in the direction of the Princess in question.
Celestia slid her chair back and stood up. "Yes, I suppose I was. It is a pleasure to see you again, Twilight. I apologize for the state of your table; sometimes I don't know my own strength."
"You did this? But-?" Twilight's eyes shifted uncertainly from her mentor to Cheerilee's bleeding hoof and back again, confusion clearly visible on her face.
Celestia's horn flashed brightly, and the table was quickly replaced, looking as pristine as ever and newly-made. Unnoticed by either of the individuals standing at the top of the stair, the shards of glass from Cheerilee's thrown bottle had also disappeared in the sudden light. Her work complete, Celestia headed for the door, making a detour so that he would pass past Cheerilee.
"You know," she said as she walked by the teacher, speaking quietly enough that not even Spike's draconic hearing could hear her. "Despite what you may think of me, I really am pleased to see that you are putting your life back on track."
"Don't feel the need to watch over me," Cheerilee said bitterly.
"Oh, there's no need for that," Celestia said with a playful wink before she raised her voice. "Oh, Twilight. I believe you are going off to Neigh York to meet with some gryphon dignitaries next week, correct?"
"Well, yes," Twilight said, not noticing the way Cheerilee suddenly stiffened. "Why?"
Celestia's wing swept out and wrapped around Cheerilee, easily pulling the suddenly off-balance teacher in close to her. "I believe you should take Cheerilee and her class with you. Cheerilee knows the city well, and it would make for a wonderful field trip for the whole class."
Twilight's eyes shot wide open, all trace of sleep forgotten."That- Yes! You're right! They'll learn so much, and- Plans! I must plan! Need a list! Spike, come!" With an excited giggle, she vanished into her room.
Spike, seeing any hope of a good night's sleep vanish into the winds, sighed. "Yes, mistress," he grumbled as he followed after her. "Igor is here to serve."
As Spike's whipping tail disappeared from sight, Celestia looked down at Cheerilee with a wide smile. "You see? There's no need for me to watch over you. Not when Twilight is going to be doing that on her own."
Cheerilee pushed Celestia's feathers off of her back with a frown. "You know," she complained. "I really do hate you." Despite her words, there was absolutely no heat in her voice, almost as if she was simply stating it to reaffirm it to herself.
The lack of anger didn't go unnoticed by Celestia, but the Day Princess refrained from commenting as she quietly stepped outside, leaving the schoolteacher behind. Unnoticed by any, a wide, happy smile quickly spread across her face as she took off into the night. "Good luck to you both," she whispered. Her voice faded to nothing in the nighttime breeze, but she liked to imagine that the ponies in question would be able to hear her words.