Learning Curve

by Jack of a Few Trades

First published

Cheerilee's new teaching career tests her passion for education when she must teach a student who is unable to learn.

"A good teacher is like a candle— It consumes itself to light the way for others."

Fresh out of college and ready to tackle her career with all of her might, Cheerilee is what some ponies would call perfect for teaching in Ponyville's schoolhouse. It's her first day on the job, and she's ready to start doing her part to help the town's foals grow to be happy, healthy adults.

Of course, there are some things that college simply can't teach. When one of her pupils begins to show signs of trouble, Cheerilee will be forced to learn a very important lesson.

Teaching is about a lot more than writing on a chalkboard.

Concept gifted to me by my good friend, Blue Flame

Concept Development, Prereading, and other assistance by KillerShadow 15

Edited by
Lord-Commander (Chapters 1-11)
Xhoral1865 (Chapter 12)
Kestrel (Chapters 12- )
MissytheAngle (Chapters 13- )

Cover art commissioned from Sayer09

Thanks go out to everyone else who has helped me along the way, and to you readers for taking the time to read my writings. Enjoy the story!

Featured on Equestria Daily! 9/30/2015

Reviewed by Blunt Reviews!

Prologue: Welcome Home

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Cheerilee took a deep breath and sighed, resting her head against her right hoof and watching the world whiz past through the window. She had long since exhausted her supply of magazines to read during the train ride; tracing the lines of the floral moulding along the ceiling had long since grown boring, and the bag of snacks she had brought along was running close to empty. Stuck with nothing else to do, she sat glumly and watched the trees and fields roll by. The first few times making this journey, she had been content to watch the scenery as the train trundled down the track. But now on the latest of the dozens of trips on the line between Canterlot and Ponyville, she found no interest in the farmland at the base of the Canter mountains.

Though she was bored, she was grateful at the same time. It had been a long ride since she left Fillydelphia before dawn that morning, and the final leg between the layover in Canterlot and her destination of Ponyville was the shortest of the journey. The sun was sinking lower and lower in the western sky, and soon it would be nightfall. The train was running a bit later than usual, and from her best guess, she would disembark in her hometown by dusk.

There was a bit of queasiness in her belly; though she could have easily blamed her unsettled stomach on the constant rocking from the weathered tracks below, she knew that the train was not to blame at all. It wasn’t a sick sort of upset stomach, but rather a nervous one. Ahead in Ponyville lay the source of her nerves: A job.

But it wasn’t just any sort of job. Of course even the most mundane of jobs would carry a bit of first-day anxiety, but this was much more. This was the beginning of what she knew was her career. About a month prior, she had been on the lookout for a job pertaining to her field of study. She found out that her old primary school in Ponyville was hiring a new teacher, and leapt at the chance. She never expected to hear anything back, but a week later, there was a letter in the mail from the Ponyville School Board asking her to come in for an interview. Of course she leapt at the opportunity, and a few days later, another letter came in. This time it explained that she had been the pony chosen out of over two dozen applicants.

And now here she was, moving back to her hometown to begin her career. Despite how sweet the deal was, she couldn't help but feel nervous about what lay ahead. She took another deep breath and sat back in the seat. Everything would be okay, she told herself. It wasn’t like she was unprepared for the position. To take her mind off the worry, she went to rummage through her belongings.

Around her on the floor of the train carriage were two suitcases and her saddlebags, personalized with her cutie mark engraved into the clasp. The saddlebags were mostly empty, having been primarily used for holding food for the trip and now only contained a bag of pretzels and three rolled-up tabloid magazines. The suitcases on the other hoof, were stuffed to the gills. Clothing, tennis balls, a few books, reams of documents, and a few knick-knacks had the two bags stretched to their limit, such that she could swear that a good bump could tear them apart at the seams.

She took yet another deep breath and let it out with a sigh. This time, instead of a bored frown, she closed her eyes and smiled. This was the final time she would be taking this journey for the foreseeable future. All of her things had either come back on previous trips between Fillydelphia and Ponyville or had been shipped by a moving company the week before. The suitcases contained the last few things she had packed up before closing the door to her old apartment for the last time that morning.

Most of her belongings were packed into the overstuffed bags, save for one particular item that she had opted to carry separately. A picture frame sat on her lap, inside of it was a document written in fine, ornate calligraphy and a golden seal. Stuck with nothing else to do, she flipped the frame right side up and read the degree for what must have been the hundredth time.

Bridleway University

Upon recommendation of the Faculty and by the authority of the Equestrian National Board of Education, the Board of Trustees has conferred upon Cheerilee the degree of Bachelor of Elementary Education, with all the rights, privileges, and honors pertaining thereto, in consideration of having fulfilled all the requirements of the four year curriculum.

Cheerilee read over the degree again, her smile widening. After four long years of college, four years away from her home in Ponyville, she was finally returning. This time, however, she was not going to be living at home with her parents. Cheerilee had signed the lease on a small home down the road from Sugarcube Corner a few days prior to beginning her move. It was a modest house, two bedrooms and one bathroom with a proportionally small kitchen and den. Nothing fancy, but plenty for a pony who had lived in a cramped apartment for the last three years.

However nice her new home sounded, the best part of her new arrangement was where she would be working. Her old school. The red, one-room primary schoolhouse that sat near the Apple family’s farm, was conveniently in need of a new teacher after the previous one had retired. In fact, the outgoing teacher was the same one that had taught her years ago. In a stroke of luck rarely seen for a young mare fresh out of the university, Cheerilee had landed the job, and was due to start the fall semester in two days.

While she admired the framed degree, Cheerilee noticed that the train was slowing down. She sighed a third time, this time a sigh of relief. A few other ponies in the car were preparing their own luggage for the upcoming stop. Cheerilee followed suit, tucking the frame into her empty saddlebags before slipping them over her back and tightening the strap. That was the easy part; now came the dilemma of carrying the heavy suitcases without damaging anything inside.

This was going to be tricky.

Cheerilee stepped across the gap between the train and the platform on wobbly hooves. One of the heavy suitcases was draped over her neck, hanging clumsily in front of her chest and knocking back into her forelegs as she walked. The second was precariously balanced in the small of her back, the only things holding it in place were the two saddlebags on her sides that provided a bit of support. She could handle the weight, but the sheer clumsiness of the load made walking a difficulty.

“Would you like some help with your bags, ma’am?” asked a stallion's voice, which she recognized as the conductor who had come through to check tickets early in the ride.

“Thank you,” replied Cheerilee. She felt the weight of the suitcase on her back ease, and with the new freedom that it provided, readjusted the one on her neck to a more manageable position on her side. “You can set it by that bench.” She pointed out where she wanted to go, and crossed the platform with the conductor following close behind. At the bench, she dropped her bag off on the ground and took a seat while the conductor placed his next to hers, albeit more gently than she had.

“Thank you, sir,” Cheerilee said, smiling at the helpful pony.

“Happy to do it, ma’am!” The conductor tipped his hat and returned the gesture. “Have a good day.” With that, he turned and went back to his place at the train door.

The crowd of arriving ponies were already mostly dispersed by the time the conductor called “All aboard!” A few seconds passed as the doors on the train were closed. The conductor gave a wave to the engineer, and the train let out two blasts of the whistle before lurching forward. The locomotive chugged loudly as it accelerated, dampening but not completely overpowering the creaks, groans, and clacks that the rest of the train made as it started rolling. Farther down the platform, Cheerilee noticed a young grey colt galloping alongside the train. She couldn’t hear him at the distance and with the noise of the train, but she could tell that he was having a blast just getting to see the train go by. She couldn’t help smiling.

The train was gone within the minute, having disappeared around a curve farther down the track. The little grey colt had disappeared as soon as the train left, and now the platform was empty except for her.

Dad’s late, what a surprise, she thought. Her father had promised to be there to meet the train with the family’s cart to help haul the luggage to her new house. Even with the train’s lateness, he still managed to arrive after it. It was typical, befitting the pattern of tardiness that she had sworn to never fall into as an adult.

As if on cue, the sound of a wagon skidding to a stop beside the platform to her right caught her attention. “I’m here! I made it!” announced Chisel Point, the stallion pulling it. He was a sandy-coated Earth Pony of average build; a cutie mark of his namesake chisel and a caliper graced his flank, though it was partly covered over by the tool belt that he usually wore for work. He quickly unhitched himself from it and ran up onto the platform, “I’m so sorry I was late! I lost track of time helping your mother pick tomatoes and then Allie started getting in a fight with the neighbor's cat and…”

“Dad!” Cheerilee ran forward and embraced him, nuzzling against his burnt-orange coat and breathing a sigh of relief. He returned the hug, though he added a bit too much pressure as usual. The hug didn’t last for more than a few seconds before they pulled apart.

“How was the trip?” he asked.

“About like always,” Cheerilee answered. This little exchange had become routine in the last few months with her frequent trips back and forth. Her father hummed in understanding while picking up one of the suitcases in his teeth and slinging it up onto his back. “Where’s Mom?”

“She was finishing up harvesting in the garden and probably just started cooking. That reminds me, your mother wants you to come over for dinner tonight.”

Cheerilee smiled through the strap in her teeth while she swung the second suitcase onto her back in the same fashion as her father. “Was I ever going to be allowed to eat on my own tonight, anyway?”

“Nope,” Chisel answered, turning back towards the cart. “But I wouldn’t be one to complain about that.”

Cheerilee giggled, “No, I can’t argue with that.” She followed along behind Chisel, walking down the steps at the end of the platform and turning right to reach the cart. He flipped down the back gate and took the suitcase in his teeth, swinging it up into the bed of the cart with such finesse that it barely disturbed the contents. Cheerilee’s followed a moment after, though hers landed in the wagon with a resounding thunk.

While Chisel went back around the cart to hitch himself up, Cheerilee climbed up into the cart alongside the bags. She lifted the gate and took a seat at the front end, right behind her father. There was some straw piled up at the front end, which was much better than sitting on the unforgiving wooden cart floor. She hadn’t been settled in for more than a few seconds when the cart lurched forward, followed immediately by the four distinct bumps of the railroad crossing.

Both Cheerilee and Chisel Point remained silent during the trip. The rail line passed through the northern portion of Ponyville, and the new house was on the southern end of town, closer to the schoolhouse than her parents’ home, which was nearer to Town Hall in the center of the community.

As the cart trundled through the streets, Cheerilee found herself spending most of her time admiring the houses that lined the road. After spending so long in Fillydelphia—where the buildings are mostly all square and purely designed for function—the unique thatched roofs and antique look of the houses was a breath of fresh air. In fact, the rustic and altogether homey architecture of Ponyville was one of the things she had missed most.

The cart rounded a turn and came out in front of Sugarcube Corner. It had been years since Cheerilee last stopped in to get an order of Mrs. Cake’s lime-frosted cupcakes. She made a mental note to stop by later and pick up a few, and possibly catch up on what the couple were up to. Perhaps she could do that tomorrow.

The cart passed through the little square around Sugarcube corner and ducked down one of the adjoining streets, passing a few houses before slowing and eventually coming to a halt in front of the eighth house on the right side of the street. It wasn’t exceptional compared to any of the other homes on the row; in fact, it was nearly identical to the rest, discernible only by flower boxes under nearly every window and a quite unique green mailbox that was a remnant of the previous tenant.

“Hello!” announced an unexpected, yet unmistakable high-pitched voice from right next to Cheerilee’s right ear. Only one pony in Equestria could appear so suddenly without unicorn magic. Cheerilee turned her head to see the grinning face of none other than Pinkie Pie looking back at her. “Hiya, Cheerilee! I heard you were moving back to town and then you were passing by Sugarcube Corner in a wagon and then I had to come and say hi because it’s been, like, forever since I last saw you and—”

“Hi, Pinkie!” Cheerilee said, pulling Pinkie into a hug. “It has been a long time!”

Pinkie returned the hug with forceful enthusiasm, squeezing the air from Cheerilee’s lungs in the process. She hadn’t changed a bit since high school.

“Three years, two months, and twelve days since you moved away to be exact,” Pinkie corrected matter-of-factly. “I brought you a cupcake. Your favorite was lemon, right?”

That’s the first thing I’ve ever seen her get wrong about anyone, Cheerilee thought to herself. “I love lemon, Pinkie, thank you.”

“Great! So since you’re probably tired from your looooooong train ride from Fillydelphia, I can wait to throw your ‘Welcome back to Ponyville’ party this weekend. You seem like a balloon type of pony, so I’ll use lots of balloons. Of course we need punch, or would you prefer soda? And lemon cupcakes! Lots of lemon cupcakes!”

Cheerilee smiled and shook her head. She knew to expect this, but she was still a bit surprised by how suddenly the whirlwind of pink appeared. Just as with her mother’s invitation to dinner, there was no possible way to decline. It was best to just accept it and have fun, despite how badly she wanted to rest.

“Pinkie, could we change the lemon cupcakes to lime?” Cheerilee asked.

“Sure! It’s your party after all!” Pinkie said, poking a hoof at Cheerilee’s chest.

“Pinkie? Where did you go?!” announced a shout from far behind the cart. Mrs. Cake had come out of Sugarcube Corner, obviously to find out where her helper had gone. She had been a live-in assistant at the store for the past couple of years, though she seemed to have a lot more hours off the clock than on.

“Oh hay, I totally forgot! I was getting a sack of flour for Mrs. Cake and then you went by. Gotta go!” With that, Ponyville’s notorious pink bundle of joy promptly leapt to the back gate, turned around, saluted to Cheerilee with her mouth affixed in determination, and rolled off of the wagon backwards. Cheerilee watched her go bouncing back down the road, waving and saying hello to every pony she passed until she rounded the corner and ducked out of sight.

“I see she found you already,” said Chisel as he walked around the cart to the back end where he flipped the latch and let the tailgate fall open.

“She hasn’t changed a bit.” Cheerilee picked up the first bag in her teeth, carried it to the end of the cart, and placed it on her father’s waiting back.

“Just throw that other one on my back too,” he said, nodding towards the remaining suitcase. Cheerilee complied, retrieving the second bag and placing it alongside the other on his back. With the baggage dealt with, she hopped down from the cart and closed the rear gate behind herself while her father toted the bags to the door. She trotted ahead, unlocked the door, and let them both into the house.

The front door opened into a small foyer, with a staircase on the left side and an open passage to the den on the right. In front of the staircase was another smaller opening that led into the kitchen. Though Cheerilee was moving into the home, it contained surprisingly few boxes. The foyer was empty, and the den wasn’t crowded with boxes either. Granted there were several around the room, but it wasn’t nearly as cluttered as one would expect during a move.

“You can just drop them off behind the door, Dad,” said Cheerilee.

“Sure thing,” Chisel Point replied, lowering his rump and letting the bags slide to the floor against the foyer wall. “Your mother is going to kill us if we aren’t there when she has dinner ready.”

“We’d better get going then!” Cheerilee said, stepping back out towards the cart. Her father let her pass by and followed her out, closing the door behind himself and leaving the house dark and empty once more.

Chapter One: First Day on the Job

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Cheerilee shut her eyes tightly, biting down harder on the tennis racket’s handle. The return swing was shaky, and she almost lost her grip when the ball made contact, but she managed to hold it together. The lime green ball sailed through the air, returning to her opponent’s side of the court on a different path than she had anticipated. It barely cleared the net and bounced once not far beyond that.

Her opponent rushed to reposition herself for the return stroke, sidestepping quickly to her left to follow the ball on its haywire course. As it bounced back into the air, she met it with a short yet stout swing that sent it on a much straighter path back to Cheerilee’s end of the court.


It was a perfect shot. Cheerilee was offset to the right side of her end, and the next incoming stroke was sailing towards her back left corner. She broke into a dead sprint, pushing herself as hard as she could to meet the ball. It was too little too late, and the ball skipped across the concrete floor and bounced against the back wall. The serve had been game point, and with that final thump, the game ended. Cheerilee had lost.

“Almost had me there, Cheer!” called her opponent, a light cream-coated unicorn mare. She grinned smugly as she crossed the court to Cheerilee’s side. “I almost thought you were trying that time!”

“Yeah, yeah, Nook.” Cheerilee muttered in between breaths. “Do I need to remind you of your little wager from junior year?”

“Touché,” Nook replied, her grin melting away. “Up for another match?”

“Why don’t we take a break?” Cheerilee took a deep breath and balanced herself against the wall, the sweat on her brow doubling now that she wasn’t moving around.

“Sure thing.” Nook trotted over to the bench off to the left side of the court where their bags sat. She retrieved two squeeze bottles in her magic, one from each bag, and tossed one to Cheerilee. She caught it in her forehooves and proceeded to spray it on top of her head and neck before gulping down most of the rest.

“Wow,” Cheerilee gasped when she finally took another breath. “I didn’t realize how out of shape I’ve gotten since spring.”

“It happens,” Nook agreed, taking a few much less desperate drinks than her friend. “Hey I forgot to ask you—” she took another gulp “—what are you gonna do now that you’re back in town?”

"I could swear I already told you this," Cheerilee said, taking another swig of her water. "I'm taking over as teacher for Mrs. Write at the schoolhouse."

"She's retiring?"

"Yeah. I have to admit that I didn't figure her for one to retire as soon as she was eligible for it," said Cheerilee.

"You know what they say; teaching is one of the toughest jobs out there." Nook took another drink before tossing her bottle back over to the bench.

Cheerilee grimaced a bit at that. "Please, don't remind me."

"Pre-job jitters?"

"Yeah,” said Cheerilee.

“Don’t worry yourself too much. They’re just kids, after all.” Nook gave a small smile.

“I know, but I’m kind of worried. What if they don’t like me?” Cheerilee said.

“Kids not liking you? What happened while you were in Fillydelphia that you aren’t telling me?” Nook took a few steps forward, cocking an eyebrow at Cheerilee.

“I know, I know. It’s silly, but I just can’t stop feeling like something won’t go well,” Cheerilee admitted, her ears flattening against her head.

“Hey,” Nook said, wrapping a hoof around Cheerilee’s shoulders. “I know what it’s like. I was nervous when I started working my job, but it all turned out fine. Everyone at the office liked me from the start, and my cutie mark didn’t have anything to do with the job!” She pointed a hoof at her flank, which featured a simple green leaf. “You’re a shoo-in for it! Hay, you always said that your cutie mark meant that you were gonna be a great teacher someday.”

“I guess,” Cheerilee said. “That still doesn’t make the butterflies in my stomach go away though.”

“Of course it won’t, but do I look like I can work miracles?” Nook joked, giving a goofy smile. “So, ready for another chance to beat the champ?”

“You know if you keep letting your head swell like that you’ll float away, right?” Cheerilee rebutted, smirking as she picked her racket up in her teeth. “My therve.”

The sun had yet to come over the horizon when Cheerilee trotted up the path towards the schoolhouse. It was a still, humid morning; a bit of thin fog had collected in the valleys overnight, and the air felt thick with moisture left over from a shower the previous evening. A typical late-summer morning for Ponyville.

Cheerilee walked with purpose, adding a little extra speed to her usual stride. She needed to be there extra early to make sure that the last of her classroom preparations were made for the incoming class in about two hours. It had taken quite the strong cup of coffee from Sugarcube Corner to get her going so early, but she was also riding on the extra energy provided by heavy anticipation. She had been working towards this day for the better part of a decade, and she was ready for it to happen. She was ready to begin the next chapter of her life.

Ahead loomed the bright red schoolhouse. It was an inviting little building by design, but cozy would be a more effective way of describing it. The little swirl designs etched into the sides and the rail fences that lined the path coupled with the bell atop the roof worked together to create a building that made ponies want to go inside. She had to admit, it certainly had charm. Children wouldn’t hate the idea of coming through those doors to learn.

She reached the porch and took a glance up at the horseshoe insignia on the awning as she climbed the steps below. She nudged the door open and stepped across the threshold, carefully letting it swing closed behind her. The room was dark, and after a bit of fumbling around the wall, she found the light switch.

The lights revealed a mostly undecorated classroom that smelled faintly of paint. The walls were painted in a muted green and cream color scheme, changed from the previous yellow and red design. More etched swirls similar to the outside of the building were scattered about the interior walls, and a trim of horseshoes and silhouettes of ponies lined the border between wall and ceiling. The desks and chairs were stacked along the far wall, and a tarp covered the floor to the right of the door. Her own desk was in its usual place, set off to the far side of the front of the room so that a presentation area was open in front of the doorway.

Cheerilee tossed her saddlebags onto the desk as she passed by it and went straight to the stacks of desks to begin the task of pulling one down. For a unicorn, the task would have been a cinch; however, since she was confined to using her hooves and lacked wings, it would take a fair bit of maneuvering to get the desks from the top of the stack moved.

She placed her hooves on the legs of the top desk, sliding it forward until it was halfway perched on the edge of the desk beneath it. She maneuvered herself underneath it, letting the other half rest on her back. A little bit of wiggling on her part inched the table forward, and she moved to reposition herself for the catch.

She misjudged her movements, and the table slipped free earlier than she anticipated. It squeaked as it slid down and rolled to the left side of her back, pinching her sharply as it fell to the ground with a loud SMACK!

“Ponyfeathers,” Cheerilee muttered, rubbing the spot where the desk had pinched her. She lifted the table back upright and began sliding it across the room. Before she got it into its place in the far corner, she went ahead and picked up the tarp, folding it over several times and placing it in the corner of the room out of the way.

As she walked back across the room to get the next table down, she found herself fixated on her own desk. Ever since she had accepted the position and began her work to transform the classroom, she had made it a point to not sit down in her chair until the first day of school. It was a little symbol that she wanted to save, to mark the occasion of the first day of her career. And now that day had come at long last.

It was as good a time as any to take the plunge, she supposed. She detoured from her original path and crossed the room to the side of her desk. She ran a thoughtful hoof over the tabletop as she came around to the chair. She slid it out from its nook, taking a look at the modestly cushioned seat, and took a deep breath. Slowly, methodically, she turned around and eased herself into the chair. At that moment, all of the buildup of the last decade hit. This was it. The big day; no turning back from here.

Not that she would have wanted to, anyway. She had put far too much into getting herself to this point to even know what doubts were. Nook had done a good job of warming her cold hooves. She looked out across her empty room and smiled. She wasn’t just at her new job.

She was home.

The sun beamed through the windows on the left side of the classroom, bathing the room in golden light. A couple of hours had passed, and Cheerilee had finished her work ahead of schedule. The desks were set up, bookshelves put back in place, and two pictures that she had brought along hung on the back wall: one a line art visage of Princess Celestia, and the other a stylized guard pony. The room was as ready as it was ever going to be.

And the students had arrived on time. All but two of the twelve desks were filled, and the students were doing all sorts of things ranging from showing off their school supplies, to talking, to folding what Cheerilee knew was the beginnings of a paper airplane. She was going to have to get that from the colt before he used it.

She actually recognized several of the foals in the room, though she was sure she would know at least a couple of them. A filly from the Apple family—she couldn’t remember her name—was sitting in the front row. A row back and one desk to the right was Rarity’s little sister, Sweetie Belle. Berry Punch’s little sister, Piña Colada, was sitting in the back row. The rest of the children were fresh faces. A few colts were present, though the fillies outnumbered them almost three to one.

Cheerilee stood at the front of the room, giving a warm smile while she waited for the bell on the wall to ring. It was beginning to become a bit awkward, her standing there waiting so that she could begin. She had given each a greeting when they entered the room, but now all she could do was wait.

As if on cue, the bell rang.

If sitting in her teacher’s chair for the first time hadn’t been the big awakening that she had officially begun her adult life, then hearing that bell ring for the first time on her first day would have been what drove it home. Her heart fluttered, and she barely waited for the bell to go silent before she began.

“Good morning, students!” she said in a singsong voice, drawing the attention of the foals. “I hope you all had a good summer, and I'm sure some of you are wondering who I am. Let's begin today with a game." Several excited murmurs came from the students while Cheerilee retrieved a red foam ball from her desk.

"How the game works is that when you get the ball, you stand up and tell us all your name and something about yourself. It can be what you did this summer, your favorite food, anything you want! Since I —"

The door swung open, pulled with attitude. "...and my daddy got me this tiara yesterday, isn't it amazing?" Even before Cheerilee got a look at who the voice came from, she could tell that it meant trouble. The little sneering voice was distinct, like the pony behind it felt that she owned the world and everything in it.

In walked two fillies, the lead one pink with a purple-tinged mane, and the tiara on her head signified that she was the source of the grating voice. Behind her was a gray filly with her hair in a braid, a pair of stylish glasses adorning her nose. It seemed that no school was complete without a pair like this. Entitled, snooty, and dressed up expertly. The divas had arrived, fashionably late.

"Good morning," Cheerilee said, just a bit less enthusiasm in her voice, though she kept her kind facade up. "I suppose I can let it slide since it's the first day, but you two will need to be on time from now on."

"Fine," said the pink filly, turning her nose up and walking to the empty desk in the front of the room. The gray filly took the open seat in the middle row next to Sweetie Belle.

"Now then, where was I? Since it's my first day here, I will start off the game." Cheerilee held the ball up. "My name is Cheerilee, I am your new teacher, and I like to play tennis." She scanned the crowd, looking for a student not paying attention to pick on. The gray filly looked like a prime candidate, and Cheerilee gently tossed the ball her way. The throw was dead-on, bouncing on her desk and again off of her nose. She gave a startled gasp and looked around, while all the rest of the class erupted in giggles.

"What was that?" demanded the filly.

"If you had gotten here on time and paid attention to what was going on, you would know that it's your turn to stand up and tell us your name and something about yourself."

"Ugh, fine," the filly said begrudgingly, standing up. "My name is Silver Spoon and I got a puppy for my birthday." She seemed to relish the chance to brag a bit, but she was obviously the more subdued of the two.

"Nice to meet you, Silver Spoon. Now, pick up the ball and toss it to whoever you want."

The colt in the seat next to her picked up the ball and passed it her way. She took the ball and smirked. "Diamond Tiara, catch!"

The ball sailed over to the pink filly, landing in her waiting hooves. She stood up, looking as if she were preparing to deliver a bold speech. "My name is Diamond Tiara, and my daddy is the owner of Rich's Barnyard Bargains." One muffled sigh of discontent came from the back of the room, but she didn't seem to notice. She tossed the ball to the filly next to her, the red-haired Apple family kid.

“I’m Apple Bloom, and I got to help my family harvest apples this summer!” Though she was young, she had already fully developed the Apple Family’s trademark drawl. She turned around to face the rest of the class, considered for a moment, and then tossed the ball to a filly in the back of the classroom. “Here, catch!” she exclaimed, taking her seat again immediately after the throw.

The ball reached its target, but the filly in the back corner wasn’t ready for it. It bounced off of one of her outstretched hooves and went straight up in the air. She didn’t see where it went, and it came back down on her desk. She fumbled it again, this time knocking it to the floor where it rolled towards the front of the room.

She smiled awkwardly and blushed a bit, rising from her seat slowly. She was a mauve Earth pony with a turquoise mane, appearing to be about in the second grade. She seemed to shrink back with all eyes in the room on her, shying away from the attention. That would explain why she chosen the furthest corner from the teacher’s desk.

“I’m Aura,” she said quietly, immediately taking her seat.

“Aura?” Cheerilee asked. “Do you want to tell us something about yourself?”

“No,” Aura replied, laying her head on the table and hiding her eyes, which were a slightly different shade of turquoise than her mane.

“Okay then, that’s fine too.” Cheerilee said, hiding her disconcerted frown quickly with a smile. “Who has the ball?”

The game continued on for a few more minutes, each student taking their turn and happily standing up to tell something about themselves. One colt had gone on a trip to Prance with his family, and another filly had gotten her cutie mark over the summer. All fairly standard, save for Aura not answering the second half of the question. Regardless, she had already started to engage with the students, and it was hardly ten minutes into the first day.

This was going to be a great class.

Chapter Two: Dinner and a Show

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Since it was the first day, there wasn’t any true instruction, and school passed faster than Cheerilee wanted it to. After she went over the class syllabus, the rest of the day was spent doing activities like hoof painting and group reading, all in an effort to get to know the class better. It was safe to say that they were already taking a liking to her, but that could have just been the effect of the fun day. She would have to wait a while longer before she got her answer there.

There wasn’t much to do around the schoolhouse after hours since it was still the first day, so Cheerilee wasn’t far behind the children in leaving when they released in the early afternoon. She took advantage of the free time to take a walk around Ponyville. She hadn’t noticed much in the way of changes when she came in from the train stations, but now that she had a chance to look around, it became evident that there were several subtle differences since she had left over three years ago. First of all, the Town Hall had been renovated in that time. Several new homes had sprung up, and there was even a new spa not far from the library.

In addition to seeing the sights around town, she also ran into several ponies that she knew. There was Davenport, still running his Quills and Sofas store. It was a wonder how he stayed in business with such a limited variety of stock, but she couldn’t knock it if he made his living at it. At the marketplace, she stopped and had a short discussion with Applejack, who had taken the reins of the family’s apple stand from Granny Smith about a year before, and was quite skillful at selling the fruit. Cheerilee walked away from the stand with half a dozen apples in her saddlebags. She ran one final errand at the Golden Oak Library and checked out a book called Windfall, a notoriously cheesy romance novel that she’d been eyeing for a few months. Her friends back at Bridleway had taken every possible chance to gush over it, but she’d been putting it off for years. Now it was time to see what all the buzz was about, if only a few years after it had come and gone. After that, she returned home with her saddlebags stuffed to the brim.

It was now getting later in the evening, and her stomach was calling for supper. Once again, her mother had extended an invitation to dinner. Considering that she was living on apples and cheap soup at her house until she was established better, a full meal from her mother’s kitchen wasn’t exactly something she could turn down. After she dropped her things off, she immediately left for her parents' house.

Cheerilee’s parents lived in a house much like any other in Ponyville: a two-story timber frame house with a thatched roof. The only real distinguishing aspect of the home was the large garden out back. That and the tall trellis next to the front door, ablaze with violet flowering Morning Glory vines.

She knocked three times—the exact number her mother insisted on as proper—and waited. She heard a spoon clatter in the kitchen, and the door swung open a few seconds later. In it stood none other than her mother, Lilting Melody, her graying mane tied back in a loose bun and her spectacles perched atop her head to keep them out of the way. Her smile was tense, and her eyes reflected the stress that she often felt when preparing large meals on her own.

“Cheerilee!” exclaimed Melody, throwing her front hooves up in the air and wrapping them around her daughter’s shoulders. “So glad you’re here, I need an extra set of hooves! Come in, quick!” Before Cheerilee could get a word in, she broke the hug and scurried back into the house. Cheerilee followed behind her, crossing through the dining room and into the kitchenette.

The kitchen was alive, it seemed. All four burners on the stove were occupied by steaming pots, the the counters were strewn with mixing bowls and a wide array of utensils. A large cutting board held chopped carrots, squash, zucchini, tomato, and onion. An automatic mixer was churning away at what looked to be chocolate cake batter, and the oven was already in use making a pizza. An instrumental jazz piece could be heard in the background. Amid the chaos, the main thing that stood out was the smell. The aromas from the stove coupled with the scent of the raw ingredients on the counters created a smell so mouthwatering that it almost made Cheerilee’s knees weak.

“I’m so glad you got here early! I got a little carried away with all this.” She took a spare apron from a cupboard on the far side of the room and tossed it to Cheerilee. “Here, can you take over tending those pots on the stove for me? I need to get the cake going.”

“On it.” Cheerilee slipped the apron over her head and picked up a wooden spoon in her teeth.

“Thanks a bunch!” Melody chimed, singing the last word. She took a tiny scoop of flour and sprinkled it into a pan already coated with shortening. “I hope you don’t mind, but we have a couple of other guests coming for dinner.”

“‘Ho are ‘hey?” Cheerilee asked, still stirring a pot full of boiled squash.

“Don’t talk when you’re stirring, you’ll spit in the food!” Melody shot Cheerilee a quick glare. “Anyway, Hondo and Cookie just came back from Cervidas last week. You remember them, right?”

Cheerilee dropped the spoon from her teeth and looked over at Melody, who had just taken the bowl out of the mixer. “Rarity’s parents, right?" Melody nodded. "I didn’t know you were friends with them.”

“We got to know them not too long after you left for college. They’ve kind of become our go-to couple recently. Keep an eye on that pasta, it’s almost ready!”

Cheerilee looked back at the pot on the left-rear burner. Sure enough, the noodles were done. “Is the strainer ready to go?”

“It’s called a colander, honey. And yes, it’s already in the sink.”

Cheerilee rolled her eyes at the correction, making sure not to let her mother see it. She picked up the pot in her teeth and carried it across the kitchen to the sink. With a twist of her head, she dumped the noodles into the colander. It had been a while since she made pasta herself, and she forgot the big cloud of steam that came with draining spaghetti. The steam billowed up into her face and she jumped back reflexively, sending the empty pot clattering across the brick floor.

“Careful, that steam will get you,” Melody idly commented, not looking up from pouring the cake batter into the pan.

“Noted,” Cheerilee deadpanned. Before she could pick up the pot, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, that’s them!” Melody placed the empty mixing bowl back on the counter. “I can handle it from here. You go answer the door and show them in, Cheerilee. I’ll call you if I need help.”

“That works for me,” Cheerilee agreed, not bothering to take the apron off. She walked out of the kitchen and crossed the dining room to the front door. She ran a hoof through her mane and pulled the door open.

“Well hey there, Cheerilee! Long time no see!” greeted the loud voice of Hondo Flanks, the moustachioed white unicorn who was never seen without his trademark straw hat.

“Oh, that rhymed!” added Cookie Crumbles, the plump pink mare with a fashion sense almost equally as bad as her husband’s.

“It has been a while, hasn’t it? Come on in!” Cheerilee motioned for them to enter, and the couple stepped into the entryway. Cookie had a plastic tub perched on the small of her back, appearing to contain some kind of rice and vegetable mix.

“I’ll take this back to the kitchen,” Cookie said, turning towards the kitchen door and leaving Cheerilee and Hondo alone in the entryway. An energetic greeting sounded out from around the corner when she walked into the kitchen.

“Is your dad around?” Hondo asked, walking past Cheerilee and into the den.

“I don’t know what he’s doing right now, but he should be around here somewhere.”

“I’ll bet he’s out in the shop. Probably building a cabinet or somethin’,” Hondo stopped in front of the sofa.

“Cheerilee! Will you come here a minute?” called Melody from in the kitchen.

“You better go in there. I’ll go snoop around and see if I can’t find your Dad somewhere.” Cheerilee gave Hondo a quick smile before she trotted off in the direction of the kitchen. Even after several years away from home, she still remembered exactly how much her mother meant when she said “a minute”. With a bit of dread in her stomach, she crossed the threshold into the kitchen.

“Sure mom, what do you need?”

Cheerilee took her seat at the table, feeling more than a bit frazzled. Since her mother had called her into the kitchen, she had been bustling back and forth nonstop for nearly half an hour. Setting the table; helping put the finishing touches on the food; putting away ingredients and utensils; fetching Hondo and Chisel, who had congregated out in the adjoining workshop to have a bottle of cider and talk; and other random little jobs that needed done had kept her plenty busy. As she settled into the chair, she took a moment to fix her mane, which had fallen down into her eyes as a result of the quick work she was doing.

Chisel Point sat at the end of the table nearest to the kitchen doorway. Hondo and Cookie were seated next to each other on the side left of him, and Lilting Melody and Cheerilee sat on his right. The far end seat was empty, its place setting relegated to more space for the serving dishes.

Before them was a feast worthy of Hearth’s Warming Eve. Large bowls filled with pasta, squash, carrots, and zucchini sat steaming, ready to dish up. A raised platter in the center of the table held a pizza topped with black olives, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers. Two loaves of fresh bread and butter sat at each end of the table, and a pitcher of iced tea sat on standby on the far end. In the mix was the dish that Cookie had brought in. Everypony at the table seemed transfixed on the food, eyeing it hungrily.

“Before we start, let’s all take a moment to thank Melody and Cheerilee for preparing this wonderful meal,” said Hondo, suddenly remembering to remove his hat thanks to a nudge from his wife. Everypony said their thanks in a respectful murmur.

“Thank you, Hondo. Now then, no sense letting it get cold. Dig in!” Melody was the first to grab a bowl, her choice being the spaghetti. Hondo went straight for the pizza, as did Chisel. Cookie lit her horn and levitated the bowl of squash to her plate, and Cheerilee chose Cookie’s contribution. Dishes were passed around frequently, and everypony’s plate was full in no time.

With the full selection of food from her mother’s she had tasted many times before, Cheerilee was far more eager to try the interesting new dish. She scooped up a bit of it on her fork and took a bite, some of the rice-like food spilling back onto her plate as she did so. It was an interesting taste for sure; she detected a lot of lemon juice and vinegar, but under the tartness of the dressings was the… rice? It looked like rice, but it didn’t quite taste like any rice she knew of. Parsley, mint, garlic, and a faint hint of tomato rounded out the potent flavor. It wasn’t the best thing she had ever eaten, but it was no doubt good!

“Mmm, Cookie. What is this that you brought with you?” Cheerilee asked.

“It’s a kind of salad we tried while we were over in Cervidas, it’s called tabouli. Do you like it?”

“It’s really good!” Cheerilee replied, taking another bite of the tabouli.

“Oh thanks! Those deer down there just can’t get enough of it. This nice doe I met named Thicket taught me how to make it. It’s easy enough that even I can’t burn it!” Cookie smiled widely.

Melody giggled from the other side of the table. “She must’ve been a miracle worker. Try as I might, my cooking lessons never seemed to work for you.”

“I’ll tell ya, it’s nice having something that isn’t crispy come out of our kitchen for once,” added Hondo, earning a playful elbow from Cookie.

“How was the rest of the trip?” asked Melody.

“It was great!” said Hondo, taking a bite of his pizza.

“I loved going to Concordia the most. There’s just so much neat stuff at the marketplace there, I’ll have to show you all of what we got next time you come over!”

“There’s a bunch of neat history down there,” added Hondo. “That museum was great, but I liked the countryside down there. Their forests are unbelievable!”

“Maybe we’ll go sometime,” Chisel mused, finally breaking into the conversation after having concentrated on his food the entire time.

“We should go together!” Cookie suggested with a grin, “I’d love to go back sometime.”

“Oh, tell 'em the story about the mouse,” said Hondo, nudging Cookie with his elbow and grinning smugly.

“I’d rather not,” Cookie replied, chuckling. It was easy to tell that she was only half-joking.

“Okay,” replied Hondo as he leaned back in his chair, getting ready to tell just a portion of there grand adventure. “So we went on a hike in this little forested area near Equadoe. Real pretty woods, lots of neat little critters running around all over the place. There was this little rest stop at a place where the trail crossed a road— Ow!” Hondo jumped as he was elbowed in the ribs, eliciting laughs from Chisel and Cheerilee.

“Don’t do it, bucko,” Cookie warned, cocking her elbow back again. Again she was only half-serious, but the threat still carried some weight.

“So this rest stop…” Hondo continued, ignoring Cookie’s bluff. “...there’s a little restroom there and she has us stop at it. While she’s in there, I went off to this little scenic overlook they have set up. I’m gone a few minutes, and when I come back, I hear some big ruckus coming from inside. She’s screaming like a little schoolfilly who saw a ghost— Ow!”

Hondo was cut off again by an elbow from Cookie. Her face was steadily turning redder under her pink fur, her blue eyes alight with playful loathing. He responded by scooting his chair a bit to the right, away from her. “So I go in there, not knowing what I’m gonna find. For all I know, someone just waltzed in there with her, so I’m ready to do what I have to do. What I find is her, standing on top of the toilet, looking like she was ready to faint—” he looked at her, his grin widening “—What was it that that was scaring you so bad, again?”

Cookie shot him a glare so intensely icy that she could have brought on winter with a little more work. “A mouse,” she spat, not taking her eyes off of her husband, who was sniggering quietly in an attempt to keep himself from bursting out laughing.

“A mouse, that’s r— that’s right!” He was fighting to keep himself from losing it, but it was quickly becoming a losing battle. Everypony else at the table was in stitches to some degree by this point. He swallowed hard, suppressing his mirth a bit so he could continue. “Anyway, it gets better when I get in there. That mouse saw me come in and he went right straight for the first place he could see to hide: right under the throne Cookie was perched on!”

“I tell ya, you’ve never seen a pony jump until you’ve seen her running from a mouse. And since she was too worried about where the mouse went, she wasn’t really looking out where she was jumping. I didn’t have more than a second before she landed square on my back. I went down, all the wind knocked out of me like I just got tackled by a quarterback, and she comes down on top of me.” Cheerilee and Melody were both giggling, while Chisel was about to choke on the bite of squash he had just taken. “So, we’re laying there in a pile on the restroom floor, I’m gasping for breath and she’s just trying to get the heck outta there…” Hondo couldn’t continue through his hysterics, but quickly caught his composure.

“Touchdown,” Cookie added, taking a sip of her water. While it didn’t have as much of an effect on Cheerilee’s family, that one-liner was enough to send Hondo into a fit of laughter. Even Cookie couldn’t help but chuckle at the scene, despite the fact that she was the butt of the whole anecdote. Most of the laughs at the table were aided by the mustachioed stallion’s mirth, which took quite a while to subside. When they finally started coming down, Melody was the first to speak.

“I’m sorry, Cookie. That was a good story though,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with her napkin before placing her glasses back on the bridge of her muzzle.

“Oh it’s fine,” said Cookie, a cool smile appearing on her face.

“Oh boy, I know that look,” Hondo shifted uneasily in his chair. “She’s planning something to get me back.”

“Oh? I wouldn’t think of such a thing,” Cookie said, retaining her nonchalant posture.

Hondo looked to Chisel and Melody. “I’m toast.”

“So,” Cookie said, looking to Cheerilee. “Enough about us. How was your first day of teaching today, Cheerilee?”

“Mmm!” Cheerilee hummed, swallowing the bite of food in her mouth. “It was wonderful!”

“How’s Sweetie Belle been treating you?” asked Hondo.

“Is she behaving herself?”

“She’s a sweetheart,” Cheerilee answered with a smile. “I haven’t seen her since she was just a toddler, so I didn’t know what to expect when she came to class.”

“She can be a hoofful, just to warn you,” said Cookie.

“At this age, what foal isn’t a hoofful? Cheerilee pointed out, earning a nod of agreement from everypony in the room. “Are you two going to come out to the parent-teacher conferences next week?”

“Well since you asked…” Hondo started, a dubious frown crossing his muzzle as he looked down and away. Cheerilee deflated a bit at his words, but quickly relaxed when she saw him look back up with his usual grin. “I’m kidding. Of course we’ll be there.”

“Great! I should be better acquainted with her by then, so I should be able to tell you better about how she’s doing.” Cheerilee took a bite of the tabouli, followed by a generous drink of tea.

“Oh! I have another great story to tell you guys…” Hondo began, changing the subject as he launched into another tale of their travels. As he went on with his yarn—this time about one of their adventures in the capital city of Cervidas—Cheerilee let herself slowly lose focus. It wasn’t that it was a boring story, but rather she wanted a moment to think to herself. When Cookie mentioned that Sweetie Belle could be hard to handle at times, it kicked loose a series of thoughts.

Would any of the students turn out to behave differently than they had on the first day? Would they be better or worse in that case? A certain mauve filly came to mind; Aura, wasn’t it?

With another bite of her mother’s homemade bread, those thoughts faded. She wasn’t here to worry about what lay ahead; there was plenty of time for that later. She was here to enjoy herself and celebrate. With that, Cheerilee let her thoughts escape her mind, and she tuned herself back into the conversation. The rest of the dinner party was sure to be a blast.

With a soft click, Cheerilee closed the front door of her house. Dinner had been… exhausting to say the least. Coupled with the stress of her first day on the job, sleep was the only thing on her mind. Several large containers of leftovers were perched on her back, the stack wobbling precariously as she walked. Before she could go upstairs, she needed to go to the kitchen and drop off the containers. She placed them on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, which was completely empty. In fact, the only items contained inside were a carton of milk and a half of a watermelon.

With a bump from her rump, she closed the fridge door and exited the kitchen, clicking the light off as she left. Hanging a right, she slipped through the narrow opening in the boxes to the stairs, trudging up them with as much speed as she dared use with her mind as foggy as it was. At the top of the staircase, she turned left and entered the first door on that side: the bathroom.

Her bathroom was still largely barren, as with most of the rest of the house. The entire room was plain white, from the tile floor to the fixtures. The only real source of color in the room was a faded floral-print shower curtain over the tub, and that was meager at best. However, now wasn’t the time to worry about the decorations. Her mind was on a set track: Brush teeth, then go to bed.

She didn’t go into as much detail with her brushing as usual, just getting her teeth passably clean before sticking her head under the faucet to rinse. She exited the bathroom and made for her bedroom door across the landing. As she put her hoof to the door to push it open, she stopped.

Water. Even though she wasn’t thirsty at the moment, it was a small comfort to have a glass of water on the nightstand. Instead of diving straight into her waiting bed like she so desperately wanted to do, she turned and went down the stairs to the kitchen. She grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with ice from the freezer, making sure to flip the lights off once she had her drink. On her way back through the foyer, she bumped into one of the stacks of boxes. The top one fell to the floor and spilled out across the room.

“Oh ponyfeathers,” Cheerilee muttered, setting her glass down on the first stair. She picked the box up and placed it back on top of the stack. The box had been mostly filled with books, so there wasn't a huge mess to clean up. A small pile of them were right in front of where the box fell, and she went for those four first. She didn’t bother to neatly stack them like they had been before, instead just throwing them back in without thought. A textbook about music theory had gone a bit further than the first four books, which brought back memories of the class it came from.

It was hard to understand and she never seemed to hear the same thing that the professor wanted her to; she barely squeaked by with a C average in that class. With that book back in the box, she moved over closer to the door where a small book with her cutie mark on the cover and a magenta ribbon bookmark had landed. It was her diary.

Oh, right, she thought. The last entry had been the day before she made her move, and she had been meaning to make an entry after her first day of teaching. As much as she wanted to put off making the entry, she knew that it would be best to do it now, while the thoughts were still fresh. She looked at the few books still scattered about, and instead picked up the diary and headed for the stairs.

Up in her room, she dropped the diary on the bed and found a quill and ink in the nightstand drawer. Since she didn’t have a desk yet, she would have to make do. With her supplies, she hopped into the bed, making sure to leave the ink jar on the nightstand in case it spilled. She opened the diary to the correct page, dipped the quill in the ink, and carefully touched it to the page.

Dear Diary,

This last week has been a blur! I went from having an apartment in the big city to renting a house back in my hometown, all in just seven days. I must say, it is a nice little place. More than enough for a single mare to make use of. I still need to turn it from a house to a home, but for now it serves fine as a roof over my head. I can’t complain one bit!

Also, today I started my first day of teaching class at the Ponyville schoolhouse! All this week, I’ve been a nervous wreck with worry about how I will adjust to the new job, but Nook was right. It looks like I’m going to do just fine. The students are wonderful, and they all seem to like me from the start! There was one little filly named Aura who didn’t seem to like me so well, but I’m sure I can win her over in time.

After class, I went for a walkaround Ponyville. Everything is just so different from when I was here last. Theres a bunch of new stores and things around town and I still need to go see them Maybe tomor~

Before she finished her sentence, her head sank back to meet the pillow in a lazy slump. She was fast asleep in seconds.

Chapter Three: Conference

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“Time to clean up your workspaces!” Cheerilee announced, clicking the timer on her desk off. On cue, the entire class mobilized, putting away colored pencils, paintbrushes, and watercolor packs as quickly as they could manage. They loaded all of their supplies into the boxes that they came in, and rushed over to the cabinets on the wall with boxes in tow. A small crowd began to form around it quickly, each foal trying to get in first.

“Everypony stop! Remember how we line up?” Cheerilee rose from her seat and made her way across the presentation area to the cabinet. “Everypony sit back down and then come back up here in a line.” A few groans of irritation came from the class as they all returned to their seats. Once all of them were back at their desks, they rose up in unison and formed a more-or-less single file line to the cubby.

“That’s better,” Cheerilee said, motioning for the children to go ahead and put their things away. She returned to her desk at the front while they put their supplies away. Apple Bloom was the last in line, and she shut the cabinet door when she got her turn. When everyone was back in their seats, Cheerilee addressed them once more.

“Now, I know it’s almost the end of the day and you all want to go home, so I won’t be long. When you leave, place your projects on the end of my desk. Tonight is the first parent-teacher conference of the year, and I hope to see everypony come out tonight at eight o’clock! I already gave you the handouts, so remember to give those to your parents.” The bell rang, and the foals began to get up from their seats with eager grins on their faces. “Remember your math homework tonight! We have the first spelling quiz on Friday! See you tonight!”

Art projects piled up on her desk as the children exited, all of them in a rush to get out the door into the late-summer afternoon.

Cheerilee wiped a hoof across her brow and leaned back in her chair. Today had been a bit of a doozy, mostly because of Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon constantly disrupting class. That coupled with an incident that involved Rumble taking a spill from the swings during recess had taken quite a toll on her energy. More than anything, she wanted to sit back in her comfortable chair and take a quick nap.

Fifteen minutes couldn’t hurt, right? She shifted a bit, slouching back into the cushion on the chair, which made it roll backwards a couple of inches. As she began to descend into slumber, the birds outside in the playground’s trees began singing their songs. Even by Equestria’s standards, it was an especially beautiful chorus of chirps and whistles. It seemed to ride elegantly on the air to soothe her fatigued mind, the lilting melody washing her worries—

Lilting Melody. Through the hectic day, she had forgotten that her mother was expecting to meet her immediately after class dismissed to prepare for conference night!

With as much energy as she could muster, she hoisted herself from the chair and grabbed her saddlebags from the bottom desk drawer. She considered running to town at a full gallop for a moment, but a passing glance at the clock told her that a leisurely trot would do the job just fine. She pulled the door closed on her way out, but didn’t bother locking it before she started down the earthen path back to town.

If she couldn’t spare the time for a nap, then she could at least stop at Sugarcube Corner for a large coffee.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Filt— Mr. Rich,” said Cheerilee, shaking the tan businesspony's hoof politely.

“Likewise. Come on, Diamond. Randolph should have dinner waiting.” Filthy Rich rose from his seat in front of Cheerilee’s desk, alongside his daughter. They both turned to leave, though not before Diamond Tiara could sneak a dirty look in Cheerilee’s direction.

During the meeting, Cheerilee had noticed several things. Filthy Rich had been a very keen listener when she talked about Diamond’s academic performance, but when the conversation shifted to the filly’s disciplinary record, he went through a drastic shift. He interrupted frequently, began fidgeting in his chair, and became dismissive of nearly every point that was brought against his daughter despite the fact that there was a near daily record of problems. From what she remembered of Mr. Rich, she knew to expect it. He was the type of father to see his daughter as a perfect angel who does no wrong.

Now that they were gone, she took out her pencil and scratched off Diamond Tiara’s name. So far, seven of the twelve students had come in. Sweetie Belle was first to come in with Hondo and Cookie, as promised, followed by the Apples. Granny Smith had brought Apple Bloom in with Applejack and Big Macintosh in tow. It had been years since she had seen the entire Apple clan together in one room, and they were just as much of a joy to meet with as she remembered. A skinny little colt named Featherweight and his ironically heavyset mother were next, and not long after them came Snips and Snails together with both of their respective parents at the same time. Rumble and Thunderlane showed up a little while later.

Rumble brought his brother to the conference despite the fact that he needed his parents to attend. Things went a bit farther south when she caught Thunderlane staring at her more than once. It was flattering, but nonetheless unwelcome at a parent-teacher conference.

Cheerliee shook her head to clear her mind of the memory and looked down at the list again. At least Diamond Tiara had come in, but her partner in crime Silver Spoon was a no-show. Surprisingly, Twist had also skipped, but it must have been conflicting schedules if she knew anything about her. The rest of the no-shows included Scootaloo, Piña Colada, and Aura.


Cheerilee had been meaning to find a chance to speak with the little mauve filly, but she was always out of the classroom faster than she could blink. In the past few days, she had noticed a few more things that struck her as peculiar. Of all the foals in the class, she had far and away the worst mouthwriting, which was a bit unusual since fillies were often naturally better at penponyship, but not totally unexpected either.

The clock on the wall chimed as it struck ten, and Cheerilee practically leapt from her seat at the signal that she could go home for the day. She raised her forelegs over her head in a stretch, a quiet yawn escaping as she released the tension in her back. It had been a long day, and there were still four more to go before the the weekend rolled around. A good night’s sleep was in order, lest she be in bad shape for class tomorrow.

In much the same fashion as when she left the room at the end of the school day, Cheerilee retrieved her saddlebags from the bottom right drawer of the desk. She sauntered across the front of the room, stifling yet another yawn as she pulled the door open. She stepped through the doorway and stopped and turned to click the lights off. Before she flipped the switch, she took a look around the room. The two chairs that had been pulled over for the conferences would need to be moved in the morning, but aside from that, everything was spic and span. The art projects were still there, and the foals would be finishing those in the morning. Satisfied, she turned out the lights and grabbed the doorknob, only to hesitate.

Despite the fact that the art projects were unfinished, Cheerilee was curious as to what the foals were drawing. She hadn’t looked at any of them besides the one on top of the stack, and that was just in passing since it was visible. She had been planning to read another chapter from Windfall before bed, but looking over the art projects was a more non-committal and appealing choice. The book had lengthy chapters anyway, so this would be quicker and she could go to bed a little earlier. She didn’t bother powering up the lights again, since the enchantment-powered fixtures took a few seconds to warm up to full brightness. She took the stack in her teeth carefully and slid them down into her waiting saddlebag. With a gentle tug, she fastened the cover and again made for the door. This time, she pushed it closed and locked it from the outside before trotting back down the earthen path to Ponyville, this time headed home.

Cheerilee settled into her bed and pulled the covers over herself. Her room was slowly coming along, but it was still quite plain as with the rest of the house. A throw rug now lay between the bed and the door, and a couple of picture frames were hanging on the wall to her right; one a photo of her and two of her friends from Bridleway, the other a hoof-stitched cloth bearing her mother’s favorite quote: “In all things, give thanks.”

Leaning over, she fished the stack of papers out of her saddlebags, which were propped against the bed on the floor. Since she hadn’t remembered to go to the store for construction paper, the projects were done on ordinary white sheets of letter paper. It hadn’t been a big deal, but Cheerilee bit her lip in annoyance at her slip-up.

The assignment had been to draw something that was special; nothing too difficult, it was mainly an effort to get a little bit more information on the students’ personalities. The top of the stack was Apple Bloom’s, and her work was nothing unexpected. Two little caricatures of trees with red dots signifying apples sat near the center of the page, and a stick figure in orange crayon with the back legs bucked out on one of the trees signified Applejack. She pulled that one out from the stack and placed it off to one side, this time revealing Twist’s work.

Despite the fact that the little curly-maned filly was the egghead of the class, her sketch was much harder to make out than Apple Bloom’s. If it weren’t for the red and white coloring, she wouldn’t have been able to tell that the drawing was of peppermint candies. Again, she set that page aside, forming a new stack of pictures on top of the comforter.

She made her way through the stack fairly quickly, taking note of the many different things each student drew. Sweetie Belle seemed to have drawn herself singing, through her art skills made that difficult to discern. Snips, Snails, Diamond Tiara, Silver Spoon, Piña Colada, Scootaloo, and Featherweight all seemed to be coming along fine as well, though with varying degrees of success in their depictions. As she set aside Featherweight’s work, she settled her gaze on the next one.

On reflex, her jaw dropped. In her hooves sat a crayon-and-pencil drawing, as with all of the others before it. It showed a little pony sitting at an easel with a paintbrush in her mouth, but that wasn’t the shocking part about it.

It was the detail.

It was only half finished, but it was still every bit as stunning to see the amount of technique being used by such a young filly. The filly within was fully drawn, even with several flaws. The easel was comprised of straight, even lines. A window in the background showed that there was going to be a wall there tomorrow, and there were even a few sloppy attempts at shading on both of the figures. In addition to that, the viewpoint was at least decently consistent. It was by far the best picture from the entire class, and it was much better than anything Cheerilee could have done herself. And amidst all that, the real surprise lurked unassumingly in the bottom right-hoof corner. In extremely sloppy mouthwriting, the artist’s name identified the picture’s owner.


Cheerilee sat still, unblinking with her mouth hanging open for a long minute, trying to process what she had just seen. The filly who never seemed to pay attention in class; the filly who sat in the back of the room but was always the first to leave in the afternoon; the filly who could hardly write legibly; was responsible for the best piece of artwork she had ever seen out of a primary school classroom. When she finally recovered from the shock, she had to check the project again just to make sure that she had seen it right in her tired state.

It wasn’t a mistake. She carefully lowered the page, sliding it and the final paper that she still hadn’t seen into the stack on the bed. This was… interesting news, to say the least. She had been meaning to talk to Aura since the first day of school, but now she needed to do it as soon as possible. While she felt a sense of elation that her student was so gifted at something, something didn’t seem right. While she would have loved to try to figure out exactly what made her gut instinct cry foul, her heavy eyelids commanded that she let sleeping dogs—or rather sleeping ponies in her case—lie until morning. She picked up the stack of papers and slipped them back into her bag before she turned the bedside lamp out. Sleep did not come as swiftly as it should have, but it didn’t take long for her to fall into slumber.

The next day, class was rather uneventful. Diamond Tiara had noticeably toned her attitude down, but still couldn’t help but cause a few disruptions out of habit. Her father must have given her quite the lecture last night— either that or she was trying to fly under the radar for a bit. Silver Spoon was also quieter, but that was likely because of Diamond’s behavioral shift.

It was fifteen minutes past three, and class would dismiss for the day in fifteen more. As with the day before, the last bit of class had been reserved for the art projects. This time, Cheerilee was keeping a very close eye on Aura as she worked. Now that she focused more on it, she noticed that the filly would occasionally pause to blink hard and look down at the desk for a moment, a dazed expression in her eyes. In every single lesson beforehand, she had barely paid attention and worked even less than that, a bored frown on her face the entire day. However, now she was drawing with fervor, easily working with twice the devotion of the rest of the class. Through Aura was clutching the crayon in her teeth, it was easy to tell that there was a happy little smile there.

Cheerilee, on the other hoof, looked on with an inquisitive frown. There was something about Aura that didn’t quite add up, but she couldn’t tell exactly what. Other than her poor classroom habits, she looked like a completely normal filly. Then again, she had no idea of what Aura was like outside of the classroom, so that wasn’t exactly a solid conclusion. Ten minutes remained, and Cheerilee rose from her desk and walked out into the presentation area.

She cleared her throat, earning attention from several students. “Ten minutes left, everypony! Make your final touches on the drawings and start putting things away so we can leave on time!”

Some quiet commotion followed quickly after Cheerilee finished speaking as some of the foals began to pack up their supplies. While they were finishing, she made a quick loop around the room to get a sneak peek at the foals’ creations, and to whisper something at a certain filly in the back corner desk.

She took the long way around, taking a few passing glances at the students’ desks mainly to not draw too much attention to Aura being asked to stay afterwards. It was a little courtesy she afforded her based on personal experience, memories of how an elementary school class typically reacts to such a thing came to mind first and foremost. Aura didn’t even look up at her as Cheerilee rounded the turn behind her desk, still too lost in her work to notice. Cheerilee tapped a hoof at her shoulder, which made her jump before she looked up at her teacher.

“Would you please stay after class for a few minutes? I need to talk to you,” Cheerilee whispered before she immediately walked back to the front of the room.

Fortunately, none of the other students seemed to notice, and they went about putting things away as if nothing happened. Cleanup went much more smoothly than the previous day, and it didn't take long before the room was tidied up and the foals were sitting in their seats, anxiously awaiting the clock to strike three-thirty. After a few more minutes of silence that seemed to drag on like hours, the bell finally announced the end of class. The foals jumped up and grabbed their art projects, rushing towards Cheerilee’s desk to turn them in in a frenzy.

“Have a good day, everypony! See you tomorrow!” Cheerilee called after the rush of eager students. In seconds, the classroom was empty, save for one seat in the back corner where a little mauve filly with a teal mane sat tensely, looking straight ahead like she had been caught with her hoof in the cookie jar.

Here goes nothing.

Chapter Four: Meeting Aura

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“Am I in trouble?” Aura looked up from her desk sheepishly, not quite making eye contact with her teacher before looking back down.

“No,” said Cheerilee, rising from her chair and walking towards the back of the classroom. “I just wanted to ask you something.” She took a seat in the desk immediately in front of Aura’s, straddling the seat backwards and hugging the backrest with her forelegs.

Aura seemed to be hiding under the cover of her hair, or at least attempting to do so to the best of her ability. “Did I do something bad?”

“No, Aura. You’re not in trouble.” Cheerilee smiled warmly, which in turn brought Aura’s face out from behind her mane. “I wanted to talk with your parents at the conference last night, but you guys didn’t show up.”

“We were busy,” said Aura, her eyes darting to the clock before returning to her teacher.

“Well, I can certainly understand that.” Cheerilee could tell one of two things from the way the filly barely made eye contact: That she was either very shy, or that she was not telling the truth. “But I really must speak with your parents. Is there any way I could meet them today?”

“Nope,” Aura replied. “I don’t think they’ll come at all.”

Cheerilee frowned. It was definitely the latter. “Young filly, don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying!” Aura finally made eye contact again, and sun above, she was working the puppy dog eyes hard. “My daddy’s busy all the time at work!”

“Is your mother available?”

“She’s always busy with my little brother!” Aura sank deeper into the chair, her lip quivering faintly.

Hmm. Foals rarely had the acting ability to pull off lies so convincingly. Perhaps there was a third possibility that her parents were actually too busy to attend. Even so, there was surely a way to get a moment of their time.

“Where does your dad work? I could probably find a way to talk with him on my own.” Cheerilee watched Aura closely. She didn’t squirm or show any sign that she didn’t want her parents to meet with her teacher. It looked like she was telling the truth after all.

“He writes for the newspaper. He’s always busy, so you won’t see him.” There was a bit of acid in the filly’s tone.

The Ponyville Express? What does he do there?”

“He's the edition pony or something. I don’t remember.” Aura shrugged and looked over towards the window.

“The editor,” Cheerilee clarified.

“Yeah, that.”

“Well, I guess you can run along no—” Cheerilee couldn’t finish her sentence before the chair shot back and Aura was on her way towards the door. “Remember to do your homework!” The call went unanswered, and the filly didn’t look back as she bolted out into the hazy afternoon sunshine.

“That was interesting,” Cheerilee said to herself. She rose from the chair and walked to her desk, slipping her saddlebags on and making for the door as well.

Before she walked out, she froze in place. What was it that she was forgetting? She had everything in her saddlebags, the art projects were… Aura’s art project. How could I forget that?

It was going to come in handy later.

It took Cheerilee the better part of fifteen minutes to find the The Ponyville Express's office building. Being a local newspaper with a small readership, it didn’t have the need for a large building to operate out of. As such, it occupied a squat, nondescript structure near Town Hall. The only things identifying it from any other buildings were the large overhead door on the side of the building and the small, faded sign of the namesake paper painted above the front door. From the outside, it looked a lot like a normal house.

A wave of relief washed over Cheerilee when she finally spotted the faded stenciling, and she trotted over to the door in a hasty jog. As she entered, the bell over the door jingled.

“I’ll be there in a second!” came a voice from the back of the room. The entire first floor of the building looked like one large room. A large printing press near the doorway was humming loudly as it spat out newspaper after newspaper. The conveyor belt took the papers to another machine which rolled them up and tied them with a rubber band before spitting them out into a waiting wagon near the overhead door.

With a loud whine, the whole operation began slowing. The press was first to turn off, and the belt soon carried its last edition down to the tying machine. With a few more loud electrical hums and snaps, the system shut down and went quiet. Some hoofsteps could be heard coming from behind the press in the newfound silence, and from there emerged an ink-smattered unicorn, his jet black mane slicked down with either hair gel or sweat.

“Can I help you?” he asked, wiping at an ink spot with an old rag.

“Uh, yes. I’m looking for the newspaper’s editor, Pencil Pusher. Is he around?”

“In the flesh,” Pencil Pusher replied, discarding the rag. “What can I do you for?”

“You’re the editor? I didn’t think you would be the one running the press.” Cheerilee cringed at her comment as soon as the words left her lips. Maybe he wouldn’t take notice of it.

“It’s a small operation. The guy that usually runs this thing, Ink Jet, got the feather flu. I’m filling in for him when I can.” He didn’t notice, thank Celestia.

“All by yourself? I— Oh drat, I could stand here and pester you with questions about the newspaper all day, couldn’t I?” Pencil chuckled alongside her at the quip. “Anyway, my name is Cheerilee, and I’m the teacher at the Ponyville Elementary school. I came to talk to you about your daughter, Aura.”

“Sure,” said Pencil. “We can go on up to the office to talk if you want.”

“Oh no, I don’t want to take up any more of your time than I need to. We can just do this right here.” Pencil nodded, giving Cheerilee the go-ahead. “I wanted to bring this up with you at the parent-teacher conference last night, but you didn’t show up. It’s about Aura’s classroom performance.”

“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” said Pencil.

“I sent home several notes about it. Did Aura not give them to you?”

“I guess not,” Pencil replied with a frown. “I’ll be sure to bring that up with her tonight. Is she misbehaving in class?”

“No, actually. Aside from this, she’s actually very well-behaved in class. I’m more concerned about her academic performance. In the last week, she hasn’t shown much interest in class. She just sits there and looks on most of the day without ever truly participating.” She paused for a moment, reading Pencil’s expression. His brow was furrowed, his eyes locked on hers and his ears pointed forward. He was paying concerned attention. “Her daily grades are suffering for it, too. She’s in the bottom of the class right now, and to be frank, I don’t think that she’s taking much interest in learning.”

Pencil remained silent.

“However, there is something peculiar about her. One of our assignments from this week was an art project, and I just want to show it to you,” Cheerilee said, reaching back into her saddlebags to retrieve Aura's project. She passed it to Pencil, who took it in his magic. “Take a look at this.”

Pencil Pusher’s eyebrows raised in surprise, his golden eyes scanning the paper fervently. He whistled in awe before he looked back to Cheerilee. “That’s really something,” he commented, passing it back to her.

“It’s the best one in the entire class, hooves down. She has an uncanny knack for art, but she can barely write her own name on a paper.”

Pencil cocked an eyebrow. “That’s news to me. We’ve never had any complaints about that before.”

“Really? That’s peculiar,” said Cheerilee.

“Well, what can we do?” Pencil asked, shrugging his shoulders a bit.

“It’s still early on in the year, so I’m not entirely sure at this point. Perhaps you could help her with her study habits at home?”

“I can try, but my job doesn’t give me a lot of time to see my kids at the moment, as you can see.”

“In any case, it’s a start. It could be something as simple as not getting back in the swing of things from summertime, but it could also be warning signs of a learning disability—”

“Let’s not go there,” Pencil interrupted. “My daughter is just fine. I can make the time to help her. Now, I really need to get back to the press, so I’m afraid that we have to cut this short. Thanks for stopping by!”

“Anytime,” Cheerilee said, turning and making for the door. “I’ll keep you in the loop if anything else comes up!”

“Thank you,” said Pencil, turning his own way and trotting back off towards the press. Cheerilee stepped back out into the warm afternoon, and as soon as the door shut, she looked back quizzically.

What was that all about?

“What can I get you to drink?” asked the waiter, a lanky young stallion wearing an apron. He looked to Nook first.

“Hmm…” Nook scratched at her muzzle thoughtfully. “I’ll take a root beer.”

“I’ll have water,” said Cheerilee.

“Alright! Are you two ready to order now or do you need a minute?”

“I’m ready now. How about you, Cheers?”

“I’m ready. I’ll just have the small garden salad with creamy Bitalian dressing. Oh, and can you put sunflower seeds on there?”

“Sure! And you, ma’am?”

Nook flipped her menu closed. “Gimme a pasta salad with diced cucumbers and toasted croutons. Vinaigrette dressing, please.” She floated their menus to the waiter, who took them under his wing.

“Thank you, ladies. I’ll be right back with those drinks.” With that, the waiter went on his way, disappearing back into the café.

With the waiter gone, Cheerilee took a few glances around at the restaurant. A small wrought iron fence surrounded the outdoor dining area, and six or seven wooden tables covered with red and white umbrellas filled the small patio. Only one other table was open at the moment, and a dull roar of chatter punctuated by the occasional clink of silverware on a plate floated in the air.

“Gee whiz, thanks Cheerilee.” Nook’s voice brought her attention back from the surroundings.


“The way you’re ordering, it makes me feel fat. Are you trying to diet or something?” Nook had a tell when she was being less than half serious. The left corner of her mouth would involuntarily turn up slightly, just enough to give her a smirk. The upturn was there, so Cheerilee let her guard down.

“I’m just not all that hungry. Might as well eat light if I don’t feel the need to eat, you know?”

“Alright then.” The unicorn let out a yawn and stretched out her forelegs. “Wow, I had a rough day. You know that new mare I was telling you about yesterday?”

“The one you called ‘plump’, right?” Cheerilee asked, cocking an eyebrow and a smirk of her own.

“Geez, when you say it like that, you make me sound mean.” Cheerilee didn’t lower her eyebrow. “Oh, shut up. Anyway, I’m the one who got assigned to train her, and she doesn’t seem to learn anything I teach her! I asked her to organize the file cabinet today, and she actually managed to make that mess harder to understand! We were playing catch-up all day long after we got that whole mess sorted out.”

“The way you’re talking about her, it sounds like you think she’s an idiot.” Cheerilee immediately bit her tongue, and the look of shock on Nook’s face confirmed her fears.

“Alright, that’s it. Who are you and what have you done with the real Cheerilee?”

“Sorry,” Cheerilee said, averting her eyes. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind today, that’s all.”

“That explains why you’re barely eating.” Nook leaned forward, resting her head on her hooves and staring forward with enough intensity that it seemed like she was trying to look directly into Cheerilee’s soul. “Spit it out, sister.”

“I’m not really sure that I want to discuss it right now.”

“Not buying it. Give me the details.” Nook wasn’t going to back down, as Cheerilee knew from experience. Better to get it over with as quickly as possible.

“Fine, I’ll tell you. I—”

“Alright, here’s your drinks!” The waiter interrupted, much to Nook’s chagrin. From what Cheerilee could tell, it was taking an impressive amount of self-control for her to not shoot him a glare. “Root beer for you and water for you.” He was balancing the glasses on his wingtips, and he expertly slid them forward onto the table, not spilling a drop during the process. “Your salads should only be a couple more minutes, hang tight.” In an instant, he had disappeared amongst the other tables.

“Go on,” said Nook, taking a sip of her drink.

“It’s work trouble for me too. There’s this filly in the class who never pays attention at all. Bless her heart, she can barely write her own name legibly.”

“A slow learner? I kinda figured that was part of being a teacher.”

“Let me finish,” Cheerilee chided. “The thing is, I can tell that she’s smart. She can barely write and math is a total impossibility for her, but she can draw. For her age, she is the most talented artist I’ve ever seen. Here,” Cherilee dug into her saddlebag, which was perched on the ground below her chair, and produced Aura’s project for the second time that day. She passed it across to Nook, who took it and whistled in awe.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” asked Cheerilee.

“It sure beats anything I can do.” Nook didn’t look up from the paper, still taking in the details of the drawing.

“That’s almost exactly what I said. I tracked down her father today since they didn’t show up at the conferences, and he was mostly helpful.”

“Mostly?” Nook asked, finally tearing herself from the sketch.

“Yes, mostly. He promised to try to work with his daughter, but he seemed a bit testy.”

“Sounds to me like he thinks that his daughter’s bad habits reflect on him as a parent.” Nook took another sip of her drink.

“There’s your psychology class coming out again,” Cheerilee mocked.

“Hey, it happens. Keep talking, girl.”

“Well, there’s not much else to say. I’m really glad that she has talent, but it raises questions. Why does she write so poorly when her artistic skill is so developed? How has she not gotten help with this before now? Why did her dad get so short with me when I mentioned—” Cheerilee stopped abruptly. In effect, she had just answered her own question. “Oh. When I mentioned learning disabilities.”

“That makes a lot of sense, really. I’ve heard of kids being really smart in one thing but they’re completely clueless in everything else.” Nook flipped a hoof through her mane, making the curly mass of hair bounce a bit.

“Uh-huh.” Cheerilee looked down at the table thoughtfully, tracing her gaze along the wood grain. Could the answer really be so simple? “I think I need to do a bit of research tomorrow when the library opens.”

“Hey, here comes the waiter!” Nook bounced in her chair a bit, her eyes brightening.

Suddenly, the knot that had been plaguing Cheerilee’s stomach all afternoon was gone. The swirl of questions and uncertainty had gone by the wayside, replaced with one single thought:

That she desperately wished she had gotten a bigger salad.

Chapter Five: Eureka

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The next day, class went by as per the usual. There was a bit of renewed trouble with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, but the offenses were minor and therefore so were the punishments. The day’s lessons went by without a hitch.

And Aura still didn’t pay attention.

Cheerilee had been quietly hoping that Pencil Pusher might have been able to motivate Aura to work harder at her schooling, but she hadn’t been betting on it too much. The little filly was still as glum and uninterested in class as ever. Come to think of it, she also looked to be in a more sour mood as well.

The bell rang, and the children took off for the day in their usual excited fashion. As they went, Cheerilee dug in her saddlebags to retrieve a mint. When she finally managed to find the candy, she popped it in her mouth and turned around in her chair.

Aura was standing next to the desk with an impatient frown.

“Oh! Hello, Aura. How can I help you?” Cheerilee asked.

“What did you do to my daddy?”

“What do you mean?” Cheerilee had a feeling that she knew where this was going, but she kept that to herself and decided to play innocent for the time being.

“He was all over me last night! He talked to me about all kinds of stuff and made me do homework with him!” Aura wasn't quite yelling, but the anger in her voice was clear. “He never does that stuff with me, and then he kept saying how I need to pay attention in class. Why did you make him do that?”

“Aura, don’t take that tone with me,” warned Cheerilee. “I stopped by The Ponyville Express yesterday to tell him what I wanted to say at the conference on Wednesday since you all didn’t show up. He told me that you didn’t give him the note I sent home with you.”

“I lost it,” Aura said, breaking eye contact for a second and kicking a hoof on the ground.

“Well, you should have gotten another the next day. I have plenty of extras.” Aura still didn’t make eye contact, which Cheerilee could easily tell was to try and conceal her lie.

“I didn’t know that,” Aura mumbled.

Cheerilee looked at the filly for a good long while, mulling over what she should do. She could give a stern lecture about it, hopefully causing some sort of change in her behavior. Then again, since she was trying to figure out more about Aura, being harsh was definitely not the way to get the filly to open up.

“Aura, can you look at me please?” She did as she was asked, revealing two pleading eyes that shimmered in the light with enough intensity to melt a heart in an instant. “Is there something else wrong?”

The pleading eyes dried up in an instant. “What?”

“I feel like you’re not telling me the whole story. Would you like to talk about anything?” Cheerilee cringed internally. Such a generic teacher approach rarely worked in an ideal scenario, and this was far from perfect. She could almost speak Aura’s next words for her.

“Nope. Can I go now?”

Cheerilee sighed in defeat. “Run along.” Aura was gone almost before she could finish speaking, and in another moment, Cheerilee was the only pony in the room.

Cheerilee sat and stared at the single knot hole on the top of her desk. The tiny little gap it left in the otherwise perfect surface glaring up at her with a sudden intensity that she had no idea it could muster. She picked at the dark imperfection with her hoof, almost wishing she could dig it out on the spot.

“I need to get some wood filler,” she muttered to herself as she rose from her chair. She dropped the stack of the day’s papers to be graded into her bag and closed the flap. Swinging the saddlebags over her back, she left her desk and stepped out into the warmth of the sunshine for the first time since that morning. It was too bad that she couldn’t take the time to enjoy it more. However, the library awaited, and with it, perhaps an answer to her question.

Nothing here either. Cheerilee flipped the book closed and shoved it off to the steadily growing pile on the right side of the table. She sighed, resting her head on her hoof and chewing on her lip as she stared at the considerably large stack. Three hours of study, and she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

In truth, she probably had skimmed over the information she was looking for more than once. However, the way that most of the books she had picked up were written, she might have had better luck learning to fly in those three hours than trying to understand what was being said. Granted, she could approximate some of that based on context, but those tomes would have been better placed on a physician’s private shelf.

It was already getting late in the day, and the Golden Oaks library was due to close in the next twenty minutes. Grumbling to herself, Cheerilee rose from her seat, popping a few joints on her way up, and went about finding the shelves that she had pulled the books from.

She took three books on her first trip. The slot they all came from was the only one dedicated to books about the medical field, and given the small size of the library itself, she had mostly cleaned out that entire shelf. The three thick textbooks made a good dent in refilling the empty space, and she crossed back to the table and the remaining stack.

What a waste of time. Cheerilee scowled at the wooden horse head sculpture atop the table. She should have known that such a search was going to be pointless, given that she had only a few sneaking suspicions to work with.

Maybe I’m just worrying about this too much. Her scowl softened to a defeated frown as she stuffed another book back into the cubby. Did I really need to bring up learning disabilities with her father so early like that?

No, you didn’t. Way to go, Cheerilee. Her ears drooped as she picked up the final book. A mistake had been made, and she had given the family quite a scare over something that was probably an insignificant problem.

Then again, Aura’s unexpected artistic proficiency wasn’t anything to sweep under the rug.

She rammed the final book into its place with perhaps a bit more force than she’d intended. She retrieved her saddlebags from the table and slipped them over her back. With one final check of her workspace, she made for the door.

It had been a few weeks since school started, and the warmth of late summer was already starting to give way to early fall. The trees were still more than a month away from being ready to drop their leaves, but the winds of change were already beginning to blow. The breeze carried a subtle crispness; Before long, it would be time to start breaking out her winter wear.

Cheerilee shelved that train of thought. There were bigger fish to fry than her future cold weather clothing options.

Or were there? After all, every bit of her research was based on a hunch. It seemed like a very plausible one, but it was a hunch nonetheless. There was still far too much doubt in her mind as to what was going on. Regardless of what the problem might have been, there was only one true certainty.

She was going to get to the bottom of it somehow.

“Welcome back, everypony! Did you enjoy your recess?” Cheerilee greeted her class with a smile as the last of them found their seats.

“Yes, Miss Cheerilee!” the class chimed as a chorus.

“Great!” Cheerilee stepped over to a cart laden with books in the middle of the presentation area. “Now I know you’d rather go back outside, but we have more lessons to get through before I turn you all loose for the day.” A few stirs of chatter came from the children before Cheerilee held up her hoof to silence them.

“For our language arts lesson, we’re going to be reading out loud. Everypony will get their turn to read, and when they’re reading, the rest of us are going to listen to what they say.” She picked up the dozen books she needed in the crook of her foreleg, and walking down the row, she placed three on each of the front desks.

“We will be reading this book for the next few weeks. Diamond Tiara, would you read us the title and the author’s name?”

For once, Diamond didn’t even so much as scoff at being picked to do something. “The Mystery of the Scorned Mare, by Key Mash.”

“Thank you Diamond. Now, who wants to be our first volunteer to read?” Cheerilee looked around the room expectantly as a number of hooves lifted into the air. Twist was by far the most enthusiastic, and Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Piña Colada all offered their hooves as well. Despite the fact that there were volunteers, Cheerilee felt like shaking things up a bit. She let her gaze skip over those students who wanted to read, instead going for those who tried to escape being chosen first. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were two possibilities, and perhaps Rumble? Aura? As she settled her attention on the mauve filly in the corner desk, she smiled inwardly.

The first victim.

“Aura, would you like to read first?”

The filly’s head shot up from her usual inattentive slouch. “No.”

“Aw, come on! It’s not that bad,” Apple Bloom added.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve let you off the hook on classroom participation for long enough. It’s your turn to read,” Cheerilee added a stern tone to her voice, and Aura seemed to shy away from it. However, not another moment passed before her shoulders fell.

“Good.” The seriousness dropped from her tone as quickly as it had come, and Cheerilee was once again back to her normal jovial demeanor. “Everypony open your books to page three,” she said. Immediately after, a hoof went up.

“Why doesn’t it start on page one?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“They have to put the title page and everything else that they do when they start a book on the first few pages, so most books will actually start on page three or so.”

“Oh,” she said, settling back down in her chair to open her book.

“Whenever you’re ready, Aura.” Cheerilee pushed the cart back against the wall and went to her desk to take a seat.

The room stayed silent for several long moments, all eyes either fixed on their books or looking back at the filly that was about to read to them. The clock ticked the seconds away, and yet Aura still didn’t read.

Cheerilee stood back up to look back there. To her surprise, Aura was actually focused on her task. The surprise ended there, and was instead replaced by concern because Aura was glaring at the book.

Her eyes were set firmly in place, and her face was starting to strain. She stared unblinkingly down at the book before her, almost as if she were trying to set it on fire with her mind.

“Ch-chap…” She struggled with the word, cutting it off halfway through. She blinked hard, shaking her head as she did. “Chap-ter o-”

“Aura, are you alright?”

“This is making my head hurt,” Aura said, finally tearing her gaze away from the book. There was a bit of redness on her forehead under the fur, and she almost looked a bit disoriented.

“That’s… enough. Um, Twist! Twist, would you read for us please?”

“Absolutely!” Twist agreed with a bright smile full of braces. “Chapter one. A thin mist washed over a midnight meadow without a sound, draping across the land like a sheet across a bed…”

While Twist continued to read for the rest of the class, Aura let her head rest on the desk, covering her eyes with her hooves like she had a migraine. Despite Cheerilee’s best efforts to keep the class going and draw attention away from Aura, several of the students had yet to return to their books, each staring at the filly quizzically.

Cheerilee was one of the gawkers. Just the day before, she had dismissed the Aura conundrum as mere childish laziness. As she watched the filly lay still, her head resting on the desk, she began to think back to the library visit. She didn’t have time to do another research session, so she would have to go straight to the source of medical knowledge: A doctor’s office.

The little tune that Cheerilee was humming to herself was starting to get repetitive after five minutes in the waiting room. At least it was empty, so she would be next to see the doctor.

Ponyville’s hospital wasn’t known for being the best-staffed in Equestria. It was mostly a clinic for the ponies who got sick or injured during a day to day activities in the town. Thankfully for her, the hospital had a pediatrician on staff for the local children. If anyone in town would know the problem or at the very least a place to find the answer, this was it.

The door on the far wall opened, and a brown colt in a propellor hat bounded out of the door with the energy that only a child could possess. Hot on his heels was his mother, an Earth pony of a lighter shade than her son. By the look on her face, she was just a bit miffed with her son for running out of the office like he had. She muttered a “good afternoon” to Cheerilee as she passed, her pace picking up to catch her runaway foal.

“Dr. Scope will see you now,” announced the latest of the constant string of familiar voices that Cheerilee had been hearing over the past few weeks. The venerable Nurse Redheart was standing in the doorway, holding a clipboard and smiling like she always did. Like so many other things in town, she hadn’t changed at all during Cheerilee’s time in college.

“Oh good grief, is that you, Cheerilee? How long has it been?” Redheart asked, stepping aside so Cheerilee could get through the doorway.

“Three years, I know! Time flies, am I right?”

“Trust me, it only gets faster from here. So, you’re not a kid anymore. What brings you down to the pediatric ward?” The two mares turned left down a short hallway which ended at the door to Dr. Scope’s office.

“I came for advice.” Cheerilee said.

“Oh don’t tell me. You aren’t gonna have a baby of your own, are you?”

Cheerilee stopped in her tracks, stiff as a board. She was silent for a short moment before she snorted. For some reason, that question was one of the most absurd things she had ever been asked! She snorted again, and this time it was followed by a howling fit of laughter.

Nurse Redheart was at first startled by the reaction, but that didn’t last long. The laughter was infectious, and she was chuckling alongside Cheerilee shortly thereafter.

“No…” Cheerilee finally managed to choke out between giggles. “No! I’m not pregnant!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Nurse Redheart said, her own laughter finally eclipsing Cheerilee’s. It took a few more seconds for the mirth to finally die back down to a manageable level.

“Phew, I haven’t had a laugh like that in a while!” Cheerilee finally began to move forward again, and they were at Doctor Scope’s office in no time.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it. It was good to see you again, Cheerilee.”

“Maybe we can all get together sometime,” Cheerilee offered.

“I’ll look forward to it.” Nurse Redheart smiled. “Tell your mom I said hi!”

With that, Redheart spun around and began making her way back down the hall. Cheerilee watched her go for a moment, letting her get almost out of sight before she turned her gaze to the door in front of her.

Dr. Clear Scope, MD

The lettering on the door’s cloudy glass window pushed aside as Cheerilee stepped through the doorway. As the Doctor’s name went by the wayside, in its place was the mare herself. Doctor Clear Scope was a light purple unicorn, a coat shade similar to Aura’s as a matter of fact, with her mane tied back in a bun and wearing the trademark white physician’s coat. She looked up from her desk as Cheerilee entered, and stood up with a smile.

“Hello, nice to meet you. Miss…?”

“Cheerilee.” She shook the doctor’s hoof politely.

“Excellent. I notice that you don’t have a little one with you, so I’m going to guess that you came to me looking for either advice or an opinion.” Dr. Scope sat back in her chair, leaning back a bit farther than she had before.

“You would be correct,” Cheerilee said, smiling.

“Well, let’s see what I can help you with! Would you something to drink, maybe some coffee?”

Cheerilee shook her head, “No, thank you. I just had a cup a little over an hour ago.”

Cheerilee noticed that the doctor’s voice had a very familiar ring to it, though not in the way that other ponies in the town did. “I can’t help but notice your accent. Are you from Fillydelphia by chance?”

“Born and raised,” answered Dr. Scope with some pride in her tone.

“Small world! I just graduated from Bridleway a few months ago!”

“Oh, that’s where I went to school for undergrad!” The doctor pointed a hoof towards her degree on the wall, making her large earrings jingle faintly as she talked.

“I majored in elementary education, myself. I just started teaching at the schoolhouse here not too long ago.” Cheerilee paused, noticing that Dr. Scope was starting to listen more intently. “And that’s why I came to you today. You see, I have a problem student. She’s shown some highly peculiar behaviors over the past few weeks, and I wanted to know if you could help me pinpoint exactly what it is that might be the cause.”

“Have you already ruled out simple behavioral issues?” asked Dr. Scope.

“Yes, I’m positive that the problem runs deeper than that. Here,” Cheerilee dug into her bag and fished out the same drawing that she had shown Nook and Pencil Pusher, passing it across to the doctor. “That was drawn by a ten-year-old filly who can barely write her own name.”

The doctor silently considered the drawing for a moment before she lowered it to the desk. “How does she behave in class?”

“Well, she seems... detached when all of the other students are engaging with the material. She barely pays attention, and I haven’t seen her really interact with the other children at all.” Cheerilee searched her mind to find all of the instances of Aura’s behaviors that could be considered evidence. That was most of the entire problem, but she was saving the biggest one for last.

The episode from earlier that afternoon.

“And one more thing,” she started, taking a breath. “Today in class, we had an assigned reading where the children would read a book out loud. When it was her turn, she had trouble reading anything at all, and she began complaining of headaches before I let her pass up on the turn.”

Dr. Scope rested her chin on her hooves, staring ahead at the far wall intently. She was silent for a few moments, during which time Cheerilee waited with bated breath.

“Interesting,” said Clear Scope, finally breaking the silence.

“What do you think?” Cheerilee asked.

“You strike me as a sharp young mare. Do you want it straight, or with a little introduction first?” Dr. Scope put both of her hooves on the desk, looking Cheerilee straight in the eyes.

“Give it to me straight, Doctor,” Cheerilee said, her breath catching in her throat.


Chapter Six: Dodgeball

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“Considering what you just told me about it, that’s the one thing that comes to mind.” Dr. Scope spun around in her chair, scooting across to the far wall where she pulled the bottom drawer of a black filing cabinet open.

“Well, are you sure?” Cheerilee asked.

“Of course not,” Scope said, not looking up from her cabinet. “Tests would need to be done to make an official diagnosis, but I’ve seen a lot of poor foals with that condition. You wouldn’t be able to tell that there was anything wrong with them, that is until you ask them to read.”

“That sounds a lot like A— my student.” Not wanting to reveal Aura’s name, Cheerilee had to bite her tongue at the mention. Dr. Scope didn’t seem to notice. “It’s been a long time since I learned about dyslexia in college. Could you refresh my memory?”

“Sure!” Dr. Scope dug around in the cabinet and floated two items out. One was a pamphlet and the other appeared to be a thin packet of papers. The doctor placed them on Cheerilee’s side of the desk before shutting the drawer with a soft click before scooting back over to her desk. “Dyslexia is what we call a cognitive disorder. In general, it causes problems with reading, but there are a lot of different types of dyslexia. Some of them affect reading aloud, some others mess with comprehension, and they can even cause problems with word recognition.”

“Well, how do you tell the difference?” Cheerilee asked.

“That packet I just gave you tells all.” Cheerilee picked up the papers in question, studying them while Dr. Scope continued talking. “It’s instructions for how to administer a test for dyslexia yourself. You should be able to figure it out based on the foal’s responses to the test. Either that, or I could do the test if her parents would consent to it.”

“Oh right, her parents,” Cheerilee muttered to herself.

“What was that?” Dr. Scope asked.

Cheerilee cleared her throat. “You just reminded me. I spoke with her father two days ago, and when I mentioned her problems in class, he seemed disturbed by the fact that it could be a problem other than misbehavior.”

“That happens a lot,” replied Dr. Scope as she rubbed her chin in thought. “Parents rarely want to believe that something could be wrong with their children. Did he say anything else?”.

“Apparently I awakened something inside of him, because my student came to me yesterday asking ‘what did I do to her daddy?’ According to her, he was suddenly overbearing about her schoolwork.”

“A typical response,” said Clear Scope, waving her hoof.

Cheerilee brought a hoof to her chin. “I don’t think that her parents would take too kindly to me running that test without their knowledge.” She paused for a minute, the weight of that statement sinking in. “Oh boy.”

“Yeah, that could be fun,” mused the doctor with a grin, which disappeared when she caught sight of the clock. “Oh, ponyfeathers. Cheerilee, I’m sorry, but I must cut this short. I have another appointment before wrapping up for the day. Do you have any more questions?”

“Oh no, I think I have it under control from here. Thank you so much for you time,” said Cheerilee.

“It was my pleasure!” Dr. Scope and Cheerilee rose from their chairs simultaneously and shook hooves. “Stop by any time you need more advice.”

“I will,” Cheerilee agreed, taking both the packet and the pamphlet and depositing them into her saddlebags. “I’ll see myself out. Have a great day, Doctor!”

“You too, Cheerilee. It was nice meeting you!”

Cheerilee pulled the door open and stepped back into the hall. The door pulled itself closed with a click, and Cheerilee started on her way out of the office with some haste in her step.

The playground was a magical place.

Recess to a foal was a time of unparalleled glory, second only to a birthday or Hearth’s Warming. It was a time of relaxation, where the children could run free and let out all of the energy that had pent up during the long morning of sitting still in a chair and listening to Cheerilee teach. It was a time of camaraderie, where new friends were made and where old ones united for a half hour of fun that could only be limited by the short time it existed.

Most of all, it was a place where the imagination could truly run free. For Aura, that was what made recess so special. She could be anything she wanted to be, do anything she could dream of doing…

...and she didn’t have to sit in that horrible classroom for a half hour each day.

She shook her head. Class wasn’t what mattered at the moment. Instead, she needed to focus on the task at hand: Fighting off the invading army!

She could hear the cannon fire whizzing over her head as she jumped out of the way just in the nick of time. The artillery shell must have exploded somewhere nearby, but that wasn’t a problem at the moment. There were more coming, and if she sat still, she was toast.

Another soldier in front of her was hit, the shell knocking him to the ground like a sack of potatoes as it ricocheted nearly straight upwards. Seeing her chance, Aura charged ahead in anticipation of the ammo about to come her way. As it hit its apex and began to descend, she leapt into the air and carefully cupped the sensitive cannonball in her front hooves.


When she landed back on the ground with a soft grunt, she turned to her left in search of a target. The smoke of the battle was hard to see through, but she finally managed to pick out her target through the haze. An orange-furred soldier out in the open, attempting to recover a cannonball of her own.

She licked her lips, time seeming to slow around her as she cocked her right foreleg back in preparation. The wind was right, and so were the other… things that needed to happen for artillery work.

She took a breath and then swung her foreleg out to launch the cannonball at the unsuspecting enemy. The shot was perfect, sailing through the air with a cold, almost unfeeling callousness toward its victim. The filly didn’t even look up before it hit.

Smack! The enemy disappeared into the cloud of dust thrown up by the explosion. Aura grinned, beaming at her achievement.

“You’re out!” she announced, her smile widening by the second. She flicked her tail smugly, preparing to begin the ceremonial killshot dance.


Aura reeled as an unexpected volley of cannon fire sank into her shoulder, sending a sting of pain as she fell to the ground. The light faded as the smoke and blackness of death overtook her, and a number of thoughts ran through her tormented mind while she fell.

How had it all come to this?

What would she tell her family?

Would Celestia be there to meet her after it was all over?

“You’re out, that’s the game!” came the shout from across the division line. Just like that, the grit and seriousness of the battlefield melted away. The bare dirt worn free of grass by the constant shelling suddenly faded into a lush carpet of green, and Aura heaved herself to her hooves to come face to face with the rest of her classmates in open playing field on the far side of the playground. The foals who still had dodgeballs were already lining them up on the centerline for the next game, while several others had set off after the ones that had gone astray.

“Who got me?” Aura asked to nopony in particular, looking around hopefully.

“I think it was me.” A filly's voice from behind her answered. Aura turned to face the speaker, and was met by a white unicorn filly with a flowing, curly two-tone purple mane. “I don’t think we talked before. My name’s Sweetie Belle, who are you?”

“I’m Aura,” she returned, her voice trailing off a bit sheepishly now that the thrill of the game had started to fade.

“Nice to meet—”

“Alright everypony, new game!” announced the voice of the orange filly who Aura had tagged earlier, cutting Sweetie Belle off mid-sentence. “Everypony line up! Next team captains are me and Rumble!”

Fillies and colts scampered to form a line in front of both the orange filly and Rumble, the colt who sat in front of her desk. Her gaze lingered on the orange filly, and she realized just how few of these foals she knew by name.

Aura hated having to learn names at a new school.

“Apple Bloom, you’re with me!” announced the orange pegasus filly, snapping Aura’s attention back to the present. Apple Bloom, a filly she actually knew by name, trotted across to fall in behind the orange filly, and then it was Rumble’s turn.

“Diamond Tiara,” said Rumble, and the pink diva went to join him, her head held back at a haughty angle.

Aura didn’t like that filly.

“Aura!” Aura hesitated for a second, slightly surprised that she had been called so early in the picking; she was usually one of the last to go. She trotted forward and claimed her place behind orange what’s-her-name, standing next to Apple Bloom.

“Piña Colada!” Rumble announced.

Since she was already picked and had nothing better to do, Aura decided to seize the opportunity and tap Apple Bloom on the shoulder.



“What’s her name?” Aura asked in a whisper, pointing at the orange filly with her foreleg.

Her name’s Scootaloo. You’re new, ain’t ya?” Apple Bloom whispered back.


“Well I’m Apple Bloom. Nice to meet ya,” she said, offering her hoof.

Aura gave her a hoofbump. “I’m Aura.”

“Alright everypony, go back to your sides and get ready to play!” Scootaloo announced, once again cutting conversation short. A few other children were gathered around now, and at their captain's lead, the teams separated to their respective sides of the field. Rumble’s team consisted of Diamond Tiara; Silver Platter, if she remembered Diamond’s sidekick’s name correctly; Piña Colada; and Sweetie Belle. Her own side was made up by Scootaloo, herself, Apple Bloom, a colt who was so skinny that he looked like he could blow away in the wind, and a short, tubby colt whose name she didn’t remember.

The wind began to pick up as the tension mounted. Scootaloo shouted out the ready signal, which was reciprocated by Rumble, and then a short countdown by Scootaloo brought the wait time into a short, tense moment. Aura closed her eyes, listening to the numbers as they were listed off.

As the count neared one, she opened her eyes to see that the field had disappeared, its place taken by the same scarred battlefield from earlier. The munitions sat just ahead, and just beyond them were the ravenous eyes of her enemies. She knew that she would have a fighting chance if she managed to get to the centerline first, so that she would be the first to fire a shot.

In the back of her mind, she silently thanked her brother for sneaking her into that war movie at the theater. It made for great imagination on the playground!

Back in the battle, the whistle of Lieutenant Scootaloo chirped sharply, and her comrades around her rushed forward to the supplies in the center of the battlefield. She followed along with them, galloping as hard as she could in order to reach them first. The enemy was closing in fast, predatory looks of determination gleaming off of their read eyes.

Aura reached the weapons first, skidding to a halt in front of the battleline before her. She reached for the ball in front of her, flipping it up into the cup of her hoof. She began to turn around so that she could retreat back to cover and work out a plan of attack, her hooves beginning to dig into the soil in earnest.

Smack! Stinging, tingling pain filled her vision as a ball rammed itself into her nose. Hard. She stumbled back, dazed by the impact as the ball bounced away.

Smack! She could have dealt with the first hit on her nose, but the second ball that hit her on the left side of her neck was completely unexpected. She fell to the ground, dazed by the near-simultaneous hits to her head. The ball in her hoof rolled away, crossing the line to the opponent’s side of the field. As she began to come back to her senses, a voice from in front of her filled her ears and grabbed her attention.

“Oh no, Silver Spoon! I think we knocked her even stupider than she was before!” Diamond Tiara’s snobbish, pointed taunt burned into her ears like molten metal.

“Whoa, whoa, time out!” Scootaloo called from some distance away. A number of hoofbeats were approaching from all sides.

Aura opened her eyes to see Silver Spoon standing over her with a smirk on her lips. “Maybe she’s too dumb to feel that!”

Aura felt tears well up in her eyes almost instantly. Diamond Tiara was circling in now too, like a shark to blood.

“Hey, cut it out!” said Apple Bloom. Despite the fact that there were some ponies on her side, Aura didn’t notice them. The only thing she could see was the two bullies standing over her, and the only thing on her mind was escaping their attacks. More tears welled up in her eyes as she scrambled to her hooves.

“Yeah, run away, dummy!” the pair of bullies taunted in unison. Aura didn’t look back as she tore away from the playing field, and she shut off her hearing to escape the insults raining her direction.

Once she was far enough away, the first of her quiet, choked sobs came up with more hot tears. She exited the playground, running as fast as her little hooves could carry her away from the torment.

She could only hope that Miss Cheerilee wouldn’t notice until she had escaped.

Chapter Seven: House Call

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“Where’s Aura?”

The students in the classroom seemed to shy away from the question, everypony avoiding eye contact with Cheerilee.

“Can anypony tell me where Aura is?” Cheerilee added a bit of firmness to her tone. The class still did not respond. A slight tinge of worry was starting to edge its way into her stomach.

“Rumble, do you know where Aura went?” The colt shrank back in his chair at the mention of his name. The entire class was beginning to look more and more guilty the longer they avoided looking her in the eyes.

The tinge of concern began twisting itself into frustration. “I know you are hiding something from me, and I will not have you lie to me. If somepony doesn’t fess up, the entire class will have detention tomorrow.”

At once, every single pony in the room was staring straight up at her. One hoof raised, then two, then four.

“Apple Bloom, would you please tell me where Aura went?”

“Well, you see…” Apple Bloom scratched the back of her head, pausing in what looked to be hesitation. “She just kinda... ran off.”

“What do you mean, ‘she just ran off’?!” Cheerilee barked. Apple Bloom seemed to shy away from her a bit, as well as the students around her.

“I don’t know. She just ran away from the playground after she got hit with a dodgeball,” said Apple Bloom, glancing to her left as she shifted in her chair.

“Did she say where she was going?”

“No ma’am, she just ran off without a word.” Apple Bloom was awfully fast on the response, Cheerilee noticed. Well this was just perfect. Not even one day after she talked to the doctor, Aura turned up missing from class. It looked like she was going to have to go out and loo—

Right. She couldn’t exactly leave the class unattended to go searching for a runaway filly. Who knows where she might have gone off to?

Of course, that’s what was worrying about it. Where had Aura gone? Had she put herself into any sort of danger? What if she was hurt, or maybe even ponynapped?

Without thinking about it, Cheerilee realized that she had slowly made her way towards the door as she deliberated about the situation. She desperately wanted to go search for Aura, but the problem of what to do about her class still loomed, overshadowing the problem of the missing filly.

Maybe it wasn’t her problem to remedy, now that it had escaped her.

With a sigh, Cheerilee returned to her desk. She still had a job to do, regardless of where Aura had gone off to.

“I guess class must go on. For math today, we have a packet that we will work on together,” Cheerilee said, a bit of reluctance behind her words. She picked up the stack of papers and carried it across to Apple Bloom’s desk, leaving it to the children to distribute the papers.

As she walked towards the chalkboard, her gaze remained locked on the door, as if some little part of her hoped that Aura would come back in at any moment.

The final bell rang, and with it came the accompanying rush of children down the steps and out into the afternoon sunshine. As the joyous din from the students faded into the distance, the schoolhouse door opened once more. Cheerilee stepped out with just as much vigor as the foals before her, locking the door with a bit more fumbling for the keyhole than usual. She started down the path at a trot, dropping the key back into her saddlebags without breaking stride.

19 Alfalfa Street.

The address had been burned into her brain for the entire afternoon. While the students were doing math on their own, she had dug out the list of home addresses for the class and found Aura’s. If she remembered right, Alfalfa Street was on the east end of Ponyville.

She crossed the bridge over one of the streams that ran through town, coming to the first intersection on the other side. Instead of heading straight, which would take her to Aura’s address, she turned right, down the street that she lived on.

She needed to get something.

Sugarcube Corner loomed ahead like a monster that she was getting ready to have to fight. She hadn’t talked to Pinkie Pie once since her “Very Special Welcome Back to Ponyville Party” two weeks prior. Knowing the pink mare, that was far too long to not catch up. If she saw Cheerilee outside, it would mean a conversation that she frankly did not have time for.

As she neared the bakery, the smell of fresh cookies that always wafted from the kitchen seemed suddenly foreboding, and she almost wished she had taken the long way around to avoid Pinkie.

Too late now. Keeping her stride quick enough to pass the bakery in short order yet not fast enough to draw attention, Cheerilee pressed forward into the small square around Sugarcube Corner. The window to the upstairs loft was open, but thankfully there was no pink mare in it to see her go by. The freedom of the road ahead of her called, and she added just a touch more speed to her pace. Out in front of the bakery, she took a look and saw that there were a few ponies lined up out the door.

Pinkie Pie is probably busy. Cheerilee sighed in relief, the tension in her step relaxing significantly. She rounded the corner in front of the shop and ducked down the road to her house. She arrived at her doorstep shortly thanks to her quick pace, and she fished out her keys and put them into the lock.

That’s odd.

The door was already unlocked. She was quite sure that she had locked it on her way out that morning. With trepidation, she curled her fetlock around the handle, depressing the lever with cautionary reservation. She eased the door open, allowing herself just a small peek into the foyer.

It looked to be exactly the way she had left it. Surely a burglar would have rifled through the boxes still there in search of something valuable. Maybe she had just forgotten to lock the door after all. She pushed the door open the rest of the way, stepping into the foyer with a bit of caution in her movements. She looked into the kitchen and the den, neither showing any signs of being disturbed.

“Hello?” Cheerilee called.

“Up here!” answered a voice from upstairs that she instantly recognized.

But why was her dad in her house? Cheerilee took off her saddlebags and set them down next to the doorway. She hurried up the stairs and into the bedroom.

There was one certainly new thing in the room. Chisel Point was on a stepladder on the near-side wall, using a screwdriver on a large, rather ornate bookcase.

“Surprise!” Chisel exclaimed as Cheerilee stepped through the doorway.

“Dad, what is this?” Cheerilee couldn’t stop herself from grinning.

“It’s a bookcase! I’ve been working on it for the last few months. I wanted to have it ready for you when you moved in, but the glass pieces for the shelf covers got delayed from the manufacturer.” Chisel clambered down from the stool, taking a few more more steps backwards to admire his handiwork. He nodded to himself before he looked to Cheerilee expectantly, “So, what do you think?”

“Oh my goodness, it’s beautiful!” Cheerilee took that as her cue to step forward and give it a closer inspection. The case had five shelves in it, each with glass door that flipped down to cover the shelf and protect it from dust. A simple moulding went around on all sides of the front, each side transitioning to a much more intricately carved design in the corners. Cheerilee slid one of the covers out from their retracted position at the top of each shelf space, swinging it down into place on the front.

The glass window was etched with a white lineart design of her cutie mark. Cheerilee couldn’t help the few tears that ran down her cheeks as she pulled her father into a hug.

“I take it you like it?” he asked, the question slightly disturbing the mood.

“I love it, Dad. Thank you so much!”

Chisel Point returned the hug, “You’re welcome, swe—”

Before he could finish speaking, Cheerilee broke the embrace. “I really hate having to run like this, but I’m in a huge hurry right now.” She trotted over to a box on the wall near her desk and retrieved a well-worn piece of artwork from it, followed by a pamphlet and a packet of stapled papers. She carefully slipped them into her saddlebags as she walked back to the doorway. “Do you think we could do dinner later this week?”

“Uh, sure! That sounds good to me.”

“Great! Bye Dad!” With that, Cheerilee bounded back down the stairs. Chisel stayed still, listening intently until he heard the click of the door’s latch in the foyer.

“See you next week,” he grumbled to himself, kicking a piece of packing material lightly with his hoof. He looked to the bookcase, standing proudly after months of hard work and planning.

“I should’ve gone with a darker stain.”

Four-fifteen. I really hope somepony is home.

Cheerilee knocked three times on the front door of Aura’s house. Just to make sure she had the address right, she leaned back and looked at the numbers on the front of the house one more time.

Seconds passed, and no response came from inside. After thirty seconds, Cheerilee rang the doorbell. Perhaps they just hadn’t heard the knock.

A faint bit of chatter from the other side of the door perked her ears. Bingo. Several more seconds passed before the lock finally turned and the door opened with a gentle touch. A pink mare with green curly hair and a tail styled just like Nook’s stood in the doorway, a seemingly cautious smile on her face.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Hello, my name is Cheerilee, and I’m the teacher at the Ponyville Schoolhouse.” The mare’s face seemed to sink at that revelation, like she knew what was coming next. “I came to tell you that there was an incident with your daughter, Aura, at school today. May I come in?”

“Yes, please,” the mare said. Her voice seemed just a bit more upbeat than her facial expression, and now that Cheerilee stepped forward, she could see faint darkness under her eyes.

Cheerilee stepped into the foyer, and the first thing she noticed was the sheer number of potted plants inside the house. It seemed like every single available place had a flower or small herb plant growing in it. The house was a bit larger than Cheerilee’s, but the layout was similar, with a kitchen to the right and the stairs straight ahead. A tabby cat was lounging on the fourth step of the stairs, eyeing her with mild interest.

“Wow, you have a lot of flowers,” Cheerilee commented.

“I’m sorry about the mess. I’m working on getting a flower shop opened up right now, so I’ve got a bit more around here than I’d like to have.”

“Oh wow, you have Yarrows?” Cheerilee gravitated towards the pot containing a clump of tall, spindly, white flowers.

“I imported the seeds for those from Zebrica,” replied the mare, a bit of a smile showing up on her face. “I have a little bit of hope that they’ll be a popular sell, that is once I finally hear back from Town Hall about getting the proper permits.”

“I’d love to buy some from you then. My mom always had some of these growing in a window planter when I was growing up.”

“Oh, silly me! I never even introduced myself. I’m Daisy,” said the mare, extending a hoof out. Cheerilee noticed the two daisies that made up her cutie mark as she came closer to shake her hoof.

“It’s nice to meet you, Daisy. However, I’m afraid that my visit is not a very pleasant one. It’s about Aura.”

“I was afraid of that. Has she been having trouble with another child?” Daisy’s seemingly calm attitude told Cheerilee that this wasn’t exactly the first time Aura had an issue.

“Well…” Cheerilee bit her lip. This was probably not going to end well. “I was hoping you might have seen her this afternoon.”

“She’s upstairs in her room, why do you ask?” Daisy’s brow furrowed and her tone became a bit more pointed.

Cheerilee hesitated for a moment, kicking a hoof at the floor. “Well, Aura seems to have skipped out on school today.”

“Oh,” Daisy said, her eyes lighting with a bit of fire behind them. “Aura! Get down here this minute!”

“Coming mommy!” came a muffled call from upstairs.

Relief coursed through Cheerilee’s chest as the scramble of little hoofsteps came from upstairs. The little mauve filly appeared at the top of the stairs, hopping down them in perhaps the most perfect display of innocence that Cheerilee had ever seen. However, as she neared the halfway point of her descent, her eyes went wide, and her pace slowed considerably as she caight sight of Cheerliee. Aura stepped around the cat, and slowly made her way down the final three steps. She finally took her gaze off of Cheerilee and made eye contact with her mother, who was giving the filly a particularly intense stare.

“Little filly, what do you have to say for yourself?” Daisy prompted. Aura was shrinking back under the glare, but remained silent.

“Aura, would you like to tell me why you skipped class today?” Cheerilee asked, her tone much more sweet than Daisy’s. Cheerilee thought to herself that this was a sort of impromptu good cop/bad cop routine.

Aura began looking back and forth between the two of them faster and faster, biting her lower lip in terror. After a moment, she sighed in defeat.

“Because I didn’t want to go to school.” Her ears laid back, and her head drooped as she waited for what was coming.

“Aura, why would you not want to go to school?” Daisy asked.

I think I might be able to answer that question, thought Cheerilee.

“Because school is boring here, and all of my friends are back in Vanhoofer.” Aura’s voice was much quieter now, and she did not look either mare in the eye when she spoke.

Cheerliee’s eyebrow raised up in suspicion. It wasn’t a totally impossible reason. In college, they had taught that students who move from one place to another often have difficulty adapting. Often, they would regress in their studies, and the more extreme cases would refuse to go to school.

While that may have been more than true in Aura’s case, there was something else. Cheerliee could feel it, and it wasn’t the dyslexia. Something else had set the little filly off and driven her away from the schoolhouse. But whatever it was, it wasn’t something that Aura was going to admit to the two right now.

“Young filly, you know better than to do this,” said Daisy. “You’re grounded for two weeks.”

“Mom!” Aura yelped, her eyes suddenly pleading. “Please…”

“No buts, Aura. You apologize to your teacher this instant,” commanded Daisy.

I have to giver her credit. She's not afraid to lower the boom when she needs to.

“I’m sorry, Miss Cheerilee.”

Cheerliee nodded. “Aura, I want you to know that I will not, and I cannot put up with this kind of behavior. Anything could have happened to you. Next time, come and talk to me. But because of this, you have detention tomorrow with me.”

Aura seemed to recoil at this, but she remained submissive. “Yes ma’am.”

“Aura, go up to your room. If I hear your record player, you’ll lose it for a year!” Daisy pointed a hoof up the stairs, and Aura slunk back up the steps as she was told. A door upstairs clicked closed, leaving Cheerilee and Daisy alone.

“Was there anything else that we needed to talk about?” Daisy asked, all of the sternness drained from her tone as quickly as it had come. She yawned just after speaking.

“Well…” Cheerilee began. Here she was, and she could possibly introduce Daisy to the possibility that Aura could suffer from dyslexia to kill two birds with one stone…

But then again, perhaps it would be best to let things cool down before she tried again.

“No, that’s everything. It was nice meeting you, Daisy.”

“It was nice meeting you too, Cheerilee. Maybe next time we meet, it won’t be because we need to administer discipline!” Daisy quipped, chuckling.

“I would hope so. Have a good evening!” Cheerilee said on her way out.

“You too!” Daisy called before the door clicked shut. Cheerilee began walking back up Alfalfa Street, bound for home.

About fifty steps past the house, she stopped and smacked her hoof against her forehead. Why hadn’t she gone ahead and brought up the possibility of dyslexia with Daisy while she had the chance?

Chapter Eight: Take-Home Test

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Cheerilee bit her lip as she twirled a pencil against the desk with her hoof.

Question Four: The child’s reading or writing shows repetitions, transpositions, omissions, additions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words.

She let out a sigh and pulled open one of her desk drawers, fishing out the writing assignments that the class had done earlier in the day. She flipped through the stack, pulling Aura’s and Silver Spoon’s from the middle and placing them carefully next to the packet she was reading from.

Dr. Scope’s dyslexia test packet.

She dropped the rest of the assignments back into the drawer and scooted back up to her desk, taking a glance at the filly sitting alone in front of her. Aura was serving out her sentence of afternoon detention for skipping out of class yesterday, but was seemingly having a difficult time staying focused on her punishment. She was resting her head on her hoof, her eyelids drooping.

“Aura, wake up! You’ve still got another twenty minutes to go.” The filly roused, but only slightly. Cheerilee gave her a cautionary glare before she returned to her work.

Cheerilee looked down at Aura’s writing assignment, and as she expected, it was near-impossible to read. The writing scrawled across the page was erratic, sometimes growing too big for the lines and immediately afterwards shrinking so small that it was impossible to discern. There was even a reversed ‘r’ in one place. Not only was the hoofwriting poor, but in comparison to the other students’ works she’d already looked over, it was also considerably shorter. Whereas Silver Spoon looked to have written about eight lines worth, Aura had only gotten through three and a half.

Cheerilee frowned, squinting as she tried to make out one of the much smaller words. After a few seconds, she pushed the page aside. Answer to question four: Strong Yes.

Number five. The foal has been labeled as lazy, dumb, “behaviorally challenged”, or “not trying hard enough.”

She looked up to Aura, who was staring straight ahead at the clock. Maybe to somepony who didn’t care about her, but not to me.

Maybe there was somepony who didn’t care about her all too much. Cheerilee flipped the top off of her water bottle and took a drink, and smiled as it dawned on her. Of course! I should go pull her old class records and see what her other teachers have said about her!

Cheerilee looked up at the clock, which read four-fifteen. Another fifteen minutes left in detention. She turned back to the packet on her desk and its questions. She flipped through the rest of the pages. The last question was marked forty-one, and below that was a chart to score the test under.

Most all of these are questions I could answer without her here. She flipped the booklet closed and reclined back in her chair, staring up at the ceiling. There was already a pinhole in it, she noticed, probably from the likes of Rumble or Diamond Tiara throwing their pencil and trying to stick it in the ceiling.. Of course, there’s a few questions I would like to ask her. She leaned forward, coming back face to face with the filly, who was already starting to droop again.


“I’m awake!” she said, sitting up ramrod straight.

“You’re not in trouble, Aura. I just wanted to ask you a question or two.” Cheerilee rose from her seat, taking a new one next to the filly.

“Okay,” Aura agreed.

“Do you remember two days ago when I asked you to read aloud for the class?” Cheerilee asked.

“Yeah?” Aura asked, giving Cheerilee a quizzical look.

Cheerilee cleared her throat. “Well, I just wanted to know what was wrong.”

“Reading always makes my head hurt.”

“Does anything specific about it make your head hurt?”

“I don’t know. It just hurts when I read stuff.” Cheerilee almost missed it, but was becoming rather apparent that Aura was trying to avoid eye contact.

“Well, have you ever seen anything like, say, words floating off the page?” It wasn’t very subtle, but given that Aura more than likely had no idea what dyslexia was, she probably wasn’t going to notice where Cheerilee was going with the question.

“No, they don’t float.”

Cheerilee deflated. That was probably the most classic sign she knew of—

“But they do move around a lot.”

“They… move?” Cheerilee asked.

“Yeah. They just keep moving around the page on me. It’s really hard to keep them all together.”

Well if that isn’t the most obvious clue.

“Anything else?”

“That’s it.”

Cheerilee looked up at the clock. Four-nineteen. The district administrative offices closed at five, and it was a good fifteen minute walk over there. She needed to get going quick.

“Well, I know there’s supposed to be another ten minutes of detention, but I guess you’ve suffered enough. You can go.”

“Yay!” Aura jumped up from her desk and threw her saddlebags over her back.

To Cheerilee’s surprise, she didn’t go straight for the door like always. Instead, Aura stopped her normal rapid exit just long enough to give her teacher a quick hug. “Thanks, Miss Cheerilee!” Of course, as quickly as Cheerilee could realize that she’d been hugged, the filly was already halfway to the door.

“You’re welcome, Aura. Have a good day!” Cheerilee got up and walked back towards her own desk. “She’s such a sweetheart,” she said to herself. She walked back towards the front of the room with a happy little smile on her face, but as she neared her desk, she slowed her pace. The smile eroded quickly when she looked back at the test packet sitting on the desk.

“I seriously need to talk to her parents about this,” Cheerilee said, frowning. There is no way I’m going to get anywhere just by talking to Aura.

Her frown turned to a grimace when her thoughts settled on Pencil Pusher. The idea of bringing up Aura’s problem with him again was a daunting proposition. Daisy seemed more level-headed than her husband, though. Maybe she could rein him in enough that they could get somewhere.

Another problem for another day, she thought. She was going to need to hurry in order to make it down to the records building. They liked to start shutting things down early.

“Hello!” Cheerilee called as she walked through the front door to the school’s administration building.

“Oh hi, Cheerilee! How was today?” asked Single File, the receptionist. Her mane was done up in a bun, and her thick glasses made her eyes appear larger, but only slightly.

“Just fine, thank you. I wanted to come by and request academic records for one of my students.”

“Sure thing. What’s her name?” asked File.

“Aura.” said Cheerilee. File pulled a list from her desk drawer. She began slowly scrolling down the page, miming the names to herself. When File made it halfway down the list, Cheerilee frowned. Aura should have been one of the first students on the list.

“Her mother’s name is Daisy,” Cheerilee offered. File jumped back up to the top of the page.

“Sorry. It’s just been one of those days, you know?”

“I totally understand,” said Cheerilee.

“Alright, let me go pull those records for you.” File hopped up from her chair and walked towards the back room. “Just a second,” she said as she disappeared through the doorway. Cheerilee leaned up against the wall, tapping her hoof while she waited. A few minutes passed before File came from the back room.

“I got good news and bad news.” File announced, throwing down the folder, which Cheerilee noted was suspiciously thin.

“What is it?” Cheerilee gulped.

“Well, we have her on file, but we don’t have anything from before this year.”

“Her mother mentioned that they’d moved here from Vanhoover, could that have something to do with it?”

“Hmm, probably so.” File flipped the folder open and leafed through the few pages contained in it. “Yep, that’s what it is. I have it here that she transferred, but it looks like Vanhoover hasn’t sent us her academic records yet.”

With every word, Cheerilee felt her hopes fade little by little. “How soon do you think we could get them?” she asked.

“Well, you know how slow the mail system works. I’d say that if I sent the request form now, it could be here by the middle of next week, of course depending on how fast they get to it.”

Cheerilee blew a puff of air into her bangs. “That’s disappointing, but I guess I just have to wait. Is there any way we can expedite the mail?”

“Unless you’re willing to pay the six extra bits to get it there two days sooner, then I’m afraid not,” said File.

“I’ll do it.”

“What?” File looked quite surprised.

“I said I’ll pay for the expedited mail. I really need those records.”

“Whatever for?” asked the secretary.

“Let’s just say I have a hunch that this filly is struggling in class for a pretty serious reason. I need to see her records to make sure.”

“Oh, I see. I’ll get that form ready, and because you’re putting it through express mail, you’ll have to take it by the post office.” File lit her horn and began writing the letter at a pace that Cheerilee could only dream of matching.

Sometimes I wish I was a unicorn, she thought.

It took a few minutes for File to finish the request form, and Cheerilee spent those hovering over the desk, watching with acute interest as she wrote the letter. Finally, she sealed the letter and passed it to Cheerilee.

“Cheerilee, I know I’m just a secretary and all, but it sounds like this is a pretty serious issue. Didn’t you say that one of your students might have some kind of disability?”

Cheerilee nodded. “I don’t know for sure, File. That’s why I’m sending off for those records in such a hurry.”

File frowned. “Well, don’t you think you ought to let somepony in the board know?”

“You know how the board works, File. They meet once a month, and only for emergencies outside of that.” Cheerilee stuffed the letter into her saddlebag. “I don’t want to call an emergency meeting unless I know for sure.”

“They met last week though. Are you really going to wait three more weeks to talk to them?”

“That’s why I’m doing this myself. We’re a really small school district, and those ponies on the school board have their own lives to deal with. I’m going to wait until I have all of the evidence I need before I start raising alarm bells.”

“Well, I hope you find out what you’re looking for.”

“Thanks, File. Say hi to Berry for me!” Cheerilee smiled and turned to leave. She took a glance at the clock on the wall, and her stomach dropped. It was four forty-nine, and the post office closed at five.

The post office was halfway across town. As soon as Cheerilee was out the door, she was off in a gallop.

Cheerilee stared down at the packet on her desk, scowling. Her glare was focused on the corner of the lightly-crumpled paper, on that pesky little staple that bound the entire thing together. That little devil that kept the pages from moving freely. She wanted so badly to take the pages apart and spread them out across the desk, but she also didn’t want to have the corner of every page ripped out.

I swear, that thing is mocking me.

Cheerilee blinked. Was I just having a staring contest with a staple? She’d been sitting in place for over an hour, and her back was starting to complain. It was time to get up and stretch, come back with a fresh perspective.

She pushed her chair out and stood up, arching her back to work the kink out of it. She yawned as she stretched, and she could feel her blood flowing more freely. She put a little extra emphasis on her stretch, and her back popped with a sort of finality. She relaxed and shook her head, her mane whipping around to brush against her nose.

“That’s better,” she muttered, retaking her seat. She scooted forward, looked down at the packet on the desk below her, and sighed.

There’s no way I can answer all of these questions myself. She flipped the page over and skimmed her way down the list. Most of the questions on the page were only partially rooted in academics. Question twenty-five was asking whether or not the child wet the bed past the normal age, while number twenty-six dealt with her sleep habits. Cheerilee closed the packet and pushed it off to the side. The test was obviously not intended for somepony like her to fill out. She only knew Aura during the school day, and that had been for about a month and a half. The test was obviously meant to be filled out by someone who knew her much more personally than she did.

Like her parents.

“This was a terrible idea,” Cheerilee muttered under her breath. She was no mother to Aura, and here she was, trying to act like she had some sort of authority over the filly’s life.

Cheerilee groaned and pulled the packet back over in front of herself, and she pulled her well-worn block eraser from the drawer. Thank goodness I wrote in pencil, she thought before she ground the eraser into the page, blotting out her responses from the questions she could answer.

She wiped away the eraser shavings with her hoof. There was still the faint hint of erasing left on the page. I doubt Daisy will notice when I give this to her.

Cheerilee grabbed a folder from the shelf next to her desk and slid the packet inside. She set the folder aside and looked over to the stack of ungraded essays that she still had yet to get through. No matter how much she sat and worried about what would happen with Aura, she still had to do her job. She pulled out her trusty pink grading pen and her half-used sheet of stickers from the drawer, pulled the first essay from the stack, and set to work.

Chapter Nine: Lunch

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Just one final pass should do it.

Chisel Point blinked as he looked away from the tape measure, his vision slow to focus back on the world at large after making a precise measurement. He picked up the mahogany board and crossed to the other side of the planer, a large square machine with a wide slot in the front face. He cranked the wheel on the left-hoof side of the machine a quarter-turn, watching as the lower portion of the slot rose just barely. He carefully placed the board into the slot and pushed forward. The machine grabbed the wood, pushing it up and then back down again before settling into a steady forward motion. The planer began to groan loudly as the blades made contact with the surface of the board, and it continued for nearly thirty seconds as the long board was slowly dragged through the slot, feeding out the back side.

Chisel waited for the board to pop free of the machine’s grip before he pressed the large red ‘OFF’ button and walked around to the outfeed side of the planer. He picked up the board on his back and carried it over to the large work table in the center of the shop, where six other near-identical mahogany boards were lined up. He placed the board on the table and pushed it flush against the closest one, pressing all of the lumber together to form one contiguous sheet of wood.

Well, not quite contiguous just yet, Chisel thought as he pulled a particularly large bottle of wood glue out from the shelf under the work table. He placed it on the table and checked one last time that he had gotten the dimensions correct. There was a slight height difference between each piece, but he had been planning for that, and had intentionally stopped about a quarter-inch thicker than the final board needed to be.

Satisfied that he was ready to proceed, Chisel picked up the first board and carried it across the floor to a secondary table. This one was simply a metal frame with slots meant to hold long bar clamps. He gently pressed the nozzle of the glue bottle to the edge of the board, running a thin stripe down the length of the wood. He retrieved a second board and applied a similar bit of glue to one edge before pressing the boards together. He repeated the process until the final board, which he skipped gluing. With all the boards lined up on top of the four clamp bars, he pushed the back piece of the clamps flush with the sheet of wood and turned the cranks slowly, watching little beads of glue squeeze up and out of the gaps in the wood. He tightened them down until there was no give left in the cranks, and with that, he stepped back and took a look at his work.

“Until tomorrow, my love,” Chisel said quietly, chuckling a little at his own joke. He walked over to his main workbench on the back wall, where the project blueprints were spread out. “That’s as much as I can do on the backboard for now. What next?”

The scale drawing was quite lacking in the detail department, depicting a rather simplistic outline of a desk, drawn from numerous angles and with lots of measurements noted along the lines. It’s rough, but it won’t be that way forever. A checklist was written on the left side of the blueprint, outlining the process of building the desk in rough steps. The list was categorized into main points subdivided into individual steps. The first main heading was “Sides” and under it were four main points, “Front”, “Back”, “Left”, and “Right”. He picked up his pencil and drew a line through “Back”. One down. He looked at the rest of the steps in the list, and smiled. He had a long way to go, but he was on his way. Now to start the front side.

He pulled a notepad from his tool belt and placed it on the table next to the blueprint, and jotted down the dimensions for the front side. This was the trickiest face to do, because it was the one that had the cutout for the customer’s legs to go into while they sat at the desk. Fifty-two, thirty-two, and ten. He dropped the pencil on the table and picked up the notepad, headed off to the back of the shop to retrieve another rough mahogany board.

At least, that’s where he was going to go until his eye caught the crumpled ball of paper sitting on the back of the workbench. He picked it up and unwadded it, smoothing the paper out on top of the desk’s scale drawing.

It was the blueprint for the bookshelf he’d built for Cheerilee. Of course, the blueprint was only similar to the finished product in scale, but it was there, the design he’d followed to build that shelf for her.

The longer he looked at the paper, the bigger his frown grew. All throughout the time he’d spent, he’d been anticipating seeing her reaction when she finally saw it. It had taken him months to build it in-between the projects he had going for clients, and the custom-made frosted glass shelf covers had cost him a lot more than he was comfortable spending, but it was all worth it. He was just in it to see her smile when he finally gave it to her.

It was all just to see her smile. He ran the thought through his head one more time, and it lacked the punch it had when he’d been working on the bookcase. Sure, Cheerilee smiled when she saw it, so he should have been happy about that .

So why was it making him frown when he looked back at the project? He’d gotten the desired results, hadn’t he?

The shop door opened, putting the brakes on his train of thought. “Chisel! Lunch is ready!” Lilting Melody called through the doorway, not stepping into the room.

“Alright, be there in a minute!” He said. The door closed again, and he was alone again with his thoughts.

I’m just getting worked up over nothing. She loved it, that all that matters. Chisel picked up the old blueprint and instead of wadding it up, he folded it up into a neat little square. Maybe he’d be able to reuse the designs at some point in the future.

He left the folded blueprints on the table and loosened his tool belt, dropping it on the table next to them. He afforded one last look back to the desk before he made his way to the door, flipping the lights off on his way out.

Cheerilee crumpled the bag that had formerly contained her lunch, balling it up into a tight wad, before she tossed it at the trash can across the room. The paper ball deflected off the far wall and missed the can, bouncing back about halfway to her desk. She grumbled under her breath and got up to retrieve the sack, dropping it in the trash can she kept next to the desk.

The classroom was empty, the children outside for lunch and recess. Though she normally went out with them, today she’d asked instead for Twist to keep an eye on things and report trouble if it happened. She desperately needed the peace and quiet after finding that morning that she had run out of coffee, and didn’t have time to get anything else into her system to help wake up. As a result, a dull headache was starting to develop from the lack of her usual morning caffeine. Tempting as it was to rest her head on the desk and grab a power nap, assigning a filly to be recess monitor was already a risky enough move.

Not that it was going to be a problem, though. With the exception of Diamond Tiara and company, the class was quite well-behaved. She could count on them to behave for a few minutes, right?

She sighed. Probably not. They’re kids, after all.

She plodded over to the window to look out at the playground. From the look of it, there were two distinct groups of children: Eight of them were engaged in what looked like a game of kickball, and the other four—Twist included—were off in the corner of the playground, busy with some sort of game that she couldn’t quite discern. It looked like things were going just fine out there, and she smiled to herself.

Cheerilee went back to her desk, pulling her saddlebags out from the big lower drawer on the back side. She pulled out a small baggie that contained a few assorted pills. She counted out a couple of tablets of ibuprofen and put the rest of the medicine away.

Thank Celestia I thought ahead. I’d be dying from this headache by the end of the day without it.

She popped the pills in her mouth and swallowed, taking a big gulp of water from her bottle to chase them down. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, focusing on the cool feeling of the water as it ran down to her stomach. She perked her ears, listening to the faint sounds of the children outside. There was some muffled talking, but little else. The voices tapered off for a moment, and then she heard the distinctive sound of a playground ball being kicked.

And then the sound of it smacking into something. Hard. She cracked her eyes open, and then she heard it. A filly started crying loudly, and she could hear a few voices laughing.

She flung herself out of the chair and rushed to the door, stepping out onto the porch to look for the source of the commotion. Nopony was laughing anymore, but she could see that in the middle of the kickball game, there was a mauve filly laying on the ground, surrounded by several others.

“Hey!” Cheerilee called, leaping off the porch and into the schoolyard. Some of the foals backed away as she approached, and others continued to gather around. Aura was crying quite loudly, her face buried by her hooves, and Apple Bloom appeared to be trying to help her to her hooves.

“What happened?” Cheerilee asked.

“She got hit in the face pretty hard with the ball,” said Apple Bloom.

“Aura, can you look up at me?” The filly didn’t respond very readily, but she pulled her forelegs away from her face enough to reveal that there was a considerable amount of blood on them. Blood was smeared all over her fur around her snout, and her cheeks were wet with tears.

Cheerilee’s stomach dropped. “Aura, I need to take you inside the class. Can you stand up?” The filly rose up to her hooves shakily, still crying quite hard. Blood began to drip from her muzzle as soon as she stood up, and she held a hoof over her nose as she walked. Cheerilee led her along with a foreleg, and she noticed that the rest of the playground was all watching with keen interest.

Just what I needed today.

Cheerilee dropped the last of the bloody napkins into the trash can, shuddering one last time at the sight of them. She returned to Aura, who was sitting in one of the front row seats, clutching an ice pack to her muzzle, which was a bit puffy and red under the fur. Her eyes were also red, but she had stopped crying and bleeding.

Thank goodness it was just a nosebleed, Cheerilee mused to herself. If it had been a more serious injury, today would have been a lot worse. Aura was calming down and seeming to return to normal, and that was the important thing. She was okay.

But now the question remained to be asked: What happened? Apple Bloom had given her a shorthand, but that wasn’t all she needed. She knew that sometimes little ponies played dirty for some reason or another. She was even guilty of it at one time, when she’d intentionally tripped another filly named Blueberry Swirl and made sure to make it look like an accident. Of course, Mrs. Write had seen right through the ploy and made her serve a week in lunch detention for it, but she’d gotten back at Blueberry for…

Huh. I can't remember why I wanted to trip her.

A loud sniff from Aura pulled her from the thought. “Careful with the sniffling, you make the bleeding start again.”

“Yes, Miss Cheerilee,” said Aura. Her voice was somewhat nasally, probably from the little bit of swelling on her muzzle.

“How is it feeling?” asked Cheerilee.

“It hurts,” said Aura.

“Does it feel any better?”

Aura simply nodded, clutching the ice pack a little tighter to her snout. She sniffed hard, wiping at her eyes with her free hoof.

“Good. Just keep the ice—” Cheerilee was cut off by the bell ringing, and she looked to the door to see Twist and Apple Bloom come galloping in. “Go back to your desk and keep the ice on it,” she said. Aura dragged herself from the desk and shuffled off to her desk in the back corner. The rest of the students were back and mostly in their seats, and Cheerilee took a moment to take a quick head count.

There were only ten children in the room.

“Where are Rumble and Piña?” she asked.

“I saw them hop over the back fence after you went back inside!” Twist announced, with all of the enthusiasm of the generic class teacher’s pet.

Cheerilee’s eye twitched. “I’ll be right back. Twist, you be sure and tell me if anyone acts up while I’m gone.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Twist. She noticed Diamond Tiara shoot a dirty look at Twist out of the corner of her eye, but that was the least of her concern for now. She shot out the door and broke into a gallop towards the back fence. When she reached the edge of the yard, she stood up on her hind legs and craned her neck to see as far down the slope beyond the fence as she could, but there were no children in sight.

Faced with no other choice, she coiled her hind legs and vaulted herself over the split rail fence, landing on the other side in the tall brush beyond the fence line. She started forward, her hooves crunching the undergrowth as she made her way down into the woods that surrounded the school.

She looked around at the small forest, scanning for any sign of her missing students. Still, she couldn’t help but notice the tops of the trees. The leaves were just starting to turn color for fall, marking that the Running of the Leaves would be coming up in a few weeks..

This really takes me back. The woods certainly hadn’t changed much since she was a filly, though the brush was certainly thicker than it used to be. The birds chirped lazily in the branches overhead, settling a peaceful air over the grove. She looked ahead, noticing a faint trail that marked her path. As the land continued to descend down into the bottom, she heard a faint giggle up ahead.

“Of course, the creek!” she whispered to herself. Back in her days as a schoolfilly, she’d never snuck off of the schoolyard, but there wasn’t a child at the Ponyville schoolhouse that didn’t go down to Ambrosia Creek for a swim at least once in their life.

However, most children waited until after school to come down for a swim. Cheerilee picked up the pace a bit, making sure to roll through her steps to make her approach as quiet as possible. Sure enough, the sound of splashing and giggling grew louder and louder as she approached the the creek, and she came out of the trees to see Rumble and Piña Colada, just as Rumble disappeared back behind the creek’s bank, accompanied by a splash. They hadn’t noticed her, and she couldn’t help but feel just a slight swell of pride. This was the first time she would really bring down the hammer of justice as a teacher.

“Ahem!” she shouted, and at once the splashing stopped. Two little set of eyes and ears—one pink and one blue—peered up over the creek bank. For a moment, there was only the sound of the creek gurgling faintly and the quiet rustling of the tree leaves.

It was time to lower the boom.

Cheerilee watched as the class worked on their math assignments, paying particularly close attention to three students: Aura, Piña Colada, and Rumble. The latter two were still noticeably damp from their earlier swim, and she could see from the way that they occasionally glanced up at her that they were dreading the end of class. She’d held back from delivering the final verdict on their punishment, instead opting to make them stay after class before she finally hit them with their sentence.

She glanced up at the clock, counting down the minutes before the end of the school day. There was still a little over an hour left until the final bell, but she could feel the anticipation mounting. Even though she had already given Aura a day of detention, that just didn’t feel the same. There was something bigger at play there, and she’d gone light on the punishment because of it.

This time, she’d caught them red-hooved.

Just an hour to go, and in the meantime, she could get a little bit of grading caught up. Today was Wednesday, the usual day for art lessons, and there was a neat little stack of pencil drawings. The entire morning had been devoted to it, and she’d taught them some basic graphite shading techniques that she’d spent the previous evening brushing up on.

She turned her gaze from the drawings, settling on Aura, who was no-longer using the ice pack. She still looked a little disheveled from the lunch incident, but she was quickly returning to normal. Of course, normal was still rather troubling, as she was looking at her math assignment with her head cocked at an awkward angle, and she was squinting hard at the page.

Those records can’t get here fast enough. She produced her red pen from the drawer, and before pulling the first art project from the stack, she glanced at the two swimmers from earlier. Soon, she’d be giving them their punishment and sending them on their way… home.

Oh no.

When they got home, their parents would likely have some questions as to why they had detention. And then the question would beg to be asked: How did they manage to sneak off of the playground when Cheerilee was supposed to be supervising them?

She’d decided to sit inside and eat lunch, and that was the problem. Aura had gotten hit in the face while she was inside, and then Rumble and Piña had snuck off as a result of that.

It was all her fault.

Suddenly, she didn’t want to give those two children detention anymore. She needed to punish them for breaking the rules, but then again, she could be punished for her lapse of judgement.

Or maybe, just maybe, she could reach some sort of agreement with Rumble and Piña. If they would agree to not talk about what happened at lunch, she wouldn’t give them lunch detention for the next...

Cheerilee shook her head, breaking the train of thought. That was probably one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. What if the two foals slipped up and their parents found out anyway? What if one of them ratted her out on purpose? If word of that broke out, she could kiss her teaching career goodbye.

Not to mention, it would mean that the children would know that she was prone to blackmail. She snuck a glance at Diamond Tiara. She’d probably be the first one to use it on me. She’s got to be a little more clever than she looks. No, it would spell disaster any way she went about it.

And so, she was stuck with only one option: Give Rumble and Piña a week of lunch detention, and pray to the powers that be that their parents don’t raise a fuss over it. At least she could probably get by with a stern warning from the school board if it came to light that she had let recess go unattended. Cheerilee looked up at the clock and bit her lip, watching the second hand tick away as it crawled towards the end of the school day. Or possibly toward the end of her career.

This is never. EVER. Happening again.

Chapter Ten: Board Meeting

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Nine plus ten does not equal twenty-one, Scootaloo. Cheerilee drew a red line through the problem’s number, citing that the correct answer was nineteen directly beneath the problem.

The scent from her marker was starting to become so strong that she could taste the ink on her breath. She wrinkled her nose and dropped the pen from her teeth, grimacing. It was definitely time to switch to a less odorous writing utensil. At least there shouldn't have been much left in her stack of papers to grade. That last mark concluded her look at Scootaloo’s paper, and so she placed it in the completed pile. She reached for the next one, and only then did she allow herself to look at how much she had left to do.

Oh, sweet Celestia. There was still an inch-thick stack of papers left before she could call it a day. That’s what I get for taking the night off last night.

She looked down at the red marker with trepidation. That thing is going to make me pass out. She pulled open the center drawer on her desk, rifling through the jumbled mess of pencils, chalk, erasers, and whatever other sort of utensils she had dropped in there over the last couple of months. Though the drawer was nearly full of the jumbled mess, there was little that would work for grading papers, except for a broken red crayon jammed in the back.

It would have to do. She picked out the crayon and took it up in her teeth, making sure to not touch it with her tongue. There was a bit of a faint odor from the crayon, but it was much more bearable than the marker. Ready to begin again, she pulled the next page from the stack.

Alright, this’ll be a piece of cake. The next paper was from Twist, who promised to have one mistake in it at the most.

And it did not disappoint. The paper was about as flawless as a seven-year-old filly could make it, and she had breezed through nearly half of it in under a minute when there was a knock at the door.

“Come in!” Cheerilee called. The door opened slowly with a quiet creak, and in stepped a silvery-white mare with her jet-black mane done up in a tight bun.

“Hi, Cheerilee,” Single File said as she entered.

“Oh! Hi File! This is a surprise,” Cheerilee said, greeting the mare with a warm smile.

“Trust me, I wasn't making a plan out of this. I figured you’d have come by the office already.”

“Why would I— Oh! Is it that late already?” Cheerilee’s gaze locked onto the saddlebags File was wearing. “I wasn't expecting those for another couple of days.”

“With the way Vanhoover’s school district runs things, I’d say you were probably giving them too much credit,” said File. She tugged the flap of her bags open and floated a yellow envelope out in her magical grasp. “But hey, I guess they didn't do too bad.”

The envelope settled on the desk in front of Cheerilee, who picked it up carefully. There in the center of the letter was the stamp of the Vanhoover school district, and she felt a small pang of nerves as she picked her letter opener from the drawer and sliced down the top of the envelope.

There was only one page in the letter, folded over into a standard size mailer. “Shouldn’t there be more than just one sheet?”

“There usually is, but like I said, it’s Vanhoover,” said File. “Oh, when you’re done, I’m gonna need that back. I still need to put that in the records.”

“Right. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.” Cheerilee slipped the record sheet out of the envelope and folded it open. She took out a piece of scratch paper and a pencil, ready to write down the important bits of information.

Vanhoover Office of Academic Records.

745 Hill Street

Vanhoover, EQ. 39856

Academic History File

Student: Aura (Pusher Family)
Age: 9
Grade: 3
Calculated Retention GPA: 1.01

There wasn’t a lot else to the sheet, just numerous other little details that didn’t matter much for her purposes. She skimmed further, not finding much else worth remembering until she reached the lower half of the page.

Instructor: Fresh Gale

Instructor Comments: Had student in class for a total of two school years. Problematic, showed difficulty in understanding material despite repeated instruction. Some mild behavioral issues, including arguing back when disciplined. Did not engage in class most of the time. Penponyship notably poor. Uninterested in learning.

Cheerilee didn’t take look away from the page for a long time after reading the comments. She had been expecting some sort of validation of her concerns to come from Aura’s teacher, and she had some of the backup she needed from their comments, but something about the teacher’s comments felt off. She skimmed back through the page, and it only confirmed her suspicions.

Aura’s old teacher didn’t care about her. Her GPA was just a smidge over the passing line, and she had no doubt that this Fresh Gale character was just giving her enough credit to get her out of her hair.

“You about done?” asked File. “I’m kinda in a hurry. My husband needed me to run by the store before I head home.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you for bringing it by, File.” The paper levitated off the table and was stuffed back into its envelope, and then returned to File’s saddlebag.

“So, did you get what you needed?”

Cheerilee sighed. “It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but yes.”

“So, the next board meeting is in two weeks. You said that this filly might be having some serious problems, so do you think it can wait that long?”

“It’s a long time to wait,” said Cheerilee.

“It’ll take some doing, but I can work on setting up a meeting with the board members for you tomorrow.”

“Really? You can do that?”

“We’re in a tiny district, Cheerilee. Most of us do a lot of jobs outside of what we’re hired on for,” said File. “Look at me. I’m officially the record keeper, but I also do our financial work and work a lot of administrative jobs when they’re needed.”

“I always thought the school offices looked pretty small,” said Cheerilee.

“That they are. Now then, what times this week work for you?” asked File.

“Anytime is fine, really. I don’t have a lot going on this week.”

File smiled. “Great! I’ll get it set up and let you know the time tomorrow after you’re done teaching. Sound good?”

Cheerilee returned the smile. “That works for me! I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“See ya!” File walked to the door, shutting it with a resounding click.

Cheerilee looked back at the stack of papers, and pulled the next one off the top. She picked up the crayon in her teeth, and checked the name at the top of the page.


“Well that’s convenient,” Cheerilee muttered. The assignment was mostly unfinished, and what little work there was on the page, the writing was so sloppy that it was hardly legible.

It all makes sense now, Cheerilee thought. With how little Aura’s old teacher seemed to care about her student getting a proper education, it was no wonder that her condition had gone unchecked for so long. Fresh Wind, or whatever her name was, was just passing students through grades to get them past her class. Aura shouldn’t even be past kindergarten!

The crayon snapped in half as Cheerilee neared the halfway point of effectively coloring the entire page in red. She groaned and spat out the stub end still in her teeth.

“That’s enough for tonight.”

Cheerilee tapped her hooves to the beat of a little tune she’d come up with off the top of her head, staring straight ahead with grim determination. Town Hall’s wooden floorboards worked to amplify her tapping, giving it a bit of presence in the otherwise quiet room.

She was alone in one of the secondary rooms of the hall, sitting in the first of the room’s three rows of chairs. Her saddlebags were leaned against the legs of the chair next to hers. She stared straight ahead, counting the seconds as they ticked slowly by.

Stay focused, Cheerilee. Though she had managed to keep herself composed, she could feel her heart racing in her chest. She was surely in for an uphill battle to convince these ponies that there was a problem worth addressing. After all, calling an emergency meeting on a weekend was probably going to make the board members quite testy. Unfortunately, it was the only day that File could set up a meeting that included the entire board at once because of scheduling conflicts, but it would have to work.

I’ll just have to pour on the charm. I can do this.

Behind her, the door creaked. Cheerilee whirled around, startled. Breathe. Calm down. She watched as the school board ponies filed in, led by a purple mare with a decidedly pointed snout. She looked at least vaguely familiar, and was obviously of the affluent crowd. Behind her was a pony she recognized, as did just about everypony in Ponyville. Shuffling along just fast enough to keep up with the harsh mare in front of her was Granny Smith. Behind her, a tan stallion with a slicked mane and a business suit, whom she didn’t recognize. The last pony in was the most unassuming of the three, a face Cheerilee knew but couldn’t name. She was a warm shade of purple with a cutie mark of three gemstones on her flank.

“Good afternoon,” said the lead mare. Her voice fit her well, just about as haughty as she looked. “You are Cheerilee, I presume?”

“Yes,” Cheerilee said, swallowing the lump in her throat. This pony was going to a challenge to win over.

“I am Spoiled Rich, president of the school board.”

Wow, even the name fits perfectly.

Spoiled Rich gestured to the stallion. “This is Davenport, our Vice-President.”

Davenport stepped forward, offering his hoof. “Pleased to finally meet you, Cheerilee.”

Spoiled didn’t wait for Davenport to finish greeting Cheerilee before moving on. “Next is our Reporter, Granny Smith.”

“Howdy, Cheerilee!” said Granny, shuffling forward. Cheerilee met her halfway.

“And finally, our Secretary—”

“Amethyst Star,” the purple mare said, cutting off Spoiled Rich, who didn’t make any effort to hide her annoyance. “Nice to meet you.”

“Now say, don’t I know you from someplace?” Granny said, scratching the side of her head.

“I grew up here in Ponyville,” said Cheerilee. “I think you remember my father, Chisel Point. He’s done some business with you before.”

“Oh, I remember! He’s that woodworker who buys wood from us when one of our trees goes kaput. He made the kitchen cabinets in the farmhouse for me, cut me a good deal on ‘em too!”

“Yes, that’s him,” said Cheerilee, smiling.

“Now then,” Spoiled Rich butted in. “Since we’ve gotten greetings out of the way, let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.” The other board members took their seats, forming a semicircle around Cheerilee.

Not quite as formal as I would have expected.

“File told us that there was a pretty serious problem regarding one of the students. Could you fill us in?” asked Amethyst.

“Of course." Cheerilee reached down and pulled out a few papers from her bag, among them a particularly worn piece of construction paper. She passed it to Amethyst, the closest pony to herself.

Amethyst raised her eyebrows. “Wow, that's really well-done. But I need to ask, what does it have to do with why we’re here? Wasn't it a disciplinary issue?”

“Yes, I was under that impression as well,” added Spoiled Rich.

“Oh, no! There haven’t been any discipline issues with the filly we’re meeting about,” Cheerilee said. She felt the butterflies in her stomach stretch their wings.

“Hot diggity, that filly can draw!” shouted Granny Smith.

“So, why are you showing us this filly’s art work? We haven’t even heard her name yet,” said Davenport.

“Well, I guess I sort of wanted to start on a positive note. The little filly who drew that’s name is Aura. She’s the new transfer student from Vanhoover.”

“Oh right, I remembered seeing something about a transfer student in some documents from our summer meeting,” said Davenport.

“Yes, that’s her. She’s a real sweetheart,” said Cheerilee.

“Mmm. Talented, too.” said Davenport as he received the drawing from Granny Smith. He immediately passed the paper off to Spoiled Rich.

She looked at the drawing with an intense glare, and then she looked up at Cheerilee. “I believe I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to impress us with all of these nice things to say about this filly, but—”

“What she’s trying to say is—” Amethyst Star butted in “—that you don’t have to try and paint this filly in a good light. We’re all here to help the children, so tell us, what’s the problem?”

Cheerilee noticed the glare that Spoiled was shooting at Amethyst. They probably don’t get along too well outside of the meetings. She took a deep breath, feeling some of the anxiety fade. “I guess there’s no point in beating around the bush here. So, here goes.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to forget about the unease in her stomach. It was the moment of truth.

“I believe that Aura is suffering from a learning disability, and I want to request that we allocate funding for her to receive special education.”

The room was silent for a few moments before Cheerilee noticed that the board members were all exchanging glances back and forth. They kept it up just long enough for Cheerilee to feel the full return of the nerves from before.

After the awkwardly long silence, it was Davenport who spoke up. “Cheerilee, are you aware of just exactly how small our district is?”

“Yes, it’s just the one single school,” said Cheerilee.

“One school, and frankly, a tiny one at that. Our entire district is comprised of just twelve students, one teacher which is you, a record-keeper, a janitor, and us four board members,” said Davenport. “With such a tiny school district, we hardly get any funding. We get enough to pay for three salaries, that being yours, File’s, and the janitor’s. We only get paid minimum wage for what little time we contribute to working for the board. After that, there’s the necessary expenses to keep the school running smoothly, and after that, there’s hardly any money left from the annual stipend.”

Cheerilee cocked an eyebrow. “What are you getting at?”

“There simply isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for the costs of getting special education set up,” said Spoiled Rich.

“But that don’t mean we can go and let this filly suffer now, can we?” Granny Smith earned the attention of everyone in the room with her addition to the conversation. “Do her parents know anything about this?”

“No, I haven’t notified them of any issues yet,” Cheerilee answered.

“Well, that might be the best course of action here,” said Amethyst Star. “We’ve run into this sort of thing before, and so far as I can remember, we usually have just two options.”

“What are those options?” Cheerilee asked.

“We can either advise her parents to send her to another district with a special education program, or they pay out of pocket for the specialized curriculum.”

“And then there’s always the option that we just leave her to fend for herself,” added Spoiled.

“Which is no option at all,” said Cheerilee. “I just showed you a perfect example of what this filly is capable of, and if we leave the problem alone and hope for the best, all of that potential will go down the drain.”

“So, that leaves options one and two,” said Davenport. “I would advise that you schedule a conference with Aura’s parents, and you break the news to them. What type of disability was it that you think she has again?”

“Dyslexia seems to be the most likely one,” said Cheerilee.

“Well, tell her parents and be sure to lay out their options. None of us here want to see this kid fail, but it’s really something that’s almost out of our hooves,” said Amethyst Star. “That’s about all there is to it. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“No, that just about covers it.” Cheerilee rose from her seat, offering her hoof to Amethyst. “It was nice to meet you all.”

“Likewise,” said Davenport. “And Cheerilee, I just want to say that I really appreciate what you’re doing here. In my eyes, the mark of a good teacher is giving a flip about the kids.”

“Thank you so much,” said Cheerilee. “Thank you all for coming out today to talk about this.”

And so, the meeting adjourned. The board members walked out of the room with Cheerilee and dispersed. Cheerilee began the short walk back towards home with a bit of spring in her step.

It’s all gonna work out. It has to.

Chapter Eleven: Educational Misconception

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Cheerilee swallowed the lump in her throat as she looked up at the address above the door.

19 Alfalfa Street.

“I can do this,” she whispered to herself. She raised her hoof to knock, but felt all of the determination she’d just had a second before fade out in an instant.

“I have to do this, and I can. I can do this. I can absolutely do this.” She knocked three times, feeling the nerves start up with renewed intensity in her gut. She bit her lip as she waited for somepony to answer, but after a few moments, it seemed as if nopony was going to come to the door. It would probably be better to just come back later and—

The latch turned and the door swung open. “Oh! Hi, Cheerilee!” Daisy said, her poofy, green mane bouncing slightly as she spoke.

“Hello, Daisy. Nice to see you again,” said Cheerilee.

“What brings you by today? I wouldn’t figure you’d be busy with school matters on a weekend,” said Daisy.

“Oh trust me, you sign on for five days a week, but you really get seven.” Cheerilee chuckled lightly, getting about the same amount of amusement from Daisy. “I came by because I wanted to talk to you about Aura.”

“Oh no. She isn’t giving you any trouble in class, is she?”

“Well…” Cheerilee racked her brain for the right words. “There’s... really a lot we need to discuss. Do you mind if I come in?”

“Yes, please. Come in.” Daisy moved aside, allowing Cheerilee to step into the foyer. There were just about as many potted plants laying around the place as before, but they didn’t look much like the ones she’d seen several weeks ago.

“I take it you’re still fighting Town Hall on the flower shop?” Cheerilee asked, gesturing to the numerous pots and planters scattered about.

“No, actually. Town Hall got back to me last week, so now I’m just working out the details on the location. All of this should be out of here in about two weeks, but don’t quote me on that.” There was just a hint of pride in Daisy’s voice. Judging from the smile on her face, she seemed to relish the chance to talk about her business. “And it might be more of a stand than a full-blown shop, but that’s just sort of the nature of the beast here.

“Oh, you’ll be setting up in the market?”

“You got it!” Daisy said. “I’ve got a couple of other mares on board with the business now, so things are definitely looking up.”

“You’ll do great down there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the market have a slow day,” said Cheerilee.

“I sure hope so. You wouldn’t believe how many hoops I’ve had to jump through to get this far.”

I have a feeling I might. There was a short pause in the conversation, and Cheerilee steeled herself. It was time to get the ball rolling. “Well, I guess it would be best to get started as soon as possible. I don’t want to take up any more of your time than I need to.”

“Sure, sure. Would you like something to drink?” asked Daisy.

“Oh, just a glass of water would be fine, thank you,” said Cheerilee. Daisy turned towards the kitchen, but Cheerilee stopped her. “Before you go, is your husband here?”

“Oh yes, he’s upstairs in his office. Pencil!” she called.

“Yeah?” came the response from the second floor.

“Aura’s teacher is here. She needs to talk to us!”

“I’ll be down in a minute!” Pencil Pusher’s voice was enough to bring Cheerilee’s nerves back. Spoiled Rich hadn’t been quite as bad as she’d expected at the board meeting, but this stallion was sure to be about ten times as difficult to convince. And yet, she still had no idea how Daisy would react to hearing that her daughter was suffering from a disability.

She would just have to hope that Daisy would take it better than Pencil Pusher had the first time.

"Come with me, we’ll sit in the dining room.” Daisy led the way out of the foyer, and Cheerilee followed along.

Though the floor plan of both this house and Cheerilee’s were similar in their entryways, it became apparent that this one was quite a bit larger than her own. Where Cheerilee’s kitchen was a single room complete with a dining table on the side of the room opposite the stove, the doorway Daisy led them through took them into a fully-fledged wing of the house. The dining area was loosely separated from the kitchen by an open partition, and beyond the kitchen, there appeared to be a den of some kind. More potted plants lined the floor, forming somewhat narrow pathways from one room to the next.

“Have a seat, and I’ll grab us those drinks,” said Daisy as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Cheerilee took a seat in the middle of the far side of the long table, right at the perfect angle to face kitchen itself. She took off her saddlebags, placing them on the ground next to the chair. In it were many of the same things she’d taken along with her the day before. A copy of the academic records that File had given her, a bundle of Aura’s math and language assignments, the dyslexia information and test packets that Dr. Scope had given her, and the well-traveled drawing that she’d been placing almost all of her faith in.

I just hope to Celestia this works.

Cheerilee took a deep breath, and placed her bags against the chair legs. With a moment to herself, she took another look around the room. The walls were covered in wallpaper that looked to be nearing the end of its lifespan. Several dings and dents were easily noticeable, and the alternating pink and off-white pattern that was too thick to call striping must have once been red and white, now faded through the years of use. A single painting adorned the wall behind the table’s end seat, a simple scene depicting a vineyard on a hill. On the wall that led into the kitchen were three sets of framed hoofprints.

Three foals. But which one is Aura’s? She squinted, trying to get a look at the writing in the bottom corner of each frame, but she couldn’t quite make out what they said. She was about to get up to inspect them up close, but hoofsteps coming down the stairs stopped her. Here he comes. She let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding as he stepped into the doorway.

“Oh, hello!” Pencil Pusher announced. “I believe we met a few weeks ago at the office. I’m sorry, but I’m absolutely horrible with names. What was it again?” he asked, pouring on a smile that almost struck her as cheesy.

“Cheerilee, nice to see you again,” she said, shaking his hoof.

“Alrighty, order up!” Daisy came in with a tray loaded with three glasses. Pencil Pusher lit his horn and lifted the tray from his wife’s back, floating the three drinks out above the table.

“What did you have, Cheerilee?” he asked.

“Water, thank you.” One of the glasses dropped down and landed in front of her with a resounding thunk. Cheerilee flinched, a bit surprised by both how forcefully the cup had landed and by how he’d managed to keep even a single drop from spilling.

Sometimes I really wish I was a unicorn. Daisy and Pencil took their seats, Pencil at the head end of the table and Daisy next to him, sitting directly across from Cheerilee.

“You two have a lovely home. Do you know who made that painting on the wall there?” Cheerilee asked.

“That was a piece we actually found at a flea market in Whinnyapolis a few years ago. We can’t figure out who it’s by, but it sure looks nice up there on the wall. It kind of has a Bitalian feel to it, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I sort of feel like it has that style. I’d love to know who did it,” said Cheerilee.

“You and me both,” said Daisy. She took a sip of her drink, which looked to be iced tea.

“Now then, you wanted to talk to us about something?” Pencil asked.

She couldn’t be sure, but Cheerilee was sure that he was acting funny. He probably still remembers that first time we talked. How could he forget? “Yes, I’m afraid I’m not here to discuss fine art with you today.” Not quite fine art, but it’s quite fine for a filly of her age. Cheerilee cleared her throat. “Now then, I know I’ve met with you two before regarding Aura’s performance at—”

“Has she been doing better?” Pencil interrupted.

“Well, that’s not exactly it—”

“Well, is she getting in fights again? If she is—”

“Pencil!” Daisy chided, bringing the conversation to a halt. “Stop interrupting and let the mare talk. Cheerilee, you were saying?”

“Right.” Cheerilee took a deep breath, steadying herself. Already off to a rocky start. “I’ve been keeping a close eye on Aura over the last several weeks, and I’ve been noticing some alarming trends.” She paused, keeping a close eye on both of the parents’ reactions, but devoting a little more time to Pencil Pusher. Something about his expression didn’t quite sit right with her; it was like he was forcing himself to seem friendly.

“Alarming trends? Does this have something to do with the ditching incident a couple of weeks ago?” asked Daisy.

“To be honest with you I’m—”

“What? Aura was cutting class?” Pencil asked. A bit of his friendly facade seemed to erode. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I told you! I told you that I took care of it and that Aura was grounded for two weeks.”

“When did all of this happen?” he asked.

“Two weeks ago! You haven’t heard her record player since then, have you?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”

“Oh my goodness, we’re so sorry Cheerilee. We just cut you off… and I did it again. Oops.” Daisy put a hoof over her mouth. “Sorry. Go ahead.”

“Thank you.” A little bit of tension was starting to creep into the back of her neck. The anxiety was starting to be replaced by frustration. “Now then, alarming trends. I’d been noticing that she was exhibiting some rather troubling classroom behaviors just about since the time school started a couple of months ago.” She cleared her throat, coughing once. “Excuse me. I kept an eye on her and tried to talk with her and see if I could help her get on track, but nothing seemed to change. She would just sit there, staring at the front of the room blankly all day long, never participating unless I called on her.”

A scoff punctuated Cheerilee’s sentence for her. “What is this, a smear campaign?” Pencil wore a sneer on his face. He was obviously trying to downplay her argument. “You’ve been saying all of these things about how she’s doing poorly, but what’s the point? Kids don’t want to be in school all day—”

“I’m going to cut you off there, sir,” said Cheerilee, casting a stern glare at Pencil. His condescending smirk faded, replaced by a more serious look of anger. He definitely knows. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. “If you’ll let me finish speaking, you’ll understand what I’m talking about, but I can’t exactly get there if you interrupt me every five seconds.”

Pencil opened his mouth, probably ready with some sort of retort, but a sharp elbow to his side cut him off. Daisy’s glare was about ten times more intense than Cheerilee’s had been, and the stallion seemed to shrink back. If there was one thing that could get Cheerilee through this successfully, it was Daisy’s cooperation. “Alright. Go ahead,” he said, though it sounded more like a dare than approval to continue.

Cheerilee took a short, deep breath. Daisy was still on her side, so she still had leverage. While she still had it, she needed to keep going. “So, I continued monitoring Aura for a week or so, and I began to notice things about her assignments that seemed to indicate something besides just casual disinterest. Her mouthwriting is hooves down the worst in the class, but we usually expect the girls to have better writing than the boys, and that was only one of the problems I noticed. I went to talk to an expert on the subject—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think I know where this is going.” Pencil stood up from his chair.

Daisy reached up and grabbed his hoof. “Pencil, what are you—”

He shrugged her off. “I had it in the back of my head from the first second that I heard you were here, but I didn’t want to go and make a mule of myself.”

Here it comes. Stay calm and stay grounded in reason. Cheerilee snuck a glance at Daisy, hoping to Celestia and the sun above that the mare wouldn’t let him take over.

“You mentioned learning disabilities to me at the office the first time we met, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Cheerilee didn't reply, simply staring up at the irate stallion pointing his hoof at her. “You think my daughter has some sort of disease? That she isn’t right in the head?”

“I never—”

“Oh, save it!” Pencil shouted. “How long have you known my daughter for, huh? A month? Maybe two? I’ve known her from the very minute she was born! I held her in my hooves when she took her first breath, and you’re trying to tell me this load of manure?”

“You don’t—”

“Oh yes I do! She’s outside in the backyard, playing right now. We can go take a look at her, and see if she looks like she has a problem. You’re no shrink, so how could you tell that there’s something wrong? Huh?” Pencil’s shouts echoed in Cheerilee’s ears, along with the throbbing of her heartbeat. He was as wrong as he could be, but nopony could convince him otherwise. He was going to let his pride ruin his child’s future, just so he could continue to live in his glass house. Cheerilee looked at him once more, and she felt the tension in the base of her skull grow sharply stronger.

She was angry.

“Pencil, that’s enough!” Daisy shouted, trying to rein him in.

He didn’t seem to notice. He leaned over the table, not quite getting in her face, but close enough to get the same message across. “My daughter is just fine. She’s a happy, healthy little girl, and I don’t need somepony like you coming in here to try and tell me otherwise. So why don’t you just scurry on out of here, get back to your grading, and leave my family alone.”

That’s it! Something inside of her seemed to break loose, and Cheerilee jumped up from her seat.. “Now you listen here, buster! You may think there’s nothing wrong, but there’s plenty you don’t know about your daughter!”

“Oh yeah? You want to come into my house and insult not only my parenting, but my family?! You can march your little butt out that door right now!” Pencil pointed to the door, and his face was turning red under his light gray coat.

“Oh yeah, mister big shot? She tells me that you barely even have time to see her every day, so how would you know? You’re going to throw her entire life down the toilet just because you’re too proud to listen to reason!” Something seemed to shift in the stallion, and his expression shifted from one of anger, to one of full-on rage.

“Get out of my house! Get out of here and don’t you ever come back!”

“Both of you stop it!”

“Listen to yourself! You’re denying your child the chance to grow—”

“Get out! Get out of here right now before I pick you up and throw you out!”

“Cut it out! We don’t need to fight each other!”

“I’ll be reporting you to the school board! You’ll be fired for this!”

“Sit DOWN!” Both Pencil and Cheerilee were taken off guard by the sudden ferocious scream from Daisy. Even up against their own shouting match, it had plenty of power to derail the argument. They both looked over at Daisy simultaneously, to find a mare who looked like she was ready to tear both of them apart. “I said. Sit. Down.”

Pencil instantly deflated, scurrying into the closest chair like a foal who’d just been caught with his hoof in the cookie jar. There was genuine fear in his eyes.

“You too!” Daisy shouted, slightly hoarse from the amount of force she’d put into her scream. “You sit down and you,” she glared at her husband. “Shut up!”


“Ah, ah! I don’t want to hear a word out of your mouth!” Daisy whapped her husband on the snout; not hard, but enough to get the message across: One wrong move, and he was toast.

“I don’t know how we let this escalate to the point that it did, but I will not have that happen again! We are all adults in this room, and we can all treat each other like adults. Understood?!”

Cheerilee nodded, as did Pencil. There were tears streaming down her face, but she wasn’t sobbing. “Maybe we should do this another time, so we can all cool down.”

“No, no. You always struck me as a level-headed mare, so for you to get this worked up over my daughter, there has to be something big going on. Am I wrong?”

“It is a pretty serious problem,” Cheerilee muttered, finding it difficult to make eye contact.

Daisy sat down once again, and the room descended into an uncomfortable stillness. Pencil glared at Cheerilee, his eyes still filled with anger and harsh judgement, but he remained silent. “So, you said you took Aura to see a doctor? Why would you do that without telling us?”

“Oh, no! I never took Aura to see anyone. I went by myself to talk to Dr. Clear Scope, the town’s pediatrician.”

“So, what came of that?” Daisy asked. Pencil moved to talk, but was silenced by yet another harsh glare from Daisy.

“Well, I ran all of the information I had by her, and she told me that she believes…” Cheerilee tapered off, trying to find the strength to say it. She looked to Daisy, and her eyes said it all. She was no longer a disciplinarian getting a hold on two unruly ponies. She was back to her normal self, a mother who cared about her children. And she was worried enough to finally listen to what Cheerilee had to say. She took one last breath to steady herself.

“I believe that your daughter is suffering from dyslexia.”

The words seemed to echo in the room, hanging on the air like a blanket of dense fog. Cheerilee watched both Daisy and Pencil Pusher’s reactions. Daisy, who had been standing over Pencil to keep him in check had taken a seat. She didn’t seem to know who to look at, but she seemed to want to make eye contact with her husband. Pencil, on the other hoof, was a bit trickier to decipher. He stared unblinkingly at Cheerilee, eyes steely, and though there was still a lingering bit of anger in his expression, there seemed to have been a shift in him.

He looked scared.

And so the silence hung. Cheerilee had already decided that she wouldn’t be the next pony to speak, and judging by the look Pencil was giving her, he wasn’t going to be the one to get things rolling either.

And so it fell to Daisy. She didn’t seem sure of herself, and given that the room was still ripe with tension, she had every right to be. The mare who had taken charge and reigned in a fight that was about five seconds from the brink of disaster was gone now, replaced by a worried mother who didn’t quite know what to say.


To her surprise, it was actually Pencil who broke the silence. Cheerilee took another deep breath, steeling herself just in case things decided to go south. At least he sounded less confrontational now. “Unless I’m mistaken, it seems likely that Aura has dyslexia.”

“How do you know? All you said earlier was that she has bad mouthwriting and doesn’t pay attention,” said Daisy.

“Let me start by asking you a question,” said Cheerilee. “How well did you know Aura’s teacher back in Vanhoover?”

“Gale?” said Pencil. “Well, we didn’t really hear too much from her, now that I think about it. I guess I figured things were going okay because she never really had anything to talk to us about.”

“Mmm,” said Cheerilee. She reached into her bags, which had been knocked over in the altercation, and retrieved the papers she’d brought along. “Let me say something about the Vanhoover school district. They aren’t exactly known for being the best school system in Equestria.”

Pencil frowned. “So what does that have to do with—”

“Honey, shut up,” said Daisy. Pencil shrunk back, leaning back into his chair. “Go ahead, Cheerilee.”

“Alright then. I pulled her academic records from before, and her teacher’s comments were… troubling. Coupling what you just told me about her with what’s on the page here, I’m thinking that she really didn’t care too much about her job.”

“What? She seemed nice when we talked to her,” said Daisy.

“And she may be a nice pony when she’s talking to you, but this page doesn’t lie. She sure noticed problems with Aura, but she didn’t do much to fix them.”

“So, what does that mean? Could she just be behind?”

Cheerilee shook her head. “I’m afraid not. The problems run a lot deeper than what it would be like if she only had a bad instructor. You’re familiar with how sloppy her writing is, I assume?”

“Yes, I’ve seen it, but I didn’t really think too much of it. Some foals just don’t write neatly,” said Daisy.

“And that’s true, but there’s still more. A few weeks ago, we were reading a book as a class, and when Aura’s turn came up, things went south pretty fast. She struggled to read even a few words on the page, and then she complained of a headache, so I let her off the hook. Later that afternoon, I asked her what the problem was, and she said that the words kept moving around the page and floating on her.”

“And that’s a warning sign of dyslexia?” asked Daisy. “I thought it just meant that they saw letters backwards.”

“I’m not exactly an expert, but reversed letters is only one of many different signs,” Cheerilee shuffled the papers around, gathering an essay and a math worksheet, which she passed across the table to Daisy. “These are a few of her assignments. See how almost illegible her writing is?”

“Cheerilee, you’ve already convinced me that there’s a problem,” said Daisy. She paused, looking over the papers in her hooves, and Cheerilee could see the tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She choked up as she tried to speak, “How did we not see this sooner?”

“Pragmatically, I’d place the blame on her old teacher. She saw the problem and could have done something to stop it, but she didn’t, and here we are.” Daisy passed the pages to Pencil, who took them in his magic. He didn’t seem to break like Daisy did, but his expression softened.

Maybe she’d finally gotten through to him.

“Oh goddess above, we let this go on all this time,” Daisy choked out, fighting not to break down, but losing the battle.

The papers floated down to the table, and Pencil slid them back across to Cheerilee. He looked her in the eyes for the first time since the argument had been broken up. “What can we do?”

Bingo. He’s on board. Cheerilee smiled, trading Pencil a thick, slightly crumpled packet of papers for the old assignments. “This is what Dr. Scope gave to me when I talked to her. It’s got a lot of good information on dyslexia and what you can do to help. There’s a home assessment that you can do to determine whether or not the problem is actually dyslexia, or you can always take her in and have Dr. Scope examine her. I’d recommend going with the latter, because that mare really knows her stuff. You’d be putting Aura in the best hooves in town.”

“We’ll get that done first thing tomorrow,” said Pencil. He flipped through the pages of the packet, not pausing to read any of them. “But I don’t think the problem ends with us getting her tested, does it?”

Cheerilee swallowed. This was the other thing she’d been worried about. “Yes, you’re right. Aura’s been severely disadvantaged by this for far too long, and it’s going to take some work to get her back on track.”

“And that means?” asked Pencil.

While she usually would have searched for a way to soften the blow, Cheerilee had already been run short of patience. “Special education,” she said flatly.

Pencil’s ears flattened and his expression soured. “I really don’t like the sound of that. Won’t that show up on her records later on?”

“We’re not talking about a permanent removal from mainstream courses, and in fact, I think I can keep her in with the same group of students. I don’t know the specifics of what it will take, but I would definitely expect her to be in class for extra hours each week until we can get her back on track.” Pencil passed the two assignments back to Cheerilee, and she reincorporated them into her little stack of papers. “And there’s one last thing to consider. Specialized curriculum isn’t cheap, and because the district is so small and already underfunded as it is, the school is not going to be able to hoof the bill either,” said Cheerilee.

“So it falls to us,” said Pencil. “How much would it run?”

“I don’t have an exact figure, but it will probably be in the…” Cheerilee grimaced. They definitely weren’t going to like this. “Two or three-thousand bit range.”

Both Pencil and Daisy seemed to flinch as Cheerilee delivered the last piece of news, like it pained them to hear it. The room fell still once again, the tension rising as Cheerilee waited for their response. There was only one obstacle left standing. One last detail to work out before they could get Aura the help she needed. Daisy and Pencil exchanged a glance at one another, and Pencil took his wife’s hoof in his before they both returned their attention to Cheerilee.

“There’s no way we can afford it.”

Chapter Twelve: Positive Reinforcement

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The disheveled mess of pink and white hair in the mirror stared back at Cheerilee with what she could only describe as a smirk. It was challenging her to try and straighten it out.

From the top. She picked up her trusty mane brush from the edge of the sink. Several of the tines had snapped off through years of use and abuse, but it still worked just fine. She worked it into her mane with care, and when she was satisfied with the positioning, she began to pull forward. The knots and tangles in the brush’s way gave a stern resistance, making her wince when they caught and pulled hard on her scalp. Eventually, she won out and got through the mess, pulling the brush free from her hair to find that she’d barely made a dent.

One. It wasn’t anything new, really. Just about every morning had some degree of bedhead involved, and some days were definitely worse than others. It was routine.

But on a morning like this, even simple routines seemed like tedious, unnecessary chores. She stared at her reflection in the mirror with only enough enthusiasm to open her eyes halfway.

Twelve. Her bangs were pretty well under control, and the next order of business was to start working her way towards the back.

Should I even worry about it? It’s not like I’m leaving the house today.

With a defeated sigh, Cheerilee pulled the brush from her mane and gave it an idle glance before she dropped it on the counter. It promptly tumbled into the sink.

“Lovely,” Cheerilee muttered under her breath, not bothering to return the brush to its proper place. She yawned lightly as she took her robe down from the hook on the wall, and in doing so, her gaze fell on the shower.

Good idea. Instead of either fighting to gain control over her mane or leaving it be, showering would simply wash away the tangles. That, and she wouldn’t feel gross for the rest of the day. Yes, showering was probably the best possible thing she could do for herself at a time like this. She hung the robe back on its hook and stepped over to the shower. She brushed the curtain aside and leaned in to turn on the water and check to make sure that she hadn’t misplaced anything she’d need.

Right. Washcloth. Cheerilee backed out of the shower, not looking where she was going until she felt her hind legs bump against something, followed by a loud crash and the rustling of paper. She winced at the noise, and she turned around to see that she’d backed into the bathroom’s magazine rack, which was now laying sideways with most of its contents spilled out across the tile in a cascade of tabloids.

Cheerilee felt the frustration bubble up in the back of her head, so she bit her lip and groaned through her teeth.

“Should I pick these up first?” she asked aloud. The magazines were strewn out pretty widely across the floor, and aside from presenting a tripping hazard, there was the risk that any water that escaped the shower would ruin them. “Yep, looks like I have to.”

She started by tipping the rack back upright. “I’m replacing you,” she said. “Maybe a nice rack that bolts onto the wall. You’re just a flimsy little starter kit.”

“Why am I talking to a magazine rack?” Cheerilee snorted, smiling for the first time since she’d come home from the meeting yesterday. She lazily swept the spilled magazines into a pile with only one hoof, and when she’d gathered all of them up, she began sorting them into the same system she’d used before: Tabloids at the back, more serious material at the front. Canterlot Vogue and Ponies went to the back, while things like Carpenter’s Cove went towards the front.

I really should go see Mom and Dad more often. The pile was disappearing quickly, but there were quite a few more magazines there than Cheerilee realized she’d bought. Now that she thought about it, she didn’t see much point in buying all of those pointless tabloids. She hardly ever read them anyway. Her mom surely didn’t waste her money on such trivial pursuits, but then again, she didn’t have the scoop on “Celestia’s New Baby Bump” or the “Top 15 Proven Ways to Get Stallions to Drive You Crazy!”

I’m a sucker.

It was down to the last few, and she was already tired of looking at the tabloids. Baltimare Bottomfeeder, check. Downside Edition, accounted for. Equestrian Equity Financial...

“The last thing I want to think about right now is finances.” She groaned in disgust and tossed the magazine into the trash can. She closed her eyes tight and forced herself to think of anything else.

Washcloth. Soap. Water. Bubbles. “Boy, that shower sure does sound nice! I think I’ll get in in the shower now. Shower ahoy!” She took out a new washcloth and tossed it over the top of the shower curtain.

“Nothing like a good shower to cleanse the soul.”

“Grace, I need to tell you something,” said Gable, averting his eyes. “I’m not who you think I am.”

Grace stood there for a moment, pondering his expression. He seemed hesitant to reveal his secret, but little did he know that it already wasn’t a secret. Not since Bundie’s visit the week before. She smiled a cold, calculating smile. He was about to become putty in her hooves.

“Grace, you devil,” Cheerilee muttered. “Go easy on him. He’s been through a lot.” She dropped the book on her lap and took a sip of her coffee, which was just starting to turn lukewarm. She shifted in her seat and stretched her forelegs, yawning in the process. She took a glance over to the window, and judging from the fact that there were no longer any rays of sunshine coming in the window, it must have been getting on towards noon.

Not that I care. This is me time. She settled back into her seat and picked Backside of Tomorrow back up, but before she cracked it back open, she was stopped by a knock at the door.

Please don’t be important. She dropped the book on the couch beside herself and hopped up, completing her prior stretch in her hind legs before she started for the door.

There was another knock as she neared the door, and this time it was the all-too-familiar sound of “shave and a manecut” being tapped on the door. Brace yourself.

“Hey, Nook,” she said before she even had the door all the way open.

“Cheerilee!” Nook shouted, hopping through the doorway and immediately wrapping Cheerilee in a hug. “Where have you been? I haven’t heard a peep out of you in two weeks!”

“Oh, you know, working. The usual,” said Cheerilee. She stepped back a bit, breaking the hug. “How about you?”

“Same, really.” Nook looked Cheerilee up and down, and her expression flattened a bit. “And I see from that robe you’ve got on that you’ve been sitting around the house all day.”

“Well, it was a pretty exhausting week for me. I’ve just been relaxing today.”

Nook shook her head. “Cheerilee, do me a favor real quick and look outside.”

Before Cheerilee could respond, she was being pushed towards the door. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the bright light of midday, and when as she began to adjust to the outdoors, she began to realize just how perfect of a day she’d been missing. The air was crisp, mild with a little hint of coolness on the breeze, which was just strong enough to keep things stirred up, but not so much as to be disturbing. The weather team really outdid themselves today.

“You’ve been wasting a great day sitting inside, Cheers.” Nook led her back into the house with a hoof around her shoulders, and she kicked the door closed behind them. “It’s gorgeous outside and you’re not doing anything important, so we’re going to the tennis court.”

Nothing important. Sure. Cheerilee bit down on her tongue and let herself cool down for a second before she spoke. “Nook, I don’t know. I was really looking forward to just taking it easy today.”

“Which is exactly why you need to come with me to play some tennis! We haven’t done that in forever, and what’s more relaxing than hitting balls with your best friend?” Nook’s tone softened just a touch, but there was still one major overtone to it; she was being pushy.

“Nook, I don’t think I’m up for that today. I’m sorry.”

Nook paused, and she seemed to deflate a bit. “Please? Cheerilee, it’s been way too long since we just got to hang out, and I’ve been missing you.”

“Eeeh…” Cheerilee trailed off when she saw the look in Nook’s eyes. It wasn’t overly dramatic, but there was a certain sadness in there that was certainly out of place. Nook was always such a peppy sort of mare, and to see that was the final straw that broke her. “Alright, fine. I’ll go get my stuff.”

“Yes!” said Nook, pumping her hoof in celebration. She instantly snapped back to her normal, persistently upbeat self. “I’m gonna go ahead and run over to my place to get my things together. Just come on over when you’re ready.” Nook bounded out the door in a flash, leaving Cheerilee alone again.

So much for finishing that book.

“Whew! That’s three in a row!” Nook announced, her face plastered over with a big, smug grin. She trotted across the tennis court, and Cheerilee could practically feel the smugness in her friend’s steps. She plopped down on the bench right next to Cheerilee, letting out a breath of relief when she hit the seat. “I have to give it to you, it was a valiant effort, but sometimes I just can’t contain all of this talen—ooof!”

Cheerilee smirked to herself as she removed her elbow from Nook’s ribs.

“Alright, alright, point taken.” Nook rubbed her side a couple of times before she levitated her water bottle over and took a greedy gulp from it. “So, how many more times are you gonna want to go? We’ve got the court for another forty-five minutes.”

Cheerilee wiped the sweat from her brow. “I guess it’d be better to get the most for our money.”

“That's what I was thinking too,” said Nook, taking another gulp. “You know what’s probably letting me kick your tail up and down the court?” she asked, nudging Cheerilee’s side smugly.

“The sun in my eyes?” asked Cheerilee. Or the fact that I don’t even want to be here.

“Nope. Check it.” Nook passed her racquet to Cheerilee. She hadn’t noticed it until now, but this racquet was nice. Instead of the old, beaten and worn wooden frame that Nook had been using before, this one was carbon fiber with beautiful, clean white string, and it still had enough weight to keep balanced. “I picked this bad boy up last week. Isn’t that the greatest racquet you’ve ever seen?”

“Sure beats my old hunk of junk,” said Cheerilee. “How much did it cost, though?”

“Enough to make my bank account scream for mercy. Hackamore sure is proud of the stuff they make,” said Nook.

Cheerilee cocked an eyebrow. “And you waited this long to tell me?”

“I was going for the element of surprise. Sure seems like it did the trick with that streak I’m on,” Nook said, adding just the right amount of smug to the end of her sentence.

Cheerilee rolled her eyes. Yeah, that’s totally it. She passed the racquet back to Nook.

“So, let’s get back down to it. Time is money!” Nook hopped up from the bench and ran across the court to her side. Cheerilee took one more drink before she did the same.

Time is money, she thought as she got back into her position.

“Serve up!” Nook shouted, bouncing the ball once on the ground before swatting it out of the air. The serve was easy enough to deal with, sailing just left of center. Cheerilee caught it with a lazy fore-stroke, sending it back towards the far right corner. Nook was ready for it, already moving before Cheerilee managed her shot. She was in position for the return with time to spare.

Why did you have to show up today? Cheerilee thought, watching as Nook sent the ball nearly straight ahead, into her right corner. Cheerilee scrambled, but she hadn’t been thinking as far ahead as Nook. She nearly had to dive for it, but she managed to catch the ball at an odd angle. It went high, but still stayed in bounds.

Focus, Cheerilee. Focus. She watched for Nook’s rebound as she moved closer to the center of the court. If she dragged me out here today, the least I can do is beat her.

She was more ready for Nook’s next shot, but still didn’t quite manage the angle on the ball she wanted. It went low, and to her chagrin, it caught the top edge of the net.

“Point!” called Nook. Cheerilee grumbled to herself and walked over to get the ball, which she threw to Nook. Nook waited until Cheerilee was back in position. “Fifteen serving Love!” she called as she served the ball, and so the next point was underway.

Time is money, Cheerilee thought as she hit the ball, feeling the racquet rattle against her teeth. No matter if you have too little or too much, they’ll both ruin you sooner or later. Cheerilee felt herself losing touch with the moment, and she barely managed contact with the ball. Focus! You’re going to let her win!

“Hyaa!” Nook shouted, doing a frontflip as she moved to make her rebound shot.

She’s taunting me. She felt the back of her neck stiffen with the frustration, and it was just enough to throw her off. The ball went high, sailing past Nook’s baseline and out of bounds.

“Point!” Nook called. This time the ball was on her side, and she was the one to retrieve it. “Come on, Cheers, I’m going easy on you!” she yelled, and Cheerilee felt the tension in the back of her head grow tighter.

“Just serve the ball,” Cheerilee said, grumbling again under her breath.

“Thirty serving Love!” said Nook, picking her racquet back up in her teeth and serving the ball.

I just spent the last three days worrying myself to death over a filly I can’t even help, and now I have to spend my afternoon getting taunted by this lunatic. Cheerilee swatted the ball back hard enough to hurt her teeth, and she grunted partly from the exertion and partly from anger.

And of course, Nook was able to handle it. Maybe she was just a little surprised by the amount of heat Cheerilee had put into the stroke, but it didn’t do much to affect her return.

Time is money, huh? Well too bad we can’t just pay for special education resources with time! Again, Cheerilee swung as hard as she could muster, and when she connected with the ball, she practically screamed against the handle. The loud pop of the ball getting hit echoed through the court, and instead of the sound of Nook’s swing to return the ball like she expected, it was followed by the shout of ‘Point!’

Cheerilee focused her sight on Nook, expecting to see the ball on the other side of the court. Instead, she saw the ball rolling back towards her, and the net swinging from the ball it had just reflected.

I can’t win.

Nook sure looked smug. “Come on, Cheers! I’m going eas—”

“Just serve the godforsaken ball.”

“Wow, okay then. Forty serving Love!”

Sure you’re going easy. There’s obviously something besides that racquet giving you an advantage. You’re cheating, you little snake.

“Point! That’s game.” said Nook.

Cheerilee blinked. The ball had gotten past her, and she’d been so busy fuming that she barely even noticed.

“What was that? You didn’t even try for that last one.” said Nook as she walked over from her side of the court.

You want to rub it in, you arrogant screwball? Cheerilee growled in anger, and she threw her racquet on the ground as hard as she could manage. “You know what that was? That was the last time I’ll be playing tennis with you, you little braggart.” A little voice in the back of her mind was screaming for her to abort, but it was lost in the cacophony of rage. “I’m tired of that snotty little attitude of yours! You just come waltzing in and expect everypony to do what you want to do. Have you ever stopped to think about what I want? Have you ever asked me that simple question?!”

Nook opened her mouth as if to give an answer, but she was instantly cut off. “No! You always come around and tell me what we’re doing. I’m just along on your crazy ride, and I’ve had it!” Cheerilee took a deep breath. It was time for the closer.

“I don’t need this. You’re a pushy, overbearing know-it-all, and I want you out of my life!”

Nook’s jaw was hanging open, and Cheerilee stood there staring her down for a moment. After a few seconds, her sight began to focus, The rage was finally starting to subside, and realization began to set in.

What did I just do? Tears began to flood Cheerilee’s eyes, and she finally averted her eyes from Nook, who was still standing there agape. Speechless.

Cheerilee could only think of one thing to do, and that was to run. She turned for the exit and took off at a gallop, not bothering to grab her belongings on the way out.

Nook stood there for a few more moments, and she began to realize that there had been a few other ponies there, and they were all staring at her. She picked up the racquet that Cheerilee had thrown on the ground, and took it over to the bench, where she sat down and took a drink of water.

“What just happened?”


Cheerilee groaned into the couch pillow. She knew exactly who was knocking at the door.


“Cheerilee, I know you’re home. Will you answer the door?” came the voice from outside.

I knew she’d be too stubborn to not bother me. “Go away, Nook.”

“Do you want me to pick the lock?” said Nook.

Cheerilee grimaced. Knowing Nook, that wasn’t exactly a hollow threat. “Ugh,” She heaved herself up and off of the couch, trudged across the living room to the entryway, and threw open the door.

“Hey,” said Nook. Where she’d usually just come right in the door as soon as it was opened, this time she didn’t take the liberty. She stood there on the front step for a few moments, staring at Cheerilee with wide, unsure eyes.

“Hey, yourself,” said Cheerilee.

Nook stepped into the foyer while Cheerilee walked back into the living room and reassumed her position on the couch without saying a word. Nook followed her in, but she stopped halfway across the room. Cheerilee couldn’t force herself to look over there, but she could tell that Nook was standing there searching for words. The silence held on for a few more tense seconds before Nook finally found her voice.

“So...uh, you said some things,” Nook began, but she paused.

“I did, didn’t I?” Cheerilee said, staring up at the ceiling.

“I came by to drop off your things that you left at the court.” There was a clatter off to the side that Cheerilee assumed was the tennis gear dropping on the floor, which was followed by a long, awkward silence.

“Did you really mean all of that stuff you said?” Nook asked.

Cheerilee didn’t respond.

“Am I really that hard to be around?” Nook sniffed once, and that was what got Cheerilee to finally look at her. Nook’s eyes were welling up with tears as she stood there in the doorway to the living room. “Do you really not want to be friends anymore?” Her voice was shaky, and Cheerilee could tell that she was trying to keep herself together.

“No, Nook. I don’t mean it anymore.”

“Don’t mean it anymore? What does that mean?! You can just tell me I’m this awful pony that you can’t stand, and then it doesn’t mean anything anymore?”

“Nook, I’m… I’m sorry for what I said,” Cheerilee averted her eyes again, picking a spot on the floor to stare at instead.

“I accept the apology, but only because I know that wasn’t you screaming in my face back there. Where did all of that come from?” Nook asked. Cheerilee heard hoofsteps cross the room, and then Nook took a seat on the couch next to her. “Is there something else bothering you?”

“I really don’t..”

“Ah, ah, no.” Nook interrupted. ”No, you’re not doing that to me. You said I’m pushy, so I’m being pushy. Spill the beans.” Nook leaned in to the side, trying to get a good look at Cheerilee’s face, but that was the last thing Cheerilee wanted. She shied away, hiding her face behind her mane as best she could.

A hoof wrapped around Cheerilee’s shoulder, and she was pulled closer to Nook. Cheerilee looked up at Nook, who was giving an encouraging smile back. As mad as she’d been at her less than an hour ago, and despite all of the things she said, Nook was still trying to help. “Come on Cheers, I’m your best friend. You can tell me.” Cheerilee looked back down at her spot on the floor, and she took a deep breath.

“I don’t think I’m cut out to be a teacher.”

“What are you talking about? Of course you are!” said Nook. “Heck, you went through four years of college to do this. And from what I hear, your students love you just as much as their last teacher. What’s making you even think that at all?”

“All through college, class after class, year after year, they sit there and tell you all about how you’re going to ‘make a difference’ and ‘give our children what they need to succeed’.” Cheerilee turned to Nook and looked her dead in the eyes. “But that’s not what it’s like, Nook. You don’t have any real power to make a difference. You just get to stand there, give your lecture, and watch them sink or swim.” Cheerilee shuddered, and she suppressed the urge to stop and cry. “I can’t actually do anything, Nook. I’m just there to weed out the lowest common denominator.”

“Okay,” said Nook, “I could see a secondary school teacher talking like that, but you’re teaching the younger foals. You can’t even drop out until you’re past primary school, right?”

“And I’m sure she will as soon as I pass her along like they all want me to,” Cheerilee muttered under her breath.

“Pass who along? What are you talking about, Cheers?”

Cheerilee sighed. “Do you remember that filly I was telling you about a while back? The one with dyslexia.”

“It rings a bell. What about her?”

“I talked to her parents yesterday. I even managed to get them on board with the idea of putting their daughter into special education until she catches up with the rest of her class, but there’s just one problem with that. We can’t afford it.”

“Why? How much could special schooling cost?” asked Nook.

“Special education is expensive to start up, Nook,” said Cheerilee. “We don’t have a program in place for that, and the district isn’t going to be able to pay for it, and there’s nowhere else to get the money from. I can’t help her without the curriculum.” Cheerilee sank down into the couch, hugging her tail to her chest.

“Surely there’s some way to get the funding. Have you actually inquired about it?” asked Nook.

“I have, and the school board specifically told me that it isn’t in the budget,” said Cheerilee.

“Are you sure? You’d be surprised at what sort of things you could throw together if you do some digging.”

“Nook, I’m a grade school teacher, not an accountant. Even if I knew how to wring some money out of the system, I don’t think it would work. This town isn’t big enough to have the kind of cash that I’d need.”

“Well, I don’t know then, Cheers,” said Nook. She reached over and wrapped Cheerilee in a hug. “But you know what I do know? You’re a smart pony. You’ll find a way. And for what it’s worth, I believe in you.”

They sat there in silence for a minute, and Cheerilee could feel a few tears streaking down her cheeks. Maybe things looked bleak at the moment, but now she felt that little something inside of her that had been missing all day. Hope. She sat there in her friend’s embrace for a few more seconds before she found her voice.


Chapter Thirteen: One on One

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Chisel Point grunted in relief as he hopped into his side of the bed and kicked off his slippers. He’d been waiting for this moment all evening, and now that it was here…

“Ohh, yeah…” he moaned, letting himself melt into the mattress, his lower back and right leg popping audibly. He could already feel himself decompressing after just a few seconds, the bed creaking and groaning quietly as it assumed his weight. He squirmed around a little as he settled in, but he immediately decided to take it slower when sharp pain shot through his side.

That’s gonna be sore for a few days. Just hope Melody doesn’t notice. It was the last day before the deadline he’d set on the contract for a new desk for the mayor’s office, and he’d been rushing all day long trying to finish the remaining few tasks before he could call the project finished. He’d finalized and installed the hoof-carved trim pieces that he’d been working on for the last week, and he’d gone over the whole thing again with fine-grit sandpaper before he moved on to install the pull-out extension panel that slid out from under the desktop.

Chisel cringed as the sound replayed through his head. It was one of the simpler portions of the project, so he’d left it until the last minute. It was as easy as cutting a board to size, something he’d done so many times that he could practically do it blindfolded. There was nothing wrong with the table saw, and he was absolutely sure of that. All of the guards were in place, and he’d been careful to make sure that his measurements were precise.

But he’d been in a rush all morning, and while he lined up the board for its pass through the blade, his mind wandered. He looked away from it for a fraction of a second, and—

“Oh boy, I’m tired.” The bed rattled and shook Chisel from his thoughts. He turned his head to see his wife, Lilting Melody, climbing into bed clad in her usual yellow robe, a towel still wrapped around her mane. She kicked her slippers off and slid herself under the covers with such graceful precision that he barely felt the movement.

“Rough day, huh?” Chisel asked.

Melody turned around to face Chisel. Her face was dotted with a few patches of her wrinkle-removing cream, which made the room smell lightly of mint. She shifted back and forth a few times, rocking the bed gently as she adjusted her position. “Absolutely. Days like today make me wish I’d never quit music school.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, just a whole bunch of lessons that went nowhere. Those foals don’t seem to realize that when I give them a piece to practice, I actually expect them to practice it.” Melody slapped her head back into the pillow and groaned. “It feels like I’ve been stuck teaching the same progressions over and over for the last month. And there’s so much more to the pieces we’re doing, too! I was really excited to start working on the second movement of Promenade Sentimentale with Cotton Cloudy today, but she didn’t rehearse a bit since last week, and I had to spend all of the hour going over that part again.”

“Sheesh, didn’t any of them practice?” Chisel asked.

“Well, yes. I made some progress in some of the other lessons, but I’d been looking forward to that one ever since I decided to teach it a month ago.” Melody paused for a second and looked over at Chisel, and then rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but that still doesn’t make it any more fun to deal with. So anyway, how was your day?”

“Oh, fine. Just fine,” Chisel said. If there was one thing he wanted to avoid, it was telling her about the mishap in the shop. And knowing her, she’d keep prodding him to go into specifics about his day. “Lily, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Do you have any books you’re not reading that I could borrow?”

The reaction was immediate. Melody propped herself up on her elbows and looked over at him with an eyebrow cocked. “I certainly do, but since when have you ever wanted to read a book?”

“You know how Hondo’s crazy about books, right?” he asked, to which Melody nodded. “Well, I figured maybe I could sit down and talk about a book with him for once. Maybe it’d make for a better conversation than just hoofball or work.”

In an instant, Melody’s quizzical look was replaced by an excited grin. “I never thought in a million years that you’d ask me that question!” She threw the covers off and jumped down to the floor, not even bothering with her slippers as she scurried across to her bookshelf on the far wall. “I’ve got one you’re gonna love here somewhere.” She scanned the shelves for a few seconds, craning her neck to get a look at some of the lower shelves. “Aha!” She pulled a paperback out from the bottom row and quickly ran back to the bed, hopping in much less carefully than she had the first time.

“What’s this one?” Chisel asked as the book was slapped down on his chest.

“That, my dear, is Stone Grey. Please tell me you’ve heard of it.”

Chisel turned the book over and eyed the cover, which was exactly like the title. Grey and plain. “Can’t say that I have.”

In turn, Melody scoffed. “Oh, I’m sure you have, you’re just not remembering it. This was voted Novel of the Year by Canterlot Enquirer two years ago. Everypony was talking about it!”

“Still doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t think you were talking to the same ponies I was,” said Chisel.

“You really need to get out more,” she said. “I know you’ll love it. It’s a murder mystery that takes place in a mining camp in the Crystal Mountains.”

“I don’t know, I never did care too much for mysteries.”

“That shouldn’t matter because it gets so juicy about halfway through. It starts out like a simple whodunit, but then everything just shifts right there in the middle. It hardly feels like the same book when you get to the end, but it’s just done so well.”

“Might be worth a shot,” said Chisel, sliding the book over to his nightstand, but he quickly found his gaze returning to the far side of the room, to the little shelf sitting there in the corner by the bathroom door. “When are you gonna let me build you a better bookshelf, Lily? That one’s about to collapse on itself.”

“Is not!” she sang back at him.

“Come on, I’m half blind and I can see from here that the center shelf is bowed,” said Chisel.

Melody blinked. “So what? It gives it character.”

Shifting to a more upright position, Chisel scoffed. “It tells me that I didn’t build things right back in the day. You’ve been using that one since our second anniversary.” He waved a hoof in its general direction. “It’s just made out of cheap plywood I had sitting around that day. I could make you one so much better.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that, honey. I like this one just fine.” Melody took Chisel’s hoof, drawing his attention over to her. “And you know why?”

“Because you don’t want to impose?” he offered.

She giggled. “No, because it’s you. Every time I look at it, I remember the day you gave it to me. Or, well, the day I found it out in your shop, still wet with stain while you were passed out on the floor next to it.”

A faint blush colored Chisel Point’s cheeks. “I was hoping you’d forget that.”

“Not a chance,” Melody said. “You were so cute, lying there on the floor with your butt in the air, still wearing your tool belt and safety glasses. I just wish I could have gotten a picture of it!”

The blush deepened. “Stop it.” Chisel muttered, averting his eyes.

Melody laughed a little harder, covering her mouth with a hoof. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about! Stallions can be cute, too.”

“You’re not helping,” Chisel deadpanned.

“Anyway,” Melody said, scooting a little closer to Chisel. “Honey, I like that shelf because you did your best to make something for me. You could have gotten me anything like perfume or a necklace, but you worked hard to make me something special. It isn’t big or fancy, but it’s got a piece of you in it. That’s why I like it.” She leaned in and planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

The only reaction her kiss evoked from him was a quiet “Huh.” Truth be told, he didn’t even notice it.

“It isn’t big or fancy, but it’s got a piece of you in it. That’s why I like it.” The sentence played over in his head again, burning itself in like one of Mayor Mare’s campaign slogans. His mind immediately turned back to Cheerilee’s bookshelf. The big, flashy bookshelf that she’d only given him a single thank you for, and that she’d still hardly used after having it for a month.

Is that it? Was it too much?

“Uh, Chisel? Is something wrong?” Melody asked, interrupting his train of thought.

“Huh?” He turned back to her, finding her staring at him, eyes wide with both confusion and concern. “Oh no, nothing wrong. Just got lost in a thought. Sorry.” He smiled, and she seemed to accept it, her eyes softening a bit.

“Well, I guess we’d better get some sleep,” said Melody. “You’d better kiss me back this time.” She leaned in again, but instead went for a kiss on the lips. Of course, she was just a little too short to reach, so she put a hoof on his side to push herself up a little higher.

But then he yelped.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Oh, just got a little bruise there. No big deal!” he said quickly, trying to complete the kiss and deflect her. It didn’t work at all, because she had already lifted the covers to look at his side.

“Oh my word, Chisel!” she said, peering in closer at the deep, gnarly bruise plainly visible through his fur. He shifted a bit to try to hide it, but she held him in place. “That is awful. What happened?”

He sighed. “The table saw kicked me today.”

“And that means…” Melody prompted.

“The blade caught on the board I was cutting and threw it back at me.” He grabbed the covers and pulled them back down, cutting off her view of the wound. “It happens sometimes. Not a huge deal.”

“If it can do that to you, I think it’s a big deal, Chisel! Why did it kick back? Were you going too fast?”

“I…” Chisel paused to think it over for a second. He knew exactly why it had kicked back on him. He’d been in a rush and was distracted by thinking about the ordeal with Cheerilee’s bookcase.

But he couldn’t just up and say that. Celestia knows she’d never let me hear the end of that one. No, he couldn’t do that. He had to be careful. One wrong word and she’d see right through it, twist his hoof until he told the truth, and then he’d be both a klutz and a liar.

“I sneezed and that twisted the board, so the blade caught. It happens sometimes. Just this time I wasn’t lucky and it tagged me.”

That was alright. A nice, believable alibi. Now all that remained was how she took it.

“Well, blow your nose next time you’re about to use that saw. That shop is the dustiest place I’ve ever been in.” She gave him a slight smile before she turned over and settled back into bed.


“I’ll do that. Thanks for the tip,” he said, scooting down and settling into his own side of the bed. He clicked his lamp off, and hers followed a few seconds after his. “Goodnight, Lily,” he said.

“Nighty night, sleep tight,” said Melody, yawning. She shifted around a bit more before the room fell totally still, ceding to the gentle rhythm of their alarm clocks ticking on the nightstands.

But Chisel hadn’t closed his eyes just yet. He watched the window on the far side of the room with a fixated glare, trying to gather as much of the faint trickle of moonlight flowing in as he could.

I overdid it. Cheerilee doesn’t like the bookshelf because it’s too much. It all made sense now. Cheerilee was a simple, plainclothes sort of mare, just like her mom. Heck, she hadn’t even hinted that she needed a shelf. Of course it would be overwhelming to her to get surprised with such a big gift.

If she needs me, she’ll ask. Right?

The door closed with a quiet click, the last of the foals’ excited chatter fading quickly after, and only then did Cheerilee allow her shoulders to drop. With all of the emotion and sophistication of a teenager grounded on a Friday night, she groaned and slumped back into her chair.

It had been a difficult week, to say the least. Three tests in spelling, math, and geography, on three consecutive days. And homework on top of that. The night before had seen her grading papers until her eyes were ready to fall out of her head, and there was still a sizeable stack of them sitting on the desk in front of her. School may have been out for the week, but she still had plenty of work to keep her busy over the weekend.

And that hadn’t even covered the general malice that the students seemed to have towards her. They had become increasingly lethargic as the week wore on, no doubt due to the hefty workload she’d put on them. With every passing lecture, fewer and fewer ponies showed interest in what she had to say, with the exception of Twist, but even she seemed to look worn down by the end of the week.

That was probably the worst thing about it all. She’d been through college. She knew what it was like to work hard. But up until now, she’d at least been able to keep the attention of the majority of her students. Standing there at the front of the room, preaching to a deaf congregation that couldn’t care less about what she had to say for hours on end wasn’t fun.

“Note to self: Don’t schedule all the tests in one week next time,” she muttered under her breath. With a deep breath, she pulled herself up from her slouch and made quick work of gathering her things. Papers went into binder, binder into saddlebags, and bags onto her back. Something in the back of her mind told her that she was forgetting something, but it didn’t matter. If she did, it was only a five-minute walk away. With that, she turned to the door and—

“Good afternoon.”

Cheerilee nearly jumped out of her skin, letting out a small yelp as she recoiled a few steps back. She shot a quick glance at the door, which was swinging closed behind none other than the pointy-nosed form of Spoiled Rich herself.

“Oh gosh! I didn’t hear you come in,” Cheerilee said, laughing a faintly nervous laugh punctuated with a snort. “Sorry, you just caught me on the way out for the day.”

Spoiled, for her part, didn’t seem amused by the little display in the least, but it was worth noticing that at least her usual disapproving scowl felt a little softer this time. “That’s quite alright. I don’t require much of your time.”

How considerate. Cheerilee made sure not to let her thoughts permeate through to her expressions. The scowls that ponies like Spoiled Rich always wore were infectious, like black holes determined to suck the life out of every room they entered. It took conscious effort to maintain a pleasant facade around her, but it was necessary. After all, Spoiled was kind-of-sort-of her boss.

“What’s going on?” Cheerilee asked.

Spoiled didn’t answer right away. Instead, she took a slow walk to the back of the classroom, inspecting various bits of the room as she went, and paused near one of the windows. “There is too much dust here on the windowsills. We cannot have allergens in the classroom disrupting the performance of our students.”

“...Right. I can take care of that in the morning,” said Cheerilee.

Spoiled Rich turned away from the window and began slowly making her way back towards the front of the room. She snapped a hoof out, pointing at one of the desks on the far wall. “And here, there’s some leftover scribbling and eraser shavings on the desk. These need to be cleaned every night before you leave.”

“Alright, I’ll do that,” said Cheerilee, fighting to keep her words from sounding venomous. “With all due respect, are you just here to talk to me about how clean I’m keeping the classroom, or is there something else?”

“I think you know,” Spoiled said flatly, shooting a glance at Cheerilee, who answered with a slight shake of her head. “The emergency board meeting.”

“Oh, right!” said Cheerilee. “Is something the matter?”

She didn’t respond immediately, first grabbing a chair from the front row and dragging it over towards Cheerilee’s desk. “Have a seat.”

Cheerilee complied, returning to her chair while Spoiled sat down across from her.

“Potential,” said Spoiled, her gaze off somewhere on the far wall. She smiled a little half smile, laughing quietly to herself. “When you started talking about the filly’s potential during the meeting, I have to admit, it brought back memories that I haven’t thought about in a long time.”


“Let me tell you a story, Cheerilee. I’ve only lived here in Ponyville for a few years, so you wouldn’t have known me before you left for school. But once upon a time, I was in more or less the same horseshoes you’re in right now.”

“Wait, you were—”

“Yes,” she interrupted. “Back before I met my husband, I was a schoolteacher just like you. Bright-eyed, full of pep and ready to go out and make a difference in the world.” Spoiled paused, shifting in her seat and crossing her legs over the other way. “My first day teaching was one of the best days of my life. It was just like I imagined it would be. My students were great, I was knocking the lectures out of the park, I’m sure you know the feeling.”

Cheerilee smiled. “Yes, that first day was pretty great.”

“Indeed. I don’t claim to know how things are going in this class—every single one is different— but it didn’t take long before the romance with my job wore off. Every day, it seemed a little more of that magic that I had on my first day went away. The foals seemed to care less and less about what I had to say, and it didn’t take long before the class averages fell. By the end of the first semester, I felt like I was teaching multiplication tables to a brick wall.

“But that’s just how it goes. I was at a school in the middle of Baltimare, so of course the kids there are going to be more of a challenge than they would be in a place like this.” For the first time during the story, Spoiled looked Cheerilee in the eye. “But in my years of education, I learned one thing that’s true for any classroom anywhere.” She paused, raising her eyebrows expectantly.

“What was that?” Cheerilee asked.

“No matter where you are, no matter what you do, there isn’t a thing you can do to get these students to give a flying feather about you. It’s not a pleasant truth about teaching, but it’s just the territory that mares like us have to deal with. Or, at least I did for a time. I lucked out and married a stallion with money, so I didn’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Cheerilee looked on at the mare with a blank stare, her mind tripping over itself to try and process what she’d just heard. With every try, every time she ran those words through her mind, she felt the pressure at the base of her skull build a little bit more. More than anything, she wanted to just get up and smack the smug grin right off of Spoiled Rich’s pointy-nosed face.

“I know it’s hard to swallow, what with all of that rhetoric they pump you full of in college, but I’ve seen too many mares like you learn this the hard way. It might crush your spirit a bit now, but it’ll be better than finding out the hard way later.”

Maybe Spoiled was expecting her to be beaten down by what she said, but all Cheerilee felt in response it was anger. How dare you! You don’t get to come in here and try to put me in my place! The urge to punch Spoiled right in the jaw was stronger, but then the rational part of her mind spoke up. If she showed emotion, whether it be resignation, anger, whatever it may be, any emotion at all would just let Spoiled win.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” said Cheerilee, fighting to keep her tone as neutral as possible. “But I don’t see what that has to do with the board meeting, the reason you said you came out here to speak with me?”

Spoiled nodded, “Yes, that was a bit of a tangent, and I’ve already kept you here long enough. I’ll be brief.” She produced a note from the front pocket of the pantsuit she was wearing, passing it over to Cheerilee. “After the meeting, I decided to do a little digging on this filly. Well, not so much digging. All I did was read over her files carefully, and I noted something that must be addressed. The filly—”

“Aura,” Cheerilee interjected. Just like Amethyst Star had done at the meeting, Cheerilee decided to use the classic quick correction against Spoiled.

Right,” said Spoiled. Not quite as satisfying as screaming at her or punching her would have been, but it was a little victory that Cheerilee could take satisfaction in. “A quick look at Aura’s file showed me that she is dangerously behind in nearly all subjects. A grade-point average of 1.01 is remarkably low and is definitely below the standards we hold our students to here in the Ponyville Independent School District.

“We cannot allow students to slip through our school without meeting our standards. Unless she turns herself around in a hurry, I’m afraid we will have no choice but to recommend alternative options for her education.”

Cheerilee’s stomach dropped a few inches. “Those being?”

“There’s a boarding school for troubled fillies in Reinsburg that would do well to straighten her out. Either that, or we release her from our district and allow her parents to decide the best course of action.”

“Reinsburg Academy? A-are you serious?” Cheerilee stammered.

“Indeed I am.”

A bit of her frustration managed to slip through the crack. “Of all the possible options we could surely find, you decide to send her to Reinsburg Academy? Have you not heard the horror stories about that place?”

Spoiled Rich shook her head. “This is a serious case that we’re dealing with here, Cheerilee. I know you probably think I’m heartless for it, but drastic measures need to be taken to ensure that this filly catches back up to where she needs to be. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but Reinsburg is an institution that specializes in cases like this. They’re a bit unorthodox, but they get results.”

“And fillies come out of that school traumatized!” Cheerilee retorted. “There has to be another way.”

“Considering how bad Aura’s problems are, and then factoring in the severe lack of funding that we have in this district, I’m afraid there’s not much else we can do for her.”

Cheerilee slumped back in her chair and let out a sigh. “So, what happens now?”

“We will give her an examination to determine her ability, and if she doesn’t pass that exam, she will have to go to another school that can help her. Simple as that.”

“And what if she passes?” Cheerilee asked.

“It looks unlikely that she will, given her current state. There’s a lot of things for her to catch up on in order to pass that exam. Learning to read above a first-grade level would be a good place to start,” said Spoiled.

While Spoiled talked, Cheerilee found herself studying her hooves, half paying attention while she mulled over a thought in her own head. Aura isn’t dumb. She’s just as smart as any of the other foals in the class, but she’s being held back just because she can’t read normally.

If I can find a way to get her over that hurdle, I can get her ready for that test.

“I don’t like this any more than you do, Cheerilee, but it’s for the best.” Spoiled rose from her seat, dragging her chair back to its place.

“And what if I can get her ready in time for that exam?” Cheerilee asked, a bit more fire in her voice than she wanted to let on.

Spoiled Rich looked over at her, her expression flat and unamused. “Then she can stay. Like I said, I’m not evil. I want Aura to succeed, but unlike you, Cheerilee, I am a realist. If you want to try to help this filly, then I wish you the best of luck. But I want you to remember one thing.”

“That being?”

“Don’t get your hopes up.” With that, Spoiled promptly walked out of the classroom, leaving Cheerilee alone once more.

With the room empty, Cheerilee could finally do what she’d wanted to do for the better part of the last twenty minutes. She hopped down from her chair and immediately kicked her desk as hard as she could. Being that it was a sturdy, hardwood desk, there was no give, and she immediately regretted her decision. She yelped in pain, her hoof stinging and burning enough to make her eyes water.

But despite the pain in her leg, she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. “I cannot stand that mare!” she said aloud, rubbing her aching hoof gingerly. The pain subsided a bit after a few more seconds, and then she set about gathering her things so she could leave.

When she finally left the schoolhouse, the shadows were growing long. As she looked down the dirt path towards Ponyville, the town spread out before her and bathed in the orangey glow of the late afternoon sun, one thought ran through her mind:

I’m gonna prove you wrong, Spoiled Rich.

Chapter Fourteen: A Good Day

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With a quiet grunt, Aura flopped down on the grass, dropping her bag next to her. Even though she was on the brink of starvation, she could wait to start eating her lunch. For the moment, she just needed to close her eyes and forget where she was.

Too bad she couldn’t close her ears as well. The sounds of laughter, rapid hoofbeats, and the squeaking of the slightly rusty chains on the playground swings all around kept her grounded, unable to separate herself from where she was stuck.

Only four more hours.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the sky, watching the clouds blow past swiftly. There was a chill on the wind today, just enough to make her wish she’d listened to mommy that morning when she’d said the weather team was bringing in another cold front in the afternoon. No matter though. Recess only lasted forty-five minutes, so she’d be back inside soon enough anyway.

That thought, unlike the cold breeze, was enough to send a shiver down her spine. Recess wasn’t very fun anymore, but it was way better than sitting through class, listening to Miss Cheerilee drone on and on about math or whatever else.

Four more hours. Aura groaned and rolled over onto her side, tipping her lunch sack over and inspecting the contents. A peanut butter sandwich, some corn chips, an apple, and two cookies wrapped up in the usual note that mommy wrote her. Nothing too bad. At least she didn’t put any celery in there. I hate celery.

As Aura ate her sandwich, she sat up and propped herself against the side of the schoolhouse, watching the rest of the class. Most of them had already wolfed down their food and started the afternoon’s fun and games, jumping on the swings and climbing all over the playground equipment, screaming and yelling and chasing each other.

Part of her wanted to run over there and join them. It had been a while since she’d participated in any of the games at recess. It would probably be fine if she did, but then again, she’d also be facing her.

There, perched high atop the jungle gym, self-important smirk on her face, was Diamond Tiara. She appeared to be in the middle of a game of king of the hill, pushing off the advances of a few other fillies and colts who were trying to climb up to the top with her. They fell quickly and easily to her defenses, and it looked unlikely that any of them would be able to dethrone her anytime soon.

Yeah, not going near that. She stuffed a cookie in her mouth and chewed quickly, not bothering to savor the taste. She knew that she’d just get called names and kicked out of the game even if she tried to join. Heck, if she even went anywhere else and tried to have fun, they’d probably track her down and ruin it. Better to just lay low and wait until she was back inside, safe from their wrath.

I hate recess.

Finished with her food, Aura set the bag aside and laid herself back out on the ground, closing her eyes. A nap wasn’t quite in the cards considering the chilly wind, but at least she could sit there and relax for a while. It was at least better than watching other ponies have fun without her.

I can’t wait to get home, she thought. She’d been up late the night before working on a drawing, and she was eager to get back to it. A few days ago, she picked up a book from the library about drawing techniques. The words didn’t make any sense, but by following along with the pictures in it, she’d started practicing her shading technique. Her art was already getting better, looking more life-like with every attempt. As soon as she got home that night, she was going to get right back to it, working on the—


Aura opened her eyes, immediately coming face to face with a yellow pegasus filly wearing a wide smile.

“Get up, we need you,” said the pegasus. Aura recognized her from a few seats over in class, but she didn’t remember her name. “You know foursquare?”

“Uh…” said Aura.

“We’re getting a game of foursquare going and we only have three ponies,” said another voice, this one belonging to a tannish-yellow filly who was walking up. Unlike the pegasus standing over her, she remembered her name. Noi. “Can’t really play without a fourth. Wanna join?”

“I don’t even know what foursquare is,” said Aura.

“That’s okay. We’ll teach you,” said the pegasus. “Now come on! We don’t got all day!” She took Aura’s hoof and yanked her upright to her hooves, fluttering her stubby little wings as she pulled. The two fillies quickly dragged Aura over to the small blacktop near the entrance to the playground, where Miss Cheerilee was sitting and reading a book of some kind. On the blacktop, a grid of lines had been drawn with chalk, forming boxes numbered one through four, with a triangle in the far corner of box four.

“Okay, it’s really simple,” said Noi, ushering Aura over towards box one. “All you have to do is hit the ball into the other squares when it comes to you.”

“I call king!” shouted the pegasus, taking up her position in the triangle of box four. Noi went to box three, and Featherweight, who had been waiting for them on the court, went to box two.

“Newbies start in the toilet square,” said Noi, gesturing to Aura. “Rainy Feather is the king, so she serves the ball to you. You have to bounce the ball into other squares when it comes to you. The first pony to mess it up goes to the toilet and everypony else moves up.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Aura. She looked to Rainy Feather, who was hovering just above the ground with a rubber ball in her hooves.

“Good. Serve!” Rainy Feather tossed the ball at Aura’s square, bouncing it just inside the border. Aura reached high for it, barely tipping it skyward before it fell down inside her square.

“Out! Aura’s still in the toilet!” yelled Noi. Rainy Feather collected the ball from Aura’s square.

“Wait, it was still in my square!” Aura shouted.

“It can only bounce one time in your square,” said Featherweight.

“Oh, that makes more sense,” said Aura, deflating and returning to her place on the corner. Rainy Feather served once again, and this time Aura tapped the ball directly across the center to Noi. She returned the ball to Rainy Feather’s square without missing a beat, and from there, the ball made a few laps around to each player before Aura missed the ball entirely and it went careening off towards the fence behind her.

“Not bad!” said Noi. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

“I’m awful at this,” said Aura.

“But you’re getting better,” said Rainy Feather, sliding back into her position after retrieving the ball. “A few more rounds of practice and you’ll be a pro like me in no time.”

Aura chuckled and took the serve in stride, knocking it towards Featherweight. He wasn’t quite ready for it, barely grazing it with his hoof before it landed in the grass behind him.

“Ponyfeathers!” he shouted.

“See? You already knocked him into the toilet,” said Rainy Feather. Featherweight walked over and ushered Aura towards his former square. “And now we go again.”

The game went on in earnest for the next twenty minutes or so. During that time, Aura almost managed to dethrone Rainy Feather from the king spot. Almost. That pegasus was fast on the draw, and defended her square to the bitter end, when Cheerilee blew the whistle and called recess to a close.

For the first time in weeks, Aura wasn’t quite ready for it to end.

And... done. The stack of mismatched notebook paper of varying size and rule dropped neatly into her bags leaning against her chair, and her red pen into the cup at the top of her desk with a resounding clink.

Math was graded, and life was good.

Bedtime was near, so near in fact that she could taste it. Her bed sang the siren song of slumber, calling her name with words so sugary that she could have used them to make caramel fudge.

Speaking of caramel fudge... Her thoughts shifted to the fridge, to all of the ingredients that were sitting in there, begging for her to make them into a caramel fudge sundae. After all, she’d had a productive evening. She could treat herself. “It’s a sundae kind of Thursday,” she said, scooting back and hopping down from her chair. She made her way downstairs and into the kitchen. About five minutes later, she came out carrying a bowl piled high with ice cream, a content little smile on her face as she walked back up the stairs.

Back in her room with her treat safely placed on her desk, she took a quick look around. There wasn’t a lot of time left before she needed to be in bed, but there was just enough that she looked down to her saddlebags. Her lesson plans were still not fully done for the semester, and there were some essays that still needed grading. She could be productive and get a head start on all that.

It took all of a millisecond for her to find the answer. “Psssh,” she scoffed, pushing the bags under the desk and out of sight. I’ve been working all day. This is me-time. She walked over to her shelf and lifted one of the cover panels out of the way, revealing a row of books ripe and ready for the reading.

But they weren’t the right variety of book. Cheesy romance was good, one of the most versatile genres for any type of mood, but right now she needed something more… substantial. She closed the cover back, hiding the books behind the smoked glass pane emblazoned with her cutie mark, and moved down to the next shelf. This one was only partially filled, but these were the meatier novels. Murder mysteries. Historical fiction and fantasy. Maybe she could get lost in a wild epic like Creation of Dawn, or even just re-read Stone Grey. Both were solid choices, but not quite the thing she was looking for. She went down the line, eyeing title after title, until she came upon a book whose ornate, intricate binding didn’t match the more utilitarian covers of the regular books.

“When did I put my diary on this shelf?”

She pulled it out from the shelf and leafed through it. Old entries from her college days, venting about stress and frustration, stuff that she didn’t feel like reading. About halfway through the book itself, she came to the last entry. The one she’d written during her first week on the job.

“Oh right, I was going to start updating this thing again, wasn’t I?” The last few months had been a blur, and restarting her diary was one of the things that had gotten swept under the rug in the maelstrom of new responsibility. She took the diary over to her desk and dropped it next to her sundae, which was starting to melt ever so slightly. She took a bite of the ice cream and took out a pen.

Dear Diary,

Okay, I lied. Turns out, teaching here in Ponyville isn’t a cakewalk, so I completely forgot to keep up with writing here.

Well, now I’m actually going to start doing it. For real, this is happening.

I’m stressed.

The bowl of ice cream was already halfway gone, and thanks to that, the inevitable brainfreeze made her pause. Not that she’d been writing quickly, though. It felt as if she was writing with a ghost watching over her shoulder, and that was enough to make her hesitant to put her thoughts to the page.

She dropped her pen on the table and rested her head on her hooves with a frustrated huff. It had been nagging at her ever since she got the news, no matter how much she tried to forget the situation. Her hooves were tied. Aura was helpless, at the mercy of the school board. Reinsburg surely awaited her when she took her aptitude test, and here she was, powerless against nature’s course. She’d been—

That’s good. That’s really good. She picked her pen back up and put it to the page.

I met with Spoiled Rich last week, and I promised her that I was going to make sure Aura is ready to go for class by the end of the semester.

I have no idea how I’m going to do it. I don’t have any funding to work with, and the district isn’t equipped to handle things like this. I don’t know that they’ve ever had to deal with a situation like this, for that matter. And so I’m stuck with it. I can either grind it out, make Aura hate my guts, and probably die in the process, or I can just let her go off to wherever she winds up.

I don’t like saying this, but in the past week, I’ve been thinking about the latter more and more. It’d be a lot easier that way.

But I don’t think I could live with it if I did. If I try my best, I’m sure I can figure out something. I’m the only pony in a good position to help her, and if I do nothing, then I’m no better than those teachers out in Seaddle that let her get like this.

This sucks.

Cheerilee blinked and sat back in her chair, the last thought out of her mind for the moment. She took a look back at what she’d written, recoiling at the sight of it instantly. It was apologetic, defeatist drivel, nothing like what she’d felt immediately after Spoiled Rich left the schoolhouse that day.

But when she’d made that promise to herself to prove Spoiled wrong, she was running on pure defiance and spunk. Now, she was looking at the cold, hard facts in front of her, and they weren’t pretty. It was going to be one heck of a grind, provided that Aura even responded to her efforts. For all she knew, there was still the strong possibility that Aura would simply reject it when she tried to work with her.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. Yes, it was going to be rough. Yes, it was uncertain whether it would even work. Heck, Aura probably wouldn’t even like her by the end of it, but that wasn’t what mattered. All that mattered was keeping Aura here, with her friends and family, where she could grow up normally instead of going away to Reinsburg, which was little better than Tartarus itself.

Cheerilee set her jaw and glared down at the page. What can I do to make this happen?

There are a lot of different things to worry about. Getting the red tape and approvals out of the way should be easy, provided I convince them that I can do it. But then there’s the question of creating a special lesson plan for Aura, actually using that plan and getting results with it, bringing her up to the level of the aptitude exam…

Oh, and funding. All of the resources I need are going to be expensive, and I have to figure out a way to get the money for those resources on my own.

That’d be a good place to start. How am I going to get all of the bits that the curriculum requires?

Cheerilee sat back in her chair and locked her gaze on the ceiling in the far corner of the room. She chewed lightly on her pen as the gears in her mind started back to life. How did ponies usually get money for worthy causes when they didn’t already have it?

Fundraisers. I could do a fundraiser! She grinned, pressing her pen back to the page again, but she hesitated. What kind of fundraiser?

A fundraiser would be a great way to start getting the money in order. But what can I do to get one of those organized? I’m only one pony, and I don’t have all the time in the world to devote to it. If I’m going to be working with Aura, then I’ll barely have any time to myself until she’s back up to speed.

So I’m going to need help. A lot of it.

And I have a whole schoolhouse full of students that I can use enlist to help. If I can organize the class, we could make a project out of it.

Two words: Bake. Sale.

It’s perfect! I highly doubt Aura wants everypony in town to know that we’re raising money for her, so I can just call it “A Bake Sale for Education”. Get at least half of the parents to contribute something for the sale, bring as much as I can myself, and I should be in business!

Now all I need is approval.

I guess that’s all I can do for now. Until next time!

Cheerilee closed the diary with a yawn and took it over to her nightstand instead of the bookcase. “I can’t believe I forgot how helpful it is to get your thoughts out on paper,” she muttered to herself. “Definitely gonna keep up with writing here from now on.”

Tomorrow was going to be a good day.