Along with being Princess Twilight's apprentice, Sunrise Shimmer hopes to become Ms. Cheerilee's teaching assistant. The first day is often the most challenging.
After having most of the summer to gain her bearings, Sunrise settles down to explore her new life in Equestria. New friends, a new marefriend, even magic lessons (as frustrating as those continue to be)... all under the tutelage of the Princess of Friendship. Life is good.
Plus, much to Twilight Sparkle’s delight, Sunrise Shimmer has become Ms. Cheerilee's teaching assistant. At least, assuming her first day goes well.
Of course, the first day is often the most challenging.
Chronology note: this story takes place towards the beginning of Season Six. In this timeline, Starlight is not Twilight’s apprentice.
The moon rose into the deepening sky. The cool wind blew pleasantly across her mane, dispelling the heat of the fading day.
Carefully, so as not to spill the milk-and-honey mixture, the young mare set the earthenware bowl down before the castle doors. Then, straightening herself, she looked out into the bejewelled sky.
The unicorn’s voice was calm, but intent. Even commanding. Cutting through the early autumn night as she intoned the verse of power, a new variant of an ancient charm:
“If there be shades or terrors here, let them wait in their hunger,
for this night’s offering is meant for another.
As ye dance and ye hunt in thy dam’s moonlight,
lanthorn son, be welcome at my hearth this night.”
Then she went back inside, gently closing the door behind her.
After a moment, Sunrise grinned. Granted, the old summoning was about as simple as they got. What mages called a ‘low ceremony,’ something any being with inherent magic could do, no sorcery required. In this case, a basic summoning, the equivalent of sending someone a page. And also granted, she’d been very carefully not adding any oomph into her recitation, just to be sure.
Twilight had helped her research and plan the spell, of course. But she’d carried out its execution alone. And as she’d finished the incantation, she’d been able to feel the atmosphere shift. And she hadn’t blown anything up!
Silently, she hoof-pumped in the air. Yes! My first successful spell!
Suddenly, the crystals around her dimmed in their sconces, the shadows deepening into an impossible hue, seeming more like gaps in space than any simple lack of light.
For a moment, her ears went flat and she took several involuntary steps back, glancing around herself frantically. Oh, crap, maybe Twilight should’ve helped me cast this after all...
Then there was a wind swirling in the room, the gentle scents of autumn leaves and bale fires. The darkness subsided somewhat, the light crystals brightening again as the shadow coalesced into a smoky form. Flames licked from its eyes and mouth, illuminating the pumpkin-like head and feline body, the tail lashing gently as it surveyed her.
The unicorn realized her mouth was still open, and closed it.
“Okay,” she said, “That was awesome.”
Unseen by either of them, in the upper library, Spike and Twilight shared a smile across the princess’ scrying crystal. Not that Twilight had ever doubted their friend’s abilities, but it was a poor teacher who abandoned their student on their first outing alone.
At the same time, it was a poor friend who had no respect for their friend’s privacy.
As Twilight released the clairvoyant spell, the crystal dimmed, and she and Spike returned to the task of planning out the upcoming week’s itinerary.
Silent as a shadow’s dying breath, face unreadable, the visitor considered for a moment the mare who had called him forth.
**Sooth, few there are who remember the old rites,** his voice echoed from all around her at last. **And indeed, thou didst speak it altered, e’en then. For always ‘twas a calling for me to guard one’s hearth, not be welcome to it.**
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want any misunderstanding,” Sunrise said. “Between Twilight and Spike, the hearth’s pretty secure, you know? And I wanted you to know you were welcome.”
For a moment, the shadowy creature before her said nothing. He simply studied her, breathing in her scent, taking in her stance, her form, her shadow.
**I thank thee,** he said at last. **I am not of many words… but, I thank thee.**
“Hey, you’re welcome. In every sense,” she grinned.
Then, her bravado faltering, she muttered, “So, um, yeah. Anyway...”
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she took the plunge.
“My name is Sunrise Shimmer. And… I’m dating your mom.”
The next morning, Sunrise made her way out of her room, still yawning, when suddenly her vision was filled with the purple face of her mentor.
“How did it go?” Twilight bounced.
Losing her balance, Sunrise fell onto into a sitting position, blinking.
“Sorry,” Twilight said a little awkwardly, extending a hoof. “I’m just… yeah. Sorry. You okay?”
“Oh, sure.” Sunrise said as Twilight pulled her up. “Thanks.”
They embraced, and for a moment Twilight managed to contain herself. Then, “So… how did it go?”
Sunrise tried not to match Twilight’s grin and failed.
“Pretty good. Spell went off without a hitch!”
“I knew it would. I keep telling you, you’ve got this!” Twilight cheered. “And what about Jack?”
“Jack’s cool. We hung out for a couple of hours before I had to crash. he’s… intense. Like, really intense. And metal as buck, by the way…”
Twilight rolled her eyes good-naturedly at her apprentice’s word choice. “Seriously?”
Sunrise laughed again. “Hey, I’m learning, alright? But, yeah, we’re cool. He’s super busy – like, Luna levels of super busy – but he’ll be swinging by when he can.”
Twilight smiled happily as the two of them fell into stride. “I thought you’d get along, from what Luna described. I can’t wait to meet him myself.”
Sunrise nodded. “Yeah, he’s pretty cool. Heck, I wish I’d met him sooner.”
“Yeah, I wonder why Luna doesn’t talk about him more often.”
Sunrise shrugged. “Well, he’s a really private guy. And, maybe a little socially awkward? So, I guess she figures that if he’d really wanted to step out of the shadows, he would have by now. Or maybe she’s just helping him get used to ponies really slowly, now that she’s back? I didn’t ask.”
“Understandable. Oh, and by the way, Spike had an idea for a kind of field trip for the schoolfoals. Well, it’s sort of a sleep-over, in a way...”
Sunrise laughed. “Dude, it’s my first day! I’m not even sure I’m hired yet. Let me at least meet everypony first!”
Their voices faded as they continued down the corridor, happily chatting as they did. Spike watched them go. Sunrise had been receptive to the idea, as he’d expected. All that remained was making certain the castle was ready for so many foals at once.
Spike nodded to himself and returned to the library. There were still many preparations left to be made, and little time remaining to do them in.
“All right, everypony settle down please,” Cheerilee called happily.
The foals before her didn’t become silent, by any means. But they became quiet enough that they could listen without too much distraction… which was perfectly reasonable for a first day.
“Alright now. Everyone have a good summer?” she smiled.
The students buzzed for a few minutes with an assortment of answers, quickly veering off into a series of small conversations throughout the room.
“Well, your first assignment will be to write down something you did during vacation, and to tell us about it,” Miss Cheerilee said, drawing her students’ attention once again. “But before we begin, I have a little announcement to make.”
The foals exchanged puzzled glances. A few looked curiously at the cloaked mare standing near the door. Was she the parent of a new student? She seemed kind of young, but that didn’t mean much. Maybe a guest speaker? Or maybe she was here to announce a special project?
Silver Spoon’s eyes narrowed in pleasure as the class buzzed.
“Somepony’s in trouble,” she whispered with quiet satisfaction. “And the year just started.”
While the mysterious mare crossed behind her, Cheerilee continued, “Everypony, this is Sunrise Shimmer. She’s going to be acting as my teaching assistant for the day.”
Speculative whispers continued to spread throughout the room as Sunrise reached the coat stand behind Cheerilee’s desk and hung her cloak there. When she emerged from behind the desk, the whispers burst into a chorus of gasps.
Sunrise Shimmer stood before them, a knowing smile on her face. She smoothed the side of her red-and-gold mohawk, ear hoops shining in the sunlight. Under normal circumstances, any one of these might have elicited at least some curiosity from the students assembled there.
But casting all such minor details into shadow was the newcomer’s flank, completely devoid of any cutie mark, despite her being obviously in her late teens.
All the students, save for the Cutie Mark Crusaders, stared.
Sunrise took a breath.
“Okay, so,” she said. “Questions?”
Almost every hoof shot into the air.
Still smiling, Sunrise nodded to herself. Yeah, she thought. Here we go.
Later, after about twenty minutes of questions and answers, Miss Cheerilee gently took control of the class again, and the day’s lessons began.
First, there was geography. Which of course led to more questions, since Sunrise was from so far away. After Cheerilee’s discreet nod, Sunrise continued to answer questions, keeping things as truthful as she could within the vagueness that she had sworn to. She reminded the disappointed foals that (as she’d explained before) she’d been born far away from Equestria, that she’d actually arrived by magic, and that Princess Twilight had asked her to not talk about the spell that had brought her… at least, for the time being.
Of course, her own ignorance of Equestrian geography was also a perfect excuse to ask the schoolfoals questions in return, which led to one of the most enthusiastic oral geography quizzes in pony history.
And then there followed health class, which Sunrise found as fascinating as her students. Basic brain and eye structure were one thing. Hoof structure, however, was another. Unfortunately, they were just starting that year’s lessons, so they barely got past the book’s introduction. Sunrise made a mental note to find the book Cheerilee was teaching out of in Twilight’s library and start reading ahead.
Also, Sunrise found herself quietly fascinated by the students themselves. There seemed to be several different age groups in the small class, but apparently that was normal. It was simply understood that the more advanced students were to help the younger ones, or just any foals who were struggling. And the teacher (and her assistant, Sunrise reminded herself with a smile) was there to help everypony, and make certain that the self-appointed tutors had the guidance and the backup they needed.
The whole setup reminded her of Anne of Green Gables. Only, somehow, more deliberate. As though every class had been systematically structured to continue teaching and honing soft skills throughout a young pony’s education. Was that Twilight’s influence, she wondered? Or had pony culture always placed friendship in such high regard? Not for the first time, Sunrise found herself wondering how her life might have been different if she had been born on Equus instead of Gaea.
Then, The Maths reared their ugly head.
Sunrise did her best not to wince when Cheerilee announced math period. Mathematics had never been her favorite subject, growing up. Partly, she admitted to herself, because of just how mind-crushingly dull the subject had been. But more than that, it had been the perpetual, hostile impatience of teachers and tutors in whatever school she’d been in for that year.
It had been that way with most subjects, of course, throughout her truncated education. But math had always been the worst. Eventually, she’d learned to just shut down and let the lessons pass her by. Only later, when she’d been on her own, had she found out about learning disabilities and used that knowledge to catch up on what she’d missed.
Now, helping the schoolfoals with their own studies, she realized just how rusty her own math skills were. She’d always assumed that her own studies and determination had filled in any gaps in her education. Obviously, that theory hadn’t applied to math.
Which made sense, she supposed, since the math portion was the only part of the GED she’d really had to study for. Apparently, it still hadn’t stuck in the long term, and she found herself wondering what else she might have forgotten.
Finally, it was time for recess. The students galloped out in a small herd of cheers and laughter. Meanwhile, Cheerilee sat at her desk, pulling out the notes she’d prepared on the next few periods and the homework that had already been turned in.
For her part, Sunrise exited just behind the foals. She and the older mare had discussed the possibility of her watching the students at recess herself, with Cheerilee keeping a semi-eye on things through the window while doing other work. Apparently, Ponyville’s teacher had decided Sunrise could handle it.
Grinning to herself, Sunrise watched the students quickly come to a consensus, grab a small red ball and start dividing into teams. A bunch of colts and fillies playing ball for twenty or so minutes, and all she had to do was supervise.
“Nope,” Sunrise said, shaking her head. “I never heard of buckball before.”
“Hey, be nice,” Diamond Tiara said, nudging her friend good-naturedly. “Not everypony’s as well-traveled as you and Rarity.”
“Yeah. Applejack says it’s mostly a city game now,” Apple Bloom added.
“I suppose that’s true,” Sweetie Belle agreed, considering. “Now that you mention it, I’ve only seen it played in Appleoosa. It was just so popular there, I guess I just assumed it was more wide-spread than it is.”
“I’ve sure never heard of it,” Scootaloo shrugged.
“Well, city game or not,” Sunrise said apologetically, “I obviously can’t referee a game I don’t know. And anyway, I’m supposed to keep an eye on the playground, and I don’t think I could do that and still watch the game closely enough to judge plays. Sorry.”
“And we’ve got too many players, anyway,” Pipsqueak said. “Buckball calls for teams of six. If we play buckball, somepony’s gonna get left out.”
“How about kickball,” Sunrise offered. “You guys have that here?”
“Yeah, but… we still need a ref. And whoever’s ref can’t play,” Snips pointed out. “An’ Miss Cheerilee’s busy getting stuff ready for next period. So, who’s it gonna be?”
The foals looked at one another for a moment, then Diamond Tiara stepped forward with a slight eyeroll.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll be the ref. Come on, let’s get started before recess runs out.”
While the players took their places, Sunrise grinned.
“Then I shall execute the Law,” Sunrise recited quietly to herself she moved to the edge of the playground. “I am of no tribe, and no one will be offended.”
Pipsqueak paused, glancing at her. “Huh?”
Sunrise shook her mane, still grinning. “Nothing.”
It was towards the end of recess. The teams had changed places multiple times, and Sunrise had been quietly keeping score in case of argument. She stole a glance at the window of the school. Cheerilee was contentedly working away at her desk, probably making last-minute adjustments for next period.
Looking back, Sunrise saw there was suddenly a cloud of dust settling, with one colt obviously having just slid into home, and another holding the ball against him.
“Out,” Diamond Tiara said.
The prone foal stared at her, then said, “What? But I was safe!”
Diamond Tiara shook her head.
“Sorry, Snips,” she said. “Snails tagged you just before you hit the base.”
Snips looked at the only grownup present for help. “Miss Sunrise?”
But Sunrise also shook her head.
“Sorry, guys. I didn’t see it,” she said. “And anyway, you’ve got a referee right there.”
“Yeah, but she’s wrong,” Snips insisted.
“If the referee’s rulings aren’t accepted, the whole game breaks down!” Diamond grumped. “Will you please just stop arguing? We’re running out of time, recess is almost over!”
“Aw, don’t sweat it, Snips, that’s just Diamond Tiara,” Snails said to his friend offhoofedly. “She always has to have things her way. Just take the out and let’s play.”
Snips started to say “Yeah, okay—” when Diamond Tiara whirled to face both of them, wide eyes hurt and angry.
“What? No, I don’t!”
Snails and Snips both flinched.
“Now, hold on a minute,” said an approaching Sunrise. “Everypony calm down. What’s going on?”
“Okay, everypony take a breath,” Miss Cheerilee called as she trotted out of the schoolhouse.
“Um, but yeah, ya kinda do…” Snips pointed out.
“I do not!” Diamond insisted.
“I mean,” Snails added, “you do say ‘please’ an’ ‘thank you’ more…”
“…Yeah, but you do still hafta kinda boss ponies around…” Snips offered.
“Everypony, let’s calm down…” Cheerilee tried again, trotting a little faster.
“We can work through this…” Sunrise started, looking uncertainly from Cheerilee to the students and back.
“What? No!” Diamond Tiara cried. “I’m not like that anymore! I’m not!”
Snips started to say, “But—” only to find himself engulfed in Diamond Tiara’s shadow. She towered over him and Snails both, a juvenile paragon of rage.
“Take it BACK!”
The playground fell silent. Snips and Snails cowered before Diamond Tiara, while the latter stood over them, staring down in anger and misery. Even Miss Cheerilee stopped, seemingly stunned into silence. In the distance, Silver Spoon looked on, triumphant.
Snails managed to almost look up at Diamond, saying in a hesitant voice, “But, um… aren’t you kinda…”
Snips finished, “…doing it now?”
There was a heartbeats’ pause. Perhaps two. Still staring at them both, Diamond Tiara took a step back. Whirling around, her face an expression of pure hurt, she looked around at the faces of her classmates, all staring back at her.
Then, the filly simply burst into tears, fleeing from them all.
Immediately, the playground exploded into action. While various students began yelling and milling amongst themselves, Cheerilee made as mad a dash through them as best she could, calling for everypony to stop.
But somehow, the Cutie Mark Crusaders were there first, running past the two colts, calling in unison, “Diamond, wait!”
Cheerilee paused, her own cries for her charges to halt having been ignored… if they’d even been heard at all. She knew that the Cutie Mark Crusaders were certainly more capable than their age implied, and they’d been part of helping any number of ponies over the last couple of years. It was possible that they were exactly who Diamond Tiara needed right then.
On the other hoof, she was also well aware that they were still the CMC: three young mares with far more energy than wisdom. And their plans, when they went awry, were infamous for doing so in a spectacular fashion.
Plus, there was the matter of Snips and Snails, both staring after the fleeing filly with identical expressions of growing horror. She could hardly just abandon them. Not to mention that the rest of the class still needed watching.
Then, her eyes landed on Sunrise. She was rapidly glancing from the direction of the fillies’ flight to Cheerilee and back again, plainly torn and on the verge of taking off after them.
Not all decisions are made on a conscious level. Nor should they be. There are times when intuition reaches a conclusion much faster than slow, plodding reason ever could. And sometimes, there is little time for anything else. Especially when the future well-being of a foal is on the line, her young heart and recently-found resolve balancing upon a razor’s edge.
Cheerilee nodded. “Go!”
Whether the other mare had been waiting for permission or not, Cheerilee couldn’t say. Sunrise was in motion before she’d finished speaking, already vanishing into the trees surrounding the playground.
Damn, damn, double-damn, triple-damn, damn! Sunrise swore to herself as she ran.
She should have been more assertive. She should have positioned herself differently. She shouldn’t have taken her eyes off of them, even for an instant. She should have seen where their argument was going! There was obviously some kind of history between these foals, she should have expected something like this!
Then again, growing up, she’d never attended a school long enough to make long-term friends or enemies herself. Why she’d ever thought she’d be qualified to teach…
She’d had one job, she seethed. Cheerilee had trusted her. And here she was, chasing a quartet of young teens through the underbrush…
If any of these kids get hurt out here, you did it, she raged at herself.
She looked around herself frantically. No sign of them.
Stupid, poisonous, toxic bitch, of course they’re going to get hurt!
She spun and sped in a new direction, desperately trying to imagine where the fillies might have run to. Then, careening around a tree, Why the fuck anypony trusts you with anything…
A hoof came down too hard on a rock she didn’t see, and she heard the crack! as a numbing pain shot up her leg. She gritted her teeth and kept running. Time for that later. She was coming towards a clearing, and mercifully, she could hear the voices of her students, talking.
“…not saying it should be easy,” Diamond Tiara was sniffing. “I know what I was like! I’m not asking for a pat on the withers every time I’m not a bully. It’s just, why does everypony have to make it harder?”
“We don’t,” Scootaloo said softly. “At least, I hope we don’t.”
“And you know we’re here for ya, anytime,” Apple Bloom joined in.
Giving a grateful smile through her tears, Diamond Tiara reached out, and there was a pause as the discussion gave way to a four-way hug.
Then, Diamond sighed, “Thank you. All of you. I know I’m doing the right thing, but sometimes it just… it drags me down so much, I wonder why I’m even bothering.”
“Maybe because you’re growing up,” Sunrise said.
The foals started, staring at her where she leaned on a maple tree for support as though she had just appeared through magic.
“Sorry,” she said, wincing slightly. “I know it’s an intrusion. But I can’t leave the four of you by yourselves right now, and I’m not going to just listen in without letting you know I’m here.”
“Well, I guess that’s reasonable,” Sweetie Belle allowed. “But you’re right, it is a bit of an intrusion, Sunny. No offense.”
Diamond raised an eyebrow. “‘Sunny?’”
Sunrise gave her a nod. “We know each other outside of school. And, yeah, I think we can safely drop the formalities for a minute.
“And no,” she added, addressing Sweetie Belle once again, “no offense taken. We’re all in a kind of awkward situation here. But that being said, I do have something to add to the discussion, if Diamond doesn’t mind.”
The Crusaders looked at Diamond Tiara, who simply shrugged at the inevitable.
“I suppose,” she said.
“Thanks,” Sunrise nodded.
Carefully taking a sitting position, she said, “I just want you to know that, well, I get it.”
Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes. “Uh-huh.”
“Actually, I do,” the older mare said quietly, looking down. “Where I come from, I… did some bad things. And they were a lot worse than bullying ponies in a schoolyard.
“At first, I did them just to survive. Sure, I had rules I’d set for myself. But sometimes, I made exceptions. And then, with enough exceptions, the exception became the rule. Like a habit. After a while, I didn’t even think about it anymore. When times got worse, so did I.
“And I hurt people. Speaking folk, I mean. And sure, maybe some of them had it coming, but not all of them.”
She swallowed, adding, “The last thing I did before leaving, it was the single greatest betrayal of my life. I never felt so horrible…”
Her voice trailed off, and she looked away. Diamond Tiara took a step forward, emboldened by the tone in the older mare’s voice.
“Then… why did you do it?” she asked.
“I thought I was right,” Sunrise said quietly. “I was messed up, and half-crazy. But you can justify anything when you think you’re right.”
Diamond Tiara looked down.
“That’s true,” she sighed. “It’s easy, too.”
The CMC looked at one another, suddenly uncomfortable in the silence.
“So… you stopped, though,” Diamond Tiara said at last. “What did you do when you stopped?”
Sunrise still did not look at the foals as she spoke.
“I left. I left where I was, and I came here.”
“Oh,” Diamond Tiara sighed, still looking down. Then, sighing again, she added, “Maybe Mother was right when she moved us away. Maybe I should just finish school in Canterlot.”
But Sunrise shook her head.
“I didn’t leave because it was the smart thing to do, kid. I left because I had nowhere else to go.”
She took in a breath, released it.
“And maybe because… now that I think of it, maybe I left because I wasn’t strong enough to stay. I don’t know.”
She looked back at her four charges, who were all staring at the adult who had just admitted such a thing to them.
“I didn’t just run away, don’t get me wrong. I came to Equestria because this is where I’d always wanted to be, my whole life. And for the first time, I finally had the chance.
“But you’re right: what you’re doing, right now, is hard. You’re not just changing how you treat others, you’re also dealing with other ponies – ponies you care about – who still remember the old hurts. So they’re still judging you for who you used to be, and not yet crediting you for who you’re becoming.”
Then, meeting Diamond Tiara’s eyes with her own, she said, “And for what it’s worth, you’ve got my deepest respect for that. I don’t know that I could be that strong, especially at your age. I’ll probably never know.”
Sighing again, she added, “But I’m also going to be really unfair to you, because I’m asking you to keep being that strong. Both because it is the right thing to do, and because you deserve to be who you want to be, not who you’ve been or who other ponies tell you you are.”
Diamond blinked, studying her uncertainly. “That’s a… weird thing to ask somepony.”
Sunrise shrugged, smiling slightly. “What can I say, I’m a weird mare. But for what it’s worth, you’ve got three awesome friends here to help out.”
And as Diamond’s friends surrounded her once more, Sunrise added, “And I’ll help too, whenever I can.”
Sunrise’s smile grew. “Promise.”
It was only a minute or so later that Sunrise discovered the latest complication in her life. Specifically, when she turned to leave the little clearing, and put weight on her injured hoof.
“Oh, shhhhhhhhhhhhh….” She started, face crimson and eyes screwed shut, finishing with, “...shhhhhhugar-honey-iced-tea!”
The four fillies immediately rushed over to where she stood, struggling, her left front hoof upraised.
“Oh, jeez,” Scootaloo said, “That looks bad.”
“Did it splay out?” Apple Bloom asked. “Is it cracked?”
“Hooves van crack?” Sunrise asked through gritted teeth. “Of course hooves can crack. Why wouldn’t hooves crack? Great news, Twilight, I learned something today: hooves can crack.”
“Yep, they sure can,” Apple Bloom said. “Hard ta tell when ya got it up, though.”
“Well, I’m sure as hell in no hurry to put it down again,” Sunrise assured her.
Diamond Tiara and Apple Bloom each stepped to her left side.
“Here, lean on us,” Diamond said. “Scoots and Sweetie can run ahead, let Miss Cheerilee know what happened.”
“Heck,” Sunrise muttered as she leaned on the two earth mares. “I’m sure as heck in no hurry.”
As the other two fillies zipped back to the schoolhouse, Diamond Tiara glanced at Sunrise.
“You know, you can go ahead and swear,” she said. “We know you’re in pain. And it isn’t like we’ve never heard it before.”
“Especially up at Sweet Apple Acres,” Apple Bloom agreed. “It ain’t too often, mind. But she gets in a mood, my sister kin cuss like a Griffon sailor.”
Hobbling forward with the help of her two students, Sunrise sighed.
“Yeah, I know. Just… humor me, okay?”
Diamond gave her a fond look as the three of them continued their trek out of the woods.
Mercifully, Sunrise’s hoof had proved to only be bruised. Just the same, it hurt like blazes. Sunrise had treated it very gingerly the rest of the day, even after Cheerilee had put a poultice and bandages on it.
After taking Sunrise to a private room. And, um… and paring her hoof.
Which was weird, though the teacher hadn’t made a big deal out of it.
Oh, Sunrise, you’ve got a hurt foot, Sunrise had thought frantically during the teacher’s ministrations. It looks bruised. Here, let me give you a pedicure and a fucking foot massage before rubbing in this medicinal goo I’ve got…!
Sunrise had tried to stay chill. This was obviously a chill pony situation, and she had been determined to be the chillest pony around. Every possible chillness faculty within her psyche was just blazing away, inundating every wrinkle in her brain with pure hundred-percent chillness, accept no substitutes. But just the same, she was pretty sure her eyes had been the size of dinner plates the entire time.
The students, meanwhile, had seemed able to hash things out amongst themselves. At least, for the most part. Snips, Snails, and a few others had apologized to Diamond Tiara when she’d returned. And she had accepted their apology, apologizing in turn for old wounds she’d caused for probably not the first time. Still, Sunrise had a feeling that the underlying problem had yet to be resolved.
When second recess had come round, Cheerilee had gone outside with the foals, and Sunrise had gratefully stayed in, resting her injured hoof on a desk, contemplating her own mistakes. But to her surprise, the teacher had come in just a few minutes early, to brief Sunrise on the next major topic of class discussion.
Apparently, each year the class put on - or participated in - a different competition or performance, depending on what was available in the school budget. And based on what was anticipated this year, Cheerilee was hoping to put on a school play.
Which, in Sunrise’s estimation, had been the most awesome thing she’d heard all day. The two of them had paused in their delighted discussion of the possibilities only long enough to bring the students in, and allow them to be part of the discussion. Possibilities had been excitedly tossed about regarding when and where they might perform, how the stage might be constructed, how they might do sets and lighting and costumes, and even the possibility of performing before royalty – though, of course, the students had quickly admitted that any princesses other than Twilight would be far too busy to watch a school play.
Inwardly, Sunrise had made a mental note to ask if that would actually be the case. She had a sneaking feeling that, not only would Celestia and Luna be overjoyed to be invited, but that their personal assistant would happily make whatever schedule arrangements were needed. Sunrise hadn’t really gotten to talk with Raven before, but she’d suspected that the – major domo, wasn’t it? – would distinctly be on her side on this.
Sunrise had expected that the students would be allowed to choose a play, or vote on several possibilities, or something similar. Instead, Cheerilee had just said that the play would be announced in a few days, so that everypony could start thinking about things in more detail. For a moment, Sunrise had been a little surprised, not only at Cheerilee making the choice for them but at none of the students minding, or even seeming surprised. None of them had even made a suggestion as to what the play should be. But then she’d remembered, nodding silently to herself.
Right, not living in a democracy, here.
But that had all been hours ago. Now, the last period was finished, and class had been dismissed. Sunrise watched out the classroom window as the last of the students trotted away, some hurrying home, others happily meandering with friends. Only she and Miss Cheerilee remained.
Eyes closed, she did her best to ready herself for the day’s assessment. There really wasn’t any sense in putting this off. But somehow, saying something like ‘How’d I do?’ just seemed stupid. She knew how she’d done, after all.
Still, she had to say something.
“Hey, Cheerilee?” she managed at last.
“Was this… would you call this a normal day?” she asked without turning around.
Cheerilee frowned in mock-puzzlement as she wrote. “Normal? Hm. A strange word. What’s it mean?”
Then, looking up, she saw her assistant’s slumped shoulders, her sadness reflected in the windowpane.
The younger mare sighed.
“I am so, so sorry,” she said quietly. “I don’t even have words.”
Cheerilee’s frown became more genuine. “Sorry? What for?”
“The whole recess thing. You left me in charge, and the next thing you know I’ve got four students running through the woods into who knows what kind of danger. When I think of what could have happened…”
Rising from her chair, Cheerilee walked over to where the younger mare stood, still staring outside.
“I’m sorry, too, then,” she said. “Princess Twilight had mentioned that you came from a land with different kinds of threats than this one. I just didn’t think how that might have affected you perceptions of… well, everything, I suppose.”
Sunrise glanced at her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that the woods near the schoolhouse may have the occasional wild animal, but it’s hardly the Everfree. Really, even the outskirts of the Everfree aren’t quite the Everfree anymore. Even the bears tend to be well-mannered these days. So, I hope it helps if I tell you that the foals were never in any physical danger.”
As Sunrise turned to look at her, Cheerilee gave a teasing glance down at Sunrise’s bandaged hoof, adding, “Well, no more danger than you found for yourself, at any rate.”
She waited a second as relief washed over the other mare before continuing, “The main danger was to their hearts, especially Diamond Tiara. And I don’t know what you said to her, but she came back in much better shape than I’d expected, even with her friends with her.”
Sunrise’s shoulders sagged a little more, and this time she relaxed a little. She even managed a smile as she said, “Yeah, well, she’s a great kid. Foal,” she corrected herself. “She’s a great foal.”
“I don’t think that ‘kids’ is considered improper anymore,” she said. “Some of the older ponies don’t like it, I guess, but in the years since we started trade with the Fauns in Barberini…”
Cheerilee’s voice trailed off as she considered for a moment. Then, cocking her head to one side, she asked, “Are you from somewhere near there? During your Q and A, you’d told the students you were from a place called ‘Alphabet City,’ but I know I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, I’m really not sure how to best answer you,” Sunrise said cautiously. “Like I said in class, it’s far away enough that you won’t find it on any map here. And Twilight asked me not to go into detail about the magic involved until she’s had more time to study it.”
Cheerilee nodded. “And that’s fair, if a little disappointing. I’d love to know more about it. With a name like that, it must be quite the center of education—”
But Sunrise just laughed.
“Oh, man,” she managed. “Not even close!”
Her smile was rueful as she went on, “See, the streets there have signs, just like most neighborhoods. But a lot of times, when someone’d get a new weapon they wanted to show off, or they’d get mad or whatever, they’d break whatever’s around. And, for whatever reason, street signs were a favorite target. They’d rip off both sides of the sign, and all that was left would be the letter in the middle, nailed to the signpost.
“After a while, the powers-that-be got tired of replacing them, and just left them alone. So you wouldn’t be at the corner of Scarborough and Asimov, for example, you’d be at O and M.”
Cheerilee nodded slowly, eyes wide. “Hence, Alphabet City,” she said.
“Yeah. That’s not the official name of the place or anything. But that’s what we all called it.”
Cheerilee swallowed. “That sounds… horrible. I can’t imagine living in an environment of such constant violence. I’m so sorry to bring that back for you.”
“Nah, there are worse things.”
As the two of them headed back towards Cheerilee’s desk, Sunrise smiled.
“Besides, life’s been pretty good to me lately” she said. “I’m in Ponyville now. I’ve got friends now, and even a marefriend. And today I got to work with the foals, which was awesome, by the way… I really can’t complain.
“Besides, don’t you live in Ponyville?” she added with a wink. “As in, misadventure capital of Equestria?”
Cheerilee stared for a moment, then started to laugh, with Sunrise joining in.
“You know, I never really thought about it that way” the teacher admitted. “I always feel safe here, of course. Even when there’s an emergency, there’s Princess Twilight and the rest of the Elements. Mayor Mare keeps everything together, and Canterlot isn’t that far away. But thinking on it, life here the past few years has been rather…”
“…Eventful?” Sunrise suggested.
Cheerilee chuckled. “Yes. I think ‘eventful’ sums it up nicely. I guess if you live with something, it always seems normal.”
Sunrise’s smile faded, and she looked away again with a sigh.
“Yeah,” she said.
For a moment, silence hung between them both, and Cheerilee frowned a little in concern.
But then Sunrise faced her again with a forced smile, asking, “So, what else did you want to talk about?”
“Oh! Yes. Well,” Cheerilee said hastily, clearing her throat. “Heh-hem! Well, I’d wanted to talk to you about the play this year. I’ve been thinking it over since our last discussion, and having seen you in action with the students I think you’d make a fine director…”
“Yes!” Sunrise leaped into the air, pumping her hoof as she did.
“…especially considering your obvious passion for the arts…”
The young unicorn covered her mouth, blushing slightly. “Oops.”
But Cheerilee only grinned as she sat down.
“…which I think could only benefit you and our students,” she finished. “You have most of the knowledge you need, and your instincts are good. Mostly, I think you just need experience, and the confidence it brings. And it just so happens that directing school plays is an excellent way for you to get both.
“So, the main question becomes, do you have any ideas about what play you’d like to direct?”
Sunrise tried and failed to suppress her own grin as she sat down across from Cheerilee.
“Actually, yeah,” she said. “I know it’s a little advanced, but I think they can handle it. I’d like to put on Journey to Sorrow’s End.”
Cheerilee cocked her head, considering. “From the Tribe Quest cycle? Hm. Well, I can’t say you don’t have ambition. But don’t you think the themes are a bit… adult?”
Sunrise blinked. “Oh. Um. Are they?”
“Well, the two tribes are ultimately joined through marriage, but only after the unicorn and earth pony in question… well…”
“Oh,” Sunrise said, considering the matter. “Wwwelllll, it’s not like anything’s shown… but I guess we could just cut out the scene with the rocks. We’ll lose the symmetry of the ‘watching the sun rise’ line, but… hm.”
After a moment, she shrugged. “Or, the characters could be there holding hooves instead, as a symbol of their new relationship. That could be a great way to end the act, actually. Both of them with her father, facing upstage, with the sun rising in the background.”
“And the herding reference?” Cheerilee asked, eyebrow raised.
Sunrise stared at her, completely lost. “I’m sorry, the what?”
“In the final act, when the Mother of Memory sends her spirit-form to talk to Blackmane while he’s on his way into his self-imposed exile…”
“Oh, yeah,” Sunrise nodded, remembering. “She says something like, ‘Though it is not common practice, there are those in the village who have taken more than one spouse. Is it unthinkable that you and she and Cutter might…?’”
Cheerilee nodded as well. “And to many of our parents, yes, that solution to the story’s love triangle really would be unthinkable.”
Sunrise considered the matter for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, it’s not like the line’s central to the plot or anything. We can cut that, too, I guess.”
Cheerilee nodded. “I’ll back you up on anything I can, especially dealing with artistic merit. But you’ll have to be ready to make concessions, too. Those two are the most obvious, I think.”
“Yeah, well. As long as we’re not gutting the story, I think it’ll be fine.”
“Good. Then we’re in agreement.” Standing, Cheerilee put her pen aside and started to move around the desk to face Sunrise properly.
“I know we haven’t talked about your employment after today,” she went on, “so maybe I was putting the cart before the team just now. But…” Cheerilee’s voice trailed off as her gaze caught something over Sunrise’s shoulder, and she finished with a simple, “Oh, dear.”
In the doorway stood an earth mare Sunrise didn’t recognize: a pink-coated mare, with two-tone purple mane and tail. Her sneer seemed habitual, and Diamond Tiara sorrowfully stood in her shadow, making their familial relationship clear. The mare’s necklace and earrings were obviously pure gold, well-engraved and heavy. Her cutie mark, a wedding ring with an oversized diamond.
“Cheerilee,” the strange mare sniffed disdainfully. “I thought we’d have a word.”
“Oh?” Miss Cheerilee said carefully. “What about?”
“Well, it’s been the first day of a new school year,” Diamond’s mother said as she entered. Behind her, Diamond Tiara followed suit, ears and tail down, clearly feeling more mortified by the second. “Classes have begun again. And plans, for however much they’re worth, are being made.”
“Yes, that’s what the first day of school is,” the teacher replied with an eyeroll. “We all know—”
“Actually, I’m not sure we all do,” the pink mare interrupted, cocking an eyebrow at Sunrise. “I’m certainly not familiar with your latest curiosity.”
“Mom, I already—” Diamond Tiara started.
“Don’t speak while your elders are talking unless you’re spoken to, Diamond Tiara,” her mother cut her off primly. “It’s a sign of poor breeding.”
Taking in Sunrise’s mohawk and ear piercings, and then letting her gaze slide down to her bandaged hoof, the older mare added, “Amongst other things I could mention.”
Wincing, Cheerilee snuck a glance at Sunrise. But Sunrise seemed to be contemplating the ceiling with an almost philosophical air.
You’re putting on airs about being a thoroughbred pony, Sunrise thought, keeping her face neutral as she could. You’re actually doing this. You’re a pony, and you’re bragging about your own breeding. That’s… kind of amazing.
Just how many competitions did you have to show in, before your hubby said ‘I do,’ she wondered. Or did you judge him on his dressage instead, make him show his technical skills and endurance before condescending to let him into your boudoir?
Then, her eyes narrowing as she brought her attention back to the ponies around her, It would be funny if you weren’t using it to stab your fucking kid.
“Oh,” Cheerilee was saying. “Well, Mrs. Rich, this is Sunrise. She’s—”
“Not the pony I came here to speak with,” Mrs. Rich interrupted.
“…been helping me teach today, and incidentally doing a splendid job of it,” Cheerilee plowed on with slightly gritted teeth. “Sunrise, this is Spoiled Rich—”
“Diamond Tiara’s mother, and senior member of the Ponyville School Board,” Spoiled broke in again with a dismissal wave. “Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the matter at hoof.”
Cheerilee sighed. “Which is?”
“My Diamond Tiara happened to mention that there’s to be a school play put on this year, and obviously you’ll want the best actress for the lead,” Spoiled said, circling Cheerilee and Sunrise as she spoke. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Diamond is a gifted artiste, and sure to make your little production a smash hit not only by her own performance, but also by her star example as a natural diva.”
“Mom, that isn’t what that means anymore!” Diamond Tiara objected, mortified.
“Quiet, dear, adults are talking. Anyway, as you know, the budget for this year’s school projects is coming up before the board in a few weeks. And, of course, the higher the quality of performance being offered, the more likely a higher number is to be settled upon…”
“Mother, stop it!” Diamond cried. “Please!”
“Diamond Tiara, that will do,” her mother snapped.
“Do you think I want you to buy a part for me?” Diamond demanded. “Do you really think anypony will respect me for that? You’re always doing this, making sure everypony will hate me, no matter what I do!”
“Just this once, let me earn it myself!”
There was a moment of pure ice, while Spoiled stared at her daughter, one eyebrow upraised. Then, she spoke.
“Let us be completely clear on something, young lady, right now.” She spat. “You were allowed to attend this little shack of a school again only under certain circumstances, Diamond Tiara. This filthy little chattel cage is lucky to have someone of your superior class and breeding even condescend to grace their peasant little lives with an example of proper pony leadership and the very least you could do is be grateful that you have parents who are willing to do the thankless work of guiding your life in a proper direction, not that I ever expect you to show any true gratitude…!”
The tirade continued, with Diamond Tiara shrinking more and more beneath it, wincing with every emphasized word as though she were being physically struck. Her ears lay flat and her eyes were tightly shut, with tears forming in their outer corners from sheer humiliation.
But Sunrise was no longer hearing Spoiled Rich’s words. A dim, high-pitched whine had overtaken her voice, drowning her out completely, even as a crimson, flickering haze had begun to overtake the edges of Sunrise’s vision.
Sunrise closed her eyes. She could feel the warm, dark hatred rising up to enfold her like a well-worn and comfortable robe. An old friend, now returned to visit her again. And for all that it had been a relief to be without it for so long, crazily, she realized she’d also missed that crimson rage.
And Spoiled Rich was certainly well-named. She was pampered. Soft. And ponies were just as fragile as humans, really.
From within the hidden recesses of Sunrise’s heart, a voice identical to her own seemed to hiss softly to her, It would be so easy…
With a deftness born from a lifetime of practice, Sunrise took hold of her hatred and expertly folded it within her psyche like a poisonous cloak. She caged it in a box and stored it in the back of her mind along with countless others acquired over the years, to be quietly forgotten.
Then, she opened her eyes again.
Outwardly, the entire process had only manifested as a long inhale, and then a longer exhalation. It had taken a moment at most. Mrs. Rich seemingly hadn’t noticed, her attention now being focused entirely upon Miss Cheerilee. Apparently the teacher had said something – Sunrise thought she might have dimly heard a ‘that’s enough’ – and Mrs. Rich was now staring at her in stunned silence. Meanwhile, Diamond Tiara was looking away from them all, obviously struggling against her tears.
Then, Cheerilee broke into Sunrise’s thoughts.
“Sunrise, would you take Diamond to the playground, please,” she said in a quiet and controlled voice, still looking at the matriarch before them. “Mrs. Rich, perhaps you’d care to join me in the classroom. Then we can continue this discussion in privacy.”
Recovering herself somewhat, Spoiled Rich shifted her condescending gaze back to Sunrise with the inevitability of a lighthouse’s glare.
“Oh, by all means, let’s do,” she said. “This is a conversation for the grown-ups, after all.”
The leaves rustled gently through the grass and the trees as the two of them continued to sit quietly in the swings. Sunrise looked at the sky, with its gracefully deepening colours, the skyline, the clouds. She swung sometimes, gently, the old swing set creaking quietly as she did.
Beside her, Diamond Tiara simply sat.
“Feel like talking?” she’d asked the younger filly when they’d first reached the swings. Diamond had shaken her head, and so Sunrise had been giving her the quiet she’d seemed to want.
But now, Sunrise wondered. Should she force the issue? Was Diamond Tiara processing, recovering, or just stewing? They’d been sitting outside, in silence, for a while now. Was the quiet a comfort for the young mare, or was it just dragging her down?
Not for the first time, Sunrise found herself wishing for the wisdom that Celestia seemed to have, or Luna
(…but for loving me; she thought with a smile, by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her!)
or even just Luna’s insights. Luna would know what to say, and probably even how to say it. She’d be able to see Diamond’s dreams, probably her fears, and be able to guide her with the wisdom of freaking Starswirl.
Then again, from what she’d heard even Starswirl had his limits. Big ones. And, if she was honest with herself, so did Luna.
Sunrise sighed. Diamond wasn’t Luna’s student, and Luna had enough responsibilities without her younger marefriend asking for help every time a schoolfoal was having trouble.
I need to figure this out on my own, she thought. I don’t want to solve the kid’s problems for her, not really. I just… I just want to keep her from being crushed.
But how do I protect her from her own mother? She frowned. Is that even possible? Is it ethical, or even legal here? After all, I’m pretty sure nothing Spoiled’s done would count as foal abuse, or Cheerilee would have called her on it.
She sighed. And come to that, how much do I really know about them, based on a whole thirty seconds of observation? On the other hoof, how much do I really need to know?
Before coming to Equus, Sunrise had dreamed of being a graceful, mythical creature, a great sorceress, a powerful warrior. An Arwen, a Gandalf, a Jirel of Jorey, a Last Unicorn. Going on quests. Smiting evil with her vast array of skills and special effects. Facing down armies of sinister foes that dared to threaten her innocent charges, and all that jazz.
Now, she was a unicorn. Which, all in all, was awesome. But, she still couldn’t even handle a basic levitation spell without setting fire to something. She’d hurt herself running too fast in what was basically a public park. And she was completely stymied by a foe who, rather than being an evil monstrosity from some dark age long past, was simply a petty, raging bitch.
She chuckled to herself a little, then sighed again.
Maybe I just need to have faith in Diamond’s ability to survive my mistakes.
Sunrise turned her head to consider her young charge. Diamond Tiara was still looking down, still motionless. But she’d broken the silence herself.
I think I just massively lucked out, Sunrise thought. Smiling, she said, “I think that’s my line.”
The foal shrugged.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” she said. “This is normal, actually.”
Sunrise’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”
But Diamond Tiara shook her head.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I think it’s how grandma raised her, too. She wants me to shine more, so she pushes harder. That’s all.”
Sunrise’s eyebrows raised as she tried to process this. “Really.”
The filly gave a sad nod, still looking down.
“‘Diamonds don’t crack, they shine brightest under pressure,’” she recited sadly. “Everypony knows that. I used to think she hated me, when I was little. But the truth is she always knew that I was like her, even before I was born.
“Social advancement is just part of it,” Diamond went on. “She says that’s just what happens when ponies realize superior ability. She says she’s advanced as much as she has because of her own strength and ambition. And she says that I could go even farther than her, but that I have to realize my potential. She knows I can take it. I’m a diamond, like her. So, she…”
Diamond gave a dejected sigh, then, “She… just keeps pushing.”
Sunrise shook her head in disbelief. “Wow. And I thought astrology was bad.”
Diamond Tiara glanced at her, puzzled. “What does magic have to do with it?”
“Oh, no, it’s not… well… you know what, let’s put a pin in that,” Sunrise said. “My point is, yeah, I’ve read the expressions about different cutie marks and how they’re supposed to dictate your personality and crap. But, I wouldn’t put too much stock in ‘em. They’re not really based on anything but folklore.”
Diamond Tiara gave her a dubious look.
“Trust me,” Sunrise assured her. “I’m an eighteen-year-old mare with no cutie mark who lives in the Castle of Friendship as Princess Twilight’s apprentice. I’ve done the research.
“I mean, sure,” Sunrise went on, “your cutie mark acts as a visual reflection of important aspects of your personality – special talent, greatest gift, heart’s desire, whatever – but it’s also a deeply personal symbol. It’s like trying to understand heraldry that your soul wrote without you knowing the rules on how to read it. Some ponies spend entire lifetimes trying to understand their marks.”
Diamond Tiara winced. “Oh, please don’t say that.”
Sunrise smiled. “Sorry. But, seriously, you’re really gonna try to predict ponies’ entire lives with generalizations about their cutie marks? Sure, a pony’s mark reflects them in some ways, but, ‘diamonds work best under pressure and never break?’ ‘Clouds keep it in until they burst?’ ‘Plant marks are insightful?’ ‘Sky marks are… angsty…’ um… hm.”
Sunrise’s voice trailed away as she took on a contemplative look.
“Sorry. Just… yeah. Anyway.”
Refocusing on the filly next to her, Sunrise continued, “Look, my point is, don’t let somepony else define your mark. Or define you, for that matter.”
She gave Diamond Tiara a fond look. “That’s your cutie mark, kid. Yours. The mark of your special magic, written from within your own heart, to show to the eyes that thing which feeds your soul. Only you get to decide what it means.”
Looking out towards the schoolhouse, she went on, “And I’m not an expert, but why would the meaning of something like that be simple, when ponies are so complex? I mean, Miss Cheerilee’s got plants on her flank. But I don’t see her gardening, do you? Sure, she might have a little garden at home, I don’t know. But mostly, I see her teaching. Because, though it looks like just a few flowers with smiley-faces, that’s not what her cutie mark means.”
She glanced at the young mare beside her thoughtfully before adding, “And besides, you’re gonna be changing throughout your life. That’s part of that whole ‘living’ thing. So, why shouldn’t your mark’s meaning change, too?”
Diamond Tiara peered at her. For her part, Sunrise looked outward, towards the east.
“I’m… well, I’m trying,” she sighed. “Like I said before, some of the stuff I’ve done… it was bad. You don’t wanna know how bad. And I’m not gonna tell you.”
Then, with a rueful chuckle, she added, “But I’m tryin’ Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”
One of Diamond Tiara’s ears went flat. “Huh?”
Sunrise shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. The point is, I used to think that ponies couldn’t change. Then, I just needed to believe they could. But lately I’ve met some folk – some ponies, some not – and they, well, they’ve changed my mind. Ponies can change. We all can. So, I’m trying. Every day, I’m trying.”
“Then why is it so hard?!?”
Diamond Tiara hadn’t meant to raise her voice, that was just how the words had forced themselves out. And once they’d been said, all she could do was wait to be chastised. This was a grown mare she was yelling at, after all.
She was too angry to be sorry, though. She didn’t know why she was, she just was.
But Sunrise didn’t seem to mind. She just shook her head slightly, still looking where the moon would be rising in a few hours.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe real change is an unnatural act. Maybe habits are just that strong. Or, maybe it’s just… easier to be a dick? I don’t know.”
Then, looking at her student again, Sunrise continued, “But remember Stygian’s Lament, and the lesson your father taught you about it. At the end of the day, the only way that everyone is potentially worthy of forgiveness is if everyone can potentially change. Otherwise, it’s just a sucker’s game. With the princesses the biggest rubes of them all.”
Diamond gave a sour look. “Mother says the whole story is just a stupid tradition. That’s it’s just a faery tale that lower-class ponies tell each other as an excuse to be weak.”
Sunrise shrugged. “Yeah, well, I didn’t figure you’d heard the story from her. And I’m sure she expects you to believe what she tells you.
“But I expect you to think logically. And logically, if she were right, then all of Equestria would be nothing but a series of victims. A kingdom perpetually conquered and enslaved by its more cunning enemies, one after another. Nightmare Moon, Discord, and who knows how many others. And yet, it’s not. It never has been.
“But I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know,” Sunrise finished with a slight smile. “After all: you’re here, not inside cheering her on.”
The younger mare sighed despondently. “Yeah.”
After a few moments of silence, Sunrise spoke again.
“Look, it’s pretty obvious what your mom wants for you…”
“Mother says that a tiara is a sign of rulership,” Diamond Tiara broke in, still miserable. “Getting other ponies to do what I want. That I’m wasting my talents by not taking charge of other ponies.”
“It can mean that, I guess,” Sunrise observed. “But is that what you want?”
Looking down, the pink mare vigorously shook her head, no.
“Well, then, maybe it’s time for your mark to mean something different. Something just for you. Hey…”
She smiled, gently pulling Diamond’s chin up to make eye contact.
“What do you want to do, more than anything else? Sunrise asked. “I mean, really do? In general, in the future, after school is done and you can go anywhere, do anything you want… what do you want to do?”
But Diamond just slumped further.
“Mother insisted we move to Canterlot after I lost the Class President election last spring,” she said gloomily. “So I’d be free from the bad influences of lower class ponies. I was gone the rest of the year. It took Father putting his hoof down for me to attend school here again.”
She shook her head miserably. “He almost never does that. He almost didn’t then. And they keep fighting now, all the time…”
Sunrise put her arm around her, the chains of the swing set clinking slightly as she moved. The two of them sat in silence for a time. Eventually, Diamond Tiara spoke again.
“I don’t want to boss or bully other ponies around,” she said softly. “That’s what she does. What I used to do.
“I know a tiara is supposed to be a sign of leadership. Everypony knows that. But I don’t want to make other ponies do things anymore. I want to inspire them. The Cutie Mark Crusaders were my first real friends, and they really helped me out when I needed it the most. I want to pass that along. To encourage other ponies, to help them become what they can be, what they want to be…”
She sighed, looking down again. “That sounds so stupid, though.”
Sunrise smiled, remembering another conversation, not long ago. The human Twilight, sharing her own dream, her lifelong ambition.
“No,” Sunrise said, “That sounds noble.”
Diamond Tiara blinked away her tears, looked at Sunrise in confusion.
Still smiling, Sunrise closed her eyes.
“It is said that the true leader does not govern through words from above their people, but through their deeds from within,” she recited. “Through their mastery of the Way they inspire rather than rule. And when the work is done, their people look around and say in wonder, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
The younger mare gaped. “Who said that?”
“An old philosopher by the name of Lao Tzu. I forget whose translation I read, and I probably butchered it anyway, but…”
Opening her eyes, she saw Diamond Tiara staring at her in wonder.
“That’s… exactly what I want to do!” Diamond exclaimed. “Only I…”
Her shoulders slumped again as she finished, “I don’t know how.”
Sunrise gave a little shrug. “Yeah, me neither. But hey, Twilight’s got a heck of a library, and I’ll bet there’s something there that can help. I’ll see if I can find something on philosophy you can borrow, maybe even a local Lao Tzu translation.”
At Diamond’s expression she added, “It’s a start, right?”
Diamond Tiara was staring forlornly at the school house again. Her mother had emerged, looking very self-satisfied, and was trotting towards them both. Behind her and to the right was Cheerilee, wearing a mask of badly concealed irritation.
“Oh, Celestia,” Diamond Tiara sighed. “What did she do this time?”
“I think we can guess,” Sunrise whispered back. “But it’s okay. I’ve got an idea.”
“Good news, children,” Spoiled cheered happily as she approached. “Miss Cheerilee and I have come to an agreement. Specifically, she agreed with me that the school deserves a decent budget for its upcoming stage production, and that Diamond Tiara’s talents deserve not to be wasted on whatever bit parts—”
“Oh, absolutely,” Sunrise interrupted, nodding as she rose. “I was thinking the same thing myself.”
While Diamond Tiara stared at her in horror, Spoiled Rich’s eyebrows rose slightly.
“Oh, good,” she said. “And here for a moment, I thought—”
“Specifically, I was thinking I could really use an assistant director,” Sunrise broke in again as if Spoiled hadn’t spoken. “Someone to help me coordinate things from behind the scenes, make sure everything runs smoothly. Help me guide the other students, and bring out the best in them. Be the leader of the production, basically. Or, at least, the student leader.
“It’ll be hard work,” she added with a fond glance at her student, ignoring Spoiled Rich’s glare. “But I know she can pull it off. All that’s left is whether it’s what she wants.”
There was the merest of pauses while Spoiled’s brain processed this recent information.
“Of course she does,” the older mare snapped. “She’s perfect for the job.”
Then, narrowing her eyes at her daughter, she added, “Especially after losing the Presidency and the Editorship.”
Meanwhile, the other mares were looking at Diamond Tiara with a very different expression. Waiting for her to answer, as if her mother wasn’t even there.
Diamond Tiara looked from Cheerilee to Spoiled Rich and back again. Then, she looked back at Sunrise, felt her withers starting to relax at last.
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “I’d like that very much.”
“The best part of the job is the foals,” Cheerilee said as they finished their last-minute tidying of the classroom. “The hardest part is their parents.”
Sunrise gave her a wry grin. “Yeah. I hadn’t noticed.”
The sun had begun to descend a while ago, and, with apologies, Cheerilee had assured Sunrise that school days didn’t normally last quite so long. With the students’ periods ending around three, they’d usually be locking up by around six or so.
But today had been unusual. The first day, of course, tended to be one of the longest. And then, there had been the Rich family. And then their own discussions, making plans for not only the next several weeks’ lessons, but also for the upcoming play.
“Can we really count on the funding, though?” Sunrise had asked towards the end. “Spoiled didn’t strike me as a pony who’d give up leverage lightly.”
“We can,” Cheerilee had assured her with a knowing smile. “It may be Spoiled who made the arrangement, but it’ll be Filthy who signs the check. Mr. Rich is his wife’s opposite in all the best ways possible. If you ever meet him, you’ll see what I mean.”
A short time later, the two of them were outside the small schoolhouse. Cheerilee locked the door and stashed the key in her saddlebags, and the two of them began an amicable walk back into Ponyville proper. Sunrise limping, Cheerilee insisting on carrying her bags and seeing her to the princess’ castle.
Several minutes later, Cheerilee spoke.
“Let’s see, with your apprenticeship to Princess Twilight, you’ll usually be doing half-days,” she mused. “We can figure out the details as we go. Still, we’ll have to get you your own key. I can run by the locksmith before… no, they’ll be closed by the time I get there…”
“A key to the place and everything, huh?” Sunrise grinned. “So… I guess that makes it official. Look out world, Ponyville’s got a new T.A.”
“Well, I didn’t know what you called it in your old country,” Cheerilee said happily. “But yes, by whatever name, I think it’s safe to say that Ponyville has two teachers now.”
Sunrise froze, then whipped her head around to stare at the other mare. For her part, Cheerilee halted as well, giving the younger mare with an amused look.
“Wait,” Sunrise said. “Teacher? But I’m not…”
“Qualified?” Cheerilee cut her off with a smile. Placing a gentle hoof on Sunrise’s withers, she added, “I’m sorry, but I have to disagree.”
“Being a teacher isn’t just about lectures, and grading tests and homework. Though you’ll be doing plenty of that too, believe me,” Cheerilee added with a wink. “You’re still learning the trade, and I’m going to take terrible advantage of you while I can.
“But being a teacher isn’t just about facts and numbers. You can get those out of a book. It’s about encouraging young minds, encouraging their inquisitiveness and enthusiasm, and hoping they never lose it. Not just helping them learn, but teaching them how to learn, and showing them the joy of learning.
“Above all, though, teaching is about guiding the young, and guarding them. Being the guide they need away from home, as they slowly grow into their own strength; and being their protector in as many ways as you can, until they can protect themselves.
“That’s what I saw you doing today,” Cheerilee smiled. “Not just in the classroom or the playground, though it was a delight watching you working with the foals. But when Diamond Tiara needed you, you reached out to her. Whatever you said to her, by the swing set and in the woods, you were able to reach her in a way I was never able to.”
Looking away, she continued, “Until last year, I’d given up on her. Her and Silver Spoon both. I hadn’t even realized it at the time, but I had. Not my proudest achievement.”
She sighed, then squared her shoulders, saying, “Fortunately, there’s still time to recover from my mistake. Silver Spoon has gotten even worse, in her own way, but I know it’s not too late to help her. And Diamond Tiara isn’t suffering like she was, because she has friends. They were there for her then.”
Cheerilee smiled again, adding, “And you were there for her today.”
But Sunrise shook her head. “What? No, that wasn’t me, that was her. She knew what she wanted. I just gave a little…”
“…guidance,” Cheerilee finished for her. “Exactly. And you made peace with her mother at the same time, at least for the moment. Which believe me, is no mean feat. You’ll fail more often than you’ll succeed where Spoiled Rich is concerned, but for tonight Diamond’s probably safe from her mother’s barbs and jabs.”
Then, making a sour face, she added a begrudging, “Probably.”
Cheerilee turned, and looked back towards the schoolhouse, lost in thought. Sunrise did likewise. The sun was beginning to slowly descend behind it, the shadows it cast lengthening. Without the vibrancy of its cheerful red paint and the sounds of young voices within, it suddenly seemed old to Sunrise, and full of memories. Nowhere near as ancient as the palace, of course. But still something that stretched back generations, with a thousand stories to tell.
Glancing at the mare next to her, Sunrise wondered how old Cheerilee really was. She was still a terrible judge of pony age, and hanging out with the princesses all the time was certainly no help. But to Sunrise, Cheerilee sounded like she was maybe in her thirties. Thinking on Equestria and what she knew of its culture, it seemed to her that Cheerilee had probably started teaching – or at least started learning to teach – at, what? Fifteen? Maybe younger, as an apprentice of some kind while still a student herself?
She’s probably spent half her life doing this, Sunrise thought. Fifteen years or more, in that little building. And decades from now, she’ll still be there. Shuffling papers, grading tests, encouraging her students, helping them grow. Guarding them, until they can guard themselves. And bleeding a little with each one of them, every time they get hurt.
And, she had to admit, that didn’t sound like a bad life at all.
Then, the other mare spoke again, cutting into her reverie.
“You’re a teacher, Sunrise,” Cheerilee said quietly. “The hours are long, the job mostly thankless, and the risks to your heart are endless. But you get to guide your students. And you get to help keep them safe, while they grow strong.
“So long as you’re doing that, I don’t see calling you anything else.”