Two-Player Game

by mushroompone

First published

Rainbow Dash is determined to reclaim the top-scoring spot on her favorite arcade cabinet.

Rainbow Dash is determined to reclaim the top-scoring spot on her favorite arcade cabinet.


In the spirit of May Pairings

This was originally a Hearth's Warming gift (during an exchange organized by Quills and Sofas) for Writing Spirit, who requested a crackship! It's about time it found its way onto the site

Level One

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"It’s not a hard game," I said.

"Is that right?" Starlight arched her brows and leaned against the side of the cabinet. "Rainbow, you’re already sweating."

"Because it's hot in here!" I spat back, taking my hoof off the joystick for a precious second to wipe my brow.

Starlight didn't say a word, only smiled knowingly. And condescendingly.

"It's like. All you have to do is learn a few of the combos," I said, even though she hadn't asked. "And they’re literally printed right on the cabinet. It couldn’t get any easier if it just had a big red button that said ‘win’ on it."

"Sounds like a whole lot of excuses to me…" Starlight muttered.

I pounded the machine as I once again got slammed in the chest by a powerful buck from my opponent. My little digital wrestler hit the ground and landed in a pile of messy pixels.

"You lose!" the machine taunted.

Starlight watched the machine play out its humiliating lose sequence, pouting slightly, as if seriously considering it for the first time. "Sure could use that big ‘win’ button, huh?"

"Shut up."

"Explain to me again why this matters so much to you?" Starlight asked, once again taking her post against the side of the machine.

I sighed heavily as I slipped another bit into the slot. "I've had the high score on this cabinet since I moved to Ponyville," I said, swirling the joystick in endless circles as the game started up again. "Then some jerk swoops in and steals the top spot from me. So I'm staying here until my honor is restored as the highest scorer!"

Starlight scoffed. "Okay. I'm sure they weren't trying to hurt you specifically."

"I'm the best there is at Hoof-to-Hoof Combat!" I cried. "Whoever beat me worked hard to do it! And they had to top RBD on the high score list—no way they didn't know it was me."

Starlight just shook her head. “This doesn’t maybe have anything to do with the Wonderbolts, does it?”

I stiffened. “No,” I lied. “Why would you think that?”

“I just… well, I noticed that you’ve been a little cagey about us going to performances lately,” she said, slowly and carefully. “Did something happen? Because, y’know, there’s no shame in—”

“Nothing happened,” I lied again, as nonchalantly as I could manage. “I just don’t want you guys to feel like you gotta go to every single performance.”

Starlight arched a brow.

“And! And, also…” I struggled to find another reason. “I don’t like the way you’re trying to explain away my attachment to Hoof-to-Hoof Combat.”

Starlight’s brow climbed higher.

"Can't a mare just want to win?!"

Starlight looked at me, then at the cabinet, then back at me. "I mean. Maybe for you that's enough motivation to spend seven hours in the worst restaurant in Equestria," she said. "But for normal ponies…"

"Whatever," I muttered. I hunched over the machine and swished my tail against the tile as the game started again. "You just don't get what it's like in the high-stakes world of cabinet gaming."

"Well. Thank Celestia for small favors, I guess," Starlight said with a smirk, giving me a half-hearted pat on the shoulder. "I'm gonna get another soda. You want anything?"

I only grunted in response.

"Perfect. I'll get two."

I shuffled in closer to the machine, pushed away the echoes of Twilight telling me how bad that was for my eyes, and prepared for another round.

The goal of Hoof-to-Hoof Combat is super easy: you beat your way through a series of increasingly ridiculous pro-wrestler ponies in a quest to… well, I dunno. I always skipped the opening cutscene, if I’m honest. But it really was easy; just learn one good combo and spam it fast enough to wipe out your competition.

You don't get to the top of the high score list just by winning fights, though. There were bonuses for better accuracy, riskier shots, and all sorts of power-ups and junk you could grab along the way. The better you were at multitasking, the more points you could rack up, the higher you'd get on the board.

Currently, the board was a sea of me, topped with a single player known only as TMM.

That was embarrassing.

It made me look desperate.

Had it taken me months to fill the board like that? Maybe.

Was I going to stand in this stupid Hay Burger until I got the top spot back? Definitely.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, dodge, duck. Quarter-circle-B to charge, quarter-circle-A for a fireball, back to dodging.

The randomness of the whole thing made it hard to become a blindfolded expert. The ponies you fought had a predefined moveset, but they didn’t move in a recognizable pattern. It wasn't the sort of game you memorized to win—not like Super Mare-io or whatever. This was pure reflex.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, duck, fireball—

Something touched my hoof.

A little voice way in the back of my brain told me the thing touching my hoof was a spider, even though it probably wasn't a spider, and I made a wimpy little squeaking sound and nearly crawled up onto the cabinet to get away from it. After a second of sheer panic, I managed to redirect myself coolly off to the side.

"Sorry!"

There was a pony coming at me now.

I blinked a few times. I couldn't see anything past the super bright Hayburger lights.

Maybe Twilight was right. Maybe video games were bad for your eyes.

"Sorry, sorry," the pony said, bending down in front of me. "Just dropped my pencil!"

"You lose!" the machine shouted at me.

I reached up to rub my eyes. "Uh… th-that's okay."

"Oh, gosh." The mare giggled. "I made you lose your game. Oh, I'm sorry, Rainbow."

I squeezed my eyes shut tight and sprung them open again. Finally, I could make out the pony standing in front of me.

"Hey, you're, uh…" I looked the pony up and down a few times. I knew I knew her! How did I know her?

She smiled at me, polite and awkward. I was making it awkward. Rainbow, for pony's sake, figure out who she is!

She had nice eyes. Her mane was… I dunno, not curly, really. It just had those swoops at the end of every lock. Kinda like the bottom hook on an umbrella. Definitely on purpose. She definitely did her mane like that in the morning. Every morning.

She was also really, really pink, which I guess should have helped, but weirdly not as much as the look she gave me when I hit a full minute of not knowing who she was. A weird sort of disappointment, mixed with genuine concern.

"Scootaloo's teacher!" I beamed with pride at having remembered. "Uh… Miss Cheerilee! Hey, didn't you used to date Big Mac?"

Cheerilee frowned. "That's—that isn't—" She paused, shook her head, and tried again. "You can drop the 'Miss'. We're the same age, Rainbow."

I didn't know how to respond to that. It certainly didn't sound right. "Oh."

Cheerilee made another face.

"I mean—or you could start calling me Miss Dash," I said quickly. "Since I… I'm teaching now, I guess."

Cheerilee blinked. "You are?"

Genuine shock and confusion.

I forced a smile.

"You are!" Cheerilee quickly recovered. "Wow, that's… that's so great!"

"Uh… yep!"

Cheerilee forced a little laugh, and her eyes drifted back down to the floor. "Where are you teaching these days? Flight school in Cloudsdale?"

She looked down at me with genuine interest.

She was so much taller than me.

That was… weird.

"Uh… n-no, I actually teach friendship stuff at Twilight's school," I said. "Loyalty stuff. Like, we read books and write essays about, uh. L-loyalty."

Cheerilee made a face that said she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. That was probably fair. Most of the time, I felt like I had no idea what I was talking about.

"That's… really cool!" she said. "Wow! I-I'm so happy for you, Rainbow. That's a great school."

I nodded. "Sure is!"

Sure is?

That's the best you've got?

Cheerilee laughed again. Awkwardly.

I laughed back. Twice as awkward.

I'll be honest: I didn't know how to end this little encounter. I think I mostly just stared right at her, waiting for the little afterimages of blinking lights to leave my vision once and for all.

"Well, then," Cheerilee said. "I've got to get back to my papers. End of semester grades are due soon, and I've got a stack of poorly-written essays to praise."

I'll be honest a second time: that joke did not register for me in the moment.

"Cool," I said.

Cheerilee made a face like a dog holding something it shouldn't have in its mouth. "Yep," she said. "Cool."

She walked away.

After a very long pause, I went back to the game.

"Wow."

The sudden voice right next to my head caused me to seize so hard I nearly hit my head on the cabinet.

"That was hard to watch," Starlight said, setting a glass of cola down beside my right hoof. "But a really good science experiment. We now know that it takes exactly two hours for video games to suck the social skills out of a pony completely."

"Shut up."

"Can't argue with data like that."

"Why are you even here?"

Starlight shrugged. "I just told you: I'm here gathering data on nerds," she explained. "And to get you soda. But I can just go home if—"

"You can stay," I muttered.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, duck, dodge.

"Aw." Starlight gave me a friendly nudge. "What a softie."

Level Two

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“It takes skill,” I instructed. “And focus. And you gotta have a good memory for the combos.”

“Mm-hm.” Starlight took a long sip of her milkshake. “And, like, really powerful forelegs, huh?”

“This is a sports-related injury!” I spat back, rubbing at my sore tendons.

It wasn’t.

It was from playing an arcade game for nine straight hours.

“I’m just taking some time to go over the combos and strategies,” I continued. “And rest my sports injury. From being a full-time Wonderbolt.”

“Sure, sure. And what part of being a Wonderbolt hurt your gamer hooves, exactly?”

“Why are you here?!”

Starlight shrugged. “You need me. I’m your coach. Like, uh…” She tapped her chin. “I’ll be honest, I can’t think of any famous coaches.”

What the hay are you coaching me in?!”

Starlight shrugged.

She smiled.

She sipped her milkshake.

“Spitfire…” I mumbled.

“Huh?”

“She’s a famous coach!” I said. “My famous coach!”

Starlight snickered. “Oh, duh.” She shook her head. “See? We’ve been here so long, I’m getting punchy, and I haven’t even been playing video games.”

“Ha, ha. Hilarious.”

I went back to picking at my side-order of hay fries.

The Hayburger was not my favorite place to hang out. Not by far. It always smelled a little bit like the inside of an ear in here, and all the surfaces were just a little bit sticky, and all the food tasted a little bit exactly the same. That would have been fine if it was just between the savory dishes, and it would have been fine if the flavor was ‘grease’, but it was a completely unidentifiable taste that only the Hayburger seemed to be able to cook into their food, and even the apple hoofpies had it.

But this was the place that had the cabinet, so this was the place I was going to stay.

Just about the only thing this place was good for was pony-watching. At any given moment, there were about four different crimes against equinity occurring at the same time, which was either fun or horrifying depending on your personality.

Right now, I could spot a foal smashing fries into a thin sheet on the tabletop before peeling them off and hucking them at the wall, a family of six eating in emotionless silence while the parents played hoofsie under the table, and—somehow most disturbing of all—an adult mare shamelessly slurping at a cup of ketchup like any other drink on the menu.

It was hard to look at any one of them directly for more than a second or two. I mean, come on.

There was also the constant danger of catching someone’s eye directly while they were doing one of these terrible things. I saw it as more of a challenge than a possible consequence—until it actually happened, of course.

Luckily, it wasn’t the ketchup mare I ended up staring down. It was actually somepony guilty of my exact crime: gawking at other ponies doing obscene things in a public place.

Unluckily, I actually knew her.

I felt my cheeks go red-hot as I quickly looked back down at the table.

Starlight, always quick on the uptake, immediately turned to look over her shoulder. “Oh, hey. That teacher mare’s here again,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“Must really like the hay fries,” she said. “Who would come here voluntarily?”

The foal sitting behind Starlight plugged his ear with a tater tot, and quickly started screaming when he couldn’t get it out.

Starlight’s face fell into a grimace. “Speaking of, I think I’ve hit my teasing quota for the day.”

I snickered. “What’s that? Can’t hear ya.”

The foal flailed his legs wildly as absolutely no one came to his aid. One rogue hoof caught Starlight squarely in the back of the head. This only made the crying twice as loud.

“Yeah, I can’t be here anymore,” she said. “Ready to go?”

I rocked back in the booth, folded my hooves over my chest, and heaved a big sigh. On the one hoof, I was getting sick of this place, too. On the other, though, I hated the idea of going home defeated.

“Excuse me? Tortured genius?” Starlight sat forward and slid her now-empty milkshake glass out of the way. “You wanna go home or what?”

“Uh…” I looked back at the game.

Then, all by themselves, my eyes drifted over to Cheerilee again.

She was blushing too.

Her eyes were turned down to the paper, but she was blushing fiercely. Her pen was still.

That kinda made me feel better, actually.

“I think I’m gonna stick around,” I said. “Just try a few more times. I’ll leave when I’m outta bits.”

“Do I need to leave you with the number for an addiction crisis center?”

“No…” I whined.

“Are you avoiding something I should know about?”

“No!”

Starlight stared me down.

I forced a laugh. "No. I'm fine, I'm just trying to beat TMM."

“Good luck, then,” Starlight said, giving me a stronger-than-necessary pat on the shoulder as she trotted past me to leave.

I reached limply across the table to grab my soda and finish off the last sip of it.

I looked back over at Cheerilee again.

Her head was down, all hints of a blush gone as she went back to work furiously grading papers. She was holding a red pen in her mouth. Red pen seemed significantly worse than the pencil she’d been using yesterday.

Now that I thought about it, it was kinda weird that she’d choose to hang around the Hayburger to grade. There were, like, a million other places in Ponyville that were way better for nerd stuff like that. Twilight always did her grading at Cafe Hay—quiet, and good food. Win-win.

And Cheerilee was here.

That was weird.

I thought about going over to chat with her again, maybe see if she'd found the secret good-tasting food, but my stomach turned at the idea.

It was weird.

But it was also not my business.

I scooted out of the booth, gave my forelegs one last stretch, and headed for the cabinet again.

Hoof-to-Hoof Combat wasn’t a popular choice at this particular Hayburger. Maybe it was because the game takes some actual skill, unlike the very heavily and abusively used Pac-Mare machine next to it. Maybe it was because you couldn’t cream your friends in it, like the pegasus racing game Crosswind on its other side.

Didn’t matter. At least I didn’t have to loiter around waiting for foals to take a turn.

I slipped a bit into the slot.

The game booted up with its usual chorus of chiptune beats.

Choose your character!”

I always picked Wyldfire. She was six clicks to the right.

Wyldfire!” the cabinet confirmed.

The cutscene launched.

I skipped it.

Get ready!”

I whipped my tail and crouched down, ready to unleash my opening move.

Three! Two! One! Fight!”

Quarter-circle—

“Wyldfire, huh?”

I made an utterly inequine sound, and my wings flared out at my sides as I did my best to hold my ground against the sudden presence on my left. “Some warning next time!” was all I managed to say to redeem myself.

“Sorry!”

I glanced to my left between punches. “Cheerilee?”

Cheerilee smiled guiltily. “I really need to stop sneaking up on you, don’t I?”

Duck, dodge, duck.

“It’s fine, I just—” quarter-circle-B and “—I just really get in the zone sometimes. Drop another pen?”

“Um… no,” Cheerilee said. “I’m just getting sick of—”

Critical hit!” the cabinet interjected

“—these essays,” she finished. “I figured I could come watch you play for a bit.”

I spared another glance her way. To my surprise, she seemed sincere. “Uh…” What was I supposed to say to that? “Okay. Sure.”

“You play as Wyldfire?” she asked again.

She was so polite.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I always have.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

Why did I always play as her?

No one had really asked me before.

Why was she asking me?

“Well, I…” Dodge, dodge, punch. “When I was a kid, I picked her ‘cause she looked like me.”

Cheerilee giggled at that.

“Or. I guess she looked like how I wanted to look,” I said, noting the mohawk. “How do you know who Wyldfire is?”

“What, the schoolmarm can’t have hobbies?” she snarked back at me.

“N-no! I just meant—” What did I mean? “Well, do you play?”

Cheerilee shrugged. “Enough to know who Wyldfire is.”

“Cool,” I replied. Was that the only word I knew? “Did you, uh… wanna take a spin after me?”

Cheerilee made a weird sound. “Oh, I… I think I’m okay,” she said. “I should really keep working on this grading. As much as it’s killing me.”

I glanced at her again. “Yeah. I hear that. I hate grading.”

"Right?!"

I snickered.

It was kinda funny to see her so exasperated.

“It’s so hard not to sound like a monster!” Cheerilee sighed and fell into the side of the machine. “I want my students to get better, but they’re not exactly at the age where they can take criticism and be constructive. I just have to praise them for the good and hope they eventually drop the bad.”

That sounded really smart.

Duck, duck, dodge.

"Yeah, I…" Quarter-circle-B. "I hear ya!"

Kinda.

Cheerilee giggled. It was a nice sound. Too nice for the Hayburger. "Beating the tar and feathers out of a pro wrestler sure is a good way to cope, isn't it?"

Quarter-circle-A.

"K. O.!"

Half Pipe dropped his skateboard and slowly fell forward. A pixelated pile of dust rose around him as the screen faded to black.

I let out a tense breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding and rocked away from the cabinet as another cutscene began. “You said it, Cheer.”

Cheerilee smirked. “You’re not too bad at this game,” she said.

I scoffed. “Not too bad?” I puffed out my chest. “I’m the high scorer on this cabinet!”

Cheerilee didn’t say anything.

“Or… at least, I was,” I admitted. “Somepony knocked me off the top spot. I’ve been trying to win it back.”

Cheerilee’s brows furrowed. “Oh. I see.” She looked me up and down, then looked at the cabinet, then back at me. “That’s why you’ve been camping out here?”

“Look, I wasn’t gonna make a big deal out of it, but then my friends—”

“No, no!” Cheerilee paused to laugh. “That’s exactly what I’ve been doing!”

“Uh…” I looked Cheerilee up and down. “What?”

Cheerilee threw back her head and let out a frustrated sigh. “Oh, I hate it here. I hate the food, the smells, the, um… atmosphere,” she murmured, nodding to the seating area where several atrocities were still being committed. “I just figured if I put myself in a crappy place, I’d want to finish my grading faster. Plus I’d spend less on fancy coffees than if I was working at Cafe Hay.”

“Ohhh.”

I looked out at the crowds of ponies.

Then at Cheerilee’s piles of papers.

Then back at Cheerilee.

“Is it… working?”

“Ha!” Cheerilee shook her head. “Not even a little.”

I cracked a smile.

Cheerilee smiled back.

Somewhere in the Hayburger a foal was screaming its lungs out, but it seemed a little quieter than it had before.

You lose!”

I stiffened at the sound.

A beefy stallion by the name of Ab Crunch stood over the crumpled pile that was once Wyldfire, flexing his muscles menacingly.

“Oh, shoot,” Cheerilee said, lifting a hoof to her mouth in embarrassment. “I did it again. I’m sorry.”

“N-nah,” I said quickly. I gave my mane a nonchalant flip over my shoulder, though that may have made me look stupider. “You snooze, you lose, right?”

Cheerilee giggled again. “Right.”

For a long moment, all she did was stand there. Her tail swished gently back and forth across the tile.

“Would you maybe, um…” Cheerilee nodded to the cabinet beside her. “Would you want to play a quick round of Crosswind with me? I could really use a break.”

I blinked. “S-sure!” I said. “Yeah! Let’s do it!”

Cheerilee beamed at me, then quickly whipped around and started plinking bits into the machine. “My treat,” she added with a wink.

I tried to respond, but only made a little awkward laugh. “‘Kay.”

Get ready!” The cabinet instructed us.

Cheerilee placed her forehooves on the controls, then looked at me expectantly. I trotted over and squeezed in beside her, my own hooves on an identical set of controls beside hers.

It was close.

Flank-to-flank.

She smirked at me.

I chuckled.

Begin!”

Level Three

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“This game’s harder than I remember,” I admitted, sinking into the booth across from Cheerilee. “How in the hay did I get so many high scores?”

“Littler hooves?” Cheerilee suggested with a giggle.

I flopped backwards into the vinyl and let out a sigh of despair. “You’re right. I’m past my prime,” I said wearily. “Just another washed-up cabinet gamer with no future. Helpless. Hopeless. Brainless. Fameless.”

Cheerilee snickered again. “The age old story, hm?”

“Ya got that right.”

It was getting late.

Hour twelve of arcade gaming was looking pretty bleak.

The crowds in the Haybuger were thinning and changing, though not vanishing completely the way I’d hoped. I guess I sort of forgot about the wave of ponies with post-party munchies looking for something quick, cheap, and greasy.

They were loud, but not in the screaming kid way. They were messy, but… also not in the messy kid way. I guess I could just cope better with adults acting stupid. Or maybe it was just the closest thing to a change of scenery I was going to get in here.

“When are you gonna go home?” I asked.

Cheerilee looked up, her eyes a bit glassy and blank. “Hm?”

“Home?” I repeated. “It’s super late. Aren’t you tired?”

Cheerilee let out her own weary sigh. “A little. But I’d really rather just stick around until I’ve finished these.” She paused, then forced a smile and a cheery tone: “I’m more than halfway there!”

I chuckled. “Convincing.”

“Ugh.” Cheerilee hung her head. “I swear, if I have to read one more essay about perfectionism, I’m going to… well, I don’t know what I’m going to do! Just… keep grading them, I suppose.”

I cocked my head. “What are these essays about? I thought they’d be about like… books or something.”

Cheerilee put her pen down and flopped back in the booth, her forelegs limp at her sides, her head rolled to the ceiling. “At the end of each semester, I ask my students to write me an essay about what they think they learned, and what they want to improve on next semester,” she explained. “The problem is that… well, they’re so young. They don’t know how to self-evaluate like that, try as I might.”

I blinked.

“Um…” Cheerilee scratched her head. “Well, let me put it this way: a foal is never going to admit to their teacher that they’re no good at their times tables. Though I suppose all of these say pretty strongly that my little ponies need to work on their grammar.”

I nodded slightly. “Oh. Right.”

Cheerilee gave me a pained look. “I’m making more of it than it is. Procrastinating, you know?” she said softly. “I don't even have a good reason for it, honestly. This is just how I get sometimes."

I nodded again. "Yeah… I know what you mean," I said.

Cheerilee gave me a sympathetic half-smile, then looked back down at her papers.

"Uh… hey!" I said, leaning forward. "Why don't I help you out some?"

"Oh, no." Cheerilee waved her hoof dismissively. "No, no. I couldn't ask you to do that. Plus, I'd need to show you how—"

"You don't need to show me anything," I said, reaching across the table and grabbing a chuck of essays off the unfinished stack. "I know what I'm doing. I'm teaching now, remember?"

Cheerilee's mouth hung open.

But she didn't stop me.

I know that move. I mostly know it because I've had a lot of ponies stop me super fast from doing something super dumb, so when somepony hesitates it means they actually really want you to do what you're about to do.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I can clear the sky in ten seconds flat, I think I can get these papers graded in the next hour.”

“But, Rainbow, I—”

“Bup, bup!” I held up a hoof to stop her. “Nope. I’m helping.”

“What about your game?”

I hesitated, hooves hovering over the papers in front of me. “It’s just a game,” I said. “It’ll still be there when we’re done. I wanna help you.”

Not waiting for an answer, I snatched a red pen away from Cheerilee and set to work.

“Thank you,” Cheerilee said. “Really. It’s nice to have somepony to work with.”

I chuckled. “Yeah. Sure is.”

I set the end of my pen under the first line of the first essay and started to read.

This semester, I learned a lot about the environment. The environment is cool because there’s lots of different kinds of biomes in it. For example, the taiga biome is a biome you can find in the environment.

If I’m honest, that’s really the last thing I remember before I fell asleep.

My dreams smelled like hayburgers.


“Rainbow?”

I sniffed softly and batted away the unwelcome hoof in my face.

"Rainbow, wake up."

Oh, shoot.

Cheerilee.

I opened my eyes.

There she was: nestled in beside me on my side of the booth, nudging me gently, looking a bit dazed and confused herself.

"Oh, hey," I murmured. “What’s up?”

Cheerilee giggled. A small snort snuck out. “You fell asleep! In the middle of the first essay!” she laughed some more. “Then I fell asleep. I think we pushed it a little too far.”

I pushed myself up from the booth. “You fell asleep too?”

“You just looked so cozy!” Cheerilee argued, her face flushing.

I smirked, but said nothing.

Cheerilee’s face crumpled into a scowl of disappointment, and she buried her face in her hooves. “Ugh. Sometimes I just wanna make up the grades and be done with it,” she muttered. “I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t take a good guess. I know my students.”

I shrugged. “So do it. Make some stuff up. At least buy yourself some time.”

“I can’t!” Cheerilee argued, still muffled by her hooves.

I grimaced. “Uh… why?”

“Because!” At last, Cheerilee lifted her face to look at me again. “I can’t do things halfway! I can’t cut corners. I either do it the right way, or not at all. Right?” She looked up at me expectantly.

I sighed. “Yeah. Right. I get it.”

Cheerilee huffed once more, then set her jaw and straightened up. “Okay. I’m going to need a coffee.”

“Gotcha covered,” I said.

I didn’t wait for Cheerilee to move, just leapt up and climbed lizard-style over the back of the booth and dropped to the tile on the other side. Cheerilee made a small squeak, but I expertly ignored it.

The super-early-super-late shift at the Hayburger isn't exactly a crack team. When I got up to the counter, the colt standing there was drumming the counter and softly (but passionately) singing along to the rock music playing over the speaker system.

"Hey," I said.

He didn't hear.

"Hey, kid!"

He jumped.

He looked at me like he was personally offended that I would interrupt his jam.

"Can I get a coffee, and, uh…" I looked over the menu. So many greasy weird foods. I sighed. "Can I get two coffees?"

"What size?" he grumbled.

"The biggest one you have."

He didn't say a word, just turned and walked back into the kitchen.

I waited a second for him to realize he'd left without me paying, then quickly scooped out the right amount of bits and dropped them on the counter. He'd figure it out.

Back at the booth, Cheerilee had managed to haul herself into a sitting position and was staring blank-eyed at the papers in front of her. Her mane was a mess. The dark circles under her eyes were so heavy and large that it looked like she'd gone ten rounds with a goat.

"She's still here?"

I looked over my shoulder and saw the colt waiter placing two enormous coffees on the counter.

"Uh… who?"

"The pink one," he said, nodding to Cheerilee. “She’s been here for days. Never stayed overnight, though. Wonder what her deal is.”

I furrowed my brows. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

The kid didn’t say anything. Honestly, he probably thought I was losing it a bit. No way he hadn’t seen me doing battle with the stupid arcade cabinet for the past sixteen hours or so.

I picked up the coffees and zipped back over to the booth with Cheerilee.

She looked up at me with a weak smile. “Thanks.”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She blinked. “Um. As okay as I can be after a night sleeping in a booth.” She laughed a little, light and airy and not at all convincing.

“Yeah, but…” I scooted in beside her. “I mean, how long have you been here?”

Cheerilee stiffened. She sighed, gathering her papers up into a stack and sliding them off to the side. “You know what? I’ll make you a deal,” she said.

“You… huh?”

“I’ll tell you what I’m avoiding if you tell me what you’re avoiding,” she said.

Then she looked at me and she smiled. And it’s hard to explain, but it was a different smile than the one she’d been giving me all day or night or whatever. That one was kinda… fake, I guess? But this one, with the glassy eyes and the messed up mane and the dark circles, seemed a lot more real. Sincere, I guess.

“I-I’m not avoiding anything,” I lied.

Her smile changed. Sincere to sympathetic. “Well… then neither am I.”

Level Four

View Online

“This game is impossible,” I muttered.

"Well, no duh," Starlight said. "Nopony would voluntarily stay in a Hayburger overnight playing an easy game."

"I didn't stay overnight!" I argued.

Starlight arched a brow.

"I mean, I… I slept," I quickly amended.

Starlight's eyes narrowed to mere slits.

"Listen, these booths are more comfortable than you'd—"

"You're insane," Starlight said. "Do I need to have somepony take you home by force? Should I call your supervisor?"

"No, no…" I murmured, leaning back in my seat and folding my hooves over my chest. "Look, Cheerilee stayed here overnight, too."

"Yeah, and so did the drunk guy who's too afraid to go home and face his wife," Starlight hissed, gesturing to a stallion slumped in a corner booth. "What's with Cheerilee, anyway? Isn't she, like… smart?"

I glared at Starlight.

She returned a look of disdain.

"Cheerilee's just hanging out 'til she finishes grading," I explained. "She fell asleep by accident."

"Is there no one working here who's at all worried about the number of unconscious customers?" Starlight asked no one in particular. "Oh, who am I kidding? There's no way they're paid enough for that." Starlight put her head in her hooves and slumped down onto the table.

I really didn’t have a response for that. I just grunted.

Still vigilant in her booth from earlier, Cheerilee sat hunched over her work, though her pen wasn’t moving quite as fast as it had been the day before.

I felt kinda bad. I dunno, maybe she really wanted to talk about something. Or… maybe she didn’t really have anything on her mind, and she was just trying to get me to talk. She’s a teacher, right? She probably cares about that stuff. And notices that stuff.

I notice that stuff, too.

Why hadn’t I asked?

“Okay, so… exactly how long should I let this go on before I physically drag you out of here?” Starlight asked.

"I'm fine!"

"You're not!" Starlight argued. "You're acting crazy, you're miserable, you slept in a booth--"

"Look." I grit my teeth. "I just… I really need a win right now, okay?"

Starlight was quiet. She gave me a weird look, almost scared, and said, "okay. Sorry."

"It's fine, I just--" I paused, drummed my hooves on the table, and tried to think of what to say. "Y'know what? Never mind."

"But--"

Before Starlight could stop me, I jumped up from the booth and set off at a determined trot towards Cheerilee.

At some point, she looked up at me, and just watched as I came skidding to a halt in front of her.

"We're gonna go play some Hoof-to-Hoof, okay?"

Cheerilee's mouth opened, but no sound came out. She looked down at her papers, up at my face, then back down at her papers. "But… Rainbow, I still have grading to do."

"I know," I said. "I just feel like we have some stuff to talk about. Might as well do it over a game, right?"

"Um…" Cheerilee's gaze wandered to the cabinets at the back.

"Oh, just come on," I said, grabbing Cheerilee around the arm and giving her a strong tug out of the booth.

She made a small squeak, but quickly found her footing on the tile. "Rainbow, seriously: I have things I need to--"

"It can wait for one game," I said, giving her another tug. "C'mon."

Sensing that this probably wasn't going to let up any time soon, Cheerilee relented, allowing me to drag her across the restaurant and over to the arcade cabinets in the back. She stood there like a lopsided stack of wood blocks while I loaded bits into the machine.

"We'll do three rounds. Me against you," I said. "You wanna be player one?"

"Um… sure."

Cheerilee stepped up to the controls. She tested up and rested her hooves on the buttons, giving the joystick an experimental swirl. She then gave me an expectant look.

I squeezed in beside her, flank to flank, and put my own hooves on the player two controls.

"Choose your character!"

I clicked through the choices without much thought and selected my go-to.

"Wyldfire!"

Cheerilee was a little more thoughtful, considering each fighter as she scrolled through the options. After only a single pass through, she settled on one of the bottom-of-the-barrel choices.

"Mystery Mare!"

I snorted. "Mystery Mare?"

Cheerilee cast me a cocky glance. "Have something to say about that?"

I shook my head. "No, no! She's, uh… she's cool. Not that popular."

Cheerilee shrugged. "What can I say? I guess I like the unpopular ponies."

"Get ready!"

Cheerilee's whole body stiffened. She sort of ducked down, almost getting into a fighting stance of her own. Her tail swished over the tile and grazed my rear hooves.

"Fight!"

Dodge, dodge--

Mystery Mare landed a hit right out the gate.

I panicked, rolled backwards, and tried to get in my go-to move.

Quarter-circle-B to charge and--

Mystery Mare expertly disrupted the charge and landed another hit.

I made a small sound of distress.

"So." Cheerilee fought a smile as she looked over at me in my panic to hold my own. "You wanted to talk?"

"I, uh--" Duck, duck, dodge. "Yeah. I wanted to tell you I-- y'know, I'm in the Wonderbolts."

Cheerilee laughed.

Mystery Mare landed another perfect hit.

"You wanted to tell me you're in the Wonderbolts?"

"No, I--"

"Sorry to tell you, Rainbow, but I did recognize you from your posters."

I laughed a bit too. "No, no. I know," I said. "But I-I'm in the Wonderbolts and I'm… pretty good!"

"So I've heard."

Quarter-circle-B, crack on the jaw from Mystery Mare.

"And, y'know, I like being good. The best, even," I continued. "It feels good. I mean, who doesn't like being the best? And in the Wonderbolts I'm like--I'm literally the best of the best. Y'know?"

Cheerilee nodded. "Mhm,” she hummed. “Still sounds like you’re trying to show off. I’m afraid non-students can’t earn the title of teacher’s pet, Rainbow.”

“No, I—” I sighed. Cheerilee gave me a smirk that made me forget why I was mad. "Just… lately I've been thinking, like… not many ponies stay in the Wonderbolts as they get older," I said.

Mystery Mare stayed her hoof from another devastating blow.

Wyldfire ran for a first aid kit.

"I know there's a clock on my time as a Wonderbolt. I'm not pretending I'm the exception to the rule," I said. "But a few weeks back, they moved a newbie up to lead one of the maneuvers that I consider my best."

Cheerilee took her hooves off the controls.

I glanced over at her. "Hey, the match isn't over!"

"You got pushed to second," Cheerilee said. "And then you came in here, and you saw--"

I set my jaw and hung my head.

"Oh." Cheerilee shuffled her hooves. "I see."

I sighed. "Are you seriously done playing already? Because--"

"Rainbow, I'm the one who beat your score."

Okay.

Wasn't expecting that.

I stepped down from the machine and looked at Cheerilee, who once again looked like a dog caught doing something it shouldn't have been. She gave me a half smile.

"You… huh?”

“TMM—it’s me,” she said. “It stands for ‘The Mystery Mare’.”

“Y-you…”

Words failed me.

I just stared at her.

She stared back.

Then she laughed. “I’ve been here every day for… for a while,” she admitted. “The teenagers who work here are starting to recognize me. And they’re checked out from most of reality about eighty percent of the time.”

I blinked.

Cheerilee sighed and covered her face with one hoof. "It's been hard lately to… I don't know." She looked down at the floor. "Twilight's school is getting so much recognition. It's hard not to feel like I might be, um. Wasting my time?"

I shook my head. "What? Wasting your--huh?"

"I'm not as good!" Cheerilee said. "I-I don't teach the big important things that Twilight does! I'm just a grade school teacher trying to get foals to learn to write legibly…"

I didn't know what to say. Cheerilee's face was absolutely glowing with embarrassment.

"I just wonder sometimes why I'm not teaching there," she said. I was starting to recognize the Twilight stress tone—it’s the sort of thing you’re trained to recognize when you’re friends for so long. “If teaching is my special talent, then shouldn't I be doing it at the best school? And… and if I can't teach at the best school, should I even be teaching at all?"

She reached up to tug mindlessly on her mane, eyes still glued to the floor.

All I could do was laugh.

At first, Cheerilee seemed hurt. She looked at me with this sort of shattered look in her eyes that broke my heart all at once.

"Cheer, that's nuts!” I said quickly. Then, just to diffuse the tension, “I thought you were supposed to be smart or something."

She giggled at that. An involuntary thing.

"You can't seriously think foals don't need to know the basics,” I argued. “I mean… how else are they supposed to do good in a school like Twilight's? I shudder to think what my teaching would be like if I couldn’t spell properly."

Cheerilee rolled her eyes. "To be fair I think the same could be said for the Wonderbolts,” she said.

I scowled. “Uh… I don’t follow.”

“It's not exactly the same experience with only one pegasus flying, is it?" she said, nudging me gently in the side.

I looked at her.

She was taller than me.

She looked down at me.

She smiled.

That was… I dunno.

I laughed. Just a little laugh that was kind of weird and awkward and sad.

She didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s different. That’s—”

“It’s not.” Cheerilee smiled. Gently. “We support the next generation, right? Students, Wonderbolts… at some point we have to step down and let the new best-ever step up.”

I bit my lip.

The game we’d been playing had long since ended. The cabinet now ticked through its few preset screens: the title slide, the character selection grid, and the high scores.

High scores topped by TMM.

By Cheerilee.

“Okay, fine,” I said. “Fine. Eventually somepony has to replace me. And… and maybe I do make them look good by being the best of the best beside them.”

Cheerilee beamed.

“But this!” I said, pointing one hoof emphatically at the screen.

Cheerilee jumped back and looked at the cabinet, eyes wide.

“This is—it’s not that!” I stuttered. “This is you beating me at Hoof-to-Hoof because you’re—I dunno, you’re crazy good at video games for some reason.”

“My sister is Mystery Mare,” Cheerilee said.

I blinked.

She blinked back at me.

“Your—”

“She has one of these in her house!” Cheerilee gestured to the cabinet. “I’m basically the master of it.”

My mouth hung open.

Cheerilee smirked.

She tossed her mane over her shoulder.

I was starting to feel a bit woozy, though I tried to ignore it.

“Okay,” I said.

Cheerilee’s smirk faded. “That’s it?”

“Uh… no.” I swallowed hard. “I, uh… I just came up with a great way to reinforce this life lesson, though.”

Cheerilee faked a gasp. “Don’t tell me you’re teaching?”

“Heck yeah I am,” I said. “And you’re going to teach me how to play this game like a master. Because teaching matters.”

Cheerilee made a face and clicked her tongue. “It’s flimsy. Maybe a C on argument logic.”

“Don’t care,” I said, grabbing her by the hoof and leading her back to the game. “Let’s do this.”

She gave me a look.

I looked back at her.

She was taller than me.

I liked it.

Level Five

View Online

“I’m never going to beat this game,” I whined, falling forward onto the controls as the cabinet counted down to my doom.

“You’re doing so much better, though!” Cheerilee put a hoof on my back and rubbed encouragingly between my wings. “I can see it. You’re improving like crazy. You’ve expanded your moveset by leaps and bounds!”

“It doesn’t matter,” I moaned. “I’m never, never, ever going to win. I’m just gonna be number two on the cabinet for the rest of my natural life.”

Cheerilee giggled. “Well, in that case, thanks for making me look good.”

“Tsk.”

She giggled again.

It was a nice sound.

Like, really nice.

“Dash!”

I whipped my head around and looked at the entrance. Starlight was standing in the open door waving to me, looking a little bit frazzled.

“One sec,” I said before zipping off.

Then, on second thought—

I zipped back.

“Don’t you dare beat me while I’m gone.”

Cheerilee laughed. “No promises, Rainbow.”

She took her spot at the controls. After a moment’s hesitation, I did my best to let go of the perfectionism, and went careening back to the door.

“You’re still here?” Starlight asked.

I scoffed. “I mean. Not still,” I said. “I just come here in the afternoon to play Hoof-to-Hoof with Cheerilee.”

Starlight blinked. “You… do?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“How many afternoons?”

“Uh…” I scratched the back of my head. “Most of them?”

“And she’s done her grading?” Starlight asked, craning her neck around me to see… well, I dunno what she thought she was going to see, but she sure was looking.

“Yeah, duh,” I said. “It’s, like, way after Hearth's Warming. Grades have been due for ages now.”

“Right…”

Starlight stood in the door, silently and shrewdly observing the situation. Judging by the look on her face, she saw some pretty heinous things, as is expected in the worst restaurant on the planet.

I sighed. “Can I help you?”

Starlight shook her head to clear away the daze. “Uh. I actually just came by to get food, if you can believe it.”

“Great,” I said. “Get food, then.”

Starlight sighed. “If I just leave you to your own devices you’re never going to ask her out, are you?” she asked.

I blinked.

Starlight blinked back.

“I… huh?”

“Wow, that Hayburger food really is rotting your brain,” she said. “She’s been hanging out with you every single day in this smelly awful place?”

I scoffed. “It’s not that bad.”

“I’m literally watching a full-grown stallion drink soda directly from the dispenser.”

I looked over my shoulder.

Starlight was not kidding.

“Yeah, but—”

“Don’t you have to buy food to play the games? What in Celestia’s name are you eating?”

“Mostly just coffee!” I argued. “A-and sometimes hayfries. And one time a sandwich.”

Starlight looked disgusted.

“You’re literally here to pick up food!”

“Not every day!” Starlight argued.

Then she sighed.

"Look. I'm just saying. I wouldn't hang around a place like this unless I really liked the mare I was hanging out with," she said. "And I mean, like… I really liked her."

Okay.

Maybe that was kinda fair.

I looked back over my shoulder at Cheerilee, who was methodically beating the crap out of yet another pixelated pro wrestler. Her tail swished along the floor.

Swish.

Swish.

"You win!"

The very first thing she did when she won was look for me. When she caught my eye, she waved and beamed with pride, even though she'd repeatedly kicked my flank at the game.

I think I just stood there like a statue.

Starlight smirked and waved politely.

Cheerilee had no idea who she was, but she smiled and waved politely in return, only with a twinge of confusion in her face.

"Seriously, Rainbow," Starlight said. "Remember how I said I was your coach?"

I rolled my eyes. "Uh-huh."

"You asked what I was coaching you in?"

"Yeah. I remember."

Starlight smirked and nodded once. "Great. I'm coaching you in life," she said. "Please go ask out the mare who's clearly into you so you can stop hanging out in a disgusting foal's restaurant. I'm literally begging you."

She gave me a pat on the shoulder, not waiting for me to respond, and brushed past me to get in line.

My mouth hung open for a long moment as I tried to think of something witty or snarky to say in return. Nothing came to mind, and so I turned, defeated, and trotted back over to the cabinet.

"You think you're ready for another go?" Cheerilee asked brightly. "Or are you already quitting for the day?"

"I, uh…" I rubbed the back of my head, thoroughly mussing my mane in the process. "Y'know, I think I'm done."

Cheerilee's smile faded. "Oh. O-okay," she said softly. "Well, we can meet back here tomorrow at--"

"Let's not," I said. "I think I'm kinda over this place."

Cheerilee tried to reply, but was cut off by the piercing scream of yet another unhappy foal.

She cleared her throat. "That's… fair," she said, with a forced giggle. "Well, alright. So I guess I'll--"

"Why don't we go someplace nicer?" I suggested.

That caught her by surprise.

"I-it doesn't have to be, like, a lot nicer," I corrected. "Y'know. We could go eat outside at Cafe Hay or something. O-or, if you'd like to play some games that aren't quite as sticky, you could, uh… you could come over my place."

Cheerilee blinked. "Don't you live in Cloudsdale?"

I smacked my forehead with one hoof. "Aw, crap. You're right. Duh."

"Never taken a non-pegasus out on a date before, have you?" Cheerilee asked slyly. She gave me a little nudge and a smirk to match.

My knees practically gave out. Does that happen? Do knees give out?

"Uh. Well, it's not so much that I haven't--I mean, it's not on purpose, I don't--"

"Rainbow."

I stopped myself. "Uh-huh?"

"I'll meet you at Cafe Hay tomorrow at our usual time," she said. "And, if you'd like, you can come over to my home afterwards. On the ground."

I think I broke out into a smile almost instantly, much as I wanted to pay it cool. "Really?"

Cheerilee giggled. "I've been waiting for you to… well, I don't know. To at least suggest we go spend some time somewhere else," she said. "I'd be stupid to turn down a date with the second-best Wonderbolt, wouldn't I?"

I forced a laugh. "Don't push your luck, Cheer."