Teacher's Pet

by Pascoite

Chapter 1: Teacher's Pet

Cheerilee beamed out over her class and made sure to hold eye contact with each student, if only for a split second. They'd all worked so hard, and the dears, her little flowers, deserved a bit of individual attention. “Great job on the spelling test, everypony!” she said, tapping a hoof on the stack of pages. “Nopony missed more than two.”

She shoved the pile of tests to the corner of her desk so they'd be easier to grab with her mouth. If only she had one of the older unicorn students to help, but nopony this age could levitate anything yet. Oh, well. She'd long since learned to make do—a quick flip of the lip and swish of the tongue, and the top one slid off easily onto the first student's desk.

Sweetie Belle's face lit up as she saw her grade. Snails, too. And that warm feeling pervaded her chest again. Every time a student made a connection and really learned something, it happened. Even the mundane things like the musty flavor of the paper and the clay-like scent of pencil lead under her nose reminded her of why she'd chosen this line of work. Or perhaps it had chosen her.

Funny, she didn’t remember liking school that much as a filly. The process had fascinated her, but not being on the other side of it. Odd how that worked sometimes—Apple Bloom coughed quietly, and Cheerilee’s eyes popped back into focus. She scrunched up her face, which made Apple Bloom laugh, and she continued on through her garden of little flowers.

Cheerilee made her way up the last aisle, leaving only the spare desk, off by itself against the wall. Last student, last paper. An irresistibly cute filly with a cream-colored coat and a burgundy mane sat there smiling, her grin only intensifying when she saw the “A+” splashed across the top: a perfect score, of course. Always a perfect score.

For a moment, Scootaloo stared over at the special desk, set aside from the others, and shook her head, just a little. Not that Cheerilee noticed, of course.

“We just have a math worksheet to do, and then it's time for recess!” she said once she'd reached the front of the room again. A small ripple of fidgeting passed over the class, a few glances at the clock—even Cheerilee flicked her eyes that way—and Snips whispered something to Truffle Shuffle. “Settle down, now. You're not dismissed yet.”

One more trip across the classroom, and Cheerilee distributed their assignments at the head of each row. And over to the secluded desk again, where she left the last sheet. The filly smiled up as if Cheerilee had given her the best Hearth's Warming present she could have imagined, then hunched up her shoulders and got to work. Behind Cheerilee, somepony, probably Silver Spoon, clicked her tongue. Not that Cheerilee noticed, of course.

The last rustle of paper sounded, and then a pervasive silence drifted over the room like a blanket. Cheerilee smiled, took a seat at her desk, and propped her chin on a hoof. All those wonderful children, all concentrating on their work. But one did notice her watching and peeked up from her page—that adorable filly, set apart from the rest, and already finished with three of the problems.

They were all important to her, though, her little flowers. She gazed around the room again and grinned at her surroundings: the soft scratch of pencils against paper, a quick whiff of rubber as a student furiously erased something off his page, the pleasing smoothness of the chair’s well-worn surface, and the faint taste of chalk in her mouth. Celestia help her, she actually liked that taste, in small amounts, to be sure. She wouldn’t actually eat chalk, but... it was similar to a bit of sweat letting an athlete know she'd earned something.

Minute by minute, the clock’s hands crept, and Cheerilee never lost her smile. Her favorite student had finished a short time ago and sat quietly with her head on her desk, like a good little filly. A few others had nearly reached the bottom of the page, and nopony had gone pale or hyperventilated or anything. That should be long enough; they all deserved a break.

“Alright, children! It looks like you’re all mostly finished—whatever you have left you can do while we’re having lunch. Is everypony ready for recess?” Pencils clattered against tabletops, and a roomful of heads nodded. Apple Bloom leaned over to whisper something to Sweetie Belle, but Cheerilee didn’t mind. Easily ignored, along with Diamond Tiara’s no doubt selfless attempts to bring the infraction to Cheerilee’s attention.

“Miss Cheerilee!” she kept chattering as she jabbed a hoof toward Apple Bloom.

Peering at Apple Bloom, Cheerilee cleared her throat, and a smirk briefly crossed Diamond Tiara’s face until... “Everypony outside!”

“Dibs on the merry-go-round!” Scootaloo shouted, already halfway to the door.

Cheerilee raised an eyebrow at Scootaloo’s mad dash for the exit and chuckled. She shook her head and waved the rest of the class out. “Go on,” she urged them. “We’ll take thirty minutes.”

Cheerilee’s eyes wandered over to the extra desk, and the filly took her time heading for the door, apparently content to meander out by Cheerilee’s side. If only she’d interact with her classmates more… “Come along,” Cheerilee said. She leaned her shoulder to nudge her student toward the playground, but one other straggler stood in the doorway.

Apple Bloom had already rushed out with the knot of other students. Hot on Scootaloo’s trail, of course. But Sweetie Belle had paused by the door, her mouth working as if to say something. After flicking her eyes back and forth between Cheerilee and the newly vacated seat, she clamped her jaw shut again and galloped outside.

For a moment, Cheerilee slumped her shoulders and frowned after Sweetie Belle. She didn’t mean to exclude anypony, but this filly needed—a soft nuzzle against her neck brought back her grin. Such a sweet filly! She trotted to the playground with her little companion by her side, and once they’d gotten out by the swings, she sat on her haunches.

And more wonderful sounds flooded her ears: conversation, squeals, the seesaw’s rusty creak, the clank of chains on the swingset, but above all, the laughter. She leaned over to her follower. “Why don’t you go and play with the other children?” she asked, angling her head toward the crowd. “You can, you know.”

The filly merely lay down in the grass next to her teacher and beamed at the frolicking students. Diamond Tiara glared back, but she always managed to be offended by something. In this case, she’d never do more than posture, though. Nothing to worry about.

Cheerilee caught herself. It wasn’t exactly fair to assume less innocent motives from her. Or Silver Spoon, for that matter. They all deserved her attention. But only one really needed it.

“Miss Cheerilee, can you give us a push?” Apple Bloom called from near the merry-go-round, her gleaming smile rivaling the sun’s brightness.

After a glance down at her little shadow, Cheerilee answered, “Not right now, dear, but I bet Scootaloo could. She gets that scooter going pretty fast.”

“Oh yeah...” Scootaloo replied, but Apple Bloom still hadn’t climbed aboard. “I got it,” Scootaloo muttered, jutting her muzzle toward the last free space. For all her single-mindedness, at least Scootaloo knew how to read ponies. In some ways, she was actually the most mature student in this class.

“But Miss...” Apple Bloom said, her mouth gaping open as she pointed a hoof beside Cheerilee.

Scootaloo hissed at her softly, and Apple Bloom finally clambered onto the merry-go-round. Her wings buzzing furiously, Scootaloo soon had it up to full speed, whipping around and around to the screams and screeches of all the riders. They hung on for dear life while the wind tore at their manes, one by one launching from that well-disguised torture device, until only Scootaloo remained. And among the casualties, Apple Bloom had landed closest to her teacher. She didn’t immediately hop to her hooves like the rest.

Cheerilee could recognize that look, like a child who’d finally given in and taken a bite of something she hated.

“But Miss—”

“Sst!” Scootaloo shook her head.

What had those two so agitated? Cheerilee shrugged and scrunched her nose up. “You sure you don’t want to play with them?” she whispered to the filly by her side. “It looks like fun.”

Her special student just closed her eyes and leaned a bit harder into Cheerilee’s side. Cheerilee could feel the soft breath on her shoulder.

Most of the shell-shocked children had staggered back to their hooves again—half slunk away, while the rest climbed back onto the merry-go-round and cheered Scootaloo on for a second gamble of life and limb. And Apple Bloom watched a minute longer, her ears drooping, before going for another whirl.

Cheerilee's hoof flinched, first to stand, then toward the warmth against her side, but it finally settled back into its original place. She gave each of her students ample attention. She knew she did. But this student needed a little extra. It'd make things easier if she wanted to play with the others, and it was important to ask, but she always stayed with Cheerilee. So sweet and friendly and cute, but she'd always be different. Nothing would change that. Most days, Cheerilee would restrain herself from fawning like this, but today was different.

She lay down in the grass and closed her eyes. All the wonderful sounds, and if she couldn't see those surreptitious looks...

“Hoof painting time!” Cheerilee said as she dropped the pile of completed math worksheets onto her desk. “Today, I want you to make a picture of somepony who's special to you—somepony who always makes you smile.”

The students all dipped a hoof into the jars of paint on their desks and daubed away. Well, most of them—Snips and Snails had to give the paint a taste first.

A good fifteen minutes, and the class should have had enough time for some recognizable pictures to take shape. Cheerilee paced through the aisles and broke the silence with an occasional pat on the shoulder or a “Good job!” for the budding artists. Apple Bloom had started on several heads, but each time, had changed her mind and started on another. A recognizable Applejack and Big Macintosh stood out at least, and another looked like Granny Smith, but seven others lay scattered about the paper.

Maybe that was what drew Cheerilee to Apple Bloom. A strong sense of family—and Cheerilee’s class certainly felt like a family of sorts, at least to her.

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes up with a sheepish grin. “I couldn't decide, Miss Cheerilee!” she said.

“That's okay,” Cheerilee replied with a wink. “I never said you had to do just one.”

She chuckled and moved along to Silver Spoon's and Diamond Tiara's desks. They'd both painted the president of the Royal Canterlot Bank, if she wasn't mistaken. Featherweight was adding Photo Finish's sunglasses, and Scootaloo—no surprise—had streaked rainbow stripes behind a sky-blue body.

“Is that... Applejack?” Cheerilee asked when she'd gotten to Sweetie Belle's desk. The pony in the picture wore a cowpony hat and a coat of mud, but had a horn and blue eyes. Odd...

“No,” Sweetie Belle answered, “that's Rarity with Applejack's hat on!” Rarity? All muddy? Cheerilee might have to ask about that later. She nodded and moved toward the next student, but a faint cough drew her attention back.

“Miss Cheerilee, I...” Sweetie Belle’s eyes flicked over to the secluded desk, but she drooped her ears and sighed, and any further words remained lodged in her chest.

Cheerilee gave her a one-hoofed hug. “Excellent work, Sweetie Belle. You know all of my little flowers are special to me.” A tingle in Cheerilee’s neck threatened to become a whimper. Maybe that would keep Sweetie Belle happy, at least for today. She only needed today. Despite her best efforts, some students were a little more special than others, and she couldn’t help herself.

She made a hasty token appearance at each of the next few desks, then strolled up to the last one. On the desktop, Cheerilee’s likeness adorned the paper. Standing in front of a chalkboard, leading her class through a lesson, seeming to look right back at her, teach her, make her... make her feel it from the other side, as if she were one of the little flowers herself.

Was it like this for her wonderful colts and fillies? She hoped so, even if her own school days hadn’t exactly felt that way. She bit her lip and turned back toward her seat, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle, their brows knit, exchanging glances.

Cheerilee sighed. She wasn’t exactly being fair. But an indulgence every now then then couldn’t hurt, and they really had no reason to feel jealous…

The final bell had rung a good thirty minutes ago, and the class had long since departed, except for a few stragglers awaiting their parents outside. In the stillness of the empty classroom, Cheerilee went about her usual end-of-day routine: get everypony’s seats back in a straight line, pin up the artwork to dry, close the windows, give the floor a good sweep. And before she sat down to grade papers and prepare tomorrow’s lesson plan, one last thing—she clapped the blackboard erasers together hard, sending a thin white cloud of dust swirling around her.

Then her favorite part.

After a couple of misfires, she let fly with a high-pitched sneeze. She sniffled and drew the back of a hoof across her nose, just above her guilty smile. Why did she enjoy that so much? She’d never really thought about it before.

Maybe it was the silence at the end of the day—after all the chattering and laughter, the quiet signified those lessons going out into the world. Still a good thing—she didn’t hate the silence. But her customary sneeze sort of added her own punctuation.

Cheerilee took a damp rag and wiped down the chalkboard, then was about to plop into her chair when she heard a quiet voice behind her.

“M-Miss Cheerilee?” Sweetie Belle asked. “C-can we talk to you?” No doubt the others would be with her. Nothing could incite simultaneous dread and laughter like those three. So, which did they have in store today? Cheerilee turned toward the inevitable trio—Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had crowded into the doorway as well, of course. Scootaloo wore a scowl, but the other two had their ears folded back.

“Certainly,” Cheerilee replied, motioning for them to come back in. They took a few steps inside, but stayed clustered together.

“We—we wanted—” Sweetie Belle started, but Scootaloo jabbed a hoof at her shoulder. Sweetie Belle hissed back, “We agreed to do it this way!” Apple Bloom added a sharp nod, and Scootaloo finally crossed her forelegs and rolled her eyes.

So, the time had come. They’d want to know why that one filly deserved special treatment, why she got the most attention, whether they’d misbehaved somehow. Cheerilee’s shoulders knotted, and yet her heart grew suddenly light. Yes, maybe the time had come. She sighed and heard the question before it had gained a voice.

After clearing her throat, Sweetie Belle tried again, her eyes fixed on the floor and her voice plodding on as if reading a rehearsed line. “We wanted to know something, Miss Cheerilee. We’ll understand if you don’t wanna answer, but...” Off script now, she hunched up her shoulders and met Cheerilee’s gaze, the dam of her words broken. “Why do you sometimes talk to yourself on the playground? And why do you always put an extra paper at that empty desk? We’re... worried about you.”

Cheerilee frowned and glanced back to where the cream-and-burgundy filly sat calmly watching in her seat. Her ever-present smile broadened as she nodded, and her sparkling eyes conveyed so much. They had to—she never spoke. Ever. It’s okay, her eyes said. You can tell them.

Turning back to face the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Cheerilee sighed again. She rubbed a hoof up and down her foreleg. Yes, the time had come, but that didn’t make it easy. Her heart raced. “I-I told you once how I got my cutie mark and found a deep love for teaching,” she said in a hushed voice. “Do you remember?”

Apple Bloom immediately dropped to her haunches and pricked her ears. “Ooh, I love stories!” Sweetie Belle soon followed suit, but Scootaloo continued to pout.

One more glance at her special student—the little filly laid her head down on her desktop and strained her ears forward, the way she always had during story time. Over the threshold, then. No going back...

“Just because I had my cutie mark didn’t mean I was a teacher yet. You have to go to a special school to learn how to be the best teacher you can be.” Cheerilee drew her mouth into a taut line, and her dewy eyes strayed over to the window and the sun hanging low behind the trees. “By the time I graduated, I had a little flower of my own—you could say she was my first student.”

Cheerilee sniffled and let the world go out of focus. “I like to imagine her in my class. If that made you uncomfortable, I apologize.”

She let those ghosts of times past dance in front of her eyes. It was always so easy to get lost there. And so hard to find her way back.

A phantom smile crossed her face, and she blinked a few times. “I like to see her, but she doesn’t talk—I-I can’t remember her voice well enough. I used to try, but I never got it quite right, and how could I forget something like that? I-I don’t...” She shook her head and shot a glance at the extra desk, which sat there empty. As it always had.

She felt a light touch on her shoulder, then a low voice next to her. “I told you we shouldn’t have butted in.”

Cheerilee’s mind came back from her memories, and she wrapped Scootaloo in a hug. And Scootaloo hugged her back. No eye roll, no pantomimed gagging—just an honest hug. “No, no, girls. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“She’s—” Scootaloo’s mouth worked to find an appropriate word for the situation, as if anything about it could be appropriate for one so young “—gone now?”

Cheerilee nodded, wiped her eyes dry, and donned a warm grin. “Yes. My little Joy. And she sure deserved that name. It… would have been her birthday today.” She sat on the floor and gestured the other two closer, her precious flowers. “Let me tell you about her.”

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