Cookies at Midnight

by Orbiting Kettle

Chapter 1: The Sky Above the City

The sky above the city was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Sitting between towers of paper, Cheerilee looked out of the window and thought about relevance.

How many of her students knew where that bizarre description had come from? Did it matter if they had no idea? Or had it become some weird phrasing philologists would obsess over in another couple of decades?

She was getting distracted. That meant it was getting late. Or she needed more coffee. Or both.

The piles of documents sitting on her desk stared at her. Reams and reams of paper wildly proliferating in one of their last habitats, the public school. Somehow it was like most of them ended in her office in the end.

"What are you doing here?"

Cheerilee started and lifted her head.

Sunset Shimmer stood in the door wearing a ridiculously glittery wool hat and black padded jacket, bloated duffel bag in one hand and plastic bag from Bull's Eye Grocery Stores in the other.

"Got some work to finish." Cheerilee eyed the snow on Sunset's jacket and how the heating was starting to doing its work on it. "You are dripping all over my office."

Sunset put the bags down. There was the sound of glass clinking. "Wouldn't do that if you weren't here. What's so urgent that you have to do it on Hearth's Warming Eve? For heaven's sake, it's almost nine, am I such a slave-driver?"

"I'm almost done. Look—" Cheerilee tapped on one a thick manila folder. She had no idea where the school administration still got those, but looking into that was a bit low on her priorities. "—we have to approve the Sparkle-Pie Industries donation for the new wing. And I have to sort through the applications for the replacement for Cranky. And... well, there's a lot of stuff and if I get it done now, I won't have to fight with it next year."

It was admirable how Sunset could almost radiate an aura of authority when she wanted to. Still, the hat ruined the effect as she declared, "With the powers invested in me as Principal, I hereby declare that it can wait, you will bring me half of the work after the holidays, and that you shall now return to your home to properly celebrate!"

Cheerilee put back her glasses, took her pen, and returned to the form she had been trying to tame. "And as Vice-Principal I remind you once again that being Principal doesn't mean you're royalty and that you can't make such declarations." She marked a checkbox, then looked up. "By the way, what are you doing here?"

"Friendship stuff." Removing the hat freed a mass of red and yellow hair. Sunset opened her jacket, revealing a black suit. "Kind of a tradition at this point. Which means I'm well cared for. You, on the other hand, are still here."

There was no way of avoiding it. Cheerilee groaned. "Look, my sister's flight got canceled. She and the rest of the family will arrive sometime tomorrow afternoon, and I got an empty home prepped for the festivities I don't care for at the moment."

The form wanted to know the serial number on the attached declaration AA-CPT-4426. Had she filled out that one yet?

"Wanna join me?"

"Wasn't it friendship stuff?" Cheerilee was pretty sure she had filled it. It was the one with the markings that felt like nails scratching on her soul.

Sunset hung the jacket on the coat hanger. "It is. Specifically, I and other professionals get to complain about our jobs, drink wine until early in the morning, and bake cookies in the Home-Ec classroom." She moved over to the air duct and held her hands in the warm airstream. "There's also junk food and music we’re too embarrassed to admit we like."

Maybe the form was under the left paper tower on her desk. Cheerilee carefully tried to lift it. "Will there be magic, explosions, demons, fire, mind-control, ancient evils, over-excited vegetation, reality-holes, or rampaging beasts?"

The pensive look on Sunset's face and the long pause she took before answering were not comforting. "Probably not."

Cheerilee massaged her temples. "Is this illegal?"

"Nope, all authorized in writing by Superintendent Celestia and even covered by the insurance. At least as far as our insurance covers stuff. I'm still working on the whole acts of God angle, but that's a bit of a mess."

There was no declaration AA-CPT-4426 under the tower, but there was a solid foundation of empty AA-CPT-4429s. Cheerilee looked up. "You said there was wine, right?"

The Home Economics classroom was warm, cozy, and, in Cheerilee's opinion, excessively accessorized. Not that she would complain about it, considering it had been another donation by Twilight and Pinkie and that it probably had helped to create at least two chefs on their way to stardom.

Starlight sat on one of the tables, the heavy bag she had pulled through the portal at her side. "I swear I'll never get a grip on this—" She waved her hands."—two leg stuff. Each and every time I have to get used to it again."

"Stop complaining, you're doing great." Sunset opened the bag and pulled out a large cardboard box. As she opened it, the box sparked for a moment. "Ah, Crystal Mountains Flame-Pie, you're gonna cause so many regrets! Great choice, Starlight."

"What were those sparks?" Cheerilee leaned forward and looked into the box. She saw what looked like a thin, raw pizza without sauce and covered in cream, onions, and mushrooms. "You said no magic and no fire."

"I said probably, and that was a failing preservation spell, keeps it fresh and ready for the oven. We have the same thing on the drums of cookie dough for later. Considering it ended, I think it still counts as no magic." Sunset walked over to one of the gas ovens and turned it on. "And that Flame-Pie would be worth it anyway. Hadn't had one in...Whatever, it's good stuff."

"And it goes well with this one." Starlight rummaged through her bag and pulled out a bottle with a wax-sealed cork. She took a corkscrew and attempted a convoluted stabbing ritual.

It wasn't something Cheerilee could stand to see. She took the bottle and the corkscrew without encountering too much resistance. "Now that I'm thinking about it, can we drink alcohol on school property? I'm pretty sure the only reason half the faculty doesn't come in hammered is because it's forbidden."

Sunset grabbed three mugs and brought them to the table. "School's closed and it's specified that no minors are allowed. As long as we don't smash anything, it's fine."

The cork came out with a satisfying pop. Cheerilee poured ruby-red wine in the cups. "So, you said it was kind of a tradition. How long have you done this?"

"I think it has been, what, ten years? Eleven?" Starlight took her cup and held it in both her hands. "Hmmm, a bit cold. I suggest letting the wine get to room temperature."

"Twelve years. We started the same year I began with my master's." Sunset sniffed at her cup. "Weird combination of events had everybody else busy that year and me stressed out and depressed. It was a bit of a hard time. I didn't want to go over to Equestria because I felt like I would never come back. So Starlight came over and we got drunk in my flat."

Starlight put the plastic bag on the table and pulled out a bag of chips. "Yeah, that year was pretty rough for everycreature. The fourth year as Headmare was crazy like you wouldn't believe. Twilight was just getting a grip on the manage a whole nation business and I hadn't seen her for months. I was about to snap, let me tell you. Couldn't wait to jump to this side and leave everything behind."

The wine had the color you usually saw only in the pictures of glossy magazines. Cheerilee sighed and said, "You know, Sunset, you could have come to me."

"I was in my 'I can't be a burden and I can't disappoint my teachers again' phase. You’d think I would've known better, but that lesson took a while to stick." Sunset opened a cupboard and pulled out a steel bowl. "So, stress, bad timing, loneliness, and alcohol. A pretty bad combination if you don't add a friend. Anyway, after that night and after the hangover, I felt better. The next year we did it again, and then again. Add some ritual, and you get a tradition. For example, we never use glasses and we always eat unholy combinations of greasy trash."

Starlight opened the bag and poured chips into the bowl. "We just got better stuff to eat for dinner and we left out the hangover. By the stars, we learned that lesson. I've no idea what you put into cheap boxed wine on this side, but I'm sure it would be a crime in Equestria." She picked up a chip and ate it. "Your junk food is way better, though, so we kept that. Should probably be illegal too."

"I kind of agree with that?" Cheerilee reached for the chips. "So, I get that it became something with time, but don’t you have something better to do?"

Sunset sipped her wine. "Tomorrow I'm going to the Apples for lunch. Tonight is for us."

Very few clues remained of the Flame -pie's existence, mostly in the form of crumbles on the plates. Cheerilee felt the warmth of a good meal in her belly and of good wine on her cheeks. She held her cup in both hands and drank. It was dry, round, and she thought she could finally taste all those hints and aromas she always read about on the rear label of bottles.

"...and then Chancellor Neighsay pulled him out of my office before I could waste seventeen years of good behavior and incinerate him."

Sunset leaned back in the chair. "Heh, that's one of the reasons I miss magic the most."

"To incinerate people?" Cheerilee eyed the Principal. "I thought you've grown out of it."

Another bag of chips emerged from the apparently infinite supply. The mascot was a screaming chili pepper and dire warnings were plastered all over it. Sunset poured it into the once again empty bowl. "Got back into it since I became principal. Come on, Cheerilee, we’ve been doing this job for a year and a half, don't tell me there wasn't a single occasion when you wished you could set something on fire with your mind."

A long procession of people marched through Cheerilee's mind. Concerned parents, even more concerned adults who weren't even parents, Cinch. She shuddered. "Ok, I admit it. There may have been one or two occasions. But that makes it worse. I mean, the temptation seems like a pretty good reason to not have magic."

Starlight filled her cup with the last remainings of the bottle. "You learn how to handle it. Sometimes it takes a bit longer. Or a lot longer. It was one of the reasons I panicked for years after Twilight made me Headmare. I woke up from nightmares about enslaving the school to get perfect pupils. Sunset has probably a whole bookshelf filled with journals full of me whining about it."

"Right, and that was why I was panicking when Celestia offered me the position of Principal." Sunset pushed the bowl to Starlight. "On my first day, I was ready to bolt right through the portal and never come back. I didn't do it just because I feared my new Vice-Principal would follow me right through, and bring me back." She raised her mug at Cheerilee. "Which brings me to the point, I never understood why you weren't Principal."

"I refused the position."

"What?" Sunset leaned forward. "Why?"

Cheerilee swung the wine around in the cup. It was like looking at a liquid jewel. "Because I don't want to do that. I... Tell me, how often do you teach? How often do you handle the students day to day? I became a teacher because I wanted them to become good people and, hopefully, to get them to learn something along the way. A principal has her hands full all the time, and she only gets to deal with students when things escalated far too much. Me? I still get to be a bit more hands-on. I mean, I almost refused the Vice -Principal job too. It's just that Luna can be pretty convincing."

"You..." Sunset stood up and pointed a finger at Cheerilee. "You threw me under the bus!"

A very evil—and shockingly unbecoming for an educator—grin crept on Cheerilee's face. "And you liked it. Come on, you're good at it and it tickles your soul in all the right ways. I was your teacher, I know you. So, yes, I threw you to the wolves because I knew you would skin them and wear their pelts."

"Quite the visual. I also think I lost track of the—what's that? Metaphors? Turns of phrase?" Starlight snickered and threw a chip at Sunset. "Sit down, there's nothing you can do. She's right about you and there's no chance in Tartarus she would have taken that job anyway. I mean, I tried to get the Cheerilee on my side to work at the School of Friendship. Whoever managed to teach something to Snips and Snails was prime material. Didn't succeed, she told me more or less the same thing."

Sunset sat down and grabbed the bowl. "Cheerilee, you're an evil, manipulating woman."

"Takes one to know one, Principal Sunset Shimmer." With morbid curiosity, Cheerilee looked at Sunset grabbing a handful of chips and stuffing it in her mouth. "So, Starlight, I never thought about it, but how is your Cheerilee? I mean as a... person? Pony?"

"She's a great teacher." Starlight tapped her chin. "What else? She's fiercely defensive of her students. A lot of times, she seems to be one of the very few sane ponies in Ponyville. She's pretty patient and dedicated."

"I see." It sounded like something from a resume. A flattering one, but still a resume. Was she just that? A life of work? She glanced over her cup to Sunset who, red in the face and gasping for air, was trying to get something from the duffel bag. "She seems like a nice person."

Sunset pulled a carton of milk out of the bag with shaking hands, her fingers slipping on the cap.

"Oh, she's very nice." Starlight stood up and went to Sunset. She took the carton, opened it, and gave it back. "One of the pillars of the town. Made sure two generations learned something before they had to face the world."

A trickle of milk ran down the side of Sunset's mouth as she drank in avid gulps from the carton.

Starlight grabbed a paper towel and hold it out to Sunset. "That's why I think you wouldn't have big issues with magic. You remind me a lot of her. The Cheerilee on my side is an earth-pony. She can't set creatures on fire using magic but she can kick them through a stone wall. And yet she never did that. I admire her for it."

Still panting, Sunset sat down again and cleaned her face. "Girls, I think we should leave those chips for the gin later on."

The sweet smell of vanilla had filled the classroom by the time Cheerilee pulled another tray from the oven. "Not that it's not fun and all, but why are we making tons of cookies at—" She looked up at the clock on the wall "—half-past ten at night?"

Starlight opened another drum of cookie dough. It was marked, like all the others, with three balloons, and it sparked when the cover was lifted. "Because Pinkie wouldn't forgive us if we left all the spies and cultists without cookies on Hearth's Warming Eve. That's the reason we pass the night in the school instead of Sunset's flat."

"Oh, I under—" Cheerilee froze. "Sorry, what?"

"Right, that never came up, I suppose." The way Sunset looked away suggested guilt. The awkward grin compounded the effect. "Hehehe, that's on me, I guess. It's the portal, really. Over the years, it kinda attracted some attention, with the explosions, ancient monsters, and all that other stuff. Almost every house around the school is occupied by an alphabet soup agency, ancient mystical order, or cult dedicated to the sun, the moon, the stars or some variation of that."

Starlight hauled the drum to the table. It was the last one of the astonishing numbers that had somehow fitted into her bag. "Oh, most of them are pretty reasonable, a couple are even nice."

"Well, that and they mostly pass the time spying and sabotaging each other." Still avoiding Cheerilee's eyes, Sunset filled up the cookie press. "Nothing to worry about."

A glacial calm overtook Cheerilee. She pulled off the oven mittens and the apron and walked to Sunset. Fists on her sides, she channeled decades of asserting authority over teenagers, and said with the calm that preceded the storm, "Government agencies and cults spying on the school is nothing? Sunset Shimmer, how exactly is that nothing?"

A warm cookie in the hand, Starlight said, "They got a stern lecture."

Cheerilee turned her head and asked, "Beg your pardon?"

"Cheerilee, look, it's fine, really." Sunset raised her hands. "They tried to bag Starlight here half a dozen years ago. She’d come through the portal for Hearth's Warming Eve, and they captured her. My friends got her back, and then pony Twilight came and had a stern lecture for them. Remember when Twilight got her wings and was this angelic figure shooting rainbows all around? Well, she’s gotten a little bit more powerful since she became ruler."

Starlight bit into the cookie. "Heh, that was quite the scene. Applejack unhinged the hangar doors, Rainbow Dash collected all their weapons, and then Princess Twilight came floating in, eyes glowing white, wings wide open, hair floating in swirls of purple magic. And then she scolded them."

"There were spontaneous friendships all around for three thousand miles. Freaked them out really good." Sunset held the oven mittens up to Cheerilee. "Believe me, they have no intention of doing anything, I know it."

They seemed both sincere, and yet it didn't sit well with Cheerilee. She took the mittens and put them one again. "How do you know they won't do anything? I can't allow putting the students at risk."

Sunset took Cheerilee's mittened hands in her own. "I'm certain of it, I swear. And, well, we work to keep it that way. With cookies."

The evening had been a roller-coaster. One more loop was hardly surprising. Still, Cheerilee needed to know. "What?"

A heap of scrolls poured out from Starlight's overturned bag. Far more than it should have been able to fit. Starlight grinned and said, "Cookies and Pinkie Pie. Pony Pinkie Pie, to be exact. See, she's very bummed out that spooks and cultists have to be here for the holidays, so she prepares a little personal message for each of them and gives us the addresses where we can find them."

Sunset nodded. "Pinkie Pie is the sweetest pony there is, but this kind of thing tends to make those who aren’t used to her nervous. And on this side of the mirror? Nobody is used to her."

Cheerilee leaned back against the wall. Sunset, head in her lap and chili powder fingerprints on her white shirt, snored.

Starlight had rolled up against Cheerilee's side, the sleeping bags and yoga mattresses Sunset had pulled out from her office forming a functional nest. Pretty comfortable too. It was clear Sunset and Starlight had some experience on the matter.

The clock on the wall told Cheerilee it was five in the morning. It had been a strange, fun, exasperating, comforting night.

She petted Sunset's head. What a weird woman. What a bizarre mix of enthusiasm, love, dedication, and recklessness.

A lost soul who had rebuilt a whole life in a world that hadn't been her own. One she had made her home.
Cheerilee thought about her house. Fully decorated and empty. Waiting for her sister and the rest of the family to fill it with life for a week. It would happen tomorrow. Or was it today? No matter. She would probably be dead tired and happy.

What happened when the holidays ended, though? Knowing what she knew, could she work like before?

Sunset snorted and murmured something.

"Right, dumb question." Cheerilee smiled. Her office felt more like a home than her house. She would keep working and doing what she had done before. The other things she would leave for the principal to deal with. Not everybody could be Sunset Shimmer, after all.

Her life had become more complicated, that was sure. Not that she would be alone facing it. A giggle escaped her. Transdimensional baker ponies were looking out for her. Headmares of improbable schools drank gin in her Home Ec Classroom. Eager cultists wearing robes decorated with stars waited for cookies. Friends.

She closed her eyes.

She should try to sleep. In the morning there was some cleaning up to do.

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