By Paleo Prints

Chapter 3.5: Happy Hearth's Warming, I Don't Want to Fight Tonight

Note: This chapter occurs between 3 and 4. I'll switch the order to reflect that in a week, after the subscribers see it.

Dust-covered glass greeted Cheerilee as she opened the battered chest. Years of partially-sober ornament design parties flooded back as she scrutinized rows of fragile constructions. A Ramanes album cover reproduction scrawled on a piece of wood that could charitably be called a square leaned on a glass ball with "Teecher's Pet" spelled out lovingly, if only approximately, across in graffiti-like hoofwriting. Cheerilee smiled as she pushed aside the rows of crystallized memories.

Her eyes lit up at the checkered pattern sticking out underneath an ancient diminutive blackboard. Picking both up with her teeth, Cheerilee deposited them on the table. Wow, she thought with a deep sigh and a dusty mouth. You know, I bet unicorns never learn to control their saliva for delicate teeth work.

Written across the small chalkboard was the simple statement, "We Love You, Mom & Dad." Next to it was a checkerboard-framed picture of Cheerilee and Lyra at a party. She waved out of the frame at herself, decked out in bangles, frizzy hair, and lightning bolt earrings. Next to her was Lyra, staring at Cheerilee with an admiring gaze and a blush only partly explained by alcohol.

Yeah, after I hung that up was about the time Mom cancelled Lyra's sleep-overs. Cheerilee smiled. At least, the official ones. Thank Celestia for windows.

Long moments past while Cheerilee stared into the past. With a determined start, she trotted into her bedroom. As the click of a latch and a jingling of metal filled the air, Cheerilee heard the door open.

"Ditzy? Ly-Ly? Wait there, I'll be right out! I've got a surprise!"

Cheerilee raced out, a single bright blue lightning bolt dangling from her ear. Her enthusiasm ground to a halt when she met the sardonic, violet eyes of an older unicorn,

"You know," he said as he levitated a package under the tree, "the flannel and the pastel really conflict. Pick one of them and be done with it, dear."

Cheerilee smiled while the inside of her brain called her mouth muscles liars. "Mister Heartstrings! How lovely for you to join us. Is anyone else going to join us?"

He sniffed as he found a kitchen stool and opened a wine bottle. "Here? I doubt you'd have the room. Ballad is staying at her coltfriend's family winter house. It's not like Lyra talks to her sister anyway."

Cheerilee stared as a full wineglass emptied into Jazz. "Um, that's meant-"

"To help me deal with... this," Jazz said as he waved his hoof irritatedly around the room and levitated more wine into his cup.

"And what about Lyra's mom. She's not spending time with her family members?"

A chuckle echoed an empty glass. "No, although depending on her sobriety and faithfulness to medication she may be generating some."

Cheerilee walked to the edge of the counter, grabbing the half-filled bottle in her teeth and depositing it in the fridge. She leaned back against it, crossing her front hooves and frowning.

Jazz smiled. "That's adorable, if useless. I have a horn, you know."

"Try it and you'll pull back a stump." Cheerilee considered this. "Or, gain a stump somewhere logical." She narrowed her eyes, only managing to draw a laugh out of Jazz as he raised his hooves in surrender.

"Enough. Is there is coffee?"

Seconds later caught Cheerilee headfirst inside the refrigerator gazing past preserved muffin experiments and Lyra's ill-saved leftovers on a quest for creamer that Daring Do would give up in favor of something with spiked pits. She pushed aside a pile of hay fries half-wrapped inside a stapled together cling film bag.

"Ly-Ly, you never clean up your messes right," She said softly.

"I agree," came Jazz's voice from behind. It startled her, sending her head into a shelf and nearly tipping over a bowl the last tenants had left when she moved in. Cheerilee straightened the shelf with the side of her face as she reached out a hoof to slide it into its groove.

"Sorry, music instructor's hearing," came the barely apologetic response. "You know, I think I finally have the right perspective to make out what my daughter sees in you."

Cheerilee gently pushed the pretty floral bowl of gelatinous mass to a safe corner and breathed out. With professionally faked cheerfulness, she inquired, "And that would be? From a position of hospitality? Resourcefulness, perhaps?"

Jazz let out an amused chuckle. "The correct term is 'behind,' my dear."

Cheerilee's eye twitched as she pulled her front out of the refrigerator.

"I don't blame her," Jazz continued, obviously to the looming danger, "I've learned many pleasant lessons from my earth pony ex-wife myself. Amazing stamina, that breed."

Cheerilee's mouth slammed a tray of mugs onto the counter, sending spikes of coffee into the air. She moved very close to Jazz, showing a smile that would have made a tooth fairy reach for his wallet. "What do you want, Sir?" Cheerilee said with a rising tone of voice. "One lump, two, or a whole lot?"

Jazz nodded and levitated the unsweetened cup to his lips. "Coffee is drank for utility my dear, not flavor. So, should I just leave Lyra's present under the tree?"

Cheerilee stayed quiet for several seconds as Jazz downed the cup. Finally shrugging, she sat down next to Jazz and took a mug herself. "Tree is fine. What did you get her?"

"A Longnote Orichacum Lyre with adamant sap-treated strings."

Cheerilee had enough presence of mind to aim her mouthful of coffee away from the stallion with the expensive present.

Jazz only smiled. "The towels wouldn't be on the other side of the kitchen, would they?"

Cheerilee returned his gaze as she pulled a rag from a nearby drawer. "You only get one show, 'Sir'." She shook her head. "I haven't heard a single pleasant word from you about your daughter. Why get her something that cost more than my tuition?"

Jazz flashed the grin of somepony who used first-born colts as currency. "Think of it as an investment in her future."

The front door was flung open. "Hey, everypony! I hope you have room for Donut Dan's!"

Ditzy Doo trotted into the room with a yawn and several bags hanging off of her curled feathers. She deposited her bounty on the counter, bleary eyes going wide at Jazz's presence. "Mister Heartstrings! How nice to see you."

Jazz leaned over the counter. "Of course. Your darling father wouldn't happen to be here, would he?"

Ditzy shook her head. Jazz nodded with the relief the beta timber wolf shows when the pack alpha falls into a canyon. "Good," he said as he turned away from Ditzy. "Cheerilee, my daughter needs a rich husband or a career. She has to provide or be provided for."

Ditzy reached her feather's over the counter, brushing Cheerilee's hair out of her eyes and petting her forehead before finally taking a cup of coffee. Cheerilee's shoulders relaxed at the touch.

Cheerilee risked another venture into the minefield of the conversation. "With a teacher's salary and her playing gigs we should be able to make do until she gets her degree."

Jazz snorted. Cheerilee eyes flashed.

Ditzy looked up from her coffee with a frown. "Sir," she said neutrally, "Cheerilee and Lyra both have a lot of talent."

"I know about this one," Jazz said with a leering wink. "I got a show earlier."

Ditzy's blood froze at Cheerilee's embarrassed blush. She carefully put down her cup and folded her wings in front of her. "You know, my father told me he'd be happy with my career regardless of what I chose, as long as I followed my heart."

Jazz rolled his eyes. "Darling, if I was your father I'd agree. I'd be happy if you managed to find yourself anything."

Cheerilee's heart jumped as she fumbled for her falling mug. Ditzy's wings carefully put down her drink before reaching over the counter and pulling Jazz across it by his necktie.

"You've insulted me," she said in a steady tone. "That's okay. I'm used to that. But you seem to be upsetting my friend, and- "

"Let go of me," Jazz choked out of his fabric noose, "you feather-brained - "

"I am talking!" Ditzy shouted. The apartment was dead silent. Jazz looked into Ditzy's eyes, seeing the pony his mind previously filed between the "Target" and "Eye Candy" folders and finding that the shelf of folders lacked one marked "Quiet and Terrifying."

Ditzy released him, Jazz gasping for breath as he fell back in his seat. "Anyway, I think you were just leaving."

Jazz rushed to the door, fumbling at the locks with his horn's glow. He turned back as he got the door cracked open.

"You and your father are both dangerous, violence-prone lunatics, Miss Doo."

Ditzy smiled. "I should introduce you to my great-aunt Daring, then."

Jazz froze. He shivered. He left.

Cheerilee moved to the other side of the minikitchen counter and put a grateful hoof on Ditzy's shoulder. The pegasus sniffed. Cheerilee gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"Ditzy Doo," she said, "you are beyond value. Come on, I'm taking you out for lunch."

Ditzy's wing drew across her eye. "But... I have to get through chapter six today to stay on schedule for my presentation."

Cheerilee lifted DItzy's chin up. "You're my new personal hero. Isn't being a hero worth free cheese hay fries?"

Ditzy thought for a second and sighed. "Not as often as you'd think, actually."

Lyra sat in a relatively spartan office, and this offended her. She felt that a proper professor should have stacks of paper leaning over on her desk near a perpetually cold cup of coffee. Using graduate students to keep a clean office and a regular return of papers to the students somehow seemed to be an abandonment of responsibility.

At the moment, Lyra was as much paying attention to the professor in question as she could dredge up on four hours of sleep spread over a music theory textbook with drool marks.

Chromatic Scale cleaned her glasses telekinetically. She reclined in her chair, her multi-colored hair tied into a tight bun that made mares jealous and stallions eager to hear a breathy statement about overdue books.

"Miss Heartstrings, while your impromptu performances are amazing, you've turned in only half of your required writing assignments. While I can respect enthusiasm, I also must hold everyone to the same high standards I myself went through. This is quite an important part of becoming part of the Canterlot musical hierarchy."

Hair, Lyra thought. Rainbow hair, flowing like waterfalls. Strawberry-smelling locks falling between blueberry-tasting strands and...

"Are you paying attention to me right now, Miss Heartstrings?"

Professor Scale sat patiently.

I think the hair is talking.

Lyra snapped up in her chair. Professor Scale adjusted her glasses and grimaced.

"Miss Heartstrings, you are aware that tonight is Hearth's Warming Eve? I'm in my office today in respect for your father's reputation and your obvious talent. I don't want to waste my time to help another future casualty of society."

Lyra broke out in a cold sweat.

"Professor Scale, I'm sorry if I'm a little out of it. I had a gig last night. I really needed the bits. And I was trying to get through chapter four afterwards."

"Of course, that would be more important that a scheduled emergency meeting with a busy professor on a holiday." Scale sighed.

Lyra swallowed. "Please, Miss, I promise I'm taking this seriously. These textbooks don't pay for themselves, and I have to take care of my roomies, and I need to get presents, and I'm living off of grass."

Scale nodded as she stood up. "I understand your mindset, Miss Heartstrings. When I was young I knew everything."

Lyra stepped in front of the slowly retreating faculty. "Please. Please help me. I want to get my theory papers done, but I don't know where to start. You know I play better than half the students in my class."

Scale snorted. "Half? I think you could adjust that number upward."

Lyra's brain stopped at the surprise compliment. Scale breathed out.

"Listen, Miss Heartstrings, I only want you here if you're willing to put in the work. You could be fantastic, but you really have to decide what you're going to prioritize. This is your turning point, Lyra. It's a fork stuck in the road. At this age life is grabbing you by the hoof and asking you where to go. Be back in my office the day classes start again with your textbooks and decide what is really important."

Five minutes later found Lyra breathing rapidly in front of a restroom mirror. She spread her forelimb on the counter and stared at years of accumulated small lines. She heard a knocking on the door.

"Go away," the preteen answered from her locked personal bathroom.

An impatient tapping sounded on the outside of the door. "Little Ly, come on out," said a voice with good-natured control. "We're late for the restaurant."

Lyra breathed rapidly. "Ballad, my recital is today! All my friends are coming!"

The doorknob briefly glowed and wiggled without opening. "I know, Ly. This is important, though. With this invitation Mom and Dad might double their concerts this season. I promise you we'll reschedule."

Lyra stared into her reflection's eyes. "They've never rescheduled yours."

"Lyra," Ballad said in the voice that told Lyra she was about to utter That Sentence. Lyra started shivering preemptively.

"You have to face it. You can't run."

As usual, the shivering continued.

Ballad sighed. "Be out in two minutes. All smiles, remember? Remember what Mom says."

Lyra slumped over the sink, briefly looking for the toothbrush with the sharp, pointy bottom. It was gone; the maids must have caught on. "All smiles, all grins today. Keep the frowning locked away."

"That's my sister. Two minutes."

Lyra listening to the sound of retreating hoofsteps and stared at her forelimb. In the assuring quiet she bit down with the desperation of a drowning pony gasping for air, screaming as she shook her head. After a few minutes the muffled cries stopped. With practiced efficiency the tearstained towel went into the hamper, the red tissues went into the toilet, and she walked toward her parents with a smile.

Lyra breathed heavily in the college restroom as the knocking pony gave up and wandered off. She had three forms of release in her life, but Cheerilee and her instrument was both elsewhere.

In lieu of a toothbrush, she bit down.

"Raargh," declared Ditzy through the wad of fries shoved in her upper lip. "Nightmare Moon want candy!"

Cheerilee giggled. Tension flowed out of her as Ditzy's answering laugh rung through the nearly empty cafe, the hay fries falling out of her mouth onto Ditzy's plate.

Cheerilee grabbed the basket. "Okay, let me try one." She stuck two fries into her upper lip. "I am a vampire," she declared with her hooves in the air.

"Heh," said the soft voice to their side that made Cheerilee jump and Ditzy squeek. "You gonna bite anyone?"

Cheerilee was staring into reflective purple goggles and seeing nothing but the amused grin below. A nervous-looking pink mare pushed in front of the grin and gave it a reproaching look.

"You weren't supposed to scare them, Vinyl."

Even with the glasses in the way, Cheerilee felt that "Vinyl" was staring straight at her.

Vinyl shrugged. "Vampires are cool. If she's a vampire, she'll be cool with it." Vinyl leaned onto the table, close enough that Cheerilee could smell candy on her breath. "Are you cool, lady?"

Ditzy crossed her forelimbs. "Vampire aren't cool."

Vinyl snorted. "Anyway, my friend here wanted to ask you a question." Vinyl pushed her shivering companion forward.

She stared at Cheerilee and Ditzy for a few seconds. Cheerilee smiled, then waved a hoof towards herself. "Come on. I'm not going to bite."

"Disappointing," said Vinyl.

"Um." The mare carefully placed both hooves on the table. "Are you the mare who danced with her girlfriend on Nightmare Night?"

Ditzy lean forward, her mouth a straight slit as her wings straightened out. "What if she is," Ditzy asked with an edge to her voice. "What of it?"

Cheerilee looked into the strange mares eyes. She nodded.

"Oh." The nervous girl met the non-judgmental gaze of the bowl of fries. "Well, if you ask a girl out and she says yes, and it goes okay... What do you do?"

Ditzy's eyes spun as Cheerilee breathed out.

"Be curious," she finally said. "Explore. Do what she likes. Always consider how she feels."

Vinyl giggled as her friend blushed. Cheerilee tapped her hoof on the table idly. "Vinyl, is it? I thought I saw you with stallions all year."

"What?" Vinyl giggled. "Oh, yeah. No, I'm here as back-up courage. Also, I thought this would be kinda like getting matches."

Cheerilee and Ditzy stared at her.

Vinyl shrugged. "Like in the Colt Scouts, you know? Something you keep just in case." She gently pulled her friend away from the table. "Be prepared for anything, you know. Come on, Daisy. Let's let these girls explore."

As she pulled her friend away, Cheerilee would have sworn that Vinyl winked at her. Ditzy shrugged. "So, what plans do you have for Lyra?"

Cheerilee leaned forward, rubbing her hooves together. "I've been planning for weeks. This Hearth's Warming is going to be perfect."

Ditzy cocked her head. "Why does it need to be perfect?"

Cheerilee raised an eyebrow. "You know, maybe more ponies should do your cute eye thing. You see a lot more than most." She slumped over the table, sipping her straw for a space of time. Ditzy remained attentive. Her sugary thinking break successful, she drew in a deep breath.

"How was Hearth's Warming at your house, Ditzy? I mean, while you were growing up?"

Ditzy chewed on the edge of her hooftip a second. "Awesome!" Ditzy exclaimed as she spread her limbs. "Mom would make huge helpings of food, Dad always helped me on my Commander Hurricane costume, and we'd all tell windigo stories until I fell asleep on the floor."

Cheerilee nodded. "My family doesn't do Hearth's Warming well, Ditzy. If my parents didn't have to go to other ponies' parties to make deals, they'd bring over business friends from out of town to get new contracts. It wasn't horrible, but it was never right. Never just us."

Ditzy nodded. "So, what are you getting Lyra on your special night to be just 'us'?"

Cheerilee shrugged, the weight of consumer culture pushing her shoulders down. "I have no idea what to get her, Ditzy. She's never been the kind of pony to keep things around." She idled pushed around the hay fries bowl. "What kind of pony doesn't like stuff?"

"Someone who's used to running," Ditzy wisely stopped from saying at the last minute. In fact, Ditzy merely leaned across the table and took Cheerilee's hoof in her own. "What she values is you, 'Lee. Plan something special for the two of you." Ditzy's smile was warm and sad simultaneously. "In the end, all that matters is the time you two spend together."

Sighing, Ditzy's wing pulled open her saddlebags and fished out two shiny tickets. "Look, here's two tickets to the Canterlot Castle's Hearthwarming Eve play. I want you to have it."

Cheerilee's eyes widened. "How in Equestria did you ever manage to get those?"

Ditzy stared off, laughing uncomfortably. "Oh, I might have done a favor for someone at the castle at some point." She pushed the tickets forward onto the table, allowing Cheerilee a glimpse at the gold-inlaid filigree show information. Many theater-goers keep tickets as keepsakes, but only one event's were good enough for the venue to sell extras as souvenirs.

"Ditzy," said Cheerilee as her mind reeled. "I have no idea how you could give these up."

Her friend shook her head dismissively. "Oh, I'm already seen it. I've gotten these every year since I got my cutie mark."

"Girl, I wonder what you did to earn these." Cheerilee ran her hoof down the ticket, feeling the raised calligraphy. Her parents were well off, but they never bought a ticket like this. The artistry increased as you neared the stage. A sixth row ticket hung in the Canterlot Art Museum. These were front row seats.

Ditzy nodded, eyes thoughtful. "I do too. I'll find out someday. Anyway, I've been going to the Hearth's Warming plays for a long time. Like, a really, really, really long time. It's your turn."

"Heh." Cheerilee held up the precious paper to her nose, breathing in the possibility. "I remember first going as a kid to one of the Ponyville shows. The used those cheap wooden windigoes that wouldn't fool anyone"

Ditzy thoughtfully sipped her drink before answering.

"Mineā€¦ were a lot more realistic at my first time."

Elsewhere and off the campus, Lyra hunched over a bar. It was hard not to feel self-conscious as one of the only five patrons who needed a drink on Hearth's Warming Eve. Her eyes lazily passed over endless unfamiliar pictures of soccer teams as she contemplated her next mood. "All right, give me a double."

"And I'll take that, squared," said the trenchcoated pony who sat down next to her. He ran a chestnut-colored hoof through an unruly mane of spiky hair, jogging Lyra's memory.

As the two ponies (or the pony and the kind of pony, as it were) started drinking, Lyra snorted and turned to her unexpected company. "We're quite a pair, aren't we? Drinking alone on Hearth's Warming Eve."

The Doctor nodded. "Yep. Even though I have someone waiting for me." His eyes went wide, and he looked around furtively before coughing. "Somepony, I mean. Sorry. Amphibian throat thing."

Lyra nodded. "Me too. Even got her a gift."

His eyebrows raised. "Something nice?"

A small felt-covered box levitated out of Lyra's saddlebags, flicking open to reveal a ring that sparkled in the candlelight.

"Yup." She sighed. "I just don't know if I'm a good enough mare to marry yet. Who'd slip a ring down their tail for a failed music student who reads about humans because she can't handle reality?"

"Humans." The Doctor sniffed. "Feh. Not bad, humans. Give me ponies any day." He speculatively tasted his beverage. "If she loves you, keep reading about humans."

Lyra snorted. The Doctor raised an eyebrow.

"I'm serious. Imagine. Everything you do, even the humans, makes the amazing symphony that is you. Each part is a movement she's fallen for. If she loves you, she fell in love with all of that."

Lyra was quiet for a full minute as she looked into her swirling cup. She risked a small, hopeful smile. "You drinking over someone special as well?"

"Yep." The Doctor knocked bank his tankard and pushed it back toward the bartender. "She sees just like a child. She sees just what I want, and she brings me back to life."

If anyone accused Lyra of having a romantic side they would have to quickly answer with raised forehooves, but she was blushing and sighing now.

"That's why I should leave," he said as he destroyed her moment. "I'm bad for her. Too much baggage. Have to find a new place. I might go off to fight in the war."

Lyra's head jerked up. "Wait, what war?"

The Doctor shrugged, gesturing vaguely upwards. "Oh, I don't know. There's always a war going on somewhere. For nebulous duty, generic deity and random geographic location, ooh-rah. It'll all be over by Hogswatch."

She learned on the counter, taking in the gentle eyes and slightly uncoordinated theatrical gestures. "Do you really picture yourself somewhere with a weapon?"

"Weapon?" He blinked. "Don't hold to those. Don't expect to use one."

"Ah. Short war then."

"Yep." He slugged back his drink. "This is swill. Bartender, do you have anything that's more like, I dunno, maybe a brick with a slice of lemon wrapped around it?"

Lyra scooted her stool over. "Go to Ditzy."

"What!" The Doctor looked at Lyra with suspicion. "What are you? Telepath? Shape changer? Thought construct?" He picked up a spoon in his teeth and brandished it in a threatening manner.

Lyra giggled as she levitated the spoon out and dropped it in his drink. "I saw you at a party once."

"Really?" He nodded and took another swig. "Never crossed my mind, that. Highly unlikely."

"Listen carefully, buddy. I've seen the way you two look at each other. If you walk away, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

He was momentarily still. "Bartender, another two drinks please."

"And don't forget about her," Lyra continued as she snaked a limb around his shoulder. "She's set her whole life around the thought of being near or with or like you. I can't imagine what she'll do if you just disappear. I don't want to think about how that'll affect her."

"Plus," she said after pulling away and downing the latest of a nameless succession of shots, "if you hurt her I will hunt you down, and I will find you."

He swivelled, examining Lyra's eyes for the briefest of seconds. "You know, I believe you just might." He pushed himself you his feet, nearly falling over. "Whoosie woozie! Okay, need to be nober sow. Or something."

The Doctor slapped both his cheeks, mooed like a cow, and blew a raspberry. He closed his eyes for a single second of concentration, then stood up as sober as a chariot-stopping police officer. "Right, off I go then. Maybe I can help you one day, miss. Night!"

"Wait!" Lyra's eyes spread wide as he threatened to run off. "Hey, could you teach me that trick?"

He blinked, waving his hoof in the air as he began a gesture and forgot where it was going to end up. "Yes," he said before disappearing into the night.

Lyra sighed. "Bartender? Two large coffees please."

As the Doctor pulled himself out of the bar his eyes widened at the nearby labelled intersection. "Oh, no. Okay, the college is where exactly? Streets meet in the center, right?" He swivelled toward an outside table and grabbed a nearby bar patron by the shoulders. "I'm rubbish with streets. Where's the college?"

The stallion blinked, his brain never being quick while sober. His date, however, thought she saw an interesting conversation for the first time that night.

"Follow this road until you turn on Sol Street. Hey, you were drinking with the green girl, right? She's that musical deviant, right?"

The Doctor shrugged. "I dunno. Never heard her play."

"C-college is that way," choked out the stallion as the mare rolled her eyes. She pulled closer to the Doctor.

"No, I mean a real deviant." She pushed to the edge of her seat, waiting for the gossip.

"Her?" The Doctor scratched the back of his neck in confusion. "Oh, no. She's nothing, comparatively. You should meet the mathematiphiles of Abbot IV. They date geometrical concepts. Met a girl who married a halved right triangle. She was a bisectual."

He ran off, leaving the couple to add it up on their own.

Ditzy sat at the outside cafe table, staring at the starlight. The wind played through her hair as her eyes moved independently to mark the motion of the falling snowflakes. She idly began searching for patterns in the snowfall. Equations played through her head until she saw a pony well-practiced in running gallop across the campus grounds toward her. Ditzy started bouncing on her stool.

A thousand mares could never reach you, she thought with a smile. How could I have been the one?

The Doctor ran toward Ditzy, his scarf whipping in the wind. He skip to a stop in front of her and bowed. She clapped her mittens together.

"Hello, Doctor. Did you bring me anything?"

"A piece of sky every night, Miss Doo." He winked. "Shall we exeunt, or just simply leave?"

The Doctor extended his hoof and drew Ditzy onto her hooves. As they walked off onto the snowy drift, the Doctor felt the tip of her wing brush against the hourglass on his far flank. He turned, aiming a raised eyebrow at her blushing expression.

"Um." He considered. "What was that?"

She struggled with raising her eyes to his. "Um. I read about it in a novel, Doctor."

He nodded. "Oh. All right, then." He turned away then spun back in place. "What kind of novel?"

Ditzy finally raised her eyes to his. "A romance novel, Doctor."

They stared at each other, the intervening seconds filling with possibilities until the snowball hit Ditzy in the face.

"Dude, look at her. You really dizzyed up the girl."

"I think she came that way."

"Man, how old is he? That's kinda creepy."

The Doctor turned to see three giggling stallions in team jerseys. "Oi, you lot! Why would you possibly do that?"

Two of them looked at each as the third shrugged. "We like having fun at other's expenses?" The Doctor's only response was a growl.

With the Doctor restraining himself to the depths a warrior mare of Volupton's wardrobe can be considered restrained, Ditzy pinched her nose to stop a sneeze. In hindsight, when she and the Doctor would look back on this event while hiding behind a tree forty paces away they both decided that the sneeze was what did it, or in this case what didn't it.

Natural selection would've had a hard time producing more effective protection than Ditzy Doo's sneezes. Ditzy seemed to extrude cuteness as a defensive field, much as infants evolved to be charming to prevent parents from strangling them at three in the morning. Just as certain salamanders keep the traits of their youth (and think themselves "hip" and "edgy"), Ditzy Doo's bodily noises were still arguably adorable.

Whereas her eating noises had greatly eased certain moment in intergalactic diplomacy, her sneezes immediately projected onto the listeners an instant feeling of empathy and desire to embrace and comfort the afflicted. If one could have projected this ability into the past onto some prehistoric eohippus cave pony, the predators of Equestria would have guiltily starved themselves into oblivion hundreds of millennia ago.

If she had only sneezed, it would have deflated and unified the Doctor and the frat boys instantly, quite possibly leading to apologies, laughs all around, and a drunken bonding experience. In another universe, a blitzed physical education major may have embarked on a journey that begins with an inebriated stumble into a time machine and ended with him as on a distant world as a wise philosopher king with a taste for rugby.

But in the end, Ditzy Doo didn't sneeze, and the Doctor got angry. He snorted as he stomped toward the sniggering trio. Two of the not-so-motley crew were nearly doubled over in laughter. The third student had accidentally caught a look at the Doctor's eyes. Deep in his brain, something reptilian shouted that it might not be a bad time to start a lifetime dedication to running away, lest said lifetime turn out considerably shorter.

"Guys, we need to be somewhere," he said as he tried pulling them away.

The Doctor shook his hoof at the trio. "That's right, you should run! Run fast! You have no idea how good I am at running. When I catch you, you'll- "


Turning to Ditzy threw a wrench into the Doctor's mental gears. Her eyes were very nearly focused directly on him. She was quaking in a way few beings sort of galactic dictators had ever inspired in her. The baleful gaze she projected could have stopped a pony's heart; he was absurdly glad for bringing an extra.

"Doctor," she said as she stepped towards him with slow deliberation. "What's one of the most dangerous things I've ever faced?"

Bragging, he thought. I can handle bragging. This is familiar.

"Uh, the robot yetis? Real yetis? Animated storefront dummies?"

Ditzy gave him a reproachful glare that would have made Cheerilee suggest a career in education. "After all this time, did you really think I need the full 'I'm the Big Oncoming Storm' dragged out for my benefit for a snowball?"

The bullies gave each other a look with a meaning that, elsewhere in the multiverse, a Japanese human caught between two rubbery giant monsters would have understood. They knew they were playing well above their food chain level.

"Okay," stammered the terrified one who had locked eyes with the Doctor. "We'll leave you two to sort this out." He dragged his comrades over a snow drift, unconsciously looking for cover.

"Um." The Doctor backpedalled physically and mentally. "What would have been the appropriate response, then?"

Ditzy turned and pushed a wing in front of his face, using the feathers to count off. "Let's see, there's wiping off my nose with a hoofychef, kissing it to make it better, pushing your own nose into mine to share the snow," she said before pausing and lowering her wing. "You, know, anything that would have shown concern for me over macho idiot posturing."

The Doctor's nostril flared. "Idiot? I'm an idiot then, am I?"

Ditzy nodded. "Of course."

He scratched behind his mane. "Yep. Guess I kind of was. Doesn't the 'angry boyfriend' act get any points?"

Ditzy shivered, her eyes unfocused.

"Okay," he said slowly. "I said something, didn't I? I mean, I know I said something, I'm saying something now-"

Ditzy smiled, wings tentatively spreading outward. "Boyfriend, Doctor?"

His brain stopped, rewound, checked to see if there was any way out of this situation, and shrugged.

"Um." He paused. "Um. Hmm. Um. This should count as dating. I mean, we go to diferent dates. We go on dates to dates."

For the first time in centuries, the Doctor was unable to feel the turn of the planet as two warm lips tentatively covered his own. Slowly she pulled back, her face flushed as she watched his brain restart.

"Well. That was scary."

Ditzy smacked him playfully in the shoulder. He fell back on his rump, waving his front hooves around.

"Not that! That wasn't that! I like the lip thing. I meant the hoofballers."

Ditzy nickered. "Scary? Hoofballers with snowballs? Come on, Doctor. I bet that's not even in the top hundred."

"Them? No, no. No! I meant I was scared you were going to run off. I always worrying about this old stallion finally chasing you off."

Ditzy stared into his blue eyes for a second before finding herself. She deliberately and delicately kissed him on the nose.

"I'll never leave you, Doctor. I don't know what I'd do if you ever left me."

She leaned her neck across his mane and closed her eyes. They felt each other's hearts beat as the Doctor looked up at the stars.

Several definitions for insanity have been suggested by ponies over the years. They range from "Claiming to be Starswirl the Bearded" to "Attempting Diplomacy with Custard Products."

The one that generally floats to the top is "Attempting to Do the Same Thing Over Again with Different Results." This seems initially to be a bad definition, since it assumes the sanity of a pony with a firm grasp of cause and effect who yet claims to be a potato. Still, its the one most ponies (even potato ponies) know about.

This is why, despite maintaining a firm rejection of self-vegetableness, Cheerilee's action that night were insane.

She hummed to herself as she buzzed from place to place in the apartment, checking with certainty that all the touches were in order. Snacks and presents were fine. The tree was small, but would suffice. It only just touched the ceiling. Her father was renowned in Ponyville for trees that required renovations to display, even if only the servants were home on Hearth's Warming Eve.

This will do. Cheerilee hid a large book underneath a couch pillow, and patted it . Everything's in place except for me.

When Lyra walked into the dorm twenty minutes later, (slightly favoring her left forehoof), she was stunned to find Cheerilee surrounded by decorations and basking in the light of the fire.

"Well, now," Cheerilee said to her stunned lover as she adjusted her Princess Platinum crown, "do you like what you see, my subject?"

The first word Lyra was able to form was "Fire."

Cheerilee cocked her head. "Yes?"

Lyra crawled onto the couch, briefly noting the fake horn her girlfriend had put on and shivering pleasantly. "Love, we live in a dorm. How do we have a fireplace?"

The response was giggles. "I traded some cookies for a favor from an illusion magic major. The glamour's a little fragile, though. As long as you don't touch it, we've got a fire tonight."

Seconds later found Cheerilee underneath a warm and smiling green pillow. They rested like that for a while before either dared to speak.

"So," Lyra asked, "how'd you know about the 'Princess Platinum' thing?"

Cheerilee laughed. "Doesn't every good unicorn tomboy grow up with a crush on her?"

Lyra breathed out, cheeks reddening. She rolled over onto her back to position her head right under Cheerilee's so that their lips were nearly touching. After about ten minutes in this position she finally managed to get a word in.

"You know, Princess Platinum's wasn't known for lightning bolt earrings, but I like it. What else do we have planned?"

"Well, more of that." Cheerilee laughed. "I have cookies, hidden presents, and holiday costumes. First off, check what's under the pillow. It's your starter gift."

Lyra lifted a limb and wrapped it around Cheerilee's next. "Is it something for the 'special drawer'?"

Cheerilee rolled her eyes. "Later."

"Something practical, I bet." Lyra sniffed. "You never start with the fun stuff, Miss Teacher."

Lyra's horn lifted the pillow, revealing a large book. Immediately, she felt a ripple of pain run down her right forelimb.

"Music Theory for Foals? No."

"Love," Cheerilee said, "everypony uses the 'For Foals' books once or twice. I read the teaching series."

Lyra tried to levitate the book away, but Cheerilee caught it in her teeth. She placed it onto Lyra's chest.

"No," said Lyra. "I don't want it." She barely heard what her lover said as she stared at the cover and saw only a judgemental hair of rainbows.

Cheerilee sighed. "Honey, I'm proud of you but I can tell you need help. You work hard, and you missed so much while you were busking."

Lyra tried to push away the book with her hoof. "I'm not dealing with this tonight."

Cheerilee bit her lip. She searched her mind for the best possible ways to smooth over the moment. Unknowingly choosing the worst words possible, she gave it her all and selected an action that in view of Lyra's previous reactions could charitably called insane.

"You have to face it. You can't run."

Lyra rolled off the couch violently, one hoof pushing off of Cheerilee's stomach. Her horn flared as she through the offending book away with a scream. It impacted into the tree, shaking the branches. There was a sound of something with a checkerboard pattern breaking on the floor.

Lyra stopped. She looked at the mess of needles and ripped tinsel. The book had gone through the tree entirely, upending a mug of something onto its cover as it lay in a corner. Turning to Cheerilee, Lyra saw a scared face breathing quickly.

Stop hurting yourself, Ballad had said. You're going to make ponies think I have a freak for a sister.

Lyra raised a hoof gently towards Cheerilee. "Don't," she whispered. "Don't go."

Cheerilee hadn't heard. She stood up on the couch, shaking with tears. "Not tonight, Lyra. Please. I'll let you say whatever you want tomorrow, Lyra. Don't do this tonight."

Lyra's legs gave out underneath her. Whereas Cheerilee had expected an angry and shouting unicorn, what she got was a sobbing balls of green in a fetal position. Cheerilee stepped closer as Lyra bawled into her hooves.

"I'm sorry. You never should have fallen for a freak. I don't know what's wrong- "


Lyra looked up in time for Cheerilee to kiss her on the nose.

"Shhhh. I hit something inside you, didn't I? Lyra, you can tell me why you did that later. I just want to help you get rid of the tears now."

Lyra pulled herself onto her knees. She lifted one at a sharp touch and frowned.

"That's the Senior Dance picture of us, wasn't it?" Her lips started vibrating.

Cheerilee threw her limbs around Lyra, pulling her into a tight embrace. "It's okay. I don't need the picture. I still have the mare I went with."

Lyra stood up. She wiped her eyes and smiled. "You know, you make me a better pony."

Cheerilee smiled. "That's my job. If I ever stop I get fired, you'll know." I'm going to go clean up. You get back on the couch."

Lyra watched Cheerilee tidy the dorm. She straightened the tree, swept up the glass, and carefully place the intact picture to the side. Lyra started rubbing her forelimb as she saw Cheerilee wiped off the book instead of throwing it away.

"I guess we're not done with that," she whispered to herself.

"Hey, Lyra?"

She turned to Cheerilee, hoping for a distraction for arguments to come. "Yes?"

"Out of curiosity, did anyone ever teach you to salivate less with your mouth open?"

Her answer was a long snort. "You magnificent educator, what is tonight's lesson?"

Cheerilee dropped the dustpan out of her mouth. "Behave. We have a show to be at in an hour. I can't wait to see what you got me."

Lyra looked at her saddlebags. "I'm not sure its ready yet."

Hearth's Warming Eve rolled on. They were together, and as long as no one touched it the fire kept burning.