Cheerilee walked up to the closed door of the once neatly-kept little house, her steps slowing as she approached. Weeds grew tall in the yard, and the boards looked like they'd needed fresh paint a few years ago. She could remember what she'd said to her niece.
"Run away, little filly. Run away, you little runt. Run home to your parents. Ohh, I forgot. Your father is a no-show, and your mother is a worthless drunk!" Then the cruel whinnying laughter following as her student, her niece galloped off into the madness of Discord's Ponyville, sobbing heartbrokenly. The rest of the day might have been a blur in Cheerilee's mind, but that she remembered. Every time she closed her eyes she saw it again, remembered the coldness crawling through her heart as her coat went gray.
I can leave right now, she thought. I can just go away and she'll never know... what? That I know I hurt her? That I regret it?
The door opened before the purple mare, and she saw a familiar face, accompanied by the smell of Sweet Apple Acres hard cider.
"Mom's just going out for a bit, Ruby honey," Berry Punch called back into the house as she trotted out the door. "I'll be back soon, and -- you!"
Her eyes blazed as she saw Cheerilee standing there. "What do you want?" She hissed at her softly, "Didn't you hurt my daughter enough the last time? She wept for days after," Berry gulped and licked her lips, "After everything got back to normal. She doesn't want to see you, and neither do I!" As she spoke the latter words, she pressed against her sister, withers against withers. Cheerilee saw Berry's eyes look teary before she blinked them away. She added in a near sob, "You hurt us enough, sis."
"I did," Cheerilee said, not bothering to keep the hurt from her words. "I hurt you when I didn't stop Mom from chasing you out because of Ruby. And I hurt Ruby and you even worse with Discord, when he..." She broke off with a shudder. She'd spoken with Apple Bloom's big sister briefly just a day or so ago -- the palomino looked haggard, and seemed determined to visit everypony in Ponyville who'd been hurt by Discord's reign of terror, but she'd told Cheerilee in no uncertain words that if she loved her sister, she'd give her the apology she was due.
She'd also found out what had happened to her sister from Applejack. How she knew, Cheerilee wasn't sure, but the palomino earth pony mare told Cheerilee how everything her sister drank tasted like battery acid. And when Berry sneezed everypony around her turned into paper cutouts.
Cheerilee shuddered at that. She remembered how Applejack gave her an odd look but didn't press it. Which was good. Cheerilee didn't want to have to tell her how, at the parties she used to throw, Berry once told her that she felt 'like some big cardboard cutout' next to her more attractive and socially adept big sis. Cheerilee wondered to herself, how could that monster KNOW?
And more, about how Berry Punch drank everything in her house from water to juice to, finally, Sweet Apple Acres hard cider in the desperate hope of finding something, anything, that didn't sicken her. All until she passed out from it, only to awaken to find her daughter crying helplessly in the corner. Berry ran from her daughter, horrified and convinced that she'd sneeze and turn her into paper. Ruby chased her, sobbing and begging for her mommy to come back, that she didn't care if she drank too much, she just wanted her back. But Berry ran until the Flower Sisters tackled and held her down to tell her that the Elements of Harmony had beaten Discord and everything was back to normal.
Cheerilee wondered again how Applejack knew so well what had happened to every pony in Ponyville, but right then she didn't care. She needed to say something to her sister before her.
"I've done you wrong," Cheerilee said, her head hanging low. Looking into those angry and hurting eyes, she said, "You and my niece alike. I thought you were hurting her with your drinking, and I still do," she looked up to catch Berry looking ready to say something, "But the way I did it, what I said to Ruby, that was wrong. Magical control or not. You're my sister, and Ruby's my niece, and I'm sorry I hurt you both so badly."
There. It was out. Cheerilee looked at her sister hopefully. Berry looked confused, like she wanted to order her away forever and hug her all at once. She snorted and scraped uncertainly at the ground with one forehoof, reminding Cheerilee of how she'd been so long ago when Berry was the shy one at her big sister's parties. Before she found that a drink or three could loosen her up enough to dance with colts, maybe even kiss them.
And then came that stallion passing through Ponyville who dropped in, and eleven months later there came Ruby, and Mom threw Berry and Ruby out and I became the schoolteacher and practically swore off stallions for fear of ending up like her. And, and how many ponies in town even know that we're sisters? When last did we even just talk?
Cheerilee looked at her sister and Berry looked back at her, and it could be anypony's guess what they would have said next if not for a call from inside.
"Mom? Is, is that Auntie Cheerilee? I, I know you said we're mad at her but if she says she's sorry then maybe we can let her in again?"
Berry Punch gave her sister a glare. She glanced back inside her house, and then with a sigh shook her head, sending her mane spilling. "Yeah, kiddo, it's your aunt. And yeah, she's here to say she's sorry." Berry stepped inside, holding the door open. "C'mon in and let's straighten this mess out, okay?"
Cheerilee let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding and followed her. She knew there would still be a lot to do between her and her sister, but at least they'd made a start.
Inside the house looked to Cheerilee much as it always did. The same old framed photo on the wall of them as a family from long ago, Cheerilee with her mane in that wild cut she'd favored and smiling wide enough to show her braces, a barely out of foalhood Berry half hiding behind her and close by Dad, Dad in his dress armor and smiling and Mom beside him, looking almost worried even for a family portrait. Just through a door she could see the kitchen, a still-full bottle of cheap cider by the smell just visible on the counter.
"Ruby!" Cheerilee bent down and embraced her niece as the filly galloped up to her. When Ruby flinched at her touch she almost felt her heart break. Cheerilee just blinked the tears away as she said, "Oh, baby, sweetheart, Aunt Cheerilee is so sorry for everything she said, I didn't mean any of it, it was bad magic that made me say it, I love you more than anything, you know that, don't you?"
"Uh-huh," Ruby said in her high-pitched voice, sounding uncertain. She lightly butted her head against Cheerilee's withers. "I know. You said that in school, the snake-monster made us all do bad and crazy things and it's over now."
Maybe, Cheerilee thought. Privately she wondered just how long it would take for the ponies to deal with everything that happened to them. She'd already heard of a few so broken they'd been taken away to the mental hospital on the edge of town. Even Pinkie Pie seemed to be acting more frantic than usual, or so she'd heard. She only realized that she'd said that last part out loud when Berry answered her.
"She spent the last two weeks partying," Berry said. "I just came over from Sugarcube Corner an hour or so before you showed up. She finally passed out in the middle of everything and her friends took her upstairs to sleep." Berry sighed. "I hope she's okay. We owe her and the Elements a lot." Then she turned to Ruby. "Honey, maybe you can go out and play with Dinky for a bit? I, I think your aunt and I need to talk privately right now."
Ruby looked from her mother to Cheerilee. Cheerilee smiled at her, wondering privately if this was going to end in another fight with Berry. Ruby looked unsure, but she nodded to her mother and left. After she did both mares sighed, their heads hanging.
"Sit down," Berry said, pointing to a patched and weatherbeaten old chair. She laid herself down on the old couch. A puff of dust came from it. Berry looked ready to sneeze, but froze and held it. She let it out slowly and said, "Whatever ya gotta say, let's get it over with."
Cheerilee looked around Berry's home. The slightly weatherbeaten couch and chairs, patched in so many places, and the low table by it with the stains of spills and rings left by cups let set too long. The dust and smell of must tickled Cheerilee's nose, along with a sour odor. Cheerilee caught sight of a pair of emptied bottles of cider hastily stuffed behind the couch. Her gaze must have lingered a second too long. When she looked at Berry again, her sister scowled at her.
"I'm not drunk, you know," she said, snorting and lowering her ears. "I just, just like to unwind a bit when I come home from work and before Ruby comes back from school."
"No, sis, it's not like that," Cheerilee reassured her. She pointed at the bottles. "It's just that I thought you only drank the hard cider the Apple family makes." She pointed one forehoof at the drained bottles, bearing the image of a snarling panther on them. "That stuff looks like it came from Manehattan." Straight from a Manehattan sewer, by the smell, Cheerilee mentally added. Noticing how Berry still stared at her, she lamely added, "It doesn't smell as good as their cider does."
"I wouldn't know," Berry added with a shudder. "On -- that day, that monster, whatever the heck his name is
"Discord, the Equinomorphic Personification of Disharmony among ponies," Cheerilee said automatically, as though she spoke to her students. She remembered the Canterlot gardens and shuddered. He broke loose immediately after she'd left with the students. What if he'd broken loose when they'd been standing right in front of him? She focused her attention back on her sister.
Figgers you'd know," Berry snorted. "That thing, I heard a laugh overhead and when I looked I saw," she swallowed, "it, right overhead. I was just coming back from Sweet Apple Acres after my shopping. I dropped what I'd been carrying and the bottle went rolling. It saw and laughed and said, 'Oh, look! A pony with a taste for the vino! Don't worry, toots, I LIKE a pony who hates this boring orderly world so much they need to get blasted to deal with it!'"
"'No, it's not true!' I yelled back at him." Cheerilee winced to see Berry reach out as though she expected to find something at hand that wasn't there. She scowled, blew noisily through her lips in annoyance and went on with, "I said 'I, I don't even like the taste of it! It's like drinking battery acid!'"
"'Oh, really?' he said back down at me. And then he flew down right in front of me, reached out and tapped me on the head." Berry shuddered again. Cheerilee hesitated before reaching out and embracing her little sister. For the first time in a long time, Berry didn't give her a dirty look and pull away. Instead she just said in a small voice, "My mouth tasted like somepony poured boiling lye into it. Then he said, 'Battery acid, you said? Well, given how you pour the stuff down your throat, you must enjoy the taste! So here, a gift from me. And oh yeah,'" and he snapped his fingers, "'Something extra, just for the sister of the pony whose students set me free. Catch ya round, sweetheart, but first I've got some first-rate Chaos to get back to.' And he laughed, curled himself up in a ball, and vanished." Berry looked at the picture of their parents and them together. "I thought I'd finally gone nuts, the way mom always said that stuff would well, next thing I knew everypony else was acting like they'd gone crazy. I sneezed and the ponies around me all turned into big cardboard stand-ups. But their eyes, they blinked and rolled them at me like they were scared. I ran off to find Lily and Roseluck and Daisy, but when I did
" Her voice trailed off.
"I heard what happened to you and them from Applejack," Cheerilee told her. Berry gave her a surprised look. "I'm not sure how she knows, either, but she does. If you don't want to say
"No," Berry said, holding her hoof up. "I think I have to say it. As I ran to their flower shop the street underhoof seemed to be sucking at my hooves, and it smelled like molasses or something. All over Ponyville I heard screams and terrified whinnies and ponies calling for their mothers and fathers and kids. Then I reached the store. I don't know where Daisy was, but Roseluck stood outside, sobbing and watering all her flowers, and the more she did the faster they died! She begged them to live, said she wasn't going to kill them like her father's flower garden when she was a filly. She didn't notice anything else, but I did!" Berry broke off and rubbed her throat. Cheerilee waited for her to go and get some cider. To her surprise, her sister just started speaking again. "What I saw then -- sweet Celestia, I thought I'd really gone crazy! Poor frightened Lily stood right out there beside the shop yelling at a manticore that, 'Go ahead, try it! You can't hurt me! Nothing can hurt me anymore, I'm invincible and finally safe from everything, so hit me as hard as you can, you'll see!'"
"Where the hay did a manticore come from?" Cheerilee sat up straight and snorted in horror. "If it, if it had gone into town when nopony would have even been able to defend themselves
" She choked as she realized just how many ponies could have died. And I chased Ruby out, and she was running and crying when that, that thing was on the loose!
"I don't know either," Berry answered her. "Maybe the noise drew it from the Everfree? Anyway, Lily yelled at it. It just stared at her. Then she charged at it, and it turned and ran for its life!" Berry shook her head. "Can ya believe it? Anyway, Lily chased it for a bit, and then she saw me and yelled something about showing me who the alpha mare was. I got scared and ran away, I went home and," Berry looked shamefaced and defensive all at once, "I needed a drink. But everything I drank," she screwed her face up, "Well, you said Applejack told you. But I bet she didn't tell you what happened next."
"What?" Cheerilee wondered at the haunted look at Berry's face. Something told her she didn't want to know, but she asked anyway. "Little sis, what happened?"
"That snake-thing, Discord showed up again. Right here in the house! He laughed at me when he saw me spitting out some Sweet Apple Acres cider, and said, 'Don't like the taste? Want to know how to stop it?' I didn't say anything but I musta looked hopeful, because he made this giant bottle of whiskey appear, big as this," Berry held her hoof head-high off the floor, "All wrapped up in a paper bag, like, like some wino would drink, and he said to me with a grin, 'Tell ya what, it'll be easy. Just share this with that filly of yours, and everything will taste great again, I swear to Havoc.'" Berry looked thoughtful. "Funny, looked like he almost flinched when he said that. He added, 'But you both have to drink every single drop, and she's got to match you shot for shot.'"
"Berry, that would have killed her!"
"You don't think I KNOW?" Cheerilee flinched back from the fury and horror in her sister's voice. Berry lowered her voice and said, "S' funny. Right before all that, I had nightmares about having a drinking game with Ruby, and she drank so much that
" She shook herself. "Discord laughed at me and vanished. I looked at that bottle, and I thought of what it'd do to my baby if I, if she, if I made her, you, you know?" Berry looked into Cheerilee's face. "Then I opened it and started drinking it. All of it. I almost threw up every time I swallowed some, but I knew that if it was still here when Ruby got back, that I wouldn't be able to resist that offer." Berry turned away as she began to weep. "I would have done that to my baby, my precious Ruby, just so I could have gotten my sense of taste back."
"No, you wouldn't," Cheerilee said. "You wouldn't have done it. Whatever I said about you that day, whatever Mom or other ponies may have said, you love Ruby too much to ever hurt her."
"I just kept drinking and drinking," Berry said dully, like she'd heard nothing. "My sole thought during it all was that at least Ruby would be safe and happy after I'd, well, ya know. I knew you'd take care of her, prob'ly better than I ever did." She raised her gaze to look Cheerilee in the face and said in a near snarl, "I guess I musta finally passed out. When I came to I found Ruby in th' corner, looking gray and washed out like all the other ponies, and she just cried and cried when she saw me."
"'S'okay, baby', I told her. I remember how I felt like the whole world was just sneaking out from under me and I told her, 'Mom protected ya the only way she knows how. Yer Auntie Cheerilee is gonna keep ya safe, 'cause she loves ya.' And Ruby just looked me in the face and sobbed out, 'Mommy, I just saw Auntie Cheerilee, and she said that she HATES me!'"
"I, I didn't mean to," Cheerilee forced the words out. "It was what Discord did, little sis, I swear to Celestia it was."
Berry just looked at her measuringly before she finally nodded. "I know that now," she said, "But then big sis, I felt a sneeze coming on. So I ran until I passed out thinking that I'd killed myself to protect Ruby, an' that you'd look out for her, and the last thing I ever saw was gonna be my baby telling me I'd screwed even that up." She shook her head, sending her mane tossing. "After I woke back up the Flower Sisters told me they took me to the hospital. Yeesh, I don't even know how th' hay I'm alive."
"I asked Twilight," Cheerilee told her, closing her eyes as she thought back to their conversation in those first frazzled few days after Discord was sealed back into stone. "She said that Discord used some kind of magic that didn't have permanent effects, so when he was defeated everything he did was undone. So the alcohol you drank wasn't enough to, umm," Cheerilee sought for a less brutal word.
"Not enough to kill me." Berry finished for her. She looked down at the bottles behind the couch. She picked one up and looked at it in mixed disgust and longing. "Ever since then, I've been convinced that everything I drink is going to taste like, what Discord made it taste like. It took everything Roseluck and Daisy and Lily could do at that party of Pinkie's to get me to just drink some punch. If it's all going to make me want to spit it back out, why drink anything that isn't already as good as rat poison anyway?"
"Sis, you keep this up and the law will take Ruby away from you," Cheerilee repeated the warning she'd used so many times before. Normally it brought Berry to her hooves with fire in her eyes, protesting that she'd never hurt Ruby and never would, and besides, she had it under control and what was the problem anyway? Normally that response frustrated Cheerilee with its refusal to face reality. Now she found herself hoping for it.
Berry just returned her a hopeless look. "Maybe if they took her and let you raise her, it'd be for the best. What kind of a life am I giving my daughter? Does she really need some worthless drunk around --"
Cheerilee slapped her. Berry gaped at her in shock.
"Pay attention, and stop feeling sorry for yourself," Cheerilee snapped at her. "You're giving your daughter a life, and it's a better one than if you killed yourself." Berry snorted and rolled her eyes before she got up to head to the kitchen. Cheerilee rose and put herself between her and it, locking gazes with her. "Sis, please listen. I promise I'll help you and Ruby. But you have to get help, okay? The Princess sent some psychologists to Ponyville, they've been helping everypony, even me." She said quickly before her sister could complain about it, "Please, you're my sister, and Ruby's my niece. I hurt so many of my students that I'll never be able to make it up to. Let me help you!"
"You talk like you wanna protect every foal in Ponyville," Berry grumbled, but she sat back down. "Okay, if you wanna help me and Ruby, fine, but no lectures!" She hesitated and added, "And I'm not sure if I've forgiven you yet."
"I know, and it's okay," Cheerilee said, and meant it. She hugged Berry close to her, ignoring her shocked snort. "Little sis."