Aged Applewood Part 1
A year’s passed since the Cutie-Mark Crusader’s formed with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle already earning their cutie-marks, yet so long as Applebloom’s flank remains blank the crusade continues. But now trouble brews under the surface. For weeks Scootaloo’s ignored Sweetie Belle, and when the two fillies butt heads, Applebloom will have to find a way to reconcile their differences or lose both friends forever.
This story is a standalone piece but is complemented when one starts with this story. They are part of an anthology, entitled Tales by Hoof.
Scootaloo told her uncle, “Yesterday after school I was exploring outside the Everfree Forest when I spotted this hole in the ground, right? Well, it wasn’t a hole. It was like somepony stabbed the ground and left an open wound. And it was big enough for me to fit through, so I slipped right in.”
“Fascinating,” Uncle Cliff-Hanger said. He did not look around his newspaper to her.
Scootaloo frowned, sighed and said, “And there was a giant, pony-eating bat in there, right?”
“And it bit off my wings.”
“And I died!”
“Really? Do tell.”
Scootaloo waited for him to look at her. She knew she would need to wait all morning. “You don’t care.”
She saw the paper shudder, Uncle Cliff-Hanger still refused to make eye contact. He said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that last part.”
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and glanced to her right where her Aunt Sandy packed.
Along the back wall beside her, a display hung case with dozens of finely shaped bones. They were aligned in the shape of a two legged creature with stubby arms, thick legs and skull, and long tail. It covered the whole back wall and hung over a table with several brushes and various archeological tools.
Sandy was a unicorn whose colors reflected her name, her mane was a pink seashell color, her eyes resembled murky ocean water. Her cutie mark was brush dusting a bone. She busied herself gathering tools into a pair of saddlebags, she floated a tiny chisel before her, examined it and set it down on the table beside a set that ranged the size of a hoof’s span to half the length of Scootaloo’s leg.
Scootaloo pulled her gaze away and glared at the bowl of banana-nut oatmeal before her. Across the table Uncle Cliff-Hanger read his paper and occasionally leaned over to take a bite of his breakfast. He was a pegasus with a clay red hide, black mustache and mane a shade lighter. Scootaloo stuck her tongue out at him.
Scootaloo felt her tongue shoved back into her mouth by an invisible force that made the appendage tingle. “Manners Scootaloo,” Aunt Sandy said. “We’ve talked about this before.”
Uncle Cliff-Hanger said, “Don’t fret too much, dear. She’s just like my sister. A hooligan, and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that you can’t get the heathen out of a hooligan.”
Scootaloo’s eyes narrowed on her uncle. She muttered, “My mother was not a hooligan.”
Cliff-Hanger looked up from the paper and quirked his brow. He said, “Oh? You’re just like her, you know. Even though you finally have that cutie-mark, you still behave like a child.” Cliff-Hanger put the paper between them again.
Aunt Sandy said, “There, everything’s packed. Ready to go, darling.”
Cliff-Hanger scanned the paper again and said, “Just a minute, dear. There is a column here about that thieving Doctor Hooveston.”
“Not another one.”
“It’s over the Cipactli we were chasing.”
Scootaloo pursed her lips. Certainly a Cipa-watcha call it was worth talking about. Another stupid set of rocks for them to drool over.
Aunt Sandy nickered. Uncle Cliff-Hanger shoved the paper away and said, “Don’t worry about it, dear.” He went to his wife and nuzzled her cheek before he turned on Scootaloo and said, “We won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon. Lock up the house before you leave.”
“Yeah, yeah.” A minute later the front door slammed and Scootaloo stepped away from the table. She grabbed her helmet from a closet, and went around back and found her scooter waiting. She set off for Sweet Apple Acres and left the front door to her uncle’s house wide open. She didn’t care if somepony broke in or not.
Rarity paced across the boutique with all manner of thimbles, needles, and spools revolving around her head. She forgot to wash her mane, and hardly brushed it. Sweetie Belle stood against the wall while the items above Rarity began to bombard a half-finished dress. The flurry of activity slowed down when Rarity looked over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Sweetie Belle, but I can’t make you breakfast this morning. Oh I was up half the night fretting over this whole business with Hoity-Toity and there’s simply so much more that needs to be done and—”
Rarity paused when Sweetie Belle tried to smile. “It’s fine. I can make my own breakfast.”
Rarity grimaced and said, “Actually, and I’m so sorry dear, but if you could, could you go over to Applejack’s and eat there? I hate saying this, but well… I need absolute focus right now.”
“Oh, okay… That’s fine, I understand.”
“I’m sorry, dear. It should be fine for you to come back this afternoon, but please don’t bring your friends. The boutique’s just too messy and I don’t want anypony to see it,” Rarity said. She turned back to the mannequin and the needlework increased its pace. A pair of scissors floated over and snipped a thread before the sky-blue sash hung on the dress naturally.
“I’ll see you later,” Sweetie Belle said.
“Goodbye darling,” Rarity said without looking up. Sweetie Belle sighed and went to the door, her stomach growled when she opened it. When she closed it behind her she heard, “Opal don’t touch that!” Opalescence hissed, something crashed and her sister groaned.
Sweetie Belle kicked the dirt and sulked along. She wanted to help, she really did. But all she could do well enough was measure fabric, and Rarity already had her do all that. Dress-making wasn’t in her blood, and far-flung from her special talent. Her cutie-mark showed as much.
She sighed and headed for Sweet Apple Acres.
Scootaloo’s wings buzzed and fanned a torrent of air in Applebloom’s face. She rode in the wagon tethered to the scooter, leaning forward and watching Sweet Apple Acres buzz by. She saw her brother and waved to him. They kicked a plume of dust in his face made him cough.
Applebloom giggled, until she heard Scootaloo say, “Whoa.” She pressed the brake and the scooter slowed to a stop at the entrance of the farm. There Sweetie Belle stood. She said, “Hey girls.”
Applebloom waved her over. “Hey Sweetie Belle, hop in.” Sweetie Belle did and Applebloom slapped Scootaloo’s shoulder. “Okay mush.”
Scootaloo twisted around and fixed her with a glare.
While Scootaloo began to start up her scooter again, Sweetie Belle asked, “Where we going?”
“Into Ponyville,” Applebloom said. “We want ta get some gear for cave divin’ and such. Scootaloo found a real neat one yesterday, and well, haven’t tried that yet, have I?”
Sweetie Belle frowned. “But we hardly have any bits between us.”
“That’s why we’re goin’ into town, to get some bits. There’s got to be somepony needin’ us ta do something for’em.
They swung onto the road to Ponyville and Scootaloo said, “And if it comes down to it, we can set the wagon up and I can do some tricks.”
“You don’t mean begging do you? I know Rarity wouldn’t—”
Scootaloo’s tail smacked against her flank. “I’ve done it for bits before. And I don’t beg.”
Applebloom shook her head. “It’s not beggin if we do somethin’ for it.”
“I guess so…”
Caramel hefted the sack and dropped it before Applebloom. Metal clanked and clattered inside. Sweetie Belle helped her toss it into the back of the wagon.
Caramel said, “Now you fillies remember my instructions?”
“Course we do,” Scootaloo said, already on her scooter and tapping the ground with a hoof.
Applebloom nodded. “Thanks again, mister Caramel.”
Caramel smiled. “Anything for Big Mac’s little sister. When you fillies finish come back here and I’ll pay for all your hard work.”
Applebloom beamed while Sweetie Belle clambered into the wagon and opened the bag. Inside a dozen sets of new horseshoes were ready for delivery to the good folk of Ponyville. They plum ran into Caramel as soon as they got into town, and darned it if he didn’t have work for them already. The horseshoe sets were tied together with twine, inside the bag Caramel left a note with all the addresses.
Applebloom hopped in and asked, “Where’s the first house at?”
“Sixteen Banana Bottom Lane is the closest, it’s the size sevens,” Sweetie Belle said.
“Then let’s go Scoot,” Applebloom said.
Scootaloo sped them down the road. In seconds the wind rushed in their mane and made the fillies’ eyes water. Sweetie Belle covered her face and said, “Slow down.”
Scootaloo shook her head and said, “Nuh-ugh. Let’s get this done fast as we can.” They swerved right, the two fillies in that wagon braced their hooves on the edge to keep them from flying out. They entered Banana Bottom Lane and Snips and Snails popped into view. “Watch out!” Scootaloo yelled. The two colts’ dove and collided into a stall. Scootaloo raced away while the stall owner waved an angry hoof at them.
Sweetie Belle pointed at an encroaching one story home. “That’s it right there. You going to stop for us?”
“No way. I’m not giving trouble a chance to catch up with us. Just throw it.”
Sweetie Belle looked at Applebloom. They didn’t have time to decide who would throw it. So Applebloom grabbed the shoes in her teeth and hurled them as they passed. They missed the door and landed in the garden, crashing into a pot and shattering it.
“It was an accident, wasn’t it? What’s the next address?”
Sweetie Belle scowled. Scootaloo drove them around the corner and slowed to stop. Applebloom squinted at the words on the scrap of paper Caramel left them. Sweetie Belle said, “You need any help, Applebloom?”
“No, Ah got it. It’s gonna be… Sixth Rock Candy Road,” Applebloom said.
“Let’s go then.”
Sweetie Belle said, “No more playing horseshoes, though.”
Scootaloo didn’t answer.
The remainder of their delivery went by a success. They returned to Caramel and found him outside his shop. He waved to them as they approached and motioned to a bench in front of his small smithy. He said, “Your bits, fillies.”
“Thanks a bunch, Mister Caramel,” Applebloom said. She hopped out of the wagon, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle followed her.
While Applebloom went to the small purse, Sweetie Belle said, “Before we take your bits, sir, you should know that—”
Scootaloo swept a hoof under Sweetie Bell’s back leg. The unicorn stumbled. It was nothing personal, but they needed the bits. And if they told Caramel about how they broke one stupid old pot, then he’d take them away. Normally Scootaloo would agree they should tell the truth, but this was important and spelunking too awesome to pass up.
Scootaloo said, “Everything went better than expected.”
Sweetie Belle glared at her.
Applebloom stopped herself and said, “Gosh, you’re right Sweetie Belle. We sort of messed up our first delivery.”
Caramel asked, “It wasn’t anything disastrous, was it?”
Scootaloo cleared her throat. “No, nothing serious at all. Just a pot got broke, is all. I think it was Sweetie Belle here—” the filly beside her gasped, “who tried to toss it onto the porch while we passed, I couldn’t tell exactly.”
Applebloom shook her head, “No, it was my fault. I’m sorry.”
Caramel chuckled. “It’s fine girls. When you said you messed up I expected you burned somepony’s home down, but a pot? We can fix that, and for your honesty I won’t take away any of your bits.”
“Ya mean it?”
Caramel nodded. “Just make sure to say hi to Big Mac for me when you get the chance. Been awhile since I’ve seen him and I can’t think of anypony who goes through horseshoes faster. He’s definitely my best customer.”
“We will, sir, thank ya very much.”
She took the purse and rushed to the wagon. Scootaloo bounded behind her and got ready to go, she almost pushed off when she heard, “Ya comin’ Sweetie Belle?”
“Yeah…” Scootaloo tapped her hoof against the scooter before she felt the wagon rock. Sweetie Belle climbed in and Scootaloo fanned out her wings. She kicked the scooter into motion.
Scootaloo heard Applebloom ask, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. How much did we get?”
“Oh, I’m not sure but I bet it’s a whole bunch.”
“Let’s count it out then,” Sweetie Belle said.
Scootaloo interjected, “Hey, I enjoy running around as much as everypony, but where are we going?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Oh, I know. Pinkie Pie’s not in town right now so why don’t we go see if they need any help at Sugar Cube Corner?”
Scootaloo disliked Sugar Cube Corner. Mostly because over the past year she learned to like sweet things less and less. She was more about savory, herself. She opened her mouth to say so when Applebloom said, “That’s a great idea, Sweetie Belle.”
That made Scootaloo’s wings pause for a moment, but they picked up their pace and she steered the scooter into a tight u-turn. If Applebloom thought it a good idea then she couldn’t say no.
“At this rate you might just get your delivery cutie mark,” Sweetie Belle teased.
Applebloom giggled. “Then I’ll be a part of the pony express.”
“Mail ponies can’t all be bad,” Sweetie Belle said.
“But the one here is,” Scootaloo said. “Besides Applebloom, you’re too cool to get a ‘delivery’ cutie mark. I bet once we go spelunking it’ll—bam—be right there in a twitch of a tail.”
There Scootaloo went, talking over her again. It was all Scootaloo ever did anymore. Once Sweetie Belle and Applebloom kicked up a conversation the pegasus filly had to jump into the middle of things and try her hardest to steal Applebloom’s attention. Sweetie Belle didn’t even care that Scootaloo ignored her; she just wanted to know what was wrong with her and so great about Applebloom.
Mr. Cake returned with a trolley he rolled around from the back. He stopped it next to the wagon and said, “We appreciate your help girls. Don’t you know, while Pinkie Pie was here business wasn’t so busy and then when she left, well wham pow and boom—ponies lining up outside and around the door. We just finished the cake. It’s for little Twist’s birthday, take care of it.”
He hefted one side of the tray, Applebloom rushed over, saying, “We’ll help ya with it.”
Sweetie Belle tried to join Applebloom, but Scootaloo darted in front of her and took a spot beside Applebloom. While Mr. Cake held one handle, the two crusaders held the other. They gently set the tray inside the wagon. It took up half the space there.
Mr. Cake said, “You girls should take turns riding with it, just to be sure if you hit any bumps it don’t come flying out and splattering all over somepony. We’ve had that happen one too many times here at the Corner.”
Applebloom said, “We’ll be extra careful, sir.”
“We trust ya girls. Here’s your payment then, two bits, but don’t be afraid to squeeze a tip out of Twist’s parents. Give them the big eyes, if you know what I mean,” Mr. Cake said. Applebloom took the change and stuffed it in the purse Caramel gave them. They were up to fourteen bits so far.
They headed straight for Twist’s house.
Applebloom knocked on Twist’s door again. She stepped away from Twist’s home and back to her fellow crusaders. The three waited outside Twist’s home, Scootaloo’s scooter and the wagon beside them.
Scootaloo swished her tail across the dirt, Sweetie Belle sneezed. They waited.
Scootaloo said, “So much for a tip.”
Applebloom turned on the two, who refused to look at each other. “Now what do we do? How are we supposed ta deliver the cake if no pony’s home?”
Sweetie Belle glanced at the wagon. “We can’t just leave it here. What if somepony or animal gets into it?”
“But we can’t wait here all day, either. We’ll be lucky if we can go spelunking tomorrow as it is,” Scootaloo said. “Is the door unlocked?”
Sweetie Belle finally looked at her. “We can’t be trespassing—”
“It won’t be trespassing if we just slip inside and leave the cake with a note, now will it?” Scootaloo said. Sweetie Belle huffed, both looked at Applebloom.
Applebloom took a step back and bumped her flank into the door. The hinges sqeaked and the bottom half of the Dutch door cracked open. Applebloom gasped and spun around. Scootaloo grinned, passed her and pressed the rest of the door open. “See? This house is inviting us in.”
Sweetie Belle said, “Applebloom…”
“Uh… um… I think she’s right. My sis has told me plenty times before that only bad ponies trespass.”
Scootaloo stamped a hoof. “Come on. Do we want to sit here until we grow beards?”
Sweetie Belle sighed. “If we can’t leave it outside, and we can’t wait, then I guess that means we have to take it inside.”
Applebloom glanced away from both fillies.
“Come on, it won’t take more than a second. Then we can get on with our day,” Scootaloo said.
“And you swear we won’t get into trouble?”
“Course we won’t,” Scootaloo said.
“Now come on,” Sweetie Belle said. She went to the wagon and stopped by the handle. “Me and Scootaloo can pull it in and you can make sure there’s nothing in our way.”
Scootaloo frowned, but Applebloom didn’t notice. She went to the wagon with Sweetie Belle while Applebloom slipped inside. Sweetie Belle asked, “Is there something wrong with me?”
“You’ve just been being… I don’t know, very rude to me lately, and I don’t know why and it’s driving me crazy.”
“Rude?” Scootaloo said.
“Yes, rude. Like how you blamed me for breaking that pot.”
“Hey, I didn’t see who threw it, okay? And I thought Applebloom threw better than you, so I just guessed—”
“Well you guessed wrong,” Sweetie Belle said. “Forget about it. Let’s get this inside before Applebloom comes back out here.”
Both grabbed the handle in their teeth, and started for the door. They backed up to it slowly, the strain made Scootaloo’s teeth hurt a little. She wanted to drop the handle and say something to Sweetie Belle. She could be rude too, sometimes. And it was an accident. She just didn’t know who threw it, was all.
The wheels of the wagon bumped the slight rise of the doorway. Both fillies grunted and with a sharp tug, cleared it. When they got the rear wheel in they let go of the handle and looked around Twist’s home. Applebloom stood beside a low table in the middle of the den with a white table cloth draped over it. She had a wax grin on her face.
She said, “Right here’s okay, right?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Sure.” They grabbed the wagon and dragged it as close to the table as they could. Sweetie Belle dropped the handle and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we backed the wagon up to the table?”
“Um…” Applebloom nibbled on her lip, her eyes darted to the door and back to the two of them.
Scootaloo said for her sake, “That’ll take too much time. Let’s just pick it up and go.”
Applebloom nodded furiously. Scootaloo went to the side closest to Applebloom and said, “Come on over, we’ll take this side together.”
Applebloom darted over to her side. Scootaloo imagined it because she was so nervous and needed somepony to comfort her. Her brain conjured an image of her draping a wing over her friend.
But Applebloom stopped and said, “Actually, wouldn’t it be better if me and Sweetie Belle took a side? You’re a bit tougher than the both of us.”
“Don’t worry about it, Applebloom,” Sweetie Belle said. “I can use my magic to help me on this side.”
“Ya sure? I mean, this cake is awfully heavy.”
Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, okay? I don’t want to make a fuss over this.”
Scootaloo got wound up, she expected any minute for Applebloom to leave her side. She flared her nostrils and almost outright glared at Sweetie Belle when she grabbed the handle. Scootaloo grabbed the other handle in her teeth with Applebloom. Feeling her cheek brush against Applebloom’s made the pegasus’ heart flutter. With three tiny grunts, the tray wobbled into the air. Scootaloo watched Sweetie Belle’s eyes squint. Her legs trembled, but she held. They scooted the cake out from under the wagon, and brought it around to the table. They just needed to set it down…
“What are you guyths doin’ in my houthe?”
Applebloom squeaked and leapt behind a chair. Scootaloo saw Sweetie Belle try to jerk her head around to the door to look behind her. Scootaloo knew what would come next. With a deep breath, she pressed off the ground with her back hooves and tucked them in while the handle on Sweetie Belle’s side fell out of her grasp. Scootaloo’s teeth swung on the handle and she landed hard on her back. All four hooves came up to meet the platter. The whole cake shook, threatened to topple out of her grasp, but Sweetie Belle gasped and snatched her handle again so Scootaloo’s heroic effort wouldn’t be in vain.
Applebloom poked her head out from behind the chair, prepared for the worst. When she saw the cake in one piece, she told Twist, “Uh-huh-hum… we brought you a cake!”
They retreated from Twist’s home and decided on a different course.
“Come one, come all,” Sweetie Belle called while Scootaloo did some exaggerating stretching beside her wagon. They stood in the center of the town square, Applebloom sulking on the other side of the wagon. Twist didn’t mind them intruding, but the cake was supposed to be a surprise and well…
Applebloom shook her head. Not for her to worry about. No way no how. Anyhow, Twist smiled and waved goodbye when they left, her quirky glasses rocking on the bridge of her nose.
Sweetie Belle yelled, “Feast your eyes on the brave filly who will take any challenge.”
Scootaloo glanced at Applebloom and smiled. She said, “Don’t worry about Twist, okay?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Can I take a moment of your time ma’am? Would you like to see the fantastical skill of my friend? No? Oh, thank you then. How about you? Yes, you with the saddle bags…” Sweetie Belle paused as the mare she tried to flag down hurried away with her head bowed.
She faced Scootaloo and said, “I don’t think this is going to work.”
“Bah. Forget about them. Ponies won’t stop watching when I get going.”
“What are you going to do exactly?”
Scootaloo pointed to the burnished but disfigured weather vane at the top of mayor’s house. “I’m going to touch that.”
“Without using my wings.”
Applebloom spoke up. “Ya sure about that? What if the mayor gets upset ’bout you climbing all over her house?”
“The mayor won’t care if I don’t climb all over her house.”
Applebloom and Sweetie Belle both cocked their heads. “Since when did ya leap a buildin’ in a bound, miss Superpony?” Applebloom asked.
Scootaloo smirked. “Better than Superpony.” She crouched low and faced a building on the opposite end of the square. The pegasus flared her nostrils and scraped her hoof against the dirt. She bolted towards the building, in seconds she crossed the square and leapt onto a wagon. From there she jumped onto an awning and bounced on top of the roof. By now more than a few ponies watched while she ran and jumped from that roof to the wall of another building. She landed hard against a brick niche, but yanked her body up and over the roof. She hopped onto a storm drain and ran a tightrope across it to an adjacent building, over to the other side where she leapt off and landed atop a streetlamp. From there she pounced across the street to the adjacent lamp. She hit the lamp in its middle and wrapped her front hooves around. Her momentum sent her swinging around and off.
She caught a flower pot hanging from a wooden beam and swung up, released the pot and spun into a backflip. Several of the ponies in the square clapped their hooves against the cobbles when Scootaloo landed atop the beam. She pounced to her next object and swung and bounded her way up the faces of two buildings before she ran across the roof of the home and leapt to mayor’s house. She did a flip in the air for show which ended halfway when her front hooves came down on the roof. She launched herself off her hooves the rest of the way, righting herself in the air and catching the mayor’s weather vane. The vane wobbled and the pegasus filly swung back and forth. The vane hunched like the back of an old work pony when Scootaloo finally came to a stop.
The filly waved at the crowd below.
Sweetie Belle said, “Fillies and gentlecolts, the Great Scootaloo!”
More cheering, and this time some of the ponies approached the wagon and dropped a few gracious bits into their purse. Applebloom peeled her eyes away from Scootaloo for just a minute, just to watch their purse get a little fatter and fatter…
Several of the ponies in the crowd gasped. Applebloom spun around and saw her friend tumble down the roof, the weather vane snapped in two. She heard Sweetie Belle shout, “Scootaloo!”
Sweetie Belle dashed to the spot Scootaloo would land. Applebloom watched the pegasus twist and contort in the air, her wings a flurry of motion. Scootaloo came to a stop right above the ground, eyes squeezed shut while she floated there. They popped open and she grinned when the earth didn’t come up to meet her.
But the weather vane did.
It caught on a shingle for a moment, swung once, then plopped off, and landed on Scootaloo’s head. She cried out and fell to the ground. Sweetie Belle laughed. Scootaloo rubbed her head, grimaced and said, “Hey, not funny. Knock it off.”
Sweetie Belle jabbed her hoof at Scootaloo. “But you already did.”
The door to the mayor’s house opened. She stepped outside and saw the crowd of ponies and demanded, “Now what is this?”
“I’d like ta know to. Ya’ll got somethin’ ta do with this, Applebloom?” Applebloom squeaked and spun around. She faced her sister and crept back a few paces.
Applebloom chuckled and didn’t meet her sister’s gaze. She turned to her friends and beseeched them. Scootaloo stood and winced when she rose too fast. She had a lump right behind her left ear. She said, “This is all my fault.”
“Then you broke my weather vane? Have you defaced any other pony’s property today?”
Scootaloo nodded and faced the mayor. “Because of me we accidentally broke a pot, but Caramel already knows and has fixed things up with them.”
Applebloom frowned. The pot was her fault. Sweetie Belle said to Applejack, “She’s telling the truth. We got into some trouble today, but it was mine and Scoot’s fault.”
Applebloom shook her head. “No guys. We were all tryin’ ta do the same thing.”
“And that is?” the mayor asked. By now she stood over her weather vane and nudged it with her hoof. She shook her head and said, “This was a gift from my mother.”
Applebloom looked at the weather vane and the stray thought slipped out of her mouth, “Well that’s a lousy present.”
Applebloom slapped a hoof over her mouth. “I’m so sorry.”
“Tarnation, learn ta think before ya flap your jaw like that. I apologize Mrs. Mare, here.”
Applejack went to their wagon, retrieved the purse and dropped it before Mayor Mare’s hooves. “For the damages done on your property.”
Mrs. Mare nodded. “Thank you Applejack. I trust you can handle these fillies?”
Applejack passed a glare back at Applebloom and made her flinch. She said, “You can bet your bits on it. Apologize again, girls.”
Mrs. Mare listened to their chorus of, “We’re sorry,” and took her ruined vane and the purse back inside. She slammed the door behind her. Applejack wheeled on the three of them and said, “I can’t believe you girls. Whose fool idea was this?”
“Mine,” Scootaloo said, and she did not back down when Applejack fixed her with a stern glare.
Sweetie Belle said, “I helped. Applebloom didn’t do a thing, honest Applejack.”
Applejack snorted and turned away. She paced for a moment, stopped and faced them again. “Ya’ll really disappointed me. You’re supposed to be at an age where we can trust not to pay ya any mind. But then ya go and do this and I get the sense ya got no sense still.” She noticed the fillies wouldn’t meet her gaze and sighed. “Fine. I’ll stop badgerin’ ya, but listen up. Ya’ll head back to the farm and play there. If ya want ta make some extra bits, there’s plenty of work me and Big Mac need help with. But tomorrow you’re going to go to Fluttershy’s cottage and care for her critters. And there won’t be any payin’ for your labors.”
“But that’s not—”
“Not a word from you Scootaloo. I have half the mind to tell your aunt and uncle about your behavior—don’t ya roll your eyes or I will. Now, head back down to the farm. All of you, unless you two plan on going back to your own homes for the day.”
The rest of the day scraped by in quiet disappointment. There would be no spelunking, and any play had been drained out of the three crusaders. They ate, sat around, and complained about their day. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo almost had a fight over whose fault was whose, but Applebloom managed to stop that from adding to the disaster.
Applebloom watched the sunset from the window of their clubhouse. Her friends departed not long ago, but she didn’t feel anymore alone.
She heard a hoof knock on wood.
Applejack said, “Can’t do that. Big Mac told me there was a bad apple brewin’ on this side of the farm, and you know we can’t let that stay.”
Applebloom faced her sister, who entered the clubhouse. She didn’t wear her hat, and on her face was a soft smile. Applebloom squared away her feelings and said, “All we wanted to do was make some bits. We didn’t mean ta harm nothin’.”
Applejack sighed and studied the tattered Cutie-Mark Crusader cape tacked on the wall of the clubhouse. She said, “I know you gals always mean the best. And if it was here on the farm, I would have tanned your hides about not being safe, but wouldn’t have cared two bits about a dumb weather vane. But…” she looked at Applebloom, “Ya got to understand it was somepony’s property, and… well I suppose all those ponies starin’ at us got me riled too. I’m sorry, Applebloom. And I’ll make it up to ya’ll, I’ll give back half the bits ya lost today. Ya still need ta be punished, but I practically paid Mrs. Mare to buy another one.”
A snicker betrayed Applebloom. “It was a pretty icky lookin’ thing.”
“Big Mac could make a better one by kickin’ around a few lumps of metal,” Applejack said. They both shared a laugh and Applejack closed the distance between her sister. She nuzzled her cheek and said, “Fluttershy did leave me some bits for whatever pony watched her cottage. If you gals do a good enough job, they’re yours. I know the last pony didn’t quite earn it.”
“What pony did you get?” Applebloom asked.
Applejack said, “Shucks. The mail pony, saw her drifting around and called her down, asked her if she wanted a job. Couldn’t get one thing or another out of her, aside from that she’d use the bits to buy muffins. Then I come round at noon and the cottage is a mess and Angel’s sitting at the front door waiting for me. He points inside and gives me a glare set to simmer apple cider.” Applebloom giggled. “And there’s the mail pony, in a tangle of furniture and animals, Fluttershy’s home lookin’ like a stampede ran through it. I cleaned up best I could and sent Ditzy on her way. Then came into town to find ya’ll up to your old antics. Ya know I never caused half as much trouble as you girls do.”
Applebloom said, “Ya just don’t know how to yet.” She stretched her neck and whispered in her sister’s ear, “But if ya want, I can teach ya how.”
“Why you—” she pushed her sister over and ran her hooves over Applebloom’s belly. The filly squealed, bucked, and broke into laughter as her sister tickled her ceaselessly. A tickle war ensued for the next few minutes, and ended with the two sisters sprawled in a heap in the middle of the clubhouse. Applebloom lied across her sister, who rest on her side.
She yawned and said, “Wouldn’t mind going to sleep right here. You’re mighty comfy, ya know.”
Applejack smiled. “And you make a fine blanket.”
“The best, maybe that’s what my cutie-mark’s supposed ta be.” She yawned again and snuggled her face into her sister’s mane. “Love ya, big sis.”
The last thing Applebloom heard before sleep washed over her was, “Love ya, little sis.”
Sweetie Belle opened the door and said, “I’m home.” Opalescence yawned and stared at her from across the boutique, curled up on a table. Draped over the table with half-finished fabrics rested her sister.
Sweetie Belle frowned and went to her snoozing sister’s side. She nudged her flank. Rarity’s head shot up. “Why yes I’m a size three—Sweetie Belle! You’re home, eh… what time is it, darling?”
“It’s past midnight. You’ve been working really late and need your rest.”
Rarity yawned. “Probably the case, I’m sure I got a few more excellent dresses done today.”
“Um…” Sweetie Belle looked around the messy boutique and said, “You sure did. But come on, let me take you to bed.”
Sweetie Belle led her sister around a knocked over mannequin who wore a patchwork dress and navigated the half-asleep pony upstairs. When Sweetie Belle entered the room, she quickly crossed it and closed the curtain on the other side to shut out the orange sunlight lingering from dusk. She took her sister’s hoof at the door and guided her to the bed. She laid her sister down, tucked her in and said, “Good night, Rarity.”
“Mm… yes… good night to you too, Mr. Fashion Purse.”
Sweetie Belle tried to smile, but couldn’t. She watched her sister drift into a deep, restful sleep before she sighed, closed the door gently behind her, and went downstairs to clean up.
Nopony closed the door when Scootaloo returned home. The whole house stood separate and apart from the other homes on the street. She stared into its dark bowels and felt a flutter of fear. She took a deep breath and thought of Applebloom standing beside her. It helped. She went inside, closed the door and lit a candle. She scrounged some dry oats from the pantry to fill her belly and went upstairs to her bedroom.
She shut the door behind her and set the candle down on her nightstand. From under her bed she dug out a cardboard box filled with comics her mother collected. It was the only thing of hers Scootaloo’s family deigned to keep when she passed. They never knew her father. She cracked open the pages of the comic at the top of the box and began reading.
She went through the whole box, like she did every night. Imagining her mother must’ve sat hunched like this when she was Scootaloo’s age. When she finished the candle burned low, she blew it out, crawled underneath her blankets and went to bed.
The silence of the house kept her up most the night.
The Cutie-Mark Crusaders pulled in front of Fluttershy’s cottage. Sweetie Belle and Applebloom hopped out of the wagon and went to the door. Everypony’s spirits were better with Applejack’s promise of payment. Before she left the cottage the other day, Applejack tacked a list of things to do to Fluttershy’s door.
Both Sweetie Belle and Applebloom read it while Scootaloo unstrapped her helmet. She tossed it in the back of the wagon and asked, “Well?”
Sweetie Belle mumbled, “There’s a lot here…”
Scootaloo trotted beside the two and stopped beside Applebloom. “Let’s just get it done—whoa. I didn’t know a pony could write that small. Or that badly.”
“Hey, are ya mockin’ my penmanship’s too?” Applebloom said.
Scootaloo said, “But yours is going to get better, isn’t it?”
Applebloom frowned. “Suppose it’s got room ta grow…”
Sweetie Belle interjected, “Looks like we need to feed most of the animals first. Fluttershy keeps all her food around back, doesn’t she?”
Applebloom blinked. “Huh? Oh, sorry Sweetie Belle—I think so, let’s go take a look.”
“Race you,” Scootaloo said and dashed away.
Applebloom chased her. “Hey, not fair. Gettin’ a head start like that.” They circled around the cottage to a small garden behind the humble home. It sat in the shade, the plants heavy with the morning dew, and beside it were several sacks of various grains and feed for Fluttershy’s collection of birds. On the stack of burlap slept a small, white rabbit.
When Applebloom burst into the scene behind Scootaloo the rabbit bolted upright. He glared at the two and rolled over and put his back to them. Scootaloo said, “Come on, you gotta be getting slower. Last time we raced it didn’t take you that long to catch up.”
“Last time ya didn’t get the jump on me, either.”
Sweetie Belle rounded the corner, the note levitating in the air beside her. She said, “Now it says here those sacks are labeled. There are different seeds for the bird feeders here, she just wants us to fill them up and call them with a little song. Shouldn’t be that hard—”
“You handle it then,” Scootaloo said. “What else? Chickens need to be taken care of, right?”
“Well yeah, but—”
“Then me and Applebloom will handle them,” Scootaloo said. Applebloom noticed Sweetie Belle’s lips pursed a moment, she glanced at the bags, then the nearest bird feeder thirty paces away that hung from a lone cedar tree.
Applebloom said, “We can help out with that first, though—”
Sweetie Belle shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I’ll take care of it. Besides, I’m the singer, right?” She swung her flank into view and the cutie mark there.
“It’s settled then,” Scootaloo said. “Let’s do it to it, Applebloom.”
She trotted over to pile of sacks and picked out the one with “chickens” stitched in a tarnished yellow. She said, “Watch out, Angel.” The rabbit sat up and crossed his arms. He cocked his head. “I need this.” The rabbit snorted and lied back down. Scootaloo shot Applebloom a look. Applebloom shrugged, so the pegasus grabbed the sack in her teeth and yanked it free of the pile. The sacks came tumbling down, Angel squeaked and leapt off the burlap avalanche. He landed and wheeled on Scootaloo. He shook his paw at her and stalked off.
Sweetie Belle said, “That rabbit scares me.”
Applebloom said, “Shucks, hey we’re sorry Angel. But it’s feedin’ time and such. So don’t wander off now.”
Scootaloo shrugged and hefted the sack. “I wmed hm.”
“Say what Scoot?”
Scootaloo spat the burlap from her mouth. “Blegh. I said, ‘I warned him.’ Now come on, Applebloom.” She took the sack and made her way around to the chicken coop.
Applebloom said to Sweetie Belle, “Um… let us know if you need any help.”
“You know if I need something I won’t hesitate to ask.”
Scootaloo brought the seed around and said, “Here chicka-chicka’s. Come on out, you’re breakfast’s here.” Scootaloo stood the sack up and undid the knot keeping it close. Inside waited a slew of dried corn kernels. Scootaloo eyed one, shrugged her wings, and snuck a bite.
It tasted like dirt and ick. She spat it out and said, “Ugh, the sack taste better.”
She heard Applebloom say, “Hey, I thought you said you weren’t a chicken.”
Scootaloo rounded on her friend. “I am not!”
“Then why ya eatin’ chicken feed, silly?” Applebloom asked.
“I was just curious, is all. Now come on, help me get these guys out.” Scootaloo pointed a hoof at the chicken coop, the door was wide open. They could see dust swirling with the sunlight, it crept inside through stray cracks and holes in the woodwork, but they spotted no chickens.
“Why ya need my help? You’re not trying to tell me your chicken of chickens, are ya Scoot?”
“Whatever, come on.”
Applebloom giggled and shoved her friend. “It was just a joke, lighten up.”
Scootaloo forced herself to chuckle. “Right, a joke.”
From the coop came a squawk. A flurry of feathers made both crusader’s freeze, until a single form stood in the doorway of the coop. It was a fat, white hen, who fixed a glare on the two. She sat down in front of the door. A few of the birds peeked their heads around her, but retreated when a swift beak struck them.
“Hey, chicken. We brought you something to eat, come on out.”
The hen watched them. Her glare soon began to melt their patience. Applebloom said, “She’s actin’ like she’s got a fresh batch of eggs underneath her.”
“We can’t wait all day on some chicken. Here, I’ll flush them out.” Scootaloo strutted to the door, the chicken’s simmering gaze remained unblinking. Only her chest’s rise and fall indicated she wasn’t a feathered statue. “We can do this two ways, chickie. I can move you, or you can move yourself.”
The chicken didn’t move.
Scootaloo smirked. “I love it when they put up a fight.” She rushed the door and closed the gap between the chicken. She leapt into the air and landed hard on plank that led into the coop, she fanned out her wings and reared up on two hooves. “Rargh!” She came down with all her weight, her hooves clopped against the wood and punctuated the whole motion.
The hen clucked once. She pecked Scootaloo in the head.
“Hey—ouch—” Scootaloo fell back under a beak barrage. She tripped off the plank and landed with an, “Oof.”
She blinked and groaned, her head throbbed. Behind her she heard Applebloom squealing and snorting. When she glared at the filly she found her friend’s legs in the air, she was on her back clutching her stomach.
“What’s so funny?” Scootaloo demanded.
Applebloom stopped with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Scoot. It’s just funny to see a chicken too hardboiled for you.”
Sweetie Belle heard laughter from the other side of the cottage. She nickered and hefted the sack of birdfeed. With a grunt and some focused magic to help, she managed to prop it up just right for tiny seeds to flood into the feeder. A handful spilled and landed across her face. She pulled the sack back before she shook seed from her mane.
She mumbled, “Stupid Scootaloo. Making me do this all by myself.” She didn’t want to, but she wouldn’t make a fuss before the day even began. Scootaloo was just… well… Sweetie Belle didn’t have an answer for why she acted the way she did. All the filly seemed to want anymore was to spend time with Applebloom, and it wouldn’t get underneath Sweetie Belle’s skin so much if she just knew why.
She sighed and began calling the birds.
The two heard Sweetie Belle’s voice carry over the cottage and Applebloom said, “Uh-oh, Scoot. You don’t hurry up and Sweetie Belle’s gonna beat ya.”
Scootaloo scoffed. “Forget it. Some chicka isn’t going to stop me.” She climbed the ramp and stood before the hen. She brought herself to her full height and said, “Come on, move it or lose it. I’m not afraid of hitting another girl you know—”
The hen pecked her in the head. Scootaloo winced but said, “Not going to work. You can’t stop this pony with a beak.”
The hen’s eyes narrowed on her. She clucked three more times and pecked Scootaloo again.
“Would you stop that!”
Peck. Peck. Peck. Scootaloo backed off, when she faced Applebloom she found her friend with a hoof over her mouth, she quivered and stomached her laughter. Applebloom pointed at a small bowl of water beside the cottage door and said, “Take a look at your forehead.”
Scootaloo stomped to the bowl. She gasped at her reflection, and the half dozen red, lumpy welts on her head. Scootaloo wheeled around on the bird and growled. “This means war.”
Sweetie Belle finished with the last of the bird-feeders. She admired her handiwork and the robins and cardinals sharing the feeder. The note said good singing would make sure they didn’t fight over a single seed, so it pleased her to see her voice justified.
Sweetie Belle worried the girls would be lounging while she did all the work, she still had the list after all, and feeding chickens wasn’t difficult. She went around to the front and saw Applebloom standing alone. Scootaloo and her scooter were gone. So was the chicken feed. Sweetie Belle frowned and approached Applebloom.
“What’s going on?”
Applebloom grinned. “Oh hey, Sweetie Belle. You got to see this.” She looked down the road, Sweetie Belle followed her gaze and found Scootaloo barreling towards them. The chicken seed swinging from her mouth.
“Applebloom? What is she doing?”
“Wait for it…”
Scootaloo blazed past them, into the chicken pen and sped straight for the chicken coop. A lone hen waited at the door, unflinching. The bird stood and stepped out of the way as Scootaloo shot up the ramp. Sweetie Belle blinked, then heard a crash and their friend exploded out the other side. The filly went tumbling across the grass, her scooter cartwheeling with her and the bag of seed ripping open and spilling across the grass. Frantic chickens swarmed out the gaping hole and front door, the rogue hen waited for them to, and then took a seat in front of the door again.
“Sweet Celestia, Scootaloo!” Applebloom yelled. The two rushed to their friend, who was sprawled in a tangled heap of scooter and limbs. She groaned when they reached her and shook her head.
She tapped her helmet and said, “This is why I don’t leave home without this.”
While Applebloom helped her up Sweetie Belle demanded, “What were you thinking? You could’ve killed yourself.”
Applebloom said, “It’s mostly my fault. I egged her on, right Scootaloo?”
“Don’t talk to me about eggs.”
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. She faced the coop, the chickens dashing about and escaping from the open pen. She said, “I can’t believe this…”
“I can patch the hole,” Applebloom offered. “Shouldn’t be too much trouble if I run back to the farm and grab some tools.”
Scootaloo stepped away from Applebloom’s support. “I can take you there.”
“No way, ya silly filly. You see the way ya just crashed through that wall? You’re gonna rest here ’til ya feel better. Sweetie Belle will deal with the chickens, I’ll tackle the coop, then we can get right back on track.”
Sweetie Belle’s shoulders tensed until her front legs almost trembled. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then faced the two with a smile. She said, “Suppose that’s the best we can do. Let me deal with that hen.”
She went around to the coop and saw the hen still at the entrance. She studied the chicken and said over her shoulder, “Hey didn’t you guys recognize her? This is Elizabeak, the chicken we ran off into the Everfree Forest?”
“Really?” Applebloom asked.
Sweetie Belle nodded. “She was a bit bigger than the rest. Hello Miss Elizabeak, I’m sorry about my friends troubling you. But can you please move over for me?”
With a huff, the hen marched down the ramp and out the way of the door. Sweetie Belle heard Applebloom ask, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
Sweetie Belle almost lost her temper.
The door to the cottage opened. Sweetie Belle mopped her face with a rag, tossed the sweat-covered cloth over her shoulder and came inside. Scootaloo sat on the couch, she glanced at her and said, “Oh, hey.”
“Hey.” Sweetie Belle crossed the room and fell back on her haunches. “Feel like I’m going to fall over. I don’t know how Fluttershy does it. I’m pooped and all I did was feed them.”
“Mmhmm…” Scootaloo said. She kept herself distracted by looking through a photo album she found out on top of a small table in the den.
She felt Sweetie Belle’s gaze on her while she studied the older photographs in Fluttershy’s scrapbook. Most of it told the story of Fluttershy’s life. But the first few pages were of a mare about as old a Fluttershy now. An earth pony, under her portrait was the name, “Posey”. It was Fluttershy’s mother. Scootaloo knew because on the page were several family photos of Posey, her husband, and newborn Fluttershy. One of them showed a clear backdrop of the royal palace in Canterlot. The last picture of Posey was with a group of very different ponies, five in all, all of them smiling and gathered close. Then on the next page, Posey disappeared, and in her stead an orange pegasus pony replaced her, and the backdrop changed to clouds.
The sudden disappearance stirred feelings in Scootaloo’s gut. She kept looking at that last picture of Posey, and flipping the page over to the pony in Posey’s place. She thought about her mother. Her uncle said she was struck by lightning during a weather experiment and… one page to another, she disappeared.
“Scootaloo… don’t you think those are supposed to be private?” Scootaloo almost jumped right off the couch. Sweetie Belle stood beside her, looking over her shoulder at the photographs.
“You’re right.” Scootaloo began to close the photo album, but Sweetie Belle’s hoof came down and snapped it open.
“Wait a minute.”
Sweetie Belle poked her head around Scootaloo’s. She felt her mane brush against her cheek and smelt the sweat mingling with the shampoos the unicorn washed her mane with. She almost blushed when Sweetie Belle brought her head back and pointed out one of the ponies in the group photo.
“Do you know who that is?”
Scootaloo frowned. “Am I supposed to?”
“That’s my mother. You know…” Sweetie Belle bounced up and down and finally spoke, “Remember when we broke that portrait in my sister’s room? Before we met Applebloom, and how my sister put up a fuss?”
Scootaloo squinted at the pony. “Hey, yeah… you’re right. What happened to her?”
Sweetie Belle froze, the life drained out of her and she said, “I’d rather not… I’d rather not talk about it.”
Scootaloo closed the album. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Thud. Both crusader’s yelped. Scootaloo fell off the couch and landed on top of Sweetie Belle, who tripped up on the leg of the table. They both fell in a tangle of legs and hooves. On the scrapbook stood Angel, his arms crossed and a firm glare on his face. He thumped a paw against the book and huffed.
Sweetie Belle coughed and dragged herself out from under Scootaloo. She said, “Alright, alright, we won’t touch it. Okay?”
The little bunny huffed again. Scootaloo got her wobbly hooves under her, the effort making her shoulder ache. Angel hopped off the couch and disappeared into one of the cottage’s many nooks and crannies. Sweetie Belle said, “He scares me a lot of the time.”
Scootaloo said, “I know. Aren’t bunnies supposed to be cute?”
“Only when they’re not trying to bite your head off,” Sweetie Belle joked.
Scootaloo shuddered. “Ugh. Killer bunnies. A crusader’s arch-nemesis.”
They both shared a laugh, the first in a long time.
But then from outside they heard, “Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo! You girls inside? Cause I need help with these tools.”
Scootaloo gasped and dashed outside, past Sweetie Belle to Applebloom. The earth filly stood beside their wagon with a set of tools and a few planks of wood stacked inside. She beamed until Scootaloo nearly tackled her.
Applebloom giggled. “It’s good to see you too!” Scootaloo hugged her close and then pulled away.
She said, “It’s been too quiet here without you.”
“Well that don’t make much sense. You had Sweetie Belle here with ya, didn’t ya? Hey Sweetie Belle, come on out. I can see you inside there,” Applebloom called.
Sweetie Belle flipped her mane and trotted to the two. “Great to have the crusaders back together. Now let’s fix up that coop!”
Sweetie Belle felt her whole brain become as sluggish as the rest of her. Getting reminded of her mother’s passing, even if Scootaloo didn’t mean to, just brought down a whole new set of anxiety and guilt. Rarity never blamed her, but Sweetie Belle didn’t need her to. Still, she painted a smile over her face, no matter how much it hurt, and they went around to the coop.
“Now my sis left us with plenty wood ta work with. So we’ll just do this right and bang one board in after another. Shouldn’t be any trouble at all.”
“What about the chickens?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Applebloom frowned. “What do ya mean?”
“I got them calmed down and back into their coop. They’re all sleeping right now. If we start banging on the wall they’re going to panic. We should wake them up, lead them outside, and one of us watch them while the other two finish with the coop.”
Scootaloo said, “No way, there’s not enough time. We’ve already gotten really behind, and Applejack will be around here in a few hours to check on our progress. If we aren’t done we can’t get our bits, can we? That’s why we’re here. Just lock the door and let the stinking birds calm down on their own time.”
Applebloom scratched the dirt with her hoof while her two friends stared each other down. She looked up and said, “Scootaloo…”
But Sweetie Belle said, “Fine. You’re right. I’ll go lock the door.” Sweetie Belle wasn’t going to argue with her, when everything went wrong, she couldn’t be blamed for it. Sweetie Belle went to the door Fluttershy added after their whole debacle the night they stayed over. That was more than half a year ago, and already rust clung to the latch when Sweetie Belle flipped it down. She heard a chicken cluck on the other side, followed by Applebloom’s shout, “Ready, Sweetie Belle?”
“Ready.” She hopped off the ramp and went around the coop to the back. Before she got there a set of banging went off. She heard the shrill squawks of surprised hens. The banging paused and Applebloom said, “Got the first one down.” Sweetie Belle rounded the corner and found Scootaloo holding the board over her filly sized hole while Applebloom readied her hammer. She struck the nail four firm times and nailed the board in place. The chickens on the inside were frantic, clawing at the door and squawking their little beaks off.
Applebloom squinted inside the thrashing mass of feathers and said, “They’re really goin’ at that door.”
“Who cares, they’ll stop in a minute. Stupid birds,” Scootaloo said. She hefted the next plank of wood and set it above the last. “Let’s finish this. We got three more to do.”
Applebloom nodded and whacked another nail in. The door on the opposite end of the coop rattled. Sweetie Belle could hear the hinges groaning. Applebloom paused before she hammered her fourth nail and suggested, “Why don’t we stop for a minute?”
“And leave me holding this board up?” Scootaloo asked.
Sweetie Belle sighed. “I’ll check on the door. Finish up that nail, okay Applebloom?”
She trotted back around only to find the latch on the door loose. She forgot to slip the bolt. Sweetie Belle gasped and ran to the door. She was sure she yelled for Applebloom to wait, but she still heard, bang, bang, bang, bang! The door to the coop flew open just as Sweetie Belle reached the ramp. A stampede of feather of fluff trampled her. The panicked birds knocked her off the ramp and she fell on her side, dazed.
She blinked and coughed. She saw a feather fly out her mouth. Her face stung from several small scratches. She shook the cobwebs from her eyes and stumbled to her hooves. Only to hear Scootaloo demand, “What happened?”
Sweetie Belle faced the two crusaders. Applebloom watched the chickens rush around their pen, while Scootaloo fixed her with a glare. “You said you could handle this.”
Sweetie Belle looked at her hooves. She pursed her lips. “They just got the jump on me, is all.”
Sweetie Belle ground her teeth. Everything just seemed to culminate into this awful moment, and Scootaloo stood at its epicenter, talking down to her for something that wasn’t her fault. Scootaloo made the gaping hole, Scootaloo insisted on terrorizing the chickens. All she forgot was one bolt, a stupid bolt.
“Scootaloo,” Applebloom said. “It was an accident, now let’s take care of this.”
Scootaloo nickered and said, “Alright. Let’s clean up this mess.” Both crusaders turned their back on Sweetie Belle. A tremor ran down her spine and she felt a tear begin its bloom. She couldn’t do this anymore, she was tired of taking blame and being walked all over and ignored. Scootaloo probably wouldn’t notice if she just left, Applebloom too.
So she did.
Applebloom’s spirits reached a new low, and she couldn’t say a thing or think of a thing to say for the inevitable argument. Arguments. It reminded her of that time in the Everfree Forest, when they joked about getting an argument cutie mark. What happened to that? The “Yes” and “No”s thrown back and forth until things got so silly they just ended it with laughter.
“—it’s bad enough we had to deal with her mess, but to just abandon us? Can you believe that? After everything we’ve been through and just boom! Gone. No goodbye. No excuses. Just leaves in the middle of everything. I bet she doesn’t care about spelunking at all.”
Applebloom listened to Scootaloo list off all her complaints, but she couldn’t agree or disagree. A part of her wished Scootaloo would just leave, so she could talk to Sweetie Belle alone. She even suggested it, that maybe Scootaloo should stay and finish up while she found Sweetie Belle, but Scootaloo said, “No way, I’m not letting her get away with this.”
They traveled down the road, Applebloom scanning the sides. They made their way to Ponyville, convinced their fellow crusader returned to the boutique.
But Scootaloo’s ears twitched and she froze. She said, “You hear that?”
Applebloom listened. She heard a mockingbird’s nasty squawk in the distance, but nothing else. Scootaloo said, “This way,” and led them off the road to follow a small trail that led into the back of Sweet Apple Acres. Pretty soon, Applebloom heard the faint sound of a distant voice. A sad, “What would you do if I sang out of tune…” floated through the air.
Scootaloo looked at Applebloom and nodded. “That’s definitely her.”
They followed the source into a thicket of trees and brush. They had to circle around a few times to find an entrance to the thicket, all the while Sweetie Belle’s singing drifted to them: “Does it worry you to be alone?”
“Here we are,” Scootaloo said, and found a narrow opening. She crouched low and crawled through the brush. Applebloom swallowed the knot in her throat and joined her. They did not go far before the brush opened into a dome. Light fell in cascades, like through a moth-eaten curtain. The foliage cast warped the rays into soft shades of green that seemed to revolve through the dome as they stepped through it.
And Sweetie Belle sat on a low stump in the center. Still singing.
Scootaloo stepped on a twig and snapped it underhoof. Sweetie Belle stopped. Applebloom watched her shoulders rise and fall. She said, “Oh, hey girls.”
“Is your brain sunbaked or something? Why the heck did you leave us to clean up after you at the cottage?” Scootaloo demanded.
Applebloom put a hoof on Scootaloo’s shoulder. She said, “Scootaloo, that’s not the way to handle things.”
Sweetie Belle spun around and said, “No, it’s the only way to handle things, isn’t it? This has been going on for weeks, months now! Ever since I spent that week helping my sister cut fabrics, afterwards, it was like I didn’t belong no more. Why? What did I do? But I don’t blame you, Applebloom. It’s her.” She jabbed a hoof at Scootaloo.
“Me?” Scootaloo’s wings rose. “I haven’t done a thing to you—”
“But that’s just it,” Sweetie Belle said and stamped her hooves. “You haven’t. You don’t listen to my advice, worse still, if Applebloom suggest the exact same thing your eager to do it then, even if you hate the idea. It’s like I don’t matter anymore. And I’m the one who feels abandoned. I mean—gosh you blame me for things I didn’t do, like that stupid coop. It’s easy for you to say I’m the one fooling around, even when you were the one that crashed through the thing like a typical feather-head.”
Scootaloo gasped. Applebloom watched her take a step back like Sweetie Belle struck her, then she scowled and said, “Yeah… well… why didn’t you ever say a thing? You agreed with me at every turn, and you never once said anything about me ignoring you—”
“I shouldn’t have to when it’s right in front of your eyes!”
Applebloom stepped between them and said, “Come on, gals. Let’s calm down and just talk this out. Maybe there were problems with both sides, but I don’t see no reason why we can’t work this out.”
“You’re not any better, though,” Sweetie Belle accused and Applebloom flinched. “You never once stood up for me.”
Applebloom knew she never did. There were times she should’ve, she knew now, but she didn’t want to take sides. And with how tight-lipped Sweetie Belle was about it she just reckoned she got over things better…
Scootaloo said, “Don’t you dare say anything bad about Applebloom.”
Sweetie Belle scoffed. “Applebloom. Applebloom. Applebloom. She’s all you care about. Why are you so obsessed about her?”
“I… I…” Scootaloo’s eyes darted between the two crusaders, “You were never around as much as her. I could rely on her—”
“That’s stupid.” She touched a hoof to her chest. “So it’s my fault my sister ropes me into doing things for her?”
Scootaloo growled. “Well at least you have someone.”
“Oh right, and it’s fantastic to know a dress is more important than you.”
“Better than a bunch of rocks.”
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo stared each other down. Sweetie Belle said, “You know, at least you’re free. I have to constantly live up to standards that can drive me nuts.” Sweetie Belle’s voice became stuffier. “‘You must talk like this, darling. And no you cannot sing at that filthy dive, but we can make trip to the opera house this weekend.’” She kicked her stump. “I can’t do a thing wrong, or a thing I want.”
Scootaloo shook her head. “You have no right to complain. You’ve no idea what it’s like to never have someone. Never have a mother—”
“I killed mine!”
Applebloom felt sick, but thanked Celestia for the curtain of silence that fell between them. They never knew anything like that, each knew the other’s parents passed, but never that.
Sweetie Belle raised the curtain. Her voice was soft, as if what she said was just as gut-wrenching a revelation for her. “You know, it’s funny, we could call ourselves the ‘Orphaned Cutie-Mark Crusaders and it would still work…” She released a heady sighed. “This is why I left when things got crazy at the cottage. Because… because…” Sweetie Belle sobbed, “I knew this would happen. I knew we would end up hating each other. I don’t want that. I still don’t. So I’ll just go, okay?”
She hopped off the stump and locked her gaze with the entrance to the hollow. She marched to it, and Applebloom felt like the canopy above their heads got closer to collapse with every step she took. The earth pony’s legs wobbled. She didn’t know what to do. She needed to stand up for her friend, against her other friend. Her eyes darted to Scootaloo, who glared at Sweetie Belle the whole time, lips drawn tight. When Sweetie Belle passed, Applebloom mumbled, “Please, let’s just talk about this.” Sweetie Belle ignored her. She passed through the entrance of the foliage and disappeared.
Applebloom’s knees buckled. The canopy and light swirled above her and made her dizzy. Her breath came up short. She remembered the time she fell into the creek when she was a foal, and how Equestria slowly turned over into a blur of light, sloshing water, and suffocation until Big Macintosh saved her.
“Applebloom!” Scootaloo crouched over her and said, “Don’t worry about her. She’s doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Applebloom sobbed. She looked up at her friend and felt revolted with what she found in her eyes. She choked, coughed, then said, “Don’t… don’t do this. We just lost our best friend and all ya can do is blame her for being nasty.”
Scootaloo hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“I mean she’s right. All you care about is me. Why?”
“I… I just… I really like you. Lately I feel all alone except when I’m with you and…” Scootaloo nuzzled her cheek. Applebloom felt her tears mingle with Scootaloo’s, the pegasus’ breath washed over her ear. “Please don’t be mad. Please. I love—”
“Don’t say that.” Applebloom shot up and backed away. She shook her head and tried to deny the words. “That’s why Sweetie Belle hates us. Hates me. And it’s not natural. I… you’re a great friend, the best friend, Scootaloo, but I don’t feel that way at all… and… and… I’m sorry.” Applebloom closed her eyes and ran through the exit. She felt branches and thorns scratch at her hide and tear at her hair. They ripped off her bow. She didn’t care. She pulled herself out from under the brush, crying.
Everything fell apart so soon, so fast. She didn’t know what to do. What to say or who to side with. She couldn’t do anything about Scootaloo’s feelings, but she didn’t want to just push her friend away. She ran back to the farm without thinking, without thinking she ran into the solid, warm frame of her brother. He scooped her up and rested her on his back. Big Macintosh carried her to the farmhouse, whispering comforting words without even knowing why she felt so awful.
Pink Ladies and Sour Apples Part 1
Big Macintosh has been married to the farm his whole life, so it stands to reasoning that he never had time to spare for a mare. But when Applebuck Season arrives and Applejack's friends can't help, the Apple family is faced with a dilemma of deeper concerns. However, when Applejack recruits a few hired hands the answer to both problems appears.
“Ah just don’t figure how we’ll manage this year. We’re not fillies and colts no more and Applebloom’s too young.”
“Ah mean Ah know how important it’s for Rainbow Dash ta open for her precious Wonderbolts and tour with them. She says she’s goin’ ta try and charm that Soarin character right outta his horseshoes. Don’t know about that, but he did buy mah pie at the Gala, the only stinkin’ pony in Canterlot to touch our food. And then Twilight’s left for Canterlot of course. Ah don’t blame her, Ah told her Ah says, ‘Twilight your families’s a might bit more important than helpin’ us with some silly apple buckin’.’”
“Ah won’t even ask Rarity. She’ll just say, ‘Well why can’t Ah use my magic, darlin’? And oh dear my mane is gettin’ dusty, darlin’. I chipped a hoof darlin’!’ Ah’d go crazy. Pinkie’s too busy tendin’ ta the Cake’s shop while they’re in Manehattan for that silly convention—who cares about pumpkin anyways? Apples is where’s it’s at.”
“Fluttershy’s gone with Twilight. She wants to try again with those critters at the Royal Gardens. Ah don’t know who else ta turn to.”
“Ya even listenin’ to me?”
Applejack stamped her hooves and glared at her brother. She paced right outside their barn, while Big Macintosh removed his harness. He stood in the doorway now, in the distance he heard Applebloom squeal. She and Scootaloo were playing again, their other little friend wasn’t around as much as she’d like to. Applebloom complained about Sweetie Belle having to help Rarity, Applejack scolded her about helping the family was more important, and that one day she’d be standing outside this barn, waiting for the fearless leader of Sweet Apple Acres to dictate and decide.
“Don’t ya even think of sayin’ ‘Eeyup,’” Applejack said. “Ah came here on account that Ah figured ya might have an idea.”
Big Macintosh shrugged. He’d worked the orchard all day, the grind wore his brain raw and his thoughts slipped by like a smooth molasses down a tree…
“Ah guess Ah’ll figure everythin’ out, again,” Applejack said.
Big Macintosh blinked. He shook the cobwebs from his head and said, “How ’bout hirin’ some help?”
Applejack spun around. She scratched her chin with her hoof. “Could do that. Where we get the bits from?”
Big Macintosh shrugged. “We’ve split our profits between us. Ah don’t spend much. Nothin’ Ah need anyhow.”
Applejack sighed. “Now you’re just bein’ unfair. That’s your bits, Ah know it’s not much but you haven’t spent a one?”
Big Macintosh shrugged.
“Ah suppose. What you reckon we do with it? We could get a few hands, mostly earth ponies—hate usin’ magic to get the apples off. It’s bad for the trees. Ah don’t know who’d we hire here in Ponyville, though. Don’t think no one’s lookin’ for work who doesn’t already got some.”
“Look elsewhere. Fillydelphia’s just a short train ride away,” Big Macintosh said.
“City ponies? You a few apples short of a barrel?”
Big Macintosh said, “Nothin’ wrong with city ponies. Your friends did an alright job last year with ya showing them what to do. Figures we can teach anypony how to buck a tree.”
Applejack frowned. She said, “Ah suppose it’s the best we can do.” She nickered and said, “Ah heck, Ah don’t know, let’s both think about it. ’Specially you, Ah’m not going to take your bits unless you’re abs-oh-lutely okay with it. And Ah’ll know if you’re lyin’ faster than an apple falls from a tree.”
Big Macintosh nodded.
Applejack departed the next day and left Big Macintosh to get ready.
All the real work was already done. Big Macintosh was left with a mostly empty farm. He prepared some of the trees and tucked barrels beneath them. He cleaned out the cellar and took the time to prepare the presses for apple cider. That little guilty pleasure was Big Macintosh’s favorite part of the whole season.
Applejack planned to be gone for three days, so on the second Big Macintosh made a trip into Ponyville. He visited a barn that held a series of carriages and wagons, the twin brothers who owned it were Plink and Plunk. They made wagons, carriages, and whatever they could fit wheels under. Big Macintosh liked the brothers, they cut to the chase and seldom nicker-nacked if you didn’t want any nicker-nack. Problem was their business also did taxi work, any road to anyplace self-respecting was on the road that led out the opposite side of Ponyville.
Big Macintosh didn’t mind traveling through town. His thoughts kept him plenty entertained, he did get too uncomfortable sometimes when people noticed him. Lot of ponies thought him odd, not in a bad way odd. Like, “Oh there goes Big Macintosh, must be running some important errand if her sister can’t handle it,” kind of odd. They thought he was married to the farm, and in a lot of ways Big Macintosh supposed he was, but he still liked to think he took time for other ponies. He didn’t have a problem socializing with all the mares around. He just treated them with the hospitality he always used.
The giggle of a mare caught his attention. Big Macintosh glanced to the side and found a pair of ponies walking beside them. A cream colored mare with a black mane and tulip cutie mark and beside her a slimmer yellow pony with a light orange mane and sunflower cutie mark. They made the very image of respectable mares. Big Macintosh figured he might even know them.
He smiled and said, “Why good mornin’ ladies.”
The cream one giggled again. She said, “Morning Big Macintosh. No one’s seen you around Ponyville in weeks. We thought your sister tied you up to some tree.”
“Well not a tree Ah suppose. She likes the harness more. Gets more work outta me.”
“You can certainly see it,” the yellow one said.
Big Macintosh frowned. “Ah thought Ah got rid of that limp. Guess Ah got so used to it it just got ta be the way Ah’ve been walkin’.”
One of the mares snorted.
“Beg your pardon miss?” Big Macintosh said.
“Nothing. Say Big Macintosh, you want to spend some time outside the farm? We’re going somewhere for a brunch and we’d love for you to come and talk about plows and dirt and stuff,” the cream colored mare said.
Big Macintosh whistled low. He stopped and faced both mares. “Reckon that’s a mighty nice invitation, ladies, but Ah’m afraid Ah gotta decline on account of all the work that still needs ta be done. Both of you are mighty pretty, though, Ah do enjoy your company.”
The yellow mare’s left eyebrow twitched, both stared at the red stallion. The cream one managed to break a smile over her face and say, “We’ll just walk with you to where you’re going then.”
Big Macintosh nodded, “Ah reckon that’s a fair trade. How ’bout it then? Ya want ta know about plowin’ or sowin’ seeds or harvestin’ or what? Ah don’t get ta talk about it much, but Ah got lots to talk about. Enough to keep ya’ll pretty ladies entertained.”
The yellow one leaned over and whispered into the cream’s ear. The cream’s smile got wider. “I’m sorry, but Daisy just reminded me that we have a friend we have to meet. Some other time Big Macintosh?”
“Absolutely, Ah’d love sharin’ mah day with a couple of nice lookin’ mares like yourself…” but the ponies scampered away before he finished. Big Macintosh said under his breath, “Ah hope ya’ll ladies have yourselves a nice day.”
“This is all Ah can afford Ah guess. Ya’ll look like honest types, though. Now we’ll feed ya and shelter ya, wouldn’t be fair otherwise,” Applejack said. She stood in the doorway of a train car, the floor rocked under her hooves as she addressed the four ponies in the car. Applejack recruited them and talked to a whole hay more, but not everypony was willing to just toss everything in the air. She figured this lot was needing the bits something fierce, she’d have to watch them to make sure they remained honest. She liked the pegasus. Another mare would keep the numbers even on the farm between the three stallions she found. She counted Big Macintosh for her side, on account of he wouldn’t defend any of the boys if they stirred up trouble anyways.
The oldest of the four, older than her even, perked his head up. He was a navy blue pony with a blond mane. He said, “Think we’ll be there long?”
“Depends on how hard ya work, partner. Gotta hot date or somethin’ tomorrow? Figured ya ta be pretty lonely for how I found you.” But the stallion found her talking with another pony about the job and he walked out an alley and volunteered. Applejack didn’t like him, if only because he looked a mess. His knees were scabbed and calloused, too much time lying in hard alleys. His mane held a whole host of mess in it. All greasy and washed out, trashed tangled and mingled with matted wads of blond hair. He stunk the whole car up.
Applejack believed any pony be given a chance, and heck, this pony looked like he needed a chance. And definitely a bath, Applejack didn’t have a problem with dirt and sweat coating a pony after a good day’s work, but she also thought smelling like death was a terrible way to make friends.
“I’m more concerned with how long it takes to get there,” another stallion spoke up. This one was named Fleck, he had a splash of what Applejack supposed was red, white, and green paint for a cutie mark on his brown hide. Said he was an artist, but was used to taking on outside work so he could eat, he also thought the countryside would do him some good.
The pegasus, she was named Freebird. Applejack liked the name, it made music in her head. She was a blues singer, another down on her luck pony who needed the food. She said, “Soon. Been to Ponyville once, nice place. Did a show there.”
“Ah don’t remember that,” Applejack said.
“It was a small show. Got on stage with a band I know and we started playing our tunes when this pink pony jumped on stage and ruined things. Went on and on about us needing to laugh more.”
Applejack rolled her eyes.
The last stallion grunted. He was a workhorse, as big as Big Macintosh, if a bit younger. Applejack liked him, he said he was in construction, but got laid off recently. He said this job might offer him a new perspective, if Applejack got the chance she’d make sure he saw all the possibilities. His name was Brick.
The first pony who spoke up, Delph said, “Party poopers can be such a downer.”
“At least they don’t smell like their name,” Fleck said.
“You want to make something of the way I live my life?”
“Not sure if you even live some kind of life, blank flank.”
Applejack stamped her hoof. “That’s enough, Ah won’t be listenin’ to no fightin’ when we ain’t even got there yet. Ya save that stuff for when you’re sleepin’ out in the barn and Ah can’t hear a lick of it.”
That got them quiet. Applejack sighed and took her place in the car. When she passed Delph she swore first thing would be a bath for that pony.
Big Macintosh, out of courtesy, rounded Applebloom up from Rarity’s boutique and had her sit and wait for her sister to return with their guest. Good old Granny Smith rocked and waited behind them. Big Macintosh listened to the creak of her chair and counted the time with every swing. Applebloom fussed around and said, “Ah don’t see why it matters if we’re all here. This is the first time Ah got to see Sweetie Belle in three whole days.”
“It’s a courtesy little miss,” Big Macintosh said. “Look out there, now really look. Ya see that dust comin’ up from the road? I’m bettin’ my bits on that bein’ your sister. What if she came back with some cute colt, hmm?”
“Eww, boys are gross.”
Big Macintosh chuckled. One day he was sure she’d sneak home some colt and after Applejack stopped her bucking he’d tell Applebloom something witty like, “Told ya so.”
Applejack came back with three stallions and a pegasus. She introduced each and when she finished said, “Now we need ta get ya’ll cleaned up and tamorrow we can get started on the apple buckin’.”
Big Macintosh eyed the filthiest of them. Well, his sister did try to be polite about it. Big Macintosh was inclined to wonder if an outhouse gave birth to the stallion…
Applebloom gasped and jumped to her hooves. She saw something Big Macintosh didn’t notice and dashed over to the repulsive stallion. She said, “Oh my gosh. Ya don’t have a cutie mark either!”
“What? Oh, I guess I don’t. Never noticed before.”
“Golly, Ah thought Ah was goin’ ta be the oldest pony ever not ta have a cutie mark but now you’re here and now Ah know Ah won’t!” Applebloom said. She bounced around this newcomer and questions began spilling out her mouth.
Applejack chuckled and shook her head. She approached Big Macintosh and whispered, “Ah’ll take the clean ones ta the barn and tell’em what they’ll be doin’. Ya want ta take the stinker down to the creek and see if we can’t get some of that nastiness scrubbed outta him?”
Big Macintosh sighed. “Eeyup.”
“Thanks, Big Mac.”
Applejack turned on the four newcomers and said, “You three, come with me ta the barn and Ah’ll show ya around. Delph, how about ya follow my brother Big Macintosh down to the creek. He’ll show ya which way to go.”
Big Macintosh made eye contact with the other stallion for the first time. He regretted it. He wasn’t used to other stallions, not ones that weren’t related. Ponyville didn’t have as many stallions, and none ever tried to talk to Big Macintosh. Applejack and her gang moseyed past Big Macintosh, the big one bumped into him and made a gruff apology. It made the adam’s apple in his throat swell. He didn’t understand why it mattered what these city ponies thought of him. It shouldn’t matter no way no how what a bunch of silly filly city ponies thought of him. Big Macintosh knew if they judged him, well he didn’t care.
He began to wonder if this was all just a big mistake.
He grunted. “Well, Ah’ll show ya the way to the creek.” Big Macintosh turned around and began walking there. He knew the other stallion followed because he heard Applebloom’s constant blabber.
“Ah’ve tried everythin’ from cupcake bakin’ to underwater explorer to gliders. Ah think Ah’ll do everythin’ ever before Ah get my cutie mark. But Ah wouldn’t mind, it just means Ah have more options. Do ya ever feel that way? Do people still call ya blank flank? There were some mean girls who used ta call me blank flank, but I figure grown-ups don’t call each other blank flanks on account that they’re grown-ups…”
Big Macintosh could feel the other stallion watching him. The blue stallion’s silence unnerved Big Macintosh, he felt the pony should say something. Maybe if they struck up a conversation and Big Macintosh could realize none of these city-folk were as freaky as he suddenly wanted them to be—well then maybe…
“Why, people call me blank flank still,” Delph said.
Big Macintosh heard Applebloom become downcast. “They do?”
“Yes, you’re lucky no one around here says it to you. City people are just meaner.”
“Oh, well Ah don’t think Ah wanna go to the city then. Unless Ah need to for my cutie mark.”
“It’s not the city that’s mean, little filly. It’s the people, they get to rushing around so much that they forget about you and everything but that one hoof swinging in front of the other.”
This left Applebloom quiet. Hearing him talk relaxed Big Macintosh, though. The fear disappeared, Big Macintosh thought it silly now. Why did he get so nervous over the opinions of a bunch of city ponies? Big Macintosh said over his shoulder, “Ya did the impossible, partner. Ya made my sister not have a thing to say about cutie marks.”
He smiled. “I didn’t mean to. Let’s start over, hmm little filly? My name’s Delph, and before you ask, it’s just Delph.”
“Well mine’s Applebloom, Delph, and Ah figure you’ll fit right in once we get ya ta stop smelling like a used up outhouse.”
Big Macintosh snickered.
The other stallion paused, and Big Macintosh almost swept around expecting to defend his little sister for being a filly, but Delph surprised him. “That’s very gracious of you Applebloom, and if you promise to help me clean myself I’ll tell you the secrets of how to smell this bad. You haven’t tried a stinky cutie mark, have you?”
“…Mah cutie mark wouldn’t be a stupid stinky mark…”
Big Macintosh stood on a rise with his sister, overlooking their farm. Off to the east grey seeped into the horizon. Applejack said, “Well whatcha think of’em? Reckon Ah trust Delph and Fleck as far as Ah can throw them, but Freebird and Brick seem an alright pair a ponies.”
Big Macintosh said, “Delph seemed pretty nice ta Applebloom. Ah think she likes’em.”
“Of course she does, he doesn’t have a cutie mark. Ah don’t want ta call him a blank flank, but it’s what he is. It’s not natural Big Mac, how does somepony go their whole life without knowin’ what their supposed to do?”
Big Macintosh said, “It’s gotta happen somewhere in someplaces.”
Applejack frowned. “Well then it just comes down ta him not wanting to talk ta me. Ah don’t mind quiet ponies after all.”
“But he won’t talk ta me at all and it makes me nervous. If he’s opened up ta you and Applebloom then, well Ah guess he’s not too bad. Ya mind if ya take him and that other stallion, Fleck for me today?”
Big Macintosh shrugged.
“Ah’m not going to lie, that’un gives me the creeps for the opposite reason. He keeps tryin’ to chat up a storm with me and Ah think he’s just tryin’ ta get on mah good side.”
“Ah’ll take care of’em both,” Big Macintosh said. “Ah don’t like to, but Ah can knock their heads together.”
Applejack smiled. “Thanks Big Macintosh, now let’s go wake’em.”
Big Macintosh said, “Apple buckin’ ain’t a hard sport. ’Suppose everypony knows how ta buck. Let’s see ya do it, the both of ya. Just get under those pink ladies and do what comes natural.”
Fleck trotted to the closest tree. He was eager to please, Big Macintosh guessed. He reared up on his front hooves and his back hooves smacked the bark of the tree. A dozen apples popped loose of the tree and bounced across the grass. Delph sat on his haunches and watched.
Big Macintosh did not expect to be ignored. He cleared his throat while Fleck bashed the pink lady again. Fleck stopped and said, “No use with that blank flank.”
“Now Ah know ya city-folk like ta curse, but we won’t use that particular kind of language on the farm. Delph, somethin’ a matter?”
Delph said, “I was kind’ve hoping you’d show us how it’s done, rather than rushing blindly into bucking just to impress you. Is there a certain part of the tree to aim for? Do we need to be careful with your trees? Figure we might over do it if we just keep kicking it like there’s no tomorrow.”
Fleck stopped and glared at Delph. Big Macintosh said, “Gather up whatcha got Fleck and then move on ta that tree over there. You’re doin’ fine.” Big Macintosh faced Delph. “Ah’ll show ya this once. Try ta kick as high as you can ta shake the tree and when ya start rippin’ bark off it means it’s time ta stop.”
Big Macintosh went to a nearby pink lady with empty buckets around it. He tensed his muscles, crouched low, and with grunt pushed his hindquarters off the ground and kicked the tree. Apples spilled in torrent, the branches shook and leaves flew off like they were cut away by a fierce gust. An apple bumped Big Macintosh’s head, the last to fall. He snorted and said, “There ya go. How ’bout ya try your hooves on that tree over yonder? Ah’ll gather these up.”
The two went to work. They did not make quite so much of a fuss when they got their hooves dirty. Big Macintosh listened to the trees swing and tremble, the sound fooled his head into believing there was a breeze. Big Macintosh wouldn’t have minded one, today turned out hotter than he thought it could. Even in the shade of the trees he sweated more than he liked to admit.
Big Macintosh bucked his fourth pink lady when he heard Fleck say, “Quit staring at him and get to work. What’s wrong with you? Got pegasi floating around in your brain?”
“Better than a dopey-eyed donkey,” Delph said.
Big Macintosh sighed and gathered apples into their buckets.
“You don’t even have a reason to be here. You know I’ve heard about you blank flank—”
“Really? I thought I was the only one who’s heard of me.”
Big Macintosh sighed and stepped away from his buckets between the two. Both of the stallions shut their traps. Big Macintosh said to Fleck, “Why don’t ya gather up what we got and haul it back to the barn in that there wagon over there. Reckon it’d be easier for you.”
“And you work over here with me. Where Ah can keep an eye on you. Ya didn’t come here ta loaf around.”
Delph nodded. “Yes, sir.” Big Macintosh almost smiled. Much better. Fleck tried for one better. “I’ll get right to it Mr. Macintosh.”
“Big Mac is fine, among you fellas. No reasons we can’t be on speakin’ terms, way I sees it. But more work, and a less speakin’.”
Big Macintosh returned to his previous task. Delph hauled some buckets over to a neighboring tree while Fleck loaded the wagon. Delph began to work. Pretty soon silence returned and Big Macintosh’s mind smoothed over into that fine rut. He thought about apples and the trees and bucking, and it was nice and easy. Fleck returned and he loaded the next wagon and departed again.
Delph became a steady presence in the corner of Big Macintosh’s eye. Pretty soon he did recognize Delph sneaking him glances. At first Big Macintosh didn’t mind, it didn’t seem to hinder the other pony. Big Macintosh shouldn’t have cared no two ways about it, but he kept looking at Big Macintosh like there was something to judge. Big Macintosh never got judged. His movements became awkward and rigid, one point he only skinned the bark of a tree with his left hoof when he tried bucking a tree. They almost finished with all the pink ladies and Delph still kept glancing. Maybe not so much anymore, but Big Macintosh felt it more and more every time the other stallion did. The red stallion wanted it to stop. But he wouldn’t tell a pony to quit looking at him. That’d just be silly sounding. Worse it would let Delph know he got Big Macintosh riled up, and no pony was supposed to make Big Macintosh the least bit riled.
Big Macintosh decided saying something was better than silence. “Hey Delph…”
“Yeah, Big Mac?”
Big Macintosh wished he hadn’t told the fellas to call him that.
“That’s… that’s an odd name ya got there. Delph, doesn’t seem like a name a mare would give her colt.”
“I didn’t have a mother.”
“Oh, well Ah apologize most deeply—”
“It’s fine, I guess you couldn’t have known. I’ve been an orphan forever and I’ve gone through a lot names before I took the one I have.”
Big Macintosh bucked the last pink lady and Delph went about to helping him gather the apples. Big Macintosh dumped the last one in a bucket and said, “Reckon we’ll wait here until Fleck gets back with the wagon.”
“Fair enough,” Delph said.
He sat beside Big Macintosh. Big Macintosh figured if he kept standing it’d give Fleck a reason to berate Delph when he returned, so Big Macintosh sat too.
Big Macintosh wished he had something to chew. Instead he tried speaking again, “Why did ya choose Delph?”
Delph said, “Lot of reasons. I spent my whole life in Fillydelphia, and the people there never seemed to give me a chance. First it was because I was a blank flank, then when they figured me out it got even worse. Seemed every pony knew about the blank flank too old and too selfish to not respect the natural order of things. I made friends, and lost them, but the city was always kind. It seemed like she just gave when I needed it the most. She’s my only friend, so I named myself after her.”
Big Macintosh cleared his throat. “Eeyup.”
“Don’t talk much, do you Big Mac?”
“That’s okay. Can’t stand ponies that just sit around and talk all the time—speaking of Fleck, I think I see him over there.”
Big Macintosh caught sight of the other stallion and both of them rose to greet him.
The rest of the day went by without much incident.
They tackled the red delicious the next day, and this time all six ponies worked on Sweet Apple Acres largest plot of trees. The change of pace suited everyone it seemed. In the afternoon Big Macintosh volunteered to haul the apples back to the cellar. Delph volunteered to take the other wagon.
Big Macintosh didn’t mind. If he had to deal with a pony it’d be nice if it was one he knew. They got halfway back to the cellar and passed through the pink ladies when Delph stopped.
Big Macintosh paused and looked over the wagon and a stack of red delicious two ponies tall. He asked, “Somethin’ wrong?”
Delph nipped at his harness. He said, “Think my harness is screwed up. It keeps rubbing me the wrong way. I can feel it chafing.”
Big Macintosh frowned. He said, “Ah suppose Ah could take a look at it.”
Big Macintosh swept out of his harness and approached Delph. He saw the problem right away. “Ya need ta flip this strap on your shoulder.”
Delph shifted in the harness. He grunted and asked, “Can you fix it for me? I don’t want to get out of this thing yet. You know how hard it was to get me into it. I don’t want to waste more time than we have to.”
Big Macintosh hesitated. He grit his teeth and decided, “Do it so he doesn’t see you reluctant to touch him. Don’t want no pony thinking you’re afraid of other stallions.” Big Macintosh gingerly bit the strap and tugged it to the right. He released it and it flipped back into place.
Delph sighed. “Thank you, that’s much better.”
Big Macintosh nodded. “Eeyup.” He went back to his harness, and while he slipped into it he heard Delph say, “You know. You’re pretty lucky to have a family here.”
“Eeyup.” A piece of leather caught on his nose and the red stallion snorted, shook it loose and settled the harness back into place.
“Nothing else? Just ‘eeyup.’ I bet that’s all you say. I bet even if Applebloom said something like, ‘Golly Big Mac you’re the best brother ever. I love you.’ All you’d say is, ‘Eeyup.’”
“Ah can talk plenty,” Big Macintosh said.
“Then talk. I dare you to try it. I know you’re not used to working that tongue muscle, but a working pony like you shouldn’t have much trouble.”
Big Macintosh almost glared at the other stallion. He reminded himself of the hospitality his parents taught him and said instead, “Ah can’t imagine not havin’ a family. We’ve just been together for so long and there’s so many of us. Ya lose track, but at the same time you’re happy ta lose track ’cause it means your families growin’ and you’re a part of somethin’ that grows. Ah know Ah haven’t done much ta help with that growin’, but Ah figure Ah’ve got time enough to find me a nice mare… hey what’s wrong with ya Delph? You’re lookin’ at me like Ah just coughed up a bucket full of parasprites.”
Delph shook his head. “Sorry, I just thought—no, never mind. But see? Nothing wrong with talking, is there?”
Big Macintosh and Applejack stood on their rise again. She said, “Ah hate bein’ wrong, Big Mac, but there ain’t nothing wrong with you bein’ right.”
In two days they harvested Half of Sweet Apple Acres. Tomorrow they’d tackle the northern section of the farm and work their way down.
Applejack said, “Ya know Ah almost regret goin’ through this so fast. Ah’m gonna miss a few of them ponies. Be happy ta get rid of some of’em, ’Specially that Fleck and Delph.”
Big Macintosh glanced at his sister. She studied the farmland and didn’t notice the look Big Macintosh gave her. She said, “Ah think Ah really like that Brick fella. Shucks Big Mac, what do ya think Ah should do? Ah think Ah want to keep him around a little longer, ta see what might just happen—well gosh listen to me gettin’ embarrassed. Ah know neither of us has much experience with this kind’ve stuff, but whatcha think of it all Big Mac?”
Big Macintosh shrugged. “Keep’em ’round, then.”
“Just for another day. Ta see what happens. Then we’ll ship’em out, ’cept maybe for Brick. Heck Ah don’t know. We’ll just see what happens.”
They eased up on the workload the next two days. Applejack said it was on account of their fine jobs. She figured to give the city ponies a break, but the only ones who seemed a might bit strained were the artist and singer.
Big Macintosh got a kink in his right hind-hoof, so he enjoyed the ease in the workload. He and Delph worked together again, this time sorting apples in the cellar. Not work he enjoyed, but work that needed to be done.
“Why do we have to do this?” Scootaloo asked. “All it’s doing is making me hungry.”
Her and Applebloom sat at the back of the cellar, sorting their own bucket of apples.
Applebloom said, “We haven’t tried apple sortin’ yet. Ah reckon it’s worth a shot.”
“I’d say we’d have a better chance rock farming,” Scootaloo mumbled. Big Macintosh heard something get thrown. “Hey! I’m sorry, okay? I know it’s mean of me to say that. You and Sweetie Belle helped me get my cutie mark in that scooter race. I owe you this.”
Applebloom said, “You’re darn right ya do.”
Delph chuckled. The two stallions sorted apples in the light of a lantern, they were on the pink ladies they picked recently. They essentially looked for bruised or otherwise bad apples to be pressed into cider, the rest went for cooking and eating and such.
Applebloom said, “That was still an amazing move ya pulled. When ya fell off your scooter Ah was sure it was over but then you were all like bam-zoom!—Ah still ain’t seen nothing so graceful before.”
Scootaloo giggled. “Thanks. And I haven’t seen no pony sort apples like you do.”
Delph shook his head and whispered, “Those two.”
“’Scuse me?” Big Macintosh asked.
“They just make a cute pair is all. Bet they’re a force to be reckoned with when they have their other friend with them.”
“Ee—” Big Macintosh stopped himself. He was trying to not sound so… simple anymore. He said, “Ya should’ve seen them at the talent show last year. Applejack told me about it and Ah just ’bout fell over laughin’ my hooves off.”
“I’m sure it must have been quite a sight.”
“Ah wish Ah could’ve been there. Applejack said they went and tore the whole dang stage down—”
“No, I don’t mean that.”
“I meant seeing you laugh.”
Big Macintosh stared at the other stallion in the lantern light. Delph ignored him and went back to sorting. Big Macintosh became aware of how close they stood. He wanted to step away, and yet at the same time…
He nickered and said, “It takes somethin’ fierce, like those two gettin’ inta trouble ta get me ta.” Delph grunted to show he heard and went back to sorting. Big Macintosh felt something well up underneath his diaphragm that made breathing hard. He glanced at the other stallion and realized aside from that one particular occasion with the harness, they never touched before. Didn’t seem right. Big Macintosh brushed shoulders and sides and haunches all the time with every other one of these new ponies. Why did he act like he walked across caltrops when it came to Delph? Just silly and stupid, in fact he’d prove it wrong right now and—
“Big Mac, Ah don’t think Ah want ta sort apples no more.”
Big Macintosh almost jumped out of his horseshoes. He cleared his throat and said, “Ya’ll can head outside then. Reckon the sun do ya fillies some good.”
“Come on Applebloom, let’s go see if you have a tree climbing cutie mark or something. I need to stretch my wings.”
“Okay, that sounds like fun.”
Big Macintosh watched the two fillies trot up the stairs, his will dissolved. Then he felt something warm brush under his neck and his breath caught. Delph had stretched his neck and brushed his mane along the underside of Big Macintosh’s throat and grabbed an apple sitting under Big Macintosh’s chin. He pulled away and dropped it in the bad bucket. Delph said, “Sorry, I think that one was bad.”
Big Macintosh’s cheeks flushed. He said, “Eeyup,” and went back to work.
“Dinner’s served everypony, watch your hooves now, plates are hot,” Applejack said. She set the tray down at the table before the four hungry city ponies and Big Macintosh. Tarts, pies, and few other apple confections greeted their ravenous eyes.
It was their last night here. In the morning they would be paid and sent home. Big Macintosh didn’t speak to Delph much after they left the cellar. He didn’t understand it. Lately he caught himself taking peeks at the other stallion. He told himself he did it because he liked watching the city stallion do well. The last five days had been long, and Big Macintosh was right proud of what he could consider his pupil.
Ponies dug in. Applejack sat beside him, Big Macintosh and her took up the end of their side of a square table. Conversation flowed back and forth and time became easy and enjoyable.
Opposite him was Fleck and Brick. Fleck now held an animated conversation with Freebird, telling her how he’d like to do her portrait and such. Near as Big Macintosh could tell that wily painter probably told every mare the same thing so he could bring them home.
Big Macintosh heard Applejack say, “So Brick, ya reckon ya enjoyed your stay here at Sweet Apple Acres?”
Brick said, “Wasn’t bad. Got to say I don’t mind the quiet much, weird not having a bunch of other ponies around.”
“Eh-heh, right. I was a city pony myself once.”
Big Macintosh’s gaze slid across the table, just a glance at Delph. The pony toyed with his food and nickered. Big Macintosh said, “Uh… food alright?”
“Hmm? Oh of course, your granny’s recipes are swell. I’m just thinking about going back to Fillydelphia tomorrow. Not sure what I’ll do after this.”
Big Macintosh heard his sister blunder and come right and say it: “Well if ya want ya’ll could stay while longer if ya find this country livin’ to your fancy.”
Big Macintosh swung his gaze back over to Brick. The pony grunted. “Maybe some other time. I need to be getting back, got a sweet little filly I promised I’d come back to.”
Applejack looked down at her plate of a half-eaten green apple tart. “Ah, right. Ah don’t blame ya for wantin’ ta go back.”
Fleck and Freebird stopped talking at that. Seemed an awkward silence fell in on all of them.
Delph broke it. “I’ll stay. If you guys need the extra hand around. I don’t mind working on the farm a little longer.”
Delph scooted off the bench and said, “You got something you want to say?”
“Just can’t believe you think you’re any better than me when you’re trying the exact same thing. Getting in close with these farmers so they’d take care of you. That’d be real nice I bet.”
Big Macintosh was slow to process that. Delph didn’t seem to talk much to Applejack, he did with Applebloom but he knew Applebloom was—
“Ah don’t want ta hear no more of this. And if anypony tries raisin’ the subject again Ah’ll hogtie them and hang’em from the barn ya hear?” Applejack turned Delph. “You, Ah don’t trust ya near as far as I can buck ya. And if ya haven’t seen yet that ya need mah trust to stay here then ya’ll can bet your hooves Ah won’t have ya stickin’ ’round.”
Delph glared at Applejack. He said, “Funny, I thought two Apples owned this farm.”
He stormed off. Big Macintosh watched him go and felt the need to defend him. Fleck muttered something and Applejack raised her voice all over again. She was in a mood. He stood and put a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder.
His sister paused and Big Macintosh told her. “Ah’ll talk with him. Ah know ya don’t want him stayin’ but sis you gotta understand ya done hurt him.”
Applejack bit her lip and stamped her hooves. “Fine, but don’t ya dare leave me here alone with these three.” His sister didn’t care if those three heard. Big Macintosh knew she didn’t want anything to do with any of the city ponies anymore. It took her so much courage to ask Brick, and he shrugged his shoulders at her. Big Macintosh did not blame her for the way she treated any of them.
Big Macintosh smiled and said, “Eeyup.”
He departed the table and tracked Delph into the orchard. Big Macintosh found him lying underneath the shade of a pink lady. His front hooves stretched out before him and he hid the bottom half of his face between his knees, his hind end sprawled on its side. His eyes flicked to Big Macintosh while the red stallion sat in front of him. Delph said, “You always let your sister boss you around?”
“Eeyup. Reckon she’s better at it than me.”
Delph laughed. “What does that even mean you big stupid pony?”
Big Macintosh flared his nostrils. “Ah didn’t come here ta be insulted. Ah thought ya might be needin’ somepony ta talk to.”
“And you’re just generous enough to be that pony? Gosh, you’re so oblivious. Why don’t you think about why you came out here?”
Big Macintosh’s brow furrowed. He said, “Ah think you’re the one who don’t know what he’s talkin’ ’bout.”
Delph sighed. With effort, he clambered to his hooves and said, “You’re just… heck I don’t know. How about I put it this way? Uh… if you were an apple, I’d buck this whole orchard for you.”
Big Macintosh blinked. It occurred to him, that Fleck did not mean Delph charming Applejack.
Delph licked his chops and said, “Look, part of the reason I don’t have a friend anywhere is because of what I am. And you got to understand it’s not from a blank flank, I know why I’m blank. It’s because stallions like you and me aren’t supposed to be. I mean, there are so many mares in Equestria that no one minds when one announces her attraction to another in town. Heck I’ve seen it here already with that Lyra and Bon-Bon pair I met yesterday when I went into Ponyville, and I can tell you right that that Scootaloo has eyes for your Applebloom like no other. But if you were to tell them our feelings for each other, they’d look at you like we were wide-eyed stupid.”
Big Macintosh coughed, for the first time in a long time he felt all of the hard work he’d done in the past few days come down on his back. He didn’t believe—couldn’t believe this pony thought he eyed other stallions. Big Macintosh scraped his front hooves across the grass and said, “Ah don’t know what you’re tryin’ ta say, but Ah reckon it better be said mighty carefully if’n ya want ta get paid.”
Delph shook his head. “I don’t care anymore. That day you told me you were still looking for a mare I couldn’t believe it. I saw what you were by that first day and I couldn’t believe when you said that about needing to find a mare of your own. Good luck living that lie. Shoot, I mean, I’m not blind Big Mac. I saw how you responded when I brushed my mane under your neck, I had to see it to be sure and that’s why I did that. You can’t hide what you are from me.”
Big Macintosh rose to his full height at some point. He stomped his front hooves down, reared up, and kicked a tree behind him. Bark splintered, wood cracked and cried out, and the tree moaned as its top came toppling down. The might of the blow forced Delph to take a step back.
Big Macintosh said, “If Ah ever see you in my farm again—well Ah’ll make what Ah did ta that tree look weak. Ya git outta here, and don’t ya dare come back.”
Delph shook his head. “I’m sorry, not for me, but for you.” He turned and broke away at a canter toward the farm’s entrance. Big Macintosh did not watch him go, he turned on the tree he decapitated and saw in the ruinous mess of branches and leaves an apple had rolled free. It was a late bloomer, half the size of most apples this time of year.
Big Macintosh crushed the pink lady under hoof as he returned to the farmhouse.
He did not want to go back to Applejack but he said he would, so he marched to the table and said to city ponies there, “Ah don’t want ta hear a word from any of ya the rest of the night. In the barn. Now. Or Ah’ll kick your teeth out.”
Freebird’s eyes popped, Fleck flinched, and Brick shrugged. The three of them went to the barn and Big Macintosh said to Applejack, “There. Ah dealt with’em.”
Big Macintosh didn’t wait for Applejack. He began to march over to the other side of Sweet Apple Acres, and maybe when he reached there he’d just march through across the meadows and over hills and maybe into the Everfree Forest and maybe to the other side of the forest and then whatever lied beyond that. He’d just keep walking until his hooves were so sore his body would force him to lie down and maybe then he wouldn’t be too inclined to get up.
His sister had other plans. “Hold on a sec Big Mac. What’s twistin’ you’re tail? Ya’ll can tell me, Ah’m kin.”
Big Macintosh almost shoved her aside. He whipped his tail and smacked his leg to show his agitation.
“Don’t turn inta a stupid ole mule, Big Macintosh. Hey ya listenin’ ta me? Ah’ll tie ya up if Ah have ta.” Big Macintosh didn’t answer, he kept walking and Applejack followed. She said, “Hey did that stupid stallion say somethin’ to ya. Ah knew he was trouble—”
Big Macintosh turned on Applejack so fast she fell on her haunches. Big Macintosh said, “Ah’m sorry Applejack but ya don’t know nothin’ ’bout him so don’t ya dare judge someone ya don’t know. Yeah he’s got me riled up and maybe Ah’ll tell ya and maybe Ah won’t, but don’t ya dare be blamin’ him for anything.”
Applejack eyes went wide. Big Macintosh saw he almost made her cry. All the tension in him collapsed like a house of cards. He said, “Gosh, Ah’m sorry Applejack. Ah’m not sure no more.” He turned away. “He said some things and it got me thinkin’. He… he ’cused me of fancyin’ other stallions.”
Applejack shook her head. “That’s just silly.”
Big Macintosh took a deep breath and exhaled. “Eeyup.”
“Ah mean, gosh how selfish does he think ya are? Sure there are plenty of mares, but only the worst of stallions decide they want nothin’ ta do with mares. And there’s ’specially not enough good ponies like yourself ta go ’round. And what in tarnation does he think would happen ta the farm? What if ya passed without no kids of your own and the farm passed into the hands of some lousy stallion Ah made the mistake of hitchin’ myself to? Why we might just lose the farm. Ah’m not goin’ ta say nothin’ bad about him, but he’s not bein’ fair accusin’ you of stuff like that.”
Big Macintosh nodded. “Eeyup.”
Applejack nuzzled her brother’s shoulder. “Hey Big Mac, don’t ya worry a lick about what he said. How ’bout the next few days ya take off from the farm? Mosey on into Ponyville and meet a nice mare. That sound fine?”
Big Macintosh resolved to prove Delph wrong. He knew none of that was true, he was just out of his senses, too much sun and not enough water.
Big Macintosh cracked a smile. “That’d be mighty fine, little sis.”
Aged Applewood Part 2
A year’s passed since the Cutie-Mark Crusader’s formed with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle already earning their cutie-marks, yet so long as Applebloom’s flank remains blank the crusade continues. But now trouble brews under the surface. For weeks Scootaloo’s ignored Sweetie Belle, and when the two fillies butt heads, Applebloom will have to find a way to reconcile their differences or lose both friends forever.
This story is a standalone piece but is complemented when one starts with this story. They are part of an anthology, entitled Tales by Hoof.
Scootaloo watched a beetle crawl across the tree stump. She sat hunched beside it, a set of dents kicked in the wood, the lingering bark shorn off by her blows. Scootaloo felt… felt… she was a bonehead. She wanted to pound her skull against the stump, if only so somepony punished her for all the trouble she caused.
How could she ever think Applebloom felt that way about her?
She watched the beetle complete its trek across the stump and wondered what it must be like to walk off the edge of the world, alone and unnoticed. She sobbed once, then shook her head. No, this was not her. She didn’t have the courage to face Applebloom yet, and knew Sweetie Belle was not ready to see her.
She pursed her lips and smacked the stump. Like all her blows before, it sounded like the stump was hollow on the inside. Probably just rotted out or something. Not her problem. She just needed to get away from this stupid stump.
So she returned home.
Big Macintosh closed the door behind him and faced Applejack.
She stopped pacing in front of Applebloom’s door and asked, “Well?”
“I tried my best ta comfort her, but Applejack…” Big Macintosh shook his head. “Once ya hear what she’s gotta say you’ll understand why I can’t be the one ta handle this. It’s not… not my place.”
“But what happened?”
Big Macintosh shook his head and cracked open the door. He peeked inside and said, “Applebloom? Applejack’s gonna talk to ya. Don’t worry a bit now. She’s got the sense I don’t got ta settle things.”
Applejack heard a muffled slur of words creep out the door. Big Macintosh chuckled. “No, you’re not in the least bit trouble, okay? Ya could never be in trouble for this. How many times do I gotta tell ya, ain’t no pony’s fault for what happened. ’Specially not yours.”
Big Macintosh opened the door and said, “I’ll be right downstairs.”
Big Macintosh shuffled past and Applejack entered Applebloom’s cozy, yet tight bedroom. A candle on her nightstand filled the room with an apple cinnamon scent. Light spilled through the window and stretched across the room to the bed where a quivering filly wrapped herself in the quilt Granny Smith made for their mother.
She shuddered and dug her face into the quilt when Applejack walked into the room. Applebloom somehow covered herself in scratches and got her eyes puffed up from all the crying. Her hair was in a tangle and, for the first time since before Applejack knew when, Applebloom’s bow was missing. The older sister heart paused a beat when that thought skipped like a stone over her brain. She rushed to Applebloom’s bed and said, “Applebloom? Applebloom? What happened, sugar cube? Big Macintosh gone and grabbed me right before I was about ta leave for the cottage.”
Applebloom sobbed and said into the blanket, “I screwed everything up.”
Applejack climbed into the bed and wrapped her trembling sister in her embrace. She whispered in the filly’s ear, “Easy there, darlin’. You just focus on me restin’ against ya, okay? The rise and fall of my chest, my breath on your ear, that funny smell comin’ off of me…”
Applejack got a giggle out of Applebloom, cut short by a loud sniffle. They’d get her a hankie later.
Applejack said, “There, there. Now come on, tell your big sis everythin’ and we’ll see about settin’ the record straight.”
Sweetie Belle hesitated outside the door to the boutique. She raised a hoof to the door and hoped her sister would be horn deep in a mess of dresses. But the door flew open and Sweetie Belle sprang back. Spike paused in the doorway and said, “Oh, hey Sweetie Belle.” He walked around her and Sweetie Belle watched the bounce in his step almost become a skip when he left.
Then she heard, “Sweetie Belle? You’re home early, how did things go at Fluttershy’s cottage?”
Sweetie Belle shuffled her hooves and didn’t meet Rarity’s gaze. “Oh, you know, we got everything done…”
Rarity’s hoof dipped under her chin and gently tugged Sweetie Belle gaze to her sister’s. Rarity gasped. “You’ve been crying.”
Sweetie Belle backed away. “It was nothing, really.”
“‘Nothing’ rarely warrants tears,” Rarity said. “You come right in and we’ll get you cleaned up and then you’ll tell me what happened.”
The filly pursed her lips and didn’t budge.
“I… I…” Sweetie Belle took a deep breath and looked her sister in the eye. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Rarity gawked. “Ex-excuse me?”
“I don’t—I’m not ready to talk about it. I’m sorry, maybe later tonight? I just want to go to my room for now,” Sweetie Belle said. She walked past her sister and headed for the staircase. But Rarity jumped in front of her.
“Now see here. You can’t hardly expect me to let you just flee to your room when you are clearly a mess. I can see it everywhere now, you know. The dirt on your hooves, that scratch right above your flank, and then there’s a twig in your mane. Goodness let me get that.” Rarity reached around, careful of her sister’s horn and snatched the offending twig with her teeth. Sweetie Belle shrunk away and felt the twig pull a few stray hairs out with it.
She winced. “Please just drop it?”
“Sweetie Belle… I’m your sister, you can tell me anything—”
“Well I’ll tell you later, okay? Promise.” Sweetie Belle said.
Sweetie Belle felt her sister’s stare on her as she traveled up the stairs. She wasn’t ready—she didn’t need a lecture on how she screwed up. Not now, maybe not ever, but especially not now. She closed the door to her room behind her, and listened to see if her sister would try again…
Downstairs she heard the front door close. Sweetie Belle sighed, and went to her bed.
Applejack sat up. “Whoa now, Scootaloo said what to ya?” Applebloom blushed and hid her face in the bed again. Applejack just got her past that. She nuzzled her little sister’s cheek and said, “You’re done with that kind of talk, oaky?. I just got scared for a moment, is all. Ya know, with just findin’ out about your brother not too long ago and…” Applejack almost hit herself.
Applebloom’s right eye peeked out from the quilt and she asked, “Somethin’ wrong?”
Applejack tried her best to smile and reminded herself of what was still a family secret. She said, “Nothin’. Now how did ya feel when Scootaloo did… well did what she did?”
Applebloom shrugged and mumbled, “Awful—”
“Hey now, none of that. What I mean is how did ya feel when you realized she felt that way about ya?” Applejack asked.
Applebloom said into the quilt, “I’m not so sure…”
Applejack’s gut cinched… she prayed to Celsestia that her other only sibling wouldn’t be—
“I know I don’t feel the same. And I know I feel bad about it because my first thought is it’s just unnatural and nasty and—”
“Stop right there,” Applejack put a hoof on her sister’s shoulder. “Don’t think like that no more, okay? I don’t care what all the rearin’ in the world taught ya, it don’t measure up ta friendship.”
Applebloom shuddered. “But ain’t I bad for makin’ her…” Applebloom couldn’t finish the sentence.
Applejack sighed. “Sometimes it can’t be helped. But hey, it’s okay for you to have turned her away. Maybe we’ll apologize for the way we did it?”
“But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with you tellin’ her truly that ya can’t have the same feelin’s for her,” Applejack said. “It’ll hurt her, at first, that kind of stuff hurts anypony. But she’ll understand.”
“What about Sweetie Belle, though?” Applebloom said. “I still never once stood up for her and—”
“You let me worry ’bout all this for now,” Applejack said. She slipped out of the bed and added, “Don’t twist your tail in a knot over this. Get some rest, then we’ll see about cleanin’ up all those scrapes.” Applebloom nodded. Applejack nuzzled her cheek and whispered in her ear, “You goin’ ta be okay?”
“I think so…”
Applejack said, “You’re part of the apple family. Apples don’t think, they do.”
Applebloom giggled. “That doesn’t sound very smart.”
Applejack tweaked her ear. “Just get ta sleep, you.” She exited the room.
At the doorway she heard Applebloom whisper, “Thank you.”
Applejack turned around and said, “Of course, what else is family good for but bein’ there?”
She shut Applebloom’s door and trotted downstairs. Applejack nodded to Granny Smith, she would tell her what happened later. Applejack spotted the big frame of her brother through the kitchen window. She met him on the back porch. They both started for the barn, so Granny Smith wouldn’t hear anything.
Big Macintosh said, “I reckon ya know why I couldn’t be the one ta handle it.”
Applejack sighed. “Yeah, and I feel like a I failed our parents. How could we have raised Applebloom ta be so… well, like a bigot?”
“It’s how pa raised us, Applejack,” Big Macintosh said. “We’ve already gone over this ’til the sun’s gone down and the moon’s gone up.”
“Applebloom needs the truth told to her, Big Mac,” Applejack said. “Now more than ever.”
Big Macintosh said, “I’ll tell her. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Better you than me. She’s always found ya more approachable.”
“That’s because I spoil her,” Big Macintosh said as they reached the barn. He stared inside the large red building, his eyes lingering in the corners where one could pick out the stone foundation. Applejack followed his gaze; the foundation hadn’t changed at all, not in all the times they had to rebuild the barn. It still held the scorch marks from that fire…
Big Macintosh said, “You know, pa did you the same. That’s why he left me his harness but you his hat.”
Applejack looked away from the scorch marks. She braced herself against the typical wash of emotions. Sometimes she wanted to tear the barn a new one, rip away the wood and stone until there weren’t any more scorch marks. But she knew there’d always be scorch marks elsewhere, ones that she couldn’t ever get rid of.
Applejack mumbled, “I… I don’t want ta talk about this no more.”
Big Macintosh grunted. They shared a moment of silence, they did it every now and again. It felt like it had more meaning here than it ever did at their parent’s graves.
The silence didn’t last as long as usual. A jarring, “Applejack!” snapped her back into reality and both ponies turned around to see Rarity trotting up the trail. Sweat ran down the unicorn’s brow and dragged her mascara with it.
Rarity stopped a few paces away, panting. She raised her hoof and coughed. “A moment… please?”
Big Macintosh said, “We got all the time in Equestria, Miss Rarity.”
Applejack took a gander at why she ran all the way up here. “Troubles with Sweetie Belle?”
Rarity nodded. She sucked in air and said, “Sweetie Belle came home today all dirty with scratches on her. Which I suppose isn’t anything new for her, but then I saw that she’d been crying. When I asked her what was wrong she completely spurned my offers for comfort and help. She’s never done that before—I wanted to know if something happened between the girls.”
Big Macintosh and Applejack exchanged looks.
He said, “I’ll get back to what I was doin’ before I found Applebloom.”
Applejack nodded and asked Rarity, “Ya think your up ta walkin’ down ta Scootaloo’s home? I figure we’ll want ta talk to her aunt and uncle, too.”
Rarity said, “I can make it, if we take it a bit slow at first.”
“Then I’ll fill ya in on the way.”
Scootaloo’s aunt and uncle returned home in their usual fashion. They chattered endlessly about nothing. Rocks this, fossils that, none of it got close to touching Scootaloo. She stayed in her room, reading her comics. She let the window behind her headboard spill light over the pages and tried her hardest to lose herself in them.
She didn’t. Her uncle came up to her room, opened the door. His moustache bristled and he said, “Just checking to see if you were home.” He closed the door, and she listened to him trot downstairs. When he got there she heard a hoof knock on the front door.
Her aunt said, “Guest’s dear. The sisters of Scootaloo’s friends.”
“Bring them in! We’ll have tea and tell them about our latest exploits.”
Scootaloo felt her stomach knot up. She knew she’d be in trouble any moment now… They’d tell her aunt and uncle how she made both girls run home crying. She closed the comic book and snuck out the door. She crept to the staircase and listened to the hushed voices coming from below.
“—it’s fine, really. We appreciate your hospitality, but—”
“There’s more pressin’ matters ta deal with,” Applejack said.
Scootaloo winced. She considered her chances of distracting them. Maybe if she broke one of her uncle’s vases? She would just need to grab it from his room and chuck it down the stairs…
Her uncle asked, “Is there a problem?”
Rarity said, “More a dilemma involving your niece. We think she might need somepony to talk to her. If Applejack’s sister is to believe, she’s going through some turbulent emotions.”
“Whatever do you mean?” her aunt asked. “We haven’t noticed a thing.”
Of course they hadn’t.
Applejack said, “Scootaloo seems ta have a crush on my sister.”
Tea spat from somepony’s mouth.
Applejack added, “Now it’s nothin’ wrong. We just think she needs somepony ta talk to her about her feelings. This time in a filly’s life can be very confusin’ and we don’t want her goin’ down a wrong path.”
Her uncle scoffed. “I should certainly hope not. Thank you for this… revelation. It’s a good thing we caught it so soon. My lovely wife will see you out the door.”
“So ya’ll will talk to her then?” Applejack asked.
“Oh, we will talk to her. We will speak at length with her. Thank you ladies, good day.”
“Hope you visit soon,” Aunt Sandy chimed. The door closed, Scootaloo dashed back to her room and leapt into her bed. She clambered over the headboard and looked out the window. Applejack and Rarity were giving each other concerned looks. The earth pony said something and her companion shook her head.
The door opened and Scootaloo wheeled around. “Oh, hey.”
“Don’t play games,” Uncle Cliff-Hanger said as he entered the room and Aunt Sandy filed in after him. “Your aunt saw you eavesdropping, you’d do better to learn how to keep your wings down.”
“Is it true? What they said. Have you taken a liking to a… a… filly?”
Scootaloo stared at the two, legs trembling. But her defiance rolled through her and she stood up on her bed, her wings flared out, pinions raised. “I have. What does it matter?”
Aunt Sandy gasped.
Uncle Cliff-Hanger shook his head. “This is the exact kind of thing we tried to raise out of you.”
Scootaloo blinked. “What?”
Aunt Sandy muttered, “I thought we weren’t ever going to mention—”
“What does it matter now?” Uncle Cliff-Hanger said. “Besides, maybe it will scare her from pursuing such a horrendous past time.”
Scootaloo flared her nostrils. “I’m still here you know.”
Uncle Cliff-Hanger sneered. “Yes, we know, but adults are talking and how many times must we tell you not to interrupt?”
Scootaloo growled. “Don’t treat me like a foal. I’m practically half a year away from being a mare—”
Uncle Cliff-Hanger snorted. “Fine, Miss Mare. If you must know your mother isn’t dead. Just dead to us.”
Scootaloo’s wings drooped. “Wha… what?”
Aunt Sandy said, “We never talk about her.”
Scootaloo said lowly, “She’s alive and you kept her from me?”
Uncle Cliff-Hanger shrugged.
Scootaloo felt something drop inside her, like a drop of boiling water against ice. It sizzled and slipped through her, down her spine to her hips where she lost control. She bucked and felt her hooves hit the headboard. The wood snapped in half and slammed against the window. The glass cracked.
Cliff-Hanger pursed his lips, Sandy took a step back.
“How could you?”
He said, “It was for your own good.”
“She’s my mother!” Scootaloo screamed.
Cliff-Hanger finally raised his voice, “And you want to know the truth. Hmm? The truth behind her—you’d be better off thinking she’s dead but I see that look in your eye. Nothing could be wrong with her, can there?”
Scootaloo bared her teeth. “Bet she’d be loads better than you.”
“After all we’ve done for you?” Cliff-Hanger took a step to the foot of the bed. He was now face to face with Scootaloo. He said, “Fine. You’re mother? She found an interest in a passing pegasus and took him for the night. And we never saw him, my parents never knew the father of their grand-foal. But it gets worse, because once you were born, after a week of caring for you, your mother left you in your crib with a note for my parents. You know what it said?”
Scootaloo felt her whole body shaking. She couldn’t keep that tremulation from her voice. “Wh-what?”
Cliff-Hanger spoke like he read the note now, “‘I never wanted this child. I thought I’d force myself onto some colt and see if that would help. It hasn’t, do whatever you like with her. None of you will ever see me again.’”
Scootaloo’s trembling became too much. She felt her knees buckle and she fell back on her haunches. Cliff-Hanger backed away and said, “The last we heard of your mother she was chasing the tails of fillies in Manehattan. We sent a private investigator to bring her back home, but they couldn’t catch her.”
Scootaloo fell onto her stomach and pressed her hooves against her ears. She shook her head and said, “Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it.”
But Cliff-Hanger ignored her. “We had known, of course, about her ways. But she spurned every attempt for us to correct them and make her into a modest mare. A fault of hers. Just like abandoning you was her own fault. She didn’t own up to her responsibility, and even now she refuses to seek you out. Ponies like your mother, with their awful tendencies… they tend to breed awful habits.”
Scootaloo saw Sandy step out of the room, Cliff-Hanger stopped in the doorway and said, “You would be wise to hide this infatuation with that hick. Otherwise, if we hear anything else…” Cliff-Hanger shrugged. “You said you were a big mare, so there won’t be any problem for you to live independently, now will there?”
Cliff-Hanger slammed the door.
Sweetie Belle eventually got hungry. She went back downstairs and into the kitchen. She had settled on a simple daffodil sandwich when the front door opened. She ignored it and levitated the plate from the counter to their dining room table. It was a small part of the boutique, off to the side. The cramped space held a counter, sink, pantry, and a single round table with two wooden chairs. It was the plainest, most unused space in the whole boutique.
Sweetie Belle set the plate down, and scooted her chair back. When she did two white hooves wrapped around her neck. She smelt her sister’s familiar perfume and Rarity nuzzled her cheek. She said, “Oh Sweetie Belle, Applejack told me everything. I should have stepped in a few days ago when you first told me all about this.”
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath. “It’s fine, really. How’s Applebloom?”
Rarity let go of her. “Oh, she balled her eyes out, too. She blame’s herself for this whole tragic affair, but Applejack reassured her that it wasn’t.”
“Good to know blame isn’t going where it should,” Sweetie Belle said.
Rarity frowned. “Sweetie Belle… we shouldn’t blame Scootaloo for this—”
Sweetie Belle sat down and said, “I didn’t say it was her fault.”
Rarity studied her for a moment. Sweetie Belle had left her sister at a loss for words again. She said softly, “Sweetie Belle… darling? What’s wrong?”
Sweetie Belle felt the pit clustering in her stomach. In her head she treaded the edge of a frozen over pond, and knew the ice was too thin to hold her weight. It would just be one slip in the wrong direction. She wanted to fight against that, but at the same time…
Sweetie Belle lied, “I guess this whole thing is just still getting me down. I don’t mean to act this way, it’s just… we had a real big fight and we said a whole lot of hurtful things.”
Rarity wrapped her little sister in her embrace again and brushed Sweetie Belle’s mane with a hoof. “Now, it’s going to be fine. Come on, we’ll get you cleaned up and eat some real food. Go out to anywhere you want, okay? Just the two of us tonight and then tomorrow morning we’ll fix things with your friends.”
Sweetie Belle broke away to show her sister the smile she put there. “I’d like that, a lot.”
“Of course you would. Forget the bath, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon at the spa. It would do us both some good.”
Rarity left the room, Sweetie Belle slipped off the chair and glanced at her plate. She studied the lonely table in the corner of the only room in the whole boutique not filled with her sister’s larger-than-life personality. She wanted to stay there and eat, but…
What was the point if she didn’t have an appetite?
Big Macintosh woke Applebloom with a dinner. A hot apple tart they shared in her room. Her brother didn’t let it be a quiet affair. He got a smudge of it on his nose and screwed up his face trying to reach it with his tongue. When Applebloom laughed at him he scoffed and rubbed it on her cheek, which made the indginant filly yelp and the remaining tart fell victim to a food fight.
Her brother helped her clean up the mess they made, and he took her outside and walked her to the creek. When they reached it Big Macintosh stopped and said, “There we are. Thought it might be nice ta get out here. Your mane still needs washin’, missy.”
Applebloom touched the creek with a hoof and recoiled. “But I’ll freeze my poor tail off.”
“I’ll be here ta grab it, come on.” Big Macintosh stepped into the creek. When he got all four hooves in the water and faced his sister, “Well?”
“Your tail’s shaking like foal in the dark.”
Big Macintosh quirked his brow.
“Okay,” Applebloom pouted. She took a deep breath and hopped into the water, splashing her brother.
Applebloom giggled. “Sorry Big Mac.” Big Macintosh huffed and pointed where the creek fell off at a small rise. This provided a miniature waterfall for the filly to take advantage of. She trotted to the spot while the cold sank into her hooves and her shivering faded. Applebloom stuck her mane underneath the water, and after overcoming the initial splash down her back, began to wash out her mane.
Her thoughts flowed back to her and Big Macintosh and the girls. Her tail slouched when she thought of the gulf between the past half hour and the past few months. With her brother it was like nothing changed, but with the girls…
Applebloom finished, when she faced Big Macintosh she found him standing on the bank of the creek. She shook herself dry best she could and stepped out the water. “Hey Big Mac?” she asked.
“When did you know you were grown up?”
Big Macintosh said, “Seems a silly question.”
Applebloom whipped a tussle of hair out her eyes. “But when did you? When did ya stop playin’ little foal’s games and started walkin’ around like you was somepony, huh?”
“If I had ta pin it to a time…” Big Macintosh said, “It’d be when the farm came into my hooves. Now, mind you I wasn’t ready for half of it, nor was your sister. We had ta grow up faster than an apple rots or pretty soon the farm would’ve been filled with rotten apples.”
Applebloom asked, “And didn’t somepony help you, though, like Granny Smith?”
Big Macintosh said, “Course she tried, but Applebloom, I don’t think there’s a time where a pony does get ta thinkin’ she’s fully grown. I know I’m still discoverin’ somethin’ new ’bout myself every day, specially lately, but I’ll tell ya all ya need to know about that tomorrow mornin’. I don’t want ta keep ya up all night.”
“Aww, now I gotta know!”
“Ya will,” Big Macintosh said. “Just like someday you’ll realize your becomin’ a mare, it’ll seem sooner than ya think.”
“But I miss bein’ a filly already—”
“I won’t be hearin’ none of that. No pony’s makin’ me feel old as Granny Smith.”
Scootaloo wanted to wind back sun and moon. She studied the crack in her window and the moon hanging on the cusp of it. Luna rose it while the last rays of sunlight slipped off the opposite horizon. Scootaloo wished she could fish the sun back and just tug it through the sky where the moon was now. She’d give her wings, her scooter, her cutie-mark to.
She ruined her friendships, and she had no one here. She had no one at all.
She squeezed her eyes shut and grit her teeth. She grunted, and thought and thought with all her might until her head hurt—picturing the moon going down and the sun arcing over the sky like a shooting star until it sat on the eastern horizon again. When she opened her eyes the moon had ascended along her window pane.
“Dumb moon,” she said.
She climbed down from her bed and went to the comics tucked halfway under her bed. She knew she should get rid of them, that they belonged to a once awful pony, but it wasn’t that pony she saw when she looked at those comics. It was an amazing, daring mare who was at once awesome yet caring and gentle. That mare would forever be the one Scootaloo thought of as her mother.
She realized then, though, she couldn’t stay. She couldn’t bottle up her feelings, she’d never been able to. Maybe if she was more like Sweetie Belle she could fake some relationship with a stallion, but the thought made bile rise in her throat. She would not be like the mare who birthed her.
She needed to take care of some things first, then she would leave Ponyville forever.
Applebloom didn’t sleep a lick. Not for a want of trying, course she already snoozed away her whole afternoon. Her thoughts kept revolving around the girls and how unprepared she’d been for both of them. She didn’t feel old enough, ready for all the fighting, but she knew better because ponies relied on her blank flank to do things now. She thought long and hard on that absence, too.
She knew that maybe if she didn’t spend so much time hunting her cutie-mark that she’d probably stumble across it like every other pony. But she didn’t want to ever stop the crusader’s adventures. She thought now more than ever that she wouldn’t be able to keep her friends together when the mark appeared.
The filly wrestled with her thoughts until her head hurt. The night stretched into that moment where only the crickets broke the stillness. Applebloom decided she couldn’t sleep and slipped out of bed. At first she just thought she’d trot downstairs then back, just to stretch her legs, but when she got downstairs she couldn’t help herself. She needed to stretch her legs some more, she went out onto the porch, then down to the barn.
Her thoughts then turned to the clubhouse on the other side of the farm. The tug of nostalgia led her through the orchards, a few acres over where the club house’s silhouette climbed out of the darkness. Moonlight illuminated the roof, which cast the ramp to the clubhouse in shadows. Applebloom paused outside to reminisce on the day she spent repairing the place and the quite pleasure she got from patching holes and applying primer and paint to the woodwork.
She approached the clubhouse and made out the sudden appearance of a slim shadow. A long neck with a “T” shape, and Applebloom froze when she recognized Scootaloo’s scooter. She took a step back and almost turned around.
She shook her head. “Come on Applebloom. This ain’t no Everfree Forest. There ain’t any monsters creepin’ in the dark, it’s just you and Scootaloo.”
Applebloom walked into the clubhouse. The night painted the room so black she was sure coal would shine there. She knew they kept a flashlight in the chest along the back wall. Applebloom crept across the floor, sweeping her hooves low and making sure she didn’t hit anything that would make her trip. She nudged something firm and warm.
Scootaloo groaned and asked, “Who’s—” the pegasus yelped. Her hooves scrabbled over wood, she tripped on something and fell.
“Don’t come a step closer. I’ll… I’ll… I got a flashlight.”
“It’s me Scootaloo.”
“Applebloom?” Scootaloo asked. Applebloom heard Scootaloo scramble for something, then a flash of light stabbed her eyes.
Applebloom turned away. “Hey, watch where ya point that thing.”
Scootaloo said, “Sorry.” She placed it on the floor. The flashlight stood between them and cascaded light across the ceiling. Scootaloo said, “What are you doing here?”
“You’re the one trespassin’. Why ya out here by yourself?”
Scootaloo said, “I don’t think it really matters.”
“So ya thought a sleep over by yourself would be a good idea?”
Scootaloo said, “I didn’t mean to sleepover. Look, I didn’t know where else to go. And what do you care, anyways? I’m not natural, am I?”
Applebloom bit her lip. A moth perched itself on the flashlight and blotted the ceiling with its shadow. Both fillies used it as a welcome reason not to look at each other. Applebloom said softly, “I didn’t mean ta call ya that. I just… the whole thing got the better of me and…”
“Just forget about it.”
“I’m sorry, but I just can’t feel the same.”
Scootaloo said, “It’s fine, really. Won’t matter tomorrow, anyways. I wanted… I wanted to say goodbye, not like this, though.”
“You’re leaving?” Applebloom took a step closer and the moth fled. Light flashed into the filly’s face and made her blink.
Scootaloo said, “Cliff-Hanger told me my mother was alive.” Applebloom gasped. “Don’t get excited. He said she abandoned me, said she did it because she was like me. That ’cause she liked mares she was bad, and well… that makes me bad, too—I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just leaving.”
“There’s nothing here for me, okay?” Scootaloo snapped. She smacked her tail against her flank and turned away. Applebloom barely heard her say, “I don’t think I can believe in friendship being the only thing that will make me happy. When my only family despises me, when this town’s so small I can’t do a thing in it without getting somepony mad at me… what do I have? Not a dream, not love. I have your friendship, and maybe in another Equestria that would be enough but…” Scootaloo faced Applebloom. “Seeing you here—it’s tearing me apart knowing that for the first time in a long time the thing I want more than anything don’t exist anywhere but in my head.”
And what could Applebloom do or say to comfort her? She couldn’t cross the space between them and nuzzle her cheek and lie to her. Scootaloo wouldn’t believe it for a moment. Neither would Applebloom.
Applebloom said, “I don’t know what ta say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, then,” Scootaloo said. “I’ve made up my mind.”
“But could I change it?” Applebloom said. “Ya know, could I if I showed ya somethin’ worth stayin’ for?”
Scootaloo didn’t answer. She went to the flashlight and turned it off. “I’d like to get some sleep.”
“Just stay ’til tomorrow night, kay? That’s all I need. I’ll think of somethin’.”
She heard Scootaloo lie down. Applebloom waited for an answer of some kind. She felt if she left now it meant she gave up on her friend. She wouldn’t abandon her like this.
The filly leaned forward. “What is it Scoot?”
“Can you leave, please?”
“Oh… right.” She left.
“Almost there. Come on, don’t nod off now.”
It was a little past dawn, Big Macintosh woke her and took her outside to a part of the farm. Her head was too fuzzy to follow where they went, she got about as much sleep that night as a barn owl, what with her doubts crawling through her brain. She didn’t tell anypony about Scootaloo staying at the clubhouse, she feared they might scare Scootaloo away and then she’d never come back. She still had no clue what to do.
Applebloom bumped into Big Macintosh’s flank. “Oof.”
“Easy there,” Big Macintosh said. He stood in the sunlight, the only patch of it around. It was beside that one tree Applejack said Big Macintosh kicked over. He said, “Reckon I took ya here ta explain this.”
Big Macintosh turned around and faced Applebloom. “Remember what I said last night?”
“Well sometimes ya find out something ’bout yourself that ya just aren’t ready ta face. And a while back, when I kicked over this tree here, I wasn’t ready ta face somethin’ myself.”
Applebloom said, “But what was it?”
Big Macintosh said, “Shucks Applebloom. It’s like this, ya see. I’m not your normal pony because… I’m like Scootaloo.”
Applebloom giggled. “Ya can’t fly, silly—” she stopped. “Oh…”
Big Macintosh sat down beside her. He laid a hoof over her withers and said, “Now, I don’t want ya thinkin’ any different of me because there ain’t a thing different.”
Applebloom stared the torn tree. The bark on it was flaking off, the wood long since dead. The top remained twisted, slender pieces of it blew in the wind like spiky hair. She wasn’t sure what to say.
Her brother kept a silence from falling between them: “I know. We was raised our whole life ta think differently. But it looks like different’s been thinkin’ ’bout us instead. I’m sorry I brought this on ya now, but I couldn’t keep it from ya forever.”
Applebloom thought about all that happened and all she and Scootaloo said the night before and sudden question wormed its way up her throat. “What’s it feel like?”
“Ta know your that kind of different.”
Big Macintosh said, “Don’t feel much like anything else, ’cept I suppose when ya are out lookin’ for somepony, or ya have somepony in your mind who may or may not be that way. Uh… I’m not the best pony ta ask. I know one who could answer that question for ya lickety-split, but he happens ta live a ways away from here.”
Applebloom nodded. “I think I know who.”
“Then ya know when all this started. It still ain’t easy for me. A lot of the times it just feels like I’m tryin’ to plow stone.”
Applebloom said, “That’s how Scootaloo must feel.”
Big Macintosh removed his hoof. “Eeyup.”
“She’s not as strong as you, though.” At this Big Macintosh chuckled. Applebloom furrowed her brow.
He shook his head. “Forget it. You was sayin’?”
“Scootaloo’s gonna run away forever.”
Big Macintosh stared a moment, then realized she was serious. He demanded, “Who told ya that?”
“She did. I snuck out last night and went to the clubhouse and there she was. I begged her ta stay just for the day but she wouldn’t answer me.”
For the first time in a long time her older brother was stern with her. “If she’s still there I’m gonna hogtie her myself. Stay here.”
Sweetie Belle rolled over in her bed and yawned. She stretched her legs and enjoyed the feeling of her sheets against them. A thread of sunlight snuck through the curtains in her room and rested across her brow. She wrinkled her nose and rolled over.
A hoof knocked on her door, “School Sweetie Belle. You need to leave in half an hour, darling.”
Sweetie Belle groaned and said, “Five more minutes.”
She heard a tap at her window. “Hmm?” Sweetie Belle crawled out of bed and pulled aside the curtain. Scootaloo hovered in the air outside.
She said, “Can I come in?”
Sweetie Belle nodded and unlatched the window. With a tiny grunt she pushed it open. Scootaloo floated inside and rested beside her bed. She glanced at the vanity in the opposite side of the room and asked, “When that get there?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Few months ago. My sister bought a new one for herself so she gave me that one.” Sweetie Belle tugged her window closed and drew the curtain. She turned on Scootaloo and noticed the pegasus favored her right side. Sweetie Belle asked, “What happened to you?”
“Huh?” She straightened her posture. “Nothing, you know how hard my bed can be. Woke up stiff.”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Right… hard bed…” Sweetie Belle had a whole mess of feelings stewing around in her. But she didn’t know which to wrestle up, so she stood there by her window and waited on Scootaloo to tell her why she snuck up there.
Scootaloo said, “I’m sorry about the way I treated you. It was like you said, I was being a total featherbrain.”
Sweetie Belle said, “I should’ve said something. Don’t worry about it.”
Scootaloo said, “No, it’s my fault for everything. I just wanted to say so before I left.”
“Where are you going?”
Scootaloo shrugged her wings. She went back to the window and opened it. She whispered, “You know, I think I always took our friendship for granted.”
Scootaloo hopped into the air. Something in Sweetie Belle finally clicked and she knew she’d never see Scootaloo again if Sweetie Belle didn’t stop her. The unicorn reached for Scootaloo as the pegasus left and grabbed her tail. Sweetie Belle yanked her back inside, the orange filly crashed into her friend and both went tumbling. Scootaloo separated herself from Sweetie Belle and Sweetie Belle saw her blush rising underneath her coat.
“What was that about?”
Sweetie Belle stood and told her, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? I don’t know what you think it is you’ll make better by running away, but you’re doing just like you said, taking us for granted.”
Scootaloo opened her mouth, closed it. She thought for a moment and asked, “What are you trying to say?”
Sweetie Belle pursed her lips. “Suppose this is what I get for saying that. No, I don’t like you like that, Scootaloo. But I do know what you’re doing is wrong. Abandoning your friends and family like this—”
“It’d just be you and Applebloom,” Scootaloo said. “My family abandoned me first.”
Sweetie Belle felt if she could just get Scootaloo comfortable and make her talk everything would be fine. She patted her bead. “How about you take a seat on something comfy, featherbrain? Tell me what happened.”
“You don’t want to take me for granted, do you?”
Scootaloo glared at her. “Using my own words against me.”
“I learned it from my sister.” Sweetie Belle went to a plush ottoman that matched the violet in her mane. She pushed it to her bed and said, “Come on. You get the bed, I’ll sit here, and we’ll do something we haven’t done in a long time. We’re going to talk.”
Sweetie Belle had her, she knew she did. Scootaloo began to slink over to her bed. They would talk this out and solve both their problems.
Sweetie Belle’s door swung open. “Sweetie Belle?” Rarity froze in the doorway. “Scootaloo?”
Scootaloo mumbled, “Sorry.” She bounded across the room and leapt out the window.
“Scootaloo!” Sweetie Belle ran to the window and saw her friend glide to the scooter waiting across the street. She fastened on her helmet and Sweetie Belle watched her ride away.
“Sweetie Belle? What in heavens was that about?”
Sweetie Belle stared at the plume of dust Scootaloo left drifting in her wake. “Guess she just wanted to say goodbye.”
Big Macintosh returned with Applejack. Applejack grilled Applebloom for answers and Applebloom didn’t hide a thing of the encounter. Her big sister ordered Big Macintosh to travel to the boutique and let Rarity know. Her sister went to Scootaloo’s house. They told Applebloom to stay at the farm and left her in the orchard again.
Applebloom stared at the tree Big Macintosh ruined. She knew her brother was strong, but she didn’t think nothing could get him that riled. Then again, she didn’t think anything would make Scootaloo leave forever. She felt futile, she couldn’t change her nature nor the nature of things.
Applebloom watched a piece of bark fall off. Like a boulder peeling off a mountainside after a thousand years, it tumbled off and chipped away more flakes on its way down. And when it hit the ground it occurred to Applebloom that no pony could change the way ponies felt in their hearts. But she could reshape what they saw, and maybe, like how Mrs. Cherilee said wind smoothed a mountain down, what they saw could reshape their hearts.
She didn’t care, either way. She knew what she wanted to do, not just for Scootaloo, but for her brother. When an apple was bad you made it good again by pressing it into cider.
Applebloom marched back to the farmhouse, she passed Granny Smith and told her, “I’m gonna borrow some tools and paint and stuff.”
Granny Smith rocked away in her chair and said, “’Bout time you took to that.”
Applejack galloped all the way to Scootaloo’s house. She pounded on the front door until it opened and almost smacked her hoof against Sandy’s face when it did. Applejack said, “Thank goodness. Have ya’ll noticed Scootaloo missing?”
Sandy said, “Of course—”
“Who is it, dear?”
“Applejack.” Sandy almost closed the door and said through the crack she left, “She’s probably just causing trouble somewhere, good day—”
Applejack slammed a hoof against the door and forced it open. “She’s not stirrin’ up trouble—she’s runnin’ away.”
Now Applejack saw Cliff-Hanger reading the paper inside. It snapped shut against his will and Sandy said, “Dear…”
“Oh, all right.”
Applejack said, “‘All right?’ Don’t ya’ll care even a string a straw ’bout your kin?”
“Her mother abandoned her in the same fashion she’s leaving,” Cliff-Hanger said. He crossed the room to Applejack and said, “She obviously doesn’t want to be ‘kin’.”
Applejack shook her head. “Ya’ll ponies crazy? Nah, forget it. I’m gonna let the Mayor know. We’re goin’ ta find her with or without you.”
Cliff-Hanger said, “Whatever you think’s best.”
“This ain’t over.” Applejack threatened, but sprinted for the mayor’s house.
Sweetie Belle watched from the kitchen while Rarity and Big Macintosh talked in the boutique. She eavesdropped on the story Big Macintosh retold until Rarity told him about Scootaloo’s visit. This prompted Big Macintosh to get the story out of Sweetie Belle. She told them how she almost convinced Scootaloo to stay, but her sister scared her off. Rarity apologized for that, but hope lit up in Big Macintosh’s eyes. He said, “Then she may just be waitin’ on somepony ta catch her.”
Applejack showed up soon after. She spilled out how she got the Mayor organizing a search, but she asked both ponies to come with her to help look.
They left Sweetie Belle behind with instructions to leave for school.
But the way Sweetie Belle figured there wouldn’t be any school today. There would just be gossip. She didn’t want to listen to worthless gossip, she’d buck Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara in the face the moment they said something. So when Sweetie Belle left the boutique she didn’t head for the quaint schoolhouse outside of Ponyville. Sweetie Belle knew Scootaloo would go where no pony would find her, a place only the pegasus knew about.
And it struck Sweetie Belle where that place might be.
Sweetie Belle headed for the Everfree Forest.
Scootaloo didn’t know how she could fit her scooter through the cave entrance. So she hid it in the nearby brush and returned to the jagged cut of rock bordering the Everfree Forest. The ragged breath of the cave exhaled, damp and chilled, the musty smell made her nose wrinkle. Scootaloo decided she would stay another day and give Applebloom a chance. She had a satchel over her shoulder wherein she removed the flashlight from the night before.
She shined it down the cave entrance and studied the striations along the walls. She took a deep breath and crawled inside. The rock scraped her hooves at first, and she found the whole mess a bit overwhelming. Claustrophobia settled in while she hugged her wings to her body and felt the pinions brush rock. She clutched the flashlight in her mouth and scooted down until the ground leveled out. Once inside, she twisted her body around to face a tunnel and illuminated it with her flashlight. It opened into a chamber that she hustled into.
Scootaloo couldn’t help but admire the wicked stalactites and stalagmites dotting the chamber. It made it seem like she weaved through a thin forest of stone. The rock was a waxy clay-red interspersed with limestone striations. The chamber was large enough for a pond to tuck itself away in the corner. After indulging herself by ducking and weaving between stalactites, she settled beside the pond and observed the ceiling of the chamber. The whole thing played out in an egg-shape, most if it worn smooth. Scootaloo noticed if she skirted the pond she could reach another opening into a tunnel that wound down into darkness. The water ran right up to the opening, but the lip of rock kept it from spilling.
Scootaloo felt the urge to explore, but decided getting lost too risky. She took some apples she snuck from Applebloom’s cellar and ate. When she finished she tossed the cores into the pond and watched the ripples crawl across the water to her hooves. The water nipped them and Scootaloo shivered. “Blugh, that’s cold.”
Scootaloo perked up. “Sweet! Echo!”
“Don’t you talk that way to me.”
“-way to me.”
Scootaloo scoffed. “Copy me will you?”
Scootaloo grunted, snorted, squealed. She stomped her hooves and flapped her wings and a cacophony of sounds swirled around the chamber. Scootaloo rose onto her hind legs and whinnied, came down and slapped her hooves against stone with a loud clop!
For moment, all she heard was her panting. She wiped a dollop of saliva hanging from the corner of her mouth and said, “All right, you win.”
“Don’t rub it in.” While the cave answered her again, Scootaloo came to the sudden revelation that waiting was boring. She thought about just leaving for good, but she didn’t. Oh she was featherbrain alright, because she stayed for all the wrong reasons. A small part of her clutched the tiniest hope that Celestia did grant wishes and when she returned to say goodbye Applebloom would beg her to stay because she knew in heart that… that…
But Scootaloo knew that wasn’t true.
She shook her head. “Enough thinking. Let’s do something.” Scootaloo collected her flashlight and decided she had every right to go exploring.
Mayor Mare surprised Sweetie Belle. After breaking her weather vane, the unicorn didn’t expect the mayor to get ponies organized so quickly for Scootaloo. But twice pegasus ponies stopped her and asked if she’d seen Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle told them no and continued her trek to the Everfree Forest.
Scootaloo told both of them, mostly Applebloom, where the cave was on their way into Ponyville the day before their fight. It was west of the typical beaten trail into the forest, nestled next to an overgrowth of lemon bushes with thorns that could grow as long as filly’s hoof was wide. Sweetie Belle found those bushes first, and thrown in them a scooter Sweetie Belle knew a certain pegasus would never abandon.
She found the cave next. Oh it was terribly dark, but Rarity long since taught her how to cast a candlelight spell. “Should you ever get trapped someplace dark and musty. I never want you to be lost, darling.” Sweetie Belle closed her eyes and focused on the sun’s rays on her horn. She let its warmth spill down her horn and into her, she felt it course through her body and mingle with her own energies before she thrust those energies back into her horn. The result made her horn glow.
Satisfied Sweetie Belle peered down the hole.
The unicorn muttered, “Right… spelunking. What were you thinking, Scootaloo?”
She clambered into the darkness.
The tunnel she followed opened into a chamber as long as the last one, but this one fell off into a pit deep enough that she could pile three Sweet Apple Acres’ barns on top of each other. On the opposite side of her was another opening where a stream of water spilled out and cascaded down the rock face to the bottom, where water collected and ran into another tunnel.
Scootaloo painted the chamber with her flashlight, admiring the carpet of lichen and moss on the opposite wall, a deposit of jagged quartz beside it, and a narrow ledge that wrapped around the cave wall beside her and spiraled down across the chamber. She whispered around the flashlight, “This is so awesome.”
She swept her flashlight over the ceiling next, to see if she could catch anymore cool stalactites. There was a patch of them, sprouting from the ceiling like the rough spines of a hedgehog. Scootaloo cocked her head when some of the rock quivered.
She squinted and wondered if one was going to fall for her. But the stalactites flexed and fell back, like carefully arranged strips of paper folding into place to make the paper whole again. Only these were rough hewn wings. She noticed a pair of rat-like ears perk up, and the head they were attached to twisted around without the body. It was a bat, its eyes large, milky orbs. The bat hissed and revealed a set of yellow fangs. It screeched.
The bulb on Scootaloo’s flashlight shattered.
That screech made Sweetie Belle’s blood ice over. Scootaloo’s high pierced scream saved her from total petrifaction.
Sweetie Belle ran into the fleeing darkness. She skirted around a boulder and scrambled up a steep incline. And saw Scootaloo running towards her, her eyes bigger than the moon. She shouted, “Run!”
Scootaloo blew past her, Sweetie Belle peered down the tunnel a moment. Her breathing slowed. She braced herself for anything to come crawling from the darkness. She listened best she could, to the scrabbling of stone, but the sound was hard to trace. The cave was confusing, she noticed a whole other network of tunnels above this one. Then she heard the slap of massive paws against stone and gasped. It built and built, the monster on a course to trample Sweetie Belle. But the sound of its passage went overhead, she felt like the ghost of a beast went through her, but a clutch of dirt on the tunnel’s ceiling fell onto her nose.
She wheeled and around and yelled, “Scootaloo stop.”
Scootaloo did, Sweetie Belle saw her tail right around the boulder. Scootaloo demanded, “Don’t you hear it coming?”
“Yes but its—”
Too late. The ceiling collapsed ahead of them. Scootaloo disappeared in a cloud of dust. Another screech made Sweetie Belle’s ears pop. She flinched and saw Scootaloo burst from the dust cloud, covered in dirt and scratches. A massive claw swiped out of the darkness and clipped off the end of her tail. Sweetie Belle watched the beast clamber around the boulder. It was hunched over, its arms held massive wings, and ended in a clawed paws that reminded Sweetie Belle of a sloth. It reared its ugly head at her and she saw drool spill from its mouth onto the cave floor.
Scootaloo snatched Sweetie Belle’s mane between her teeth and tugged her around. Sweetie Belle yelped and let the pegasus spin her. “Stop staring and run.” Sweetie Belle couldn’t answer her, she realized the knot her throat was bigger than a cantaloupe.
The beast chased them. Scootaloo led Sweetie Belle into a chamber and scrabbled to a stop. Sweetie Belle slid along the rock when she applied the brakes, and almost flew off the edge of a pit. Scootaloo caught her tail between her teeth and wrenched her back from the brink. She jabbed a hoof at a nearby ledge and said, “This way.”
Sweetie Belle said, “But he’ll catch us. Look, you can fly—”
“It’s my fault you’re down here and what the heck can I do without a light?” Scootaloo shoved her. “I can hear it coming. Go.”
Sweetie Belle went. She sidled along the edge and felt the wall of rock shake as their pursuer pounded to them. They were sure as dead. They couldn’t do a thing to a monster this big in its environment. It was going to swipe them up in its claws and gnash their bones to dust between those awful teeth.
Tears sprung to Sweetie Belle’s eyes. She sobbed.
“Come on. I see ya, I’ve fought a hen ten times scarier than you.” Sweetie Belle craned her neck and looked behind her. Scootaloo didn’t follow her, she still stood at the lip of the pit, her wings out and her whole body trembling.
And Sweetie Belle saw the jaws of the monster spring from darkness, its whole body surged forward, its fangs snapped down on Scootaloo. But the pegasus ducked away and kicked off into the air. The beast hissed and lumbered over to the edge. Scootaloo swept to the other side of the cave wall with Sweetie Belle tracking the pegasus with her horn.
Scootaloo said, “What are you doing? Run!”
Sweetie Belle couldn’t move, though. The monstrous bat bounded across the chamber to Scootaloo. Its talons outstretched and reaching for the pegasus like an eagle’s would. Scootaloo disappeared behind the bulk of the bat. They struck the other side of the cave wall, water spilled down the bat’s back. Sweetie Belle gasped and stepped back. Her hoof slipped and slid down the rock wall; one of her hooves caught on a niche in the rock and stopped her from tumbling to her doom.
Sweetie Belle struggled for hold when she felt a pair of hooves sweep under her shoulders. “Dang it I told you to run.”
Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Not without you.” Scootaloo pulled her back onto the ledge and hovered in front of her.
“This isn’t up for debate—”
Their monster had leapt from its spot onto the cave and sailed to them. It planted itself over the rock before them, its massive head hanging right over Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle felt rocks slide loose and one smashed into her shoulder and left a gasp. She gasped. The beast was close enough that Sweetie Belle could smell it, and her eyes watered. The beast reminded her of a skunk spraying a pile of manure.
It gnashed its teeth. Sweetie Belle didn’t need encouragement, this time she did skirt the ledge. She ducked under the claws sunk into stone and ran. Scootaloo dodged another snap and flew across the chamber, climbing until she reached another passageway where water ran down the pit.
She kicked a rock on the ledge at the bat. The rock bounced off its head and the creature snorted. It twisted its neck all the way around and screeched again.
Scootaloo held her ground. “Come on you dumb rat with wings!”
Sweetie Belle reached an unnatural bend in the rock wall. When she sidled past it she discovered a small tunnel, barely big enough for a regular pony to squeeze into. Sweetie Belle spun around and shouted, “Over here!”
Scootaloo shook her head. “I mapped out this tunnel already. I know where it goes, I’ll be fine. Find a way out!”
The bat leapt across the pit and smashed against the rock wall. It began to clamber up to Scootaloo. Scootaloo rolled another stone off onto the bat’s head. She said, “I swear I’ll be okay. There’s some light up ahead of this tunnel. I can see it. If you can’t find a way out stay here and I’ll bring help.” Sweetie Belle saw Scootaloo hesitate. Sweetie Belle knew she never lied as well as her. The bat clambered over the edge and its hiss filled the chamber.
Scootaloo fled into the tunnel. Sweetie Belle slipped into her own.
First Applebloom peeled away the bark, then went to work removing the ragged top of the trunk. The image she had in mind required her to saw the trunk down to the remaining aged applewood. The work made her neck and legs ache, but the oldest part of the tree would provide a lasting piece once she applied a sealant.
Applebloom finished with the first part and found the day stretched to mid-morning. She didn’t have much time, so she ignored the growing paunch in her stomach and returned to cutting out the rough figure she already had in mind. It would be so simple, but would stand for everything it meant to be a crusader.
The water chilled Scootaloo’s hooves to the bone. There was no telling how far she went or where she did, but she knew she could count on following the water to some kind of destination. The smell of water mingled with that of the beast and reminded Scootaloo of a festering swamp.
Scootaloo gasped and blazed ahead. Right into a solid rock wall. Otherworldly lights burst in her eyes and she fell back. She groaned and heard the slap of paws coming right to her. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom! They disappeared. Scootaloo could hear the bat’s breath. She whimpered and listened to the shape slink to the right. The shuffling of wings while the bat circled her.
It snorted and came to a stop.
Scootaloo knees almost buckled. She couldn’t keep still. She tried to face the bat.
A hiss from behind.
Sweetie Belle shook water from her mane and looked back down the tunnel she came from. The last half of it was filled to her shoulder with water and the filly couldn’t stop her shivering. She turned and faced the chamber before her. Its walls bent and wound like a river. It followed a rough slope of rock to an entrance large enough for another one of those bats. Sweetie Belle looked up and saw the ceiling covered in patchy spots of stalactites.
She didn’t waste time site-seeing. The little unicorn traversed the chamber and came into the next one, a tunnel followed that wrapped around and went in the same direction as the one she waded through moments ago.
A noise rocked down the tunnel and brushed past Sweetie Belle’s ears like wraith. It was Scootaloo’s scream.
Sweetie Belle’s horn flickered.
The unicorn gasped and squeezed her eyes shut. She concentrated until it made her head hurt to bring the spell back. She released breath and for a brief moment came the awful thought of being trapped in this cave forever.
Scootaloo felt a claw go over her head. She ducked and screamed, she heard the slash gouge into stone. The bat grunted when its claws got stuck. Scootaloo ran for it, but the bulk of the beast leapt in her way. She felt the ground shake. Her hooves spilled across stone and she fell. The bats jaws snapped close above her, she gasped when she felt the top three feathers on her left wing ripped out.
She leapt up and bounded away. Into the air. She cleared whatever rock she ran smack into. It couldn’t have been taller than stallion. She landed and broke into a gallop. The bat screeched and lumbered after her. It had a taste for the filly now.
The cut of water bent beneath her. Scootaloo followed it until she felt the air above her open up. It was a little thing, but it suddenly wasn’t so musty and in the distance she saw a swathe of light slash the dark. A strangled piece of joy tumbled out her mouth. She kicked into the air and beat her wings fast as she could towards it.
She heard the bat’s wings open up behind her, the sound like a sail blowing open in a storm. Scootaloo pushed herself harder, closing the gap between herself and the single ray of light. She reached it. The column felt warm, soothing on her back. She felt like she won some victory ’til she spun around and saw the massive shadow swooping down.
Scootaloo squeaked and forgot to fly. She fell to the ground, but caught herself on her right fore-hoof and sprung away. She felt the rush of wind and saw talons sweep by and scoop up the stone from where she landed. The bat hissed while Scootaloo leapt into the air again. While it bumbled around trying to turn itself, Scootaloo ascended. She flapped her wings and dared not to look behind her. The ray in her eyes stung and almost blinded her. But she ascended, and ascended. The height thirty ponies, fifty, eighty… She reached it.
“No!” She cried.
The cut of rock was big enough to allow light, but it was too narrow for Scootaloo to squeeze her shoulders in. She tried anyways, desperately clawing at the rock, her dangling back legs bucking into the air. No good. She heard the bat screech again, and the beat of its massive wings made Scootaloo moan.
“No, please Celestia, no!”
She spun around and saw the beast flying right for her. She couldn’t see it that well because of the daylight just in her eyes, she hadn’t adjusted—
That was it!
All that stone began to blend together while Sweetie Belle ran. She didn’t know if she headed for Scootaloo or not, she lost track of the twists she took. So it came as a shock when the tunnel exploded into another massive chamber. This one she stood at the floor of and when she entered she heard, “Let’s do this!”
Sweetie Belle looked up to see the tiny figure of Scootaloo hovering at the roof of the cave. Their bat rose straight for her, its neck outstretched and fangs barred. Scootaloo darted to the side and beam of light blasted the bat. It cried out and shrunk away, but its momentum rocketed the monster straight into the cave ceiling.
Scootaloo spun in the air and pumped her hoof. “Take that.”
Slabs of stone peeled away. The ceiling shook and boulders rocked loose. They fell with the horrendous monster. The cavern opened with sudden shafts of light that spread over the cave walls like sun peeling through a window. The bat struck stone, the crunch of its wings reminded Sweetie Belle of bugs and made her shudder. Rocks followed the bat and buried the monster.
With the cavern opened up she saw how bizarre this chamber became. The walls bristled with spines, like a spiked throat, only these spines shuddered when the sunlight touched them. Sweetie Belle could care less, she shouted, “Scootaloo.”
The pegasus filly looked down and saw her. She dove for the unicorn and said, “Sweetie Belle, you’re alive!”
Sweetie Belle braced herself and Scootaloo crashed into her. The two went tumbling across the rock and came to a stop with Scootaloo hugging her close. She nuzzled Sweetie Belle’s cheek and talked faster than a Sonic Rainboom, “I was so scared and terrified and then I saw you with your light in that tunnel and I felt awful that after everything I did you’d still run down here after me and I realized how great of a friend you are and how I wouldn’t ever want to see you get hurt so I led that thing away and… and…”
Sweetie Belle laughed. “Breathe, featherbrain!”
They both laughed for the simple joy of hearing their voices. The laughter bounded off the cave walls and seemed to make the darkness edge farther into its warren. Scootaloo finally let go of her and rolled onto her back, gasping for breath. Sweetie Belle closed her eyes, she got ready to release a sigh when Scootaloo’s breath suddenly cut short.
“Oh no.” Scootaloo jumped to her hooves.
Sweetie Belle sat up. “What is it?”
Scootaloo pointed out a particularly dense cluster of those curious wall stalactites. She said, “Th-th-those.”
She watched the things shudder and one of the spines closed. Sweetie Belle felt all of her dread return. Scootaloo tugged on her tail and said, “We need to go. We need to go. We need to go!” But Sweetie Belle watched a massive bat head twist around and fix its blank stare at them. Its nose wrinkled, the bat took a deep whiff of the surrounding cave, even from where she stood Sweetie Belle could hear it. “Sweetie Belle!” The bat licked its chops, opened its mouth and screeched.
The cavern came alive.
Applebloom stepped back and admired her work so far. She’d cut out the rough shape she wanted. Standing before her were the makings of a proud wooden filly, facing the eastern horizon with its gaze looking towards what would become tomorrow’s sunrise. She slanted the western half of the stump, to give the look that this filly just climbed the rise of a mountain. She wanted it to be clear that this filly overcame something.
She stowed all her saws and returned to the farmhouse for a quick lunch and long draught of water. She snagged a set of carving tools her brother sometimes used. She returned to her little wooden filly and began with its blocky head. The work’s monotony helped her relax.
All of Applebloom’s fears bled away with the work. With every shave of wood came a measure in satisfaction that for the first time in a long time she felt like she was doing something worthwhile. Too long had she allowed others to do things for her and give her gifts and try their best to make her happy. She wanted to change that today, by making the best thing she could for her friends, for her family.
She did the whole project alone. Not once did she see Big Macintosh or Applejack. Scootaloo didn’t sneak up on her. Sweetie Belle never visited, but Applebloom supposed it was a school day and she probably didn’t want to miss the chance for some calm after the past two days.
Sweetie Belle ducked down and squeezed into an opening in the tunnel the unicorn came from. Scootaloo waited behind her, muttering, “Come on come on come on.” She heard a chorus of hisses travel down both sides of the tunnel. With Sweetie Belle’s horn on the other side Scootaloo couldn’t tell how close she was to getting eaten.
“Oh no you aren’t,” Scootaloo said and groped in the darkness until her hoof found Sweetie Belle’s flank. She wheeled around and said, “Sorry if this hurts.” Scootaloo kicked her friend in the rump. Sweetie Belle yelped but Scootaloo heard hooves scrabble over stone while she crawled into the small opening. Scootaloo came right behind her. The stone chafed her knees and scraped her wings. She didn’t care. All she felt were those monsters getting closer and closer to dragging her out and eating her whole.
Sweetie Belle got her hooves underneath her and drew back. Scootaloo scrambled into the safety of their tunnel—
It was a dead end.
The chamber was a little bigger than a broom closet. Sweetie Belle asked, “What now?”
Scootaloo opened her mouth but felt claws scratch against stone. The monsters found them. Scootaloo whispered, “Turn off your horn and be quiet.”
Sweetie Belle nodded and her horn dimmed until black surrounded them again. They both waited in the chamber while the bats outside clambered around the hole. They heard all manner of grunts, snorts, and hisses. One of the creatures snapped and another howled. Scootaloo wished there was a way to make them all start fighting with each other.
One of the monsters pressed its nose to the hole and sniffed it like a dog. It stopped and screeched. Scootaloo flinched while the sound bounced around the chamber and made her ears ring. One of the bats on the other side snarled. It seemed like some command, for the creatures slowly stopped their jostling and noise. The leader uttered a few hisses punctuated by a grunt.
The tension winding up Scootaloo’s whole body began to drain as she heard the monsters begin to shuffle away. When the tension faded she was left with an empty hole where all her energy used to be. Scootaloo didn’t care anymore. She allowed herself the chance to collapse.
Sweetie Belle knelt beside the exhausted pegasus and shook her with a hoof. “Scootaloo, you okay?”
Scootaloo nodded and said, “Tired.”
“I know. Me too.”
“Do you think it’s safe to leave?”
“We should give it an hour or so,” Sweetie Belle said. “They might be setting up a trap or something.”
“Oh… rest then?”
Sweetie Belle nestled right beside her and said, “Yes.”
Scootaloo never fell asleep. The situation ground her nerves raw. Scootaloo knew she’d be afraid of the dark for the rest of her life. However long that was. She tried to forget about that, she focused on Sweetie Belle’s breath and felt her creeping despair slow; Scootaloo felt awful for Sweetie Belle, it was like getting the unicorn trapped in a hurricane. She swore if it came between her life and Sweetie Belle’s, she would make sure Sweetie Belle got out of this cave alive.
Scootaloo draped a wing over Sweetie Belle and Sweetie Belle snuggled closer to her. The unicorn mumbled, “Don’t get used to this. It’s just cold and you’re the softest thing around.”
Scootaloo said, “I’m sorry you’re down here. I know it’s all my fault.”
“Forget it. It’s not worth the worry now.”
“I’m still sorry. I know you must think I’m something awful. I do, after everything I’ve done to you, and now this. And yet you’re still here… gosh I was a fool—”
“Featherbrain,” Sweetie Belle corrected.
“Fine, featherbrain. It was all sorts of stupid for me to come down here, but I didn’t want no pony finding me and dragging me back.”
“Why didn’t you just leave like you said?”
“Because Applebloom begged me to stay another day and…” Scootaloo blushed. “A secret part of me wanted her to have a change of heart. But… now I think I’m the one having a change of heart…”
Sweetie Belle snickered. “Not the most faithful pegasus, are you?”
Scootaloo said, “Guess I’m not.”
“Don’t take it like that—”
“No, it’s okay. I just need to learn what fillies will like me back. I know you don’t… but you’re pretty awesome Sweetie Belle. More awesome than Applebloom, even.”
“Scootaloo…” Sweetie Belle nuzzled her cheek. “If I was I’m pretty sure I’d think you were more awesome than Applebloom, too.”
Scootaloo thanked Celestia Sweetie Belle couldn’t see how crimson she became. Her heart fluttered and for moment she couldn’t breathe.
“Even if you can be a big, dumb, featherbrain sometimes,” Sweetie Belle added.
Scootaloo managed a smile. “It’s what I have to live with, since Celestia made me so graceful.”
“I still couldn’t believe it when you got your cutie-mark. I remember thinking, ‘Knowing how to balance can be a special talent? Then I want mine to be sleeping in!’”
“It’s more than just balancing.”
“Sure it is.”
“What about yours? How many ponies in Equestria do you think have ‘singing’ as their special talent?”
“Singing’s not my special talent.”
Scootaloo was taken aback. “It’s not? But your cutie mark is a microphone. I’ve seen it, its sparkling all over and its—”
“I’m good at singing, just like my sister is good at making dresses, but singing isn’t my special talent. A unicorn’s cutie-mark tends to be some kind of magic. Like how my sister can find gemstones like nothing.”
“Well what is it then? When I saw it I just figured—”
“I told you and Applebloom once before!”
Sweetie Belle sighed. “You were too busy ogling Applebloom, weren’t you?”
“Probably, maybe—yes. I’m sorry, look, I promise I’ll only ogle you from now on.”
“I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“I’ll do it at a distance.”
Scootaloo felt Sweetie Belle’s head bob. “Better.” The unicorn said, “Alright, so what happened was during that week where I helped Rarity cut fabrics there was a small show outside of Ponyville. This one pony from out of town named Free Bird was doing a blues jam thingy and I snuck in there to get away from all that dumb fabric and maybe sing. I knew I couldn’t go to you guys because then Rarity would’ve figured out where I snuck off to.
“But I was at this blues concert, thingy, right? And towards the end of it they asked if there were any singers in the audience who wanted to sing. At first I wasn’t going to say a thing, but then Bon-bon picked me out of the crowd and yelled that I knew how to sing, on account that I used to take music lessons from Lyra. So every pony started to heckle me and they threw me up onto the stage.”
Scootaloo nodded. “Uh-huh.”
Sweetie Belle said, “And at first I was scared, but Free Bird asked me what songs I knew and I said the closest one to a blues song I could think of. And Free Bird said, ‘Shoot, Fool in the Rain? We played that one a week ago.’ So the band began to play and I started singing and everything started going great. I got to feeling real good, like I was meant to perform. I swayed a little to the music, but I didn’t want to go too far because of the microphone on the stage.”
“It was right after the bridge that I discovered the microphone cut out. It wasn’t no pony’s fault, you know sometimes these things happen. But at first I froze, then Free Bird shouted from the side of the stage, ‘Big finish!’ So I tried my best and thought to sing as loud as I could. But my voice wouldn’t come out any louder because I felt my horn getting wrapped in this weird magic and all I wanted was for everypony to hear me because the band was playing too loud for me to sing over. Then my voice burst out and it felt so natural, like I hadn’t tried to sing any louder, but at the same time it was like the microphone never cut out. In fact it seemed even louder. And I realized I was working a spell that was making my voice like a microphone and the crowd went crazy. And after we finished Free Bird swept me up and pointed at the cutie-mark on my flank and I’ll never forget what she said.”
“Ohhhh… what’d she say? What’d she say?”
“She said, ‘You’re amazing kid. If you ever come to Fillydelphia find me and I’ll make sure everypony everywhere here’s that voice of yours.’”
“That’s awesome! Why didn’t you go?”
Sweetie Belle shrugged. “Rarity would never let me. I think Free Bird would be way too seedy for her. But Free Bird treated me to a meal with her band and then sent me home. She excused herself, saying if she didn’t get back Sweet Apple Acres Applejack would tan her hide.”
Scootaloo said, “Man that’s awesome. When we get out of this I want to hear you sing.”
Sweetie Belle said, “That’s a first.”
“You’ve never cared for my singing.”
“Well now I do,” Scootaloo said. “I want to hear just how loud you can crank it up—” Scootaloo gasped and sprung to her hooves. “That’s it!”
“I know how to get out of here.”
Applebloom only had about two more hours of work before she finished. If she didn’t count painting her creation, too. Her absence of sleep caught up to her now, and when she wasn’t setting knife to wood she found her whole body would wrap itself in exhaustion. Her head drooped, her eyelids dropped, and her knees wobbled like a newborn foal’s. But it was almost done. She just needed to finish.
“There’s no way I can do this,” Sweetie Belle whispered. “For one I’m not good with spells. I don’t know if I can keep my horn lit at the same time.”
Scootaloo said, “I know you can. Besides, it may be our only way out of here.”
Sweetie Belle said, “And if it doesn’t work?”
“At least neither of us are alone.”
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo both marched into the cavern, where the hive of bats seemed to wait for them. The light of Sweetie Belle’s horn faded and what remained was the now dimming light from outside. The walls came alive, the monstrous bats bristling with rage. They gnashed their teeth, gouged the stone with their claws and hissed.
Sweetie Belle listened to the noise rise like she just fell into a pit of rattle snakes.
Scootaloo said, “It won’t happen. You’re not going to fail.” Sweetie Belle glanced and saw the faulty smirk Scootaloo put on.
She was just as afraid. That helped. Anypony could be afraid, Sweetie Belle was afraid of so much so often lately she just let Equestria walk over her. She didn’t want that, she wanted to face her fears, stand up for herself, speak and be certain everypony heard her.
Several of the bats dropped from the wall and began to lumber to the fillies. More swept through the air, gliding with talons extended. Sweetie Belle closed her eyes and tried to recall that feeling where everything disappeared but the one desire for everypony to hear her. It was almost giddy, feeling that familiar energy spill from her horn and warm her body. She felt a ball of it collect at her throat, it left the impression of a knot there and her body swallowed in natural response.
One of the bats dropped from the ceiling and landed in front of them. The force of its landing shook the ground and both fillies almost fell over. The bat crouched low until it came face to face with Sweetie Belle. Its breath washed over her and she felt her mane dampen. Sweetie Belle took a deep breath, eyes watering as the monster’s breath filled her nostrils. Scootaloo clapped her hooves over her ears. The bat screeched.
Sweetie Belle screamed.
The unicorn seemed to be immune to the volume of her noise, but she knew it was loud, and only amplified with the tight space of the cave bouncing the sound of her voice all around, like standing inside a massive, bonging cathedral bell. The bat before her shrieked, the sound drowned out by Sweetie Belle’s voice. The creature fell backwards and scrambled to get away. The bats sweeping through the air panicked. They tried to swing around and retreat but collided into each other. They tumbled to the ground. The force of the scream stunned the beasts on the wall, they fell off and hit the cave floor. The cavern filled with the thrashing bodies of those bats, caught in the throes of agony.
Sweetie Belle emptied her lungs.
Scootaloo let go of her ears and shouted, “Told you.”
One of the bats screeched. A panic flight occurred, all of them preferring to dare the light outside the cavern than face Sweetie Belle’s voice. Scootaloo jumped into the air and waved an angry hoof at the clumsy retreat. “Yeah, run suckers, you got nothing on us!”
Sweetie Belle exhaled, the magic faded and she fell back on her haunches. The bats kept fleeing, there seemed to be an endless amount of them.
Scootaloo didn’t hear Sweetie Belle. She kept throwing taunts at the bats, awful puns like, “Bat you didn’t hear that one coming—” or “Better get out of here before my friend drives you batty—” and “Na-na-na-na-na-na Bat-babies! Where ya goin’? You wussies.”
Sweetie Belle chuckled and let her friend have her moment. When the last bat flew out of the cavern, Scootaloo spun around and tackled Sweetie Belle. Scootaloo wrapped Sweetie Belle in her fierce embrace and kept talking in an exceptionally loud voice, “You were amazing! Those bats were all like, ‘We’re gonna eat you—’ but then you opened your mouth and did you see the way they fell from the walls and crashed into each other?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Not so loud, I’m right here Scoot.”
Scootaloo clambered off her and frowned. “What? I can’t hear you. Hey, is it a bad thing if my ears can’t stop ringing?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Yes but—”
“Yes but it’ll stop sometime!”
“Oh, okay,” Scootaloo said. “So how about we find a way out of this dumb place?”
Sweetie Belle said, “Yes, please.”
The unicorn rolled her eyes
Since the entrance they took got caved in by the first bat, the two had to hunt down a new way out. They decided if worse came to worse Scootaloo would fly out the same way the bats did and get help, but she insisted staying with Sweetie Belle until both of them were safe. It didn’t come to any of that. They stumbled upon a passageway of tunnels that wound to the surface. The markings in these tunnels revealed a long since abandoned Diamond Dog mine.
The girls found their exit as a cleverly disguised, hollowed out tree stump. Scootaloo held Sweetie Belle on her shoulders while Sweetie Belle unlocked the latch over the stump and pushed it open.
Sweetie Belle said, “No way.”
“What is it?”
“Just a sec.” Sweetie Belle climbed into daylight. Scootaloo followed and gasped when she got her head out from underground. They were in the hollow of brush where they first had their fight.
Sweetie Belle stared at all the brush and said, “I didn’t realize we went so far.”
Scootaloo got her hooves on sweet grass and said, “Here we are again, then.”
“Do you still plan on leaving?” Sweetie Belle said. She faced Scootaloo, “Because if it’s what you really want I won’t tell anypony or stop you, but you should know everypony in town is looking for you, Scootaloo. I know you think no pony could ever care for you, but we all do.”
Scootaloo said, “That’s great and all but…”
“But you don’t want to stay?”
“I still want… I don’t know…” Scootaloo’s face flushed. “After everything we went through, I really want to just hug you and hold you and well… maybe do other things.”
Sweetie Belle cleared her throat. “Um… that’s very… sweet?”
“But it just stinks, you know? Because it still feels like I’m running against a wall because I can’t get my feelings settled on either of my friends and it feels like I might—I think a fresh start might be best for me.”
“Featherbrain,” Sweetie Belle said. “You’re way too young to be thinking about that stuff. Besides, if it really bugs you I’ve heard rumors at school that Twist is—”
“What? Blegh, no way—I mean, have you seen her?”
Sweetie Belle laughed. “What I’m trying to get at is that you have plenty of time, featherbrain. How about for now we go back to Applebloom and just for the rest of the day try to be Cutie-Mark Crusaders? After all, our quest isn’t done yet, is it?”
Scootaloo thought about how badly she wanted to rewind the clock and start over. Sweetie Belle didn’t understand how much that offer meant to her. Scootaloo’s eyes teared up, but she brushed them off with her hoof. “I’d like that. A lot.”
Sweetie Belle said, “I’ll lead the way.”
Scootaloo watched her head to the exit of the hollow. When she reached it Scootaloo said, “Sweetie Belle?”
“No problem,” Sweetie Belle said. She reached into the brush, tangling her mane in thorns to retrieve something. It was the length of red ribbon from Applebloom’s bow. Sweetie Belle trotted back to Scootaloo and draped it over her shoulder. She said, “There. You should be the one to give this back to Applebloom.”
Applebloom stepped back and admired her work. Still needed some touch ups, paint and a coat of sealant to keep it preserved. But, well she couldn’t think of a prouder creation. She brought to life the crusader stitched on Cutie-Mark Crusaders’ capes.
The little filly was half the size of Applebloom, posed like she just climbed her mountain while she carried a fierce look of determination. Her cape was carved like it billowed in the wind. She held her left fore-hoof up as if she still marched forward. Applebloom couldn’t help but carve in the initials of the three crusaders for the figurine’s cutie-mark. Despite how proud she was with it, it felt like it missed something.
She sighed and thought she could lay down right there and sleep a whole week, amongst the tools and wood shavings, with the autumn leaves blowing overhead. She didn’t because, “Applebloom?” jarred her thoughts.
Applebloom turned around and faced Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle stood a few paces behind her. Both were coated in dirt, mud, and scratches. Sweetie Belle had a nasty gash along her shoulder, Scootaloo a dry trail of blood that leaked from one of her ears. Scootaloo held in her mouth Applebloom’s ribbon. She carried it to Applebloom and offered it to her.
“This is yours.”
Applebloom glanced at Sweetie Belle, who smiled and nodded. Applebloom took the ribbon and said, “Thanks.” She stepped out of the way of her creation and said, “Um… I made this—wait a minute.” She realized what her creation missed and darted beside it. She draped the ribbon over her wooden filly and tied the tattered ribbon off like a scarf.
When she did she felt a tingling warmth spread over her flanks, it lasted as long as a summer breeze, then disappeared.
Both of her friends gasped. Sweetie Belle said, “Applebloom your flank…”
When Applebloom looked down she saw the ribbon across her flank, tied across the handle of a plain carving knife. Applebloom laughed. A hysterical little thing cut short when she tried to speak. “I… I-I-I—” she looked up at her friends and she exploded. “I did it! I got my cutie-mark!”
She leapt in the air and her friends joined her in her joy. They laughed and hugged her and bounced together in circles. Chanting, “We gott’em. We gott’em. No such thing as blank flank no more! We gott’em. We gott’em!”
They tumbled into a fit of laughter and play. And for that one moment, there was no thought of what they would do. Of the looming challenges of adulthood, or the fears of acceptance, there were no doubts to their voice. They completed their crusade, and by its end their bonds were stronger. They held no fear that a blank flank was the only thing they had tethering them together.
And the crusader made of aged applewood watched while the fillies danced and laugh. A silent tribute to the spirit of triumph.