Apple Bloom had just had the worst day of her life.
The day had started out no worse than usual, or maybe just a little bit worse. Diamond Tiara had been her usual obnoxious self at school, drawing attention to her bare flank and her lack of expensive accessories in front of the other fillies in their class. Silver Spoon had chimed in as she always did, of course, but what made it worse was that so many of the other fillies at school seemed to be on Diamond Tiara's side. Her fellow Crusaders and Twist were the only fillies she could rely on to have her back all day, every day, and Twist and Sweetie Belle weren't very good at standing up for themselves, let alone anypony else. It was really only with Scootaloo that Apple Bloom felt safe from Diamond Tiara's teasing. The colts, of course, never got involved in the fillies' fights, which only made things worse.
She trudged down the path leading to the Sweet Apple Acres farmhouse, sniffling to herself and thinking about the awful turn the afternoon had taken after school finished.
"Meet me behind the gym at six o'clock tonight," said the note that Apple Bloom had found in her desk as she was packing up to go home. "Wear something nice. Love, Pipsqueak." Apple Bloom had been overwhelmed with excitement. A love letter, from Pipsqueak, and it wasn't even Hearts and Hooves Day! It never occurred to her to ask Pipsqueak if the note were really from him, or even to verify if it matched his mouthwriting. And so she had run home to fetch her best party dress, the one Applejack had bought her two years ago and had let out several times to keep up with her growing frame. It was far from the latest fashion, and was starting to wear at the haunches, but she knew that Pipsqueak, fine Trottingham gentlecolt that he was, would tell her that she looked delightful nonetheless.
Of course, when the appointed hour came, she was met behind the gymnasium not by the colt of her dreams but by a herd of fillies led by none other than Diamond Tiara herself. They mocked her for thinking that a colt like Pipsqueak would ever pay attention to a blank flank farmpony like her, and laughed at the state of her "best" dress even before Chequered Flag had shoved her into a mud puddle, ruining both the dress and her mane. Diamond Tiara cruelly stepped on her tail when she tried to get up, making her fall back onto her rump. "This is for Family Appreciation Day," the pink filly hissed in her ear. "Nopony makes a foal out of Diamond Tiara." Unable to cope with the stares and laughter of so many fillies, Apple Bloom ran straight for home.
Now she stopped by a pond just off the path, looking down at her muddy reflection. "I hate this place," she muttered, as she sat down and pulled off the ruined dress. "I hate Ponyville and I hate Diamond Tiara and I hate my life."
She looked up at the night sky as she tossed her dress aside. Princess Luna had just brought out the moon to decorate the sky, and she sat and watched the stars for a few minutes, trying to find the willpower to get up and go home. As she watched, she saw a bright spark streak across the sky, leaving a long trail before fading away.
A shooting star! Apple Bloom thought. I gotta make a wish!
She looked back at the pond in front of her, eyeing her reflection. The shooting star had given her a brief moment of hope, against the dejection and despair of her awful day. Well, here goes nothing.
"I wish I could go someplace where there ain't no Diamond Tiara."
A tear slipped from her muzzle and dropped into the pond, sending out ripples across the water's surface. When the ripples cleared, Apple Bloom could see her reflection once more... except that it wasn't her. The pony in the pond had the same yellow coat and red mane as she did, but a red baseball cap rested atop his – definitely his – head.
The colt in the pond stared back at her with the same expression of surprise that she knew she wore right then. Slowly, she reached her front right hoof towards the surface of the pond, and the colt mirrored her movements. As she touched the surface, she felt a fetlock wrap around hers, and she was pulled into the water with a mighty splash.
Apple Bloom's head spun as she sank into the water. Normally she was a very good swimmer, but she seemed to have lost all sense of which way was up. She flailed wildly until she felt her hooves touch air, and kicked her way up, gasping as her head broke the surface.
Had her wish come true? Had that strange – yet distressingly familiar – colt in the water dragged her to a new place where she could be free of Diamond Tiara's torment?
No, she was still at Sweet Apple Acres. Nothing had changed, except that she was now wet and cold, as well as muddy and miserable. Disgusted with herself for getting her hopes up, she walked home and threw herself into bed with only a cursory mumbled "Goodnight" for Applejack as she passed the kitchen. She didn't even bother to pick up her party dress from the side of the pond, or she would have been surprised to find a tattered, faded old suit jacket there instead.
Apple Bloom woke up the next morning before dawn, feeling substantially better. Maybe Diamond Tiara wasn't going to go away, but today was a new day, after all, and at least she would get to spend time with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. Maybe she could catch Applejack or Big Macintosh before they started their morning chores and tell them what had happened.
She stumbled through her morning routine in the pre-dawn gloom, giving her mane and tail a brief brush and placing her bow carefully atop her mane. As she was getting ready for the day, she noticed that her poster of Calamity Mane seemed somehow different, but she chalked that up to the light.
Apple Bloom was raiding the pantry for oatmeal when she heard the familiar heavy gait of Big Macintosh entering the kitchen behind her. "G'morning, Big Macintosh!" she called out, her mood lightening already. "You had breakfast yet?"
She squeaked in surprise when she felt a pair of jaws clamp over her mane, hoisting her off her feet and onto the kitchen table, to stare into the eyes of a large red mare who definitely wasn't Big Macintosh. "Who are you and why are you in my kitchen?" demanded the mare, glaring at her.
Apple Bloom shrank back in fear, although something told her this mare would never actually harm her. "I'm Apple Bloom, and this is my kitchen! Who are you?"
The large mare blinked and softened her gaze, offering Apple Bloom a hoof. "Oh. Mighty sorry about that. You're Apple family, then? Applejack didn't say nothin' about having family to visit. I'm Red Gala. AJ and I run this farm."
"But... but... Big Macintosh is..." stammered Apple Bloom, hopelessly confused at this stranger – definitely Apple family, but still a stranger – in her home, acting as though she lived here. When things went wrong at Sweet Apple Acres, there was one way to fix everything, and it seemed that this Red Gala knew it too.
"APPLEJACK!" they both called.
"Hold yer horses, I'm coming," grumbled a tall orange stallion as he cantered into the kitchen. "What's got yer manes in a tangle?
The stallion drew up short as he spotted Apple Bloom on the kitchen table. "Woah, Nellie," he gasped. "You ain't Applebuck. Sure look like him, though. Well, I'm Applejack, welcome to Sweet Apple Acres. Where's my little brother gotten himself to?"
"I don't know!" admitted Apple Bloom, drawing herself up onto her haunches on the table. "I live at Sweet Apple Acres! This is my home! You ain't Applejack, Applejack's a mare!"
Applejack and Red Gala exchanged a glance. "Red Gala, you'd better run to town and fetch Dusk Shine. Tell him something's happened to Applebuck and it's an emergency." Red Gala nodded and galloped out the door, not even stopping to sling on her work collar.
Apple Bloom was shifting about on the kitchen table, her head winnowing from side to side. "I don't understand what's going on!" she wailed. "You're not Applejack, and my home's gotten all crazy! I want my sister!"
"It's alright, little filly," Applejack tried to reassure Apple Bloom. "I can see plain as day that you're Apple family, and any Apple is welcome in Sweet Apple Acres. You're in good hooves."
"No I'm not!" shrieked Apple Bloom, her eyes darting about in confusion. "This looks like Sweet Apple Acres, but it can't be, 'cause you ain't Applejack and that wasn't Big Macintosh!"
"Now listen to me, haystack, 'cause what I'm tellin' you now is the honest truth. You're at Sweet Apple Acres, and you're with your family. Nothin' bad is gonna happen to you here."
Apple Bloom felt something shift and settle in her heart as this new stallion spoke, and she knew that he spoke the truth. "You are Applejack," she whispered, leaning forward to press her head against his. "So why are you a stallion?"
"That sounds like one of them exee-stenchal questions, and I ain't good at those," grumbled Applejack. "What say we take a walk and see if we can figure out where my little brother has gotten to?"
Apple Bloom and Applejack had arrived at the pond by the path where Apple Bloom had seen a colt's reflection, who matched the description Applejack gave of his younger brother. Applejack nosed around in the grass and picked up a muddy, faded suit jacket in his teeth. "Aha!" he exclaimed, laying the suit out in front of him. "This is Applebuck's jacket. He came racing home last night to put it on – said something about meeting a filly after school. Wonder how it got all muddy?"
Apple Bloom snorted. "Diamond Tiara probably pushed him in the mud too," she muttered. Suddenly, everything started to come together in her mind. "Wait a minute! This is Sweet Apple Acres, right?"
Applejack nodded. "Sure as sugar it is."
"And over there... that's Ponyville?"
"And you live here with Applebuck... your little brother... and your big sister Red Gala... and your granny?"
"Ah, nope. Granny died years ago. It's just the three of us and Grandpa Smith here."
"Grandpa Smith? Then... this really is home. Just... different."
Apple Bloom was growing more and more confident in her understanding of her predicament when a purple flash burst in the air a few yards away, and Red Gala appeared alongside a lavender-coloured unicorn stallion. Apple Bloom whinnied in surprise and jumped away from the pair, while Applejack merely looked relieved.
"Boy, am I glad to see you, Dusk. This here's Apple Bloom. I know she's an Apple, but darned if I can figure out where she's from."
The unicorn stallion smiled at Applejack, then turned his attention to Apple Bloom. "Hello, little filly... my goodness. You do look just like Applebuck. My name is Dusk Shine."
"And you look just like Twilight Sparkle!" exclaimed Apple Bloom. "Except that she's a mare. So is this a dream, where all the mares I know are stallions instead?"
"Well, you're not dreaming," Dusk said with a grin. "Although, if you were, no doubt I'd say that, because I'm just a figment of your imagination. I suppose there's no way I can prove that I'm real, but even if I'm just a dream, does that mean I'm not real?"
Applejack reached over and shoved Dusk with one hoof. "None o'that, haystack. Keep your hooves on the ground, now."
"Sorry," muttered Dusk. "If you're not dreaming, then you're probably from another world, another version of Equestria. I've read some theories that such places exist, but nothing's ever been confirmed. Do you have any idea how you got here?"
Apple Bloom looked deep into the pond before answering, the ramifications of exactly where she was still churning through her brain. "Well... I was on my way home from... from school," she mumbled, not wanting to discuss her humiliation with Twilight Sparkle or her weird stallion counterpart. "I stopped at this pond and... there was a falling star, and I kind of made a wish that I could go someplace else. But wishing on stars don't actually work... does it?"
Dusk Shine pursed his lips nervously. "On the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars themselves will aid in his escape... but I'm sure stars aren't all bad! Now let's see what I can get from this pond. Maybe it served as some kind of conduit."
Dusk knelt by the pond and placed the tip of his horn against the surface of the water, concentrating. A soft purple aura surrounded his horn, and was matched by a similar glow from deeper in the water. His eyes widened in surprise as the water cleared to show a unicorn mare with the same colours as him.
"That's Twilight Sparkle!" said Apple Bloom, bouncing happily. "I'm not dreaming or crazy, then!"
Dusk seemed deep in thought, as if speaking without moving his lips. A few minutes passed in silence, save for Apple Bloom's excited capering around the edge of the pond. Finally the reflection cleared and Dusk released his magic.
"Good news, Applejack! Applebuck is safe. I was right – Apple Bloom is from another world! Just like this one, but ruled by a Princess, with mares for each of our stallions. Isn't that fascinating?"
"I guess so, Dusk... but what about Applebuck? Is he really safe? Who's looking after him?"
"Why, you are, Applejack! Or, rather, the other you, who's also called Applejack for some reason. Silly name for a mare if you ask me. My counterpart, 'Twilight Sparkle', says that Applebuck is disoriented but happy, and he trusts their Applejack to look after him."
"Well, what if I don't trust her?" asked Applejack. "How do I know that she's going to look after my little brother properly?"
Dusk looked at Apple Bloom, then back to Applejack. "Are you going to take care of Apple Bloom?"
"What? Of course I am! It don't matter where she's from, she's Apple family, and we take care of our kin!"
"Then the other Applejack will take care of Applebuck just the same way, Applejack. You're the same pony – you'll do the same things."
Applejack tilted his head to one side. "I guess so. So how long is Apple Bloom going to be here?"
Dusk looked at Apple Bloom, then at the pool. "Twilight Sparkle and I will work on opening the link again, but there's a powerful magical force opposing us. I think the wish that Apple Bloom made is what's keeping her here."
Apple Bloom looked guilty as Applejack narrowed his eyes at her. "Didn't your sister ever teach you to be careful what you wish for?"
"Um... nope?" ventured Apple Bloom. "And it's not all bad, right? I mean, I'm okay, Applebuck's okay... nothing bad has happened, has it?"
"I suppose not," Applejack conceded. "Well, as long as you're here, you're welcome to Applebuck's room. I guess you already know all of Applebuck's chores?" The filly nodded. "Good – you can get started on them when you're home from school."
"School?" squeaked Apple Bloom. "I just found out I'm stuck in another universe and you want me to go to school?"
"I certainly ain't about to let Applebuck laze around all day in that other world, and I gotta treat you the way I want your sister to treat him."
Applejack shook his head. "Land sakes, you sound just like Applebuck. Doesn't work for him neither. Come on, let's get you some breakfast. Dusk, you mind walking Apple Bloom to school? There's some pancakes in it for you."
A short time later, Dusk Shine and Apple Bloom were full of breakfast and on their way to the Ponyville schoolhouse. "You probably already know everything I could tell you about Ponyville," admitted Dusk, after Apple Bloom had told him all about her world. Dusk had been especially interested in Apple Bloom's description of Princess Celestia. "I suppose you'll figure most things out as you go along. Incidentally, you should tell everypony that you're Applebuck's cousin from Hoofington – I really don't want rumours of this other world getting out until I've heard back from Prince Solaris. Not even the Crusaders..."
"The Cutie Mark Crusaders?" asked Apple Bloom, prancing happily. "They're here too?"
"Scooteroll and Sweepy Bell? Of course! Applebuck's been friends with them for months now! Always getting into scrapes together, you three... I've never seen such close, loyal friends as you. I'm sure those two will treat you just like Applebuck. Between them and the Apples, you'll do fine here."
Apple Bloom nodded as the schoolhouse came into view. "Alright, I guess this place ain't so different from my Ponyville. Say... have you heard of anypony called Diamond Tiara, or anything like that?"
Dusk pursed his lips, thinking. "I don't think so, no. Why, is she a friend of yours?"
"Not exactly." Apple Bloom grinned. "It sounds like I got my wish after all."
Despite Dusk's assurances, Apple Bloom could not help but feel apprehensive as she stepped into the school playground. The bell was not due to ring for another half an hour, but already the yard was half full of colts and fillies scampering around, yelling and playing. There seemed to be more colts at the school than fillies, which made sense – Apple Bloom was sure the fillies outnumbered the colts at home. She looked for familiar faces in the crowd, but her closest friends were nowhere to be seen. She spotted a frizzy-maned colt who bore a certain resemblance to Twist, but he was playing with a small herd of unfamiliar colts, whom Apple Bloom couldn't bring herself to approach.
Apple Bloom was still scanning the crowds, when she unexpectedly made eye contact with one light pink earth pony colt at the centre of the largest group. He exchanged a few words with the children near him, then weaved his way out of the crowd and approached Apple Bloom, accompanied by another earth pony colt, this one grey.
"Good morning, miss!" the first colt greeted her. He inclined his head to her and bowed one knee, in quite the most gentlecoltish fashion that Apple Bloom had ever seen. Even Pipsqueak, with his Trottingham charm, couldn't come close to matching this colt's elegance and poise. Unlike most of the children in the yard, he had dressed up for school, wearing a charcoal grey waistcoat. The coat ended just short of the colt's cutie mark, which was an image of a gleaming gold watch on a golden chain. A real chain of the same design was attached to his collar, running into his pocket.
"My friend and I noticed you standing all by yourself, and thought we should say hello," he continued, smiling genially to Apple Bloom. "Unless we miss our guess completely, you're new to Ponyville. I am Gold Watch, and this is my good friend Blue Chip." He indicated the grey colt at his side, who wore elegant glasses and a pearl-studded brooch, and bore a cutie mark of a pile of blue counters of some kind.
"I'm Apple Bloom," she replied, still a little taken aback by the warm and elegant greeting. "Yeah, I'm new here, I'm from Hoofington. I'm visiting my family at Sweet Apple Acres. I, ah, guess I don't know anypony here yet..."
"Oh, you're staying at Sweet Apple Acres!" exclaimed Blue Chip. "I guess you're an Apple, then? Has Grandpa Smith told you the story of how his family founded Ponyville?"
Gold Watch rolled his eyes. "Blue Chip, you're always going on about that story!" He turned and gave an apologetic smile to Apple Bloom. "I'm sorry. My mother's always talking about that story too. Speaking of the Apples, though, is Applebuck with you? I would have thought he'd be showing you around."
Apple Bloom noticed both colts tense up at the mention of Applebuck, and Blue Chip looked over his shoulder nervously. "No, he's gone to, um, visit my family in Hoofington. Sort of a... trading places kind of thing. Are you his friends?" she asked, although she suspected the opposite.
Gold Watch scuffed the ground with a front hoof briefly, then smiled. "We don't always get along, but that's no reason why we can't be friends with you! Come on, Blue Chip and I were just about to get a round of hopscotch started, you should come and play!"
Apple Bloom felt a faint blush rising to her cheeks, but grinned and nodded happily. "Sure! I love a good game of hopscotch!"
Blue Chip got a crafty look on his face, and eyed the school bell. "Oh, but Gold Watch," he said, nodding knowingly, "do we have enough time for a game of hopscotch before class?"
The pink colt laughed out loud. "Alright, alright," he said, tugging on the gold chain attached to his collar. Out of the pocket of his waistcoat, he drew a large gold watch, matching his cutie mark precisely. He nudged it open with a deft press of his muzzle, revealing the intricately detailed clock face inside, the numbers inlaid with gold, indicated by silver hour and minute hands.
"Wow," breathed Apple Bloom, afraid to speak too loudly in the presence of something so fine. "That's beautiful. And it matches your cutie mark perfectly!"
Gold Watch nodded. "Isn't it, just? I got my cutie mark on the day I received this. It's been in my father's family for generations." He smiled happily, and made a show of reading the time before slipping the watch back into his waistcoat pocket. Apple Bloom looked at Blue Chip, who smiled gratefully at her and gave his friend an indulgent nuzzle. Soon enough, Gold Watch was paying attention to them again, and led Apple Bloom towards the centre of the playground.
"Hey, everypony!" he shouted, gathering the attention of the colts and fillies around them. "This is my new friend Apple Bloom. She's visiting from Hoofington, so I want everypony to make her feel at home here in Ponyville."
Apple Bloom immediately tried to shrink behind Blue Chip as everypony started looking at her, but instead of laughing or jeering at her, they were smiling, and urging her to join in their games, and showing her their books and toys.
So this is what being popular feels like, mused Apple Bloom as she skipped across the hopscotch course, cheered on by colts and fillies alike. Why aren't there any nice colts like these two in my Ponyville?
A few minutes before the bell was due to ring, Apple Bloom was deep in a game of jacks with Gold Watch, Blue Chip and a pegasus colt named Slingshot, when the familiar whirring of wheels and pegasus wings made her look up. Sure enough, ponies were making way for a scooter driven by an orange pegasus colt, towing a white unicorn colt in a wooden trailer. That must be Scooteroll and Sweepy Bell, just like Dusk Shine said, thought Apple Bloom. Finally, some ponies I already know well!
Apple Bloom picked herself up off the ground and turned around to greet her friends – or at least, the local versions of her friends. Looking back at Gold Watch and Blue Chip, though, she saw a marked change come over her friends. The colts' ears were laid back against their skulls, and their nostrils flared aggressively. She could swear she even saw Blue Chip pawing at the dirt of the playground with a front hoof.
Meanwhile, Scooteroll had dismounted from his scooter and was stomping over to the group, flaring his wings angrily. "Hey, you two!" he growled at Gold Watch and Blue Chip. "Leave Applebuck alone!"
Gold Watch rolled his eyes, although he took a couple of steps back from the enraged pegasus colt. "For one thing, that isn't Applebuck," he shot back, indicating Apple Bloom with a pointed hoof. "For another, why should we? It's her first day in this school and we wanted her to feel welcome."
Apple Bloom found herself edging out from between Gold Watch and Scooteroll, not liking the aggressive posture of either colt. "Er, hi!" she managed to squeak, smiling shakily at the two new colts. "I'm Applebuck's cousin, Apple Bloom! You must be Scooteroll and Sweepy Bell. Applebuck told me to look for you guys!"
Sweepy Bell trotted over to Apple Bloom and shook her hoof. "Of course he did! The Cutie Mark Crusaders will look after you, for sure."
Scooteroll nodded, then glared at Gold Watch and Blue Chip. "And she doesn't need you two pretending to be her friends. Come on, Apple Bloom. We'll tell you everything you need to know about Ponyville."
Apple Bloom looked at Gold Watch and shrugged helplessly. "I guess I'll see you two around later, then?" The two colts nodded and waved, their body language still highly aggressive towards Scooteroll.
The two Crusader colts led Apple Bloom into the schoolhouse as the bell began to ring. "So you and Applebuck have swapped places, yeah?" asked Scooteroll.
Apple Bloom nodded. "Something like that. He told me all about you two, about the Cutie Mark Crusaders and stuff like that. Look... I appreciate you two wanting to be my friends when you hardly even know me, but why did you shout at Gold Watch and Blue Chip like that? They were really nice to me!"
"Nice?" squeaked Sweepy Bell, his voice cracking in disbelief. "Those two?"
Scooteroll shook his head. "It's a good thing you've got us to show you around. It looks like we got to you just in time."
Apple Bloom blinked. "Why? What's the problem?"
"The problem?" Scooteroll stopped and turned his head back towards the playground. "The problem is that Gold Watch and Blue Chip are the two worst bullies in this school."
Gold Watch ground his hooves into the dirt as he watched Apple Bloom walk off with Scooteroll and Sweepy Bell. "Darn that Scooteroll!" he muttered angrily. "Why does he hate me so much? Why can't he let me have new friends?"
"He's just jealous of you," Blue Chip reassured his friend, nuzzling his shoulder gently. "He's jealous that you've got so many friends while he's only got Applebuck and Sweepy Bell. Don't let that stupid blank-flank get to you."
"I guess," mumbled Gold Watch, accepting the nuzzle gratefully. "How mean can a pony be, though? All we were doing was making friends with the new filly!"
Blue Chip chuckled. "I was making friends. You were making eyes."
Gold Watch stomped his hooves, although a genuine smile lurked under his indignant pout. "Was not!"
"Were too! You were exactly the same way when Half Pint moved to Ponyville!"
"Yeah, well, she's always talking about Prince Artemis now. And all the other fillies at this school are in the Rainbow Blitz fan club. Why shouldn't I be excited when there's a new filly in town?"
Blue Chip laughed and nuzzled Gold Watch again. "I think she likes you."
Gold Watch chewed his lip nervously. "You really think so?"
"Of course she does! What's not to like? You were really nice to her when she didn't know anypony here." Blue Chip sighed and leaned against his friend. "You have to have more faith in yourself, Goldie. You're the most popular colt in school, no matter what Applebuck and Scooteroll say."
Gold Watch sighed and smiled. "You're right. Thanks." He started to prance in place, hooves tapping happily. "She really does like me! This is so great!" He held his front hooves out to his long-time companion, who met them with a resounding clatter of horseshoes, going through their traditional ceremony of celebration.
"Bump! Bump! Sugar lump! Rump!"