The cart was unloaded and the Cutie-mark Crusaders had woken up with a voracious appetite. Everypony sat down to eat, well almost everypony. Vagabond was already lying down; he wasn't eating, he had fallen asleep. Pinkie Pie wolfed down her plate of apple dumplings and impatiently waited for some pony else to do the same.
After about 10 seconds Pinkie's patience was at its end,
"You know, I've thought a lot about what Vagabond said. I mean, I know he needs to be forgiven and all that, but I think he needs to forgive himself first. I think he might be holding himself back or something. I mean it's OBVIOUS he learned his lesson and everything but his self loathing is, like, killing him." Pinkie Pie said without taking a breath. Rarity, Big Macintosh, Fluttershy and Applejack had all stopped eating and just starred at Pinkie Pie silently.
For her part, Pinkie Pie just tilted her head to the side and blinked twice,
"What?" she asked innocently.
After several seconds of stunned silence, they resumed eating. Pinkie began humming to herself to pass the time. Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo finished eating at almost the same time.
The three Cutie-mark Crusaders couldn't stay still,
"What time is it Rarity?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Rarity was almost finished eating,
"It's late darling. Don't worry we'll have you home soon."
"But we never got to see his cutie-mark." Scootaloo said pointing toward Vagabond with a hoof.
"Darlings, let him sleep. You can't just wake him up for that." Rarity responded, "He needs his rest."
"O.K." the three fillies said sadly, in unison.
Applebloom perked up,
"Can we see him up close?" she asked.
Rarity glanced over to Vagabond's sleeping form,
"I suppose so. Just be quiet and don't wake him alright?" Rarity turned to Fluttershy, "Where did you run off to this afternoon?"
While the older ponies were busy talking, the Cutie-mark Crusaders were plotting, with Applebloom acting as the mastermind,
"O.K. they're distracted. Sweetie Belle, you stand on my back. Scootaloo, you stand on Sweetie Belle's back and undo the straps to his saddlebags. They're the only thing covering up his cutie-mark. Ready?" she asked.
"Yeah." Scootaloo whispered.
"I'm ready." Sweetie Belle agreed.
"Alright, let's go." Applebloom said.
Vagabond was awakened by a strong shift of weight on his flank,
"NO!" he yelled.
Every pony in the room looked his direction as the saddlebags slid off him onto the floor. Every eye in the room was instantly drawn to his flank. Vagabond saw the looks of disbelief on every pony's face, and knew what it was they all saw. In the place where his cutie-mark was supposed to be was only a mass of scar tissue.
The three Cutie-mark Crusaders gazed, fixated at Vagabond's flank,
"Where's your cutie-mark?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Vagabond swallowed hard, he hadn't wanted to show the little ones this,
"It got scraped off and it hasn't come back yet, that's all. Don't worry it doesn't hurt. Who knows, it may comeback someday." he said smiling.
"N...no wings AND no cutie-mark?" Scootaloo asked tearing up.
Big Macintosh laid a gentle hoof on Applejack's shoulder to keep her from rising,
"Let's just see what he does." he whispered.
Vagabond reached out slowly and wiped Scootaloo's eyes, his voice was gentle and soft,
"Hey now, it's alright." he said raising her chin, "You just have to look on the bright side. My wings are gone, but I'm still alive. I don't have a cutie-mark but that just means I'm like you three. You shouldn't be sad for me. Do I look sad?" he asked calmly.
"Your eyes do." Applebloom said.
Vagabond had difficulty hiding his reaction,
"I'll be fine." he said, "Besides isn't it about time for little fillies to go to bed?"
Arabesque stood perfectly still like a statue, not a hair in her mane moved. She didn't blink, didn't breathe, and didn't shift her weight casually like a living thing would. Twilight had absolutely no illusions that she was speaking to any kind of living thing. It was extremely disturbing. Twilight was having a great deal trouble speaking or even thinking.
Fortunately, Arabesque solved that problem for her,
"Ask what you will Twilight Sparkle." she said, voice like a rumbling echo yet crystal clear.
Twilight was still frightened, but there were things she had to know,
"When will the Vagabond be ready to be told you forgave him?"
"When his tears flow for one, other than himself." Arabesque said.
Twilight's ears lowered in mind disappointment,
"Can't you be more specific? I can't be around him all the time." she asked.
"You will witness it." Arabesque said.
"Wait, how do you know that?" Twilight asked.
"That is not a thing for mortals to know." Arabesque said vaguely.
"Can you at least tell me how many days it will be before he is ready?" Twilight asked becoming bolder.
"I cannot tell you. The knowledge would change the future." Arabesque replied.
"I suppose you can't tell me anything at all about the future can you?" Twilight assessed.
"No." Arabesque answered.
Twilight began thinking, 'I probably don't have much time, so I need to focus on the most important aspects. She can't tell me anything about the future, even though she obviously knows it. I probably shouldn't try to trick her. I guess I should just move on to the next topic.'
"Can you tell me anything about the past?" Twilight asked.
"Some." Arabesque said mysteriously.
"Did the Vagabond intend to kill you or was it an accident?" Twilight asked.
"My death was accidental. Violence of that kind is against his nature." Arabesque explained.
"Why did you wait until now to forgive him?" Twilight asked.
"He would not have healed or grown." Arabesque said.
"What do you mean?" Twilight asked curiously.
"The incident involving my death scarred him badly and he ceased maturing both mentally and emotionally. I had to work on him from the inside. He is sincere in his sorrow, but hating himself helps no pony and only hurts him more. Now that he is finally here with the Elements of Harmony, his internal shell is beginning to crack." Arabesque said.
"Internal shell?" Twilight asked.
"Yes. He doesn't know it but he pulled darkness into himself. He needs the Elements of Harmony to break the shell or he will die as the bitterness eats him from the inside. It has festered within his heart for a long time. Do not be angered at what he says, Twilight Sparkle, pity him instead. He is kind and brave beneath his pain. His heart is passionate but misdirected, he needs guidance. Do not think him an idiot, though he may often act like one. He is very smart. He just needs the Elements of Harmony to point him in the right direction." Arabesque explained.
"So he needs all six of us?" Twilight asked.
"And more, much more before his tasks are complete, but I can say little more. Ask your final question, Twilight Sparkle." Arabesque said.
Without thinking, Twilight asked,
"Final question, what final question?"
Twilight's ears began to roar again and she felt like she was falling. Her vision began to fade into a bright light.
The last thing Twilight heard Arabesque say was,
Twilight felt herself falling upwards at incredible speed. She began hearing voices.
"Zecora!" Spike yelled, "She's not breathing!"
Zecora held out her hoof toward the baby dragon,
"Twilight Sparkle will be fine, sit down and do not whine." she said calmly.
Rainbow Dash ground her teeth but kept quiet. Zecora walked over to Twilight and carefully removed the mask. As soon as the mask was off Twilight's eyes snapped open and she gasped, breathing again. Her head lolled to one side and all four of her legs kicked out as her heart started circulating blood again. She cried out as her lungs rediscovered air. Rainbow Dash flew over to Twilight and held her still until she calmed.
Rainbow Dash had to hold Twilight tightly,
"You could have warned us Zecora!" Dash said somewhat heatedly to their zebra hostess.
Zecora gently laid the mask back in its box,
"Be at peace Rainbow Dash, you came when you saw her thrash. The trance..." Zecora didn't get to finish her statement.
Twilight suddenly yelled,
"She's real! Rainbow Dash, she's real! Arabesque is real!" she howled.
Rarity herded the little Cutie-mark Crusaders toward the door,
"Applebloom wait by the door. Scootaloo, come here this instant and leave Angel alone. Oh, dear." she said as Angel sprinted under the couch where Vagabond lay with Scootaloo in hot pursuit.
Vagabond's hooves shot out, quick as a striking snake and gently picked up the pegasus filly,
"Did you hear miss Rarity?" he asked.
Scootaloo's eyes shifted upward and she brought her left hoof up to her mouth, thinking. It was a very cute pose.
After a moment she shook her head,
"Nope." she said smiling.
Vagabond set her down gently,
"You need to listen to her O.K.? It's time for you to go home." he said.
"Can we come back and see you tomorrow?" Scootaloo asked eyes sad.
"Well I certainly don't mind but I'm not the one you need to convince." Vagabond said indicating Rarity with his hoof, "Do you understand?" he asked.
Scootaloo nodded her little head vigorously,
"Got it!" she said.
Vagabond smiled, set her down, and kissed her forehead,
"Good night Scootaloo." he said as she ran to Rarity.
Rarity had managed to corral Sweetie Belle next to Applebloom and gave Vagabond a grateful look as Scootaloo pranced over to the door,
"Thank you. I'll be by tomorrow." she said herding the Cutie-mark Crusaders out the door.
Vagabond settled back with a smile, even though it still hurt a bit to move. He laid his head down on his front hooves and noticed Applejack starring at him.
Vagabond raised his head and addressed the earth-pony,
"Did I just sprout an additional ear or something?"
Fluttershy, Big Macintosh, and Pinkie Pie were in the kitchen covering up food and cleaning dishes so only Vagabond and Applejack were in the front room. Applejack had wanted to help, but everypony had insisted she had already done enough and to take it easy.
Applejack's face was a mask of confusion,
"Ah don't get you." she said.
"What's not to get? I'm a killer." Vagabond said easily.
Applejack shot up out of her seat pointing at him,
"THAT!" she said emphatically, "That's what Ah don't get! Yall come off like some hardened murderer, actin', all mean and crazy and psycho, but when the fillies are around you're the perfect role-model!"
The statement upset Vagabond; he narrowed his eyes,
"There's no reason to scare them. I would never hurt one of the little ones." he said quietly.
"But you keep sayin' you're a killer." Applejack said taking a small step forward.
"I am." Vagabond said soberly.
"Are you? Ah mean, are you really? Or did you just make a mistake that cost somepony their life? Cause Ah don't think even you believe what you're sayin'." Applejack said with brutal honesty.
Vagabond's muscles tensed, his ire rising,
"It doesn't matter! Arabesque is still just as dead!" he shouted.
"WRONG! It sure as hell does matter! It's the difference between a murderer and somepony why made a mistake!" Applejack said taking another small step.
"But she's dead!" Vagabond yelled.
"Yes, yes she is. Is there anything you can do to change that? Is there?" Applejack asked pressing her advantage.
Vagabond hung his head, the proverbial wind gone out of his sails,
"I wish there was. I..." he began.
Applejack interrupted him before he could start down that line of thought again,
"Just answer the question, dag-nabbit!" she yelled harshly.
Vagabond screwed his eyes tightly shut,
"NO! O.K.?" he screamed, "What do you want me to say?"
Applejack lowered and softened her voice,
"You just said it." she said.
Applejack took the final step toward Vagabond and lifted his chin gently with her hoof,
"You knew her really well, didn't you?" she asked quietly.
Vagabond opened his eyes and looked Applejack square in the face,
"She was my best friend, my only friend really. I was in love with her." he said softly.
"Did she care about you at all?" Applejack asked.
"She didn't love me, but yes she did. I like to think she cared a lot." Vagabond said.
"Ah, know you can't bring her back but you have to think here." Applejack said mysteriously.
"About what?" Vagabond asked.
"What did you do wrong? Ah mean what was it that caused you to act in poor judgment?" Applejack asked.
"I wanted her to love me." Vagabond said.
"There's more than that." Applejack encouraged.
"I guess I wanted it too much. I wanted her to stay with me." Vagabond said.
"What do your last three sentences have in common?" Applejack asked.
"I focused on myself, I know, I've learned that. I figured that out a couple of years ago." Vagabond said.
"Then why in the world are you still beatin' yourself up over it?" Applejack asked, "There's nothin' wrong with mournin', but if you've learned then you have to let it go. You've got to move on from your mistake; don't let it ruin what life you have left."
"What life?" Vagabond asked, "I've been a Vagabond for years."
"Maybe the reason is BECAUSE you haven't moved on yet. Did you consider that?" Applejack asked, "There's a reason the quote says 'live and learn'. You're still alive, so learn. Let it go and stop living in the past. You're not doin' Arabesque's memory any justice by mopin' all the time. Stop hatin' yourself and others will stop too."
"I don't know how." Vagabond confessed.
"Alright then." Applejack said thinking, "Aha! What will you do after you've been forgiven?"
"I have no idea. I never really considered it a possibility." Vagabond said.
"Well figure it out and work toward it. You're smart, you'll get it. Ah'll be by tomorrow, and Ah want you to tell me what it is you plan to do with the rest of your life. O.K.?" Applejack asked.
"O.K." Vagabond said sourly.
Applejack shook her head,
"Nuh-uh. Convince me." she ordered.
"I will Applejack." Vagabond said, smiling slightly.
"That's better. Now get some sleep, you've got plenty of thinkin' to do tomorrow." Applejack said.
Pinkie Pie and Applejack left shortly thereafter, leaving Fluttershy and Big Macintosh alone with Vagabond.
Big Mac never being one to beat around the bush, asked,
"If it ain't' too much to ask, how did you lose your cutie-mark?"
Fluttershy didn't bother to stop Big Macintosh; she was becoming used to the issues.
Vagabond yawned almost bored,
"As soon as I was exiled I had to leave the village. I had to wait outside the village until dawn the next morning. I was supposed to receive my saddlebags from a couple of colts I knew. I fell asleep during the night. When I woke up the saddlebags were sitting next to me. I looked inside them," he said nosing open one of the saddlebags, "And found these," he pulled out two square patches of . . . Fluttershy felt sick when she realized they were patches of Vagabond's own flank.
Vagabond set the two patches of his own hide back inside the saddlebag,
"Someone took my cutie-mark," he sighed, "It's far too late to try to reattach them. I more-or-less got over it. It's just really embarrassing."
"Oh Vagabond, you've suffered so much. How do you go on?" Fluttershy asked sadly.
The ghost of a smile floated on Vagabond's face,
"I have something to look forward to, or I should saw I used to." He said.
"What do you mean?" Big Macintosh asked.
"I used to look forward to dying, so I could be with Arabesque again." Vagabond paused briefly and shook his head, chuckling, "As you know Applejack and I spoke earlier. She made a good point, well several actually. I was upset initially, but now that I've given it some thought, you and your friends have given me something I haven't had in the longest time, hope. I believe Arabesque will forgive me someday and I look forward to it. With or without my cutie-mark, I still have a talent that can help others. I've been a fool wallowing in my sorrow. If Arabesque wanted me dead, I think she could have arranged it. I'm still alive and that means I still have a purpose." Vagabond said smiling.
Suddenly a thought struck him,
"Fluttershy, I never finished telling you how Arabesque died did I?"
Fluttershy had to restrain her reaction as she realized Vagabond had said, 'How Arabesque died' and not, 'How I killed her',
"No you didn't, but you don't have to if you don't want to."
"I think I can now. You still deserve to know." Vagabond said quietly.
He took a deep breath,
"I had rigged the backdrop to collapse straight down when I pulled on a rope. I waited until the right moment and pulled the rope. The backdrop would take only a few moments to collapse and Arabesque was supposed to stay toward the front of the stage so she should have been safe. Well she tripped and tried to catch herself but she fell and slid close to the backdrop. She would have just flown away but her wings were bound. She always had her wings bound so she could concentrate on the dances she practiced. The backdrop began to collapse, she was right underneath it. I knew what would happen. I ran toward her calling her name. In that last moment she turned to face me and we locked eyes. She reached out for me to save her. I was looking right at her when a piece of the backdrop fell onto her. I can still see it." Vagabond drew in a deep, shuddering breath, "I'm sorry, I'm tired, but now you know. If it's alright Fluttershy, Big Mac, I'd like to try to sleep now."
"Of course Vagabond," Fluttershy said yawning, "Will the guest room be O.K. Big Macintosh?" she asked.
"Ayup. Good night Fluttershy, Vagabond." Big Macintosh said picking up his blanket and heading toward the indicated room.
Fluttershy set the pain medication down, next to Vagabond,
"Take some if you need it O.K.?" she said.
"Thank you Fluttershy. Good night."
"Good night Vagabond." Fluttershy responded from the stairs that lead to her room.
Angel bunny began to hop up the stairs after Fluttershy, but stopped halfway up. He turned and studied Vagabond for a moment with crossed paws, sizing him up. He pursed his lips thinking, not an easy feat for a bunny. He held up a paw and pointed two pads at his eyes then pointed his whole paw at Vagabond; 'I'm watching you.' he seemed to be saying. Angel then hopped the rest of the way up the stairs after Fluttershy.
Vagabond chuckled to himself at Angel's antics, and laid his head down to sleep. He closed his eyes, but he couldn't relax. The scene of Arabesque being crushed to death kept playing over and over in his mind. He had left something out of his tale. Arabesque had fallen underneath the collapsing backdrop and looked up realizing her fate. She had faced him and reached out for him, but she had also said something. Arabesque's final words echoed in Vagabond's ears, 'I'm sorry.'
Vagabond steadied his breathing to keep himself calm as the feelings washed over him. For the first time in years he didn't put up his emotional walls, 'She knew,' he thought to himself, 'She knew what had happened. I saw it in her eyes. She knew I caused it.'
"Oh Arabesque," he whispered, "I'm so sorry. I didn't want to be forgiven. I wanted you with me forever. Please forgive me. You deserve to be at peace, my love."
Vagabond lay his head down to sleep, but he was fully conscious of the bandages wrapped around his body, 'These things are a problem. It will take weeks to heal up enough to even stand, much less travel again.' he thought. A notion hit Vagabond suddenly. He listened silently for a few moments for any sound of anypony being awake. He heard nothing. He smiled mischievously to himself and opened the small white bottle next to him removing another pain pill, 'Careful, not too many.' he thought. He swallowed the pill and began to move silently pulling his saddlebags toward himself. Vagabond had remembered a particularly useful potion he had discovered by accident, 'That would be perfect. No pony will be able to believe it.' he thought, 'Now I just have to stand up. Oh, this is going to hurt.'
The whole of Ponyville was asleep except for one particular unicorn. Rarity was busy working on something special. She finally knew what to give Vagabond to apologize.