They soon arrived at a guard tower overlooking the northwest side of the town's outer wall, a thatch-roofed gray-stone structure watched over by five, grim-faced ponies in full-armor, albeit slightly dented and covered in flecks of rust. Spike quickly recognized Snips and Snails, whose faces lacked their trademark goofy obliviousness and were instead creepily stoic, their long, sullen faces giving them the appearance of much-older stallions. What in the hell happened to this place? Have things really gotten this bad?
"Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up." A pegasus mare stepped out of the tower's entrance and strode towards Spike and Sweetie Belle. Removing her helmet, she revealed a mane of purple hair that'd been tied up into a ponytail. A scar in the shape of an upside down question mark adorned her left cheek and jawline. As opposed to the tiny appendages Spike recalled in the past, a pair of strong and rather large wings unfurled themselves. "And here I was thinking that you were lying in a ditch somewhere."
Sweetie Belle placed herself in between the two. "Come on, Scoots. Can't we just handle this civilly like grown adults…-?"
Scootaloo held a hoof up in front of Sweetie Belle’s face as she passed her and then stopped directly in front of Spike. She too had become rather lovely, albeit in a different way. While Sweetie Belle was soft and delicate, Scootaloo had become hard and abrasive. Muscles rippled beneath her armor, a testament to her training and an indication of her combat prowess. Perhaps she’d agree to a sparring match. That is, if she didn’t try to kill Spike first.
“Hello Scootaloo. Wow, you grew up! And such nice wings too!” Spike gave the pegasus a large, toothy grin, hoping that his compliments would buy him enough time to run away. Scootaloo narrowed her gaze and then two things happened next. First, and unsurprisingly, she punched Spike in the snout, though it was barely hard enough to inflict any kind of pain. Secondly, and most definitely shocking, she dove forward and wrapped her forelegs around Spike, resting her head on his torso.
“I’m glad to see that you’re not dead,” Scootaloo said softly and Spike could’ve sworn he heard a sniffle in there. “Everypony was saying that Discord killed you along with the others but I didn’t want to believe it. Especially not Rainbow Dash.”
"Hey, knock that off," Spike half-heartedly admonished, pulling her into a hug. "We don't know that they're dead. Besides, Rainbow Dash is too awesome to die."
"I-I guess." Scootaloo stepped backwards, her eyes downcast.
"Scoots." Spike gently grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "They're out there. I just know it. Discord wouldn't just get rid of them, not when he could just as easily toy with them. I will find them. I promise."
A smile crossed Scootaloo's face. "Thanks Spike. I-we-all missed you."
"I missed all of you too. Now then, I believe there's a certain earth pony missing from this trio. Let's go find her."
Sweet Apple Acres was certainly smaller than Spike remembered, though that could've just been from his recent growth spurt considering he stood just as tall as most of the trees. The smell of (what else) apples wafted through the air, returning the drake to a more innocent time, one before draconequus dictators and madcap landscapes that spawned out of a demented child's nightmare. The old barn had been replaced with a larger model that resembled a small wooden factory with the Sweet Apple Acres logo plastered on the side. A group of ponies scampered in and out of the building and by the matching overalls and hats, Spike guessed that they were all employees. The trio stopped before the door as a tall red stallion exited, a corncob pipe clenched between his teeth.
The stallion froze, his pipe nearly tumbling out of his mouth. "Sp-spike? Is that you?"
"Eeyop." Spike held a claw out. "How've you been, Big Mac?"
Gripping Spike's claw, Big Mac thumped him on the shoulder. "Wow, ya filled out. Ah remember when ya were tiny."
"Growth spurt and heavy lifting. Since when do you smoke?"
Big Mac slipped his pipe into the front pocket of his overalls. "Since Ah had ta take over fer Granny Smith. Runnin' the farm is a lot more stressful when yer in charge of everything. So, Ah smoke."
Sweetie Belle daintily cleared her throat. "Have you seen Apple Bloom? We were hoping to talk to her."
"Yeah, it's been too long since we've seen her," Scootaloo added.
"Yeah, she's out in tha field. She'll be mighty surprised ta see y'all, especially ya Spike."
After thanking Big Mac, they headed in the direction that he indicated, making their way past some townsfolk that greeted Spike and welcomed him back. It was really nice until they began to bombard Spike with questions, such as where he'd been and the location of the Element Bearers. Thankfully, Scootaloo was able to get the crowd to back off by threatening to throw them in the stockade. Once they were far enough away, the three shared at this, with Sweetie Belle doing an exaggeration of Scootaloo's "tough voice." It really helped having a guard around.
A field of light brown soil lay stretched before the three, its surface scrapped by several ponies dragging plows behind them. Spike knew that times were tough but seeing the farmland being worked by a group of ponies rather than three was jarring to say the least. Sweet Apple Acres had always been a family operated enterprise so it must've hurt Big Mac to see his home being tilled by non-Apples. Briefly searching the faces, Spike quickly picked out a young mare and called over to her. Despite the time that's passed, he had no doubts that it was Apple Bloom and this was confirmed when the mare came charging up to them.
Apple Bloom still wore a bow in her mane, though it appeared small and it was hard to tell if it was a different one or she simply grew into it. Her formerly long mane was now styled in a pixie cut, which was partially concealed beneath a ten-gallon hat and she wore a bandana around her neck. While not as fit and muscular as Scootaloo, it was clear that she kept herself in shape, no doubt from all of the exhausting farm work she had to perform. Now grown up and a working mare, Apple Bloom's features were an odd blend of soft and hard, possessing sharp cheekbones, fuzzy, rounded cheeks, big lips and a strong jawline. Coupled with her powerful limbs and spacious hips, she was certainly a knockout.
"Well Ah'll be darned. Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo!" The mares gathered together in a group huddle, laughing and whooping at the reunion of three old childhood friends. "It's so good to see ya! Ah missed ya!"
"We missed you too, Apple Bloom! It's been too long!" Sweetie Belle squealed.
"Yeah! Things have been boring without you!" Scootaloo agreed.
They shared one more eee! moment before Apple Bloom extracted herself from the group hug and stopped right in front of Spike. She looked him over from head to toe and smiled brightly. "Howdy Spike. It's been too awhile."
"That it has, Apple Bloom," Spike nodded and opened his arms. The farm mare took the invitation and leapt into his embrace, filling his nostrils with the smell of sweat, dirt, cinnamon and apples. They reminded him of Applejack, something that both saddened and delighted him. "It's good to see you again, Bloom."
"Ye too, Spike. Welcome home."
“Young Spike is meeting up with old friends; the goal being to make amends,” Zecora’s voice echoed over the image of the dragon sitting with three young mares, the four of them laughing and enjoying each other’s company. The image faded and her usual grim face reappeared. “Now that the drake’s whereabouts have been made a fact, what nefarious deed will you next enact?”
Discord stroked his goatee thoughtfully, the gears noticeably whirring in motion as he concocted his next scheme. And this bothered Zecora greatly. When the draconequus was simply acting on a whim, he was a tornado of devastation but putting his mischievous mind to use? Then he was a hurricane of mayhem. Sitting back in his inflatable chair, Discord pulled out a seemingly innocuous marble bag.
“I think I’ve toyed with little Spike long enough,” he replied, pulling out a marble with his finger and thumb and holding it up to the light. Zecora could make out the form of a pink mare lying curled up, her gray mane obscuring her face as she noiselessly whimpered in fear. “It’s time to step things up a notch, don’t you?”