Apple Bloom groaned as she pulled herself up onto the final branch, her forelegs complaining. It might be all well and good for Scootaloo, who obviously would be the first pony to the top, but earth ponies weren’t meant to be climbing trees. She could see the pegasus now, her wings buzzing as she bounced from place to place, checking where their zipline had been secured to the oak.
Bloom took the time to steady herself on the thin branch, one hoof hooked around the tree trunk for support. This high up, each gust of wind caused the tree to sway worryingly underhoof. “Next time,” she said, “I think we need to pick a smaller tree.”
Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “That’d ruin everything and you know it. Don’t tell me you’re gonna chicken out now!”
Sweetie hauled herself onto the branch as well, her white-furred chest heaving as she tried to get her breath back. “Finally!” she gasped out, before her eyes drifted down to the ground far below them. She squeaked and dropped to her belly, wrapping all four hooves around the branch.
“Not you too,” Scootaloo groaned.
“It’s scary!” Sweetie bit her lip, but made no attempt to release her deathgrip on her perch. “Shouldn’t we have helmets?”
“Where we’re going, we don’t need helmets,” Scootaloo said.
Apple Bloom turned to her, one eyebrow raising.
“Okay, so, that sounded better in my head. But you get what I mean.”
Sweetie shivered. “Only… I think we’ve done this before.”
Apple Bloom gingerly let go of the trunk and stepped out onto the branch, craning her neck up to attach her harness’s cable to the zipline. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “This time it’s gonna work. I can feel it.”
Sweetie was silent. Apple Bloom knew she didn’t share the same confidence, but she wouldn’t voice her doubt. Scootaloo, on the other hoof, was practically vibrating in place, her wings twitching as she stared out over the rest of the forest.
The view of the Everfree was fantastic from here. Their tree might not have been the tallest in the entire forest, but it was an ancient oak that stood atop a hill, rising up above the rest of the forest canopy. Their zipline stretched off in the distance, gradually sloping down to where it connected to another far off tree. In between, it travelled over a sharp gully with more than a few rocky outcroppings showing through sparser greenery.
Apple Bloom swallowed as she stared down at their course. She turned, raising one hoof as her eyes slid shut. “Crusaders together, forever and ever,” she whispered, and the voices of her two friends sounded in her ears in unison.
“You go first, Apple Bloom,” Sweetie Belle said.
Bloom turned to stare out over the forest once more. “Even now?”
“We went first before, remember?” Scootaloo grinned. “You’re our fearless leader. We’ll be right there with you.”
The branch dipped lower and lower under her weight as Bloom crept out to its furthest extent. She took a deep breath.
And she jumped.
For a moment, her stomach lurched at the feeling of falling, and her hooves windmilled in panic. Then the cable yanked against her harness with a sharp jolt and she began to slide forward, her weight and redirected momentum giving immediate speed.
Her ears rang with the howling of the wind tearing past and the whining of metal on cable. She thought she could hear her friends too, behind her. Scootaloo whooping and yelling at their velocity, Sweetie Belle wailing in high-pitched terror.
The pounding of Apple Bloom’s heart slowed, and for a moment, she found herself simply enjoying the experience, soaring out across the forest at record speeds, the ground only an afterthought far below. This must have been what flying was like. No wonder Scootaloo always made such a big deal about it.
Then, of course, the zipline snapped.
It sounded like a lightning bolt cracking above as the strained cable broke, and Bloom found herself abruptly tumbling head over hooves as she plummeted towards the ground. She flailed her legs out, trying to steady herself, but there was nothing to grasp onto, nothing to stop her. She saw the ground rushing up from below, and then jerked her head up one last time.
The last thing she saw was Scootaloo, framed against the sky, her tiny wings buzzing as she unsteadily hung in the air. Then pain, as Bloom slammed into the upper reaches of a spindly tree, its boughs cracking and snapping to slow but not stop her descent. The branches only served to tear at her like tiny claws, scratching and cutting into her flesh.
With one final lurch, she tumbled out of their grasp and fell the final twenty feet to the forest floor. She landed with another loud snap, apparently having found one final dry branch to cushion her landing. That must have been why it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as she had expected.
It was only when she tried to get up that she realized the real reason it hadn’t hurt. She couldn’t feel anything under her neck.
Putting aside her own condition, she twisted her head, trying to catch sight of her friends. Sweetie had been unlucky enough to miss the trees entirely, instead landing on a patch of sharp rocks to the right. Apple Bloom averted her eyes. Like that, a helmet wouldn’t even have helped.
She didn’t see any sign of Scootaloo. Maybe she had…?
A wet thump echoed as something landed hard behind her. No. She obviously wouldn’t have been able to fly all the way down to safety. Apple Bloom opened her mouth to call out to them, but simply trying to take a breath caused her to start coughing, a bitter metallic taste washing through her mouth.
She looked forward, at where a jagged tree branch reached up through her chest, sticky red spilling out to stain her coat. A smile flitted across her face as the image spun and twisted in her vision.
Huh, she thought as she slipped away into unconsciousness. That doesn’t look like tree sap.
It was late when the door swung open and the Crusaders trudged into Sugarcube Corner, heads hanging low. Sweetie and Scootaloo kept on walking, dragging their hooves as they claimed their normal booth. Apple Bloom forced herself to approach the counter.
There wasn’t anypony around, no patrons or staff either. Which suited her just fine – the last thing any of them wanted was to have to watch a bunch of happy ponies laughing and carrying on while they had to consider their failure. In fact, if she was really lucky—
The door to the kitchen burst open and Pinkie Pie bounded out, just as much a bundle of energy as she always was. Apple Bloom stifled a grimace and put on a polite smile instead.
“I just got a ear-flop, tail-twitch, nose-wiggly-wiggle,” Pinkie chirped. “That means somepony needs cheering up!”
“Just a coffee will do, Pinkie,” Apple Bloom said.
“Crusading didn’t go well?”
Apple Bloom’s eyes slid to the floor. “You could say that, yeah.”
“That’s no good.” Pinkie’s hoof tapped against her chin, her eyes narrowing. “You need more than a coffee. How ‘bout a milkshake, on the house?”
“Not really in the mood. Just—”
“Oh! Even better, I have a terrific idea! There’s something very special that we’re thinking about adding to the menu, and you can the first to try. I just need to see if we have everything and check on Pound and Pumpkin. Be right back!”
She disappeared as fast as she had arrived, before Apple Bloom had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Bloom sighed, walking over to their booth.
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle weren’t saying anything. Normally Scootaloo would already have moved onto discussing new ideas, with Sweetie doing her best to hold her back from the really crazy ones, but for now the quiet suited Apple Bloom just fine. She joined their shared silence, moodily staring at the table.
She didn’t pay it any mind when the door opened behind her, somepony trotting inside. But her ears flicked as the hoofsteps paused and then picked up speed to draw nearer to them. Apple Bloom grimaced as she looked up, turning to see the new arrival, already expecting the worst.
A pink filly about their size trotted over, her eyes alight and a smile dancing across her lips. A glittering tiara shimmered in her cerise mane. Scootaloo didn’t even bother stifling her groan.
“Hey Diamond,” Apple Bloom said.
“Hey! How’s it going?”
Bloom frowned as the filly blithely climbed up into the booth opposite her, forcing Sweetie to quickly scoot over or risk being sat on. “Fine,” she muttered.
“Have you been crusading? How’d it go?” Diamond said.
“Not as fine.”
“Oh. I see.” Diamond fell silent for a moment, obviously waiting for Apple Bloom to continue the conversation. When it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen, she plastered another smile across her face and spoke up again. “Well, I’m sure you’ll find your cutie mark one of these days!”
“Mhm,” Apple Bloom found her eyes drifting back to the door to the kitchen, hoping for Pinkie or some other pony to give her an excuse to escape the conversation.
“And actually… I was thinking, and I have a great idea.”
“Yeah! I got a hoofpainting kit recently and I’ve been practicing art.” A faint blush tinted her face. “Mama says I’m very good. Better even than some of the things she’s seen in museums in Manehattan.”
“That’s great,” Bloom said.
“Um. Yeah. But I was just thinking, maybe your special talent is in art? You know, you could come over sometime and give it a try. I could, uh, show you. There’s a really neat book by Happy Trees that makes it very easy and—”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Apple Bloom said. She didn’t even glance at Scootaloo, who was shooting a death glare at their pink intruder. Diamond remained oblivious.
“Oh. Well, of course. You’ve probably tried that before.” Her smile wavered. “No problem. I shouldn’t have asked. Sorry.” She twiddled her hooves. “What if… what if I came along with you sometime instead? I’d be glad to help out, and won’t get in the way. I swear!”
Scootaloo let out a short bark of laughter. Sweetie had slumped in her chair, eyes shut and face blank. “Diamond,” Apple Bloom said carefully. “You can’t be a Crusader.”
Diamond stiffened, biting her lip. “I— I know, you’ve already told me that, it’s just…”
“It’s complicated. There are rules.”
“But I don’t have my cutie mark either!” she burst out.
Apple Bloom pursed her lips. “It’s more than that.”
“I… I see.” Diamond Glitz slid out of her chair, not meeting Bloom’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you.” She backed up one step, then another, before turning to dart away.
“And here come the waterworks,” Scootaloo muttered. Apple Bloom turned to glare at her, but she heard the choked sob before the door slammed shut again.
“Maybe that was too harsh,” Sweetie Belle said.
“You know we can’t.” Scootaloo sighed. “It’d be so much easier if she was just a brat. If she called us blank flanks, you know? Like her—” She caught sight of Apple Bloom and cut off, showing a sheepish smile.
“Still feels rotten,” Sweetie muttered.
“Yeah,” Bloom said. “Feels awful.”
“Well maybe this will make you feel better!” a voice said in her ear, and Apple Bloom nearly fell out of her seat.
Pinkie giggled as she reached with one hoof to playfully muss up Apple Bloom’s hair. She turned her head to grip the serving tray with her teeth and slid it onto the table. “Here you go, one brand new super-special cheer-up-a-Crusader treat! We’re calling it the Sundae Fundae. It’s gonna be a huuuge hit with the foals, right? Right?”
Apple Bloom stared at the ice cream monstrosity in front of her. The ends of two bananas poked out of a mound of vanilla ice-cream, drowning in hot fudge and capped off with cherries, strawberries, and even blueberries. To top it all off, a sparkler was jammed in the center, fizzing and popping brightly.
Pinkie looked at Bloom, then the dessert, then back to Bloom. The broad grin on her face slowly faded as the moment stretched out longer and longer. “It’s… You don’t like it.”
Apple Bloom swallowed, trying to put on a smile. “It’s really nice, Pinkie.”
Pinkie shook her head violently. “No. You don’t like it. It’s not right. It’s awful!”
Apple Bloom reached out to grab Pinkie’s hoof and hold her still. She looked up with Pinkie with as much genuine warmth as she could muster. “It’s great. I do feel better. Just a bad day, you know?”
Pinkie kept frowning but slowly nodded. “Okay. H–how about I get you a coffee too?”
“I’d like that.”
Pinkie backed away, still frowning as she kept a concerned eye on Apple Bloom.
Apple Bloom looked down. It even had come with a bib to wear, so she wouldn’t get messy.
“The worst thing is that it really does look good,” Scootaloo said, bitterness apparent in her voice.
“That’s the worst thing?” Sweetie said.
“Yeah.” Apple Bloom felt tears of frustration collect in her eyes. “Yeah, it kinda is.”
“Alright, so what did we learn?” Scootaloo asked. She hunched over the short table in the clubhouse and gripped a crayon in her teeth, eyes intent as she drew.
Sweetie Belle frowned. “Landing on rocks hurts?”
“You stink at flying?” Apple Bloom said.
Scootaloo spat out the crayon and glared at her for a moment. “No. And definitely no. We learned that we need to go bigger.” She gestured towards the paper, where she had drawn a smiling stick-pony atop a big triangle.
“I don’t know where we’re going to find a bigger tree,” Sweetie said, a hint of doubt in her voice.
“It’s not a tree.” Scootaloo paused, raising both hooves in dramatic emphasis. “It’s a mountain.”
Apple Bloom sighed. “Nope.”
“What? Look, the theory is sound, we just have to—”
“No,” Apple Bloom repeated. “No trees, no mountains, not even jumping off a cloud somehow.”
“Hey!” Scootaloo’s eyes lit up. “That’s a good idea. Skydiving! We find a pegasus who’ll take us up and—”
“It ain’t gonna work!” Apple Bloom shouted. A quiet fell on the clubhouse as the other two looked at her, eyebrows raised. “It hasn’t yet and it never will, no matter how high we go. I can’t keep tryin’ this stuff just for your sake, Scootaloo. I gotta find something that actually has a chance of working.”
“Fine,” Scootaloo said. “Then what’s your idea?”
Bloom ground her teeth. “I wish I knew. I’ve tried everything. I was certain something would stick. Deepwater cave-diving should have been perfect, not to mention timberwolf taming—”
“I’m definitely vetoing anything else having to do with monsters,” Sweetie said. “No hydra hunting or manticore trapping either.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m sick of waking up in piles of fibrous nuggets.”
“I’m surrounded by dictionaries,” Scootaloo muttered. She raised a hoof. “And yes, I know what you mean, please don’t explain further.”
Apple Bloom ignored them. “Heck, we even tried extreme cooking in Sweetie Belle’s honor.”
Sweetie pouted. “I don’t always set everything on fire,” she said.
“But nothing worked. I’m beginning to think…”
“Don’t say it,” Scootaloo said sternly.
“I’m beginning to think it’s a lost cause.”
“Apple Bloom…” Sweetie whimpered.
“Then what?” Scootaloo said, her voice sharp. “You’re giving up? To do what?”
“I don’t know,” Bloom muttered.
“Of course you don’t! You don’t know anything!”
“Scootaloo!” Sweetie squeaked.
“Crusaders don’t give up!” she shouted. “You can’t! Not when this whole mess is—” She cut off, Sweetie having dashed across to jam a hoof against her muzzle.
“Say it,” Apple Bloom said.
Scootaloo pushed Sweetie away. When she continued her voice was calm. “Not when this whole mess is your fault in the first place.”
Apple Bloom felt wetness in her eyes. She looked up to see Sweetie sadly shaking her head at her. “Is that what you think we think?” Sweetie asked.
“Shouldn’t it be obvious?” Apple Bloom said. “Maybe… maybe I could try potions again. That’s what started everything, isn’t it?”
“Twilight said potions wouldn’t work,” Scootaloo said.
“Twilight said potions wouldn’t make things normal again,” Bloom said. “Twilight doesn’t know everything. What about the zebras? What about the buffalo? Maybe they can help.”
“There aren’t any zebras around here. Not since Zecora left.”
“I know,” Apple Bloom said.
Sweetie gulped. “You mean… You’d leave Ponyville? Would you leave us behind?”
“I— I don’t know. I wouldn’t have to.”
Scootaloo directed a flinty stare at her. “Crusaders together, forever and ever. Remember?”
“I know, I know!” Apple Bloom screwed her eyes shut. “That’s what I want! The only thing that I want. You know that!”
No voice responded. When she opened her eyes, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle were gone.
Apple Bloom slowly walked out to look through the clubhouse’s window. She belatedly noticed that the glass was spiderwebbed with cracks. One more thing to put on her list to fix, next to repainting the walls and replacing several broken floorboards. More work that she’d never get around to completing. More evidence of everything around her falling apart.
She trotted over to curl up in the clubhouse’s old thinking corner, waiting for an inspiration that never came. The lightbulb above her stayed dark. It had burned out a long time ago.
The bell dinged above the door as Apple Bloom entered, frowning at all the fully-bedecked ponnequins in the showroom.
“One moment!” a voice cheerily called out from a back room. Hoofsteps clopped as the proprietor trotted to the front. “Welcome to the Carousel Boutique, where your beauty is our business! How can I— Oh, Apple Bloom! What a pleasant surprise.”
“Hi, Diamond Tiara,” Apple Bloom said, a faint smile appearing on her face.
“I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.” Diamond Tiara trotted to the front door and flipped the sign over to signal the shop as closed. “Come in, come in. I’ll put on some tea.”
Bloom shuffled her hooves in place. “It’s not a bother?”
“Don’t be silly, I’ve always got time for you,” Diamond Tiara said firmly. She ushered Apple Bloom into the kitchen at the back of the Boutique, where a pair of stools sat at a modest table. Apple Bloom was about to sit when Diamond quickly trotted back to set a cushion down.
Even with the cushion, Apple Bloom still found the table too high to be comfortable.
“It’ll only take a moment,” Diamond Tiara said, busying herself with fetching a kettle. “I trust jasmine will be acceptable?”
“Still my favorite,” Apple Bloom drawled.
“That’s why I always make sure I have plenty.” Diamond glanced back at Apple Bloom over her shoulder, some curiosity apparent. “Did something happen? Crusading not going well?”
“Something like that.” Apple Bloom pursed her lips. “I just need someone to talk to.”
Apple Bloom lapsed into silence, and Diamond Tiara was savvy enough to give her time and not bring up the contradiction. Bloom idly watched as Diamond heated the water and steeped the tea.
Honestly, Tiara had become a refined, elegant mare, growing into the kind of grace that she always vainly pretended to have as a foal. Age had softened her physique with gentler curves, and she wore her hair loose and unadorned now. It really wasn’t fair at all – Apple Bloom didn’t know how, but every year Diamond managed to become even more beautiful in her eyes.
It wasn’t until Diamond had poured them each a cup of tea and taken a long sip that she broke the silence. “I ran into Applejack at market the other day. She said you all are putting up another barn.”
“Mhm,” Bloom said. “There’s an awful lot of mouths to feed around Sweet Apple Acres these days. And more on the way.”
“That must be nice,” Diamond said, smiling. “I can remember when it was just four Apples making do. Now there’s so many helping hooves, and if what Father says is true, orders of Sweet Apple Acres apples being shipped all across Equestria.”
Apple Bloom’s hooves tapped on either side of her cup. “Yes. It’s... nice.”
Diamond’s brow furrowed and she opened her mouth to push further, but Apple Bloom rushed to speak. “How’s Pip doing?”
The smile on Diamond’s face fell away. “He’s doing fine. In Canterlot again on business. You know how it is.”
Apple Bloom watched her intently. “Yes. It must be hard. I would have thought Princess Luna would just visit his dreams if she needed something.”
“I’m not convinced she doesn’t,” Diamond muttered.
“Diamond Glitz is doing well,” Diamond said, the smile returning. “Though, you’re not going to believe this… She’s being bullied at school.”
Apple Bloom’s eyebrows raised. “Really? I suppose that’s not too surprising. I don’t have any idea how a brat like you ended up with a filly as sweet and kind as her.”
Diamond grinned. “Me either! When I found out, I was ready to tear down to that schoolhouse on a rampage, demand to see the little snots and their parents too, all to give them a piece of my mind. She had to beg and plead for me not to get involved.”
Apple Bloom flashed a smile. “If you want me to—”
“No, no, no. If I don’t get to play the avenging angel, you certainly don’t. I just wish that she’d stand up for herself a bit more. She doesn’t have many friends. In fact, I was thinking…”
Apple Bloom stiffened, her head dipping.
“Why don’t you take her along on one of your Crusades sometime?” Diamond raised a hoof. “I know, I know. But think of it like foalsitting. Give her a little confidence, help her to be more social in a safe environment. I think it’d be good for her.”
“She’s asked me as much directly. I can’t do that,” Apple Bloom said flatly. “It’s not safe.”
Diamond rolled her eyes. “She’s shy, not fragile. She’ll be fine. And you could always just try finding your cutie mark in something more safe for a change.”
Apple Bloom bit her lip. “You don’t understand. I—” She took a deep breath. “I gave up Crusading for my cutie mark a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry?” Diamond blinked. “Didn’t I just see you renting a whole bunch of climbing gear the other day?”
“I’m still crusading,” Apple Bloom said. “But for something different.” Her eyes slid to look away from Diamond Tiara. “I’m looking for a way to die.”
Diamond stared at her, both ears flat against her head. “That’s… that’s not very funny.”
“You’re right.” Apple Bloom took a sip of her tea. “It’s not.”
Diamond’s mouth opened and closed. “You’re serious?”
“Deadly serious.” Apple Bloom showed a ghost of a smirk. “If you’ll pardon the pun.”
Diamond took a deep breath, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, they burned with an intensity that made Bloom flinch. “Apple Bloom, in the years that I’ve known you, you have done many hopelessly idiotic things. But this has got to be the most stupid, blockheaded, blank-flank thing I have ever heard you say.”
Apple Bloom shrugged. “It’s my business, not yours.”
“It’s not your business!” she snapped. “You’re always so upset that no one treats you like an adult? Well then quit acting like a foal! Think about everyone else for a change, you idiot.”
Diamond Tiara threw her hooves up. “Your family for one!”
Apple Bloom shook her head. “They’d be better off without me. You know that I’ve got nieces and nephews bigger than me now? I can’t even buck an apple tree. I’ll never be able to. I’m just in the way.”
“How selfish can you be? Your family doesn’t care if you can buck a Celestia-damned apple tree. That’s not the point!”
“Even if they don’t mind having me around, ultimately they’d be better off with me out of the picture.” Apple Bloom sighed. “Don’t you get it? I died a long time ago. I’m just a ghost now, haunting the ponies I used to love.”
Diamond Tiara gaped. Then she groaned loudly in frustration. “That has got to be the most insipid attempt at emotional manipulation I have ever heard. And that’s coming from someone who would know.”
“Hey,” Apple Bloom said defensively. “You don’t know what it’s like. You can’t know what it’s like. I’m not going to get my cutie mark, and that’s one thing. But I’ve been twelve-and-a-half years old now for two decades.”
“Spare me,” Diamond Tiara spat out. “Yeah, you’ve got it rough. Guess what? Everypony has problems. Just because yours is some kind of screwed up magical curse doesn’t make you a special snowflake of suffering.”
Apple Bloom flushed red. “If I was dead, everypony would be better off. Maybe my family would be sad, but nopony would really miss me in the long run.”
Diamond’s hoof pounded against the table. “I would miss you, you self-centered blank-flank.”
“Really?” Apple Bloom asked, leaning forward.
“Yes,” Diamond said, her eyes hard. “Though tartarus help me if I know why. Of all the imbecilic harebrained—”
Apple Bloom had to basically crawl across the table to kiss Diamond Tiara. She kept her eyes jammed shut as their lips mashed together, hot and warm and sending her heart racing until—
Diamond Tiara shoved Apple Bloom back, her stool clattering against the floor. They stared at each other, both of their chests still heaving.
“I—” Apple Bloom started.
Diamond Tiara raised a hoof to stop her. When she spoke, her voice was cautious. “Apple Bloom. I— I don’t know what you’re looking for but you know that I can’t give it to you. There’s Pipsqueak and Diamond Glitz to consider.” She sighed. “You’re too—”
“Too young,” Bloom said bitterly. “I know. And you know what? You’re right. I am, and I always will be.”
Diamond shook her head. “No, listen to me. You’re too short-sighted. How do you really feel about me?”
“I love you!”
“You think you do.” Diamond pursed her lips. “You’re my best friend, Apple Bloom. And I’ve always tried to support you and help you. I know that you’ve got it hard, having to deal with things that nopony should. But you’re so fixated on the past that you can’t let yourself have a present.”
Apple Bloom glared at her through red eyes. “This wasn’t living in the present?”
“You only like me because I remind you of a time before. I’m safe, easy, because we’ve known each other for so long. Because as much as things change, you can still see the old me, and feel like you’re in a place where the world makes sense. Meanwhile, there are a thousand ponies out there who you won’t talk to, ponies who want to know you but who you won’t allow to get close.”
“Because they’ll go away. They all go away.”
“Yeah,” Diamond said. She let out a quick snort. “Of course they will. That’s how life works, stupid. For everypony, not just you.”
“Fine, then. That’s why I want no part of it. That’s why I’d rather die.”
Diamond Tiara shook her head sadly. “Think about Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle,” she said, the words so soft as to barely be audible.
Apple Bloom froze. “You think I don’t?” she whispered.
Diamond took a step forward. “It wasn’t your fault, Apple Bloom. You know that. Just like you know that Scootaloo and Sweetie wouldn’t want—”
Apple Bloom felt her hooves trembling. “Sh-shut up. You don’t get to talk about them.”
“Tell me it’s not true. Tell me that they’d—”
“Shut up!” Apple Bloom screamed.
Diamond fell silent, but refused to look away from Apple Bloom’s eyes.
Apple Bloom bit her lip. “I— I’ve been thinking about leaving Ponyville for a while. Maybe this is the right time.”
“To do what? To see the world, or… to find a way to...”
“Leaving Ponyville,” Bloom repeated. “There’s a train tomorrow. After all, isn’t it clear now? Everypony’s life would be way simpler with me gone.”
Diamond paused, a stricken look crossing her face, before being replaced by something more collected. “Maybe that’s for the best. But…”
Apple Bloom looked up at her.
Diamond bit her lip. “Apple Bloom, I’m… sorry. I don’t think I’m a very good friend. Here I should have been helping you but I think all I’m doing is making things worse. Sometimes I worry that deep down, I’m still the same spoiled brat I’ve always been, more interested in yelling and arguing than being a friend. Sometimes I’m not a very good pony at all.”
“Now who’s being emotionally manipulative?” Apple Bloom said.
“Shush. The point is, I’m going to ask one more thing that I know is selfish.” Diamond frowned. “Promise me I’ll see you again? I don’t care when, in a month, in a year, in a decade. But promise me that you won’t—” The words caught in her throat. “Promise me that you’ll come back some day.”
Apple Bloom turned and trotted to the door. She turned at the last moment, looking over her shoulder, mouth open for a response. Her mouth closed again, the words not coming, and she walked out of the Boutique.
Apple Bloom stood on the third platform of Ponyville’s train station. It had come a long way from the simple station of a few decades ago, with tracks stretching in nearly every direction, offering passage to any number of locations. It was early in the morning, the sun barely over the horizon and only a hoofful other ponies waiting along with her for the first train headed east.
Apple Bloom shifted in place, resettling the heavy saddlebags across her back. She took a deep breath and exhaled, letting her eyes slip closed.
“So you’re leaving after all?” Scootaloo’s voice came, at her right.
“Looks like it,” Apple Bloom said. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
She heard a snatch of musical laughter from her left. “What for? You know we don’t really blame you.”
“But now I’m leaving Ponyville. Leaving you two here. Crusaders together, forever and ever, isn’t that how it was supposed to be?”
“We could go with you,” Scootaloo offered.
“You could.” Apple Bloom sighed. “But they couldn’t. The real Scootaloo and Sweetie. They’re already gone, and never coming back. I know that. All I can do is find a way to follow.”
“That’s not all you can do,” Sweetie said, reproachfully. “Diamond was right. That’s not what they would want.”
“I don’t know what they’d want,” Apple Bloom blurted out.
“Yes, you do,” Scootaloo said. “Quit being silly. I know, which means you do too, at least somewhere deep down.”
“And what’s that?”
“They want you to be happy,” Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo whispered together in her ears. Their giggles echoed, slowly fading away on the wind.
Apple Bloom opened her eyes. She stood alone on the platform once more. A stallion in a suit nearby was giving her a strange look, not used to seeing a filly talking to herself, but she didn’t pay him any attention. Instead, she turned in place to look back at Ponyville, her home for her entire life.
It had grown a lot over the years, from a small community of thatch-roofed cottages to a thriving town at the center of one of Equestria’s major crossroads. Lots of changes since the day long ago that a terrible accident had doomed Apple Bloom to always be the same. Since the day that she had lost something – someponies – that were truly irreplaceable. She looked out at Ponyville and knew that somewhere, past all the buildings and the glimmering crystal castle that dominated the skyline, there was a small, understated graveyard, where crawling ivy wrapped itself around the granite of two familiar memorials.
She turned her back on the past to look at the iron tracks stretching out into the distance. She could see the cloud of smoke growing on the horizon as the train quickly approached. There was a whole huge world out there, hanging just out of sight, full of all sorts of wonders and mysteries. And even if she had to go it alone, she knew she had to push onwards. She owed her friends that much. Surely, somewhere out there, she would find the answer she was looking for.
And maybe, she thought to herself, I might even be able to find the question.