• Published 21st May 2012
  • 4,733 Views, 410 Comments

Mantles - Ponky



Studying in Canterlot, Apple Bloom dons a mask of her youth to counter the city's rising crime.

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6 - One Step at a Time

CHAPTER SIX
ONE STEP AT A TIME

Apple Bloom ran.

She remembered all the times she had run away: from Fluttershy’s cottage to chase down a chicken; from Snails’ embarrassing invitation to the School Dance; from the tragic scene of Pinkie Pie’s accident; from Harper’s confession…

Big, hot tears streamed down her cheeks as she gasped for breath, but she didn’t stop running. She had to get away from it all. She had to go home. And there was only one colt who knew how to get there.

(/\/\)

Four hours earlier, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle had stared in shivering shock as the coffin of their dear friend was lowered into a gaping hole in the northwest corner of the Canterlot Cemetery. The Saturday Sun was setting; three days of crying had left their eyes wide and dry. Green and amber irises followed the morbid box until it hit the solid earth below. A solemn unicorn lifted a pile of dirt with his magic and filled the grave in a matter of seconds. Then it was over, and the small crowd of mourners went their separate ways.

All except for Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle who, standing flank to flank, quietly watched the Sunset together, remembering the days it was guided by a Princess who truly cared about the ponies beneath its glow.

“I gotta go home, Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bloom finally said. The phrase had been running through her mind since the moment she heard of Harper’s murder. “I cain’t stay here any longer. I’m just a little farm pony. I cain’t handle this horrible city.”

For some reason, she had expected Sweetie Belle to be angry. Instead she nodded under a black veil, soaking in the warbled colors of the setting Sun. “I agree, Apple Bloom. You belong in Ponyville. It was foalish and selfish of me to let you come here. You should go home.”

Her voice trembled with regret, though her face remained stiff.

“I only wish there was a way back,” Apple Bloom mused, ignoring the urge to counter Sweetie’s self-depreciation. “The station doesn’t offer tickets home. Ponyville really is quarantined. I’m stuck here forever.”

The final sliver of the Sun dipped beneath the distant horizon. From their elevation in the outskirts of the mountainside city, the mares looked out on the expansive landscape of Equestria. A huge mass of shimmering clouds drifted slowly above the Everfree Forest that darkened the eastern lands: Cloudsdale, the ever-migrating weather factory and home to tens of thousands of pegasi. Had it, too, been affected—or infected—by Twilight’s regime?

A more applicable question puzzled Apple Bloom’s mind. “If Ponyville is quarantined,” she asked aloud, “how come Harper and I were allowed to come to Canterlot?”

Quarantined isn’t the right word,” Sweetie explained. “Ponyville is cut off, severed from the rest of the country. Equestrians aren’t allowed to go there, but the School is international. Anypony can be accepted from any part of the world.”

“But a train came to pick us up,” Apple Bloom remembered. “A train carryin’ hundreds o’ ponies who coulda just hopped off.”

“Why would they want to?” Sweetie answered with a question. “Twilight’s been putting it into the public opinion that Ponyville’s a rotten place. I’m sure you’ve seen hints of that while you’ve been here.”

In fact, Apple Bloom had received a surprising amount of shocked or disgusted looks from fellow students who learned of her humble origins. She hadn’t thought much of it until then.

“Besides,” Sweetie Belle added, “though you may not have noticed, I’m sure there were guards posted on that train to keep an eye on its passengers. You didn’t see anypony get off that train before you boarded, did you?”

Apple Bloom shook her head. “Guess not.”

They were quiet for a while, waiting for the Moon to rise.

“There are ponies who do it, though.”

The unicorn’s words were low and crisp, as if she were reciting an ancient secret. Apple Bloom’s own voice sunk to softer, safer levels.

“What’d’ya mean?”

For the first time, Sweetie’s eyes broke from the west, locking instead on the city rooftops far to her left.

“There are ponies who visit Ponyville. At least, there’s one. I met him in my first semester, back when things weren’t quite so bad in Canterlot. He’s just a little colt who visits his mother every couple of months—”

“Charlie!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, startling Sweetie out of her methodical reveal.

“You know Charlie?” Her voice cracked.

Apple Bloom nodded. “He was on the train with his ma! I forgot all about it!” Her happy memory inspired a smile. “They told me about meeting you and how you’ve been helpin’ him ‘find his voice.’ He’s a mighty powerful singer!”

Sweetie Belle gasped. “He sang? On the train!?”

“Mmm-hmm!” Apple Bloom confirmed. “Poor fella had quite the stutter when he tried to speak with me, but boy, when he started singin’ over Harper’s song…”

She broke off. The reminder of why they were standing in a cemetery yanked both girls from their temporary clouds back to familiar depths.

“I forgot about him,” Apple Bloom continued. “How does he do it, Sweetie? How does he visit Ponyville?”

To her dismay, the unicorn only shrugged. “I’ve never asked him. I only know he can.”

Apple Bloom stared. “You never asked ‘im? Why not!? You coulda come and visited us! You coulda told all o’ Ponyville about what’s been happenin’ to Equestria and Twilight and—”

“And what good would that have done?” Sweetie snapped. Apple Bloom leaned away. “I live here now, Bloom. I have a life and career ahead of me and… and if I went back home I’d never want to leave and—” Fresh tears born of a different sadness leaked from Sweetie Belle’s tight-shut eyes. “—a-and everything would just get worse and worse here while I pretended to be happy in a tiny little town where ponies think I’m special no matter what and never really appreciate the hard work I put into my talent and nothing would ever change and I’d be so bored and miserable!”

She choked, unable to express exactly what she wanted to. Apple Bloom’s aching heart understood what she meant: unlike the traditional farm pony, Sweetie Belle thrived on change and progress. Growing up, Canterlot had always been her ideal escape from Ponyville, the perfect destination, the ultimate goal. Even in its state of decay, the Royal City offered some degree of the busy life that was nowhere to be found in Ponyville.

“No,” Sweetie said between increasingly controlled gasps. “No, I can’t go back to Ponyville. But you, Apple Bloom.” Her reddened eyes narrowed gravely. “You have to go back. You have to let them know. You have to… to try to… I don’t know, to fix something!”

Watching her friend’s expressions shift between despondent, angry, determined, hopeful, and downright terrified, Apple Bloom nodded unsurely.

“I… I’ll think o’ somethin’,” she promised. “I swear that I’ll try.”

“Then go,” Sweetie commanded, lowering her head. “Charlie lives in a run-down complex with his father along Saddle Street. Number forty two.”

The yellow mare hesitated. Would this be the last time she saw her fragile friend? Would Sweetie be all right without her? Maybe she should stay another couple of weeks while things went back to normal, as they always did after a sudden death…

Go, Apple Bloom!” Sweetie shouted, scaring the red-maned pony out of her thoughts. “Get back home! Do everything you can! Run!”

Apple Bloom ran.

(/\/\)

“Forty two, forty two, forty two, forty two…” Apple Bloom repeated breathlessly, raking her eyes across the multi-story rows of dingy doors. Finally she spotted it: a door along the second level with the fading number 42 painted on its center. She scampered up a creaky staircase and galloped to the entryway, hammering on its surface with a tired, shaky hoof.

Saddle Street’s condition was the worst Apple Bloom had seen in Canterlot, but she paid no mind to the obscene graphics and phrases plastered on its clay-colored buildings. She fought off every thought that drifted from finding a way home, concentrating on reuniting with aging Applejack, flawless Fluttershy, regal Rarity, silly Scootaloo—

“Who are you?” a gruff voice asked through the door.

Apple Bloom straightened her neck. “My name is Apple Bloom,” she answered, “and I’m here to see Charlie Horse.”

A grunt, a pause, and the door creaked open.

“His name isn’t Charlie Horse,” growled the dull red pegasus stallion in the doorway. He had dark circles around his tired eyes that made him look much older than he was.

Apple Bloom winced. “Oh… I’m mighty sorry. That’s what he called himself when I met him on the train a few weeks back. What’s his name really?”

The stallion surveyed Apple Bloom with a suspicious scowl. “It’s Charles Brown the Third.”

Apple Bloom cocked her head to one side. “But he ain’t brown. Neither are you.”

He snorted. “Well, Charles Brown the First was brown. And he passed his name to his red son, who had a tan son of his own.”

“Oh.”

They stared at each other for a moment with very different expressions.

“So… can I see him?” she asked again. “Is he home?”

Charles Brown the Second sighed and sidestepped out of her way. “I think he’s still awake upstairs. You a friend of Sweetie Belle’s?” he asked as she trotted inside.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Singer?” Mr. Brown guessed as he shut the front door.

“Painter, actually,” she corrected. “We’re roommates now, but we’ve been friends since we were little fillies.”

The stallion’s lip twitched toward a sneer. “So you’re from Ponyville.”

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m from Ponyville, but it’s not as bad as Princess Sparkle makes it—”

“I’m well aware of that,” Mister Brown interrupted. “I got married there.”

The apartment was cramped and almost entirely undecorated. A tall, narrow staircase rose along the wall behind the grumpy pegasus. Apple Bloom’s attention was caught by a beautiful hum coming from the upper level.

“Charlie’s up there,” he stated, tossing his head toward the staircase. “You can go see him once you tell me what you’re here for.”

Unintentionally, hot tears filled the bottom of Apple Bloom’s eyes.

“I… I have somethin’ I need to ask him,” she bumbled. “Somethin’ important.”

Mr. Brown cocked an eyebrow apathetically but didn’t say another word. He trotted into another room while Apple Bloom hurried up the steps, brushing the tears away as she went. They led her to a very short hallway with two doors on the right. The first was closed; probably Mr. Brown’s room. The second was wide open, and from it emanated a crisp, clear voice she fondly recognized.

“Charlie?” she asked as she poked her head into the tiny room. The walls were bare and off-white save for one small poster hung above a short bed. She didn’t examine it long enough to see what it bore, focusing instead on the earth pony colt lying on his belly in the middle of the room. He had been scribbling into a journal with a pencil in his mouth. His melodic humming stopped when he whipped his head to check the face in his doorway.

The pencil dropped to the floor as his lips parted in a wide grin. “A-A-Apple Bloom!” he stammered, rising to his hooves and galloping to hug her. Surprised, the yellow mare giggled and returned the small pony’s embrace.

“You remember me!” she laughed.

He nodded. “I’ve been… I-I-I-I’ve been waiting f-for you to come visit,” he struggled, peeking around the mare. “W-W-Where’s Sssssss…”

“Sweetie Belle?” Apple Bloom offered, answered with another happy nod from her young friend. She grimaced. “Sweetie didn’t come with me, Charlie. I’m sure she’ll visit on her own to sing with ya soon, but I’m here to ask you a question.”

Charlie noticed the urgency in her voice. His eyes grew wide and worried while his nodding solemnly slowed.

Apple Bloom swallowed hard. “I need to get back to Ponyville, Charlie,” she explained, “but the trains don’t go there anymore. Your mother says you visit every now and again. I need you to tell me how you do it.” She placed a trembling hoof on the colt’s shoulder. “How do I get back home?”

His eyes resumed their brightness. “That’s ih-ih-easy, Apple Bloom! I c-c-can help you get… get…” He gritted his teeth in frustration, taking a deep breath to annunciate each word. “You. Get. Back.

Apple Bloom bit her lip. She didn’t want to be rude, but she wondered if Charlie would be able to communicate his method to her. Perhaps he could write it down, she thought. Or maybe…

She gasped at the epiphany. “Charlie!” she exclaimed. “Could you sing how you do it?”

He blinked once. “H-huh?”

Her heart hammered as she leaned to the colt’s eye level. “Make up a song, Charlie. Tell me how to get back to Ponyville in song. That way you can tell me loud and clear, and I’ll remember it better!”

Charlie’s ears snapped upward. His smile rivaled Apple Bloom’s as he wrapped his mind around the idea. Inside his little ribcage, his lungs began to quiver with upbeat anticipation, for he did so love to help and sing.

“Think you can do it, Charlie?”

Serenely, the colt closed his eyes, gathering notes and rhymes in his head as his eager lungs inflated. With a trained descent of his lower jaw, he began to sing.

(/\/\)

Getting back to Ponyville takes seven easy steps

Though it isn’t something that the Royal Guard accepts.

You must do them secretly without a single flaw

Lest, Celestia forbid, you fall into their claw.

Apple Bloom gulped as she raced toward the train station in the chilling moonlight. Every shadow seemed sharp and menacing; every alley teemed with filth and echoed the cries of the helpless. She had never felt so strangely, abstractly scared, nor as fiercely determined to get home.

The second stanza of Charlie’s song replayed in her mind as she approached the barren depot. The first of his seven “easy” steps.

First you have to board a train that travels in the night:

I have found it’s easier to hide in softer light.

Never go inside a car where other ponies sit.

Sneak into a cargo box or something dimly lit.

Slowing to a quiet trot, Apple Bloom slunk through the open gate of the huge train station. Though there were still a number of restless ponies zipping through its expansive plaza, Apple Bloom’s stomach clenched at its empty eeriness.

Trains were not as prevalent at night, but thanks to her gallop she had arrived just in time. An old steam-powered locomotive pulled into the station. It groaned and hissed under years of pressure. Warily, Apple Bloom glanced around the area in search of a watchful guard. None of the visible pairs of armored stallions seemed to be paying attention as the old Express came to a complete halt. Its doors rolled or swung open and dozens of tired ponies scurried out and into Canterlot. She wondered if any of them were newcomers, just as surprised by the dismal vibe as she had initially been.

Concentrating on Charlie’s directions, Apple Bloom maneuvered through the throng of sleepy ponies who were coming off the train. She was careful not to bump into any of them for fear of alerting the guards. By some miracle, she wove through the group toward the last cars where extra cargo was stored. A small family of blue-hued pegasi were tossing their larger items of luggage into a rusty-roofed boxcar. Shooting periodic glances at the nearest pocket of guards, Apple Bloom tip-hoofed nearer to the family.

She caught snippets of their conversation. By their accents, she determined they were from Trottingham. Sometimes it was difficult to tell Trottingham accents apart from Canterlot’s, but Apple Bloom had a keen ear for that sort of thing. She wondered what had brought them to the Royal City and if they’d been surprised by its decay—or if Trottingham had suffered a similar fate since Twilight’s rise to power. She shuddered and narrowed her attention around the task at hoof.

The father of the vacationists tossed the last of their bags into the boxcar and started to slide the door shut with his wing. Apple Bloom yelped and rushed forward, jolting the family of four.

“I’m mighty sorry fer startlin’ ya, sir,” she whispered, “but I, uh… I think I mighta forgotten a book I wanted for the ride in my tote. D’ya mind leavin’ that open for me? I’ll just hop on in and grab it.”

“Certainly, young lady,” the stallion replied with a tired but genuine smile. With a small grunt, he pushed the door back to its wide open position and allowed Apple Bloom to hop inside with her powerful hind legs.

“Goodness me, that’s quite a vertical,” he acknowledged as she made her way into the darkness.

Heh… thanks. I grew up on a farm. Strong kickers,” she explained, tapping one of her back hooves against the floor of the car.

The family didn’t move, looking up at her with expectant smiles. She grinned weakly and coughed into a hoof.

“Uh… it’ll prob’ly take me a minute to find my book. Y’all can go ahead, I don’t wantcha waitin’ up for me. Thank ya kindly!”

She held a nervous smile across her face until the stallion said, “All right, then, we’ll see you on board. And if not, have a good night!”

The family trotted to a passenger car. With one last glance at the oblivious guards in the distance, Apple Bloom slammed the rolling door closed and buried herself deep in a chaotic pile of suitcases. She closed her eyes in the darkness and tried to calm her rapid breathing, waiting for the lurch of the train. It came within minutes and she sang the next verse of Charlie’s instructional song to its quickening beat.

Second, wait until the train has finished its descent.

You will feel the mountain’s slope become less steep and bent.

When you’re sure the train will travel straight for quite a time

Leave your hiding spot (that’s third) and find a way to climb.

All she had to do was wait until the train had snaked down the mountain and then find a way onto the roof. While the train was moving. At full speed.

She’d done dumber.

The trip between Canterlot and Ponyville was only a couple of hours. Descending to the flatlands of Equestria from the elevated city took nearly a quarter of that. To Apple Bloom, however, it seemed that several days crept by before she finally felt the train level out. As soon as the sensation stabilized and she was certain they were moving straight, she burst from the stacks of luggage and moved to the boxcar’s door. Biting her lip, Apple Bloom used her forehooves to yank at the inner handle. The wooden barrier slid away easily.

The sudden noise of the barreling train startled her more than it should have. The boxcar was quite soundproof, and the influx in volume was enough to pain her ears. Gritting her teeth against her fear, Apple Bloom poked her head into the whipping wind and surveyed the Moonlit landscape. Dark greens and greyish blues dominated the hills and pastures rolling from the tracks in all directions. Awestruck by its beauty, Apple Bloom snapped out of her trance and turned her attention to the speeding train itself.

She had boarded the third to last car. Six more separated her from the engine—but she was getting ahead of herself. The third step had yet to be completed.

Apple Bloom checked for a conventional path to the roof. Perhaps there was a ladder of some kind on the outside of the car. To her simultaneous relief and terror, there was a helpful ladder… at the far end of the box. She was leaning halfway out of the train on the end nearest the engine while the ladder was welded in place on the end closer to the caboose.

She moaned, knowing she would have to jump for it. If she missed….

She wondered how fast the train was moving. Would she survive an impact with the ground?

Perhaps foolishly, she didn’t give herself a chance to answer that. Eyes locked on the ladder’s middle rungs, she flung herself into the open night air and spun one hundred and eighty degrees in the wind. Her outstretched forehooves caught the rungs and stopped the upper half of her body. The lower half, caught in the furious gales, slammed against the boxcar’s exterior. Wincing, Apple Bloom shuffled her hind legs into position and started to climb the ladder. It was a short, quick scramble to the rust-colored roof.

“Step Three, complete,” she said aloud, unable to hear her own voice over the noisy train. She stole a brief glance at Cantlerlot looming wickedly overhead before turning to her unseen hometown and the front of the train. “Now fer number Four.” She cleared her throat.

Fourth, and once you’re on the roof, you’d better hurry fast.

That most safe and straight of stretches doesn’t really last.

Soon the train will start to make a turn both left and wide.

You had better be secure or you’ll slip off the side.

Sure enough, the tracks ahead curved along the base of a giant, grassy hill. Apple Bloom gulped, running her eyes over the flat top of the boxcar for an anchor. There was absolutely nothing to hold, and she only had a matter of seconds before the turn. Panicking, Apple Bloom galloped forward and leapt across the little gap between her car and the one in front of it. Unfortunately it was a refreshments car with an impractically, if adorably, arched roof.

With no other option, Apple Bloom laid herself flat against the peak of the arch and stretched her legs out to her sides as far as they would go. The train banked left around the hill; Apple Bloom squeezed her eyes shut and tried to clamp her body to the smooth roof. Though centrifugal forces pulled at her weight, her position kept her from stumbling overboard. She was especially grateful in that moment not to be a pegasus, certain that hollow bones would not have helped her situation. Then again, if she was a pegasus she could have just flown back to Ponyville…

She shook away the meaningless debate as the tracks straightened once again. Rising to her shaky hooves, she recited the next of Charlie’s verses.

Fifth is very dangerous, so try to treat it blunt.

Keep a level head and travel up toward the front.

By that time the train will be a-swervin’ to and fro;

Try hard to ignore it and just giddy-up and go.

There were now five cars between Apple Bloom and the steam engine. As far as the eye could see, the upcoming tracks wove in between an endless plain of short, rotund hills. None of the turns were nearly as dramatic as the one she’d just survived. Arming herself with Charlie’s prescribed “level head,” Apple Bloom thundered forward, leaping from roof to decorative roof as fast as her legs would carry her. The train below her hooves snaked from left to right as it followed its wavy path, but she refused to slow down, keeping her eyes trained on her next goal.

When you reach the car behind the engine at the head,

Take Step Six with caution, or you might as well be dead.

Ponyville’s approaching: you can see it getting near,

But the train has orders not to drop off ponies here.

Apple Bloom landed on the first passenger car and squinted into the night. To her dismay, she saw no approaching Ponyville. Glancing up at the gleaming Moon, she realized her mistake: the two-hour trip was only maybe halfway over. Step six would have to wait.

She groaned and dropped onto her belly, staring at the giant silver orb in the sky. Were the Princesses really up there, trapped by some indescribable prison of magic? She didn’t think Twilight was that powerful. Then again, she had seen the protégé do some pretty incredible things in the past.

In the past… hadn’t the train ride to Canterlot been shorter in the past? She vaguely remembered an older set of tracks, one that wrapped through caves in a mountain very close to Ponyville and traveled quickly over timber bridges and through hoof-made tunnels. She wondered what had happened to that much faster route. Did the tunnels cave in? Had the bridges fallen? Or, perhaps, was it all destroyed as part of Ponyville’s separation?

Anger and sorrow buzzed in Apple Bloom’s chest and mind. The spring night was chilly and she shivered under the stars, imagining Charlie making this same dangerous trip. How many times had he done it? And how on earth had he figured it all out?

Keeping her mind busy with unanswerable questions seemed to do the trick. Suddenly her attention was caught by a small clump of unnatural lights on the horizon. Ponyville! She beamed at the cluster, abandoning every thought that didn’t pertain to her return. As she cautiously rose to her hooves, Apple Bloom sang the next chunk of her instructions.

Six is all position: stand with fervor at the edge.

Make sure that your forehooves are just halfway on the ledge.

Crouch your hind legs all the way and hold them like a spring.

That part’s kind of scary, so I sometimes like to sing.

She had to agree, finding comfort in her own voice as she assumed the heart-stopping stance at the rightmost edge of the roof.

Seven happens quickly so you have to be alert.

On the right side of the tracks you’ll see a path of dirt.

At the very end of it’s a natural pit of mud.

Time your leap just perfectly and land without a thud!

Terror squeezed her ribs together as she stared at the ground ten feet below. It moved by so quickly that all details were lost in a blur. Twisting her head to the left, she realized that the distant ground was easier to watch. In fact, Charlie’s promised “path of dirt” shone against the dark green grass all around it.

“I sure hope this mud-hole o’ yers is fit fer a full-grown mare, Charlie,” she worried under her breath, tucking up her back legs and readying to leap.

The unusual line of bare dirt running parallel with the tracks was coming up quick. The Moonlight accentuated a large pool of sticky mud at the far end of the path. Apple Bloom scooted her forehooves just over the edge of the train. Her tail twitched as she waited for just the right moment. Her ragged breath added to the rhythm of the wheels. She had to jump… she had to trust Charlie… she had to get back home…

“Hey! Who are you?” an angry voice shouted from the engine. Apple Bloom lost her focus, turning toward the shout with frightened eyes. “Whataya doin’ up here?”

A large pegasus stallion scaled onto the roof with a series of grunts just as a dark cloud passed over the Moon.

“You can’t be up here! Get down!” the stranger shouted. Apple Bloom couldn’t see his face or color in the sudden darkness and hoped he was blind to her identifying features as well.

The figure rushed toward her. Without thinking, the farmpony released her scrunched up hind legs and kicked her accuser in the exposed chest. With a high pitched howl, the stallion stumbled backward and reached for his cracked sternum, allowing Apple Bloom a moment to look over the edge. She cursed as the mud-hole zipped past her car. How would she dismount the train now?

“What the hay was that?” the stallion squealed, collapsing to his knees. “Oh, Luna! Oh, Luna’s stars, I’m dying…”

“Yer not dyin’,” Apple Bloom argued, rolling her eyes.

“Ah,” the stallion breathed. “A southerner. You from Ponyville, then?”

Apple Bloom cringed at her own mistake, more grateful than ever for the darkness. It wouldn’t last for much longer, though. She needed to find a way off the train.

“Answer me, mare!” the other pony growled. His silhouette started to crawl toward her. The frightening movement jolted Apple Bloom into heedless action. A group of tall, bent pine trees extending from the Everfree Forest appeared near the tracks just ahead and with a single, hopeful gasp, Apple Bloom hurled herself over the edge of the train and into the embrace of their branches.

(/\/\)

Applejack couldn’t sleep. Something wasn’t right. She could feel it.

She sighed and rolled out of bed. She trotted through her little farmhouse absentmindedly, surveying anything and everything with no particular interest. Something in the kitchen caught her emerald eyes: Apple Bloom’s acceptance letter, tacked to the wall beside her family photos. A smile lifted her lips as she drew closer to the arrangement, drinking in the details of each picture.

Hanging in the upper left was a photograph of Granny Smith when she was just a filly. She wore a traditional checkered dress, and her mane was tied into a pair of braids. Applejack found herself laughing, grateful that she didn’t have to wear a bonnet.

In the next picture, Granny was quite a bit older: enough to have a kind-eyed husband and two large sons standing around her. The photograph had no color, but Applejack’s mind filled in the coat of the larger son with yellow. Apple Bloom had inherited her father’s golden hide, but Applejack had been blessed with his gorgeous green eyes.

The biggest picture on the wall was in color, testifying to her accurate memory. There stood her massive yellow father, cheek to cheek with her ruby-red mother. Granny Smith stood beside her son, smiling directly at the camera, while two wild foals laughed and played at their parents’ hooves. Applejack sighed again, this time with nostalgia. Big Mac hadn’t been so big back then, and that adorable little ball of orange fur…

Heheh. Cute as a button,” Applejack complimented herself, sliding a tender hoof over the picture frame’s glass.

Her eyes skipped over the rest of the photographs. Too many of those faces had left her life. Grandad, Granny, Ma, Pa, Braeburn’s father, and, most recently, Apple Bloom. With a stubborn grunt, she whipped away from the display and moved into her living room, forcing her missing family out of her thoughts. She didn’t want to cry tonight.

Applejack opened the front door with her teeth and stood on her porch, gazing fondly over Sweet Apple Acres. It had only been a few weeks since Winter Wrap Up, but the leaves had already returned full-force. Before long, apple buds would start to appear on those branches, and then clumps of apples would be ready for thinning. Already her hind legs itched for Apple Buck Season, but that was still quite a ways off. One step at a time.

The moonlit orchards made for a terrific sight. As she basked in the beauty of her family’s famous farm, Applejack sighed for the third time, colored with appreciative contentment for the awe-striking landscape. What she wouldn’t give to share that moment with somepony.

Applejack’s ears drooped in solemn realization: she was lonely. She had been lonely for a long time. Half a decade ago, she could have taken her pick of five different ponies to visit right then, even in the dead of night. But now?

Fluttershy was married—to Applejack’s brother, of all stallions—and had a wonderful little family to look after. Rarity was just as busy as ever; Applejack knew better than to interrupt the timeless pony’s beauty sleep. Rainbow Dash had moved back to Cloudsdale as the Wonderbolts’ trainer years ago. Twilight was a Princess now and hadn’t sent a single word since her relocation to the Canterlot castle. And Pinkie Pie…

Applejack’s fourth sigh was a very sad one.

Pinkie Pie was dead. In many ways, that was even stranger than Twilight’s transformation. Of course they went together in Applejack's mind. Five years before, it had been Applejack that first found Pinkie in the library...

The morbid memory faded as the orange pony noticed movement among her trees. She blinked several times to clear up any illusion. Sure enough, a dark, bulgy figure limped out of the orchard, dragging itself in the direction of the barn.

“What in tarnation…” Applejack muttered, hopping down from her porch and trotting quickly down the pebble-spotted path. “Hey!” she called out as she neared the misshapen pony. “You all right there? Can I help you with anythang?”

A patch of wispy clouds fell away from the Moon, bathing the stranger in brighter light. Applejack gasped at the quivering, red-maned mare covered in blood, branches, and tree sap.

“Hey, Sis,” Apple Bloom managed to squeak before crumpling to the ground with a weary smile.

(/\/\)

There you’ll have to wait until the train has passed you by.

It’s another twenty minute walk beneath the sky.

Trot along the train tracks headed south and all uphill:

Next thing that you know, you’re back at home in Ponyville!