"Once upon a time, many years ago but not too many mind, there were three little ponies who were the best of friends a pony could be. None of them had found their cutie marks, so were determined to find their destiny in the world they were the one and only Cutie Mark Crusaders! Now, this particular day, they decided to go ziplinin'. Scootaloo said..."
Orange Pippin clamped a pillow over his ears and pulled a face in protest. From the corner of his eye he was sure he saw his sister joining in with his defiance, both glaring up at their mother with big, round open eyes. "C'mon mum! Tell us a good story! One with dragons and monsters! Tell us about Krastos! Or when Ponyville was attacked by the Smooze! Or Princess Celestia's last stand against Tirek! Or..."
"Stop it Pippin!" whined out his sister, half huddled under her sheets. Pippin could see a slight beam of pride across their mother's face in reaction to this sudden act of defence. "Mamma only tells us the really dull stories so that the exciting ones are even more exciting!" Summerfree nodded confidently at her assertion, looking upwards for confirmation.
It didn't come. Apple Bloom just glared down disapprovingly at the two little foals and then with a heavy sigh, sank to her haunches beside Pippin's bed. "Y'all gonna realise one day that these things are important!" she finally replied, softly ruffling her son's mane as he sat glowering at her. "One day ya'll be findin' your own destiny in the world and makin' your dear ol' mum proud, but you gotta know it ain't easy!"
"But it's so... boring!" Pippin slowly repeated, as if he hadn't been heard the first time. "I mean there're no dragons or monsters or villains, just you doin' stuff. Why don't you ever tell us about your travelling or how you got your cutie mark? Why's it always this old filly stuff!"
Apple Bloom slowly looked between the two. Summerfree was scrunched up under her bedsheets, her little head poking out, listening intently at the debate wide-eyed. "Pippin!" she hissed urgently. "Let mamma tell her story. It's just like the doctors; you gotta get the nasty injection before you get the lollypop!"
"Yeah, it's... No! No!" Apple Bloom shook her head in exasperation. "It's a good story kids, an' it's a true story an' there's lots'a excitin' bits. So just rest your lil' heads and listen fer once." She pulled the covers over a wriggling Pippin and kissed the little pony gently on the forehead. "Now, Scootaloo, she was a little winged Pegasus pony, an' she had this great idea..."
Apple Bloom crept down the stairs, dragging the large chest behind her, being careful to muffle the thumps as it descended. The kids had got off to sleep quickly. Suspiciously quickly in fact. Whilst she loved those two little rascals with all her heart, there was a slight bitterness that for them, her most treasured childhood memories were no more than a quick cure for insomnia.
With a grunt, she finally hefted the heavy wooden chest down the final stair and pushed it through the kitchen. The sun had started to set outside, playing a soft orange light across the cluttered surfaces. With a soft smile of satisfaction, she carefully undid the ornate metal clasp that kept the chest locked.
Apple Bloom jerked around almost guiltily, about to slam the chest shut as she saw she wasn't alone. Sitting outside on the porch surrounded by a swath of parchments and quills sat Blueberry Burst, diligently sketching away using his good hoof in the rays of the setting sun. He turned round, resting his chin on the window ledge as he stared inwards at Apple Bloom, a grin on his face, his faded scruffy blue mane dappled with orange light. "They better be asleep if you've got that old thing out, they think the family treasure chest is full of gold!"
Apple Bloom slowly opened the lid fully, rummaging carefully through the contents, carefully placing aside a singed brown hat as she pulled out three bundles of burgundy fabric and held them up to the light. Each of the bundles resembled an outfit for a small filly, crudely stitched together with a blue shield proudly emblazoned on them, and the awkwardly cut out image of a golden pony outlined in the centre of each shield. She raised one to her face, hugging it for a moment in the dying evening light. To any other pony, it would have smelt of old mothballs, but for Apple Bloom, it was the scent of an infinite, happy summer. "Better than gold" she said finally. "Stuff like this, y'all can't put a price on it."
Placing the outfits to one side, she picked out a tattered and worn pink bow, which she carefully affixed to her mane. Patting her hair neatly down, Apple Bloom peered across the room into the mirror that sat on the far wall. "How do ah look?" she asked out loud, bobbing her head from side to side as she positioned the oversized ribbon.
"Just like the day I met you" Blueberry smiled. "You've not changed a bit."
It was a lie of course. Apple Bloom barely even recognised the middle-aged pony that looked back at her in the mirror. There was none of the glow of youth in that face, but one worn through experience and age, a lifetime of memories and regrets. But that little filly she had once been was still in there somewhere, and for a moment as she adjusted her bow, she thought she saw herself in the mirror as she had been; bright eyed, young and full of boundless optimism.
She turned back to Blueberry Burst, trotting slowly through the open doorframe to join him outside. The summer air was warm and muggy, specks of pollen dancing lazily in the fading light. "You were s'posed to be sortin' the town celebrations like ah told ya, not lazin' about!" she accused, fixing him with a half-hearted glare.
Blueberry sat back in his chair, sweeping a hoof out in front of him with a soft smile. "Your wish, Mrs Mayor, was my command!"
Ponyville stood before them decked out in bunting and streamers and balloons of all shapes and sizes carefully tied to each building. Ponies still milled around, finishing the preparations and going about their day to day lives. Everything was how it should be, from the resplendent pavilion to the sparkling fountain that sat at the centre, a smorgasbord of colour and energy, standing proud as it had for hundreds of years.
Of course, it hadn't. The banner in the town centre put paid to any such thoughts. "PONYVILLE CELEBRATES ITS TWENTY YEAR RESTORATION." There was barely anything left of the old Ponyville; but it had all been reconstructed carefully and lovingly under her watchful eye with attention paid to the tiniest detail. Every effort had been paid to ensuring everything was built to resemble how it had been, but still deep in her heart Apple Bloom knew that the old town was gone forever, burnt to ashes in a terrible night of fire and chaos.
She let her eyes fall for a moment upon the only new addition to the town plan since her childhood. Whilst the ponies of the town had been happy to follow her restoration plans to the letter, she had been unable to convince the Council not to build... that thing. That statue, taking pride of place next to the pavilion in the town centre, mocking her with its presence. And there was also Dragon's Run.
In the fields to the south of Ponyville, the land curved sharply into a deep valley which currently bloomed with over five hundred varieties of flower to create an explosion of colour. It had taken six years to convince the barren scorched earth to blossom again, and once more the town had refused to listen to Apple Bloom.
They had wanted to keep it as it was, to remember. But all Apple Bloom wanted back was those beautiful rolling hills that had once stood in place of that blasted furrow. They were once hills covered in apple trees, a magnificent patchwork of red and green stretching for miles. And at the centre, at the top of the tallest hill had stood her family home, Sweet Apple Acres, as it had for generations.
All gone now of course. All that remained was a solitary apple tree that she had planted herself in that accursed valley, her own tribute to the years of toil and effort that had been wiped out. Some nights though, if she wished hard enough, she could still see those emerald hills, and those apple trees standing tall and proud and immortal, as they should be.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Blueberry had moved closer to Apple Bloom as she had been gazing into the distance, wrapping a hoof around her. He didn't understand. He never could. "It's been a while, but Princess Luna's really getting the hang of the evenings now, isn't she?"
"Yeah..." Apple Bloom mumbled back, seeing those beautiful hills in the distance as they slowly vanished with a wistful shimmer into the evening air.
"You should be proud of yourself!" Blueberry moved over to his paperwork, awkwardly spreading some of the sheets. "Twenty years as mayor, making sure everything's been put back exactly as it was. Not even Hoofington can boast that. And tomorrow ponies from all over Equestria are coming for the celebration, and I just thought..."
He held up one of the plans for Apple Bloom to see, angling it to get the full benefit of the sun's rays. "...Well, I thought maybe you could use it as a chance to announce some new buildings. I mean, Ponyville's getting crowded recently, so I've been drawing up some plans all tasteful and in keeping of course and maybe it's time to think about expanding again..."
Blueberry trailed off as Apple Bloom's gaze hardened and she took a step towards him, swiping the plans aside with one hoof and crumpling them against the table. "How... how DARE ya!" she exclaimed slowly and loudly, voice trembling with a barely restrained fire. "Now of all times? When we've finally got the place back to how it SHOULD be, you wanna go messin' it up?"
Blueberry attempted a sheepish grin. It usually disarmed her, but not tonight. "It's just... think about it this way. Ponyville didn't just spring up one night hundreds of years ago as it is now... it grew gradually bit by bit according to everypony's needs. It's wonderful that we brought it all back, but we can't just keep it as it used to be, we've gotta keep going or we'll be stuck in the past!"
"Used to be? Used to be?" Apple Bloom glanced about her again. "It ain't as it used to be Blue, it ain't and it never will! That there valley is like a chunk's been ripped outta my lil' heart. And those ponies and their dumb statue, it just ain't right." She paused, breathing heavily, letting herself calm down again. "We gotta keep it proper, keep it how it used to be. How it was when it was all good. An' now you've gone and got me in a right bad mood, tonight of all nights!"
Blueberry quickly used his good hoof to scrunch up his work, hastily bundling it into a crumpled pile. "I'm sorry Apple, really, I just thought... well I didn't. It was stupid. You relax and have a great time tonight, if any pony deserves to, it's you."
"Yeah..." Apple Bloom leant against the porch railing, letting the last dying rays of the setting sun play against her face. She started to perk up. "Yeah. It's been too long y'know, nearly twenty-five long years. Some of the best ponies ah even knew are gonna be there, ah've got a lot of catchin' up to do." She let herself smile again. The town celebrations had been the excuse she'd needed to do this, to gather back the best friends she'd ever have and relive the best days of her life and nothing would stop her from having a wonderful time.
In one hour, it would be time for the school reunion.
And she was going to have the best night ever.
"It ain't fair!" Apple Bloom had stopped crying again, though her little cheeks were still flushed red and stained with tears, her eyes blotchy and quivering. She rounded on Sweetie Belle, causing her friend to shrink back. "Why've you gotta go? Ah don' care 'bout your parents, you can jus' stay with my on the farm. And you too Scoots!"
Scootaloo just sat in the corner of the clubhouse, her usually bright and energetic frame deflated like a balloon as she sighed. "I know it sucks Apple Bloom, but I've gotta move back to Whinnysota and Sweetie Belle's family's doing their own thing. You can't expect your family to look after her!"
"Y'all just give up too easily!" Apple Bloom hissed pacing about in a circle until she felt dizzy and collapsed to the wooden floor with a thump. "How can we be the Cutie Mark Crusaders an' find our destiny if we're apart? That's all kinds of crazy! An'..." She looked up at the two. "An' you're the two bestest friends ah've ever had! Ah don' wanna go back to it bein' jus' me!"
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle gathered round their friend in an awkward hug. "Don't worry!" Sweetie Belle whispered. "We'll stay in touch. We can write every day and visit for holidays and stuff! It'll be... Cutie Mark Crusader Pen Pals!"
Apple Bloom wiped another tear from her face, and looked back and forth between her friends. "Y'all promise?
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle smiled warmly back. "We promise Apple Bloom. Cutie Mark Crusader Promise!"
And they did write. Every day, Apple Bloom would sit down and write about her day to Scootaloo, and then carefully copy the letter for Sweetie Belle. And every day, her friends would do the same so even though they were miles away, it still felt like they were there together.
As days turned to weeks turned to months, Apple Bloom found herself getting caught up in the daily rigmarole of life. The letters she sent got shorter and less frequent, and so did the ones that came in the post. As the months turned to years, letters became short sentences hastily jotted down in cards on birthdays and festivals, and Apple Bloom couldn't honestly say when it had happened.
But that's how life was; it wasn't a bad thing, just another aspect of growing up.
And Apple Bloom knew that no matter what, she still had two of the best friends in the whole of Equestria, with a bond that went deeper than mere letters or words could provide.
It would be twenty-five full years before she saw them again.