It wasn't exactly the same, but it was good enough. The modern whiteboard (she had never been a fan of that, but Canterlot's education board had been firm on classroom upgrades) had been taken down for the evening, and a traditional blackboard erected in its place. On the board was scrawled in chalk "PONYVILLE WELCOMES ITS
One of her earliest ideas had been to arrange the desks and chairs in the shape of the traditional schoolroom, but Blueberry had talked her down from this, and she had later grudgingly admitted that sitting in rows on tiny chairs designed for foals wouldn't have been conducive to an entertaining evening of socialising. Instead the desks had been pushed to one end, and an impressive spread of nibbles laid out.
Apple Bloom had arrived first of course, and as the appointed hour approached, more and more of her former classmates started to filter in. The room was full of the babble of small talk and she started to circulate, exchanging pleasantries with ponies whose names she half-remembered. She was sure the yellow pony she had just spoken to was Sunny Days, thought it might have been Lemon Showers. Still, it didn't really matter, the star attractions had yet to arrive.
She gave a furtive glance up at the clock. Ten minutes past the hour and no sign of her friends. They had got the invitations; she made sure they'd been sent special delivery. Perhaps something had happened, perhaps
"Oh, don't worry Apple Bloom, they'll be here!" Apple Bloom gave a warm smile at the old pony next to her, her withered frame resting heavily in a wheelchair. Time had marched on uncompromisingly for Cheerilee, and the teacher who had once seemed so full of life and energy had slowed right down. There was still a part of Apple Bloom that still instinctively looked to Cheerilee as the ultimate font of wisdom and knowledge, though she knew deep that was just a childish notion. Young foals always looked up to their parents and teachers as awe-inspiring figures of myth and it wasn't something that went away easily.
"Besides, I don't recall Scootaloo ever getting to class on time." Cheerilee trailed off, eyes glazing over slightly. "In fact, I don't remember her ever making it to class much, too busy flying about with that good for nothing Rainbow Dash I'll bet. One more time and I'll give her detention "
Apple Bloom gave Cheerilee's frail frame a comforting hug, and passed her a sandwich. It broke her heart to see her so old and confused. That wasn't right, that wasn't how it should be. "They'll be here Miss Cheerilee" she replied politely, softly removing her hoof as she noticed Cheerilee had slumped forward in her chair slightly and begun to snooze. Something about her old teacher reminded her of her own Granny Smith, though she couldn't ever imagine Granny Smith being as young as Cheerilee once was.
A familiar head bobbed through the door and made its way into the now busy room. Apple Bloom's eyes opened wide, half-scolding herself for not being eager to see this particular pony too. "Wait here Miss!" she nodded at the slumbering Cheerilee. "Jus' seen an old friend. The oldest in fact."
With that, she started to excitedly push her way through the throng of chatting ponies, towards the red bob of mane that danced through the crowd like a buoy bobbing at sea.
"Twist!" she shouted eagerly. "Twist!"
Twist had been Apple Bloom's first friend, mostly due to the fact that their mothers had met each other at the maternity ward and would take tea every afternoon leaving the two little fillies to play with each other.
Every pony said they were a mismatched pair Apple Bloom, boldly venturing out into the fields in search of snakes and bugs to battle, dragging along a timid and nervous Twist in her wake. Twist was as quiet as Apple Bloom was brash, and as they grew and their personalities developed, they found fewer and fewer mutual interests until the only thing they had in common was the fact that they had been friends since the start. Spending time with each other became more a duty to this part of their past than to have fun and they drifted apart. But sometimes that's just how life was.
As the years passed, Apple Bloom had let her thoughts drift to her friendship with Twist, and realised that the turning point was when Twist had got her Cutie Mark. At the time it felt as if Twist had abandoned and betrayed her, and so Apple Bloom had found new and better friends. But looking back there was that gnawing feeling that it had been her that had abandoned Twist.
But still, they had history, and that was something to cherish. You never forgot your first friend.
Twist's eyes grew wide and her face broke into a grin as Apple Bloom approached. She had changed, but was still recognisable her red hair was no longer a frizzy explosion, but a neatly coiffured mane, and her glasses were now stylish rather than geeky.
"Apple Blossom!" Twist chirped happily. "It's so good to see you again!"
Apple Bloom froze, in wide-eyed confusion as a pit opened up beneath her heart. "I-it's A-apple Bloom you daft mare. You've not been on the punch already have you?"
"Apple Bloom!" Twist smiled again and reached around Apple Bloom's neck for a polite but friendly hug, grinning apologetically. "Sorry, it's been so long, gets hard to remember stuff from back then, don't you find that?"
'No ah don't!' Apple Bloom thought darkly. But instead she just nodded her head. "Yeah yeah it sure does " she trailed off, unsure of what to say next. "So uh, you lost that lisp eh?"
Twist giggled. "I had a lisp? Really? Oh Apple Bloom, honestly, the things you come up with!" She shrugged her hooves and bobbed her head. "Well, uh, I better go say hi to everypony, good to see you again!" With that, she trotted off, and Apple Bloom was left alone in the middle of a crowd.
"What the hay " Apple Bloom whispered to herself, her brow furrowed as she raced to think over the implications of what had just happened. "That was horrid! How can she forget a pony like me? After everythin' we'd been through!"
Was that all she was worth, just a smile and a polite hello? She pushed her way through to the buffet table and with both hoofs, grasped a glass and took a long sip of punch. Twist hadn't been a proper friend anyway, not where it counted. Once Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle got there, then the night would get better. Nothing else could possibly go wrong.
At the exact moment she thought this, the schoolhouse door flew open with a crash to reveal a hooded figure standing in the doorway, silhouetted in the moonlight. The babble of voices from the assembled ponies died down almost immediately as all heads turned to see the newcomer. Apple Bloom craned her neck forwards, letting out a small gasp. The pony was covered from head to hoof in a white robe, that swam with patterns of stars and suns that moved magically over the fabric.
It could only be a Celestial Guard.
The Celestial Guards were the brightest and best of the unicorn elite, those whose magical prowess surpassed all others. They had been formed after the war, charged with protecting the peace to ensure such terrible events could never happen again, and also with hunting down the remaining number of Tirek's lieutenants who remained at large.
Most ponies never saw them. They were constantly working in their quest for justice, never stopping to rest. Some ponies said the reason they covered their faces was not to help focus their abilities, but because they were creatures of pure magic, conjured into existence by Princess Luna because no mortal pony could hope to be as dedicated, powerful and pure as they were.
Apple Bloom had seen them though. Just once, three years ago when word had spread that Krastos himself had been seen hiding out in the Everfree Forest. It had made her ill to think that a creature so evil and dangerous could have been living so close to Ponyville all that time, so much so that she didn't want to believe it could be true. She had sent work to the palace and was informed that the matter would be dealt with.
The town bells had rang out that evening, and the already nervous inhabitants of Ponyville fled into their homes, locking and barring the doors and windows in case Krastos had decided to head for the town in a final act of vengeance instead of fleeing.
Apple Bloom hadn't been frightened though. Whilst the other ponies of the town still remembered those terrible events of twenty years past, she had been absent. She had felt that pain and loss only from a distance, and never got to see justice done with her own eyes.
Blueberry had argued with her that night not to go out, but she knew he could be a bit of a useless coward at times. After putting the newly born foals to bed, she crept out of the house and made her way to the nearest hill overlooking the forest to wait. It was a crisp, clear moonlit night, and the only sound to be heard was the constant deep tolling of the town bells. She'd sat in the cold grass waiting for what seemed like an eternity, finally doubting that anything would happen, that perhaps Canterlot had not taken the sightings seriously.
But then she saw them, moving slowly through Ponyville like ghosts as they strode purposefully towards the woods. There were only six ponies, clad entirely in robes, even their faces were concealed; the only concession being a hole cut in the top of the hood to reveal their unicorn horns.
It had been eerie watching them slowly march through the deserted town, their outfits illuminated by the bright silver moonlight. Apple Bloom hadn't been sure what to expect perhaps a scout, perhaps an army, but somehow these six ponies gave the feeling of being able to handle whatever came their way as they calmly spread out and wordlessly entered the forest in which one of the most terrible beings imaginable was said to be hiding.
After they had entered the woods, everything went quiet, even the bells in Ponyville stopped ringing. Apple Bloom had felt her heart racing, half tempted to race down the hill and into the forest herself, to see what was happening or even join in the fight. There was a part of her, deep down, which knew such an action would have been foolhardy, if not fatal. Inaction gnawed at her.
As she was considering this, the forest exploded into light. Brilliant beams leapt up into the night sky, dazzling multicoloured sparks danced amongst the treetops with all the vigour and ferocity of a fireworks display. The silent night air was suddenly rent asunder with explosions and bangs, the trees alight with an eldritch fire, with Apple Bloom as the sole witness.
From the commotion, a cry began to bellow. It was a low, primal utterance, full of rage and pain, that seemed to last forever, growing in volume as the trees themselves swayed and were broken, until without warning, a pillar of light erupted at the centre of the forest, and the cry was cut short.
Apple Bloom had known what was going to happen, and indeed it was reported widely afterwards. Krastos had been found and after a short struggle, had been banished to the furthest, coldest star. Princess Luna was not one for vengeance, indeed it was said that at the end of that final terrible battle, when the archdemon Tirek, killer of her father and sister had lain broken at her hooves and at her mercy, she had simply forgiven him.
That was one strike against Luna, Apple Bloom had always thought. Sometimes justice had to be carried out properly. That night, even though she knew what was happening, and that Krastos had not even been present at the battle of Dragon's Run, she had fantasised that every cry and scream she heard was him being torn apart in agony. It made her feel better, for a while.
She had stayed on that hill until the Celestial Guard had emerged from the woods. They weren't whooping or hollering or clamouring, they just simply and modestly left as quietly as they had arrived.
As Apple Bloom stood to go back home, she could have sworn that despite the distance between them, despite the fact that they were wearing face-encompassing hoods, one of the Guards had turned to stare directly at her and wink.
The Celestial Guard slowly trotted into the room, looking back and forth at the assembled ponies until finally it fixed its gaze in the direction of Apple Bloom. Apple Bloom felt an involuntary intake of breath had it come back to punish her for daring to witness what she saw three years before? Was she being sought out in her role of Mayor to uncover some terrible danger to Ponyville? Perhaps Twist wasn't really Twist, and was instead a doppelganger! That would explain a lot.
"Sorry everypony!" The cloaked figure voice was definitely feminine, but rich, warm and authoritative, instantly enrapturing the entire room, the partygoers silent with all eyes on the newcomer. Apple Bloom felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the ease in which this new arrival could so easily grab the spotlight, it was a technique as Mayor she had been trying to perfect for years.
The figure continued. "Didn't have time to change from work, the Embodiment of Gris wouldn't banish itself to the dungeon dimensions! Ha!" With one swish of a hoof, the guard pulled back her hood, to reveal the face of a strangely familiar lilac pony, topped with a yellow, spikey mane. With the other hoof, she revealed a basket from underneath her cloak. "But don't worry, I brought muffins!" With that, she made a beeline for the buffet table.
Apple Bloom simply stared as her mind raced to catch up with what her eyes were seeing. Finally, she scraped her jaw off the floor and regained the power of speech.
"Are you sure about this Apple Bloom? If I wish really hard and run at the wall I'll go through it with my magic and then mummy will love me?"
Dinky stood stock still in the middle of the playground, staring about in confusion as Apple Bloom continued to smear the paste over Dinky's horn. Apple Bloom dropped the brush so she could speak and nodded. "Yup Dinky, jus' close your lil' eyes and wish real hard! Off you go!"
Apple Bloom gave Dinky a friendly slap and Dinky screwed up her face as tightly as she could, her little legs beginning to gallop as she raced towards the schoolroom wall. "I wish I wish I wish!" she repeated to herself like a mantra.
Sweetie Belle had watched this in stoic silence, until she finally leant over to Apple Bloom with a conspiratorial whisper. "Um, Apple Bloom " she started. "You don't think that's a bit " she bobbed her head side to side to get the words out " mean?"
Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "Don' be silly Sweetie Belle! It ain't mean if it's funny. Side's, you never know, Dinky might do it!"
At that point there was a loud 'DINK' and a tiny spark flew out of Dinky's horn, fading away as quickly as it came. Dinky paid this no heed, and leapt with all her might at the wall. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle both closed their eyes as Dinky barrelled into the wall with an almighty crash.
Dinky hung impaled on the wall by her horn, the paste firmly affixing her head to the wooden planks that lined the schoolhouse. "I did it!" she squeaked out in joy, wide eyed, waving her tiny hooves in the air. "I'm flying! I'm magic!"
Apple Bloom started a guilty snigger that soon turned into an uproarious laugh, every pony in the playground starting to join in until the air was filled by a crescendo of little ponies laughing at Dinky, who was still obliviously flailing about.
"Okay " Sweetie Belle bit her lip hard to stop laughing any more. "Okay, that was good, but we'd better "
At once the laughter stopped, and all eyes turned to the schoolhouse doorway. Miss Cheerilee had stepped outside, her usually kind face turned into a mask of anger and disappointment. "Apple Bloom" she scolded loudly, striding towards Apple Bloom. The other ponies quickly scurried out of the way, leaving Apple Bloom alone. "I saw that! How DARE you bully Dinky in such away!"
Apple Bloom stared frantically around herself in panic. Even Sweetie Belle had slinked away, trembling slightly. A pit opened in the bottom of her stomach as she looked towards Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara who were taking the opportunity to have a good snigger at her. They were the bullies, not her! She wasn't like them! This was different, just a silly joke!
She tried to open her mouth to defend herself, but another pony spoke up first.
"Hey! Leave her alone!"
It was Dinky. She had pulled herself off the wall, a large wooden plank still stuck to her horn and staggered across the schoolyard to place herself in between the teacher and Apple Bloom. The little filly, eyes blocked by the plank, raised her hoofs in defiance. "You're wrong Miss! Apple Bloom's my best friend ever! She'd never ever do anything mean!"
Miss Cheerilee looked like she was about to snap a reply, but then sighed and led Dinky away by the hoof. "Let's get you cleaned up Dinky, and we can have a little talk about what friendship actually means."
Apple Bloom had felt awful for the rest of the day.
"Dinky?" Apple Bloom repeated in disbelief for what seemed the tenth time. The other ponies in the room had started talking again, at first a nervous chatter and then the noise levels slowly returned to their previous position as if nothing had happened.
Dinky placed the basket of muffins on the table and turned to smile warmly at Apple Bloom, pulling her forward in a friendly yet professional hug. "It's so good to see you again Apple Bloom!" Dinky rolled her eyes. "I keep meaning to visit you, but it's just work work work at the moment, you know how it is!"
Apple Bloom just silently nodded, still staring at Dinky, tall and confident in that magnificent cloak which extruded an aura of power and mystique. Dinky, whom Apple Bloom was sure would have grown up living in sheltered accommodation eating paste all day.
Dinky waved a hoof. "I'm supposed to be meditating tonight, we're doing a deep dive into Space-B tomorrow." She leaned forward conspiratorially. "Luna thinks she's got a lead on Celestia. Keep it hush hush."
Apple Bloom blinked dumbly, and then finally croaked out a reply. "G-good to see you doin' so well for yourself Dinky..."
Dinky just winked in return. "I owe it all to you Apple Bloom, you were the best friend a pony could have! You made me believe in myself, push myself hard, I've never forgotten that, and I just want to say - oh by Luna, raspberry marshmallows!"
With a squeak, Apple Bloom jumped back as Dinky leapt for the bowl of marshmallows that sat on the buffet table, pushing her head into it with a furious snacking sound. "Uh " She began, gently prodding Dinky's side. "Uh, those are a bit alcoholic, you might wanna "
But it didn't look like Dinky was going to come up for breath. Apple Bloom took a step back and sighed. "Dinky!" she repeated again to herself in disbelief.
"I know! Turns out that the dinking noise that came from her horn wasn't her magic misfiring but a rare form of powerful quantum magic!"
Apple Bloom turned with a start as a strange yet familiar voice piped up in her ear. Standing behind her, blinking slowly, was a white unicorn with a straight-pressed pink and purple mane. Despite the difference age and appearance, Apple Bloom knew instantly who it was.
"Sweetie Belle!" Apple Bloom screamed out in joy, her heart racing again as she launched herself forwards, both hooves wrapping tightly around Sweetie Belle's neck. "It's been so so long! Too long ! Way too long! How are ya!" She rested her head for a moment on Sweetie Belle's neck, savouring the moment.
Sweetie Belle just stood rock-still, looking slightly bemused. "Ok, I'm okay thanks" she replied softly. "Sorry to hear about everything, I kept meaning to come back, just "
Apple Bloom grimaced. "Ah understand. But you're back now, ya'll back, that's what matters!" She felt herself hopping up and down slightly in excitement as that old energy returned. "When Scootaloo gets here, we're gonna be together again and have a big adventure, jus' like the ol' days!"
"Yeah." Sweetie Belle nodded rather unenthusiastically. "Scootaloo said she might be late "
Her face feeling as if it might break from the size of her smile, Apple Bloom took Sweetie Belle's appearance in. She was no longer the cute-but-scruffy filly of her youth, instead looking rather sombre, her frizzy mane now carefully flattened, and a small grey tie pinned around her neck.
"So Scootaloo is comin'! Fantastic!" Apple Bloom replied. "An' good to see you've got here safe and sound, what's your excuse for bein' late?" She grinned, giving Sweetie Belle a friendly poke in the ribs.
Sweetie Belle looked confused. "Oh no, I've been here ages. I've just been sat in the corner doing some work. I didn't want to disturb you; you looked like you were having fun." Sweetie Belle pointed to a darkened corner of the room where a school desk had been dragged, covered in bits of paper.
Apple Bloom frowned. "Ah'd been standin' about like a lemon waitin' for you, Sweetie!" she snapped in annoyance. But then her face softened, and she peered round at Sweetie Belle's flank where a cutie mark was now proudly displayed, the image of a yellow bell. "Good to see you got your cutie mark! So what're you doin' with your life? You're a singer now, right?"
Sweetie Belle just shrugged. "Nah. I mean, I liked that and all, but I didn't think I'd be good at it. I'm an accountant."
" And I bet you what?" Apple Bloom twitched slightly, peering at Sweetie Belle suspiciously. "No, seriously, what?"
"I just fell into it. It's not bad actually. I mean the hours are long and the pay's rubbish, but you know once I found my cutie mark, it just didn't seem important anymore " Sweetie Belle trailed off again, leaving the two standing in uncomfortable silence.
Apple Bloom found herself breathing heavily, eyes fixed on Sweetie Belle as her words filtered through. "Sweetie Belle, you wrote to me an' said you got your cutie mark for singin' and bein' loud, and now I see y'all quiet and meek an' a number cruncher! That ain't you!" Her voice rose slightly in pitch, feeling an agitated twitch at the betrayal. "You found yourself an' you chucked it clean away! There's no worse crime'n that!"
Sweetie Belle took a step backwards at this sudden outburst, mouth flapping open and closed silently. Finally she worked up the will to reply. "I-I'm sorry Apple Bloom, but I grew up! I'm still that little filly you knew, just one who knows when not to follow a silly dream." She gave a little smile, hoping to win Apple Bloom back with some humour. "Besides, I never knew that being a mayor had much to do with an apple cutie mark!" She pointed a hoof at the apple that was depicted on Apple Bloom's flank.
She wasn't prepared for what happened next. In an instant, Apple Bloom's face hardened, turning bright red, and she raised a hoof as if to strike Sweetie Belle. Sweetie Belle quickly raised her own hooves in front of her face to protect herself, shrinking backwards. "Apple Bloom, what?"
Apple Bloom stepped closer to Sweetie Belle, breathing heavily now in an attempt to get the sudden flush of rage under control. "You don' understand Sweetie Belle!" she gasped out, slowly dropping her hoof ashamedly, and again, with a whisper. "You don' understand "
Sweetie Belle moved to awkwardly hug Apple Bloom, but Apple Bloom had tensed up again, her eyes now fixed across the room. "What. The. Hay " she hissed, teeth clenched.
Across the room, merrily chatting to Strawberry Surprise, was none other than Silver Spoon.
Apple Bloom started to forcefully push her way through the throng of ponies, a look of angry determination fixed on her face, the only thing she could see being the pony that had bullied her so mercilessly throughout her formative years. Silver Spoon was standing there, happy and laughing, and every moment of joy on her face felt like a malicious stab aimed straight at her.
Sweetie Belle had realised what Apple Bloom was doing, and started to trail along behind her, her face wide with panic, desperately whispering "oh no Apple Bloom no!" in hushed tones.
Apple Bloom's head was spinning with a mixture of anger and confusion as she thrust her way up to Silver Spoon, dislodging a shocked Strawberry Surprise. "So Silver Spoon " she muttered darkly, advancing on the grey and rather rotund pony. "It's so good to see you made it."
Silver Spoon just gave a polite but genuine smile back. "Oh, Apple Bloom isn't it?" she trilled. "Good to see you again! I almost didn't come, I think my invitation got lost in the post, luckily Diamond Tiara let me know what was happening; do you remember her? She's coming down too later!"
"Yeah. ah think ah might remember her " Apple Bloom snapped back sarcastically, overwhelmed by confusion, as Silver Spoon started to try to make small talk. Silver Spoon hadn't received an invitation because she hadn't been invited. Neither had Diamond Tiara. Some pony had betrayed her and invited them both. Now she had turned up and was pretending that those years of constant teasing and mocking about her lack of a cutie mark hadn't happened, didn't matter. It had to be a trick of some kind, some final cruel windup. How dare she?
Silver Spoon was wittering on about some vapid charity work. Apple Bloom wasn't fooled though. She pushed her face closer to Silver Spoon, her hoof twitching as she tried to restrain herself. "Ah'll tell you what Silver Spoon " she begun, feeling the anger welling up in her again, deep in the pit of her stomach, threatening to overwhelm her. "Ah'll tell you what ah remember "
"Oh no " Sweetie Belle covered her eyes, unable to move, as Apple Bloom stood shaking in front of Silver Spoon, looking for all the world like she was about to explode.
Apple Bloom felt herself about to lose control and strike down the smarmy, self-centred, selfish Silver Spoon when a quivering voice cut through the crowd.
"Apple Bloom. It's late and I'm tired. I want to go home."
It was Cheerilee. She had woken up and was sitting, blinking softly in her wheelchair. Apple Bloom paused, uncertain which way to go, frozen between Silver Spoon and Cheerilee.
Finally, and with regret, she moved towards Cheerilee, but not before flashing a glance back to the confused Silver Spoon. "Ah'll be back" she hissed darkly, taking hold of Cheerilee's wheelchair and pushing the elderly pony out into the cool night. Scootaloo would be here soon. She'd help her make sense of all this craziness and make it all better.
As Apple Bloom left the party, Silver Spoon turned to Sweetie Belle and shrugged. "Now what the hay was all that about?"