"Well well well, what have we here? Goin' out for a lil' stroll Apple Bloom?"
Apple Bloom recoiled at the voice behind her, slowly turning with a look of guilt on her face. She had risen as dawn was breaking; her bindle neatly packed and ready to leave, but had stalled at the gates of Sweet Apple Acres for too long. She wasn't sure how long she'd stood, staring at the threshold, afraid to cross that invisible line that would take her away from home. The entrance to the farm had turned from a welcoming, happy place to an invisible barrier which she could not bring herself to cross. There would be no going back once she had left.
And now it was too late.
Applejack stood behind her, eyes narrowed as she glared at her sister, shaking her head slowly. "Ah'd never have thought it. Sneakin' off like a selfish lil' filly! Ah said no you can't go, an' you do it anyway! Where's the loyalty?"
Apple Bloom's shock at being caught out slowly dissipated into anger as she squared up to Applejack, looking her straight in the eye. She was almost the spitting image of her sister now - the same height, similar colourations. It was only Apple Bloom's fiery red hair that set her apart. It felt wrong to Apple Bloom, being able to look her sister in the eyes. Applejack had always seemed a tall, imposing pony, an authority on everything and a comforting shoulder to cry on. But now, she was just another pony. One who was wrong.
"Loyalty?" Apple Bloom snapped back incredulously, her earlier cowed stance all but forgotten. "Loyalty? What about loyalty to me, your sister! What about every day you keep me trapped on this here farm, wastin' time when ah could be findin' my purpose in life! What about this?" She swung her side out to display her hind quarters accusingly in Applejack's face. There was just smooth yellow fur, as there had always been since the day she was born. "Ah'm an adult, Applejack! An' ah ain't got mah Cutie Mark! You said it'd come but it ain't, and ah see them all in Ponyville starin' and laughing at me like a freak! Blank flank for life!" Her face crumpled as she started to plead, mouth quivering at the sides as she struggled to maintain her dignity. "Ah've gotta go! Ah've gotta go an' find myself or ah'm never gonna do anything with mah life! Ah'm incomplete, nothin'!"
Applejack sighed. "Ah understand, ah really do. But we need you on the farm. Family comes first Apple Bloom. You can go after harvest season, ah promise."
"Later? It's always later!" Apple Bloom felt the rage building in her again, shaking as she tried to restrain herself. "Y-ya'll a hypocrite! A dirty stinkin' hypocrite! Ah know you left home an' you found yourself an' your Cutie Mark, an' now you're tryin' to hold me back! It ain't fair! It ain't right!"
"It don't matter, not really!" Applejack trotted closer to her sister, holding out a hoof in an attempt to defuse the situation. "It's just a thing Apple Bloom, it don't mean nothin'. Not havin' a Cutie Mark don't stop you doing things normal ponies do."
She froze, clamping her mouth shut as she realised too late what she'd said. But the damage was done. Apple Bloom's face widened in horror and she skidded backwards as fast as she could away from her sister, over the threshold of the farm entrance and onto the dusty dirt track that led away.
"Ah knew it! Y'all think ah'm a freak!" she whimpered, biting her lip hard. "Ah hate you, more'n ah ever hated any pony! Ah'll show you! Ah'll show you all!" Apple Bloom ran. She ran as hard and as fast as she could, away from her home, away from Sweet Apple Acres, and away from her family. If she heard Applejack crying after her, begging her to come back, to not leave it like this, then she dismissed it as just noise on the breeze. She knew she'd find herself, return home and finally be equal and loved and respected and everything would be okay again.
She would never see home again.
"Ah can't believe Sweetie Belle! She's let me down, she's let everypony down, an' most of all, she's let herself down!" Apple Bloom fell silent, waiting for affirmation from Cheerilee as she pushed her wheelchair down the dark pathway. The lights that filled the windows of Ponyville flittered like trapped fireflies, lending a warm glow to the crisp night. Cheerilee was silent though, choosing instead to listen as Apple Bloom continued to talk.
"Ah mean she's denyin' herself! Livin' a lie! There's no way the Sweetie Belle ah knew would grow up to be like that. She ain't the pony ah knew! She went an' changed Miss Cheerilee!" Apple Bloom paused again, waiting for a response, even a grunt of agreement. It didn't come; the only noise that night was the squeaking of the wheels as the wheelchair bumped along the ground.
Finally, with a sigh, Cheerilee lifted her wizened head. "Apple Bloom, stop here. I want to rest."
Apple Bloom released her grip on the handles of the chair and then looked about with a start. In the darkness she hadn't realised exactly where they were, but they had reached the town square. Right next to that statue.
"Ah don't think this is a good place to-" she began, but Cheerilee cut her off, and she fell silent, the old schoolroom instincts falling into place.
"I'm an old pony, and if I want to rest then you let me rest, got that? Even the mayor of Ponyville has to show the elderly some respect." Cheerilee's voice was oddly assertive, and Apple Bloom could only mumble a 'yes miss' in reply. "Apple Bloom" she continued, more softly than before. "Take a seat. Please."
Apple Bloom slowly sunk to her haunches, resting on one of the benches that had been erected under the statue, shifting uncomfortably. "Can't we do this in the warm?" she began, worried about the old mare's health, and feeling slightly guilty for the pause. But Cheerilee took no notice.
"Ponies change Apple Bloom. They grow up. That's what getting old is all about, you of all ponies should know that. You can't expect the world to stop turning while you-"
This time it was Apple Bloom's turn to cut off Cheerilee. "But ah ain't changed! Ah'm still the same, ah stayed true to who ah am an' what ah was. Ah never forgot the important things!" She delivered the last line almost pleadingly, begging for reassurance.
Cheerilee sighed, leaning back in her chair, pulling up the blanket that covered her to protect against the crisp night air. "You know Apple Bloom, I remember a young filly who bounded about with endless energy. All she could think about was the future: about what she would be and what she would do. And now I see a mare who can only look backwards. You changed Apple Bloom. I changed. We all changed."
Apple Bloom took this in, blinking in the darkness. Was that all Cheerilee thought of her, a pony stuck in the past? "Ah've done lots for Ponyville!" she retorted. "Ah built it back up, ah made it all right again. An' if ah think too much about the past, well, that's just 'cause ah was happy then. Everything was perfect, now it's all one big screwed up mess!"
"I don't remember a happy little filly, not all the time." Cheerilee wheeled herself closer to Apple Bloom, her old bones creaking with the effort as she laid a hoof on Apple Bloom's. "I remember a filly who cried, who was scared of the future, that she wouldn't get her Cutie Mark, silly things like that."
Apple Bloom's eyes narrowed and she knocked Cheerilee's hoof away in disgust. "Well, you're rememberin' it wrong. It was perfect, back then. Me an' Scoots and Sweetie Belle. Ah'd sit in the orchards an' play with mah sister. Sunny skies all day long." Her voices quivered and she looked guiltily up at Cheerilee. "Ah miss her, you know. Ah should have stayed. This ain't how it was meant to be, you know. Ah had it all worked out. Ah was gonna come back to Ponyville with mah Cutie Mark, an' ah could finally settle down an' help Applejack run the farm. We'd go on adventures, proper adventures, an…"
She sunk lower into the cold bench. "… an' it didn't happen, did it? Ah thought there was some big destiny waitin' for everypony ah knew, but it didn't happen, an' they just went in the blink of an eye, an' ah wasn't even there. That's the worst thing, knowin' that she ain't with us, an' it ain't because of some noble cause or heroic sacrifice, just that she went to bed one night, an' the next mornin' half Equestria was ablaze! It ain't fair, there's gotta be meanin' in stuff otherwise what's the point?"
"Oh Apple Bloom." Cheerilee's face fell as Apple Bloom started getting more and more agitated. "You can't keep it bottled up. Lots of ponies felt the same. We all want our lives to have meaning, but the world is random and-"
"No!" Apple Bloom sprang to her feet and started to prowl back and forth, swinging her tail wildly. "No it's different 'cos ah wasn't there! Mah sister died and ah wasn't there! She thought ah hated her and ah wasn't there, ah was off bein' selfish and thinkin' about mahself!" She shut her eyes, shuddering slightly, attempting to control her breathing which had started to get faster and faster, dangerously out of control. She lowered her voice to a whimper. "If ah think of the past too much, then it's 'cos ah can look out across Ponyville an' still see it as it was, an' ah can pretend it ain't too late an' it's all still okay, an' for one moment ah' can be happy."
Silence reigned between the two ponies again. Apple Bloom couldn't even look Cheerilee in the eyes as she leant against the statue, craning her neck to gaze forlornly up at it, as it towered above her, rising into the night sky. A bronze statue of a unicorn that glared defiantly up at some unseen foe, a tattered pointed hat perched on its head. On the plinth beneath was etched proudly the legend 'Their finest hour'.
"Mah sister didn't get a statue," Apple Bloom sighed. "She didn't get no big moment, no chance to be a hero. It ain't fair miss. It ain't. Ah think if ah sit down an' really think about it, ah'd start cryin' and never stop. And that ain't the worst thing." She quivered slightly, slouching against the cold stone. "That ain't the worst thing. You see…"
Apple Bloom trailed off. Cheerilee's silence had turned into ragged, rasping snores, the old pony swaddled in her blanket, sleeping happy as a filly. With a heavy heart, Apple Bloom once more took up the burden and carefully pushed her teacher and dear friend back home.
Apple Bloom had never thought through where she wanted to go. All she knew was that she had a desperate, pulling urge to leave home. It was as the farm was suffocating her, holding her back, and that morning as she ran as fast as she could away from her sister, she finally felt a twang of happiness.
Within weeks she had reached the borders of Equestria and crossed into the barren, rocky lands of Griffonia that bordered the pony kingdom. The country was a maze of craggy mountains, over which hovered the most elaborate cloud architecture she'd ever seen. She was a pony though, and could not visit the cities; instead she gazed up at them with wonderment as she struggled through that unforgiving land.
After days of trekking, Apple Bloom reached the border of the country, and into the wide open expanse of Goatlandia. She pushed onwards, the first pony in centuries to see the ruby gyroscope that kept the land of Dis from tipping into the azure seas upon which it balanced. She saw cities made entirely of song, lakes of grass next to fields of the finest water. There were counties populated by the strangest and most bizarre of creatures; one land didn't have the colour red and she was hailed as a god for her vividly scarlet mane. Another country was made entirely of sound, and she had to tread slowly and carefully lest even the softest tap of her hooves on the ground cause a resonance wave that would collapse the capital of C Minor. All these places and more she visited, moving ever forwards. But still, despite all those wonders, her Cutie Mark refused to appear. Her rump remained frustratingly bare.
Finally on a rocky outcrop that stretched beyond the material world into the bright white light of creation from which all matter was formed, she reached the end of her long journey. She had walked the breadth of the known world and found so much, but she had never found herself.
On the edge of this vast precipice, where matter churned against uncreation sat a strange, spindly creature, who gazed at her with shock and alarm. The creature had found her fascinating and told her that it didn't think ponies existed. Apple Bloom had laughed at this and replied that there was a whole land of ponies who were just like her, who played in the sun and laughed and farmed the land.
The creature had shook its large black head and replied that it knew of Equestria, but had thought that ponies were extinct after the return of the arch demon Tirek. He showed the wide-eyed pony a selection of images captured on magical plates taken by an eagle outrider some months before, of Equestria aflame, those beautiful fields of green burning scarlet as dragons rampaged over them.
Apple Bloom ran.
She ran for one hundred days and one hundred nights all the way back home. Legends in countless countries spread of a mysterious pony that raced across the land for an unknown reason, never stopping to eat or rest. Tales sprung up of how she was a messenger of the gods, a stranger on a desperate mission of mercy, or even a pony that had been cursed to run lest she be struck down from on high.
She had travelled the world and discovered too late that her perfect place was where she had begun her journey. All she could think of as she ran was that beautiful farm and her loving family, and it spurred her on, desperate to return to her family before it was too late.
She never made it.
Apple Bloom's heart was thudding in her chest, and her stomach was twisting with anxiety as she slowly trotted back to the schoolhouse. From the distance she could hear merry laughter and the clatter of glasses from the partygoers who were obviously enjoying themselves. But what would she find when she returned? More bitter disappointment?
For a moment, Apple Bloom considered whether to forget the party and slink off back home. As she wavered by the schoolroom door, unsure of whether to commit herself to yet more anguish, there was a loud smashing of glass and a lavender pony tumbled out of a window to land in a heap at Apple Bloom's feet.
"I'm a pixie in my pretty hat! Hic!" Dinky giddily looked up from the ground at Apple Bloom. Somehow she had found a large orange cone and was wearing it on her head instead of a hat. She pony hiccupped again and stared at the window in alarm. "Oh no," she muttered, starting to slur her words. "H-hang on." Her horn glowed and the broken glass shimmered and in a puff of eldritch energy turned into a statue of a flamingo.
Apple Bloom stared at Dinky in shock. "Uh…" she stuttered. "Ah… ah hope y'all gonna be all right for that mission tomorrow… Ah don't want anypony getting in trouble…"
Dinky simply rose to her hind hooves and attempted a salute. She then toppled to the ground, hiccupping again. "It'sh all good!" she smiled contentedly. "S-shootaloo wash showin' me pear cider…"
"Scootaloo?" Apple Bloom almost shrieked in delight in a giddy, girlish way as she gave a little leap into the air. "She's here? She didn't forget?" With a new-found burst of optimism, she left the drunken Dinky to sleep off her intoxication on the cold ground and stepped inside back into the noise and heat of the party.
There were ponies everywhere, crammed into that small room. Apple Bloom barely recognised half of them as she bobbed her head above the throng, trying to push through and find her friend. Just as she thought Dinky must have been mistaken, an orange hoof snatched her through the crowd.
"Apple Bloom! It's been too long!" The pony in front of her grinned a wide, goofy grin and Apple Bloom's eyes widened in shock. It was Scootaloo, her Scootaloo, standing there in the flesh without a care in the world. She looked… magnificent, a strong pegasus standing proud, powerful wings folded at her sides carefully and a lightning bolt emblazoned on her rear.
"Scootaloo!" Apple Bloom forgot all decorum and threw her hooves around her friend in delight, hugging her tight. Scootaloo gave a start at this rather friendly onslaught, but smiled and returned the gesture. Apple Bloom felt herself start to calm down again as everything became right with the world. "It's you! It's really you! An' you remember me, an' you're not fat or…" she glared over Scootaloo's shoulder at Sweetie Belle, who sat with a notepad and pen at the buffet table, carefully scribbling away "…or borin'!"
"Me? I'm never boring!" Scootaloo grinned from ear to ear. "You know me, zooming everywhere, saving ponies left right and centre! A rescue pony's work is never done!"
"Rescue pony!" Apple Bloom beamed, sparing Sweetie Bloom a quick withering glance. "Ah'm so proud of you Scoots! You're still the coolest pony ever! An' look!" She angled her hindquarters at Scootaloo to show off the large apple proudly emblazoned there. Scootaloo simply smiled wryly. Apple Bloom felt her heart racing with joy as she remembered what she'd brought. "Hey Scoots, ah've got somethin' for you!"
Nudging Sweetie Belle out of the way, she pulled a carefully wrapped package from its safe place under the buffet table. Under the watchful gaze of Scootaloo and a mildly curious Sweetie Belle, she unveiled three small maroon and blue cloaks. "Ah kept them!" she smiled, looping one around her neck, comically small on her adult frame. "Ah never forgot, after all these years!" She looked at Scootaloo hopefully. "Ah thought maybe…"
"Oh, cool! I remember these!" Scootaloo took the offered cloak and examined it, Apple Bloom's face beaming with glee. It fell just as fast as Scootaloo threw the fabric to Sweetie Belle. "Here, Sweetie, check it out!" She leaned against the table as Sweetie Belle peered curiously at the garment. "So Apple Bloom, I hear you've got some little foals now. I hope you told them all about their auntie Scootaloo!"
Apple Bloom blinked in confusion, suddenly feeling very self-conscious with the little cloak draped around her neck. Was that it? The moment she had waited for after so long dismissed in an instant. She shook her head. "No, no Scootaloo, that ain't important. This is what's important, here!" She snatched the cloak back from Sweetie Belle, who reacted with a squeak. "Put it on Scoots, you too Sweetie." She looked at her two friends imploringly. "One last adventure. For me."
Scootaloo broke into a laugh and gave Apple Bloom a friendly tap on the shoulder. "Good one Apple Bloom! Don't tell me you've got a zip line set up outside! Hey Di, take a look!" Scootaloo eagerly waved the cloak in her mouth like a rag, and a pale pink pony trotted over to the trio.
"Hah, brilliant!" The pink pony trotted over to Scootaloo, giving the pegasus a slightly too-familiar nuzzle as she took the cloak from her and smirked at it. Apple Bloom furrowed her brow as she stared at the newcomer, mind racing. That pink coat. That purple and white striped hair. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. It was.
"Oh hey Apple Bloom!" The pony smiled sweetly if vacantly at Apple Bloom. Apple Bloom didn't return the smile, instead remaining frozen to the spot feeling beads of sweat pricking at her forehead and an icy chill claw at her chest.
"You remember Diamond Tiara don't you Apple Bloom?" Scootaloo chirped merrily. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Sweetie Belle starting to attempt to shrink back into the crowd.
Remember? Of course she remembered. Apple Bloom attempted to reply but felt her mouth going dry. How could she not remember the pony that had bullied her so mercilessly during her school days, ruined those happy carefree days with her spiteful teasing and vile remarks over her lack of Cutie Mark? Suddenly she realised who had invited Silver Spoon. Who had invited Diamond Tiara. Who had betrayed her.
"S-scootaloo?" Apple Bloom ignored Diamond Tiara and swung her gaze to her friend, her eyes brimming with hurt. "Wha? Ah don't…"
Scootaloo blushed slightly, scratching the back of her head. "Oh, you know how it happens Apple Bloom! We met each other the other year at Eagles Peak, got talking about old times, and hey presto!" She gave a wink. "Wedding in the spring, of course you're invited!"
Apple Bloom took a step back, her rear jabbing into the table. The babble of noise in the room faded in her ears and she suddenly and terribly felt very alone in that room full of ponies. Her legs trembled as she looked between the pair. "B-but Scoots, that's Diamond Tiara! She's a bully! Don't you remember? Ah don't get it, its outta nowhere, it ain't right! This is crazy!"
Scootaloo seemed to miss Apple Bloom's panicked expression and just rolled her eyes. "Sheesh Apple Bloom. Ponies change! If everypony went around holding everypony else to everything they ever did when they were a foal, then we'd get nowhere!"
Diamond Tiara stepped forwards, a genuine smile on her face. "Look, Apple Bloom, I don't really remember, but if I was ever mean to you at school I'm sorry." She held out a hoof. "That was years ago. It's ancient history!"
All Apple Bloom could see now was Diamond Tiara standing before her, mocking her. She had made her life a hell as a filly and now had everything, even Scootaloo, while Apple Bloom was left with nothing. It wasn't fair. Her features twisted into a scowl and with one smooth but powerful motion lifted her own hoof and swung it. With the crashing of thunder, her hoof connected with Diamond Tiara's face and the pony fell hard into the buffet table, cracking it in half and sending broken crockery and glass everywhere.
"Well it ain't ancient history to me!" Apple Bloom hissed as the room suddenly and terribly fell into a stunned silence, all the ponies, even Scootaloo looking on, mouths agape.
Like a frenzied animal Apple Bloom dived onto the dazed Diamond Tiara, feeling the rush of blood to her head, her hooves shaking as she struck the pony as hard as she could again and again, biting and scratching in a whirlwind of frenzied motion. If Diamond Tiara tried to fight her off or cry out, she could not hear, so caught up was she.
It felt right, this outpouring of emotions and repression in a burst of violence, the chance to finally strike back at the untouchable and unperceivable events that haunted her life. With the first punch, it was Diamond Tiara she hit. With the second, it was Tirek himself. The next was Krastos, and Trixie, and Silver Spoon and Sweetie Belle, and every other pony who had ever let her down. Every pony and every thing who had dared to hold her back or ruin her life or humiliate her. As she continued to pummel the defenceless pony beneath her she could hear a guttural, sobbing scream. It was coming from her own throat.
With a violent shove, a gaggle of strong hooves shoved Apple Bloom off her victim, and she fell hard into the remains of the table. It couldn't have been more than ten seconds since she had leapt on Diamond Tiara, but the cathartic release had felt like an eternity. Now she found herself lying on her back staring up at a room full of ponies who looked on her with a mixture of concern and shock and disgust.
As she continued to shake, Apple Bloom felt something wet on her face. She dabbed her hoof against her cheek and stared hard. They were tears. She realised she was crying, her breath getting louder and louder in guttural sobs as her peers looked down on her muttering their disapproval. At the head was Scootaloo, who was comforting a quivering, shaking Diamond Tiara and scowling at Apple Bloom with a barely disguised rage.
Before any of the other ponies could recover from the shock and regain their voices, Apple Bloom, sprawled on the broken table half wrapped in a food-smeared table cloth, raised an accusing hoof at Diamond Tiara. "W-what're you all doin' on her side?" she hissed, choking back a sob, her vision blurring through the treacherous tears that flooded her eyes. "It's all her fault!"
"How?" Scootaloo snapped, darting forwards to press her angry face close to the fallen Apple Bloom. "How the hay do you work that one out? What gives you the right? How dare you?"
Apple Bloom looked up at Scootaloo, her heart sinking at the hateful reaction of her friend. The first time she opened her mouth all she could hear was a string of sob-wracked gibberish. She gulped and tried again. "Ah… ah got older Scoots an' ah didn't get mah Cutie Mark, an' ah couldn't forget the teasin' so ah left an' when ah came back it was all gone. It's her fault Scoots, ah could'a been happy an' stayed home an' ah'd still be with Applejack!" She blurted the words out, hoping against hope that Scootaloo would understand.
Scootaloo didn't. She stared at Apple Bloom in confusion, recoiling from the snivelling pony. "That's what this is all about? You're hung up on getting teased in school? That's what little fillies do, they say stupid things. Cutie Marks are something you obsess over as a filly; it's not worth all this! You're a grown pony, it's pathetic! Who cares?"
Apple Bloom quivered wide-eyed under Scootaloo. "Ah care" she croaked out, her face scrunched up more than she thought possible, one hoof rubbing her eyes to try to hide the shameful tears. "Ah care. Every day ah try to forget but ah can't an' it's crushin' me!" She wrapped herself up in the smeared tablecloth as if it were a blanket in a comfy bed, trying to shut out the sight of the room full of ponies staring at her and judging her. She felt a great weight lift from her. It was time.
"Ah'm livin' a lie!" she finally wailed, causing Scootaloo to jump backwards and several other ponies to start with shock. "Ah'm a fake! A fraud! Ah'm a useless pony who never found her purpose! Ah don't deserve nothin'!"
A gasp rose around the room as Apple Bloom scrabbled at her haunch and tugged. The fur on it seemed to scrunch and tear and lift off, taking part of her Cutie Mark with it. It wasn't fur, it was an expertly crafted piece of material, which Apple Bloom now held bitterly, looking across at the ponies who stared at her as she wallowed in her shame. "Ah never found mah Cutie Mark! Ah never found mahself! Ah thought tonight we could make it all as it was, go on one last adventure, give me one last chance!" Her eyes flitted over to the battered and scuffled Diamond Tiara. "Ah'm just a useless blank flank, a freak! Ah put this on one day an' never told anypony. Not even mah kids or husband. But ah can't take it no more, ah can't!"
She collapsed into the ruins of the table and sobbed; a pitiful sight as she clutched the remains of her fake Cutie Mark to her chest, no longer caring at the ponies that stared and muttered amongst themselves.
To her shock, she felt a pair of hooves wrap themselves around her shoulders and gently haul her up. Scootaloo's face looked down at her, the rage of earlier softened with a look of compassion. "Oh Apple Bloom" she sighed, holding the pony close to her in a hug. "Oh you silly, silly mare. It doesn't matter."
Apple Bloom tried to blink away the tears as she let herself be hugged like a rag doll. "N-no, you heard what ah said…"
Scootaloo simply held Apple Bloom. "You define your Cutie Mark Apple Bloom, it doesn't define you. Look at yourself; you've done so much for Ponyville! You rebuilt it from nothing! You're mayor, you have respect! Cutie Marks don't do that, you do it!"
Sweetie Belle stepped forwards from her hiding place amongst the crowd of gawping onlookers. "You're married!" she squeaked. "You've got little foals! That's more than nothing, that's huge!"
Apple Bloom gulped hard, shaking her head. "B-but…"
Ponies started to call out one after another. Voices she recognised. Voices she didn't. Not mocking or teasing but words of encouragement. About how she had helped or inspired them, though the babble became too much and she could no longer pick out individual words. All she could feel was Scootaloo holding her as she shook.
Diamond Tiara slowly moved closer. "I'm sorry if I ever hurt you Apple Bloom" she whispered softly. "You're a good pony."
Scootaloo took the scrap of fake Cutie Mark from Apple Bloom, examining it and slowly shaking her head. "You should have said Apple Bloom. No pony's had it easy. We could have helped. That's what friends are for." She looked down. "Did you never take it off?"
"Never" Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah put it on one day an' ah never looked back. That way ah could pretend an' maybe forget, if only for a moment…" she trailed off. "Ah've been so stupid, haven't I?"
Scootaloo just hugged Apple Bloom. "Oh Apple Bloom" she whispered. "You're not nothing. You've achieved so much, travelled so far. You've got ponies who love you and respect you. You had it all along Apple Bloom, you just never realised." She gave a sharp tug and ripped off the remainder of the fake mark from Apple Bloom's haunch. "You've always had your Cutie Mark."
Apple Bloom instinctively turned her face away in humiliation from her blank flank. Slowly, determined to face her demons, she twisted her head to stare at it. She froze in shock. There, beneath the tatters of the fake symbol was emblazoned a mark that stood proudly upon her fur.
And it was beautiful.