Chapter 1: Blood and Family
The porch door slammed loudly, accompanied by the sound of small, hurried hooves clomping up the stairs.
"Apple Bloom, that better not be you slammin' the door again!" Applejack shouted from the kitchen. Getting no response, she took off her apron and left Granny Smith to continue folding the fritters.
"AB?" she said again, following the muddy hoofprints up the stairs. "AB, what've I told ya about wipin' yer hooves before ya come in the house?" Still though, she didn't get a reply.
As Applejack approached the young filly's bedroom door, she heard sniffling. She pushed the door open slowly, and softened her tone. "Hey sugarcube. What's wrong?"
"Nothin'," Apple Bloom said, wiping her eyes with her forehooves, "Just, ya know, foals at school."
"What'd they do this time?" Applejack said, sitting on the familiar bed beside the young pony.
"The usual... 'blank flank' and all that. They saw me an' Sweetie an' Scoots crash our wagon after we all said we'd get our racing cutie marks."
"That how ya got those scratches?" Applejack said, pointing to the muddy welts on Apple Bloom's shoulder.
"Yeah..." Apple Bloom said, dejectedly.
"Hang on a sec. Lemme go get something to clean that up."
Applejack returned a moment later with a couple of wet rags and a bottle of ointment from the bathroom.
"Alright, go ahead and tell me what happened next," she said while starting to wipe away some of the mud from the injuries.
"They said I must just be a big baby and lyin' about my age if I still didn't have a cutie mark."
"Oh sugarcube, you know you can't let 'em get to ya. Every pony gets their cutie mark when it's time. It don't have nothin' to do with how old ya are."
Apple Bloom looked Applejack right in the eyes. "Then how come they all got theirs already?"
"Oh, like who?" Applejack said, continuing to daub at the cuts on Apple Bloom's shoulder.
"Well, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon both have theirs."
Applejack knew the names as two of her sister's primary tormentors. She'd had a talk with Filthy Rich about the bullying already, and while the stallion wasn't disagreeable, it was clear he wasn't exactly involved much in his daughter's life and wasn't likely to make Diamond change her ways. Silver Spoon was just a lackey as far as Applejack could tell. She'd stop when Diamond did.
"Really... and what are their special talents?"
Apple Bloom had never really thought of that. They had their marks, and that's what mattered to the other colts and fillies, but what did they actually do?
"Umm, I guess they're really rich?"
"And you're jealous of that?" Applejack frowned as she looked at the cloth she'd been using to clean the wounds.
"No, of course not sis. I don't wanna be some snooty richfilly. Wait," she said, catching her sister's odd frown at the sight of the cloth. "Why're ya makin' that face? Am I hurt bad or somethin'?"
"Uh, no... it's not bad. Ya just keep gettin' in so many accidents I'm runnin' outta clean bandages. Anyways, why are ya so worried about them gettin' their marks already?"
"I don't know..."
"Did ya ever think that maybe their special talents are just easy and borin' and that's why they got their marks already? Maybe yer takin' longer to find yours ‘cause it's special and unique, not just 'bein' rich and snooty' like them two."
"Ya really think that might be true?" Apple Bloom said.
"Of course I do. Ah know yer special, and I promise ya, one day the whole world will know it too. You just have to be strong 'till then, ya hear me?"
Apple Bloom sniffled and tried to dry her eyes a bit more. "Okay."
"Good. Now why don't ya come downstairs and have a couple fritters and maybe some ice cream," Applejack said, smiling and ushering the filly off the bed and out the door. "I know that always makes me feel a mite better."
Apple Bloom gladly followed her sister downstairs and enjoyed a pleasant treat. With a full stomach, it wasn't hard for Applejack to usher her off to bed either. The young filly had already had a busy day, and convincing her to tuck in early on a full belly of ice cream and apple fritters wasn't that difficult. But despite a willingness to go to bed, Apple Bloom's mind was still ablaze with the problems of the day, and she found it hard to sleep. As she was tossing and turning, she heard Big Mac and Applejack start talking downstairs.
They were being quiet, but in the absolute silence of a rural farmhouse, even the slightest noise was pretty easy to pick out. She'd heard a lot of these conversations over the years, as her big siblings discussed farm business and other trivia on a regular basis, sometimes late into the night. Most times, the soft voices helped her fall asleep, as the reassuring sounds of family nearby helped drive away any foalish notions of monsters and other fears of the night. This time though, she couldn't help but pick up the sound of her own name several times.
It was a popular farm saying that "curiosity killed the cat" and every time Apple Bloom heard it, she was reassured by the fact that she was actually not a cat, but a pony. Said reassurance firmly in mind, she crept out of her room and onto the balcony overlooking the lower floor. There she laid and listened to her siblings below.
"Ah tell ya Big Mac, she's gonna find out soon enough, an if she don't, then somepony else is gonna see her when she gets hurt and bleedin' like that and know somethin' ain't right."
"Or maybe even worse, she's gonna keep gettin' teased about the cutie mark thing, and everypony's gonna figure it out. I mean, she's still young enough that it ain't too unusual for now, but another year or two and there ain't gonna be no excuses left."
"Ya got any idea what we should do?"
"Me neither, Mac. Me neither."
Realizing she'd caught only the tail end of things and the conversation was now over, Apple Bloom quickly scurried back to her room. Just as she got back to bed, she heard her sister's hoofsteps coming up the stairs. The cat may be doomed, she thought, marveling at her perfect timing, but "Cutie Mark Crusaders: Secret Spies" had a nice ring to it. The elation at a successful intel operation lasted only a few seconds though, and was quickly overshadowed by the content of said intel. Needless to say, Apple Bloom didn't sleep very well that night, worrying about just what her sister wasn't telling her. What'd Applejack mean about "bleedin' like that"? She didn't know, but she was determined to find out.
The next morning, Apple Bloom again used her super secret spy skills to pilfer a knife—from the completely unattended kitchen—and put it in her saddle bags to hide in the clubhouse before school. As soon as Sweetie and Scootaloo showed up, she let them know she was calling an emergency meeting of the CMC, right after class.
Waiting for class to end, as every foal knows, is the hardest thing in the world though, and the day felt as if it lasted forever. When the last few minutes finally rolled around, all of the Cutie Mark Crusaders were doing little more than staring at the classroom clock, waiting for it to tick over to the magical 3:15 moment when school was let out.
As the bell rung, the CMC members were out the door and down the path towards their "secret" clubhouse. Yes, a lot of ponies actually knew where the clubhouse was, being pretty visible from several roads, but it was still secret, because only CMC members were allowed inside.
"So what's so important," Sweetie Belle asked, "that we need an emergency meeting, AB?"
"Yeah, Bloom, I'm missing Rainbow Dash's practice for this," Scootaloo said.
"Ya don't think the CMC is as important as watching Rainbow?" Apple Bloom said.
"Yeah, of course I do, but I don't want to waste my time unless we got something important to do. So whatcha got?"
Apple Bloom, so confident until now, had a moment of doubt. "Do ya'll trust me?"
"Of course," said the unicorn.
"Why wouldn't we?" Said the pegasus.
"Well..." Apple Bloom nervously rubbed one forehoof across the other as she stared at the floor.
"What is it AB?" Sweetie said, nuzzling her friend.
"It's just... I think there's something wrong with me. I ain't normal."
"What?" Scootaloo looked at Apple Bloom, head tilted.
"I don't think I'm like a normal pony. Somethin's wrong with me."
Sweetie Belle, still physically consoling her, said "AB, you gotta tell us more than that. We're your friends forever, I promise." Sweetie held up a hoof to her heart.
"Me too," Scootaloo said, likewise holding her forehoof to her barrel.
"Okay, so," Apple Bloom began. "I heard my brother and sister talkin' last night when they thought I was asleep..."
Apple Bloom told the story as she knew it, and then looked at her friends and asked, "What color do normal ponies bleed?"
"Bloom, seriously!" Sweetie interjected. "What kind of a question is that?"
Apple Bloom pulled out the knife she'd earlier smuggled from the kitchen.
"What color do they bleed?"
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked at each other, unsure how to handle this. Their friend was obviously going off the deep end, and neither of them knew what to do.
"Answer me!" Apple Bloom demanded.
"Red, AB... blood is red," Sweetie finally answered.
"Mine ain't," Apple Bloom said, slicing a short cut into her pastern with the knife. Sure enough, the liquid that flowed from the cut wasn't red, but was a dark brown, muddy substance.
Sweetie and Scootaloo were both taken aback, staring in confusion.
"AB, what's going on?" Scootaloo asked.
"Me. That's me. I don't bleed right. My sister said as much to Big Mac, and you said it yourself. Normal ponies bleed red."
"Bloom... listen to me," Sweetie said, stepping hesitantly towards the nervous earth pony, "Just put down the knife. We can figure this out, it's not a big deal."
"Not for you maybe, you've got red blood, right?"
"Umm... I think so." Sweetie tried to remember the last time she'd cut herself, but drew a blank.
"Go ahead, show me." Apple Bloom tossed the knife onto the floor in front of the white unicorn. "I'm not sayin' you have to hurt yourself much, just a little cut."
"AB, I don't think this is..."
"Don't tell me what's right. I bleed mud. That's definitely not right. What about you?"
Sweetie Belle looked at the knife on the ground, its cutting edge covered in a slight sheen of what looked like brown clay. Then she looked up at the eyes of her friend, who was questioning her very existence. Taking the knife, she didn't have to think long. "I'm with you AB... Cutie Mark Crusaders forever!" She said, as she drew the knife across the top of her foreleg a short distance. It stung, it really did, but then again, so did a paper cut.
What really shocked was the luminescent blue glow that seeped out of the wound where blood should be. Sweetie's eyes went wide with shock, and she stared directly at Apple Bloom for answers. "What is this? What's happening?"
Apple Bloom was just as surprised as her friend though. "I... I don't know. I thought I was the only one. My sister talked about how I didn't bleed right, and I still had no cutie mark. I didn't know it was gonna be you too!"
"What about you Scoots?" Sweetie asked, her voice dropping to a dazed monotone. "What color do you bleed?"
Scootaloo was in utter shock and couldn't even respond. She just shook her head in response.
"Come on... we both found out," Sweetie insisted, moving toward the unusually nervous pegasus. "What about you?"
Scootaloo inched back from the other two fillies, scared of how they were acting.
"Come on Sweetie," Apple Bloom said. "Leave her alone. If she doesn't want to, that's fine."
Sweetie turned her head and glared at Apple Bloom. "No," she said in an unusually calm voice, "We all need to know where we stand." She turned again and looked at Scootaloo.
"Stay away from me you... you... whatever you are!" the pegasus muttered, backing away from the creature with the glowing blue blood..
"What's the matter, Scootaloo? Are you chicken?" Sweetie Belle said.
"Sweetie!" Apple Bloom said, jumping between the other fillies. "What the hay is wrong with you? That's our friend!"
Sweetie shook her head to clear it. "Oh no... what did I just say?"
"You called Scoots a chicken!"
"Oh... no... no, I didn't mean it," Sweetie said, turning to look at Scootaloo. "I don't know what I was thinking. I'm so sorry Scootaloo. I'm just in shock. I didn't mean it, I promise!"
All three fillies sat in silence for a moment, the only sounds coming from the perfectly normal day outside, with wind blowing through the trees, cattle lowing in the distance, and the occasional chirps of nearby birds.
Scootaloo wasn't sure what to think. She really, really wanted to run away and hide, but she also knew these two were her real, actual, and forever friends, no matter what Sweetie might have said in a moment of panic. Something was going on, and she knew it didn't matter how fearful you felt, you were only a chicken if you acted on that fear. She had to join her friends in figuring this out.
"Cutie Mark Crusaders forever," she said softly. "Right? I really wouldn't be much of a friend if I chickened out now, would I?"
"Oh Scootaloo, I really didn't..."
"It's okay Sweetie, I know you didn't. Just gimme the knife and let's get this over with."
Sweetie pushed the implement across the floor with her hoof, and Scootaloo picked it up and made a hesitant slash across her pastern as well.
What came out was nothing but water.
"What does that prove?" Scootaloo said, getting nervous again, "It just means we were wrong... Not all ponies bleed red. I mean, I bet if Rainbow Dash gets hurt, she probably bleeds rainbows! All unicorns probably bleed glowy magic goop too!" She said, pointing at the fading blue glow from Sweetie's cut.
Sweetie looked down at her foreleg. "I don't think so Scoots... I know blood is supposed to be red."
The slight blue glow on the cut seemed to pulse. Still in a state of shock, Sweetie picked up the knife again, and brought it back to the same wound.
"Sweetie, what're you doing?" Apple Bloom demanded, as the knife floated over her friend's foreleg.
"I need to know," the unicorn said, and sliced deeper with the knife. As she did so, it grated against something hard.
"Sweetie, stop!" Apple Bloom called. "Don't hurt yourself!"
"It... It doesn't hurt... much." Sweetie wiggled and sliced a bit deeper into her foreleg, surprised herself at the relative lack of pain. She peeled back a piece of flesh. Underneath, she stared at a chromium piston, slowly expanding and contracting with each small movement of her hoof. Probing further, she found more pistons, as well as various struts, pivots, and other linkages where there should have been bones, tendon, and muscle.
Over the metal components was the white, rubbery "flesh" she'd just cut through. It seemed to be there only to give her leg shape beneath the skin and fur, as it showed no signs of contraction or other movement like a normal muscle would. It also seemed to be the source of the blue liquid, which oozed surprisingly slowly from where she'd cut, despite being a relatively thin fluid. Barely enough of the "blood" had been spilled to do more than run slightly down her fetlock, despite the deep cuts she'd made.
After a moment, Sweetie stopped digging and looked up. She held her foreleg out in front of her friends, prying open the wound with magic so they could see clearly what was inside. "How do you explain this?" She demanded.
The other fillies stared in wonder at the subtly moving mechanisms, and had no answer at all.
"She was worried," Applejack said. "Really worried, Mac."
Apple Bloom was again laying on the balcony and listening to her older siblings talk. She'd stayed in the clubhouse for hours after both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle left, quietly crying to herself off and on, wondering what in the world was wrong with her. Then, by the time she got home, she was in trouble with Applejack for being so late. She'd been late before though, and while her sister was never happy about it, it was usually just a few mild admonishments. This time though, Applejack had sent her straight to her room and told her she was grounded. By then, Apple Bloom had no will left to resist, and meekly clomped up the stairs and threw herself onto her bed, occasional tears soaking into her pillow.
For an hour, she'd heard Applejack pacing back and forth downstairs, hooves softly tapping against the wooden floor. The conversation had started the second Big Mac walked in the door. When she heard Applejack's frantic words burst out, Apple Bloom herself wasted no time sneaking out onto the balcony to listen in, working extra hard to stop her sniffling so she wouldn't be discovered.
"She said Sweetie was almost catatonic," Applejack continued. "Mutterin' nonsense about monsters with bad blood in between fits of tears, and that there was a pretty bad cut on her leg. She told me all Sweetie would say about what happened was that it was Apple Bloom's fault. I tell ya Mac, I know Rares can be a bit melodramatic, but this weren't one of her normal fits... this was the real deal. She was on the verge of tears, worried about her sister."
"Eeyup," Big Mac said.
"Ya know the worst part? When she asked me if I had any idea what was goin' on, and I just stood there tellin' her I hadn't the foggiest. At least AB still weren't back yet, so I didn't have to lie about that too."
Apple Bloom heard sniffling, and her brother's heavy footsteps as he went to hug Applejack.
"Thanks Mac, Ah just... Ah don't know what ta do. When Bloom came home, I couldn't even look her in the eye. I just yelled at her and sent her off to bed for being late. I'm worried Mac... Do ya think AB's figured it out? Do you think she knows she's not a real pony?"
At that, Apple Bloom couldn't take it anymore. The words stung and cut far worse than any knife, and she burst into tears. Her older siblings heard the sudden sobs from the balcony above them and looked up. "Apple Bloom?" Applejack said, the fear and realization that she'd been overheard nearly choking the word from her throat. She got only more sobs in return.
"Oh sugarcube," Applejack said. "Come on down here."
Apple Bloom stood up and slowly plodded down the stairs, sniffling and pausing to wipe her eyes a couple of times on the way. When she got to the bottom she stood by the door and just stared at her sister and brother, barely even blinking.
"Oh AB," Applejack said, starting to walk towards her little sister. "I don't know how much you heard, but..."
"I heard enough!" Apple Bloom said, stepping back slightly as Applejack tried to hug her.
"It's okay Bloom, ah promise, me an' Mac are here for ya."
Apple Bloom stood still for a moment, her breathing fast and deliberate, then she rushed forward and wrapped her forelegs around her sister and bawled out "What do you mean I'm not real?"
"Oh it's okay sugar... you're real, I promise. Ain't nothing wrong, jus..."
"Ah mean... ah know I bleed mud, but..." Apple Bloom said haltingly, still wracked with sobbing as she hugged her sister as tight as she could. "But I ain't a monster, am I?"
"No no, of course not!" Applejack said, separating herself from Apple Bloom to look her in the eye.
"But... but how can you know I'm a real pony? I mean, it ain't right to be made o' mud an ya know it, so how can ya know I'm real?"
Big Mac walked over and poked Apple Bloom in the ribs, surprising her just enough to make her stop rambling.
"Ya seem real enough to me, little Apple," he said. "And I reckon I know a thing or two about apples."
"Besides," Mac continued, winking at her. "Ya ain't doubtin' your sister's honesty now are ya?"
Apple Bloom knew her sister was the element of Honesty, and while she disagreed and even fought with her sister about a lot of things, she knew the only thing stronger than Applejack's honesty was her love for her family.
"No, I ain't doubtin' that," she said, hanging her head somewhat.
Big Mac put his massive hoof under her chin and raised it to look him directly in the eye. "Listen here sis, ah may not know a lot o' things, but I do know one. We're a family. That means we stick together no matter what. Bein' an Apple isn't just about yer name, or yer cutie mark, or even the color of yer blood. It goes deeper. We're Apples, down to our roots, and that includes you. So don't ya ever start thinkin' ya don't belong, that ya ain't real, or that we don't love ya more than anything else in the world, okay?"
Apple Bloom looked at him and nodded, "Okay."
"Good, now come here," Mac said, wrapping Apple Bloom up in a big hug that left her back hooves dangling several feet above the ground before setting her back down.
After Applejack joined in for another group hug, Apple Bloom had mostly stopped sniffling and was feeling a lot less worried.
"But even if I ain't a monster," Apple Bloom said. "Why am I made 'a mud?"
"I guess I should take this one, eh Mac?" Applejack said, looking at her brother.
"Alright, but why don't we go get some hot cider in the kitchen first. This one might take a while in the tellin'."
So I've told ya before what happened to Ma and Pa, but I think ah probably left out just how badly I really took it. Ah mean, me and Mac, we got on with the farm work pretty quickly. Can't reckon we had a choice there, as there's always a lot that needs doin'. But while I was bein' all strong on the outside, inside I was still heartbroken for a long time. Even a year after they were gone, I'd still find myself cryin' into my pillow like a little filly. Come mornin' though, I'd put on a tough face and go start buckin' more apples.
The problem is, when ya bottle up yer feelings like that, it don't always help you get through 'em. So while everypony else was puttin' the past further behind them, for me, up in my head, it was just gettin' worse an' worse.
One day, I was cleaning out one of the barns and I came across somethin' that made me just break down cryin' on the spot. I'm sure it woulda looked quite silly to anypony else, but I was cryin' over a dang scarecrow. The reason was that Pa and I had been workin' on it right before he died. We'd made half a dozen or so for the fields that year already, but he figured we needed one more to keep the birds away from one of the far groves, so we were finishin' up the last one when him and Ma passed, and in all the grief and such I'd forgotten about it.
We'd just been startin' to put the hay on it, and now what was there had mostly dried out, loosenin' the vines and causing it to shed. I know it seems a mite silly, but I just couldn't leave it like that. I had to finish the thing. So, I started sneakin' out to that old barn late at night, or the middle of the day when I was sure Mac weren't gonna be around to see me. I felt like a foolish little filly, both for what I was doin' and for how I was tryin' to hide it, then doubly so because I kept breaking down crying every time I went near the dang thing.
I don't know if Mac or Granny has told you anything about makin' a scarecrow, but it's a bit more complicated than ya might think. A proper farm-pony lookin' scarecrow takes a few steps, and it's kinda a tradition to do it right. As such, the progress was slow. When ya make these things in prime season, they hay has dried just enough that it's done shrinkin', but not so much that it's become brittle. Out of season, I found myself having to tear apart entire hay bales to find a few slightly less dried out strands in the middle. That meant hauling them out of the big hay barn without getting noticed. Then I found myself with a huge pile of loose, discarded hay starting to fill the barn where I was working.
As I worked and wove the small bits of salvaged hay onto it, it started to look more and more like a pony. This reminded me more and more of how much I missed Ma and Pa though, and one day, as I turned around, I saw the foreleg I'd just finished, and for a brief second, I thought it was Pa standing over me. Then I realized I couldn't even remember what his hooves actually looked like. He'd picked me up thousands of times with those hooves, led me to my first day of school with them, even worked on this very scarecrow right beside me with those same hooves, and I couldn't even remember what they looked like. How long were his fetlocks? I couldn't remember even that, and the sense of loss nearly sent me into a panic. If I could forget such common things about my own parents, then I might forget everything about 'em!
Then I had an idea. I was finishing this because it was the last thing Pa had worked on, but I reckoned maybe it could help me remember them in more ways as well. That hoof reminded me of Pa? Well, that was good. Ah figured I could make all the details fit, remember them both. The way Ma's ears always perked up when Pa and Mac came in from the fields for dinner and how her mane always got into her eyes on windy days, or the way Pa's brow wrinkled when he was ponderin' something difficult, and that glint in his eyes when he finally figured it out. I knew I wasn't an artist, but I was determined, and set to work.
It was even slower goin' after that, partly because of the clandestine nature of it, but also my lack of real skill. Normally that weren't a problem, but once I decided this was about the details, I quickly became a perfectionist, and there ain't nothing slower than an unskilled perfectionist!
I think Mac and Granny both knew something was up, as I was gettin' very little sleep, comin' in late at night or even early in the mornin'. They both left me to it though.
When I finished all the hay, I felt pretty darn proud of myself. I think I might even've smiled a bit, and if I did, it was probably the first time in months I'd done so. Next up though was the covering, and for that I knew I'd have to work in Ma's old sewin' room, and that'd be a bit harder to hide.
The first day I got up into the sewing room though, I came across a nearly finished scarecrow covering in the closet. Ma must've been working on it the same time Pa and I were building that last scarecrow. I'd been doin' pretty good for the previous weeks, but seein' that made me lose it again. After a while I recovered my wits though, and cranked up the sewing machine to finish the cover. Ah ain't no seamstress like Ma was, but it was so close to complete that it took me only an hour or so to finish up the last pieces. After that, I dug around a bit in the closet and found her bag of what we always called "scarecrow fixin's." That is, a bunch of knick knacks that can be used for eyes, manes, tails, and that sorta thing.
Well, when I got to the barn, that cover fit just perfect, and I barely had to hem or tuck anything once it was in place. That never happens. Well, least not for farm pony scarecrows. This one though, it was lookin' just like the best of the craft show types I'd ever seen. The only thing off about it was it'd yellowed a bit from the year or so it'd spent in the closet up in the attic. I thought about maybe dyin' it, but somehow it just looked right as it was.
After that, I started to rummage around in the bag of fixin's. Nothin' looked right for a mane or tail, but there were these two big buttons. What caught my attention though were the red and gold shimmer they had, which reminded me instantly of Pa's eyes. I'd just finished sewing them on when I heard the rattle of a wagon coming up the field, so I rushed out the back of the barn, and then came trotting up along side Mac as though I'd been off in the orchards, and walked on with him back towards the house.
As we went past the south pond though, Mac just stopped and sat down. I thought that was a bit strange, but figured maybe he just needed to rest his hooves for a bit. I didn't much feel like talkin' so I just stood around by the wagon waitin' for him to get back up. After a good fifteen minutes though, he still weren't budgin'. We hadn't said much to each other since I'd been workin' on the scarecrow, so I tried to break the ice with a bit of a jokin' question.
"What's a matter, Mac? You watchin' the sunset or somethin'?"
"Eeyup," was all he said.
Now, I'd been pretty consumed by my own pain for the better part of a year at this point. To my great embarrassment, I don't think in all that time I'd ever really considered how my own brother was doin'. We've talked about it a lot since then o' course, and grown a lot closer because of it, but what I didn't know at the time was that he had sat by that pond and watched the sunset every single day since our parents had died. That day was the first time I sat with him out there, and we watched as Celestia slowly lowered the sun behind the far hills and forest.
As the red and gold of sunset shined across the fields and the pond, this evenin' breeze came blowing through, rustling all the reeds and rushes. My eye caught on a tuft of red grass that was fluttering in the wind just in front of the pond, and as the water rippled with the gust, small glints of waning sunlight shined through the blades, like bright eyes behind a wisp of mane. In that moment, I knew I had found the perfect mane and tail, like Celestia had pointed them out just for me or somethin'. I don't think Mac knew why I suddenly started crying that day, but he leaned over against me, put one one leg around me, and we just sat like that until the fireflies came out.
The next day I went and gathered the most beautiful tufts of that red grass I could find. I wove and tied it into a long tail and a sculpted mane like how Ma used to wear her's. Pretty soon I was finished, and found myself looking at this image of a pony that could almost have been related to me, blending as it did the best parts from Ma and Pa both.
It still felt like it was missing somethin' though, so I dug through the bag for some more accessories. There was an old pair of glasses, but that didn't seem right. There was also a plow harness, some sort of wooden sword, a corn cob pipe—which I figured was meant more for snowponies in the winter—and lastly an old hat with some pink ribbon tied around it.
I tried putting the hat on the scarecrow, but it just didn't look right. So I took the ribbon off and tried just the hat. I kinda liked the look, but it still didn't feel right. Then I got an idea, and used the ribbon to tie back some of the mane like I'd seen Ma do when she was going into town sometimes. It was a bit more frilly than I'd normally go for, but it reminded me so much of Ma that I just knew it was right.
Then it hit me.
It was done.
I'd shunted so much of my pain and loss into this project that I'd almost started to feel normal again. But as soon as I realized it was finished, that this was it, the last time I'd ever work on something with Pa or Ma... all the pain came rushing back. It was like saying goodbye to them all over again. I was once more tossed out into the darkness on my own, and felt like the weight o' the whole world was bearing down on my heart, trying to snuff it out.
As I lay there in the dust and hay, crying and crying, I kept trying to tell myself it was gonna be okay. I still had McIntosh... I still had Granny. I wasn't really alone. But ya can tell yerself some things all ya want. Believin' them is somethin' else entirely, and at that moment, I didn't believe myself one bit. I was still crying when Mac found me sometime after midnight, when him an' Granny had started to worry about me and gone searching. I think he pretty much carried me back to the house and put me to bed. The next day I didn't even get up 'cept to use the bathroom. I didn't eat, and I couldn't sleep that next night either. In my head, everything had just gone pitch dark and I couldn't see a way out. I was losin' all sight of everything that mattered, and had never felt so lost and helpless in my life.
The next day was even worse.
Then on the third day I got out of bed and went back to work. I wasn't better, it was just that the concern from Mac and Granny was making it worse. I didn't deserve their sympathy or their attention. I wasn't worth anything. Nothing was worth anything anymore. I didn't change my mind on that, but went back to work and pretended things were fine so they'd stop tryin' to help me and just leave me alone.
Now I'm mighty ashamed of this next bit, but it was gettin' bad enough that I found myself up on the big barn fixin' the roof, lookin' off the edge all the way down to the ground, and actually wondering if this was high enough for it to be a quick way to end it. Now, ah can't rightly say if I ever might've done it, but thankfully I didn't have to find out, because the oddest thing I'd ever experienced—at least up until that point of my life—happened. A pink mare offered me a cupcake.
Now, I know Pinkie right well these days, bein' one of the Elements and all, and her antics don't really come as a surprise anymore. But back then, I'd only met her a couple times after she'd moved to town, and that'd almost always been at the bakery, the market, or at some town-wide event. Finding her behind me on the roof of my own barn, bouncing up and down and holding out a frosted cupcake with a single lit candle in it was, to put it mildly, quite shocking, especially when ya consider that the only ladder up to the roof was directly in front of me and I'd been staring at it the whole time.
I tried to ask her how she got up there, what she was doing, and of course why in the world she was trying to give me a cupcake. All I got out of her was that she thought I needed it, but she insisted before I ate it I had to close my eyes and make a wish. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I think it was something rather rude and that I just wanted her to go away, which was the only reason I even played along and blew out the darn candle in the first place. Pinkie was gone before I even opened my eyes, and all I saw was a cupcake in my hoof with a now extinguished candle. I nearly threw it off the roof at that point, but then I realized that while I may have said one thing just to get rid of Pinkie, deep inside I'd actually been wishing quite sincerely for something else. In fact, I'd been doing nothing but wishing for one thing for over a year at that point. I just wanted to see them again.
I musta been quite a sight, sittin' on the peak of that high roof, sobbing and wailing with a cupcake balanced in one hoof and a roofing hammer in the other. Eventually though, I had to go down, and I wasn't quite ready to take the express route either, which meant I had to eat the cupcake first, cause I certainly couldn't just toss it aside after cryin' over it like that. It was probably the most food I'd had in a week at that point, and it was delicious. Lookin' back, I don't think there's any other place or time Pinkie could've cornered me that would've actually forced me to eat it of my own accord like that. I swear that mare's a lot more clever than we give her credit for sometimes.
So I go down, go back to the house, and actually eat a proper dinner that night. I think it was also the first time I'd slept proper since finishin' the scarecrow as well. But that sleep was cut short by Winona barking up a storm sometime right before dawn. Now, she's a pretty good dog most of the time, but she still goes off on some random birds or possums here and there, and won't stop yappin' until I go chase off whatever she's cornered. I climbed out of bed to go do just that, and quickly realized she was barkin' right at the porch. I went out, and she started leadin' me off away from the house and to the old barn where I'd been workin' on the scarecrow. I hadn't gone back in there in a week or so, and figured maybe I'd left a door open and let in some raccoons or whatnot.
So we get to the barn, and I open the door. The sun's just starting to peak over the hills, so I can see inside pretty well, and the first thing I notice is that the scarecrow I'd spent all that time working on is gone. I'm just about to storm in and start bucking everything in sight in a rage when I see something move off in that massive pile of discarded hay I'd built up. Then I hear whimpering, and I go in slowly. In the hay was that old hat I'd tossed aside, and I can see something is under it and using it like a blanket.
You know what I find under that hat? I find the most precious little filly I've ever seen. She has this bright yellow coat like the first rays of sunshine. Her eyes are shining red and gold, just like Pa's did. Her tail is a rich red like fall leaves, and her long mane is held back by a pink ribbon tied into a huge bow just the way Ma used to wear it.
I'd spent a lot of time crying in that past year, but when you reached your hooves out and I hugged you that first time, the tears were from the joy blooming in my heart after its very long and dark winter.
"And when I picked you up," Applejack continued. "You wouldn't let go of that hat you'd been under, and started crying when I tried to take it away. Only way I got you to go up on my back was by puttin' the darn thing on my head where ya could still hold onto the brim behind."
"Wait a minute," Apple Bloom said. "Are you tellin' me that's how ya got yer hat too?"
"Sure am," Applejack said, touching the brim of her famously well-worn hat as she winked.
"An' yer sayin' I'm some kinda scarecrow?" Apple Bloom asked, a bit incredulously. "That somehow came to life from a cupcake?"
"To be honest darlin', I don't really know how it happened," Applejack said taking another sip of cider from the mug between her hooves. "What I do know is that you're everything one could ever want in a sister. You're the best parts from Ma and Pa, from the whole Apple family, and even Sweet Apple Acres itself. You came outta the love they had, and the love I had for them and this family. From the moment I first laid eyes on you, it reminded me I was the luckiest pony in the world to be a part of this family. An' every time I look at you I get to see 'em both again. You're a wish come true, little Bloom, of that I am certain."
Apple Bloom looked up from her cider to see her sister starting to get teary-eyed again. "Ah guess I'm pretty lucky too then," she said, getting up and walking around the table. "To have a brother and sister like ya'll."
The three ponies shared another group hug, and then sat back down.
"But why mud?"
"Ah don't know on that, but I like to think that all us Apples got a bit of the Acres themselves in our blood. Maybe you just got more than the rest a us is all."
"I guess that makes some kinda sense... but that still don't explain Scoots or Sweetie," Apple Bloom said.
"Doesn't explain what about 'em, AB?"
"Well, they bleed funny stuff too, but it ain't mud."
"Wait," Applejack said, startled. "What now?"