Dear Princess Celestia,
You may recall some of my previous correspondence mentioning a filly named Apple Bloom, the younger sister of my good friend Applejack. It seems that this young subject of yours has become unexpectedly pregnant.
Even under normal circumstances, I would have mixed feelings about this event, given her young age and unmarried status, and the fact that she still has yet to obtain her Cutie Mark. However, there is an additional factor which I feel warrants your immediate attention and consultation.
It seems that the father is Spike.
Apple Bloom denies that there is any other possible father, and Spike agrees with her. He tells me that their relationship began late last autumn…
“Zecora? You in?” Spike rapped on the door of the zebra’s hut with a knuckle, hoping she’d let him in before he got any colder. The pegasi had started bringing in winter early this year and it was nearly cold enough to snow.
“She’s not here right now. Can I help you?” As the door opened, a familiar yellow head topped by a deep red mane poked through the entrance.
“Oh, hi Apple Bloom.” Spike smiled at the filly – no, a young mare now. “Can I come in?”
“’Course, Spike. What brings you here?” Apple Bloom opened the door wider, letting the adolescent dragon into the warm hut. He had to duck a little bit to get through the low doorframe: he’d been growing steadily over the past few years, and now stood taller than most of his pony friends.
“Twilight needs some herbs for an alchemy experiment. Where’d Zecora go?”
“Off finding stuff for this batch of potions. I’m just makin’ sure they keep boiling.” Apple Bloom picked up a chunk of firewood in her mouth and placed it in the fire. On a grill just above the flame were three small cauldrons, each with a differently colored liquid inside.
Spike sniffed at the trio of bubbling cauldrons. “What’s she making?” he asked, wrinkling his nose at the bizarre odors.
“Well, that one’s a baldness cure, and I think that one’s for hoof n’ mouth, and that one’s for couples tryin’ to have foals.” Apple Bloom stirred the last pot with a long wooden spoon, releasing a scent somewhere between raspberries and honeysuckle.
“Will she be gone long? Twilight’s eager to get started.”
“Can’t rightly say when she’ll be back. Sometimes she’s only gone for a minute, sometimes she’s gone half the night. Do you have a list? Maybe I can help.” Spike produced the parchment, and Apple Bloom looked it over. “Yeah, I know where all this stuff is. Give me a couple minutes to dig it out.”
Spike watched her as she rummaged around in Zecora’s storage room. She had grown into quite the lovely young mare, even if her legs still gangled a little. She still wore a bright pink bow in her mane, though it wasn’t quite as oversized on her as it had been when she was younger. For all her body had matured, however, her flank remained glaringly empty.
“Here ya go.” Apple Bloom passed him a bundle of herbs, neatly tied with twine. Spike jumped in surprise.
“Sorry, guess I zoned out there,” he said, embarrassed. “Er… how much do I owe you?”
“Aw, don’ worry about that. Let me keep the list and I’ll get Zecora to work it out. Stop by any time, Spike.”
Spike felt a little awkward as he left, as though there was something else he should’ve said or done. It was far too cold to stand outside and think about it, so he hurried home.
* * *
“Well, hey again, Spike.” Apple Bloom said, opening the door for the dragon for the second time in as many days.
“You’re here a lot, aren’t you?”
“Look who’s talkin’!” she snorted, then shook her head. “Naw, I know what’cha mean. Ain’t much to do on the farm since harvest season’s over, and Zecora said she could use the help. And…” Apple Bloom nudged her head towards her own blank flank. “I got nothin’ else to do. Sweetie Belle’s doin’ a concert in Manehattan and I’d just slow down Scootaloo, and everypony else I know’s got their marks and started workin'.” She sighed. “I’m the oldest one in Ponyville who ain’t got hers yet.”
“Sis says it’s a little unusual for a pony my age to not have her mark, but it’s not unheard of.”
Spike didn’t know what to say, and a brief, awkward silence passed between them.
“So, what can I get for ya today?” Apple Bloom put her smile back on.
“Twilight used up all her tea and doesn’t want to leave her experiment long enough to get more. So here I am.”
Apple Bloom laughed. “Some things never change, huh? Let’s see, it’s the rose petal and orange zest mix, right?”
“Yeah. Could I get a bag of the mint too?”
Spike turned to go, and was nearly out the door when something compelled him to turn around. Apple Bloom had already returned her attention to today’s batch of potions, and something about the sight of her standing there, bare-flanked and without company, struck him as terribly sad.
“You okay here by yourself? I mean, I could stay and keep you company. Y’know, until Zecora comes back.”
Apple Bloom was surprised, though not entirely unpleased.
“It’s awful kind of you to offer, Spike, but I’m fine. I do this all the time. Din’t you say you need to get those to Twilight?”
“Oh, she’ll be wrapped up in her experiment for hours.” Spike shrugged. “She probably doesn’t even know I’m gone yet.”
“Well, if you wanna stick around, I won’t say no. Whaddya want to talk about?”
Spike racked his brain for a conversation topic. “Well… do you know how dragons get our wings? It’s really not that different from ponies and cutie marks”
“Actually, it was Zecora who told me. She knew about… you know, that time I started grabbing everything and growing so fast. So I figured she might know about when I’d get my wings. Let’s see…” Spike closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember Zecora’s words exactly. “ ‘A dragon’s heart is prone to greed, but every dragon has a special need. Gold or iron, respect or fear, each dragon has a thing he holds most dear. When the dragon’s need he knows for true, his wings will grow, his desire to pursue.’” Spike blushed; reciting the rhyme made him feel a little silly.
“So when you find out what it is you really like to collect, that’s when your wings grow? That’s really interestin’,” said Apple Bloom.
“I’m not sure what mine could be, though. I like gems and all, but just for snacks, and I don’t really care about stuff like gold. I guess it could be something like respect or fear, but I’d rather stay wingless forever than have to scare ponies to get them.”
“It’s gotta be somethin’ you really want, right? If you don’t want it, it can’t be the right thing, like with cutie marks.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hope so, anyway.”
“Shucks, if we’d known you were in the same boat, we would’ve invited you Crusadin’ with us!” Apple Bloom said with a laugh. “We tried collectin’ just about every darn thing, not to mention all the stuff we wound up makin’.”
Spike smiled, a little wistfully. “If I’d known, I might’ve asked. I don’t know the normal age for getting them; maybe I’m still young for it.”
“Lucky you.” Apple Bloom said, with a little bit of a huff. Spike felt himself go red at putting his foot in his mouth again, and he could not have been happier that Zecora picked that moment to return, her saddlebags bulging with supplies.
“Yet again I wander in, later than I’d like,” she said as Apple Bloom rushed to help her unload. “And when we have a guest! Please excuse my lateness, Spike.”
“Don’t worry about it, Apple Bloom was able to get me what I needed.”
“You seem to grow larger in just a few days. Have you returned to greedy ways?” Zecora smiled to show she was joking.
“Nah, it’s all natural. Well, almost all.” Spike grinned. “Still working on the wings, though.”
Zecora gave him an approving look, then turned to Apple Bloom.
“I’m back for the night, Apple Bloom, so you don’t have to stay in this room. I've been hearing howls, so you shouldn’t be alone; let our friend Spike walk you home.”
Apple Bloom shook her head. “Oh, no, I’ll be all right. I can handle a couple timber wolves.”
“Let me; it’s not far out of the way.” And it’s the least I could do after embarrassing myself about the cutie mark thing, thought Spike.
“Well, if you want to… See you tomorrow, Zecora?”
“If you’ve no other plans, but I make no demands.” The zebra ushered them both out the door. They didn’t notice that she stood and watched them walk away for a full minute before turning and closing up her hut.
When they reached Sweet Apple Acres, Spike found himself swept inside and offered hot cider, and he spent a happy, warm hour with the Apples before realizing the time and remembering his errand.
“Thanks for lookin’ after my little sister, Spike.” Applejack told him as he left. “I’ve been hearin’ timber wolves all night. If we’re lucky we’ll get another Zap Apple harvest, but it sure makes me uneasy thinkin’ about AB all alone out there.”
“I’m sure she can handle herself.”
“Sure she could, but she’s still my little sister. I’m glad I can trust you to watch out for her.” Applejack gave him a nudge with her nose that make Spike blush with pride all the way home.
By the time Spike found himself at Zecora’s again, the frosty winter weather was in full swing.
“Got anything for horn cramp?” he asked, shaking snow from his scarf. He didn’t really need the scarf, but it had been a gift from Rarity and he liked wearing it.
“Twilight’s got horn cramp?” asked Apple Bloom in surprise. “Sweetie Belle used to get that all the time when she first started doing magic, but I’da thought Twilight would be past that.” Most unicorns Twilight’s age had a better grasp of their limits and were able to avoid magical over-stress syndrome, more popularly known as “horn cramp”. A misnomer, Twilight herself would be quick to point out, as there are no muscles to cramp in a horn, but the sensation was very similar and the cure much the same: let it rest until it healed.
“She would be if she knew when to take a break,” Spike said, rolling his eyes. “She’s been crazy over this last experiment of hers; she’s been pushing herself for days trying to get results. This morning she just gave out. She’s won't be able to do magic at all for the rest of the day, but I thought maybe you’d have something to reduce the pain.”
Apple Bloom quickly glanced through the counters of potions. “Don’t look like we got anythin’ prepared. Give me a second and I’ll try to dig up a recipe; maybe it won’t be too complicated.”
“If you’ve got any sleeping potion, that’d do too. Knockout powder, or something so she can’t move her lips. Anything that keeps her from complaining works for me.” Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never been around Twilight with horn cramp. She’s impossible.”
“I’m sure we got somethin’ that’ll help.” She pulled a book off a shelf, flipped through it briefly, put it back. Spike started scanning the spines of the books, but the mare knew where to look and found a promising recipe first.
“Here we go, some kinda ointment. It’ll take me a little bit to brew up, though.”
“I’ll wait,” said Spike. “Twilight’s going to be on the couch moping all day anyway. Anything I can do to help?”
“Nah, I got it.” Apple Bloom vanished into the pantry for a couple minutes. “What’s this experiment that’s got her so worked up anyhow?” she asked on emerging.
“She’s trying to figure out if Century Fruit’s good for anything. You’d think something that only grows once every hundred years would be magical or something, but nobody’s ever managed to find a use for it since it only stays good for about a week. By the Icehoof festival it’ll probably all be rotten.”
“Uh-oh. That’s just a few days. I bet Twilight’s pretty mad at herself.”
“Which is why I’m staying here until that ointment’s done.”
“Mind giving the fire a little boost?” She added a couple of logs to the fire, and Spike gave a quick huff of flame that made them catch and flare. “Thanks,” said Apple Bloom, adding some ingredients and stirring. “Speakin’ of, you got anythin’ planned for the Festival?”
“Not really,” said Spike. “They’ll probably ask me to vend the snacks again.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be playin’ with everypony else?” Come to think of it, she'd never seen Spike participate in the games, and had always been too busy herself to ask why.
“Well, I’m not really supposed to do any of the actual competitions. Unfair advantage or something.” Spike wiggled his fingers, so much better at rolling snowballs or carving ice than a pony’s hooves were. “Besides, don’t you remember what a disaster I had last year?”
“I missed it last year. I had the flu somethin’ awful.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Well, I’d just had a growth spurt, and I thought it would be fun to see what I could do. I tried out ice skating and… turns out I’m a better icebreaker than a skater.” Apple Bloom couldn’t help but giggle at the image of poor Spike floundering in a frozen pond. “And when I tried to dry myself off I wound up damaging some of the ice sculptures, and… it wasn’t fun for anypony. Besides, I don’t really get cold the way ponies do; exercising to get warmer doesn’t have much point for me.”
“But don’cha miss out on the fun?”
Spike shrugged. “A little, but I still see everypony. Besides, I get a share of the snacks for myself.”
“You think you’ll have those spiced almonds again?”
“I’m sure, those are always a big hit.” Lots of ponies had tried extracting the secret recipe from Cardamom and Vanilla Bean, the local spice shop owners, but to no avail.
“They're the best! AJ forgot to save me any last year; I was so mad.”
“They sell out pretty fast. You need to get there early.” No matter how many bags they prepared, the almonds were always among the first snacks to sell out.
“Yeah, I know,” sighed Apple Bloom, “But it hardly ever seems to work out that way.”
“How about you? Going to enter any of the events?”
“I’ll probably try for the ice sculpture contest again.” She pumped the air with a determined hoof. “I’m gettin’ that blue ribbon this year!”
“You say that every year,” Spike said sardonically, and Apple Bloom gave him an evil look. “…and I’m sure it’ll come true this year,” he added nervously. “What’re you making?”
“Not sure yet. Somethin’ will come to me, always does. I gotta get in front of the ice block first, you know?” A fat bubble on the surface of the brewing ointment burst with a comical pop, releasing a nose-curling odor.
“Well, that’s ready,” said Apple Bloom, fetching a jar. “You just rub this stuff on her horn every few hours. It’ll make any magic she tries to do go wonky, but she don’t need to be doin’ it anyway.”
“Doesn’t it need to cool down, first?” asked Spike.
“Well, I guess it could…” Apple Bloom was practiced at putting piping-hot potions and poultices in their portable portions, but… well, better safe than sorry. Besides, they weren’t done chatting yet, were they? A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt.
When Spike finally left, jar of ointment in hand, it was starting to get dark. Where had the time gone, he wondered. He hadn’t been chatting with Apple Bloom that long, had he? It wasn’t his fault if she’d forgotten to take the pot off the fire and had to start again, was it? Twilight couldn’t blame him for being late under those circumstances, right?
Spike’s job at the Icehoof Festival was straightforward enough: ponies brought him their wares, he sold them from a large stall and delivered the money at the end of the day. In exchange, he got a little money and some of the leftovers. The event was on Sweet Apple Acres, as it required lots of empty field space, and the stall was placed strategically so ponies coming from every direction could see it. This also meant Spike could see what was going on all around him. To his left, a few foals were building snowponies and snow mountains. To his right, some adult ponies were arranging an obstacle course. Just behind him, he heard Twilight’s familiar voice, and turned to see her explaining the history of the festival to a small cluster of foals, who ignored her utterly as they rolled snowballs.
“When the air was too dry and the wind too intense to build a fire, early ponies needed a way to keep from freezing, so they would play games and hold competitions to get the blood flowing and stay warm and limber. It’s also when they would bring out the richest food they could, to give them the energy to-” Twilight’s lecture was suddenly halted as a unicorn filly dropped a levitated snowball on her head. “Oh, is THAT how it is!” she said indignantly once she recovered her wits. “Well, take THIS!” Countless tiny clusters of snow suddenly rose from the ground, surrounded in mystic purple, and shot out in all directions. Most of the foals were hit by two or three, some completely uninvolved ponies suffered a strike, and the guilty unicorn was thoroughly covered with snow.
“Heya Spike. What’d I miss?” Apple Bloom had come up behind him while he was turned to watch Twilight. A white hairband kept her mane out of her eyes, and she was wearing fluffy white legwarmers; she had just come from working on her entry for the sculpting contest.
“Twilight just showed a bunch of foals that you don’t mess with her in a snowball fight. Did you get your sculpture finished?”
“Just about. I wish I’d had a little more time, but that’s how it goes. They’ll be judging pretty soon, but I thought I’d pop over for a snack first. You’re probably all out of almonds, huh?”
“Hold on one second” said Spike, sticking his head under the booth. There was a little insulated box under there for preparing the snacks, and he breathed on a small platter of almonds for a few seconds. The scent of cooking almonds and spices filled the oven and wafted out, and Apple Bloom’s nostrils widened at the aroma.
“Spike, is that…?”
He pulled the tray out of the oven and poured the almonds into a paper bag before handing them to her.
“I saved you some. They’re best when they’re still warm, so I had to cook them real quick.”
“Thanks!” she exclaimed happily. “That’s so sweet of you, I really thought I’d miss out on them again this.” She nuzzled under his chin, and Spike nearly dropped the bag.
“N-no problem. Here you go.” He opened the bag and placed it on the counter where she could reach.
“Hey, Spike!” called Cloudchaser, walking over. “I thought you were all out of those. Did you find some more?”
“Sorry, CC. Just that last batch.”
“Aww, shucks,” the pegasus said, pouting.
“You can have a couple if you want,” offered Apple Bloom in a spray of almond chunks.
“Nah, that’s okay. If I eat one I’ll eat the whole bag. Thanks, though.” Cloudchaser nodded in their direction and flew off.
Apple Bloom swallowed her mouthful. “Did you have to turn away a bunch of other ponies from these?” she whispered.
“Just a few,” Spike said, scratching the back of his skull (eight was a few, right?) “But these were for you from the start. They weren’t for sale.”
“Spike… that’s really…” Apple Bloom wasn’t sure whether to be touched or annoyed. It wasn’t really fair to all the other ponies who wanted this treat, but she had a warm feeling in her chest that she was pretty sure didn’t come from the almonds. Before she could gather her thoughts, she heard her big sister’s voice announcing that the ice sculpture judging was about to start.
“Well, I’d better go. Wish me luck.”
“Hold on, I’ll come too.” Spike reached under the booth and produced a small ‘On Break’ sign. “That was the last bag of the popular stuff. I want to see your sculpture.”
On a platform of ice stood the rearing foal symbol of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, her cape rumpled realistically in an imaginary wind. From where her hind hooves touched the ice, a plethora of cutie marks sprouted: Spike recognized Scootaloo’s flaming wheel, Sweetie Belle’s silver bell, even Pipsqueak’s elaborate astrolabe, among others. A few of the symbols were unformed and not-quite-distinguishable, clearly in the process of growing from the ice. The platform was also adorned with a slightly-unfurled pair of dragon wings, ready to snap into the air.
“Whaddya think?” asked Apple Bloom.
“It’s awesome!” Spike said enthusiastically. “That’s blue ribbon material for sure.”
“I dunno,” said Apple Bloom, her mouth turning down. “I was kind of unhappy with the wings. I was thinkin’ about our chat and I figured even honorary Crusaders oughta be represented, you know?”
“You didn’t have to do that,” started the dragon, but Apple Bloom ignored him.
“I’ve got some pretty stiff competition. Look at Rime’s, and Crystal Clear’s.” She pointed at a couple of other sculptures. One was an icy hourglass, laced with spidery tracks of frost, and it was actually functional; water poured in the top kept reasonably good time. The other sculpture was an elaborate snowflake of breathtaking delicacy, perfectly symmetrical and fantastically organic.
Spike held his breath as the mayor came around, blue ribbon in her hoof… and placed it on the hourglass. A red ribbon followed, onto the snowflake. Apple Bloom got the yellow ribbon.
Spike groaned; Apple Bloom let out a sigh. “Well, that’s that,” she said.
“That’s too bad, though.”
“Well, it’s not-“ A gasp and a cheer from the rest of the audience cut off Apple Bloom. She looked up to see an ice-white unicorn colt standing in front of the hourglass sculpture, turning to look at his own flank. The image of a hammer and chisel had just appeared there. Rime had earned his cutie mark.
“Would you look at that,” said Spike. Apple Bloom said nothing until the colt suddenly ran over and wrapped his forelegs around hers, looking up at her with light blue eyes.
“Thank you so much, Apple Bloom!” He had a huge grin on his face and half-frozen tears on his cheeks.
“What for, Rime?” she asked, startled.
“For giving me those lessons, remember? I’ve been practicing ever since and I don’t think I would’ve got my cutie mark without your help and this is just the best day ever! THANK YOU!” Rime wrapped his forelegs around Apple Bloom’s neck as best he could, then ran off to show his new mark to another group of his friends.
“You gave sculpting lessons?” asked Spike.
“He was a Crusader. He was having a little trouble getting the chisel to do what he wanted with magic, so I taught him how to do it with his mouth.” Apple Bloom said quietly, staring after the younger pony.
“Well, you taught the pony who got first prize. Doesn’t that kinda make it your win too?” Apple Bloom just shrugged. Spike tried again, hoping for a smile. “And you helped a little colt get his cutie mark! That’s pretty awesome by itself!” Apple Bloom frowned, very slightly. “Third place isn’t bad at all, you know.”
Apple Bloom exploded. “It ain’t about the stupid contest! When am I gonna get my turn? I’m watchin’ every little filly an’ colt in town grow up an’ get theirs, and when is it time for ME?” Spike took a step back, hurt in his eyes. Apple Bloom stomped off towards the main house.
“Um… Apple Bloom?” Spike ventured quietly, opening the door to her room. It was starting to get dark; Spike had gone back to his post for a few hours to give Apple Bloom space to cool off. She hadn’t come out since and he wanted to make sure she was okay.
“Hey, Spike,” she said, looking up from her bed. The headband and legwarmers were discarded on the floor, and her mane hung loose without her usual pink ribbon. “You can come in.” He did, but stopped just inside the door, trying to gauge her mood. “I’m sorry I snapped at you before. I’m just… it’s so frustratin’, y’know? I’m happy for Rime, I really am, but I’ve lost count of how many foals I’ve seen get their cutie marks.” Apple Bloom took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know it shouldn’t get to me; everypony tells me that I ain’t near the oldest blank-flank ever an’ it’ll come in eventually, but it still hurts. What’m I doin’ wrong?”
Spike didn’t know how to answer that, so he just said “I’m sorry for upsetting you. I was trying to cheer you up and I guess I blew it.”
Apple Bloom sniffed and forced a smile. “I know you were just tryin’ to be nice. It was me who lost my temper.”
“Forget about it,” said Spike. “Still friends?”
“'Course.” Relieved, Spike sat down next to her. He looked at his hands for a moment, tapping his fingers nervously. Apple Bloom, sensing he was about to say something, kept quiet until he spoke.
“I know it's not the same thing, but... lately I’ve been having these dreams about flying. I’ve got these huge, strong wings, and I’m just flying over everything and looking down on the whole world, and it feels… good. It feels right. Then I wake up and I just feel… I dunno, empty or something, like something’s missing that should be there. Like walking into a room and somepony’s moved something but you don’t remember how it was before, you just know it’s wrong. Does that make sense?”
Apple Bloom nodded. “It really does. I feel sorta empty too if I think about my cutie mark too long. But I feel a little better knowin' there's somepony who knows how I feel."
"That's what friends are for, right?" said Spike, hopping off the bed. "Do you want to come out and see the bonfire? It should be starting any time now."
"Yeah. Can you help me out with my bow?"
As Spike tied the bow and helped her into her legwarmers, Apple Bloom asked. "Do you... um, do you have any plans for next weekend?”
“Not really. Why?”
“You’re not going to the Snowflake Dance?”
“Eh,” he shrugged. “I’ve never gone to that one. It’s more of a couples’ dance, isn’t it?”
“Only sorta. Lots of ponies just go as friends. Sweetie Belle’s going to sing, and I think Scootaloo wants to spend some time with Rumble, so I'm gonna be stuck by myself unless I can find somepony to go with...” She looked at him expectantly.
“You want to go with me?”
“Only if you wanna! It won’t hurt my feelin’s if you don’t wanna go,” Apple Bloom fibbed.
“Sure. Sure, I’ll go.” Spike said, a bit dazedly.
Apple Bloom smiled widely and pushed her head under his chin."Great! I'll be lookin' forward to it. Now c'mon, last one outside's a wormy apple!"
There was no way for Spike to win that race.
When Spike got home, Twilight was taking a hot bath after her long day in the cold. Spike slammed open the bathroom door, startling her.
“Twilight!” he said, nearly shouted, “Teach me to dance!”