Apple Bloom sighed in relief when she saw the small white unicorn filly at the door of the clubhouse. Sweetie Belle was always a welcome sight, especially when Scootaloo was harping about some absurdly dangerous idea to try out. The idea today was something about base jumping, and Apple Bloom had a feeling she didn't want to know what that was. She just knew she'd rather live without her Cutie Mark than spend three months in traction from trying to get it.
"Hi, Sweetie Belle!" Apple Bloom chimed, interrupting Scootaloo in the middle of the word 'freefalling.' The little yellow earth filly trotted over to her friend, greeting her with a smile.
"Oh, h-hey guys," the unicorn said nervously, forcing a smile. She tiptoed into the clubhouse as if walking around broken glass. "What's the plan for today?"
"Base jumping!" Scootaloo bounced up and down excitedly, flapping her tiny wings with gusto.
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "That sounds...okay." Silence filled the room as Sweetie pawed at the floor.
"Somethin' wrong?" Apple Bloom asked, tilting her head quizzically at her friend. It wasn't like Sweetie to be this quiet. She was usually bursting with ideas relatively safe ideas like fortune-telling and flower-growing. Apple Bloom herself had read a very interesting book on entomology and today would have liked to find bugs in the Everfree Forest. However, her friend was acting unusually shy and withdrawn, and, as Applejack always said, friends come first.
Sweetie snapped her head up, a little quickly. "No, no, not at all! Everything's perfectly fine!" She gave a nervous laugh.
Taking Sweetie's words at face value, Scootaloo trotted towards Sweetie and opened a large chest that stood beside her. "Great! We'll need some supplies, though. First, we need a high cliff. There's one at the edge of town that would be perfect! We're gonna need rope and some carabiners no, I still have some 'a those from the hang-gliding thingie." Scootaloo began rummaging though the odds and ends the trio had previously used in attempts to gain their Marks. Dice, bits of paper, random plastic board game pieces, and other flotsam flew through the air as she dug for the aforementioned items.
Apple Bloom, on the other hand, just looked worriedly at Sweetie Belle, who was trying to act normal. The unicorn's hooves were pressed together, back and front legs tilted under her body, making her look like a top standing on one point. Her ears kept flopping from back to front and back again; her eyes shifted nervously to and from each of her friends.
"Sweetie Belle," Apple Bloom began again, but by this time, Scootaloo had found her long chain of carabiners. She swung around, holding the chain in her mouth, and as she turned, her wing brushed against Sweetie's flank. A small plume of white powder puffed up from the unicorn's fur.
Sweetie let out a small squeak and looked at Scootaloo, hoping she wouldn't notice. At first, she didn't. Then, she saw the startled look on Apple Bloom's face and turned.
Three swipes of color showed from Sweetie Belle's flank. Sweetie tried to jump away, but Scootaloo quickly grabbed her. The orange pegasus brushed away white powder from the unicorn's flank, filling the area with dust. Apple Bloom rushed between them and pulled Sweetie away from Scootaloo's grasp, but the damage had already been done.
On the white unicorn's flank was her very own Mark. It was a cute, fat blue bird, its mouth open in song, out of which streamed a swath of musical bars. The bars cascaded down her leg, forming a sort of rainbow within the music lines. Colorful music notes danced all around the scene.
"I'm sorry!" Sweetie cried, backing away from her friends, "I didn't mean for it to happen!"
Apple Bloom smiled brightly. "There ain't nuthin' t'be sorry about! You got yer Cutie Mark! Sweetie, you got it!" And she danced around her friend with happy hops. Sweetie gave a wide, un-forced grin and started bouncing, too. Then she saw Scootaloo's face.
"You got your Mark without us?" she said angrily, her little wings flaring.
"I was walkin' home from Rarity's last night," Sweetie Belle said, trying to ignore Scootaloo's expression, "an' I was just hummin' to myself, singin' a little bit. This pony came up and asked if I was gonna be a professional singer. Yeah, of course I said no, 'cuz I'm really not that good. I just like to do it for fun. And she wanted me to come to her class! Her name's High Note, and she's a music teacher! Then I was thinkin' about ya know, just daydreaming about goin' up on stage and singin' in front of a big crowd of ponies. Usually, it scares the hay outta me, but for some reason it seemed like such a fun idea. When I got home, I had...I...had..."
Scootaloo had advanced toward her, anger clear in her eyes. She stood muzzle-to-muzzle with Sweetie, glaring, snorting. As Sweetie's story drifted into silence, Scootaloo spoke up, snarling. "You did it without us! You totally left us behind! Some friend you are!"
"But Scootaloo!" started Apple Bloom. The orange pegasus ignored her.
"Ya know, I don't think we want you to be a Crusader any more," Scootaloo hissed, and she pushed Sweetie backwards. "Why don't you go sing with your stupid teacher? We don't need you anyway!"
"Scootaloo!" Stop it!"
Sweetie picked herself up with a 'hmph.' "Fine! If that's the way it is, I hope you never get your Cutie Mark! I hope you're a stupid Blank Flank forever!"
"Nopony's stoppin' ya!"
Sweetie Belle looked at Apple Bloom, the look of contempt still on her face. The yellow pony sat, aghast, eyes wide and mouth open in surprise. Finally, she crossed her brows and stood up, stomping the floor. "Stop it! Ya'll are suppos'ta be friends! Alla' us are friends! We shouldn't be fightin' like this!"
Scootaloo turned her back, fluffing up her wings as if creating a barrier. "I'm not friends with her any more."
Sweetie Belle puffed out her chest. "Well, I'm not gonna be friends with a loser Blank Flank like you!"
Apple Bloom sat down again, watching tears pool in Sweetie's eyes. The white unicorn gave a final look to Apple Bloom as if to apologize then left, slamming the door mightily behind her. Apple Bloom turned to Scootaloo, who was sulking, arms crossed tightly. She knew Scootaloo was just jealous and, really, Apple Bloom was a little jealous, too but wasn't getting a Cutie Mark the point of being a Cutie Mark Crusader?
After a moment of heavy silence, Scootaloo picked up the carabiners again with a huff. "Come on, Apple Bloom. Let's get goin'."
"You go on," Apple Bloom sighed. Her ears lowered, and she slunk towards the door. Something in her stomach had turned bitter. "Ah don't think Ah kin go rock-climbin' right now."
"I thought something like this might happen," Twilight Sparkle sighed. She refilled Apple Bloom's cup with chocolate milk, but the filly just stared at it. "It's only natural to feel a little jealous when somepony else has something you haven't gotten yet. I thought you guys would be really close friends, though. Just because one of you got your Mark doesn't mean you should break up."
Apple Bloom said nothing. She scooted her cup back and forth between her hooves. Twilight watched her, a little worried. She was glad the filly had come to her for advice, but frankly, Cutie Marks had never been that big of a deal to her. Twilight wasn't sure how she could help.
Twilight tried to remember her lessons on friendship, casually reminding herself to make copies of her letters. She searched her mind for any lesson that might be of use to her young friend. She realized she'd never had an experience quite like Apple Bloom's. Her friends had never fought so vehemently that they'd actually broken up. A word seemed to solve everything.
Fillies were different, she thought. Fillies are not as experienced, not as forgiving. They are less aware of how they really act and feel.
"You should talk to them," Twilight said at length. "Tell them how their fight is making you feel, especially since you're caught in the middle. And I'm positive that Scootaloo will change her mind as soon as she gets her own Cutie Mark. It'll all work out. You'll see."
Apple Bloom set her chin on the table and sighed. "Ain't no choice but ta move forward, is there?"
Twilight forced a grin. She's more profound than I am, she thought bitterly.
The filly finished her milk and pulled herself down from the chair. "Thanks fer talkin' to me, Twilight. An' thanks fer the milk. Ah'll see ya later."
"Sorry I couldn't be more helpful," Twilight said, flattening her ears in embarrassment. "Growing up is hard, isn't it?"
Apple Bloom let out a sad "Ayup" before leaving.
"How's the music lesson comin' along?"
"High Notes is a real strict teacher. I hafta practice, like, fifty hours a day."
Sweetie Belle was walking Apple Bloom home after school. They'd had to meet up in secret, since Scootaloo was still angry and on the prowl. Sweetie's music teacher was on the way, so it was convenient for both of them. Sweetie Belle had also made it very clear that the 'blank flank' comment she'd said days ago had not been directed at Apple Bloom.
"How's your own search comin'? Try anything dangerous and risky yet?"
Apple Bloom shook her head. "Ah ain't felt much like goin' t'the clubhouse recently. Ah ain't mad at Scoots, but...Ah dunno. Ah jus' don't want her mad at me if Ah got mah Cutie Mark a'fore she did."
"Yeah." was all Sweetie had to say. They walked on for some time in silence, finally arriving at a quaint, unassuming house bordered by a white picket fence. Tea-stained curtains hung in the windows, and a small but tidy garden bordered the front of the house. It looked so antique and old-fashioned that Apple Bloom imagined High Notes as some elderly spinster, some cranky so-and-so who wore her hair in a bun on top of her head, complete with knitting needles stuck in. Sweetie stopped.
"This's it." There was another heavy pause. She and Apple Bloom simply stared at one another, waiting for the other to dismiss her with a 'goodbye.'
Finally, Sweetie burst, "I feel so guilty!" She covered her face with her hooves and groaned, trying to stifle a sob.
"There ain't no reason t'be sorry," Apple Bloom replied, echoing what she'd said the other day. "It cain't be helped if ya got yer Mark before the rest of us. It just happens, right?" She patted Sweetie on the back. The white unicorn pulled back her hooves and sniffled, wiping away tears with her wrist.
"I'm so glad you're not mad at me, Apple Bloom. I don't know what I'd do if you weren't still my friend."
"You'll always be mah friend, Sweetie Belle! You an' Scoots, both! Ain't nothin' gonna ever change that!" She gave her friend a hug, and only continued homeward after she saw Sweetie smile.
After returning home, completing her homework, and packing some snacks, Apple Bloom galloped down to the Crusaders' treehouse. A scooter tossed haphazardly against the lower staircase told her Scootaloo was already there.
"Scoots?" Apple Bloom poked her head through the door, eager to speak to her friend. Twilight was right both of them had to know how each other felt. The only way to get the trio back together was to be honest and forthright. To do that, she had to understand what Scootaloo was feeling.
Unfortunately, she would never get that chance. As soon as she stepped into the treehouse, she was tackled by a orange-and-purple blur. On her back at the clubhouse's balcony, she looked, awestruck, into the wide, happy eyes of her pegasus friend.
"Guess. What." Scootaloo's grin was so wide that Apple Bloom was almost scared by it.
"Um...wut?" The earth filly curled her hooves up on her chest in an effort to push the pegasus back. Scootaloo jumped off of her and dashed back into the treehouse, leaping about like an excited Labrador. She rounded back and shoved her rear end so forcefully towards Apple Bloom that the yellow pony gave a cry and recoiled in surprise.
"Look at my butt!" Scootaloo squealed, and for a moment Apple Bloom was definitely rejecting the idea. It soon occurred to her what Scootaloo had meant to say. She stepped back to a less intimate distance and opened her eyes. On the pegasus's flank was a large purple-blue comet. Like Sweetie Belle's, the Mark was extra-long, with the comet's tail trailing down Scootaloo's leg. The inside of the comet was white, and white-blue stars sparkled all around her flank.
Excitement took over, and a huge grin plastered Apple Bloom's face. "You got it?"
"I got it!" Scootaloo's voice could have shattered glass.
"You got it!" Apple Bloom hugged her friend tightly, and they hopped around together on their back legs, squealing and laughing in delight. For Apple Bloom, it was two joys now the trio could be friends again!
Scootaloo let go of her and high-stepped in a circle. "Yeah! I was doin' this trick yesterday, just playin' around on some ramps I built, when I flew waaaaaay up into the air. Man, I was freakin' out, too! So high up! Then I came, like, screaming down, hit the edge of the ramp, and did, like, four complete 360s! There's still all these tracks in the dirt where I landed. Falling like that what a rush! I had this weird daydream where I was up in the air just plummeting down like a comet, and when I hit the ground there was this -BOOM- and then it was like this huge cloud of dust and just all this power, ya know? And then this little beauty showed up!"
"Wow!" Apple Bloom gushed. Scootaloo gave her a cocky grin.
"Well, I just had to show you before I go meet up with Rainbow Dash."
Apple Bloom's grin fell. "W-wait, yer leavin'?"
"That's the best part!" Scootaloo's voice reached squealing levels again as she swooned over her hero. "Rainbow Dash actually was flyin' by and saw me do it! Said somethin' about I was doin', like, a mini-Rainboom or somethin' like that. She wants to practice with me! Me! Aw, she's the greatest flier in the world! And she's gonna be my teacher!"
"But...but Ah thought we were gonna..." Apple Bloom's voice trailed off as she realized she was unsure of what to say. Get her Cutie Mark? Talk about Sweetie Belle?
"Gonna what?" said Scootaloo, oblivious, twisting her body around to stare again and again at her badge of pride.
Apple Bloom lowered her head and said the only thing that she'd really, really wanted to do with her friends. "...hang out."
Scootaloo passively waved a hoof. "Nah, we can hang out later. I mean, how many times is Rainbow Dash gonna ask me to practice with her? This is the opportunity of a lifetime!"
"Then ya better go," said the earth pony quietly, feeling strangely hollow. An orange flash blasted by her, and Scoots was off without another word.
Apple Bloom looked around the empty treehouse. The crayon-drawn map of Ponyville still stood on the wall, its edges fraying and bent. A trophy for their performance in the talent show sat on a low shelf. Three red-and-gold capes lay on hooks on the wall beside her. They flickered as a breeze blew through the open door.
It wasn't fair. Life had been much more exciting when she'd been playing around with her friends, even if it was something ridiculous, like Cutie Mark Crusaders Fencing Musketeers or Cutie Mark Crusaders Taffy-Pullers. It was fun. Now it was just boring.
"Forgit the stupid Cutie Mark!" Apple Bloom burst, stomping her hoof on the floor so hard that it made a small dent in the wood. "Ah want mah friends back!"
"Miss Fluttershy?" Sweetie Belle tilted her head, puzzled by the strange appearance of a yellow pegasus instead of a white unicorn with a shock of light and dark green hair.
"Oh, hello, Sweetie Belle," Fluttershy said kindly, smiling. "High Notes' sister was sick today, so she had to fill in for her. And then I had to fill in for her so she could DJ! Poor Vinyl Scratch! I didn't know being a DJ was such grueling work!"
Sweetie Belle gave an awkward smile, reminiscing the last time she and Fluttershy sang together. It had not been harmonious, and she was hoping Fluttershy didn't hold any grudges about it.
"It's so nice to see that you got your Cutie Mark," Fluttershy began again. "Did any of your friends get theirs yet?"
Sweetie Belle rubbed the back of her head. "Um, I'm really not sure. We haven't really been hangin' out the last few days."
Fluttershy gave a puzzled, worried look. "Aren't you the Cutie Mark Crusaders? I thought you were all going to get your Marks together."
"Well, that's how it was gonna be, but then Scootaloo made a big deal about everything and got mad."
"Well, then, you've been helping Apple Bloom?"
"Uh...no." Sweetie stared guiltily at the ground.
"Oh, then Scootaloo is helping her."
"Actually, they haven't been talking much. They're not fighting, just that...well, I dunno."
"Oh, no. This won't do at all, Sweetie Belle. We have to go find them and talk to them. It's not right to break a friendship up like this! And it's not very nice to leave your friends helpless. Yes, we have to find them." She strode past the unicorn and opened the door, urging Sweetie to lead.
"Lessons can always wait. Your friendship is in critical condition!" She nosed Sweetie out the door, and together they started towards the center of town.
"Omigoshomigoshomigosh!" Scootaloo whispered excitedly as she rolled into the park, seeing Rainbow Dash waiting for her. She skidded to a stop in front of her idol, still too starstruck to realize Dash was speaking to her.
"Hey, kid! Didja hear me?" Dash tapped her on the forehead with the tip of her hoof.
Scootaloo shook her head vigorously, clearing her thoughts. "S-sorry, Rainbow Dash."
"Wow, that is a killer Mark!" Rainbow whistled through her teeth as she looked at Scootaloo's flank. "Never seen one that big before!"
The orange pegasus's chest swelled with pride, a grin once again crossing her face.
"So, what does Sweetie Belle's look like? I thought she got hers, too."
Scootaloo's look soured. "Yeah, well, who cares about her? She didn't even let us help her get it! Plus, she called me an' Apple Bloom 'stupid blank flanks'!"
Rainbow Dash scowled. "Well, what about Apple Bloom?" she said, her voice lower and a little more sullen. "You helped her get hers before you started hangin' with me, right?"
The filly paled. "Well, uh...she...uh..."
"Not cool, dude," Dash said heatedly, and Scootaloo's ears went back in shame. "You never, ever leave your friends behind. I thought that's what bein' a Cutie Mark Crusader was all about! You all were gonna help each other get your Marks. It doesn't matter who got their Mark first or who called who what. You guys are friends, and friends don't leave each other hangin'. Now, come on!"
Scootaloo raised her wings, expecting Dash to fly off, but instead Rainbow Dash grabbed the filly's tail in her mouth. Scootaloo protested, but Dash was relentless, dragging the filly by the tail through the park and towards the center of Ponyville.
Apple Bloom wandered the streets, dragging her hooves as she walked. She didn't care that her friends had their Marks; she wasn't jealous. She was a little upset that nopony had thought to help her get her Mark, though. Weren't they all friends? Why was she the only one who was constantly ignored? And where were they in her time of need?
She stopped by a fountain, sat down beside it, and sighed. She thought about visiting Twist, but Twist was probably too busy making candies to play. It seemed like once everypony got their Cutie Mark, they stopped being a filly and wanting to have fun. Apple Bloom wanted her Mark, sure, but she also wanted the company of her friends. She wanted to go skydiving and practice cutting hair. It was fun to venture on the outskirts of Everfree and look for weird plants and bugs. But nothing was fun when she was alone.
If getting a Cutie Mark meant that she had to leave all the fun things behind, then she just wouldn't get a Cutie Mark. She'd rather be a blank flank filly forever than be a boring, stupid adult.
She looked at her wavery reflection in the water. Suddenly, another appeared beside it a portrait of a purple unicorn. Apple Bloom looked up to see Twilight smiling at her.
"How's everything going?" Twilight said genially. Her smile dropped when she saw tears in Apple Bloom's eyes. The little filly started bawling in front of her, and suddenly Twilight realized passers-by were staring. She sat down next to the yellow pony and put a comforting hoof on her shoulder. "Wow, evidently, not good. Sorry I asked."
"Scootaloo got her Mark," Apple Bloom whimpered. "An' Ah'm still happy fer her, but...but then she...she..." The sobbing started anew. Anxiously, Twilight patted her shoulder, allowing her to cry for a little while longer. "Ah don't wanna get mah Mark anymore," the filly finally said.
"What? Why not?"
"If it means all mah friends are gonna go away, Ah don't want the stupid thing!"
Twilight realized what must have happened and pulled the little filly close in a hug. "Oh, Apple Bloom. I'm so sorry."
"Apple Bloom?" came a voice a ways from the fountain. Apple Bloom looked up to see Sweetie Belle and Fluttershy. Sweetie's face was flushed red. She was frowning, ears back with embarrassment. Suddenly, she broke into a run towards her friend, calling her name again. "Apple Bloom!"
Not far from the fountain, a squalling orange pegasus dropped from the sky. She righted herself as Rainbow Dash landed beside her and, seeing her best friend in tears, immediately dashed toward the fountain.
"Apple Bloom!" they said in unison as they stopped in front of her. The two looked at each other, surprised.
"I'm sorry!" Scootaloo burst before anypony could say anything else. Apple Bloom looked up at both of them.
"For?" prompted Rainbow Dash, harshly, from behind her.
"F-for bein' a jerk," the pegasus admitted, hanging her head.
"I'm sorry, too," said Sweetie Belle, but her reason needed no encouragement. "I shouldn't have said all that stuff to you and Apple Bloom. I still wanna be a Cutie Mark Crusader. I wanna be your friend!"
Apple Bloom sniffled and looked up at her friends. Quietly, hesitantly, she piped, "Cutie Mark Crusaders Best Friends Forever?"
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle scooped her up in a hug, shouting so loud that all of the town square could hear: "CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS BEST FRIENDS FOREVER!" Then, as an afterthought: "Yay!"
Suddenly, Apple Bloom felt a strange tingling all over her body. She gave a small cry and trembled. Her friends backed away from her as she shakily got to her feet. Feeling suddenly nauseous, she looked up at Twilight for help.
But Twilight was staring at her, mouth agape, eyes wide. In the distance, she saw Rainbow Dash with the same expression, and turning to Fluttershy she found a third shocked face. Her whole body prickled with a numb pain, like the pins-and-needles feelings when one's limbs fall asleep. She was aware of herself shaking quite a bit, and again she looked back at the unicorn for help.
"T-T-T-Twilight?" There was a twinge of fear in her voice.
"The library!" Twilight said in a panicked whisper. "Fluttershy! Rainbow Dash! Cover her up and get her there, quick!"
The two pegasi flew to the filly's sides, stretching out their wings to shield her from the eyes of the previously unnoticed gathering crowd. Light murmur came through the area, but Apple Bloom was panicking too much to understand any of it. She ran alongside the two pegasi, Twilight flanking them. Apple Bloom could hear her voice saying to the crowd, "Nothing to see here! Nothing wrong whatsoever, just go on about your business!"
Apple Bloom collapsed on the floor as soon as they reached the library. Her skin seemed to be crawling, as though somepony had a sharp brush and was raking it through her fur. Spike, coming down the stairs to see what all the commotion was about, let out an extremely unhelpful "Whoa!"
Twilight and the other two fillies burst through the door a moment later. The unicorn immediately took charge. "Spike, get Apple Bloom a drink of water. Rainbow Dash, hurry up and get the rest of the Apple family over here. Fluttershy, please get a pillow from upstairs."
"What's goin' on?" Apple Bloom gasped. Fluttershy placed the pillow under her, and she took a few grateful gulps of water from the glass Spike gave her. These seemed to ease the horrible crawling sensation, but the fact that she didn't know what was going on was a lot worse.
"Well," said Twilight, a little matter-of-factly, "it seems you're getting your Cutie Mark."
Scootaloo sat down next to her friend on the right side. "Wow, mine wasn't like that at all!"
"Mine, either!" Sweetie Belle sat on Apple Bloom's other side.
"Geez, thanks, ya'll," Apple Bloom groaned, turning a little green.
"Spike, more water! Girls, give her some air. There you go, just sit over ther-oh...my..."
Apple Bloom craned her neck around, hoping to see her mark, but the nausea made any movement unbearable. She downed the second glass of water and groaned miserably.
"Ah wanna see it," she croaked. A body-length mirror levitated itself from Twilight's bathroom, enrobed in a purple glow. Twilight set it down next to the earth filly, and she saw for herself the mark on her right flank. It was a small heart about the size of the bottom of Apple Bloom's hoof with a red outline. It was filled in with orange, swathed with a staggered stripe of purple.
It's so small, Apple Bloom thought disappointedly. And it doesn't seem to make any sense. What does a Cutie Mark like that mean?
The mirror levitated again, bringing itself to Apple Bloom's left side. This time there was a red outline of a five-petaled flower, the same size as the heart. It was white with a pinkish-purple swirl in the middle.
Doesn't make sense. What kinda Cutie Mark IS this?
Looking closer, Apple Bloom saw the vague outlines of other hearts and flowers, all outlined in red and growing steadily more robust. They were all various sizes and locations, spanning from her flank down her legs and up her chest. The mirror even revealed the shadow of a heart on her cheek.
Before her very eyes, some of the hearts and flowers began to fill with color. There was a red-and-orange split heart, a heart with a red-and-white spiral, a purple one with a stripe of pink, a pink one with a swirl of dark pink, and many, many others.
"Twilight, what's goin' on?" She turned to the unicorn, her little face eager for an explanation.
Twilight's face revealed nothing but confusion. Then, a heart near the top of Apple Bloom's back filled in, a distinctive pattern that made all the light bulbs go off in Twilight's head. A slow, knowing grin slid across her face.
"How are you feeling? Still a little sick?"
Apple Bloom blinked. "Ac'shully, Ah feel a lot better now. Ah think Ah can..."
She slowly got to her feet, free of the nausea and shakiness. Giving a triumphant sigh, she looked over at her friends, who were beaming. They tackled her again in a hug.
"You got it, Apple Bloom! Your Cutie Mark!"
"Well," said Scootaloo, "more like Marks."
"Ya'll aren't...aren't jealous, are ya?"
Sweetie Belle laughed musically. "No way. I'm just glad you finally got it!"
Apple Bloom looked at herself in the mirror. Indeed, she was covered in the outlines of hearts and flowers. There was a heart on both cheeks and a very large heart on her chest. A small flower adorned her forehead, and three peculiar-looking hearts led a trail along her right flank.
"But what does it mean?" she said, looking herself over. "Why're only some of 'em filled up?"
"I can answer that," said Twilight, "but let's get your family here first."
A few moments later, Applejack and Big Macintosh burst through the door, followed by Rainbow Dash. Big Mac was carrying Granny Smith on his back, and she looked a little dazed from the hurried journey.
"What's all the fuss about?" Applejack demanded, seeing only Fluttershy, Twilight, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo, all on the verge of giggles.
"Apple Bloom," Twilight called, and the two fillies let out a few chuckles, "can you come out here, please?"
Timidly, Apple Bloom shuffled into the main room of the library from the kitchen. Her whole family gasped in surprise at the sight of her.
"Tarnation!" Applejack said loudly. "How the hay'd you get all them marks?"
"It's her Cutie Marks!" Scootaloo burst, and she and Sweetie Belle let out squeals of joy.
"Cutie...Marks? But they're all over her!"
"Allow me to explain," said Twilight, and she cleared her throat in a very official manner. "I myself did not understand the intricacies of her Marks. As you can see, some are empty and a few are colored with seemingly random colors. I didn't understand what these colors represented until I saw this one." She pointed a hoof at the one near Apple Bloom's back. The heart was a little larger than the hearts nearby. Its background was light gray, and it was littered with black and dark gray zebra stripes.
"Zecora?" said Applejack, almost instinctively.
"Right!" Twilight burst, grinning. "That heart symbolizes Zecora. This one's me purple, with a pink stripe like my mane." She pointed to the three hearts that stood in a row. "This one is you the orange-and-yellow one with three spots and the one next to it is Big Macintosh. The third one is Granny Smith." The last heart was light green with a light gray swirl in the middle.
"You see," Twilight continued, "Apple Bloom's special talent is friendship. She was the one who met Zecora and made us all realize she wasn't an evil enchantress at all. Plus, if it wasn't for her, the Cutie Mark Crusaders would never have been friends in the first place."
"Her special talent is...friendship?" Applejack repeated.
"Yeah!" Sweetie Belle chirped. "She wanted us both to be friends again, even though we were mad at each other."
"She even said that she wanted her friends more than her Cutie Mark," Twilight said.
"Wow," Applejack whistled. "But why're some of 'em blank?"
"This is just a theory from what I understand, but those hearts and flowers symbolize the friends that are near to her heart. I bet she'll get more of them filled in as she gets older."
Big Mac raised a hoof, pointing it to the large, unfilled heart on Apple Bloom's chest. "Hey, Twilight, that one there. Why ya reckon that's so big for?"
"Well, this is just another theory, but I think that big heart's for somepony very, very special in Apple Bloom's life."
Big Mac snorted, crossing his brows at his youngest sister. "Now, listen ain't no rush fillin' up that big ol' heart, unnerstand? Ah better not see that filled up a'fore ya get outta school, neither."
Apple Bloom stopped at the sound of her brother's gruff voice and, hearing his words, gulped nervously. Twilight only laughed.
"One more question, Twi," Applejack said, nudging her brother ungracefully to get the stern look off of his face. "Those two big ones on the sides? They look a mite familiar, but what do they mean?"
"Us!" Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle said in unison. They trotted around Apple Bloom, giggling and grinning. Then the trio rose up, each holding one hoof high and clapping it against the others. Their voices rang out through the library, their shouts so loud that a couple of books unshelved themselves and landed on the floor, so loud that ponies from the edge of town looked out their windows to see where the strange voices were coming from, so loud that Princess Celestia herself looked up from the letter to the griffin ambassador to wonder who had spoken:
"CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS BEST FRIENDS FOREVER!"