She chuckled as she unrolled her sleeping bag. No matter how much Apple Bloom denied it, Scootaloo recognized the symptoms of feather flu. Before any pegasus took their first flight, they got a crash course in how to catch the signs of the disease, lest it escalate in the middle of a flight. Of course, she knew that other ponies could catch it, and the cramps just built up in their shoulders instead of their wings. Still, Scootaloo couldn’t help accusing her friend of cozying up with Rumble. Her accent seemed to get stronger whenever she was defensive.
“Ah didn’t do nothin’!”
“Oh, I absolutely believe you,” Sweetie Belle had said, giving Scootaloo a very unsubtle wink. Apple Bloom snorted with frustration as Scootaloo did her best to maintain her composure. But even with the teasing, Apple Bloom was still disappointed to see her fellow Crusaders shooed out by her Granny.
“She needs to rest, not get into an argument with you little pastern biters!” For an elderly pony with a bad hip, Granny Smith could certainly push a couple of fillies out of a room with a minimum of effort. Once the door of the Apple family home shut behind them, they looked at each other with indecisiveness.
“I guess we’re not having a meeting today, huh?” asked Scootaloo.
“I guess not,” sighed Sweetie Belle. “Well, I think I might go see what Rarity is up to. She can always use a helping hoof around the boutique. Do you want to come?”
Scootaloo shook her head. “I’ll pass. I’m not feeling artsy-crafty today. Anything I try to sew today will just come out looking awful.”
“I still think your monkey sweater would have been a bestseller.”
“It was supposed to be a turtle.”
Sweetie thought on the design for a moment, before her smile grew even wider. “Maybe you’re just ahead of the curve!”
Scootaloo smiled back. “In that case, I’ll give the rest of the industry today to catch up. I’ve got some errands of my own to run. But thanks anyway.”
“No problem! See you tomorrow!” And Sweetie Belle trotted off towards Carousel Boutique, with a spring in her step and unplanned mischief in her future.
The clubhouse had felt particularly warm lately, though Scootaloo suspected that the new sleeping bag contributed to that feeling. When Rainbow Dash had returned to Ponyville from her first training session, she had met Scootaloo after school with a bundle under her wing: the same wing that she had used to pull her close when she had gotten scared during the camping trip. It was an official Wonderbolts sleeping bag, bought from the Exchange. “Just a little something to make up for me being away for a while!” The hug that had followed, nestled between the soft but sturdy fabric, and the warmth of Rainbow’s feathers and pelt, had been one of those moments of security that she wished she could have frozen in time.
There was a time where Scootaloo had hated the days when the Crusaders didn’t meet. It meant a day alone with her thoughts and her fears. Her scooter distracted her, but she was getting too good at it, and after a couple of laps through town, she was bored and seeking something else with which to pass the daylight hours. These were usually the times when she started thinking about her father. She wondered what he was up to, and if he had reunited with her mother. She wondered if they were both still alive, and if they were, would they ever come back for her?
Since the camping trip, these thoughts were much easier to force down. Even a brief memory of Rainbow placing trust in her made Scootaloo feel like there was a place for her, and that she wasn’t just a fun pony to play with, but somepony others would want for a friend. She squirmed on the sleeping bag, savoring the silky touch of the Wonderbolts emblem against her withers. The door was shut, the windows were latched, and her body heat made a perfect bubble in that tiny shack in Sweet Apple Acres. It felt safe, and it wasn’t long before Scootaloo’s head rolled back, and she fell into a deep sleep.
In the dream, Scootaloo was home, though it wasn’t quite any home in which she had lived. Home appeared to be a mixture of foalhood memories of her mother’s cabin, the Apple family farm, and the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse. She knew that she was older, not quite Rainbow’s age, and she saw Rainbow herself standing by the window, looking out into the yard. She had also aged, clearly having built up muscle in her training. Even from across the room, Scootaloo could read her expression: a small, tranquil smile that comes with age and experience.
Scootaloo immediately felt her body tense. She knew she had to approach her. The moment was perfect for another warm embrace, and another tearful heart-to-heart. For the first time, Scootaloo finally had the strength to say what she always wanted to say. She reared back in preparation for her joyful leap forward, but was held back by another hoof placed on her withers.
“You can’t talk to her.” She recognized his voice immediately.
“You’re not really here.”
“Neither are you, Scootaloo.” The earth pony gave her shoulder a squeeze that would have comforted her in her waking hours, but knowing that he was simply an illusion, a shadow of a phantom, it felt like her own mind was mocking her.
Scootaloo shook the tension out of her head. “She’s my big sister, Dad.”
Her father’s laugh was hearty, and the lights of the cabin flickered with its peals. “Sweetie, you know you’re an only child. Your mother couldn’t even handle the one daughter she had. If Crystal had given birth before, she never would have even considered you.”
Rainbow looked over towards the two of them. The smile had disappeared, and her eyes were cloudy with tears.
The stallion pointed towards the pegasus with his other hoof. “Don’t you see? She knows she can’t do anything for you. She just doesn’t want to tell you.” He lowered his muzzle to the level of Scootaloo’s ear. “But I’ve always helped you. I kept you safe in the snow and the rain.”
Scootaloo did her best to fight them, but her anger betrayed her hidden anguish. “You left me! How are you protecting me now?”
“I’m protecting your heart, little one. Keeping it... keeping you... safe from shattering. You’re nothing but a little glass doll, Scootaloo.”
Her teeth ground together as the tears poured from her eyes.
“And when you break, you’ll cut them all to the bone.”
“That’s enough!” She spun around in a fury, and glared at her father. She stared deep into his eyes, the same violet of her own, but duller and world-weary, the result of hundreds of miles of running. “You can’t talk that way to me. Where have you been for all these years? You don’t get to teach me. You don’t get to help me. If I’ve failed, it’s because I had nothing but your own failures to aspire to. And if I’m broken, it’s because that’s how you made me!”
She didn’t even have the courage to turn around and see Rainbow reaching out half-heartedly towards her. Instead Scootaloo shoved past her father with a strength she didn’t know she possessed, and burst out the front door. The sunny landscape that she had seen out the window had been replaced with a torrential downpour, the drops cold and stinging as ice. Her father’s voice chased after her as she ran:
“Don’t let the cold fool you! You’re always burning, Scootaloo!”
She shut her eyes tight, trying to contain the last of her tears as she galloped away from the cabin and into the woods. It didn’t matter where she went, but she had to get away from him. “He’s not real, he’s not real, your real father would never say those things,” she kept repeating to herself, but his poison had hit its mark. He had already stolen her past from her, and now he was determined to spoil any hope of her future. She would have screamed had she not collided with a large block of granite.
Mumbling swears under her breath, the dazed pegasus looked up to see a statue three times her size. Rearing up on her hind legs was a royal alicorn, with the distinctive white crescents on her throat and hindquarters that signified the Guardian of the Moon.
She glared at the Princess’s image. When she had last encountered Luna, Scootaloo had been led to believe that the nightmares were over. She had told Rainbow how scared she was, and how badly she wanted someone to be her big sister. That had held off the bad dreams until tonight. “What more do you want of me?” she cried, but the stone remained silent to her pleas.
“I know you can hear me! We’re not done here!” She yelled until her throat felt stripped. “You said the nightmares would stop if I faced my fears!” And at that, the sky opened, and a jagged bolt of lightning struck the statue. The impact flung her backwards, and for a moment, the intense white light of the illuminated statue blinded her.
Scootaloo woke up, gasping for air. Once she had regained her bearings, verifying that yes, she was still in grade school, and yes, she was still in the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse, she turned her thoughts to the last thing to cross her mind in the dream. The lightning was not a freak bolt from the sky. It was Luna, asking her the question:
“Were you not honest?”
Scootaloo rubbed her temples with her hooves. Honest about what? Her fears? Her need for someone to take her under her wing? For someone to treat her like a big sister? “Do I just lack guidance? Or should I have told her why?”
“Why I need someone else. Why even my closest friends don’t know the truth about what I do every day. Why I’m constantly lying...” She paused at the last word, and swallowed. Her eyes hurt, and if there were any tears left in her, she would have cried again. “I don’t know what to do, Luna. I really do want to tell them - Rainbow, Sweetie, Apple Bloom. But I’m so, so scared. If they knew just how bad it has been, how much baggage I’ve carried, they might run from me. And if they don’t run, I’ll just be making their lives harder. Just because my life is a mess, it doesn’t give me the right to place a load on them. They’re wonderful ponies, and they deserve better than that.” Scootaloo hung her head low, wishing she could sob. Crying usually helped when she felt like this.
“So do you, sugarcube.”
At the entrance to the clubhouse, backlit by the moon, was the immediately recognizable outline of the keeper of the Element of Honesty. “How long have you been there?” asked Scootaloo nervously.
Applejack tilted her head back. “Not very long. Macintosh said that he was concerned about blight in this part of the orchard, and I wasn’t able to get to it during the day, so I was making a quick pass. Then I heard someone making noise from inside the clubhouse. I thought maybe some trespassers were holing up in here.”
“I’m afraid there is.”
Applejack approached the filly, her eyes softened. “You’re never a trespasser here, Scootaloo. Though I do wish you’d tell me what’s going on.”
“With all due respect, judging from the sound of your dreams, you can’t afford not to. I promise I’ll keep it between us as long as you want me to.”
Scootaloo sighed. “I don’t have a home, Applejack.”
Applejack crooked her head to the side. “Your parents?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea.”
“Tell me about it.” And Scootaloo let her story pour out. She told Applejack about the good days, where she was able to find relatively untouched food behind the restaurants, and the really good days, where she was invited to meals with her friends, in warm and cozy houses. She told her about the bad days, too, and about going to bed hungry, cold, and scared. And with a little bit of prodding, she told Applejack about the really bad nights, when her mind ran wild, and she went to bed hoping that she wouldn’t have to suffer through another one.
“They don’t happen as often, anymore. That’s one thing I’m thankful for. I can’t thank you and the girls enough for all you have done for me, even if you didn’t know how much it meant.”
Scootaloo felt a foreleg wrap around her shoulder. The yellow hide was not as soft as the feathers on Rainbow’s wing, but the embrace was no less strong. “You don’t have to thank us, hun. I’m sorry you’ve been through all of this. Nopony should have to suffer like you have.”
Scootaloo smirked. “It’s okay.”
“No, it ain’t. But a promise is a promise, and I won’t tell anypony without your say.”
She burrowed her head into Applejack’s strong barrel. “Thank you.” But as she was about to close her eyes and savor the warmth, she felt a hoof lift her head to meet Applejack’s gaze.
“But I need you to promise me something, Scootaloo,” she pleaded with a concern so genuine, the filly could only nod. “Promise me that you’ll tell your friends. It doesn’t have to be immediately, just one day.”
“What if they don’t-”
Applejack softly stroked the filly’s pink mane. “They will.”
The next night found the entire Apple family sitting down to dinner with a new guest.
“I’m so excited that you could stay for dinner, Scootaloo!” yelled Apple Bloom for the third time, earning a frustrated expression from Granny Smith. Scootaloo sank deeper into her chair.
Applejack just chuckled. “Well, actually, I wanted to run an idea by you. It seems that Scootaloo’s dad is going to be out of town for the winter, and she could use a cozy place to sleep. I know you’re probably not interested, so I’ll just let Sweetie Belle-”
“What are you talking about?” called out Apple Bloom, her jaw on the floor. “Scootaloo’s always welcome here! She can sleep in my room! Oh, it’ll be so much fun!”
Scootaloo couldn’t help but blush. Applejack smiled at the embarrassed, but happy filly and gave her a wink.
Apple Bloom could hardly keep still. “Can I please be excused? I wanna go get my bedroom set up!” She was already halfway up the stairs, with Scootaloo in tow, before Granny Smith gave her reluctant “okay.”
She added, looking after the two fillies, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that girl excited about getting some shut-eye.”
“You two are nuts. They’ll be up all night talking. It’s what growing fillies do.”
“Oh dear,” said Granny Smith. “I always worry about the younger generation. I see them running around all over the place, and I’m always scared about them making bad decisions.”
Applejack smiled. “I certainly don’t think they have all the answers, but I reckon they just need time. They’ll figure it out.”