"Come on pal!" Applejack cried in frustration. "It's Hearth's Warming Eve for Celestia's sake!"
Snow fell against her body and dusted her hat in heavy flakes as she hopelessly watched a group of stallions, in thick jackets and scarves, hitch themselves to the elegant purple wagon.
As they pulled it away, the wagon's pristine, gold trimmed wheels left deep tracks in the snow-covered streets of Canterlot.
After watching the burly ponies drag the expensive new wagon away, Applejack turned her attention back to the chubby unicorn standing in front of her. He was busy scribbling in a pink notebook with a disgustingly chewed pencil, and wore a blue and silver uniform that barely fit around his portly belly.
"It's a time for ponies to come together as friends and treat each other with kindness and respect," Applejack continued, this time with a desperate smile spread across her face.
The light-grey unicorn finished his hasty scribbling and tore off a slip from the notebook with a faint haze of blue magic, thrusting it into Applejack's hooves nonchalantly.
"Then ask your friends for a new wagon," the officer pony replied, his voice thick with sarcasm and a strong Manehattan accent. "Happy Hearth's Warming."
He shot Applejack a wicked grin before turning his attention to his next victim; a pink and white striped carriage that had been left nearby.
As he walked away Applejack barely managed to restrain himself from yelling insults at the Traffic pony, instead resorting to kicking the snow-covered signpost beside her. Her back hoof struck against the cold metal, sending out a loud ringing sound as chunks of snow fell off the giant lolipop-style sign revealing the words; "No Parking".
"Stupid, Canterlot ponies." she muttered as she crumpled the parking ticket in her hooves and stuck it inside her worn and now snow-covered hat.
"Now the first thing Ah have to tell Rarity when she arrives is Ah got her fancy new wagon impounded," she sighed. "What a great way to start our first Hearth's Warming Eve together..."
Banishing thoughts of the angry unicorn from her head, Applejack took one final, quick glance of the impressive city before he. Canterlot looked like it was trapped inside a novelty Hearth's Warming Eve globes, the kind that market sellers often sold to unwary tourists during the holiday season. The beautiful spires and gold domes of the capital were covered in a thick layer of white, and the delicate flakes drifted lazily between the towers and elegant houses that lined the streets. Throughout the city, couples, families, and friends were all wrapped up in winter attire enjoying the festive season.
Pulling her green scarf tight around her neck, and shaking herself vigorously to dislodge the gathered layer snow on her coat, Applejack turned away from the frosty vista before her and made her ways towards the sprawling, awe-inspiring building that had been looming behind her.
The enormous white and gold building seemed to extend down several streets on either side of her. Ponies of all types walked in and out of the impressive building through the various glass doors that ran alongside it's front. Unicorns, earth ponies and pegasus all made their way through the wide doors, their hooves clattering against the polished marble stone that it was built from. Letting out a low whistle of admiration, Applejack made her way inside.
As she pushed open the large glass door with a front hoof and stepped inside, the cold air suddenly fell behind her and a pleasant warmth spread through her body along with the familiar sensation of magic. Within moments all the snow that had gathered on her coat and hat had melted and she felt as though she was wrapped up in a warm, cozy blanket.
The Canterlot International Airship Dock, was a fairly new additional to the heart of Equestria. Built from beautiful cut stone and full of plush furnishings, the Airship Dock Lounge was almost as impressive as Canterlot Castle itself. Although the shops and cafes spread throughout the main terminal still gave it a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere, Applejack had read that the entire building was packed full of the latest magical technology in the land.
"Ah gotta admit," she whispered to herself quietly, "sometimes that magic stuff sure is handy."
The main concourse that Applejack stood in was absolutely packed with ponies from all over Equestria. Fancy unicorns in rich looking clothing trotted daintily across the main floor, magically lifting their trunks and cases up the huge and winding stairways. Pegasi flew through the air in haste, whizzing up and down the various levels of the lounge or across the concourse. As a group of them flew overheard, she noticed that a large majority of the pegasus seemed to be wearing a similar outfit to the traffic pony outside. With a final glance around impressive entrance area she spotted a family of earth ponies dressed in traditional village clothing. Their saddlebags were bursting and they nervously clutched slips of paper in their mouths, their eyes darting all around the overwhelming expanse of the dock's main area.
With a pitying smile towards the bewildered earth ponies, Applejack made her way across to a desk near the centre of the main concourse. Bold lettering across the desk read "Dock Information Desk", and a pretty, pale blue, pegasus sat behind it.
"Howdy ma'am," Applejack said, smiling. "Ah'm hoping you can help me with something?"
The pegasus blushed slightly as Applejack tipped her signature brown hat to her.
"Of course! How can I help miss?" she answered sweetly. Applejack noticed the pegasus bat her long lashes at her a few times, a manoeuvre Rarity had been known to employ when trying to get Applejack to do something she didn't like.
Applejack let out a nervous chuckle and leaned against the desk with a front hoof. "Ah'm waiting on an arrival from Fillydephia, the five o’clock one, but Ah've never been to a place like this before and Ah got about as much of an idea on where to go as a unicorn knows about growing apples?"
The friendly desk assistant leaned towards her in return, resting her front hooves against the help desk and tucking them under her chin, batting her eye lashes a few more times.
"Oh certainly! The next flight in from Fillydelphia is expected to land in the next hour or so. The arrival's lounge is just up the stairs and to the left." she instructed, pointing a hoof towards a large set of pristine white stone steps with gold hand-railings. "All the incoming airships have to pass through security and come out in the long corridor running alongside it, so you can't miss anybody arriving if you wait there."
She smiled and looked at Applejack curiously. "Are you... meeting your family for the holidays?"
"You could say that yeah," Applejack answered with a wistful smile.
Applejack's felt her heart flutter a little as she thought about the purple-maned unicorn she was waiting for.
"Well, um, I finish soon and there's a café up in the lounge. Seeing as you've got to wait a little bit, maybe I could join you for a drink?" the young pegasus asked shyly, her lashed eyes fluttering once more.
Applejack felt herself flush and resisted the urge to smack her own face with a hoof for being so clueless. She bashfully smiled back and nervously rubbed a hoof against the back of her neck..
"Well that's a mighty nice offer from such a pretty gal' like yourself but Ah don't reckon my special somepony would look on that too kindly," she replied as gently as she could.
The pegasus turned an intense shade of red and laughed nervously before diverting her attention to a stack of blank papers on her desk.
"Oh I'm so..." she began, clearly mortified.
"Now don'tcha even think about apologising ma'am!" Applejack remarked sternly. "Ah'm mighty flattered and Ah should be the one apologising."
The embarrassed pegasus let out a weak smile.
"Besides, Ah reckon you just made my day. Ain't too often a country gal like me gets invited for a drink by a pretty Canterlot pony." Applejack added with a wink and tip of her hat.
They enjoyed a short, shy laugh together before Applejack decided to make an exit and let the poor pony put the whole incident behind her.
Heading up the tall white stairs the pegasus had pointed to, Applejack saw a long corridor running left to right with a wall-spanning window that rose up to the ceiling. Outside, amidst the heavy snow and frosty glass, she could see the impressive docking towers themselves.
Applejack had already seen the towers as she had made her way into the city, they had looked like tall, thin white spires with purple and gold motifs spiraling around them like a helter-skelter. Various struts, bridges and platforms stuck out from the towers like thorns on a dangerous piece of briar and Applejack remembered their flashing magical lights blinking away in the fading sunlight.
Up close, however, Applejack could fully realise the sheer scale of the towers. Each one was about the same size around as Ponyville Town Hall, but rose up miles into the sky. The struts and bridges that had stuck out like tiny thorns from afar were long corridors, held up by various supports and criss-crossing wires. The multiple towers dwarfed the main building itself and were all connected by bridges and corridors like points in a spider-web.
And then, of course, there were the airships themselves. Pairs of beautiful looking airships straddled alongside each one of the wide, secure looking platforms. Each ship's balloon completely different to the next. Where one was long and thin, another other was fat and round. Some had multiple balloons, some had winged supports, whilst others had enormous rudders. All of the ships bore elaborate carriages beneath the balloon, each of them painted beautifully with various cities colours and flags.
"You won't catch me on one of these flying bathtubs anytime soon, that's for sure," she murmured to herself apprehensively, watching one of the airships bob in the heavy snow and precariously make it's way into the air from the docking platform..
As she watched the airship, which was decorated in pink and purple with the flag of Manehattan emblazoned on the balloon, the smell of hot cocoa and baked goods wafted through the air. Looking around she spotted a little café with rows of plush seating nearby, as the scent of cinnamon, chocolate, and gingerbread hit her nostrils her mouth began to water and she found herself inexplicitly drawn towards the simple little stand.
With a flash of her hoof and nod of her head, the smiling serving pony brought over a steaming cup of freshly made cocoa. He grinned as Applejack threw in a few extra marshmallows than she expected was company policy. Nearby a group of three fillies and their mother were chanting Hearth's Warming Eve songs, likely waiting for the rest of their family to arrive from some far off location so they could spend the heart-warming season together.
As the gentle chorus of the song echoed through the waiting area, Applejack's imagination began running turning over with thoughts of warm fires, family and a certain fussy, fashion-manic unicorn.
Cloudy Quick busied herself at her desk, desperately trying not to think about the embarrassing situation with the hat wearing earth pony mare.
She stacked various files, arranged her pencils, and counted her paperclips to keep her mind off the twisted feeling in her stomach. However, despite her best efforts at distracting busy-work, she could still feel the same old thoughts creeping into her head.
"I'm going to be single and lonely for Hearth's Warming Eve. Again." she thought with a depressed sigh.
Looking up at the bustling crowds, she couldn't help but notice all the cute couples holding hooves and making their way to some exotic location to spend the holidays together. A particularly sweet looking grey pegasus with odd-looking yellow eyes happily chatted and hugged a tan-coloured colt with an hourglass cutie mark as they made their way to the departure platforms.
Cloudy let out another, more exaggerated, depressed sigh. "Guess it's just me and my good buddy eggnog this Hearth's Warming."
She slumped herself on top of the help desk, tucking her folded hooves beneath her chin and starring vacantly at the entrance.
Cloudy's attention was suddenly caught, as a large group of bulky-looking stallions entered the building.
At first she thought they might be a hoof-ball team or body-builders as they were all incredibly athletic. They all wore similar long jackets, that mostly hid their muscular legs and hooves, as well as dull-coloured scarves. One of the group looked like he had a black and white striped coat beneath his jacket, with a short crest of thick black hair for a mane.
As she watched them, one of them stepped forward from the main group and pointed in several directions with a giant hoof. The stallions all diverged from the others and went off in various directions at his command.
The stallion who had stepped forward was a unicorn and even larger than the others. His mane was cut incredibly short, in a uniformed and rigid manner, and a few days worth of stubble surrounded his muzzle. He scanned the concourse with cold and piercing eyes before moving towards the information desk. Cloudy Quick smiled devilishly to herself as he approached.
But as the dangerous looking stallion walked straight past her into another area of the lounge, she pouted and let out yet another depressed sigh.
"What is it about these rugged and rough looking ponies that I love so much?" she thought to herself desperately. "Maybe mom's right and I just need to find a nice, quiet, normal pony to settle down with..."
As she tipped the glass back delicately with her magic the champagne crisply bubbled against Rarity's tongue. The taste was exquisite, her pallet singing with a delicate fruitiness mixed with the sharp and fresh tang that accompanied good champagne.
"Here's to another successful venture!" She said merrily to the grey earth pony sat across from her in the luxurious first class cabin of the airship.
The airship cabin was decorated in royal purples and gold, the cushioned booth in which she sat was a deep red with dark wood paneling. Around her, the sound of upper-class ponies chattering away mixed with the delicate clink of toasts and the sound of plates being cleared. Rarity cast her eyes around the dining cart and smiled to herself as the tingle of champagne worked it's way through her body. The magical warmth of the heat crystals, the humdrum of socialite conversation, and elegant interior was a stark contrast to the stark white sheets of snow falling down outside the window she sat beside.
"A successful venture indeed Miss Rarity! And all thanks to your stunning new country collection!" Hoity Toity responded in his unusual accent, his signature sunglasses covering his eyes even aboard the enclosed aircraft. "To think such a simple style could be the height of next year's Summer collection!"
Rarity tittered politely at the compliment. "Well I've had a particularly inspirational model to work with as of late, Hoity," she offered warmly.
Hoity Toity tipped his sunglasses down to look at her in confusion, but she dismissively waved a foreleg at him
"Nevermind," she replied with a nervous giggle. "I must say what an absolute pleasure it is to travel in such class. And to think we are sat only a few feet away from foreign royalty!"
Rarity looked over towards an exceedingly well dressed pony surrounded by several tough looking stallions. The rich looking pony wore a red and white military coat with a yellow sash emblazoned with various medals. A thick moustache, curled at either end, complimented his slicked back mane and gave him the appearance of a distinguished gentlecolt.
"Indeed! I hadn't realised the Tzar of Stalliongrad would be flying into Canterlot on this particular flight. I wonder what he is travelling to Canterlot for?" Hoity asked.
"Whatever it is, his presence certainly explains the extra security when we boarded at Fillydelphia." Rarity mused.
"I say quite! Anyway, shall we have another glass of champagne before we arrive? Not long till we land in Canterlot now." Hoity hadn't finished his question before he beckoned over one of the pegasus flight attendants.
Rarity let her imagination wander a moment, thoughts of bounding out of the airship and into the waiting forehooves of a certain freckled, hat wearing, farmpony, ran through her mind.
"Most certainly!" she agreed.
Applejack groaned loudly.
"You have gotta be kiddin' me?!"
The large sign had been brought in by a team of pegasus and had been hoisted onto the wall for all the waiting ponies to see. The sign loomed over the concourse and the cacophony of groans, as it had been placed into view, had echoed around the marble building loudly.
In big, red, letters it read, "All flights delayed. Please standby for further details."
Applejack's face soured as she let out an unhappy huff and tapped her hoof against the railing looking out over the concourse. Her body felt tight and she fidgeted uncontrollably, it had been over an hour since she had arrived and there was only so many times she could walk around the waiting area to pass the time.
In the absence of anything physical to do, Applejack began to let her imagination wander instead. She conjured images of pushing Applebloom down the snowy hills of Ponyville, roasting chestnuts with Big Macintosh, and sat by a warm fire exchanging presents with Rarity's family. A loud bong echoed through throughout the dock's waiting area, interrupting the homely daydream, and was quickly followed by a crackling voice booming throughout the vast space of the arrival and departure lounges.
"Mares and Gentlecolts, we are sorry to announce that all flights in and out of Canterlot International Airship Dock are delayed by approximately two hours or more. This is due to the unexpected snow storm moving in from the Everfree Forest. Our weather teams are sadly unable to clear the skies and we are having to rely on magical guidance systems to bring the airships in one by one. We apologise for the inconvenience."
Looking up, Applejack noticed the crackling announcement had come from several speakers tucked into the corners of the ceiling.
"The Canterlot International Airship Dock uses a lot of new magical devices, it's very exciting!" The surprisingly energetic voice of Twilight Sparkle echoed in Applejack's memory. As Ponyville's residential brainiac and all-round egghead, Twilight had been particularly educational about the new dock before Applejack had set off.
"They use paired crystals, enchanted with space distortion magic, to transmit sound waves across great distances. Primarily it's used as a way for the airship pilots and the control tower to communicate and navigate the various take offs and landings, but Shining Armour told me that had even set up a system to communicate with the City Guard and to send messages throughout the dock itself." Applejack's eye had started twitching as Twilight began explaining the scientific, magical theory behind the enchantments.
"Are you sure you don't want Spike and I to come along and keep you company, I'd love to examine the enchantments up close..."
Applejack had quickly cut her off with a polite, "Thanks but no thanks." But now, facing a two or more hour wait on her own, she was beginning to regret her decision. At least Spike could have kept her company.
With another groan and unhappy sigh, Applejack tucked a hoof under her chin, leaned against the railing and stared down at the ponies in the concourse below. She watched as a particularly snooty looking unicorn ordered his spindly and bedraggled footcolt to carry his heavy bags over to some sort of checking desk. A team of rowdy but harmless Hoofball players were calling out to passing pegasus girls, whistling and jovially shoving each other to get the girls attention.
Applejack rolled her eyes with an amused chuckle as the pegasus girls giggled to each other and promptly ignored the boisterous colts.
Beyond the disappointed hoofball team nothing else interesting immediately caught her eye, just the usual hustle and bustle of a busy public building, but eventually she noticed two, heavily built, stallions standing by a service entrance. Both of the imposing ponies were wearing long overcoats and thick scarves that hid their faces and they cautiously watched the passers by with narrow eyes and suspicious glances. Applejack watched as one of the stallions moved in front of the other and gave a quick signal to his companion when they were relatively alone, the other stallion's horn glowed briefly and the staff-only door swung open. After another suspicious glance to see if anybody had noticed their actions, the two male ponies made their way inside.
Applejack frowned, her mind ticking away like the old grandfather clock Granny Smith hung in the pantry. She looked away from the staff only door the stallions had seemingly broken into and glanced back to the ponyfolk going about their business.
"Maybe they work here and that door's busted." she thought apprehensively. Nearby the sound of a young filly crying caught her attention.
"But mom, what if his airship crashed! Or something goes wrong and he can't get home!" The little, pastel yellow, earth pony cried in-between big sobs.
Applejack turned to see a light cream mare with a pink and yellow striped mane kneel down beside her, and hugging the little filly tightly.
"Oh sweetie, don't worry. Nothing like that is going to happen. Daddy will be here soon, he's just a little late that's all." She lowered her neck and began softly nuzzling her daughter on the cheek.
The image of the suspicious stallions breaking into the maintenance area was still fresh in her mind and Applejack's imagination soon started to work at what possible trouble they could case.
With another roll of her eyes, Applejack moved away from the railing overlooking the concourse and made her way towards the stairs leading down. She shook her head and let out a small sigh.
"How the hay do Ah keep getting myself into these things?"
The baggage service room of the Canterlot International Airship Dock was bathed in a gloomy red light that emanated from several crystals embedded into the walls. The room was tightly packed with stacks of luggage, large machines and a labyrinth like maze of rolling tracks, elevated belts and sorting chutes. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, the motorised tracks vented out hot, dry air constantly and the smell of oil permeated every square foot of the room. It was a place the repair staff of the airship dock tried to avoid as much as possible.
Despite this, however, two unicorn stallions sat hunched in thick overcoats and scarves, beside an uncovered section of machinery. The glow of one of the unicorn stallion's horns blended in with the dim red light of the room itself and enveloped a dark purple gemstone that pulsed with magic. As his horn throbbed in time with the gemstone, sweat poured down the stallions forehead and his eyes narrowed in concentration, the rivulets of moisture running down his dark grey muzzle.
"Work faster. Commander expects us back by eighteen hundred hours," the other stallion warned, looming over his colleague and occasionally glancing back at the door on the other side of the room.
The concentrating unicorn gritted his teeth, his eyes briefly flicking to the side to try and glare at his colleague beside him.
"Enchantment magic very difficult. No rushing me," he replied irritably.
Minutes passed and the droning hum of the machines echoing through the room without pause. Soon the focused unicorn relaxed, his horn's glow diminished, and he wiped a hoof across his sweat drenched brow.
"Primary communication to city blocked. We should--"
Before the unicorn could finish, the door into the service room opened with a loud creak. Bright light poured into the room from the concourse and the stallions eyes struggled to adjust to it from the previous gloom. Raising their hooves to shield their eyes, the two stallions tried to look at who had almost interrupted their mission.
"Howdy fella's," a voice called out from the bright light, before the door shut and plunged the room back into a red glow. "Maybe ya'll didn't spot the sign but Ah don't think you're s'pose to be in here".
Standing by the door, behind several chest height tracks of the moving baggage, stood a orange earth pony with a worn looking brown hat and white freckles speckled over her cheeks.
Applejack watched the two stallions looked at her in silence, their expression a mix of confusion and uncertainty. The drone of the machines made it difficult to hear and the stifling heat in the room was a complete change to the cool but pleasant concourse outside. She watched the two stallions intently as eventually the unicorn stepped forward.
"Ahh no. We work here. Sent to check faulty machine," he replied in a heavily accented and gruff voice. The unicorn let out a nervous laugh, to which his earth pony partner joined in.
Applejack smiled incredulously. "Well then you stallion's won't mind showing me some identification then?"
The unicorn shrugged his shoulders calmly. "Of course, we have identification. No problem."
Applejack felt something tingle at the back of her neck, her adrenaline began pumping furiously and her body tensed.
As the unicorn's horn flared into life a familiar-looking, wooden device with various gears and springs flew out of the stallion's jacket and out to in front of him. Applejack's reflexes took over as she recognised the weapon from a display in the Royal Armoury, she felt herself dive to the ground behind one of the tall, rotating conveyor belts sending baggage all over the airship dock.
She felt something sharp whiz past her cheek as she tumbled through the air before crashing into the hard metallic belt. She glanced back to where she had been standing seconds before and three vicious looking darts were embedded into the wall behind her.
The stallion cursed loudly over the constant thrumming of the conveyor belts. Applejack glanced over the top of the track and watched the pair split off in either direction, using the cover of the tall machinery to hide their approach. She felt her chest tighten, looking around she saw that they would be able to easily approach her before she could see them through the mass of stacked baggage and whirring magical technology.
She bashed her head back against the belt, trying to think. The constant drone filling her head like a thick fog, she looked back at the source of the annoyance. Bags of golf clubs, heavy trunks and bags all sailed past and up towards another floor of tracks leading to different parts of the dock.
She watched as a large box slowly chugged past and began to make it's way up the ramped belt when the idea finally dawned on her.