The reception had moved surprisingly fast for Applejack, given her distaste for such events. As “frou-frou” as events like this got, having Pinkie be the party planner did wonders, as did seeing all her friends having such a good time.
She was hoping to have some time with Twilight to begin rebuilding their damaged friendship, but as soon as she got off the microphone the unicorn went to talk with her brother and sister-in-law, as well as her parents. She couldn’t join them, Twilight had every right to be with her relatives after today.
So she spent the early parts of the evening taking her shift at the buffet table. With every pony that came for a slice of apple pie, or a mug of fermented cider, she’d make sure to add “Courtesy of Sweet Apple Acres, located in little old Ponyville.” Unlike the Gala, this seemed to be drumming up business. Especially since those partaking in the feast included a high-ranking Wonderbolt and Fancypants himself.
Yes, big business coming in. There were plenty of new customers for the farm, less scrimping and saving this year. She wouldn’t have to entirely rely on the profits from the cider and the Zap Apple Jam for the lean months. There were plenty of reasons to smile, to be happy.
Just don’t think about it.
It was three songs after Vinyl had kicked Octavia off the stage that Cadence had come up to her personally. “Twilight tells me you’re good on the fiddle. How about playing a little for us?”
The earth pony was stunned. “Well shucks, your highness, I play pretty good. But I don’t know any songs that would be appropriate for a royal wedding.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I hate the usual royal junk. Besides, Twilight’s my sister now, and she told me she’s an Honorary Apple Family Member. I want to learn more about her other family.”
It took all of Applejack’s willpower not to show the pain in her heart. She remembered Twilight complaining that the false Cadence didn’t recognize her, that she didn’t remember all the good times they had had together. She and the others had brushed it off as nostalgia she was trying too hard to relive.
But during the preparations with the real thing, she saw the two of them laughing, giggling like schoolfillies half their ages, remembering amusing incidents from their youth, but giving only bits and pieces of it in their excited babbling so no outsider could tell what they meant. Every laugh sent a knife through Applejack’s heart, reminding her of the warning she had ignored.
Just don’t think about it.
So she brought out her fiddle. Vinyl wasn’t happy having to give up the stage again, but eventually the unicorn begrudgingly did so, muttering something about wanting a drink anyway. And Applejack got her chance to play.
Contrary to what some of the more elitist unicorns thought, earth ponies and pegasi could, indeed, learn to play several intricate instruments without the aid of magic. It was difficult, but not impossible, Octavia’s success as a musician was a testament to that. And that night, Applejack proved it true once more.
The few Apple Family members lucky enough to merit invitations to the event danced along with her. Many of the elite turned up their noses until the bride and groom started dancing, at which point they all fell in line.
She focused on her music, on the ponies dancing. The snobs all following the music of some backwater country hick. The entire party was dancing and having a good time. Twilight was smiling and laughing, happy to be free from the day’s heartbreaking and stressful events. Everything was fine.
Just don’t think about it.
Five songs later, a new interruption came up, which started with Vinyl throwing an apple tart at Octavia. Forgetting her high class training, the grey mare responded by lobbing one right back. Unfortunately, her target ducked, causing the pastry to hit Prince Blueblood instead.
What followed was a large assortment of ponies temporarily regressing to schoolyard behavior and tossing food at whomever they happened to be carrying a grudge at. The Royal Guards quickly stepped in, though not Luna, who was off to the side with Pinkie, musing on the fact that her sister couldn’t be here to see this. The two musical mares were seen running off, two guards chasing after them.
Once her laughter had subsided, Twilight came over to relieve Applejack of her duties.
“Aw shucks, Twi, you don’t hafta help me none. I’d be happy to keep playing until the guards find those two hotheads.”
“I insist. Besides, your family’s in charge of food, so I think you better go check on the supply that’s missing now.”
Applejack suddenly realized that point. A detail she had missed that Twilight’s keen mind had caught. She stepped in and helped her, no questions asked.
Just don’t think about it.
She bowed to Twilight’s logic and walked to the buffet table, leaving the unicorn in charge of the microphone once more. The table was still standing upright, thank goodness, and Apple Fritter was looking over the damage.
“We got lucky, cuz,” she said, her accent even thicker than Applejack’s. “Them crazy varmints only got through a single plate of th’ tarts. Ah reckon we still have enough that ya’ll be eating the leftovers for a week.”
“Well that’s a relief,” the orange earth pony muttered. “With the hit we took in our orchards thanks to Flim n’ Flam, we could use some extra eats.”
“Speakin’ o’ which, y’all be happy to know them varmints actually tried to pitch their machine in Appaloosa. Braeburn weren’t too happy once he realized who they were. Ran them right outta town...and right inna Chief Thunderhooves’ camp, and them buffalo weren’t too happy to find their friends were bullied either.”
“Whoo doggy, I’ll bet those two snakes ain’t gonna be recovering from that any time soon.”
“You bet. The sheriff actually had to rescue ‘em, though their fancy gadget got trashed. Had to put ‘em on a train to Canterlot, ‘cause that’s th’ only place they could get medical care without half th’ town trying to trample ‘em.”
Applejack blinked. “You mean there here n’ Canterlot?” she asked.
“Nah, not any more. Them varmints heard you’re friends with Celestia, so they skipped town as soon as they’s good enough to walk. Last I heard, they’s headin’ towards Fillydelphia. Celestia weren’t too happy to find she missed ‘em. Wanted to give ‘em a good talkin’ to about their actions. Had her madder than a rattlesnake in a sleeping bag.”
“Yeah, they weren’t the only ones she got sore at,” Applejack sighed. “When th’ Princess found out about th’ whole fiasco, she actually flew down to Ponyville. Was real steamed Granny bet th’ farm she had given her. She gave us all a long lecture about not lettin’ ponies use your pride to goad you into doin’ things. Even made me rewrite the letter I sent her.”
“Ooh,” Fritter winced. “Not fun havin’ th’ Princess mad at ya, Ah suppose.”
“It ain’t. But all she usually does is give a lecture, and she stops bein’ mad quick. Really, Twi usually overreacts when she thinks Celestia’s gonna be mad at her.”
But Celestia’s approval means the world to Twilight. Just look at what her cold reaction did to her.
What you did to her.
Just don’t think about it.
“Ahh, Twi. She’s a good filly, ain’t she? Why, Ah remember when you sent that telegram sayin’ you wasn’t comin’ back to Ponyville after th’ rodeo. First thang she did was round up all of your friends n’ hopped th’ first train there lookin’ for ya.”
A knife went through Applejack’s heart. “Just like that, huh?”
“Darn tootin. Real dependable like. Ah can see why ya’ll made her an honorary Apple. She’s like family.”
Another knife. “Yeah. Like a sister to me. To all of us.”
“Well, you couldn’ta picked a better one. Bit too much a’ egghead fer my tastes, but Ah reckon those brains a hers come in might handy.”
A third knife. “Yeah, she’s th’ one who figured out the loophole that let them compete in Flim n’ Flam’s contest, then she got them all organized to the point where we were beatin’ that fancy contraption of their’s.”
“Can’t complain with those results,” Fritter nodded. “She seems right friendly, too.”
“No doubt. Why, when Princess Luna visited Ponyville for th’ first time since gettin’ free of Nightmare Moon, she was th’ first to go up to her ‘an...”
She trailed off as realization hit her. She had been the first one to look past Luna’s past as Nightmare Moon and treat her kindly, and this was after their last encounter had largely been spent with the Alicorn trying to kill her. And then memories of her seeing Zecora for the first time came to her as well. How she had seen past her strange outer appearance, only thinking Zecora was evil when all the evidence pointed to her.
She was always so friendly towards others until she had reason to be confrontational. Her hostility to Cadence was unusual.
That should have been your first sign something was wrong, you dumb hick.
A fourth knife.
“AJ? You alright?”
It was at that point that Applejack realized she had stopped speaking. Apple Fritter looked at her with suspicion. “I’m fine, Frits.”
“Don’t lie ta me, AJ. You’re awful quiet for such a big celebration.”
“I ain’t lying,” she snapped defensively. “It’s just been a long day, is all. I’d like to see you be all full o’ energy after you fight off a horde of changelings.”
Apple Fritter raised her eyebrow suspiciously. “Ain’t you ‘posta be th’ Element a’ Honesty?”
Applejack opened her mouth to protest, and then sadly sighed. “I reckon I am,” she grumbled. “But th’ truth ain’t exactly easy to face right now.”
“It weren’t easy ta face when you was hidin’ at Dodge Junction, but when ya finally did fess up, things got better.”
The orange earth pony couldn’t help but chuckle. “I guess you’re right. You’d figure I’d learn mah lesson the first time. Well, I’m willin’ to bet the others are all gonna pour their hearts out to anypony who’d listen, so I guess it’s my turn.”
So, once again, a bearer of the Elements of Harmony found herself telling the day’s events to an outside observer. Fritter nodded in understanding throughout, not interrupting until the story was finished.
“So how’d that bug fool you? Don’t th’ Element a’ Honesty give ya some sorta freaky truth seeing powers?”
“It don’t work like that,” Applejack muttered, rolling her eyes. It was clear to Fritter that this wasn’t the first time she had explained this to another. “Princess Celestia told us that we just make the Elements work. The powers in them fancy necklaces, we just have the right traits to use them.”
“Well alright, so what’s th’ problem? She ain’t holdin’ no grudge ‘ginst you.”
“But I’m holdin’ one against myself,” she said sadly. “We all are. No matter how much it mighta made sense for us to think Twilight was just bein’ possessive of her brother, each and ev’ry one ah us felt like mud when we found out th’ truth. And then we felt even worse when she forgave us so durn easily. It might make no sense for us to keep bein’ down on ourselves, but there ya go.”
Fritter kicked the ground a bit in nervousness, wondering what the best way to put this. “Well, Ah mean...it sounds like she was actin’ like a brat, but...Ah mean, what were you thinkin’ of when you stopped talkin’ like that?”
“Well, when Princess Luna showed up in Ponyville on Nightmare Night, we were all jumpin’ like jackrabbits ‘cause we were so scared-a her. I guess her entrance and attitude just shook us up a bit, and we forgot how she was after she stopped bein’ Nightmare Moon. Then I was thinkin’ on somepony else in Ponyville named Zecora. We were all afraid of her ‘cause she looked weird and creepy. Twilight set us strait on both of them, she never judged them for a second. Well, okay, she did think Zecora was evil for a while, but there was extenuating circumstances there. I just...I shoulda known better than to think Twilight would accuse somepony like that without good reason.”
Her cousin nodded. “So you thought-a somin’ else that you shoulda believed Twi for?”
“I keep thinkin’ of ‘em,” she said sadly. “I keep goin’ back and forth on this. Half th’ time I convince myself Twilight’s right, she sounded half-crazed and we were right to think she was just bein’ jealous. But every time I do, I remember what a great pal she’s been, and all the reasons we should have at least looked into what she was sayin’. I can’t make up my mind on who was wrong.”
“Ain’t it obvious?” Fritter said with a stern expression.
Applejack blinked. “What?” she asked, sure she wasn’t going to like the answer.
“You both were.”
It took the apple farmer a few moments to process the information. Before she could speak, Fritter continued. “Y’all both made mistakes today. Nopony blames you for ‘em, but y’all did. Nopony blames Twilight for flippin’ out when she saw her brother bein’ brainwashed. Nopony blames the rest of ya for thinkin’ she was just makin’ a foal of herself givin’ how she went about things. But they were still mistakes. Y’all messed up.”
“Well, yeah,” Applejack said simply. “I knew that. But which one ‘a us was more wrong?”
“It don’t matter,” she said simply. “Yer tryin’ to makes things simpler by pickin’ one side to be mad at, but that ain’t nuttin’ to fret about. What ya should be focusin’ on is what ya learned from all this. That’s the only thing that’s gonna make all that guilt an’ anger you're feelin’ go away.”
Once again, Fritter let her cousin process what she had just said. Finally, the orange earth pony smiled. “Well shoot, you always were th’ wise one in the family.”
“Darn tootin’,” Fritter nodded proudly. “Ya feel better?”
“A little. Ya got any other advice for me?”
“Yeah, talk to Twilight again in the mornin’ an’ make sure she doesn’t go taking th’ full blame fer this on ‘erself. She needs ta understand y’all’re at fault too, or else she’s gonna beat herself up over it.”
“Good call, cousin. I promise, we’ll all talk to Twilight again on the way home tomorrow. Or maybe even tonight, if I can get her after the bride and groom leave. Believe me, I’ve been wantin’ this whole shindig to be over with so I can talk to Twi again.”
Fritter nodded understandingly. “That sounds like the best thing fer ya. Just bein’ around yer friend’ll make things better, Ah promise.”
She grinned, looking over at where Twilight was singing onstage. To the casual observer she seemed to be a perfectly happy pony. Applejack couldn’t help but wonder what was going through her friend’s mind. Was she truly happy, completely relieved over the fact that her friends, family, and mentor were no longer angry with her? Was she harboring guilt over her outburst at the rehearsal, still convinced that the near destruction of Canterlot had been her fault? Was some part of her still harboring some anger at her friends for dismissing her, regardless of what she had told them?
She had to know, she had to talk to her. But she couldn’t now.
She sighed. The Gala, and now this. Why did all these frou-frou parties have to be so horrible?