The fire crackled softly, intermingling with the chatter of the ponies sat around the emanating warmth.
“You’ve done an excellent job decorating this year, Granny Smith,” Rarity said, giving the older mare a bright smile.
Granny Smith rolled her eyes, returning the expression. “Really? ‘Cause I recall a certain white unicorn bustlin’ in here and spendin’ near three hours hangin’ up all them fancy decorations yesterday.”
Rarity tittered. “Oh, right! I must have forgotten.”
“You didn’t forget,” Sweetie Belle retorted. “You’re just fishing for compliments again!”
“Well, she deserves them,” called a voice from the kitchen. Applejack poked her head out, winking at her marefriend. “I ain’t ever seen this place so gussied up before.”
Rarity blew her a kiss. “Do you need any assistance with dinner, darling?”
“Fmmp,” Big Mac mumbled, clutching a platter in his mouth. He set it gently on the large dinner table. “Dinner is being served,” he announced proudly, plodding back to the kitchen to bring out the other dishes.
The ponies gathered around the fire stood up and made their way towards the table. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle took their places next to each other, gesturing excitedly at the delicious spread being set in front of them. Rarity hung back, offering Granny Smith a helping hoof.
“Head of the table, I presume?” Rarity asked.
“Yer darn tootin’!”
Applejack carried out the last plate and stood back to admire her and her brother’s handiwork. There were buttery mashed potatoes, carrots roasted and glazed in honey, tender greens tossed in a mellow lemon dressing, toasted walnuts and chestnuts nestled in warm brown bread, tart cranberry sauce, steamed broccoli, hearty tomato soup, and thick bite-sized bunches of fresh hay. It was definitely a meal to be proud of, especially since it took nearly all day to prepare. She glanced over at Rarity, who had saved her a seat.
“Now, before we tuck into this here great meal,” Applejack began, settling in her chair. “I’d like to take the time to say a few words.
“I look around this table and I see ponies that mean the absolute world to me. Granny, Big Mac, Apple Bloom...I couldn’t have asked for a better family. We’ve been through tough times, especially…” She stopped, and averted her eyes. She felt a hoof touch her own, and looked back up to continue. “Especially since Mom and Pop left us...but that ain’t gonna stop us from enjoying ourselves and being thankful for what we have.”
“Eeyup!” Big Mac cheered, scooping up his glass of warm apple cider and holding it up. The rest of the adults did the same, while the foals held up homemade apple juice.
“Rares, Sweetie Belle, it’s an honor to count you two as part of my family,” Applejack went on. “And I’m thrilled that you can spend Hearth’s Warming Eve with us.”
“The pleasure is all ours,” Rarity chimed in, squeezing Applejack’s hoof.
“Another toast to my new little sister,” Applejack called out, nodding at Sweetie Belle. “And to my lovely mare, whom I will cherish until the days turn dark.”
“That means ah get a new sister too!” Apple Bloom said, throwing her hooves around Sweetie Belle.
“We were always sisters.” Sweetie Belle laughed.
“Ah know, but hopefully it’s gonna be like...official soon!”
Everypony took another sip from their glasses.
“Now, I believe I’ve blabbed on long enough. Let’s eat!”
The food was attacked with a grateful fervor, and the air was punctuated with chewing and smacking lips. The glazed carrots were just the right amount of sweet, the bread was moist and counteracted well with the crunch of nuts, and everypony had a generous helping of the mashed potatoes. Applejack gazed at her family proudly, puffing up whenever somepony complimented the food. She ate slowly, and spoke little, instead letting herself get lost in the ongoing conversations.
“Of course they’d be here if they didn’t have that stupid Hearth’s Warming work party,” Sweetie Belle said, stuffing a spoonful of soup in her mouth. “My mom and dad would have loved this dinner!”
“Really, Big Mac, even with your...girth, you’d make a wonderful model for my new stallion collection! Yes, I am delving into new territory...a nice suit would, dare I say, suit you.”
“Hmm?” Applejack snapped back to attention. “Whas’ goin’ on?”
“Granny asked you a question, dear,” Rarity murmured in her ear. “She asked why you’ve been playing with your food instead of eating it. Are you alright?”
Applejack looked down at her plate; the various food had been swirled together absentmindedly. “Oh, I guess my mind was just someplace else.” Everypony grew quiet to look at her. “Y-y’all go back to your talkin’. I’m fine, really! This...cider’s just gettin’ to me.” She took another swig of cider and began shoveling more food in her mouth.
“Darling, now you’re eating too fast,” Rarity said, lowering her voice even more. “Do you...need to be alone for a bit?”
Applejack shook her head. “Naw, Rares, I’m fine! Trust me. In fact, I think we’re all ready for some dessert, eh?” She pushed her chair back and trotted to the kitchen. The pies she had baked sat in the oven, keeping warm. She had baked three pies: an apple pie (of course, how could she not), a pecan pie (thick and gooey, with a surprise crunch in every slice) and a smaller pie filled with cherries (tart and sweet, courtesy of the lovely Cherry Jubilee). She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, grateful for the few seconds of solitude.
Outside, snow had begun to fall, covering the orchard in thick banks. Applejack stuck her head out the window, breathing in the cold, clear air. It felt great to have a breeze blow on her cheeks, a relief from the stuffiness of the kitchen. She needed more.
It was foolish to walk out in the snow with nothing but her old hat and a scarf, but Applejack didn’t care. The snow threatened to brush against her belly, and her tail made shallow marks on the otherwise smooth ground. She stood in the field, breathing in and out, head held up high to the clouds. She closed her eyes.
“Ah, no peeking!”
“Come on, ah wanna see!” Applejack whined, pouting at the mare in front of her.
“Alright, here it is! Open!”
Applejack’s eyes shot open. “Mah own lasso! Now ah can be just like daddy!” She jumped up and grabbed the rope, twirling it round and round. “Look! Look!”
“My little rodeo star,” a stallion belted out, bouncing up and down with his daughter. “You’ll be better than me in no time, lil’ Jackie.”
“Will you train me? Will you?”
“Ya know I will. Come spring, I’ll teach you all my tricks.”
“Spring came and left,” Applejack whispered, a warm tear trickling down her cheek.
“Applejack! Oh my goodness, dear, are you out of your mind? Standing in the snow like a...snowpony!” Rarity levitated a thick blanket around the shivering pony. “Applejack, please, come with me.”
“He said he’d train me,” Applejack whimpered.
“Who did? Big Mac? Or...darling, please. We need to get you inside.”
She obliged, and let herself be steered back into the farmhouse. The sudden change from cold to warm left her shaking, but after a few more sips of steaming cider, her teeth were finally still.
“Applejack, what were you thinking?” Big Mac snapped. “You could have gotten sick!”
“Yeah, we’ve been waitin’ for those pies for like, an hour!” Apple Bloom said, giving Applejack a gentle nudge. “Ya left us hangin’!”
“I’m sorry,” Applejack muttered. “It’s…” She bent her head, sniffling quietly. “This happens every year.”
“What does?” Big Mac asked.
“I...I miss ‘em, Big Mac. I try to be strong every year, but…” A fat tear splashed onto her lap. “I can’t stop myself from feeling this way. My heart just aches so bad, I can’t get the memories out of my head!” She let out a strangled sob. “It’s been long enough, hasn’t it? For me to stop cryin’?”
“Darling, you can’t rush the healing process,” Rarity said. “It may have been a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t feel sad about it. You’re not made of stone.”
“I hate feeling this way...like I’m weak.”
“You listen here, Applejack,” Granny Smith began, her own voice wavering with unshed tears. “Ya think yer the only one here still missin’ ‘em? Ya think ah don’t cry just as much as you, wishin’ for one day with my daughter? Ya think ah’m weak for that?”
Applejack shook her head. “O-of course not. You’re allowed to be sad…”
“So are you, lil’ Jackie. So are you.” She came in for a hug, holding Applejack tightly against her chest. “Come on, everypony. Hug time.”
Applejack felt more and more pressure as her whole family snuggled in for a group hug. She smiled, rubbing her face deep into Granny. She took a shaking breath, and let herself cry in front of them.
“It was a wonderful dinner,” Rarity said with a yawn, wrapping her hooves around Applejack. “You outdid yourself, my dear.”
Applejack chuckled and planted a kiss atop her curls. “Jus’ wanted to impress you.”
“Darling,” she began. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right? I mean, we’ve been through so much already, and we’ve always been there for each other.”
“I know,” Applejack muttered. “I just...showing my emotions like that...I’m not too comfortable with it. Don’t like all the sappiness.”
“Hmm, I did always like the strong but silent types...but it’s not healthy to keep your feelings bottled up like that. Have you felt this way every year?”
“Yeah, I’d usually huddle up in my room alone and cry. Like some little foal.”
“Hush, you. Crying doesn’t mean you’re a weak little baby. It means you’ve been strong for too long, and you need a break. Why, I cry almost every month! The pressure from work, or a particularly sad episode of my favorite show…it’s a relief to just let it all out. Plus, you can eat ice cream afterwards as a treat for being so strong.”
Applejack hummed. “I see your point. I feel more comfortable around you, though. You sure you don’t mind if I ever have to...you know...cry?”
Rarity sat up, staring down at her marefriend. “You know I would never mind, my darling. My little Jackie.” She leaned down and gave her a small peck on the lips. “Why do I taste more cherry on your mouth than apples? Have you betrayed your own family?”
“What? It was good!” Applejack shrugged, a grin on her face. “You tell me why you taste like pecans!”
“I was saving all my apple cravings for you,” Rarity said, planting another kiss on Applejack’s forehead. “Though I suppose I would never tire of apples.”
“Eh, after a while the taste doesn’t set off a spark anymore.”
“Hush. It’s time to relax,” Rarity whispered, scooting closer to Applejack’s body. “Sleep, my love.”
“Good night, Rares,” Applejack muttered, closing her eyes.
The room was quiet, save for the muffled whispers of falling snow.