The air was bitterly cold that December morning. Ponies were either bundled up in their homes or making last-minute Hearths Warming purchases. One mare was doing neither, instead choosing to slowly trudge down the streets of Ponyville as she felt the winter chill sting the matted orchid-gray fur of her cheeks. Her eyes were red and swollen, the thick polycarbonate lenses of her black-rimmed eyeglasses stained with the remnants of liquid pain.
What black hair hadn’t been shaved down to fuzz was pulled back in a bun and hidden under an oversized beanie hat, the top of her head and her ears warmed by a soft dome of alternating black and amaranth pink stripes. A black winter coat failed to give her large frame the illusion of slimness, but the faux fur that lined the inside helped to warm her upper body. On her legs was a pair of black leggings decorated with thin red and green stripes. What snow remained on the streets crunched under the black boots covering her hooves.
The sweet aroma of pastries filled Puzzling Insanity’s nostrils and put an end to her aimless wandering, giving her a destination. She followed the scent as it grew stronger until she reached the doorway to Sugarcube Corner. One gloved hand slid from its hiding place in her coat pocket and pushed the door open, immediately bathing the goth mare in warmth, light and the sound of carols playing softly on the radio.
A light cerulean earth pony mare with light crimson hair styled to look like frosting looked up from cleaning the counter. Her rose eyes widened and a concerned expression crossed her visage as she took in the image of the mare who had just crossed the threshold from the cold outside to the warmth of Sugarcube Corner. “Oh my!” Cup Cake exclaimed, approaching the unexpected guest. “Dearie, you must be freezing your cutie mark off! Come, take a seat.”
Puzzling allowed herself to be guided to a corner booth away from the windows, removing her hat, coat and gloves. Underneath the black faux-fur-lined shell was a thick black sweater. In the center of the garment was a white skull wearing a green elf hat. She blinked slowly, sniffling. Her lips parted for a moment, exposing a sharp pair of fangs as she let out a shuddering breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Would you like a menu, dearie?” Mrs. Cake asked hesitantly.
The seated pony looked up and nodded slowly. “Yes, please,” she said, her voice ever-so-slightly hoarse.
The older mare nodded. “I’ll be right back,” she said, stepping away from the booth and heading over to the counter. Puzzling’s ears perked up as the music increased in volume. “Hope you don’t mind, dearie; everypony loves Hearths Warming music, don’t they?”
Puzzling Insanity looked over and nodded with the faintest traces of a teeny-tiny smile on her pudgy face as Cup Cake came back with a laminated menu and gently placed it in her hands. Looking over the many selections, she blinked back a fresh wave of emotion. When she looked back up, she set the menu down and made a gesture as if she were writing on a notepad.
“You want something to write on?” Mrs. Cake received a nod in reply, then reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out her pen and pad. “Here you go.”
The fanged mare gave her a gesture of thanks before carefully writing down her order and giving back the notepad and pen.
The blue mare proceeded to read it aloud. “‘I’d like one hot chocolate with cinnamon and one Hearths Warming trifle with extra berries, please.’” Giving Puzzling a warm smile, she nodded. “I’ll have Pinkie get that started for you, dearie.”
Puzzling smiled and nodded in thanks. As Mrs. Cake headed back to have this “Pinkie” pony start her order, she pulled her phone out of her coat pocket and opened the photo gallery. When she came across one particular picture, her mask finally slipped and she set down the phone.
Her lip quivered and her eyes welled up, blurring her vision even with her glasses on. Her chest hurt as she removed her spectacles with trembling hands. She set her glasses on the flat surface before her, threw her head back and let out a wail as her heart shattered like a crystal figurine.
Having heard the heart-wrenching cry, Mrs. Cake hurried back over, now accompanied by a light pink earth pony mare with darker pink poofy hair and light cerulean eyes. Puzzling Insanity sat in the booth, her head buried in her arms as her body shook with every shuddering breath. Pinkie Pie took a look at the phone screen and the picture on it.
“Pinkie, don’t look at somepony’s things,” Cup Cake scolded. “You don’t know if something embarrassing could be…” She trailed off as she followed Pinkie’s gaze and realized what the picture was of.
On the phone screen was a picture of Puzzling when she was a filly, with no body modifications and a much different hairstyle. Hugging the filly was an army-green earth pony stallion with pale cornflower blue eyes and a red ballcap. Both ponies were smiling and wearing sports memorabilia.
Pinkie looked from the picture to the inconsolable mare in the booth, then back to the picture, then to Mrs. Cake. “Can I talk to you in the kitchen for a moment?” the young baker asked, not waiting for an answer before dragging her boss into the kitchen.
“Pinkie Pie, what is the meaning of this?”
“I think I know why she’s so sad,” Pinkie answered. “That picture.”
Cup Cake cocked an eyebrow. “What about the picture?”
“She’s spending Hearths Warming without the pony in the photo and I think that it’s a photo of her and her-”
What sounded like Puzzling screaming “DADDY” rang out like Princess Luna’s Royal Canterlot Voice, finishing Pinkie’s thought for her as she took the notepad, read the writing and got started on the sobbing mare’s order.
After what felt like an eternity of crying, Puzzling Insanity blotted her eyes and muzzle with a napkin for the thousandth time, not caring about how awful she must have looked. She cleaned her glasses with her sweater sleeve and put them back on, sniffling. Blinking a few times, she turned her head, jumping in the seat as she saw Pinkie Pie sitting next to her. Puzzling took a moment to regain her composure as the other mare slid a large fruit trifle in her direction.
“Do you mind if I stay and we chat for a little bit?” Pinkie asked, breaking the silence between them. “At least until you’re happy again?”
Puzzling let out a sad chuckle, then looked at the pink pony with a joyless smile. “We’ll be here for a long time then,” she croaked hoarsely before guiding a spoonful of the dessert into her mouth.
Pinkie Pie waited until the other mare had swallowed before looking at the napkin dispenser and taking a deep breath. “What’s your most favoritest memory of your dad?”
The fanged pony froze before trying to think of an answer, fresh tears stinging her eyes. “It’s so hard to say,” Puzzling said, swallowing the lump forming in her throat. “P-probably the last game we ever watched on TV together. You ever see an old stallion’s eyes light up like a foal on Hearths Warming?”
“Yeah, I throw parties for everycreature,” Pinkie chirped, smiling.
Puzzling looked at Pinkie with a deadpan expression before re-wording the question. “You ever see an old stallion on an oxygen machine look happier than you’d seen him look in years?”
Puzzling Insanity sat on the living room couch, while her father, former E5 and Equestrian Army veteran Green Beret, lay stretched out on the loveseat, an oxygen cannula in his nostrils as the machine it was connected to hummed in the other room. The television was alive with the sound of their favorite gridiron team scoring another touchdown.
During commercial breaks, Puzzling got her father whatever he needed, be it a cup of tea, a slice of that swirly raisin bread or just helping him to get up and go to the bathroom. They talked about his time in the army and told each other sophomoric jokes to pass the time until the game would come back on.
Eventually, the game clock hit zero during the final quarter, the outcome clear as day. As their team’s fight song “Across the Field” filled the room, Puzzling cheered and her father’s eyes lit up with a joy that she hadn’t seen in years. Green Beret sat up and reached for his youngest daughter, giving her a hug.
“I love you,” the stallion said as Puzzling hugged him. “Careful, you’ll hurt me if you hug too hard.”
Puzzling loosened her grip, but continued to hug her father. “I love you too, Daddy.”
Pinkie Pie gave a small smile as Puzzling Insanity finished retelling her memory. “That’s a really sweet story,” she said.
“He died less than three weeks later,” Puzzling said, wiping her eyes with her sweater sleeve. “But the last thing we ever said to each other was ‘I love you’ and that will stay with me until I lose my memory. Why did you want me to tell you about my dad?”
The pink pony’s smile grew a little as she came up with an answer. “Because he’s never really gone as long as there’s a memory in your mind,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t know if you believe in this kind of thing, but I believe that your dad’s waiting for you in Elysium and he doesn’t want you to be sad.”
“If I’m being honest, it’s a nice idea,” Puzzling said. “I don’t necessarily read that specific book, but I do think there’s an afterlife, and I believe that he’s there waiting and catching the biggest fish.” She pulled a bit bag out of her coat pocket and set it down. “How much for the-”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Pinkie answered. “It’s on me. Besides, you haven’t gotten your cinnamon cocoa yet!”
As if on cue, Mrs. Cake stepped out of the kitchen with a large mug of hot chocolate with cinnamon. “Sorry about the wait, dearie,” she said, gently setting the drink in front of Puzzling. “Be careful, it’s quite hot.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Puzzling said, blowing on the beverage to cool it down enough for a tasting sip. The scent of cinnamon filled her nostrils as she put the mug to her lips and tasted the holiday drink. She felt the warmth of the hot chocolate and cinnamon spread to the tips of her hooves and fingers as sweetness and spice danced on her tongue and down her throat. Putting down the mug, she smiled. “This is really good.”
“Glad to hear it,” Cup Cake said, her eyes still holding a hint of concern.
“There you are,” said a voice from the general vicinity of the entrance. Pinkie, Mrs. Cake and Puzzling turned to see a mauve earth pony mare with thin graying brown hair standing in the doorway with a small wrapped box in her hand. Her face drooped slightly on one side, but her chestnut eyes still swam with concern as she ran over to the booth and gave Puzzling a kiss on the head.
“Can I help you?” Mrs. Cake asked.
“I’m Heart Guardian, Puzzling’s mom,” the other purple mare answered. “I’ve been looking for her all morning, I thought somepony had knocked her in the head!”
Puzzling’s face turned red in her embarrassment. “Mom, I just needed to clear my head.”
Heart Guardian looked at her daughter, a gentle look in her eyes. “I miss Daddy too, sweetie,” she said, sitting down and handing Puzzling the gift box. “You forgot this.”
The fanged mare unwrapped and opened the box carefully, and when she saw what was in it, she nearly burst into tears right then and there. Sitting in a cushion of tissue paper in the box was a keychain doll made to look like her father. Her eyes welled up and she threw her arms around her mother, weeping into her winter coat.
“You’re welcome,” Heart Guardian said, returning the hug.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Elysium, an elderly army-green earth pony stallion with pale cornflower blue eyes looked down at the scene below and smiled.