• Published 26th Dec 2013
  • 10,842 Views, 255 Comments

The Irony of Applejack Aftermath: A Warm Hearth - Mister Friendly



A return to normal couldn't be too much to ask for... right?

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Part 1

Part
1

It was that time of year again; the time every filly and colt had been dreaming of for months on end – in some cases, quite literally. And it was heralded, as per usual, by a silent downpour of whiteness.

All across Equestria, snow softly and quietly fluttered down from on high, filling the chilly air with little bits of cottony white coldness. Snow banks didn’t last long, however – not under the eager hooves of excited fillies and colts in their quest to build the perfect snowpony, or their insatiable need to mercilessly pelt random passersby and each other with countless, hoof-packed projectiles.

All across a snow-bound Ponyville in particular, decorations were invading somehow faster than the accumulating snow, if such a thing were possible. To the credit of the town’s inhabitants, there wasn’t a pony around who wasn’t in a festive mood.

Shoppers and general merrymakers moved through the icy streets, tightly bundled up against the cold but without much further thought for the chill in the air. They were simply too distracted by everything around them to care.

Endless strings of twinkling lights adorned every steepled roof and lit up the festive displays in every business front in charming arrangements to tantalize passing shoppers. The entire main thoroughfare of the town was lined with lamp posts wrapped in lights like some kind of cheery vine.

Trees became so laden with ornaments, streamers and the like that it was a wonder they didn’t collapse under the weight of it all.

Snow ponies of all sizes dotted nearly every street corner and yard, and snow forts littered the park like some silly war-zone waged by giggling colts and fillies and the immeasurable amounts of snow the heavens armed them with. Wiser ponies stuck to the main streets, lest they get struck in the face with a ball of packed coldness.

Far and wide, carolers stood on corners, in parks – even traveling neighborhood to neighborhood. Their merry tunes mingled in the snow-rich air, filling the hearts and minds of all those who heard them with eager anticipation.

Hearth’s Warming Eve had finally arrived.

~~***~~

Applejack gazed out of her bedroom window at the snow swirls dancing through the air, eyes gleaming and an excited smile brightening her face.

Her mane and orange coat were still damp from snow succumbing to the warmth of her body and the quilt wrapped around her shoulders. The cup of hot cocoa clutched in her hooves certainly helped, too.

She sat on the edge of her lumpy bed and watched the snow accumulate throughout her beloved farm; filling apple trees with a frozen simile canopy of snow and dagger-like icicles, as well as encrusting the edges of her bedroom window with a thin layer of creeping frost.

But even as cold as it was outside, there was warmth in the apple farmer’s heart. There was just no way to get rid of the excited smile on her face, or the antsy fidget out of her limbs.

“Golly, look at all that snow comin’ down,” she said to herself, her emerald eyes turning up to the murky grey clouds overhead. “If it keeps up like this, we’re gonna have ta get ta shovelin’ all over again.”

That prospect shouldn’t have been appealing. It’d taken her and Macintosh most of the morning working with shovels in absolutely bitter conditions to dislodge all the snow that’d built up on the Apple family house’s roof, not to mention clearing a path to the road through ankle-deep drifts and knocking loose the icicles growing on the eaves of the house. It’d been accomplishing work, even if the cold had cut her to the bone and numbed her ears. And now it looked like she’d have to do it all over again before the day’s end.

And yet, the first thing to cross Applejack’s mind was something else entirely.

“Heh… Ah bet Rainbow got behind on her weather duties again.” She chuckled to herself. It was snowing pretty darn heavily, after all, and when the weather got bad in Ponyville, it was usually because somepony missed a storm or two.

For a moment, Applejack could almost hear the pegasus’ indignant response to that float through her head. Hey, did not! What kind of Hearth’s Warming Eve would it be without snow, huh? You should be thanking me, bug brain!

Applejack snorted to herself, rolling her eyes. Yep, that sure sounds like somethin’ she’d say.

A sudden knock on her bedroom door brought the earth pony back to her senses, drawing her gaze over towards the other end of the small room.

“C’mon in,” she said, though she already had a very good guess as to who it was.

There was a brief pause, and then a red snout carefully pushed its way into the room, followed promptly by the rest of a very large stallion.

Big Macintosh looked rather odd without his trademark yoke hung around his neck, though it hardly did anything to diminish the sheer size of his bulky frame. His usually unkempt sandy mane was even more ruffled than usual, undoubtedly thanks to the damp towel draped cross his broad shoulders.

Big Mac looked completely oblivious to the state of his hair, however, and instead stoically eyed his sister from across the room, taking her appearance in carefully while mulling over what to say.

Applejack, however, didn’t really seem to notice. She just smiled fondly at the big stallion in greeting. “Howdy, Macintosh,” she said. “Ya all finished up?”

“Eeyup,” he responded with a nod. Yet, he continued to eye Applejack thoughtfully. He hadn’t come all the way up stairs and away from the cozy fire just to report to his younger sister. Something was on his mind, and it had been ever since dawn.

Applejack continued to take no notice of her brother’s probing stare. She nodded to herself, looking up thoughtfully. “Good ta hear. Roof’s cleared off, path’s shoveled… Golly, we sure made good time, huh? Well… Ah suppose a snowball fight or two didn’t help, but all the same.”

Macintosh raised an eyebrow. Or two? She and Apple Bloom had taken any chance they could to chuck a frozen glob at their siblings – himself included. He’d come to expect such antics from Apple Bloom, but Applejack, too?

While he was thinking things over, Applejack abruptly glanced away and out into the snow again, as if suddenly remembering something. “... By any chance would ya happen ta know what time it is?”

Big Mac’s sigh was almost too quiet to be perceived at all. “Five minutes since the last time ya asked,” he responded plainly. “So… five minutes since noon.”

Applejack blinked, turned to look at him rather uncomprehendingly, before immediately turning very sheepish indeed. “Eh-heh… sorry ‘boat that. Guess Ah am gettin’ a little antsy. But Ah can’t help it, honest.”

Again, she glanced out the window, only this time her eyes scanned for something lower to the horizon, as if searching for something through the snowfall. Her smile bloomed in full force, unable to be restrained for long.

“Just think about it,” she said excitedly. “In a couple o’ hours, me and the rest of the girls are gonna be doin’ that Hearth’s Warmin’ Eve pageant in Canterlot again.”

She breathed in, her smile growing still bigger, if such a thing was possible. Much bigger and she’d be giving a certain pink party pony a run for her money. “Hoowy, just thinkin’ about it gets me more wound up than a squirrel in a coffee shop. All six of us, together, just like last time…”

She sighed quietly, settling down in her quilt. “Just like normal.”

Big Mac’s eyes tightened slightly at the note in Applejack’s voice. On a whim, he glanced to one side – towards a cluttered writing desk piled high with half-finished letters, no less than three empty and dribble-covered ink pots, and papers bearing a calligraphy most certainly not belonging to the country mare.

Up until a few months ago, that writing desk had sat in that corner of the room collecting dust like some neglected antique, used only on occasion to write to distant relatives whenever the fancy struck Applejack. Now it looked as if somepony was trying to run a small kingdom out of it.

But Macintosh’s eyes only lingered on the clutter for a brief moment, only long enough to notice at least two new letters lying atop a heap of their fellows, and the fact that Applejack seemed to be out of ink. Again.

On the wall overlooking the mess hung a simple, slightly grubby calendar bearing the picture of a bundle of snow-covered holly. And under that image, there was a massive field of X after X after X, crossing off day after day right down to a big circle on the last row on the calendar, with a big grinning smiley face drawn in red ink upon that one particular day.

Big Mac glanced back towards his sister, who was still looking out the window, barely able to sit still at all.

He’d known that Applejack had been looking forward to the pageant, but he was starting to suspect that maybe he’d underestimated just how much she’d been anticipating it. The last time he’d seen her this wound up this time of year, she’d been half her age.

He remembered that quite clearly, in fact, and for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest, though, was the fact that she’d spent half the day romping about, giggling and hollering like a total mad mare… all over the ceiling.

If anypony had decided to drop by that day, it would’ve been very hard indeed to explain why Applejack was hanging upside down over their heads like she’d coated her hooves in glue. Or why she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a pony.

The leathery chitin, the happily buzzing, see-through wings, the small yet razor sharp horn on her forehead… Yes, it would’ve been very difficult to explain that away, especially since – at the time – their family wouldn’t have had an answer to give to that question that didn’t involve pure speculation and amazing guesswork.

Now, at least, that wasn’t as much of an issue, even if Big Mac was still struggling to adjust. It still set him on edge every time somepony stopped him in the street and asked him about his sister – about Applejack, the changeling.

It likely would take a very long time before that ingrained defensiveness went away, though Applejack seemed to be adjusting easier. Of course, she hadn’t had to do it alone.

“Ya better rest on the train ride in,” he said. It was about the only bit of advice he could think to give, even if he knew it’d be unnecessary.

Sure enough, Applejack turned to give him an appreciative smile. “Ah know, Macintosh,” she said. “And Ah will. There’s probably a whole lot o’ ponies out there lookin’ forward to the pageant, too, and Ah ain’t gonna ruin it for them by gettin’ all worked up.”

Even so, Applejack closed her eyes, daydreams dancing through her head. “But… Ah really think that this year is gonna be even better than the last one. Just you wait and see, Macintosh; we’re gonna make this pageant the biggest one yet.”

Big Mac didn’t respond, at least verbally. But what Applejack didn’t see, was the small, relieved smile on his face.

Applejack had been so buried in all this changeling business as of late. It did the big stallion so much good seeing her set all of that weight aside for as long as possible and act like the cheerful pony he knew her to be, even if she was ratcheting it up a degree or two too high.

AJ abruptly glanced towards the window, as if suddenly spotting something out of the corner of her eye, and just as quickly, she threw back the last of her cocoa and hopped up, as if coming to a decision that Big Mac hadn’t been in on. In one move, she brushed aside her cozy quilt and swept the Stetson from the bedpost beside her before setting her favorite hat atop her head.

“Guess we better get goin’,” she stated, all the while darting over to snatch up a crimson scarf off of the nearby dresser. “Don’t want ta miss the train!”

While she wrapped the scarf around her neck, Big Mac gave Applejack a rather blank look, blinking. “Uh…”

His answer, however, did not come from the orange earth pony stepping into her favorite set of boots. No, it came from a rather urgent rapping sound that suddenly came from the bedroom window itself.

And there, tapping her hoof against the glass, hovered a cyan pegasus who seemed as much impatient as she was excited. “Hope you’re all rested up in there, Smart Cookie! Cuz it’s show time!”

Applejack only chuckled good-naturedly before raising her voice. “In a minute, Commander Hurricane!”

She chuckled again, as giddy as a school filly as she made for the door. All the while, she was being berated through a window by an incorrigible weather pony. “Hop to it, earth pony scum! Hup-two three four! Hup-two three four!”

Applejack could only laugh as she cantered for the door, beaming from ear to ear. Absolutely nothing was going to spoil her spirits now, she was sure of it.

~~***~~

Twilight Sparkle huffed out a breath and watched the resulting puff evaporate into the frigid air. She’d made sure to bundle herself up in her favorite set of galoshes, a scarf, wool cap and the warmest saddle she had. But even so, the crisp chill in the air was truly a merciless thing.

The train station served as a small island of respite from the fluttering snow at least, and from her bench seat, she was afforded a panoramic view of the rolling winter wonderland that’d replaced the familiar countryside. Even with the sun tucked securely behind a thick bank of Cloudsdale’s finest, the white of the snow coating the land seemed to glow with a light all its own, as if no amount of gloom could stymie its pure beauty.

The platform itself was jam-packed with excited, shivering ponies of all sizes eagerly awaiting the next train. Many were laden with parcels and suitcases while others had their hooves full merely contending with their energetic children bounding about, happily cheering the names of loved ones soon to arrive. Still other ponies periodically – almost compulsively at times – checked nearby clocks for the time, but for most, it was like watching a pot boil.

For the time being, however, Twilight was not among them. She had plenty in the way of distractions to keep her busy, after all, and at the moment all of the hubbub taking place around her was barely more than background noise.

Particularly, her attention was drawn to a knee-length scroll and all the claw-written points waiting to be checked off.

“Okay,” she said to nopony in particular, “Let’s see… rehearsals shouldn’t take too long… But if they’re doing three shows again, it’ll be pretty late before we can celebrate.”

“Aw…”

“Sorry, Pinkie. That’s just the way it’s gonna have to go.”

Sitting beside the purple unicorn on the bench, Pinkie Pie slumped almost improbably low in her seat, like a balloon with hardly any air. Being told that partying would have to wait was about the most devastating thing a pony could say in her presence.

She looked so dejected, in fact, that Twilight couldn’t help but lean over for a comforting nuzzle in the party pony’s poofy doo. She had to be careful, though; the last time she did that, she could’ve sworn something bit her, no matter what the others said.

“It’s okay, Pinkie,” she promised. “I’m not saying we won’t party. I’m just saying we might want to have dinner at the same time.”

The change was immediate.

All at once, Pinkie suddenly shot up into a proper sitting position, nearly colliding with Twilight in the process. As quick as a flash, she reached into her mane and whipped out – of all things – a cake-shaped notepad, complete with candy cherry, and an alarmingly huge power pink pen, and immediately set about taking notes.

“Dinner, gotcha,” Pinkie said in a suddenly dead serious voice. “Any preference?”

“W-well…,” Twilight flustered, taken completely aback.

As abruptly as Pinkie’s mood changed, it switched again. The next thing Twilight knew, she was being subjected to the biggest smile in Ponyville.

“Just kidding!” Pinkie gushed, giggling as her pen flew across paper at absurd speeds. “I’ve got just the thing!”

“Y-you do?”

Pinkie beamed. “Yep! I know a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of an aunt of a sister of a godfather of a dog-catcher of a poodle of a –”

The whole while she spoke, Pinkie’s pen flew across one page after the other, moving so fast that it seemed to be kicking up dust.

“—Of a landlord of this really nice place down in Vanhoover who knows this other pony in Canterlot….”

She paused, inhaled anew, and went on, “Who’s also friend of a friend of a friend –”

No… no that’s smoke. That’s definitely smoke.

“Who can hook me up with the perfect cater for the job!” Pinkie declared, finishing off the last line on the last piece of paper in the entire pad with a grand flourish.

But then she paused, a curl of something black rising up and into the air while she froze perfectly in place, a thought striking her.

“Unless they’re closed…”

Twilight could only blink at her… eccentric friend, not quite following and definitely not about to try. “Uh… what’s wrong with Donut Joe’s?”

To that, Pinkie gave her a very perplexed look. “Who did you think I was talking about?”

The lavender unicorn stared at Pinkie like a pony staring into the abyss. But then she shook herself, tearing herself away from the madness before it could claim her. Not now, not now – pick your battles, Twilight. Pick your battles…

“Maybe we’ll just commission the castle chefs to make us something?” she proposed hopefully.

Pinkie blinked blankly, and then promptly flung her pen and paper over her shoulder without a second thought. Thunderlane never saw it coming. “Huh. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Twilight could only roll her eyes.

Further conversation was cut off, however, when somepony cleared their throat.

“Darling, can you please tell us why we’re sticking to such an uncharacteristically tight schedule? I feel like we’re going to have practically no time to ourselves today, and that was most certainly not the case last year!”

Rarity sat on the librarian’s other side, sipping a piping hot mug of coffee, all the while raising an eyebrow at her now-sheepish friend.

Like Twilight, she was as bundled up as she could be against the rather unforgiving nip in the air. Of course, she seemed to have taken it a step too far; instead of looking like a mare out in the cold, she looked fit for an arctic expedition. The only bit of hide showing at all through the layers of wool and nylon was the space between the bridge of her muzzle and her horn, and only because she couldn’t quite justify the fashion choice of wearing ski goggles to fill the gap.

Normally the cold had little effect on the mare, aside from allowing her to show off her seasonal lines of clothing. But that day was very, very different.

She’d spent all morning getting her coat as pristine as possible for the pageant – she would not risk having even a single arrant flake of snow marring that! And while there was no way to protect her precious mane during the trip, there was a very good reason why she sat with a fully stocked cosmetics kit at her side. She would be flawless for the pageant, and there wasn’t a force in the universe that could stop her.

On the fashionista’s other side, Fluttershy watched the snow descending from the sky with a mild smile, lost in her own little world. Aside from a thick, woolen scarf coiled about her shoulders and a hoof-knit cap covered in little hearts, she was hardly wearing anything to ward off the cold, unlike the rest of her friends. Yet, it hardly seemed to faze her at all.

For that matter, most pegasi on the platform were dressed the same, though a tolerance for inclement weather could hardly be called surprising in their case. Other, mostly wing-less ponies, on the other hand, were nevertheless slightly less resistant to the nipping breeze.

“I’m sorry, Rarity, but I don’t really know much more than you do,” Twilight said helplessly. “I wish I did, believe me. All I know is that the pageant board put somepony new in charge of the play, and she wanted to put us through some extra rehearsals. She said something about wanting to see how we performed for herself, at least according to the letter.”

“Somepony new?” echoed Rarity, raising an eyebrow curiously. She even forgot to be quite so whiney. “Did something happen to Mister Gaffer?”

Rickety old Mister Gaffer had been the pageant’s director for as long as anypony could remember. He’d always been there on that stage, taking a bow with the actors and actresses after the show for as long as Twilight could recall, and she had yet to miss a show, even after moving to Ponyville.

Twilight would always remember his deeply wrinkled face, the innumerable laugh lines and rumpled folds on his brow that occasionally made it difficult to tell if he was awake or not. When they’d worked with him last year, he’d been nothing but smiles and encouragement, regardless of the inexperience of his main cast.

Sure, there were a few moments where he had a tendency to trail off or forget what he was up to, and he kept mistaking Fluttershy for his niece almost every time the old unicorn saw her. But even so, he’d been a master of his craft, whipping five novices into working shape in no time at all, all the while executing everything like clockwork. It’d only taken two weekends prior to the play to get everything – and everypony – ready, and the rest was history.

Honestly, a pageant without him would feel very, very odd indeed, like a Daring Do book written by a different author. Yet, the only time Twilight had even heard about it was when she’d gotten that letter yesterday. There’d been no fuss, no drama; nothing. He’d just… stopped, just like that.

Twilight shrugged, flopping her hooves. “I don’t know. Maybe he retired?”

She couldn’t help but hope that that was all it was.

Rarity frowned, allowing herself a careful sip of piping hot coffee before continuing. “Well, whoever it is, they have some very important horseshoes to fill for tonight. Surely the princess didn’t get just any old pony for the job leading the biggest pageant in all of Equestria. Did that letter perhaps happen to mention who would be directing in Mister Gaffer’s place?”

Twilight nodded in response, but her frown didn’t lighten much. “It did, but I didn’t recognize the name. Um… what was it again…? Oh, right! I think her name was Verily Vermillion.”

Rarity paused a moment to think while thoughtfully humming to herself, one hoof pensively rubbing under her chin. “Hmm… I can’t say I’ve ever heard of her before. Odd… it sounds so very familiar, but I can’t seem to place it…”

“You take that back!”

All four mares jumped in unison, Rarity very nearly spilling her precious coffee all over her front in the process.

Twilight was suddenly very aware of the commotion going on all around her as ponies turned in shock towards the other end of the platform, and together, their collective gazes fell upon the same scene.

Two stallions were standing with their backs to the crowd, ignorant of the attention they were garnering. Instead, they were more interested on a purple mare crouching on the ground, and a small, bawling shape wearing a pale pink parka clinging to her front.

The mare was leveling a truly venomous glare at the stallions while patting the crying foal’s head. “Well congratulations, you donkey-heads. You made a little filly cry. I hope you’re real proud of yourselves.”

One of the stallions snarled back, unimpressed by the slender unicorn. “Like she counts. How can you even stand living under the same roof as those monsters? I thought you were better than all of these bug-lovers, Sparkler.”

If a look could’ve killed, that stallion would’ve been pushing up daisies for himself and his next of kin. “I don’t see your mother taking me in, and even if she did, I’d rather be homeless than let the pony that spawned you anywhere near me!”

The stallion blanched, going from chocolate brown to almost tan in the face. “Why you little…!” he snarled, his thickset hoof starting to rise.

He would never know what hit him.

The only possible warning anypony had was a deadly, lightning-fast hissing sound as something shot through a narrow gap between ponies' heads. It was only an instant, and by the time the sound and feel of rushing air registered in the heads of onlookers, the stallion was struck so hard that he was bowled completely over with a solid THWACK.

For most everypony, it happened so fast that all that was heard was a rapid-fire thwack-crack, and suddenly there was a stallion lying on the ground with his legs twitching in the air.

His companion yelped, jolting back just as his friend’s head hit the ground hard enough to crack the very concrete. Needless to say, he didn’t get back up.

“W-w-what was that?” cried the last remaining bully, spinning round and round in fright. “Sh-show yourself! Who did that?”

Ahem.

The stallion froze, his eyes growing steadily smaller and smaller. He’d noticed the hush that’d fallen over the station, and out of the corner of his eye, he watched as every pony nearby turned in the direction of that throat being cleared – and then quickly sidestepped away from him with all due haste.

Slowly, shakily, he turned while being absolutely terrified of what he might find.

He wasn’t even close to being prepared. There, standing just on the other side of the ticket booth, stood a glaring, furious orange earth pony menacingly tossing and catching another of her choice projectiles.

A volleyball sized snowball.

“Sorry, Ah interrupted ya,” growled Applejack, her voice as humorless as a voice could get. “Ah believe ya were about ta apologize ta Sparkler and her sister before makin’ yerself real scarce.”

The stallion issued a rather high pitched squeaking noise, before immediately throwing himself on the ground at Sparkler and her sister’s hooves.

“I’msorryI’msorryI’msorrypleasedon’tkillmeoreatmeor—”

“Alright, alright,” said Sparkler in exasperation. “Just get lost already.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

And just like that, the stallion bolted with his tail between his legs. His companion, however, stayed put and continued to gurgle serenely to himself.

Applejack huffed a blast of steam, just before casting aside her last bit of ammunition. “Honestly. Some ponies…”

Everypony just stared at the apple farmer, more than a few with slack jaws. Even Pinkie found herself at a loss for words. Applejack ignored the silence, however, and instead stepped towards Sparkler and her still-sobbing sister.

“You two alright?” she asked.

“Yeah… thanks,” mumbled Sparkler almost begrudgingly. “Another two seconds and I would’ve had to teach them a lesson myself.”

The filly holding onto her front suddenly gasped, followed by a boot-covered hoof smacking against Sparkler’s chest. “No! Mommy woulda been mad!”

“Really?” Sparkler questioned, raising an eyebrow, “cuz I’m pretty sure she’d be clapping right now, kiddo.”

The unicorn looked up, away from her indignant sister to meet Applejack’s gaze. “Well… thanks for dealing with that doofus. Guess not everypony in Ponyville is as tolerant as they advertise.”

“Guess not,” quipped Rainbow.

Sparkler jumped, suddenly realizing that there was a pegasus standing almost right beside her, poking a hoof at the unconscious stallion on the floor, looking rather disappointed.

“Did you have to hit him so hard, AJ? I wanted a shot, too, you know.”

“It ain’t a contest, Rainbow,” pointed out Applejack with a roll of her eyes.

But as she started to fix the cyan pegasus with an exasperated look, she couldn’t help but notice four particular ponies staring right at her from the other end of the platform.

“Oh, howdy girls! Hope Ah didn’t miss anythin’.”

~~***~~

With a loud chug and blast of steam, the Friendship Express pulled out of the Ponyville station, picking up speed with each passing second. In no time at all, it’d achieved quite a head of steam, and was barreling down the tracks towards a distant, gilded city amidst the snow-covered mountains.

Unfortunately, in one of the compartments at least, hardly anypony was paying the white landscape whizzing by any mind.

“I can’t believe you did that, AJ!” burst out Twilight. Her mortified look had hardly diminished since departing, but this was the first time that she’d really started to put it to use. “Knocking somepony out like that… we’ll be lucky if you’re not reported to the Guard!”

Several of her friends flinched at the harshness in her voice. Applejack, however, was not one of them.

“What was Ah supposed to do, Twi’? Let them go on harassin’ and pay ‘em no mind?” She asked. Her words weren’t pointed or confrontational, but there was a definite, unrepentant note in her voice.

Her words had the desired effect, though. Twilight winced slightly, pulling a face. “I… didn’t mean that. Of course not. It’s just… We don’t need to get tensions stirred up again. The changelings in Ponyville are in the spotlight enough right now as it is. Any little mistake could turn into a really big mess, so we all need to be a little extra careful.”

As she spoke, Twilight gave her friend a meaningful look, making it perfectly clear that she was including Applejack in her statement.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” stated a purple baby dragon sitting next to Twilight, looking slightly bored. “We deal with goons like them all the time, and nopony’s ever got on our case about it.”

Twilight turned to shoot a disapproving look at Spike, who turned slightly sheepish. “This is different, Spike,” she pointed out.

Applejack frowned slightly, started to say something, only to be cut off by the one sitting next to her.

“Why?” Rainbow blurted hotly. “Because she’s a changeling?”

Everypony squirmed uncomfortably. Leave it to Dash to throw tact to the wind.

“That’s… part of...” Twilight tried, but a cautionary look from Rarity cut her short.

Nopony really wanted to, but one way or another, all five mares found their gazes turning towards the orange earth pony seated in their midst.

Applejack, however, didn’t meet any of their gazes, but no one missed the look of embarrassment on her face. “Come on, girls. We ain’t here ta sweat the small stuff, right?”

To her immense relief, Pinkie suddenly bounced up, a hoof in the air. “You got that right! And I know just the thing! Who’s up for a round of ninety-nine ciders on the wall?”

The distraction worked. All eyes turned together towards Pinkie, and the tension in the air dissipated.

Applejack couldn’t help but sink a little into her chair, a barely restrained sigh working past her thankful smile.

It’s alright, she thought to herself. That sorta thing’s bound ta happen now. No big deal.

She jumped slightly when something bumped into her side. When she turned to look, she found a cyan shoulder leaning against hers.

Again, Applejack sighed – this time, internally. And anyway… it could’a turned out a whole lot worse...

~~***~~

From there on, the trip became, thankfully, rather uneventful. Conversations shifted to little matters, like the weather – which for some reason kept causing Rainbow’s chest to puff out proudly.

Pinkie was, as per usual, all-but literally bouncing off the walls, and it was quickly made apparent that not joining her in a string of carols was almost physically impossible. Even Twilight allowed the party pony drag her away from her list on more than one occasion by a round of The Twelve Days of Hearth's Warming.

Fluttershy, meanwhile, was dutifully reciting lines to herself with a very serious expression indeed, only to implode the moment anypony took notice. Only once did Rainbow manage to coax her into an impromptu rehearsal right there on the train, but it quickly devolved from practice into a Commander Hurricane show-off.

Rarity contented herself by meticulously combing and brushing her mane while acting as impartial observer to the antics of her friends. Eventually, she started picking Twilight’s brain over this mysterious new pageant director, with neither having much success.

At one point during the trip, the door to the train car flew open to reveal an ecstatic Apple Bloom, who homed in on her older sister like a heat-seeking rocket.

Of course, Applejack only became aware of that fact after she felt something latch bodily onto her leg.

“Big sis, big sis!” she cried happily. “Are we gonna have Hearth’s Warmin’ in the castle? Are we?”

“Well shoot,” Applejack chuckled. “Guess that’s up to the princesses.”

Still, she glanced up towards Twilight hopefully.

Just by looking at her, it was evident that the unicorn was trying to hide her smile. “I’m sure Princess Celestia won’t mind if we have our own little party after the pageant. We can use my old room again if you want to.”

Everypony cheered a hearty affirmative, causing Twilight to turn a little pink.

Applejack smiled in appreciation, then turned back towards her positively beaming little sister.

Only, she wasn’t alone, Applejack realized.

Standing a little ways behind her, fidgeting nervously in the middle of the aisle, stood a small filly wearing a pale pink parka. Just passed the wool-lined hood, a pair of beady, featureless blue eyes eyed Applejack apprehensively, and it seemed like she had good reason.

Gripped gently in her tiny mouth was a small, crumpled rectangular box wrapped in metallic green paper and adorned with a single, muddy bow. The thing wasn’t in the best of shapes; in fact, it looked like it’d been stepped on rather viciously.

One by one, the six friends fell quiet as their eyes turned inquisitively towards the bashful youngling.

“Everythin’ alright, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, offering a small smile.

The filly didn’t say anything. Instead, she threw caution to the wind and darted up to the older mare. Without waiting for Applejack to say a thing, she gingerly placed the beaten package right next to her, taking the apple farmer aback.

“U-u-um…,” the youngling squeaked, “H-happy Hearth’s Warming, Miss Applejack.”

And while Applejack’s eyes widened in shock, the filly’s nerve failed her. Her mission accomplished, she turned tail and bolted to the opposite end of the train car. The last thing Applejack saw of her was her tiny, boot-covered hooves clambering up onto the high seat next to a familiar unicorn.

Applejack just blinked, stunned. Even her friends didn’t seem to know what to say.

She turned her gaze towards the present she’d just been handed. It had such an awkward crook to its shape, and Applejack could’ve sworn she could make out the outline of a hoof across its top half.

But the tag still remained unharmed. The whole thing was virtually taken up by a single, childishly scrawled name; “Appljack”

Applejack smiled to herself, barely restraining a chuckle.

“Well?”

The apple farmer blinked in surprise, then lifted her gaze to give Rarity a questioning look. The fashionista only gave her a rather meaningful look in return.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” she asked.

Before Applejack could respond, Pinkie let out a dramatic gasp worthy of the white unicorn, all the while looking mortified.

“You don’t open presents on Hearth’s Warming Eve,” she stated, sounding horrified that Rarity would even think to suggest such an absurdity. “Well, maybe one right before bed, but never in the middle of the day!”

“I merely thought –,” Rarity tried to defend herself, but Pinkie was having none of it.

“It’s alright,” Applejack reassured. “Ah’ll save it fer tonight.”

Still, Rarity cast an uncertain look over the apple farmer’s shoulder and down the aisle. “Alright then. If you feel that’s –”

Whatever else Rarity had to say, however, came to an abrupt end.

All of a sudden, the white, obscuring blur of snow outside the train window disappeared altogether, flooding each and every window up and down the train with splendorous sunlight.

Quite a few ponies yelped in surprise, shielding their eyes against the radiance, moments before they stared out in awe.

Applejack saw it herself when the train rounded a narrow cliff at breakneck speeds.

There, not a mile away, was Canterlot in all its gilded, majestic glory, shining somehow even brighter than the sunlit winter wonderland it rose from.

Even the solid columns of ice replacing the cascading waterfalls at the grand castle’s foot seemed to shine like priceless gems, glittering wherever the sunlight struck them.

All up and down the train, ponies oohed and awed, their troubles vanishing just like that.

For Applejack, the excitement in her heart came sprinting back like a puppy, and suddenly she found it very hard to sit still indeed.

~~***~~

Canterlot was a beautiful place any time of the year. The grand towers and extravagant homes and businesses could be seen for miles and miles around. From a distance, it resembled a gilded crown resting aside a massive mountain.

Up close, Canterlot had no peer. It wasn’t merely the scale of everything, either; it was the grandeur of it. From the mightiest of mansions to the most humble of hovels, there was an almost mystical quality to every stone, every furnishing, right down to every lamp post lighting the way for weary travelers.

This was always the first thing impressed upon visitors – either to the always-busy main gate connecting the city to the rest of the country, or by the constantly running train lines. Some would call it oppressive, others otherworldly. Whatever one’s take, all agreed that there wasn’t a place even remotely similar in the whole wide world.

It didn’t take long for Applejack’s excitement to get the better of her, either. She and the rest of her friends stayed plastered to the windows, eagerly drinking in the sight of Equestria’s grandest of metropolises even as the train screeched into the station.

The moment the doors swung open, she was the first to bound out onto the platform, beating even Pinkie Pie quite handily.

“Come on, ya slow pokes!” she called behind her, beaming hugely. “We ain’t got all day!”

“Jeez, AJ,” chuckled Rainbow, stepping around a very bewildered Pinkie Pie. “Who put a bee in your bonnet, huh?”

Applejack just met the pegasus’ playful sneer with one of her own. “There’s only a couple hours until the pageant, and by the sounds of it this new director lady wants ta put us through our paces first.”

She raised an eyebrow challengingly at Rainbow, something her friend noticed right away. “Ya ain’t stallin’, are ya?”

Dash’s response was as quick as it was predictable.

In a thrice, her wings shot open and her legs braced for action. “Bring it on, bug brain. Last one there buys the eggnog!”

Applejack grinned confidently, muscles tensing. “Yer on.”

And just like that, they both turned in unison, and tore off down the lane as fast as their hooves could carry them, leaving a trail of scandalized socialites and their disapproving glares.

“What the hay’s gotten into those two,” questioned Twilight, shocked.

“I haven’t the foggiest,” Rarity huffed, clearly offended by her friends’ rather boorish display in the heart of high society. “Applejack and I may need to have some words about what somepony of her pedigree should and shouldn’t do.”

“Oh, I thought it was alright,” Fluttershy mumbled to a flagstone. “Applejack looked so happy just now.”

Still, Rarity scowled unhappily. “Perhaps, but unless somepony else we know would like to turn into royalty, I’ll just have to keep holding out hope that she will someday act like a proper lady. Don’t you agree, Twilight?”

“Well… I think Fluttershy might be right,” Twilight said slowly. She then turned her eyes in the direction of distant cries of startled Canterlotians. “It feels like it’s been forever since the last time I’ve seen her act so… so…”

Rarity glanced at the unicorn out of the corner of her eye, all traces of indignation gone. “…Normal?”

Twilight bit her lip, averting her gaze. “Yeah. Normal.”

~~***~~

“Hah! I win!”

Applejack paused, surprised, before looking to one side – straight at an equally wide-eyed Rainbow.

Both of their front hooves were resting an inch beyond the same iron band on the Canterlot castle draw bridge.

Even the two guards at the gate were staring in wide-eyed astonishment at the winded pair. For that matter, everypony in eyesight was staring at them and the path of mayhem they’d wrought along the way.

Meanwhile, both mares started bickering amongst themselves, completely ignorant of the multitudes of stunned eyes turned their way.

“Oh come on, AJ! I totally won that, and you know it!”

“No way, RD. Y’all were at least half a hoof behind me and y'all know it.”

“Yeah, only cuz I wasn’t flying!”

“And what do ya call that stunt ya pulled around Town Square?!”

“Falling with style! Besides, you didn’t hear me complain when you started sledding down Mane Street! I didn’t even know you could go that fast on one of those things!”

“And Ah would’a kept goin’ if the dang skis hadn’t fallen off!”

“Applejack, I think there’s a difference between ‘falling off’ and ‘falling apart’.”

“Now yer just splittin’ hairs. ‘Sides, what about that stunt ya pulled with that giant candy cane?”

Style!”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Y’all would know all about style, wouldn’t ya.”

Rainbow shot her a cold glare. “Don’t you even go there, cowgirl.”

Both mares stared each other down while the guards stationed at either end of the gate braced for a scene.

They were not expecting, however, for both mares to suddenly break apart into fits of hearty laughter.

“Whew boy,” Applejack panted after getting the worst of it out of her system. “My… my sides…! Ha…”

She met Rainbow’s gaze. The pegasus had completely capsized, and was kicking at the air in mirth. She, too, was settling down, at least – if only just.

“Guess we’re going with a draw again, huh?”

Applejack chuckled. “Looks that way, sugarcube.”

Rainbow made a show of swinging one hoof through the air – drat – before flipping right-side up again. “Well then. Next time will just have to be the tie-breaker.”

Applejack let one last chuckle slip past her lips, but the smile was there to stay for sure. Gosh… Ah needed that…

“Applejack!”

Both mares looked up at the sound of that voice, and immediately they found its owner jogging towards them – not from the city, but from within the castle itself.

It was only then that Applejack even paid attention to it as more than just a finish line. Every time she saw it, she could’ve sworn the castle had gotten just a little bigger – the spires longer, the gold more prevalent, the balconies more common – and that time was no different.

For a moment, another place whizzed through the back of Applejack’s mind – one just as grand, but made of living wood in the heart of the Everfree.

But it was only there for a moment. She was almost immediately distracted by the sight of a khaki mare cantering towards them, looking almost beside herself.

“Oh, hey Rose,” Rainbow called in greetings while trying to catch her breath.

Applejack, too, gave the apparent earth pony a friendly smile. “Well howdy, Rose. Ah didn’t know y'all were here already.”

Roseluck smiled broadly, her eyes almost dancing. “I’m sorry, Miss Applejack. The Guard wanted a list of all the changelings that would be attending today. Then I was offered a suite here in the castle to spend the night, then we broke for dinner and the princesses were there and –”

The more Roseluck spoke, the more flustered she became. Simply recalling such an extraordinary day for the small-town mare seemed almost too much for her.

She did manage to catch herself, however. She caught her breath, taking a few lungfuls of air to calm herself down a bit. “Oh… oh, I’m sorry, Applejack. It’s been a very… overwhelming day. Being recognized as a changeling – especially by Princess Celestia herself…! I don’t know whether to cheer or head for the hills!”

Applejack chuckled. She certainly understood that feeling, and there likely wasn’t a changeling in Equestria who didn’t.

“Ya coulda told me,” Applejack pointed out. “Ah woulda been happy ta do it myself.”

Roseluck’s smile screwed up on her face, like she was trying to keep it in check. “Well, the last time we spoke, you seemed a little bit distracted. And you do have an important job today.”

Applejack blushed sheepishly. Come to think of it, she could barely even remember their last meeting. Or was it a passing greeting?

Roseluck merely gave her an understanding smile. However, it only lasted for a short period, before something seemed to occur to her – something she didn’t seem to like.

“Listen, Applejack. About the pageant…”

Applejack had just glanced towards Rainbow when Roseluck spoke, but even as she glanced back towards the earth pony, the sound of quickly approaching hoof-falls behind her drew all three ponies’ attentions.

“There you two are!” cried out Twilight’s very exasperated voice.

When the two mares turned around – Roseluck looked over their shoulders – they found a very out of breath and equally irate lavender unicorn starring daggers at them.

Pinkie was right behind her, giggling madly at something neither Rainbow nor Applejack had been privy to, despite the fact that she was looking straight at them.

Fluttershy, Spike and Rarity were nowhere to be seen, but there did happen to be a yellow taxi carriage racing down the road towards them as fast as the huffing and puffing stallions manning it could go.

But at the moment, it was Twilight’s furious glare that dominated Dash’s and Applejack’s attention.

“Would one of you mind telling me why there is a giant candy cane holding up traffic on Mane Street?!”

Applejack glanced towards Rainbow, who’d suddenly become very interested in the curvature of a nearby snow bank.

“Uh,” mumbled Applejack, scratching her nose. “Honestly? Ah ain’t got the foggiest.”

It was true; she’d been more focused on what she was trying not to crash into at the time.

Of course, Twilight didn’t like that answer, and looked like she very much wanted to express that displeasure – preferably as loudly as possible.

Unfortunately for her, the resounding bong of a clock tower bell cut her off.

Everypony in the group turned around, glancing in the direction of the tolling echoing across Canterlot; two, three – four times.

“We should probably hurry,” Roseluck noted casually. “Princess Celestia will be waiting.”

“Right,” Rainbow said, eagerly jumping at an offered lifeline. “Lots to do, right? Best not keep the princess waiting!”

And with that, she hastily trotted across the drawbridge without looking back.

“Ugh, fine,” Twilight grumbled, then raised her voice to add, “but this isn’t over, Dash! You’ve got some explaining to do!”

She quickly strode over the pegasus, with Pinkie bouncing along right on her tail, humming some rambling medley of a dozen different carols all jumbled together.

At the same time, the incoming taxi screeched to a halt – followed promptly by the exhausted drivers collapsing in a heap on the ground.

Applejack sighed before she glanced towards Roseluck and jerked her head. “Welp, we best get goin’. Lot’s ta do.”

But as she made to move around the earth pony, Roseluck’s hoof suddenly caught her shoulder. “Please wait a moment, Applejack,” she said, her voice dropping.

When she saw Applejack give her a searching look, Roseluck leaned in closer, so that only she could hear her.

“Is somethin’ wrong, Rose?” Applejack asked, sobering up.

She hadn’t known the Ponyvillian changeling for long -- only a month or two at the most. Yet there wasn’t a day in that time frame that Applejack hadn’t valued – or downright needed – Roseluck’s support. So, seeing her concerned was all the reason Applejack needed to get plenty serious herself.

At the moment, she was meeting Applejack’s gaze steadily, but there was clearly something on her mind. But what she said still took Applejack completely by surprise.

“What have you heard about this new director leading the pageant?”

Applejack blinked, nonplussed. But, she responded as best she could anyway. “Not a whole lot. Rarity and Twilight were tryin’ their best ta figure out who she was. Why?”

Roseluck’s frown deepened. She was lost in thought for a time, but came back almost right away. “Be careful with her. You need to be on your best behavior around this Verily Vermillion, especially during rehearsals.”

Now Applejack really had some questions, but a pony calling out from the other end of the drawbridge interrupted her.

“Hurry up, AJ,” shouted Twilight impatiently. “At this rate we’re only going to be able to get in one or two practices before the show!”

Applejack shot the unicorn a glance, then returned her attention back to Roseluck. The earth pony held her gaze with a meaningful, serious eye before nodding slightly. “She’s right. Come on – we’ve got some screening to get through.”

~~***~~

In all her days visiting the castle, Applejack never recalled security being as tight as it was then. Nopony seemed to pay it much mind, however, and most of the aristocrats viewed it as little more than a nuisance designed to impede them.

But to someone like Applejack, the new protective layers were just a bit more harrowing.

First came the expected – a name given at the gate, followed by a check to see if said name and the pony it belonged to should, in fact, be inside the castle.

But that was where the familiarity ended – at least, for Applejack and Roseluck.

The moment they gave their names, the guard doing the checking looked them up and down, then jerked a hoof towards the gate – or rather, the gate beyond the gate.

Applejack may not have been very familiar with the castle grounds, or the architectural design that went into building it, but it struck her as very odd that there’d be a perfectly square archway mere feet from the open door. In fact, it was so close that there was virtually no way around it for anyone striding through the gate, and Applejack quickly discovered why.

“You should take off your boots and scarf,” Roseluck advised, and before Applejack could ask why, the earth pony stepped through the archway.

The moment the first hair on her forward-most foreleg passed through the arch, a dozen lifeless stones atop its upper framework turned blinding, iridescent green, followed by a trill note that drew the attention of every single guard in the room beyond.

And as Applejack watched, the arch filled itself with dazzling green light.

The moment it touched Roseluck’s coat, emerald sparks burst forth like a bashed coal, and as Applejack looked on, Rose’s khaki coat disintegrated.

Advancing from front to back, the building flames swallowed her whole, reducing fur to ashen chitin and olive eyes to featureless, blue orbs set into a fanged face.

It only took a second or two for Roseluck to pass through the arch, but by the time she made it, the earth pony was gone. Instead, a changeling drone stood in her place, trembling as if her nerves had been jarred.

A second later, and a guard punched a button on the side of the arch, and suddenly the trilling sound dissipated. The gemstones atop the structure faded to blackness once more, and everything returned to how it’d once been. The guards relaxed, and ponies quickly found things more worthy of their attention.

Only now, Applejack was eying the large, rather blocking construct with an all new trepidation.

“What in the world is this thing?” she asked nervously.

“An experiment,” Roseluck answered while waiting patiently on the other side. “It feels… well, pretty terrible, if we’re honest with each other, but it’s over before you know it.”

Now Applejack liked the arch even less. It was just such an ugly, blocky thing, so contrasting with the splendor of the castle’s grand foyer beyond.

But there was no way around it, so after pulling off her galoshes and stuffing her scarf into one of them, she steeled her nerves and strode purposefully forward. Just a moment before it happened, Applejack’s breath caught in her chest, and she braced.

Again she heard the alarm go off, followed immediately by every single ounce of strength fleeing her body.

Roseluck hadn’t been lying – it was a truly terrible, numbing sensation that almost made her physically ill. Applejack was barely aware of the changeling fire washing over her compared to that horrible draining sensation. How she didn’t stumble and fall over like a boneless blob was truly beyond her.

But like Roseluck had promised, it was over just as quickly as it started. Somehow Applejack managed to keep her hooves moving her forward, and the moment she was out from under that wretched device, she immediately began to feel worlds better.

Her strength came flooding back. Love filled the gaping chasm inside every fiber of her body, courtesy of everypony who cared about her, and in no time at all, the disturbing numbness had vanished in its entirety.

But that didn’t stop her from trembling in disgust.

“Sweet merciful Celestia, what is that,” she exclaimed, throwing the now-lifeless archway a dirty look.

Roseluck could only give her a sympathetic look. “I was afraid that if I warned you, you’d never get past it,” she admitted. “I’m sorry.”

Applejack shook herself, trembling from the tip of her now-leathery black, fanged muzzle to her holey, amber tail. “Probably a good idea,” she admitted begrudgingly. “’Course, now that means we gotta go back through it when we leave.”

She then turned back towards Roseluck, fixing her with a look. “That still don’t answer my question, sugarcube.”

Rose fidgeted sheepishly at that. “I suppose not. Well, the short version is that some of us were asked by the princesses to share some of our knowledge about changeling magic not long ago – if you remember.”

Applejack nodded an affirmative to that.

“Well, that thing is one of the fruits of their labor. It is, essentially, a truth spell projector,” Roseluck explained. “Sort of like the one you used against Vigil’s troops in Ponyville. It’s only a prototype, though, so they’re still hammering a few things out.”

“Ah’ll say,” grumbled Applejack. “Ah don’t remember that spell bein’ nearly that strong.”

“Indeed,” Rose said, frowning. “Seems to me like they still have a lot of work to do before they get it right. Well, if it makes the royals feel like letting us in…”

“Come on, you guys!”

Applejack looked up, just as Twilight came impatiently storming down the stairs towards them. “We haven’t got all…”

The purple unicorn’s voice trailed off, however, the moment her eyes fell on Applejack.

For a time, she just stared at the dark chitin, the holey limbs, the tiny, almost silly-looking crown resting atop her head, and those eyes… those amber, twin-ringed eyes that were so alien they seemed almost illusory.

Quite a few ponies in the foyer stared, as well. What few of them had seen changelings thought they knew what to expect – that they were all practically identical beneath their disguises. But this amber-maned, amber-carapace-adorned changeling was contradicting a lot of those beliefs. Was she a hybrid? A freak of nature? Nopony could make up their mind.

But really, Applejack was ignorant to… most of their stares, at least. The only one she paid the most attention to was that of her friend’s, who seemed to have been struck dumb on the spot.

Applejack felt her chest clench painfully tight, and it took much more strength than it was worth to keep from expressing it.

Everypony jumped when the strange, amber changeling was suddenly swallowed by emerald flames, and the next thing anypony knew, there stood a Stetson-wearing earth pony in the creature’s place.

“Come on, sugarcube,” Applejack said, her voice almost mechanically even. “Let’s go. Don’t wanna keep the princesses waitin’ long.”

She didn’t wait for Twilight’s response. Nor did she force herself to meet the unicorn’s stare as she passed; not even once.

Author's Note:

I actually learned a lot from writing this. Firstly, I have a real soft spot for writing Pinkie dialogue. It always puts me in such a good mood. I may have to write fic starring her at some point.

Secondly, I suck at meeting self-imposed deadlines. I blame the holiday season and all the social shenanigans it comes with.

Well, at any rate, happy belated jinglemas to everyone! (Or happy preemptive jinglemas, whichever the case may be.)
I'll probably turn this into a three-part deal. Was going for two, but three should be fine, now that my original plan is shot.

Well anyway, rate and comment to your heart's desire, and I'll see you in the next part.