• Published 19th Nov 2017
  • 2,682 Views, 195 Comments

No One to Remember - WishyWish



Cider season is nigh in Twilight Sparkle's town, and a birthday party for a dear friend is the perfect way to usher in the cold season. When that friend ceases to exist, it wouldn't be the first time things have gone wrong. But it might be the last.

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1 - The Birthday Mare

Ponyville.

The cradle of Equestrian civilization. The tiny hamlet with a habit for producing ponies destined to save the world. Under the cozy eaves of Equestria’s majestic capital city above, she sleeps; dreaming of quiet days, glad tidings, and a bountiful harvest.

This year was little different, if the trees over Sweet Apple Acres were any indication. With harvest time drawing to a close, each tree, pregnant with teeming life, had been pruned of every juicy, plump fruit. They stood erect and tall despite the fleecing of nature’s gifts - testament to the stout, loving hooves that cared tirelessly for them every day of the year. Their offspring; apples in every color from ruby red, to sage green, to golden yellow, were on their way to whatever destiny fate held in store. Some overflowed from storage cellars, or titillated the senses of passersby in the form of pies left out to cool on windowsills. Others topped train cars on their way to the many corners of Equestria, in keeping with demand for the best quality apple one could find in all the nation. Still more - the true picks of the litter - were given the honor of the Apple family cider making process, which an already prideful family staked their very name upon above all else.

It was from one such mug - warmed and spiced for an early chill - that Princess Twilight Sparkle sipped. The liquid coated her equine maw as it slipped into her stomach, warming her from the inside out. It went so far as to soothe away a nagging soreness in her throat that the bite of autumn had brought about. Since neither magic nor traditional remedies had done the trick before, she thought perhaps the Apple family’s treasures were as much of a mystery as the sixth-senses possessed by Pinkie Pie. They just worked, and it was best not to try to figure out why.

Twilight magically floated the steaming mug a few inches away and took in a view that she had become used to associating with the taste. Sweet Apple Acres persevered despite the season, with many of her trees as green as the height of summer. Those that had begun to accept nature’s call to autumn were not only beautiful, but carpeted the many dirt trails in a kaleidoscopic blanket of burgundy and tangerine orange that crunched pleasantly under the hooves.

Mingling about the simple finery was a modest gathering of ponies numbering no more than a score, with every muzzle bearing a festive smile. Twilight knew most of them and considered many as friends, but there were a few faces unfamiliar to her. These belonged almost exclusively to Earth ponies, whom she judged by the many variations on the theme of apples upon their flanks were still more in the long line of Apple family relatives, who seemed to always produce a few she had yet to meet at every social event. Regardless of tribe, the many ponies present were engaged in all manor of frivolity, from lazy strolls under the trees to supping at the buffet tables set out under the banner that marked the occasion.

Twilight moved the mug to her lips again, took an extra-long draft from it, and indulged in an audible ‘ahhh’ noise. A hearty giggle with a familiar twang to it was her response.

“Just can’t beat that first mug of the season, huh?” A voice commented. Twilight, her eyes closed, responded without need to identify the commentator.

“First warm mug,” the princess corrected. “Not that it isn’t excellent cold, but there’s something about warm apple cider that’s just so perfect, it makes you wonder if it’s programmed into the pony genome. I’d write a paper about it, but I don’t think even I could explain it in words. It’s one of those things everypony just gets.”

“Well I can’t say I know anythin’ about that,” the voice replied, “But I see you finally got that scarf pulled down offa your muzzle for longer’n it takes to enjoy a couple’a sips. It’ll cure what ails ya, and that there’s Celestia’s truth!”

Twilight opened her eyes and regarded the striped periwinkle scarf that now hung loosely about her neck. It was a sloppy gift from her beloved assistant two years before, but Spike had done his best. As such Twilight cherished it beyond any work of boutique art hanging in her closet, even if it was rather nice to replace the constant odor of wool left in a drafty castle for half a year with the crisp scents of the season.

“I certainly can’t argue that, Applejack,” Twilight smiled. She turned to her friend, amethyst eyes meeting the sparkle of always-energetic emerald. “Happy birthday, by the way. And thanks so much for inviting me.”

Applejack huffed playfully and reached up to subconsciously straighten her Stetson. “Tch, are you kiddin’? As if I wouldn’t want all my best friends around at a time like this. Granny always used to say that the best time to surround yourself with folks you care about is the day you get older each year. Since, well, someday...there won’t be as many to come as there were before.”

Twilight brought the mug to her face, but didn’t take a sip. She paused to reflect on her friend’s words, watching steam rise from the tiny, ensorcelled ripples of amber in her cup. “Getting older is like the reverse of a ripple I guess. Your circle of friends gets smaller over time.”

Applejack placed a hoof on her friend’s withers, and shook her head plainly when Twilight looked up. “Naw. If anything it’s just the opposite. Maybe not so many folks you once cared about will still be around the older you get, but the longer you’re here, the move lives you touch. I don’t know how long any of us will be here Twi, and heck, any one of us could get hit by a carriage or end up in some horrifying cupcake disaster tomorrow. But every day you walk the land is one more not just for you, but for everypony who’s life you touch, whether or not you even realize what you mean to ‘em.”

Twilight felt a soft smile appear on her lips. “I guess I should be thankful that it’s never really happened to me so far. Losing ponies that are close to me, I mean.” She snorted derisively. “‘Horrifying Cupcake Disaster?’”

Applejack chuckled and stuck a hoof in the direction of the buffet tables, above which lived the banner declaring it to be a happy birthday for her. Upon one table was piled a trainwreck of black and purple cupcakes, done up in a montage of fondant and sugar to depict them as a crumbling haunted house filled with spooky imagery.

“Y’got me,” Applejack admitted. “Nightmare Night was weeks ago, but Pinkie got so much love for her ‘Merengue Schmooze Monster’ that she’s kinda stuck on that theme now, I guess!”

Twilight giggled. “Oh, I remember that. Little filles and colts running around the center of town laughing about how nopony can stop the merengue!”

“Heh, yup.” Applejack agreed. She pushed up the brim of her hat long enough to scratch her forehead quizzically. “Though I dunno what sorta message a pony’s sendin’ when she brings a stack of black cupcakes with sugar-zombies and tombstones on ‘em to celebrate a friend gettin’ older.”

Twilight fell in with her friend and made for the tables at a lazy pace, sharing tales of old times and new as they walked together. When they were close enough, the princess nearly tripped over a colorful, cube-shaped box that was sitting before the cupcake table.

“Huh? What’s this?”

Intrigued, she examined the large box and soon came upon a manual crank, which she nearly manipulated with her magic, save for the fact that a note upon the boxtop designated the package as a birthday present for Applejack. Making a silent ‘oh’ with her lips, she stepped aside.

“Looks like this is one of yours, birthday mare!”

“Eh?” Applejack cocked her brow and gave the box a profound stink-eye. She then glanced around, looking droll. “You seen Pinkie Pie?”

“Uh, no?”

“Uh-huh,” Applejack sighed. “She’s in there, ain’t she. Gonna jack-in-the-box at me, I reckon.”

Twilight grinned. “Well? You can’t just leave her in there all day, you know.”

“Yeah but--”

“Oh my, what’s this?” another voice, as glamorous as it was melodious, spoke up. “Are those rhinestones? Rather garish really for this time of year, but I suppose as packaging material they’ll suffice.”

Twilight sat her mug down and began munching on a levitated cupcake, speaking between bites. “Hi Rarity. Applejack’s just trying to decide if she wants to open her present or not.”

Resplendent in a mink stole that matched her eyeshadow and cutie mark, Rarity was working on a cupcake as well, though with highly genteel bites. She eyed the box obliviously. “Oh? Whyever would you not want to open a birthday present, dear?”

“Because,” Applejack waved a foreleg at the box, “It’s Pinkie Pie in there, and she’s just waitin’ for me to spin that crank, so she can pop out and make googly faces at me to a chorus of Turkey in the Straw or somethin’.”

“Really?” Rarity blinked down at the box. “Did she tell you that?”

“No,” Applejack huffed. “But it’s obvious, ain’t it? She ain’t nowhere around here allasudden, and you know she wouldn’t just up and leave in the middle of a party.”

“My, if that’s the case, she could pick a more refined tune.”

“Uh-huh,” Applejack snorted. “It’s cause it’s me, Rarity. If it were you, she’d prolly rig it to play Pomp and Circumstance.”

Rarity fluffed her mane and struck a pose. “I’d take exception to that darling, if it weren’t oh so true!”

Twilight allowed the banter to fall into the background as she scanned the party for more familiar faces. “Applejack, where’s your sister?”

Applejack appeared pleased to get off the subject of the package. “Apple Bloom? Prolly off playin’ with her friends somewheres.”

“Oh yes,” Rarity chimed in. “I saw her and Sweetie Belle wander down the lane a short while ago.”

“I think she said Scootaloo couldn’t turn out today,” Applejack added. “Somethin’ about wantin’ to watch a special Wonderbolts practice that’s open to the public.” She smiled. “Can’t very well blame her for that, seein’ as how she and Dash are practically sisters, heh.”

Twilight scrunched her muzzle and helped herself to a second cupcake, this one nearly the color of her coat. “It’s your birthday, though…”

“Aw, it ain’t like that,” Applejack corrected. “Apple Bloom had some cake and spent some time with me today. All three of ‘em even pitched in to get me, uh…”

“--that lovely white cowfilly hat with the cavalier vermillion plume and the sequins?” Rarity finished the thought, perking up. “A regular dandy, wouldn’t you say!”

Applejack scratched the back of her neck. “Yeah uh, that hat, which is...so ‘dandy’ that I can’t bring myself to wear it out, eh heh…like outside, ever…”

“What was that dear?”

“Nuthin’!” Applejack insisted. “My point is, they made a show, and now they wanna go off to play. Fillies will be fillies, an’ that’s okay with me.”

“Oh! Oh!” A bubbly voice added. “I wanna be a filly too! Can I!?”

The attention of the entire group turned to the table, behind which stood a merrily grinning Pinkie Pie. She was dressed, of all things, like a gigantic spider, with costume arachnid legs poking out to either side of a black carapace that covered most of her body. Only her head was revealed, allowing the faux vampire teeth in her mouth to be easily observed.

“Or even better,” Pinkie went on, “I could be the spider, and you all could be Little Mare Muffet, and I could scare you all away!”

Applejack rolled her eyes towards the early evening sky, but she couldn’t help a chuckle despite herself. “It just don’t do no good to tell you that it ain’t Nightmare Night anymore, does it Pinkie.”

Pinkie made several stereotypical, vampiric ‘blah’ noises and dressed her accent up to something that would have offended a Trotsylvanian. “Eet iz alvays Nightmare Night somewhere, mine pretties! Take heed lest I suck ya blood!”

“Pinkie Pie is her own explanation for everything she does,” Twilight giggled.

“Indeed,” Rarity agreed, “And the cupcakes, while somewhat inapropos with regards to the occasion, are simply divine!”

Pinkie Pie somehow managed to sheepishly scratch the back of her neck with one of the inanimate spider legs. “Aw geez, you all make me blush!”

Applejack nodded in agreement with Twilight. “That explains her,” she turned to face a diminutive pegasus standing by Pinkie’s side, “But what’s your excuse?”

Fluttershy was clad in no less than a colorful clown costume, complete with a propeller beanie, baggy trousers, suspenders, and a red cotton ball on the tip of her muzzle. “O-oh uh,” she stammered, “Pinkie asked me to help set out the supplies, and...well, I didn’t want her to feel awkward for being the only one dressed up.”

“But it ain’t a costume party in the first place…” Applejack trailed off.

“Quite so,” Rarity added, “but I must say Fluttershy, I’m really rather proud of you. That’s the most complicated Nightmare Night costume I’ve ever seen you wear. It’s certainly better late than never!”

“Oh, that,” Fluttershy lifted up one leg and glanced at it, “Well, I can still see really well in this, and I didn’t wear the floppy horseshoes because I might trip, and I didn’t wear the makeup because I might forget who I am if I look in a mirror, and I really didn’t want to scare myself, you know?” She beamed, “but I managed to wear all the rest of it! I know it’s not Nightmare Night anymore, but you can never be too careful!”

“...y-yes. Of course dear.”

Pinkie put her hooves on the table and peered over it, like a filly gazing at dessert. “So what’s in the box?”

Applejack stopped. She glanced at the box, then at Pinkie, and then the box again. “Uh...wait, ain’t you supposed to be in the box?”

“I dunno, am I?” Pinkie asked.

“Uh...no.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Applejack replied.

“Are you super sure?”

“Yes, yes I’m super sure you ain’t in the--”

“Are you extra super double-secret positively sure??”

“Pinkie, you’re standin’ right in front of me, so you ain’t in the--”

“--super duper double whipped ice cream cones with sprinkles, coconut, and a rock candy cherry on top sure??”

“I’m sure!” Applejack announced, her attention now utterly fixed on the box. “You’re absolutely, positively not in this box, Pinkie Pie!!”

“Well Applejack,” Pinkie grinned as she held up a foreleg with a string tied around it. “I think you’re absolutely, positively...right!”

Unseen by the birthday mare, Pinkie yanked on the string. A hidden latch that held the tightly wound crank on the box pulled free, and the crack began spinning like mad to an accelerated-tempo chorus of ‘Old McDonald’. In barely two seconds, the entire box exploded in a canister blast of confetti, streamers, and paper party hats. Taking the brunt of the assault full in the face, Applejack yelped and found herself flat on her back, with a party hat perfectly positioned atop her head and most of her body covered in party paraphernalia. When the smoke cleared, all of the rest of the partygoers around the buffet area, even those who were not in line of the blast, somehow found themselves also with a hat, strapped in place under each chin as though it had been carefully adorned. A miniature version of Pinkie’s party cannon was smoking where the box once stood, smelling of vanilla frosting and strawberries.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!” Pinkie shouted.

“Yay,” Fluttershy added, her voice muffled by the party hat that had been reflected by her beanie and somehow ended up strapped over her muzzle.

Pinkie loomed over Applejack, almost muzzle to muzzle, her sapphire eyes sparkling brightly. “I just knew I had to go all out to surprise you, and nothing says surprise like my new small calibre field party cannon! I’m a party ninja now!” Pinkie blinked three times and pushed her face further forward, until Applejack’s head nearly receded all the way into the cocoon of streamers that had dominion over her body. “What’cha think? Too much!?”

The ensuing silence and stares from nearly everypony in attendance clouded the air like Trottingham fog. There was a tiny giggle, and several faces turned to observe fluttershy, giggling merrily from behind her muzzle-hat.

“O-oh dear, I’m sorry,” She sputtered, “B-but you just look s-so silly wrapped up like that Applejack, it’s so adorable, pfft…”

Fluttershy’s laughter was infectious, and it soon gave rise to a chorus of merriment from everypony present, including the birthday mare.

“Aw Pinkie,” Applejack sat up and began to brush herself off. “Don’t you ever go an’ change, ya hear?”

“But if I don’t change, my costume will get all gross and I’ll need to take a bath!”

Dismissing the quip as a typical Pinkie-ism, Applejack got up, held her party hat aloft (her Stetson had been blown clean off in the ordinance barrage), and reared. “Come on now everypony! Is there here a shindig or ain’t it? Y’all been real neighborly to turn out right after harvest time, so come on and enjoy these here eats and let’s get some music up!”

A collective ‘yee-haw’ from the Apples in attendance culminated in the hasty formation of a banjo-led jugband. A number of ponies took to the grass in a makeshift square dance, moving with a familiarity that did not require a caller.

Twilight sighed with contentment. This was just what she had needed to relax after a long week of princessly duties, and she couldn’t help but adopt a certain motherly appreciation in her heart as she watched the citizens of Ponyville enjoy themselves. This was her town, and so long as it sang with the Magic of Friendship, she felt worthy of her wings.

Her eyes scanned the crowd. There, cavorting with frivolity, were Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, the Apples…

...and somepony else.

Twilight paused and took to squinting. Her quarry wasn’t far away - just at the edge of the dancers - but for some reason, she couldn’t quite make out who was there. The long shadows hadn’t quite bled away into total dusk yet; those from the barn and the trees mingled with uncanny perfection, just barely obfuscating the pony’s finer features. Not that there was much to see. Whomever it was, their mode of dress did no justice to a hoe-down, or to a sleepy country town like Ponyville at all. This pony was clad like a hard-boiled gumshoe from a noir film reel, with a high-collared trench coat that almost entirely blocked their face from under a wide-brimmed, gray fedora. He, or she, was making no move to conceal their presence and thus Twilight assumed them to be a partygoer, but the piercing stare from his or her sapphire eyes lanced the princess until a chill crept down Twilight’s spine.

“Uh, Applejack?” Twilight asked without taking her eyes from the strange pony. “Who’s that?”

“Huh? Who’s who Twilight?”

The voice of reply was familiar, but also very wrong. The pitch was too high, and the construction of the syllables was entirely too juvenile. Twilight turned, and had to look down in order to bring Apple Bloom into focus. The filly had a party hat on, and her pale coat sported wisps of streamer material, as though she had recently been buried in it.

“Apple Bloom?” Twilight scrunched her muzzle in confusion. “Didn’t you go off to play with Sweetie Belle?”

Apple Bloom tilted her head. “An’ miss my own birthday party? Why that’s crazy talk!”

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, who were there beside the flanks of their friend, nodded in agreement.

“Who could possibly turn down presents and a party just for you?” Sweetie Belle chimed in.

“Yeah, and just think of all those homemade apple turnovers, fresh from the oven!” Scootaloo added.

Twilight blinked. “Wait...your birthday party?” Remembering her question, she turned back to the perimeter of the dancers, but did not find her quarry. “Who was that pony in the trench coat and the fedora?”

Apple Bloom craned her neck and peered around the princess’s side. “Uh...I don’t see anypony in a getup like that. Can’t say I ever saw an Apple wearin’ that sort of thing, actually. You lookin’ for a friend of yours?”

“Like your plus one?” Sweetie Belle asked incredulously.

“What? No,” Twilight shook her head. “Rarity said the two of you went off to play somewhere. And Scootaloo, aren’t you at the Wonderbolts practice? The one they opened to the public?”

A hearty laugh rang in Twilight’s ear. She turned, and found no other than Rainbow Dash herself fluttering in the air beside her, the mare’s cyan hoof hooked around a mug of cider. “Opened to the public? That’ll be the day! Practice is strictly a private thing. Spitfire would have my head if I just started bringing ponies up to watch.”

“Rainbow Dash?” Twilight hesitated. “What are you doing here?”

“Uhm, duh,” Dash lifted her mug, “Totally here to support the special day of my good friend Apple Bloom!” She leaned in to whisper range and covered her mouth with a hoof, “Totally not here mostly for the cider...I swear!”

Twilight made a sour face. “But today is Applejack’s birthday,” she insisted. “I know that for a fact, because I’ve seen her birth certificate. I have a photographic memory for these things.”

All of the crusaders, and the hovering pegasus, exchanged empty glances. Dash spoke first.

“...who?”

“What do you mean ‘who’?” Twilight replied. “Applejack. The birthday mare? Countryisms and a mean buck?”

Dash looked blank. “Uhh...okay?”

Twilight could tell her description wasn’t getting through. “The Element of Honesty?”

“Element of...what?”

Incensed, Twilight’s hoof shot out in the direction of the fillies. “Apple Bloom’s sister! Where is Apple Bloom’s big sister!?”

Apple Bloom, who had gone cross-eyed staring at the purple hoof that was nearly touching her muzzle, spoke up. “Twilight, what are you gettin’ at? I ain’t got a big sister.”

Twilight’s attention went back and forth between the group of fillies and the streamlined pegasus. She chuckled dryly. “Alright, alright, very funny. You got me, I admit defeat. Now seriously, where is Applejack?”

“Twilight,” Apple Bloom ventured, “I dunno who you’re mistakin’ me for, but honestly, I don’t have a big sister…”

“Of course you do,” Twilight said obstinately. “Did she head into the barn to roll out another barrel of cider?”

Apple Bloom stuck out her lower lip in thought. “Mebbe you’re thinkin’ of one of my cousins? I got so many of ‘em you know, I can’t always keep track--”

“She is not your cousin!” Twilight shouted with exasperation. “She’s your sister! And this is her birthday, not yours!”

The volume of the verbal assault was enough to draw attention from other partygoers. Apple Bloom’s ears wilted and her shoulders shrank, the gesture soon copied by her friends.

“I...but it is my birthday,” she replied meekly, pointing up to the banner. “See?”

Twilight looked up, “I just read that banner ten minutes ago, and I’m quite certain that it says--” she read aloud, “--‘Happy Birthday Apple Bloom’.”

The assembled crowd gave their princess a collective look. Twilight balked.

“B-but that’s not what it said a minute ago! It said ‘Happy Birthday Applejack!”

Twilight felt a hoof on her shoulder. Rainbow Dash had a mildly scolding look in her eyes.

“Twilight, hey, knock it off. It’s just a filly’s birthday party. You know I appreciate a good gag, but saying--”

“This is not Apple Bloom’s birthday party!”

“--yeah, saying that. Maybe not in the best, you know...taste?”

Apple Bloom looked dejected. “Uh, I...I don’t really understand, but...well I think Ima go, uh...play for awhile. How about you girls?”

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, by contrast to their companion, had looks of reproach on their muzzles. They turned consolingly inward, creating a retreating barrier between Twilight and the birthday filly.

“Yeah, I wanna play,” Scootaloo muttered sardonically. “Sounds like a great idea.”

“Let’s just go over there somewhere,” Sweetie Belle added.

The moment the fillies were out of earshot, Rainbow Dash turned on her friend. “Twilight, what was that all about? I can take a joke, but you can’t just start shouting stuff like that to a filly on her birthday.”

“Joke?” Twilight stammered. “What’s not funny is a strange looking pony giving me the evil eye from across a square dance, and then you pretending you don’t even know one of your best friends. I’d like to know what this is all about too, because if Pinkie Pie put you all up to some belated Nightmare Night scare, that’s what’s not in good taste!”

Rarity, who had been too bewildered by the proceedings to speak, finally inserted herself into the conversation. “Twilight dear, please. If something’s wrong, you need but tell us.”

“Didn’t you tell me not five minutes ago that Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had left the party?” Twilight snapped.

“I said nothing of the sort,” Rarity huffed, flipping her stole. “I merely confirmed that the three of them were present.”

“That’s right, you didn’t say that, did you? Because Applejack said it!”

“...who, darling?”

“Ugh!” Twilight turned dramatically and nearly tripped over the leg of one of the buffet tables as she increased her personal space bubble. “Girls, please...because we’re friends...can you please not play with my brain right now? I’ve had a really rough week. Two land writs, three property disputes, a dozen letters with friendship problems…” She glanced at Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy, who at least had not changed position nor outfits. “Are you two going to tell me the same thing? That you have no idea where Applejack is?”

“I like Apple Jacks with milk in the morning!” Pinkie announced. “So if that’s all you’re looking for, just come hang out with me later!”

Fluttershy averted her eyes, “Uhm, I don’t know who that is, much less where they are…”

Twilight sighed and took to massaging the center of her forehead with a hoof, where pain had started to congeal. “Even you, Fluttershy? I’m surprised. I didn’t think mean jokes were your thing…”

“Nopony is playing a joke on you, Twilight!” Dash rumbled from above. “One moment we’re all hanging out chatting at this party, and the next you’re freaking out about somepony none of us have ever heard of, and telling Apple Bloom her special day isn’t her own!”

Twilight’s gaze passed among her friends. “Really? You’re all going to insist on this? Well fine, I’ll put an end to it right here and now.” She turned towards the barn and waved her foreleg broadly. “Granny Smith! Excuse me, Granny Smith! Do you have a minute?”

Responding more to the gesture than the call, the matriarch of the local Apple Family peered in Twilight’s direction, and instantly embarrassed the younger mare for encouraging an old nag to get up from her rocker. Granny Smith had been lounging on the porch, and waved off several offers of assistance as she warmed her muscles with a few light kicks. Running through the startup checks of the elderly took a full minute, but she was soon off at what for her was a hasty canter, but little more than a mosey to everypony else.

Big McIntosh, who knew that a ‘hasty’ mosey from his grandmare meant business, broke from a conversation with several Apple cousins to fall in beside her. Granny wasted little time, and her gums were already flapping as she entered conversational earshot.

“Eh? What’s got yer dander up, Twilight? Y’look like y’got gremlins in yer girdle!”

“Uh, I don’t wear a--” Twilight shook her head, “N-nevermind that. I’m sorry to bother you, I really should have come over there, but can you please tell me where Applejack is?”

“What’n?”

“Applejack,” Twilight raised her voice and enunciated slightly. “She was here a minute ago, and I was just wondering where she went. I wasn’t paying attention. Did she go to get more cider, or to brush off some of Pinkie’s streamers?”

“Ah heard what y’all said,” Granny Smith let out in a drawl that put her kin to shame. “But who’s jackin’ mah apples? Ah don’t take kindly to thieves!”

“What…? No,” Twilight sighed, “Applejack. Your grand-daughter.”

Granny Smith’s brow furrowed until the creases became a maze that would have been the pride of minotaurs everywhere. “Somepony hit you over th’ head with the family photo albums ‘till your brain got scrambled, Twilight? Y’all know her name is Apple Bloom. Ah got a third cousin twice removed name’a Crackerjack, though. Y’all’re gettin’ ‘em confused is all.” She touched her chin and pondered, “Then agin, that sure does sound like a good name for an Apple. Can’t imagine nopony ever thought t’use it before. Mebbe you’re lookin’ for a fourth-cousin?”

Twilight hadn’t meant to be so harsh with her friends. But the week had been trying, and her nerves were already frayed. She took a deep breath and evened out the tone of her voice.

“I am not getting anypony confused, and I am not talking about a cousin. Applejack is one of my best friends. She’s helped save Equestria by my side several times in the past-” she gestured to the small crowd, “-all of you care deeply for her, and she’s your son’s eldest daughter, Granny Smith!”

Granny Smith’s expression soured. “Mah boy and her lovin’ wife had two younguns, Twilight. They may have been spaced pretty far apart, and ah may be goin’ wonky in the head sometimes in mah old age, but if there’s one thing ah’m gonna hold in the steel trap parts of mah brain that ain’t rusted out yet, it’s mah boy’s own kin. And ahm’a tellin’ you right this here second, that there ain’t nopony I done ever heard of name’a ‘Applejack’!”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed, a prominent frown on his broad muzzle.

“But that’s not right!” Twilight insisted. Cornered by myriad sets of condemning eyes, she wracked her brain for some way to defend her point. “I-I can even prove it! Here!”

With that, Twilight lit her horn and grabbed hold of a saddle bag bearing her cutie mark from the mouth of the barn, where she had sat it upon her arrival. She brought it over at speed, flipped up the flap, and produced two objects - a pocket-sized photo album and a small, festively wrapped box.

“Here!” Twilight whipped open the album to a specific page and shoved it out for all to see. “This is a picture we posed for right after defeating Discord that first time. Just look at it!”

Rainbow Dash grinned, “Aw yeah, lookit that winning grin. I make my element look awesome.”

Fluttershy turned up her eyebrows. “I...I see me, and all our friends, but…”

“--that’s precisely what I see, darling,” Rarity quipped. “Not that I should expect to see anything else. That photo was intended to mark the occasion. The five Elements of Harmony and their bearers, victorious in the face of adversity. Why, it ended up on the cover of the Manehattan Times. They even got my best side!”

Twilight spun the picture around and stared at it. “But that’s not--!”

Her words were choked off by what she saw. There she was, smiling and surrounded by her friends - Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie.

“Where...where’s...b-but...that can’t be…”

Rarity gently touched her friend’s shoulder. “Darling, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. We can smooth things over with the fillies later, but perhaps you ought to sit down…”

“What about the Element of Honesty?” Twilight blubbered, her face still on the image.

“Honesty?” Rarity echoed. “Well that’s a fine virtue no doubt, but unless I miss my guess, there are only five Elements of Harmony. So far as I’ve been made aware, at least.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie added as she bounced once in place, her spider-legs jiggling. “You said they wouldn’t work if we didn’t have the fifth one, the magicky one! So we quested and dungeoned and dragoned, we got it, and now they’re all peachy keen!”

Utterly dumbstruck, Twilight lost her hold on the album, and the raspberry magical hue around it turned to cerulean as Rarity stepped in to keep it from falling. Trembling slightly, Twilight produced the small box and held it aloft.

“But I...I even got her a present, a pocket field manual of apple varieties. She probably doesn’t need it, but...you know, I always give a book...we were going to have a laugh about it…”

Before anypony could comment, Twilight tore the wrapping away from the package with a resounding rip. Therein did indeed lay a book. Granny Smith squinted and read the title aloud:

“‘Potion Brewin’ 101: A Field Manual for Beginners’. Aw hey, that’s right thoughtful of ya, Twilight. Apple Bloom does have quite a fancy for whippin’ up concoctions an’ whatzit.”

Twilight confirmed the title of the book. Unlike the photo album, this object managed to hit the grass when shock cost the princess her grip. She stared down at it, trying to form the words she knew were there from the jumble of letters that now spelled something new.

“B-but...but...R-Rarity I…”

Rarity, who was still close at hoof, wrapped her foreleg around her friend. “Shhh, dear. You’re just tired. Nopony is upset with you--” she glanced at the assemblage to confirm, “--correct?”

All heads nodded in assent, though the Apples did so begrudgingly. Twilight looked away, reasoning that if they truly believed Applejack didn’t exist, Big Mac and Granny Smith didn’t take kindly to being called liars.

“But, Rarity--” Twilight muttered, “who went with you to Manehattan, that time the map called you to help with the Midsummer Theater Revival?”

“Nopony dear,” Rarity replied smartly. “The map called me alone. Miss Pommel and I were fortunate to find a cadre of landscapers who were so enamored with foalhood memories of the theater that they were willing to fix up the park pro-bono. It was a truly lovely gesture of friendship.” She frowned, “Do you not...remember?”

Twilight looked at Rainbow Dash, “and the bravery test? Who would win a staring contest while covered in bees the longest?”

“Tch, endurance test you mean,” Dash grinned. “Nopony in town has even come close to my record for longest time standing still while covered in bees! Of course nopony’s tried either, but still…” Dash quirked a brow, “Twilight, I told you all about that. You know I did that by myself.”

“I think what we all need right now is a moment to take our minds off the situation, and a nice hot mug of cider, yes?” Rarity punctuated her words by retrieving a freshly poured mug from the table with her magic. “You’re sorry, we’re sorry, and that’s water under the bridge. Here dear, this will help.”

Twilight eyed the mug of cider. Something was wrong. Very wrong, and her mind was already at work trying to come up with an explanation. Was it some great conspiracy? Was there something in the air?

Or maybe...something in the cider?

So many eyes, so many contented faces, that seemed to notice nothing amiss. Or did they?

Twilight pulled out of Rarity’s embrace and stepped away whilst trying to keep everypony in her line of sight at the same time.

“I...I’m sorry, I...maybe you’re right, maybe I don’t feel well…” She lied, coughing lightly. “I think...maybe I should go lay down for awhile…”

“Oh, I’ll walk you home,” Fluttershy offered, but the princess stuck out her hoof in expedient refusal.

“N-no, no that’s just fine, I...know the way.”

Twilight made eye contact with Big McIntosh. There was no malice in his gaze, but neither did he look pleased with the situation. She wanted to ask him how he could possibly forget all about one of his two sisters, but an eerie sensation inside told her that pressing the point was no longer to her advantage. Rarity broke Twilight’s reverie by calling out.

“Spike? Spike dear! Where are you please?”

“Over here!” Spike, who had the entire time been just at the far corner of earshot making merry with a few friends, heard the summons and responded with his usual overabundance of eagerness. He trotted over on half as many legs as the other partygoers, his crests bouncing along with him. “What’s up?” He was grinning, but the expression melted off of him the moment he saw the princess. “Twilight? Hey what’s the matter? You look tired.”

Twilight restrained herself from asking her lifelong friend about Applejack. She wasn’t sure she could take any more fooling with her logical mind if he responded in kind with the rest of the troupe. “I...I just need to lay down.”

“Would you mind escorting her home, dear?” Rarity smiled sweetly at Spike. “It’s not a bother, is it?”

Rarity had her charm turned on, but Spike didn’t require it when a friend was in distress - least of all the pony that was practically a mother to him. “Of course not!” He insisted, and was by Twilight’s side in a flash. “Can you trot? Do you need to lean on me?”

Twilight smiled wanly, appreciating her assistant’s tireless devotion. “I-I’m fine. I just...need some rest,” she repeated, now quite set upon removing herself from the proceedings until she could make sense of them. She turned back to the group, “Tell Applej--bloom happy birthday from me, okay?”

Uncertain glances were appended by more nodding. Dash swooped in to retrieve the book on the grass and set it properly on a table. “She’ll love your gift. Totally gotcha covered, don’t worry.”

When the beleaguered unicorn was out of earshot and the confused Apples had gone back to entertaining their guests, the remaining four friends exchanged glances. Rarity finally broke the silence.

“Can anypony explain that outburst just now?”

Dash shrugged. “I dunno. I have no idea what she’s talking about, but you said it yourself. She’s probably tired, and you know how much she likes reading. If her brain is that big, can you imagine how off the wall her imagination is?”

“Being a princess must be so exhausting,” Fluttershy said emphatically, the party hat finally gone from her muzzle. “Maybe she’s coming down with something…”

“You think she’s delirious?” Pinkie chimed in. “I know just the thing! If we sneak the ninja party cannon into her bedroom and fill it with noodle soup, she’s sure to--”

“No no!” Rarity cut her bouncy friend off. “I mean, no Pinkie, I don’t think that will be necessary. Let’s just drop by tomorrow and see how she’s feeling. She was babbling about missing ponies and a shady character in a trench coat. Most likely she’s just a little cloudy from exhaustion and was reading a mystery novel recently.”

The assemblage, pacified by Rarity’s suggestion, agreed. They turned back to the festivities; so certain were they in their convictions that each managed to still enjoy the rest of young Apple Bloom’s birthday party.

Half an hour later, the crowd gathered around for cake, presents, and embarrassing stories of fillyhood, told by Granny Smith with help from a photo album chock full of images of her two grandfoals.