Twilight’s hooves tapped briskly on the cobbles, weighted by her yawning passenger. “Don’t go to sleep now, Spike.”
Spike frowned with waning tolerance out into the darkened, snowy streets. “There has got to be some law against keeping children awake on Hearth’s Warming Eve.”
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
“Yeah, but why?” Spike breathed smoke over his hands and rubbed them together. “Why are we going out from our warm library past my bedtime on Hearth’s Warming Eve into the government-mandated ice and snow?”
“I told you,” Twilight said distractedly, more focused on her thoughts than the discussion. “Pinkie Pie missed the party again this year. I’m starting to get a little worried.”
“Maybe she’s just baking for tomorrow,” Spike mumbled. “Or she takes a night train home and back to be with her family.”
Twilight shook her head. “Have you ever known either of those things to keep Pinkie from a party? And she never says anything, it’s like she’s hoping we won’t notice. Something’s up.”
Spike rolled his eyes and curled up to wrap his scarf around his knees. “Whatever. You’ll owe me a present if Santa skips us because we’re not asleep.”
“They’re my parents, they’re not going to skip us.”
“Santa,” Spike corrected.
“Twilight gave a giggle that morphed to a snort. “Right, okay. A centuries-old pony who sneaks into the homes of millions of Equestrians in one night to leave them each a present appropriate for their interests and developmental stage in life.”
“That coming from Equestria’s newest alicorn,” Spike said, bored. Theirs was an old argument, but it distracted him from the cold.
“There’s magic, and then there’s impossible,” Twilight insisted. “I’ve studied this, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
Twilight went on, undeterred. “All the unicorns and alicorns in the world couldn’t teleport enough gifts or stop time long enough to deliver them. To say nothing of the massive intelligence operation which would be needed to find gifts that are universally appreciated. A far more logical theory is that parents shop for their kids and each other, keeping it secret until the time comes to pass the torch.”
She paused, her mind going to untrod points. “Actually, how do you know I’m not ‘Santa’ for you?”
“Because I don’t get books.” Spike said. “Look, here we are. Let’s bother the Cakes on Hearth’s Warming night for no reason then go home.”
“We’re making sure Pinkie’s okay,” Twilight said, though a shiver broke the sentence. While pegasi crews ensured a nice and gentle snow on Hearth’s Warming, their skeletal night shift was content to let it pour. Fat flakes descended steadily from the overcast night sky as Twilight climbed the two steps to Sugarcube Corner and knocked with her hoof.
The door opened much faster than either of them expected, revealing Mrs. Cake complete with a festive sweater and candy cane earrings. She beamed without any sign of annoyance at the late hour. “Hello, Twilight. Last minute goods for the party? We always bake a few standbys just in case.”
“No, thank you.” Twilight smiled pleasantly. “Actually, I’m here for Pinkie Pie. Is she in?”
The portly baker was not skilled at deception. She froze, the welcoming smile becoming weak and wide as her eyes immediately swung away.
Mrs. Cake cleared her throat, then cleared it two more times before speaking. “Well… I suppose that depends what you mean by ‘in.’ She’s quite busy now, and, um...”
A familiar squeak resounded from inside, muffled by multiple doorways to emerge only somewhat loud. “Ooh! Ooh! Is that Twilight and Spike?”
“Y-yes, Pinkie!” Mrs. Cake called back. Twilight tried to peer inside, but Mrs. Cake shuffled herself to stand in the way.
“Don’t make them wait in the cold, silly! Send them in!”
Mrs. Cake hesitated. “Pinkie, are you sure? You are, um, terribly busy.”
“Yepper-depper! They’re my friends. Maybe they can help!”
“Well… if you say so.” Mrs. Cake stepped aside to let them in the deserted shop. Her smile reclaimed its place, and she gestured to one of the back doors.
“Of course we’ll help,” Twilight promised. Spike yawned.
“Alright, she’s back there. Just keep going through the left-hoof doors and… she can explain the rest. Goodness knows I can’t.”
The first left-hoof door took them into Mr. Cake’s cramped business office. From there, into a closet with ledgers and baby toys.
Oddly, another door sat inside. Twilight and Spike shared a glance before opening it into a… something. A room not much larger than a closet, with shelves of various small rocks on display.
“Pinkie?” Twilight ventured.
“Over here!” Pinkie called through a door at the other end.
Twilight opened it. They found themselves in a simple hallway of gray stone, adorned only with a weak string of garland and some picture frames.
They walked slowly to the leftmost door, glancing to each side. The pictures were of Pinkie and her family, and the door itself was larger than the others.
Again, they passed through. Chill hit them at once; warmer than Ponyville, but still white and cold. A massive pavilion was set up amid a backdrop of dirt and boulders, clear of snow and bustling with activity. Pots of cocoa, coffee, and hearty soup simmered on fires, ringing a pile of hundreds of gift-wrapped presents. A massive sleigh sat near the edge, where a familiar pink pony excitedly called their name.
“Twilight, Spike! Thank goodness, we can use all the hooves we can get.”
The notion of giving help briefly clicked off Twilight’s growing curiosity. She trotted over, feeling a smile grow as the welcoming grin on her friend proved infectious. Pinkie seemed as bubbly as ever despite the plea for help, taking presents as fast as Mr. Cake could pass them over and shoving them in a burlap sack which never grew.
“What can we do?” Twilight asked. Spike was still staring around in shock.
“Wrapping, loading, drinking, singing!” Pinkie pointed with the blue mitten Rarity made for her. “Whatever needs doing, pitch in! I’ll have a special job for you later.”
Twilight was a great friend, who was maybe just a little too smart for her own good. Pinkie heard her brain catch up with the events as she and Limestone wrapped gifts at a table.
“There isn’t enough gifts here for everyone in Equestria,” Twilight insisted.
Limestone shrugged, not looking up from her work. “Yeah there is. You’ll see.”
“But how is the sack holding them all? I don’t understand!”
To be honest, neither did Pinkie.
But that had never stopped her before. She was everywhere, helping to wrap, label, and load. Mrs. Cake arrived after a little while, bringing fresh gingerbread before pitching in herself. Pinkie’s quiet family also helped, having not once questioned or refused when she began doing this three years ago. Ever since she became the Element of Laughter.
Santa existed before her. Pinkie’s earliest childhood memories were of helping mom make rock soup to lay out for them. Pinkie didn’t know how or why she took over, or what happened to the last Santa. Nothing was forever – that’s why laughter was so important.
There was always just enough time. Dad stopped working to serenade them with deep, baritone carols that sent chills down the spine. Marble paused for some soup, and Spike took a nap. The work somehow never became repetitive or tiring, the ever-marching clock always shockingly slow. Pinkie’s family was naturally dour and quiet, but in their own fashion they joked and laughed with the labor. The pavilion was dry, and only just chilly enough that hot drinks felt wonderful.
Mrs. Cake fussed over the sleigh, ensuring it was in good repair. Her family joined last year, their babies snug and sleeping in cradles by the coffee.
And now, two more.
Spike whispered something to Twilight as they labeled presents together, wearing a smirk that provoked a playful noogie. They wrestled briefly, pitting her greater size against his tickling claws before collapsing against each other in play.
The sack was full, but not too full. The hour, not too late. And the sleigh had room for all – Pinkie learned very early on that the coming task was a lot more fun with friends and family. The Cakes remained, content with their own small contribution, and the rest clambered on board.
Something more felt right, and so Pinkie spoke. “Twilight? The clouds are pretty bad this year. We definitely don’t have time to get lost, so… can you guide us?”
Twilight opened her mouth. Perhaps to ask how Pinkie pulled the sleigh without any alicorns before. Or what she did during the last, equally-cloudy Hearth’s Warming. Or any of the hundred other questions a logical, intelligent pony like Twilight was inclined to ask.
Instead, with a blush and laugh she said, “Sure thing, Pinkie. Just one question.”
Naturally. “Ask away!”
“I thought Santa wore red.”
Pinkie waved down her blue mitten (matching her blue scarf and earmuffs), and blew a short, poignant raspberry. “Silly Twilight, you can’t believe everything you read.”
Tonight, that was good enough for Twilight. She hitched herself to the sleigh and lit her horn as bright and pink as it could flare. The shining brilliance cut through the overcast around them, and with a flap of her wings she carried the sleigh to the heavens like it weighed nothing at all.
There was no more than just enough time. They did not only deliver to the thousands of homes in Equestria, but countless more over the whole world. And also to orphanages and nursing homes, apartments and prisons and barracks. All the way to the firesides and alleys of vagrants, and royal palaces.
So much to do. And just enough time.
The tall rooftops of Manehatten. The underground burrows of diamond dogs. Places Twilight had never seen, barely even imagined. Yet she forgot them as she left, as the night’s magic carried them along. Even Pinkie only vaguely remembered some places from last year, and she wished idly for the day she could make friends with the strange folk within. But there was no time, not tonight.
They crept into the Changeling hive, leaving gifts for the tiniest bug up to Queen Chrysalis herself.
Twilight peeked. The purple button eyes of a stuffed Princess Celestia looked back at her, and she quickly replaced the lid and handed it to Pinkie for delivery.
They left thick jackets by old, ragged ponies sleeping by train tracks. Twilight questioned this. “Can’t we do more?”
“One present each,” Pinkie said briskly, eyes on the map as she plotted their next move. “Some things, Santa can’t fix. I’m not a princess.”
Twilight grew very thoughtful at that. Pinkie wondered at the destiny of it all, if Twilight had been guided to seek her out tonight so she could be taught something new. She wouldn’t remember the existence of hippo-folk in the jungle, or that Princess Luna had an innocent fascination with model trains. Nor would she even remember Celestia’s gift, for Maud caught her trying to peek and snatched it away.
But the train tracks… she would remember that. Twilight was smart in the right ways, even if she didn’t always ask the right questions.
It was a blur, just like with the presents. Las Pegasus to the smallest farm, all the way down their list to the last leg of the journey. Never tiring or feeling repetitive, barely noticing as they moved from one city to the next.
Ponyville was last. They parked on the rooftops of familiar homes and delivered presents no faster or slower than anywhere else. But Marble and Cloudy Quartz began to quietly yawn, and Spike was not so quiet.
They pulled to the library. Pinkie turned, speaking very quietly. “This is your stop.”
Twilight hugged her, accepting it without protest. “Same time next year?”
Pinkie laughed out loud. “Oh, you silly filly. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
The pair stumbled inside, and Pinkie drove the sled away. Only after would they realize it was not even midnight, and only next morning would they notice their presents beneath the tree.
Pinkie pulled the sleigh herself, carrying her family home with only a present for each of them left in the sack. Pinkie included, of course – Santa deserved a nice Hearth’s Warming as much as anyone. She didn’t even know what was inside.
They stumbled to their rooms, dropping the presents off beneath the Yule Stone for tomorrow. Pinkie climbed into bed with her sisters and fell into a deep and dreamy sleep.