All Hallow’s Night
The party wasn't going right, but it took Twilight Sparkle till midnight to realize what was wrong with it. Everything was going according to plan, after all, she'd checked it all off in the book, and that sealed things, made them right. If you went by the book, you couldn't fail. She had the bat-streamers on the walls, the pumpkin-themed punch bowl and buffet table, the "GO GO RAINBOW DASH" banner, a merry dance going on in the middle of the room to Vinyl Scratch's killer tunes, and enough diversions and entertainments to keep even Pinkie going at it for a year and a day. There was nothing - no, not one thing - that she had missed as far as decorations, entertainment, refreshments, atmosphere, to make the perfect night. Even Celestia, sitting at the table Twilight had laid out just for her, looked content as she sipped from her cup, and Luna beside her was deep in hushed conversation with Fluttershy; everything was as it should have been in the library. Which, of course, made it all the more confusing that something wasn't.
The funny thing is, it took her two hours to realize. With Rainbow Dash missing, it should have made the lack of a certain other pony clear - but it didn't. Maybe because she was busy trying to make sure everyone was happy, she completely missed the pony that needed it most? Any way you slice it, Twilight Sparkle finally realized that Applejack wasn't joining in the fun. She wasn't over by the punch bowl, or bobbing for apples, or dancing with Applebloom (not that the little filly wanted it; she was having plenty of fun with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo), or chatting with Rarity about the benefits of a daily apple diet. (It does wonders for your mane, after all.) In fact, she wasn't there at all. But she'd been with them all as Rainbow Dash left, she'd walked in the door with the rest of the crowd, and she'd said her pleasantries with Celestia, which left either the unthinkable or the merely impolite. Please, she whispered as she walked up to the only quiet place in the entire library, let it be the merely impolite.
She sighed quietly in relief as she saw Applejack, backlit by the bright party lights, sitting in front of the window by her bed. Applejack didn't turn around, even when Twilight called up to her. The second call elicited a curt "Not now, Twilight". She didn't stop Twilight from clambering up the stairs and sitting down next to her, though. In her hooves, Twilight would have said the same thing, and meant the same thing. Come talk with me, be here for me, tell me it'll be all right.
"It'll be all right," she said, trying to start the conversation off on the right hoof. "She'll be fine. You know Dash, she's the fastest filly in all of Ponyville!"
"In the air, maybe," Applejack said, "But on the ground? There ain't no one faster than me, not when going cross-country. Besides, you know how she likes to use her fancy flying tricks, even when they're not fair. Remember our last running of the leaves?"
"I remember you two coming in last," Twilight said, poking Applejack in the flank. But her tone's somber, too serious to make the joke work right. "She's just as fast as you, and we know she won't cheat on something this important."
"Why'd she have to go, anyway?" Applejack slammed her hoof on the window-sill, making Twilight jump. "Why's this happening now, of all times - not even Granny Smith remembers this fancy-shmancy 'tradition' everyone's blabbering on about, and she knows just about everything on everything."
"She's keeping us safe. She knew that when she volunteered."
Applejack sighed, still staring out into the night sky. "I should have been the runner, Twilight. I'm the toughest pony you'd ever lay eyes on, I could have taken the run and come out as fresh as a daisy, and you know it. Do you really think Rainbow's going to be able to run all night long without a rest?"
"I think Rainbow Dash hates losing," she said back. "And she's capable of doing great things. Remember the Sonic Rainboom? When you push her to her limits, Rainbow's always going to find a way to beat them." The stars shone down on Ponyville. The moon was new and dark, and the night was almost black. In the unlit loft, Twilight could hardly see Applejack sitting next to her. She inched closer, as quietly as she could. "Come downstairs, Applejack. All the worrying in the world won't help Rainbow outrun him."
"Twilight, when I see the sun rising, when Celestia finally does her job and ends this blasted night and the whole thing's over, I'll come downstairs. But till then, you can just forget about it." Twilight sighed, shaking her head. When Applejack said something like that, you couldn't change her mind with anything less than direct divine revelation.
So Twilight just sat there next to Applejack, because what else could you do? The party was missing that vital spark without her, and there was nothing in the party planner about consoling a best friend.
There was silence for some time, the two ponies staring out into the dark of the night. Twilight had known anxiety before, true, but most of the time it was the vibrant, adrenaline-fueled anxiety of a simple plan gone wrong. This was different. This was the dull ache of knowing you couldn't do anything, that if the simple plan went wrong, there was nothing - absolutely nothing - that you could do to set things right.
"You obviously care a lot for young Rainbow Dash."
Twilight nearly jumped out of her skin, and Applejack froze up. Nopony so large, so majestic should be able to move that quietly. (Everypony who has met Celestia measures themselves by her from that moment on - which makes it all the more terrifying when they see somepony even larger. Like him, that evening, standing impossibly tall before the forest.)
(Those horns, reaching up to clutch at the dusk sky-)
"Hello, Your Majesty... Your Highness... Your Excellence..." Applejack stammered, before turning sheepishly and whispering, "Hey, Twilight, how do you say hello to royalty?"
"You say 'Hello, Celestia'," the heavenly princess said, taking a seat next to the farm-pony. It was almost comical - the orange pony with dirt engrained deep in her hair, even after taking a scrub to prepare for the party, sitting next to the immaculate divinity. Her hair seemed to shine softly, illuminated in the starlight; the sun on her flank drew in the eye in its subtle golden sheen. "That's enough."
"Aren't you supposed to be downstairs? The book said that the guest of honor should always-" Twilight's next mental breakdown was averted by a careless toss of Celestia's mane.
"Oh, I just excused myself. Nopony ever thinks to ask exactly what I'm excusing myself for - I can't help but wonder if a few curious fillies are peeking under the door of the facilities, expecting sunlight and rainbows." The amazing thing was her voice was always composed and elegant, even when making the kind of joke Twilight would have expected from Snips or Snails. Applejack couldn't help but laugh, slightly nervously but laughter all the same, pounding her foreleg on the window-sill. Twilight just settled for blushing slightly.
"Sunlight and rainbows - that's a riot! Wait till I tell Applebloom- I can tell her, right?" One can never tell what the etiquette for boasting about one's experiences with royalty is, after all.
"Let's just keep this our little secret," Celestia replied with a smile, rustling her wings against her flank. "It is hardly proper for a princess to indulge in such impropriety, after all. My, I wonder if the Cake girl is rubbing off on me." She looked over to Twilight. "Your friends are such bad influences on me, Twilight Sparkle. Why don't you ever think of my well-being?" Seeing Twilight's face fall, she said softly, "That was a joke, Twilight. I'd never make you choose between me and your friends."
"Thank you, Princess Celestia. You're too kind," she replied.
The crickets were silent tonight, and the cicadas were long-gone. There was no sound from the night but the whispering, scraping wind, and - far-off, so far that it could hardly be heard, that it made the ear wonder if it was going mad with worry - the sound of a hunting-horn and a baying pack of hounds. Applejack bit her bottom lip, trembling slightly.
"Twilight, how old do you think I am?" That is not a question one ever wants to hear from one's mentor and god, and Twilight hemmed and hawwed for a moment, unwilling to voice her suspicion that Celestia was as old as the sun itself.
"Old as hill and dale, apple and tree." It was odd to hear Applejack trying to wax lyrical, but she was doing her best to rise to the occasion. "You've always been here for us ponies, and always will."
"Not quite," she said with a low chuckle. "I'm not as old as the forest's hart. But I've seen empires rise, kingdoms fall, and I've seen more of these than I can count anymore. Not in a thousand years - because both Luna and I signed the contract to keep you safe - but I have seen enough of them to know that only the best, the very best, are ever chosen to run this night. And I believe that your beautiful young friend has the determination to win."
"I wish I had your confidence, Princess," Applejack said. "I really... Rainbow and I have run more races than you can shake a hoof at, and I know she's good, but what if she's not good enough?"
"She is," Twilight said. "Because I trust her. We trust her, Applejack. And as long as she has our trust, she'll never fail."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, child." Celestia's voice was wistful for a moment. "It is true, even when the world calls it a lie; it is true, and will be when all the shadow-truths of this world fall away, and the ravens have forgotten the word 'unicorn'. You trust her, and she is your friend. That is enough. She will return to us."
There was a rustle of feathers, and a small sigh, and Twilight rose. "I have to go... check on the thing. The party thing. I think Pinkie's probably scuba-diving in the punch-bowl again." She turned, leaving Applejack and Celestia caught tightly in a wing's embrace, staring out into the night together.
And she heard, as she left:
"How many has he caught, then?"
"Not a one of them, ever."
"Good. I think... I think that there's some good odds."
And that's the end of that.
Well, not quite.
Because the party kept going, through the long hours of the dark morning. And when Vinyl Scratch had nearly run out of fresh tracks to play, when the punch had run dry, when the streamers lay forgotten in a musty corner, when every ear was drooping and every eye was half-lidded, Luna rose from her seat, and Celestia joined her, and together they walked out to the forest's edge, and - while some returned to their homes, knowing that they'd get the chance to sleep the day through - others followed, but none so closely as a little orange earth pony.
And when the black hart strode from the forest dark, followed by his hounds, his shadowed shoulder higher than Celestia's, his twisted horns rising up to the branches they so resembled, his massive black swan's-wings bound tightly by twisted iron, this everyone remembers - the sight of the rainbow-maned pegasus, her hair matted and filthy, her flank scratched and cut, the slow rise and fall of her back as she slumbered on his own. They saw the odd reverence with which he placed her on the ground before Celestia, and the bemusement with which he watched her slumbering form dragged off by the little orange pony.
And what he said to Celestia, before he and his pack returned to the forest for another peaceful year - that is a secret that will be kept by the trees and the wind until the day when the ravens no longer remember that there was a secret at all.