Happiness, Pinkie decided, was a day of baked goods cycling in and out the ovens. It was the fresh batch of muffins she had just pulled out, carefully placing the tray on a wire rack next to all the others. It was the way the muffins were carefully set apart from the cupcakes, which bore a healthy golden gleam as steam rose from the delicate cracks in their surfaces. It was the smell of cake and frosting, carefully yet quickly brought together by the capital-C Cakes as they applied tasteful decorations in pastel colors. It was the ability to look out the open window, at any given moment, and see ponies outside prepare for the celebration tomorrow.
In short, happiness was a comfortable rhythm, as easy and delicious as breathing.
She paused at the thought. That had a certain poetry to it, she mused, making a mental note to jot that down later. The thought was relegated to a back burner, where it warmed and simmered as she swapped a raw batch of cookies with a baked batch. Once the oven was closed, she set an exhausted timer to ring in a quarter of an hour, then prepared to continue on with her tasks.
Her eyes swept the countertop for more treats ready for the oven, but they only met an empty surface. Was that it? That couldn't be it. She couldn't have been doing this for more than a couple hours. Yet when she looked to the clock, which hung contentedly on the far wall, it proved her wrong; its hour hand was settled directly below a bold pink three.
"Oh my!" Mrs. Cake stood in the doorway with her namesake balanced on her back, taking in the sight of the cooling desserts. "You've certainly been productive, haven't you?"
Pinkie's smile was sheepish. "Just getting things done, Mrs. Cake."
"That's putting it lightly. Why, I think there's even more here than we needed to have done for the Summer Sun Celebration!" Mrs. Cake smiled and gingerly set her pastry on a table. "I think that should be enough for today, don't you? Why don't you go out and about while Carrot and I do the dishes?"
"Oh, I couldn't let you do all that. I made this mess, so I've gotta clean it up. Let me take care of it."
"Are you sure? It might do you good to talk to ponies."
Pinkie shook her head. "Ponies are fun in small doses, just like parties. It's important to make the good times extra special, and that means letting there be average times more often."
"If you say so." Mrs. Cake had raised an eyebrow, but she left the room without pressing the issue.
The sink was piled high with mixing bowls. Pinkie made sure to move most of these to the empty countertop, then turned her attention to those remaining. Soon hot water and soap were added, and she began to scrub at the dried batter with deliberate movements. A simple tune wafted from the working mare as her hooves worked, and bubbles foamed within at a manageable level.
Every now and then, she would look up and see ponies pass by. The afternoon sun seemed to soften the lane, muffling the crunching of hoofsteps. Most of them drew a spark of recognition to her eye, though she couldn't think of their names. At one point a stranger walked past, accompanied by a stout baby dragon who gestured at their surroundings with clear enthusiasm. The stranger seemed unconvinced, and the two vanished from sight without incident. Pinkie shrugged and went back to her work.
When the dishes were all dried and put away, she set cookies on plates, cakes on platters, and so prepared the food for feasting. The Cakes cheerfully began the arduous task of carrying everything to Town Hall, and Pinkie was quick to aid them despite their protests. Outside, ponies paused in their chatter to send appreciative looks her way. Pinkie smiled a little, not sure whether their appreciation was for her or for the desserts she carried, and continued on her way.
Town Square was crossed many times, back and forth, before the task was finished. In Town Hall, decorations spanned hither and thither, boasting vibrant colors and favorable depictions of the princess. The decorator was nowhere to be seen, but Pinkie didn't mind. Outside of the lack of balloons, she had no objections.
Night fell as Pinkie made her way back to Sugarcube Corner. The streets were oddly quiet; as she walked along, she only came across a group of more strangers. These laughed and gossiped among themselves, something to do with apples. Pinkie said nothing as they passed her, instead focusing on the approaching shape of the bakery.
Once inside, she made her way upstairs and into her room. As she flipped on the light, it was easy to tell that the room was a simple place, with soft pinks coloring the unassuming arrangement of bed, dresser, and chest. A little basket caught her eye … or, more specifically, the green shape curled up inside the basket. A scaly snout tilted slightly upward as she approached, and thin-slitted purple eyes followed suit.
"Hi Gummy," she said, patting his head. "You've been good today, right?"
Gummy's toothless jaws snapped in reply.
"Of course you were."
She smiled and moved to the dresser, where an unremarkable book lay. She picked it up, cradled it to her chest, and — after looking left, looking right, and looking behind — danced in place, unable to keep a tiny squeal of glee from escaping. Gummy looked on, blinking one eye at a time.
With subdued strength, Pinkie bounded onto her bed, laying on the blanket with her stomach down. Pink hooves flipped to the pages separated by a bookmark, decorated with the name "Maud" in simple, stark mouthwriting. With that, she began to read, delving into a thorough, if dense, discussion on rocks.
The night wore on. Pinkie could faintly hear the sounds of ponies ebb and recede, but she was too focused on her book to pay much attention. Besides, the little growling snores Gummy made were far more adorable.
She had just reached a section on the composition of sedimentary rocks when an almighty crash jolted her back to reality. Her ears perked, and she slowly set the book down. "Did that come from downstairs …?"
Hoofsteps pounded, soon reaching her door, and Mr. Cake burst inside without so much as knocking. "Pinkie!" he exclaimed, as loudly as he could without actually raising his voice. "Come with me. Hurry!"
Pinkie blinked as, with a flick of the switch, the room was cast into darkness. "What's wrong?"
"No time to argue. We're going to the basement. Now!"
Something in his voice made her follow, though she picked up Gummy before following her employer. The little alligator clung to her back as they descended the stairs.
Once on the main floor, Mr. Cake led her around to the trapdoor leading to the basement. As he fumbled to open it, she wandered over to the window, wondering what could have him so disturbed.
Outside, the moon and stars shone down on thatched roofs, casting shadows that bent at strange angles. She frowned, unsure as to what was so urgent, when a mare galloped past close enough for her to touch. Pinkie nearly leapt back at the sudden sight, and it was only with a deep breath that she managed to refocus on the night beyond the glass. Something was off, though she couldn't put her hoof on it.
Then she looked to the sky, and it became clear. The moon was empty.
Her breath caught in her throat. She could remember quiet nights at the rock farm back home, gazing up at the shadowed craters in the moon's surface. The Mare in the Moon, the stories said. A lonely mare, wishing for companionship and attention, twisted into a creature that sought to shape the world in her own image. Little Pinkie would watch as the marked moon gleamed with a light beyond anything the stars could summon, and, while surrounded by sleeping sisters, she would ponder on what could drive a pony to do such terrible things.
This could not have been the same moon. Its light was too bright, too cold. It was a massive blank eye hanging above silver wisps of clouds, watching across countless thousands of miles to train itself directly on Ponyville … staring, impossibly, right back at her.
"Pinkie, get away from there!" Mr. Cake had lifted the trapdoor as much as his thin arms would allow. "You don't want to be seen."
Shaking herself, she quietly made her way down, down the thin, straight flight of stairs. Above, she heard the soft scraping of a carpet sliding over the trapdoor, and with a gentle cloud of dust everything was cast into near-darkness.
Past the foot of the stairs, the warm glow of a lantern illuminated the basement. Sacks of flour and sugar were stacked along one wall, while boxes of other ingredients further constricted the space of the room. Already inside, Mrs. Cake rubbed her hooves anxiously, watching as Pinkie made her way down to meet her, followed closely by Mr. Cake.
"What's going on?" Pinkie asked. "Does this have to do with the moon?"
"Ssh!" the others chorused. They looked around, as if something had followed them, before settling down. Pinkie followed suit, uncertain.
"It does," Mrs. Cake said. "We were at the celebration, helping everypony with refreshments and waiting for the morning—"
"The princess was supposed to be there," Mr. Cake added. "What could go wrong with her around?"
"But she wasn't there. Instead …" Mrs. Cake swallowed. "Nightmare Moon appeared. Straight from the moon, it seems. Nightmare Moon herself! Ranting and laughing like a madmare, all while the sun wouldn't rise. Or couldn't, is more likely. Everything about her was so cold …"
"Nightmare Moon? That's just an old mare's tale." But even as Pinkie said it, her words rang hollow. How else could one explain the empty moon? She might not know much about their magics, but she didn't believe it was a trick any unicorn or pegasus could pull off.
Her employers shared a sad, frightened look. Above, where the trapdoor lay out of sight, she thought she could hear the scuffing of armored hooves against a tiled floor. When she listened harder, however, only silence greeted her.
"She said, 'The night will last forever.'" Mrs. Cake's voice was barely a whisper. "Who knows what that will do. Will ponies be her slaves? We can't let that happen to us."
"No," Pinkie agreed, and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as a chill settled. Gummy curled up beneath her mane. "Whatever this is, we're going to have to wait this out."
So they waited. Nopony had brought a clock, so every second dragged the slow corpse of hours through the dark. Mrs. Cake was able to mix some oil, flour, and sugar into a slimy dough-like substance, dipping into their stores to help them survive. Besides the cursory offerings of food, there was no talking.
Time passed. The lantern went out. The air grew stale, and the cold weighed heavier and heavier on the hiding ponies and alligator. Even with food, Pinkie could barely muster up the energy to wander from one corner of the basement to the other.
Time passed. The mares grew increasingly aware of Mr. Cake's new habit. The clicking of teeth grew duller and duller as countless hours wore on. The rhythm was occasionally punctuated with a sniff from Mrs. Cake.
Time passed. Mr. Cake broke the silence with a cough. "Maybe Princess Celestia's come back and beaten her."
"What if she hasn't?" Pinkie couldn't tell if she had posed the question, or if it had been Mrs. Cake.
"We can't wait down here forever. I'll see if it's safe to come out."
He got to his hooves, shaking. With a foal's hesitant steps, he pulled himself up the stairs, and soon he was lost to even their dark-adjusted eyes.
The trapdoor scraped open, and white light cut across their vision despite the distance. The mares squeezed their eyes shut, though flashes of afterimages were seared into their brains. It was not enough, however, to distract them from the gentle thud of the trapdoor shutting, and everything was cast into blessed darkness once more.
"... Carrot?" Mrs. Cake's voice was hoarse. "What's out there?"
There was no reply.
Pinkie coughed, making a sound like rolling gravel. "I don't hear his hoofsteps."
"Carrot?" A little louder this time. "Are you okay, sweetheart?"
Only silence answered.
"It must be really great out there." Pinkie laughed weakly. "For him to not be letting us know it's okay up there, I mean. He's probably already baking things for the 'Hooray Princess Celestia' party."
"You're right. It must be safe by now. He's distracted. That's why he's not answering."
Neither of them moved. The trapdoor didn't open again.
Time passed. The two huddled together for warmth, but frost still crept over their shivering forms. Pinkie had brought Gummy close against her chest, but he didn't move.
"Mrs. Cake," Pinkie eventually whispered, "I'm gonna see what's up there."
But her hooves wouldn't move. She could barely feel them, and when she shakily lowered her muzzle to nudge them, they were so stiff that she worried they would snap. That shrinking part of her brain that could worry, though, slipped entirely into dim awareness.
So she wasted away, in the cold, and the dark, and the silence. Her thoughts drifted and dissolved into a dreamless sleep, and as hours upon hours passed, the sleep dissolved further.
Muffins filled her vision. Muffins, cupcakes, cookies, and other baked goods, bolstered on the heated air of the ovens and summer sun.
Pinkie blinked. Slowly, her brain began to warm, and she remembered what had just happened. Carefully, she closed the oven, set the oven mitt aside, and curled up into a ball on the floor.
"Oh my! You've certainly been ..." Mrs. Cake's voice trailed off. "Pinkie? Dear, what's wrong?"
She couldn't stop shivering long enough to speak.
"Did something happen?" Warm hooves wrapped around her body. "Talk to me."
"It was a horrible dream … or something," Pinkie mumbled. It felt so strange to feel all of her limbs again. "Nightmare M-Moon came down and froze everything. Mr. Cake left. Gummy. So c-cold …"
"Shhh." Mrs. Cake rocked her gently, waving a curious Mr. Cake away. "Everything's all right. Nightmare Moon is just an old pony's tale."
"I know that." Pinkie sniffled. "It just felt so real."
Mrs. Cake kissed her forehead. "But it wasn't. You're safe."
They sat there for a long time, long enough for the treats to begin to cool. But Pinkie, comforted in Mrs. Cake's embrace, was blissfully warmed.
Whatever it was, be it daydream or hallucination, it was all over. She was safe.
Everything was going to be fine.