[[Omg hi everyone...sorry about the delay, especially with all the amazing support i've been given with this story. I've been moving house and have had no time at all (or internet, woe is me). Oh and incidentally, if anyone has any tips on how to keep a plot flowing/plan out a story more coherently, I'd love to hear them :)]]

Applejack was prancing around in agitation, much to Rarity's chagrin. "Applejack, please! You're going to mess up your coiffure! And it took me so long to get it just right!"

"Ah'm sorry, Rarity," said Applejack in distress, pausing to stare left and right. "But ah cain't find everyone! We're s'posed t'be leaving now!"

Rarity bit her lip and glanced through the Boutique window at the clock. Applejack was right; they had planned to leave about ten minutes ago. Behind her were two opulently decorated carriages, courtesy of Twilight – who was already well on her way to the Gala with the other girls.

"Apple Fritter! Where are ya?" Applejack cried, sticking her head through the front doors of Carousel Boutique.

"Ah'm here, AJ!" the little filly called back indignantly, poking her nose through the window of the carriage. "Ah've bin here the whole time."

"Oh…r-right," apologized Applejack. "But if yer in there, where did Red Gala go?"

"She went in ter use the fay-ci-li-tees," announced Apple Brioche, appearing beside Apple Fritter. "Say AJ – is there gunna be food at this here Gala?"

"Apple Brioche!" snapped Applejack, trotting over. "What in tarnation are yer doin' in there? Yer s'posed to be in the other carriage! That one there's fer all us fillies."

Reluctantly, Apple Brioche allowed himself to be pushed out by the collective hooves of Apple Fritter, Apple Cider and Baked Apple, and trotted sullenly over to a waiting Golden Delicious.

"Right. Every'wun in," said Applejack resolutely. "We'll jes have to wait for Red Gala 'n then – hey, where's Big Macintosh?"

"And Braeburn?" said Rarity in confusion, glancing through the window of the stallion's carriage.

"Ah'm here, ah'm here!" said Braeburn apologetically, galloping through the front door. "Ah din't know where y'all had gone."

"Git in the carriage and quit actin' up," snapped Applejack, stress making her tetchy.

At this point Red Gala appeared, apparently blissfully unaware of the confusion she had caused. Applejack immediately began pushing her towards the larger of the two carriages, and performed a hurried head count. "Jes Big Macintosh left…where could he have got to?"

"There he is!" said Rarity suddenly, pointing to the front of the stallion's carriage. Big Macintosh was standing patiently beside the other two ponies they had hired to pull, almost unrecogniseable in his dark brown suit.

"Macintosh!" said Applejack reproachfully. "Why din't you answer when ah called?"

"Ah din't hear you, sis," he said calmly. "Are we ready t'go now?"

"We would be f'you got in the carriage. What're you playin' at, standing out here?"

Big Macintosh looking faintly surprised. "In the carriage? But ah thought - "

"Yer not pulling, yer dozy old thing," laughed Applejack, comprehension dawning on her. "G'wan, git."

"Ah'm not?" he said in bewilderment. "But - "

"Yer not on the farm now, Mac."

"No, quite!" interrupted Rarity, beaming at the siblings. "Yes, tonight is your night to shine!" She spoke dramatically, emphasizing the last word with a wave of her elegantly manicured hoof. "Now! Let's get going! Chop chop!"

Obediently Big Macintosh trotted into the carriage to sit beside Braeburn, Golden Delicious and Apple Brioche. Braeburn had managed to shake his forebodings, and had gone from looking distinctly miserable to thoroughly excited.

Relieved, Applejack climbed up into the larger carriage, followed by Rarity, and sat down comfortably on a plush cushion. "That was much harder than ah expected," she admitted. "Ah thought ah had this lot under control!"

"Now Applejack, tonight is a night to have fun," insisted Rarity, carefully settling herself to avoid crushing her carefully styled tail. "You need to relax."

"Gosh AJ, d'yer think we'll get t'meet the princess?" interrupted Red Gala breathlessly. "Ah would love that so much!" As she spoke, the flowers adorning her pale green mane bobbed gently. "It would be like a dream come true."

"Well ah cain't wait to see the palace," announced Apple Cider, tossing her blonde mane. Rarity had combed it out and added some beautiful waves that spilled over the pastel material of her dress. "Ah bet it's simply stunnin'!"

"An' the band!" put in Apple Fritter. "Mebbe we'll get to hear them play all kinds of stuff! Like the oboe!"

Rarity and Applejack smiled fondly at each other as they remembered the excitement of their first Gala. Applejack just hoped that this time, the Gala would live up to expectations. She loved her family deeply, and the thought of her little cousins being disappointed all but broke her heart.

Gently Rarity brushed a stray hair out of Applejack's large green eyes, and she smiled gently at her friend. "Don't you worry, Applejack. We're going to make sure they have the best time they could ever hope for!"

In the stallion's carriage, the conversation was a little more stilted. Braeburn managed to keep it going, although he rather had his work cut out for him, particularly with Big Macintosh being so uncommunicative.

"Ah wonder if the princess is gunna be there."

"Ah hope so," said Apple Brioche rather dreamily. "It'd be amazin' to see her in person."

"Mebbe we ken talk to her," said Golden Delicious eagerly. "Ah bet Twilight would introduce us!"

"That'd be somethin' t'tell the others back at Appleloosa," said Braeburn. "What d'you think, Big Mac?"

"Eeyup."

"An' the food!" said Golden Delicious suddenly, his ears perking up. "Apple Bloom told me all about it. They have more food than you ken care to think of, all that fancy stuff like can-a-pays an' hors-der-oovre an' - "

"What's a can-a-pay?" demanded Braeburn. "Ah reckon yer jes makin' all them words up."

Big Macintosh's gaze drifted out the window as Braeburn and Golden Delicious settled down into a comfortable argument. Normally he would have found Braeburn's excitement infectious, but tonight he couldn't muster any feeling beyond and uncomfortable squirming in his stomach.

He shook his head slightly, and wondered what was wrong with him. It was Applejack, not him, that was worried about the Gala, he reminded himself. He had to stay calm and collected for her. Besides, he was in a fancy coach, dressed up in an outfit that probably cost more than all his earthly possessions, heading towards a strange city of high-class ponies that were probably going to judge his family from the moment they stepped through the gates.

Really, what did he have to be worried about?

Big Macintosh scowled to himself, and shut the curtains.

"Ooohhh…" Apple Cider's eyes opened so wide that they appeared to fill nearly half her face. Her gaze travelled slowly upwards, taking in the lush greenery of the palace gardens, the orange halo cast by the elegant lanterns lighting the way, and the tallest tower looming over it all.

Applejack laughed good-naturedly. "Yer might want t'shut yer mouth a'fore a bug flies in, Apple Cider."

"It's so…be-yoo -teeful!" breathed the little filly, slowly trotting forward in a daze. "Ah've never seen such a big castle!"

"Are they the gardens, AJ?" asked Red Gala excitedly. "Ken we visit them?"

"Lookit the fountains!" cried Apple Fritter, galloping to the edge of the bridge and peering over. Below, gorgeous crystal arcs of water sent luminous ripples across the surface of the lake. The small wavelets caught the lamplight with an attractive yellow glow.

Happily, the four little fillies all leaned their forehooves on the parapet and watched dreamily as a little shoal of glittering fish darted by under the bridge, scales sparkling through the impossibly clear water.

"It's like a fairytale," sighed Baked Apple. "One day ah'm gunna live here."

"C'mon, y'all," said Applejack briskly, giving Red Gala a gentle nudge. "Yer haven't even seen the Palace yet. We best be movin'."

Rarity took a brief moment to preen herself, and then trotted up alongside Applejack, determined to lead the way into the Gala. They were all wearing her handiwork, after all. She allowed herself a tiny peek over her shoulder, just to admire how wonderful they were all looking. It was always nice to appreciate a job well done.

And it appeared that it was not just her thinking this. As the motley crew made their way down the stone path, heads turned and eyes widened. Canterlot ponies watched them go past, and then whispered behind their hooves, wondering who on earth those beautiful fillies were – the though made Applejack's heart nearly burst with pride, and she couldn't help but give Rarity an excited nudge. "Everypony's lookin' at us!"

Rarity, misunderstanding her meaning, gave her friend a gentle smile. "Oh Applejack, don't worry. I promise, everything is going to be fine."

"Ah know, ah know," Applejack assured her hurriedly. "What ah meant was, isn't it excitin'? And it's all thanks t'you."

"Oh, darling." Flushed with success and pride, Rarity raised her head proudly as two elegant grey unicorns bowed their horns to the ground and pushed the Palace doors open. Behind her, Apple Brioche and Apple Fritter practically squealed with delight and excitement. Both Applejack and Rarity exchanged amused looks as the earth pony's cousins blushed and fluttered their eyelashes at the handsome Canterlot stallions, who smiled gallantly back.

As soon as they were past the doors, Apple Brioche and Baked Apple exploded into fits of girlish giggles. Apple Cider, however, was more interested in the palace interior. "Oh, woooww! Apple Fritter! Jes' look at all the fancy lights! They're made of real crystals!"

Suddenly, Red Gala stopped short, her mouth flopping open. The rest of the group paused, and looked back at her. Applejack raised one eyebrow in confusion. "Er, sugarcube? You okay?"

"P – Pr – P – "

"Darling?" enquired Rarity, coming closer. She wondered if nerves had gotten to the young pony after all. "Would you like to step outside once more? I can show you around the gardens if you like, they are simply divine."

"Pr – Pr – "

"Red Gala!" said Applejack, slightly worried now. "What's goin' on? Spit it out!"

"Princess!" Applejack and Rarity both followed the direction of her awestruck gaze to the swooping marble staircase, littered with smartly-dressed ponies all processing towards the top step, where stood the beautiful and imposing figure of –

"Princess Celestia!" squealed Red Gala. "Eeeeee! Ah cain't believe it! She's standin' right there! Oh, she's so pretty!"

"Braeburn!" called Baked Apple suddenly, gesturing with one hoof. "Hey, AJ! Braeburn 'n the others are over there!"

And sure enough, there the four stallions were, standing huddled under a window and all looking nothing short of terrified. At the sound of Baked Apple's voice, however, Braeburn's expression broke into one of visible relief, and he trotted over as fast as was polite.

"Ah'm ah glad t'see you! We got lost on the way in. I mean, really, cuz," he added reproachfully, looking at Applejack. "Were you jes' gunna abandon us like that?"

"O' course not," huffed Applejack. "We was lookin' for you."

"What was you doin' over there?" demanded Baked Apple.

"Nuthin'."

"He was wonderin' if he was 'lowed to talk to the Princess," piped up Golden Delicious, earning himself a cross stare from Braeburn.

"Allowed?" laughed Rarity. "Goodness me, my dear, of course you are allowed! Why, she positively welcomes it! Why don't we all go say hello?"

Braeburn's expression changed to one of panic. "What – right now?"

Rarity tossed her mane. "Darling, don't look so frightened. I – will help you."

She moved to stand in front of Braeburn. "Now, when you greet the Princess, remember to smile."

Braeburn bared his teeth in an unpleasantly forced grin.

" – er…less toothy," said Rarity uncertainly. "Just a natural smile. Bow your head like so…"

But Braeburn had lost his nerve. "Oh AJ, cain't we go around her or sum'n?"

"No!" said Rarity crossly, drawing herself up. If it killed her, she would get these ponies into the Gala, and they were going to enjoy themselves. "Let's try again! Macintosh!"

Big Macintosh gave a start. "Eeyup?"

The extended Apple family all watched in fascination as Rarity lead the large farm colt to stand in front of her. "Now…I will be the Princess. Good evening, kind sir." And she gently inclined her head, fluttering her eyelashes gracefully.

Privately, Applejack reflected the Princess would never be so formal-sounding, but she let it slide – this moment was too funny to pass by.

Braeburn, Golden Delicious and Apple Brioche all watched curiously as Rarity straightened up once more, and smiled expectantly at Big Macintosh. For a moment he looked very uncomfortable, but then took a deep breath and bowed low, raising one forehoof elegantly as he did so. "A pleasure, yer Majesty."

Rarity almost went into spasms of delight. "Wonderful, Macintosh! Simply divine! They are going to love you, didn't I say?" She beamed at Braeburn. "You see? It's all in the presentation – be gentle, polite and try not to tense up."

Slowly, Braeburn nodded. Under Rarity's keen eye, he too bowed demurely, accentuating the greeting with a casual tip of the hoof.

"We're losin' the evenin' here, Rarity," Applejack reminded her. "Ah can see Twilight up there, why don't we just g'wan up and say howdy?"

"One does not simply say howdy to a princess," Rarity grumbled under her breath, but she obediently followed her friend across the hall.

As she began gently shepherding the fillies and colts up the plush and marble staircase, Rarity gave Big Macintosh a shrewd look. "Are you all right, darling?"

" – eeyup."

Her gaze lingered for a few more seconds, and then she turned away. Big Macintosh swallowed; there was a little too much knowing in her lovely violet eyes for his liking.

"Rarity!" Twilight called across the cavernous space. She was standing, beaming, at Celestia's side and stepped forward as the first of Applejack's cousins approached nervously.

Rarity returned her smile. "Darling! Thank goodness we found you, I apologise for being so late…"

"You're not late," Twilight assured her. "The Princess and I were just starting to welcome the guests."

"Indeed," said Princess Celestia genially, smiling kindly down at Red Gala. "And what is your name, my little one?"

Red Gala desperately tried to speak, but her words only came out as a trembling stutter. "R-Reh…"

Quickly, Twilight stepped forward and extended one hoof. "My name's Twilight Sparkle. I'm a friend of Applejack's! Is this your first time at the Gala?"

Wordlessly, Red Gala nodded, still staring awestruck at the Princess.

"It's so nice to meet all of you! Do you all come from Appleloosa?"

"Ah come from Hoofsdale," piped up Apple Brioche, and then shrunk down behind Golden Delicious once more, shocked at his own daring.

"I was there only last week," smiled Celestia. "Your apple fields are very impressive. I forgot to thank your citizens for such lovely apple tarts, would you be so kind as to mention it to them for me?"

"Mhm-hm," squeaked Apple Brioche.

"Ahm from Appleloosa," volunteered Golden Delicious, feeling a little braver once he saw how sweetly the Princess could smile. "Ah help mah papa grow apples fer a livin'. Sometimes – "

"Is it hard bein' a Princess?" interrupted Red Gala breathlessly, as though she couldn't hold the words in any longer. As everyone turned to look at her, she flushed brilliantly and looked away. "Ah – ah mean…you know…it must be – must be difficult 'n all…"

"Well yes, sometimes it can be," said Celestia. "I have to visit a great deal of towns and ponies – I do love every second of it, though!"

Flushed with her own daring, Red Gala nodded shyly and retreated behind Big Macintosh.

Princess Celestia dipped her head gracefully and gave the assembled ponies a beautiful smile. "It really was fantastic to meet you all, but I must continue with my duties. I suggest you head inside and take a look around. The palace really is spectacular."

As the group trooped obediently past her, she bent down to Apple Brioche and whispered conspiratorially "but between you and me, I'd avoid the prawn canapés." As Apple Brioche turned and gazed at her in shock, she winked and straightened up once more to greet the next set of guests.

Giddy with joy and excitement, Red Gala and Golden Delicious all but galloped into the main hall, chattering madly. Even Braeburn had relaxed somewhat, despite being too overwhelmed to even speak a word to Princess Celestia.

"Next time, ah'll tell her all about Appleloosa," he said determinedly to Applejack. "Jes stage fright, is all. Now where are them cana-pays?"

Applejack laughed and gave Rarity a friendly nudge. "Ah gotta hand it t'you, Rarity. You shure know how to take care of a pony."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, look at 'em!" beamed Applejack, gesturing to her cousins. "They're fittin' natural as you please, and no one's even looking at us funny."

"I told you," smiled Rarity. "It's next to impossible to dislike any member of the Apple family, anyway."

"Aw shucks, listen to you," teased Applejack. She paused, and did a quick sweep of the hall, frowning. "Hey…speaking of the Apple family…Where's Big Macintosh?"

Rarity hurriedly followed her gaze around the room. "He's not here?"

"Did he get lost?"

"Impossible, we just came through that door!"

"Was he there when we saw the Princess?"

"I – " Rarity hovered on the brink of uncertainty. "I think so…"

Applejack sighed. "Oh boy…I guess we'd better go look for him."

"Where could he be, though?" fretted Rarity. "And we can't leave the others alone! It's not fair on them."

"It's verrae unlike him," agreed Applejack. "Mebbe he jes stepped outside for a breath of air?"

"I'll go check the gardens," volunteered Rarity. "You stay here with your family in case he turns up."

As the white unicorn turned and trotted purposefully away, Applejack set her shoulders and strengthened her resolve. If there was one thing her family had given her, it was the ability to deal with even the worst of setbacks. She was used to Big Macintosh's constant presence and his straightforward advice, but now Applejack wondered if there was more going on in his mind than he'd let on. Guiltily, she reflected that in the midst of all her nerves about the Gala, she never once stopped to consider the possibility that ever-dependable Big Macintosh might be feeling some misgivings.

She shook her head. "Now AJ, don't be fussin' yerself. Rarity'll find him."