Applejack briefly stopped her work to watch the sun set over the orchard, her eyes lightly stinging from the thin film of sweat that had developed over her face. Casting its shadow over her was a tall, thick apple tree, the only one in the surrounding area that still held onto its prized red apples. Once this last tree was bucked, she could get back to her family for one of Granny Smith’s home-cooked meals. She took in a deep breath, lifted her back hooves, and with a mighty heave she kicked the solid trunk. The vibrations ran all about the wood and shook the apples from the branches, catching them in a bucket at the base of the tree. She let out a sigh of exasperation, and smiled, noticing that in the motion, her hat had been thrown off. She gripped it with her teeth and tossed it back upon her head, placing a hoof on the brim to adjust it.
“Finally done,” she said aloud. “All that’s left is that one patch over there, and we can start checkin’ and sellin’ these tomorrow.”
She carted the loads back to storage in the barn, and set off to the house. By then, the sun had fully set, leaving a glittering trail of stars in its wake, sharp and bold against the otherwise empty black sky. Applejack sat for a moment and looked up to the stars, letting the dazzling light reflect in her big, green eyes. Her thoughts were focused on her home. Her family and friends loved her through the hard work and sweat. In her heart, she knew this was the right place to be. She had tried to be a big pony in Manehattan long ago, but it wasn’t for her. All she could hope for was to continue her happy life, working hard to lessen the burden on her loved ones.
“If only,” she wished. “If only I could get us some more money than this, then we’d be set. Granny’s old, but she still works hard every day. Big Mac and Little Apple Bloom shouldn’t be workin’ so hard, neither. We make enough as it is, but Celestia only knows how much more I would need to make Granny’s and others’ lives easier.”
As she sat there dreaming, the faint scent of Granny Smith’s apple pie wafted to her, potent even at this distance. It broke her trance, and she immediately began galloping home, licking her lips along the way. It was at times like this she was most happy to be working on Sweet Apple Acres, always ready for delicious apple pie.
The next morning began the same as always. Apple Bloom and Granny Smith made breakfast for everyone, and Applejack and Big Macintosh set out to start bucking more trees in the orchard. The sun drifted lazily along in the sky, bearing down its heat on the hardworking ponies. It was starting to cool down in Ponyville around this time of year, but in the high hills of Sweet Apple Acres, the sun would hit the fields just right to unload all of its energy upon the trees. Applejack had always suspected that the high heat levels in the orchard had something to do with the quality of the apples they bore. It was that, and the tender loving care that the Apple family had placed in the land for decades before.
Big Macintosh grunted as he started towing his load of several baskets back to the barn. Applejack looked down to the empty baskets she still had to fill. She trotted over to the next tree and prepared to buck, eyes narrowed, when she noticed something ahead in the trees. It looked like somepony wandering along in the orchard, casually taking in the sights of the unbucked trees. Curious, she set her back hooves down and called out to him.
“Howdy, partner,” said Applejack, her voice a little uneasy at the stranger trotting towards her. “What can I do you for?”
The other pony emerged from the shade of the trees and into the intense sunlight. Applejack could see that he was a younger stallion, well kempt with a dark mane and faint green coat. His clothes, a pressed suit with an overstated green tie, certainly were not suitable for a whimsical stroll through the orchard. He trotted up to Applejack, taken aback at first by the glare of the shining sweat on her face. With one eyebrow raised, she leaned closer to inspect him. He was an earth pony, with a curled upper lip and prominent brow. On his flank was a peculiar marking: one green triangle right-side-up, and one red triangle upside-down. She could tell he wasn’t a local pony, and wanted to cough from the thick coating of cologne that he wore.
“Ah, yes,” he said, collecting himself as if he had just been daydreaming this whole time. “This is your orchard.”
“It sure is, partner.” Silence followed. He looked out on the hill, gazing into the distance to see where the trees stretched to. The awkward period made Applejack anxious and uncomfortable, and she had to break it. “Uh, is there anything I can help you with?”
“My apologies, I am called Wintergreen. A traveling businesspony, if you will.” He produced a card displaying his name and title from his pocket. She took the card and treated it as if it were toxic. “I was informed of this place by some fellows in Ponyville as I was passing through, and I am very much interested in your orchard here.”
“Yessir,” said Applejack. “Name’s Applejack. My family’s been workin’ these fields since long before I was even born, and I’ve been buckin’ apple trees since I was just a little filly.”
“Quite,” said Wintergreen. He brought a hoof to his chin and rubbed gently before continuing. “So what kind of business model do you run here? What’s your company infrastructure look like?”
“My business what? My infra-who now? Sorry feller, but you’ll have to drop the fancy talk if you want me to follow.”
“Forgive me then, how do you make your money?” At this, Applejack took a step back, showing her discomfort. Wintergreen was either completely oblivious or ignored her gesture.
“We sell the apples to the folks in town, or we make them into pies and jams and such. You know, baked goods?” Applejack forced a troubled grin.
Wintergreen said nothing, continuing to look out on the fields. He spotted the baskets of apples that were lying around, walked over to one, and bit into an apple from the pile.
“Hey, partner, you can’t—“
“Can’t indeed. You certainly can’t be doing well in business with such a limited market because you can’t see the prospects. You can’t ever surpass this humble little orchard of yours.” Wintergreen huffed, and just as quickly as he had arrived, he left without saying anymore.
Applejack watched his silhouette fade into the trees as Big Macintosh returned. He noticed that she hadn’t filled anymore baskets since he had left, and stomped his hooves on the ground. She snapped back to attention, and gave a weak and sorry laugh. Rearing up, she kicked the next tree and continued her applebucking.
By mid-afternoon, the two siblings took a break at the house as Granny Smith sorted through the large pile of apples they had collected so far. She used her green wrinkled hooves to sort them by quality, sniffing them to identify the good apples and the bad apples. Apple Bloom held a basket to catch the good ones, and wrapped them for the market in Ponyville. Applejack brought out two glasses of apple juice, one of which she gave to Big Macintosh. They drank slowly to savor the cool refreshment while they tried to relax. When the other two had finished a good deal of the sorting, Apple Bloom struggled to drag the heavy barrels of good apples to the cart. With Big Macintosh’s help, they loaded up the cart for delivery to the market.
As was usually the case when enough apples had been collected or stored, Applejack and Apple Bloom set off to Ponyville with their produce in tow. They would spend the rest of the afternoon selling apples in the peddle cart while their older brother would buck some more trees or clean up and Granny Smith would start making dinner for everyone. Apple Bloom was always far too excited for such a simple sales task each time. The little filly would hop around shouting out to the general public to pick up an apple or two for tonight’s desert dishes, or tomorrow’s lunch.
“Get your apples while their newly ripe!” Apple Bloom hopped around the cart in a circle with her big magenta bow flopping up and down along with her. She tried her best to make eye contact with passersby and engage them to try some apples. The usual customers came up to the cart for their apples. Mr. and Mrs. Cake, the local bakers, came by and took an entire bushel for their apple turnovers and other sweets. They exchanged a hoofful of cash for their purchase, to which Applejack would smile and thank them, although they were just breaking even on the daily expenses of the orchard.
“Calm down, sugarcube,” said Applejack, annoyed. Apple Bloom tried to halt herself mid-air and fell awkwardly on her front hooves, plunging face first into the ground. Frazzled, she reared up her head and shook her wilted bow away from her eyes. The sun was starting to go down again now, and Applejack started looking through the bag of earnings.
“Enough to cover the land, water, fertilizer, maybe fix that leaky shingle on the barn roof…” Applejack muttered to herself.
“Did we make good, sis?” Apple Bloom asked as she tried to peek into the bag.
“Uh, yeah,” said Applejack. “We can make it off of this.”
“Applejack, are we poor?” Apple Bloom’s amber eyes swelled as she looked up to her older sister, her bottom lip faintly quivering.
“No, sugarcube. We’re not poor.” Applejack looked back at the load of unsold apples. They had sold a good bunch of them, yet all she could see was the lost profits from not selling enough. Those apples would never be sold as truly ripe again. “We’re just subsistent, is all.”
“What’s ‘subsistent’?” The little filly looked stunned, as if her older sister had just spat out a bad word.
“It means we do what we can to get by. We don’t need the money when we have each other. Understand?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Now help me get these apples wrapped up again so we can get some of Granny’s delicious cooking.”
The sisters started loading up the cart again, when a voice rang out in the distance.
“WAIT!” A blur of white and purple came rushing down the street, sliding sideways to a stop and leaving hoof skidmarks along the street leading up to the cart. The racing pony was none other than Rarity, the local fashionista and close friend of Applejack. She quickly fixed her windblown hair and primped herself up, although it did little to hide the fact that she was still panting from the sprint. Her unicorn horn glowed with a magical aura as she shed the dust from her pearly coat. She was still wearing her red work glasses, slightly askew.
“Opalescence,” said Rarity between harsh breaths. “She has a tummy ache, and I know your apples do wonders for her.”
“Here,” said Applejack as she reached into the barrel. She tossed it to the posh unicorn, who caught it with the magic of her horn. “On the house. Just make sure little Opal gets her rest, too.”
“Oh, Applejack,” said Rarity, “you’re so very kind. But you really don’t have to do that, what with you being so…” She paused when she noticed Apple Blooms standing beside the cart and searched for the right thing to say.
“The word you’re lookin’ for is ‘subsistent’,” Apple Bloom chimed in. She grinned at her older sister for approval, who just gave a slight nod of the head.
“No worries here, Rarity. It’s for a good reason.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Miss Applejack, are you sure?” Another voice broke into the conversation from behind. The three turned to see Wintergreen strolling up to the cart. He nudged one side of it with his hoof and felt the wooden boards holding it together visibly give way. “Quite a depressing stall you have here.”
“And who are you, who just goes and insults my friend’s store?” Rarity’s eyes narrowed at the businesspony.
“I am none other than Wintergreen,” he said as he bowed to her, taking her hoof and gently pecking it with his lips. “And what is a lovely, fashionable mare like yourself to be called?”
Rarity blushed visibly, mouth agape. Apple Bloom could hardly contain her fit of laughter.
“I—I’m Rarity,” she said, stuttering in awe of him. She couldn’t help but admire the subtle color of his coat.
“Well the, Miss Rarity,” he replied. “I meant no ill will to your Miss Applejack’s place of business here. I was merely suggesting she try something a bit more suitable to today’s market. It’s hard for farms and orchards to stay open these days, especially in a town like this.”
Applejack rushed to get the rest of the barrels covered, when Wintergreen once again plucked an apple up and bit into it.
“Divinely juicy. Such texture. Simply wondrous, I say.” He dropped the unfinished apple and wiped his lips. “Wouldn’t it be better for more than just Ponyville to experience such a delicious brand of apples?”
“Well, maybe,” said Applejack.
“Indeed, just think of the possibilities: the upscale restaurants of Manehattan using your apples to prepare their famous crepes and fruit scones, the food carts of Fillydelphia serving Sweet Apple Acres brand apple fritters. All of Equestria should be dining on your wonderful apples.”
“I think it sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Rarity, still giggling.
“And just how in Celestia’s name do you plan to have that happening?” Applejack raised an eyebrow and looked intently at the expression of this polished stallion. His smug expression was unchanged from this morning, holding that everlasting, set-in-stone smirk.
“By partnership, of course. I promote your brand, and take a twenty-percent cut of the profits.”
“Forget it,” said Applejack, shaking her head. “Sweet Apple Acres has been fine all these years, and we’ve no need to go about changing that. I like the way we do things, and we certainly don’t need some fancy shmancy hoofraiser like you taking any of our money.”
“Of course, forgive me for being so crass. But don’t you think it would be so much better for your family? A good education fund for this little one here, an easier life for your loved ones.” He paused, watching her reaction. “You could have anything you wanted. And all it takes is just a little more marketing.”
Applejack looked to Apple Bloom, who was completely lost on the conversation. Then she looked to Rarity. Her fashionable friend smiled and nodded her head in approval.
“Think of poor old Granny Smith,” said Rarity. “Don’t you think she deserves this?”
Options ran through her head. She wondered what would happen to the farm, how her family’s life would improve, and what Apple Bloom would do now that she didn’t have to help sell the apples in town with her. The choices were nearly overwhelming, but all three ponies were edging in, eager to hear her response.
“All right,” she said, giving in to the demands. “You have a deal, Wintergreen.”
“Excellent.” He stomped the ground in delight. “We begin immediately.”
Wintergreen drew a sheet of paper from his coat pocket and stuck it to the cart. He pulled out a pen and wrote with his mouth on the sheet:
COMING SOON: SWEET APPLE ACRES CHAIN LOCATION
Though Apple Bloom continued her prancing, Rarity could see the indecision in Applejack’s eyes. The applebucking mare was in no position to be making such important decisions about the orchard.
“Be well, dear,” said Rarity. She dramatically lengthened key words as she tried to persuade her friend of the good. “Just think of how good this will be for your family. No more rolling in filth, no more long and sweaty days doing such arduous labor, and certainly no more being po—“
Her sentence was cut short by a kick from Applejack, a gentle one from her front hoof. Rarity deftly cleaned the dirty hoofprint from her pristine coat.
“Er, certainly no more being ‘subsistent’.” The sun was fading fast, and the first sprinkle of stars began appearing to the East. Applejack looked up to those first shiners, and thought of home.
“I wish I knew what I was doing,” said Applejack.
As Wintergreen had said, the new deal started almost seamlessly the next day. Overnight, he had worked up several advertisements for Sweet Apple Acres, hinting at a physical establishment in the near future. By morning, there were posters all about the marketplace, flyers slipped under the doors, and a large banner for the dinky little cart that Applejack always pulled to the market. If there had been anypony who did not know of the Apple family business before that morning, they were now in the know.
Rarity awoke that morning to the sound of shuffling papers. Preening herself, she shook alert and trotted to the front door. At her hooves was a flyer emblazoned with a large depiction of Applejack’s profile biting into an apple. The text was enormous, filling up the rest of the white space on the page. Her feelings about this were mixed. All she could think about was the happy look on Applejack’s face whenever she saw her working. And then, what of her bickering with Rainbow Dash? Certainly, there would be much less of that. It was like taking the fangs off of a monster; she might go soft.
“I must stop thinking like this,” she said aloud. Opalescence awoke and started stretching, letting out a light screech as she did. “It’s simply unbecoming of me. This is a brilliant opportunity for Applejack.”
Meanwhile, the sun was just rising over Sweet Apple Acres, but the ponies were already hard at work. As usual, Apple Bloom and Granny Smith set about checking apple quality and tidying up while the older siblings set out into the field to begin applebucking.
“Now don’t go tellin’ any of this to Granny and Big Mac, you hear?” Applejack had warned her younger sister on their way back to the orchard the night before. They gave permission to Wintergreen to begin their new advertising campaign, but advised him to stay away from the orchard itself, lest the other family members learn of the deal.
“Gotcha, sis,” said Apple Bloom. She kept hopping at the thought of money. Maybe now she could be just like that filly Diamond Tiara from her school. In her mind, she pictured herself adorned with expensive jewels and a gold bow, daintily trotting into class like a Very Important Pony. Nobody would care that she didn’t have her cutie mark yet if she was so regal and exquisite. Or better yet, what if she used the money to fund her Cutie Mark Crusaders endeavors? Her eyes were glazed over in the joy of the daydream as they headed home with the leftover apples in tow.
The day proceeded like any other: they kicked the apple trees, collected the apples, sorted them, and packed them up for market. Apple cider season would be starting soon, and they needed all of the space they could muster for the fresh apples to be stored, so they brought along the day-old apples as well for reduced-price.
When the sisters arrived in the marketplace, their jaws dropped at all of the posters. Wintergreen had obviously done his end of the bargain. Every single ad was different, and each had a different slogan. A smile spread across Applejack’s face after she saw all of the looks of recognition from everypony walking by. They stopped the cart, raised the new banner with the words “Sweet Apple Acres Brand: Homegrown and Organic” printed on it. She was at least glad the banner was honest.
The smile quickly faded, and with it, the feelings of security. Sales were no better than yesterday, or any other day of the year for that matter. By the day’s end, Rarity had made her way over to see how her friend’s business was doing. She sported a wide-brimmed hat, similar to the hat that Applejack always wore, but white and decorated with feathers and colorful ribbons in the latest fashion. One look at Apple Bloom’s drooping bow and eyes told her the story.
“Not going very well?” Rarity nuzzled the little filly to comfort her. Applejack kicked over the bag of earnings in disgust.
“We didn’t make a cent more than yesterday,” she said with a huff. The cart was loaded still with apples both fresh and older.
Like clockwork, Wintergreen appeared the same as yesterday. He was just as dapper as before, whimsical and seemingly without worry.
“How’s business?” he asked. He was rubbing his chin with his hoof again, just like yesterday.
“Absolutely terrible,” said Applejack. She scraped at the ground with her hoof and snorted at him. “I knew I shouldn’t have been listenin’ to a quack like you. You tryin’ to fool me for my money, you ain’t gettin’ none.”
He sat there looking puzzled. His glance moved between the cart full of apples, Rarity in her big hat, and the furious mare. Without so much as a flinch, he completely shifted his gears.
“Fascinating,” he said. “Just fascinating.”
“What’s so fascinating about me losin’ money?”
“Oh, nothing. It just seems that you’ve hit your maximum market promotion here.”
“Again, cut the high-end chitchat here and get to the point.”
“Rightly so,” he replied nonchalantly. He looked down at his hoof, as if it were more interesting than the three mares he was talking to. “You didn’t make any more money today because everypony who wants apples knows to go to you. You have a monopoly here. There’s no competition, and thus no reason to be advertising.”
“So now what do we do, Mr. Ideapony?”
“This is just wonderful,” he said, clapping his hooves together feverishly. “Excuse me for being giddy, but now we can jump straight to the big top! Let’s go straight for the big cities. Billboards, spokespeople, product placement. We’ll have your apples delivered all over Equestria!”
Applejack scoffed at the idea. She turned to the apple cart, and took note of the shabby wooden planks that were holding it together.
“And how reckon to get those apples out there? Have you seen our ‘business model’, as you were callin’ it?”
“Patience, dearie,” he said as he finally looked her in the eyes. She could see every detail of his muddy, golden eyes. Like money, she thought. His entire being is money. “Everything will be ready for you tomorrow, I promise.”
Wintergreen kept his promise. The following morning, six ponies showed up to the front gate of Sweet Apple Acres, claiming to have been hired by the elegant businesspony. They all appeared stocky and well-built, and most likely were young. To them, this orchard work would be the perfect job for the younger citizens of Ponyville.
At first, Big Macintosh was taken aback by the new hires. He stood there in silence, studying them at the front gate. Applejack rushed through her on-the-spot explanation, and begged him not to tell Granny Smith. She looked up at her brother with big eyes.
“Eeyup,” was his only response, his massive shoulders heaving in a shrugging motion. The new worker ponies reared in excitement to be starting their new jobs.
Within six hours, the new fields were tilled, all of the trees were bucked for the day, the apples had been sorted, and all of the watering and fertilizing had been performed. The family hadn’t bothered to try and wake Granny Smith from her nap early to tell her. As the sun reached zenith at noon, Wintergreen came riding in on a large wagon, with three similar vehicles in tow. Each wagon was driven by one dapperly dressed pony and was pulled by four large earth ponies, each the size of Big Macintosh, some even stronger looking. Applejack’s eye twitched at the sight. Apple Bloom came hopping over with all of the noise, leaving Granny Smith to her napping
“Miss Applejack, no need to dilly-dally now,” Wintergreen called from the top of the wagon. “Have your stallions get to loading these wagons, post-haste!”
“Now what in the hay is this all for?” asked Applejack as she walked around the wagons to inspect them. She noted that each wagon had ‘Sweet Apple Acres, Inc.’ painted on the side in big, bold letters.
“Transportation, dearie. We’re shipping out all over Equestria today to meet the demand. Why not come along?”
“Demand? There ain’t no demand for my apples outside of Ponyville!”
“Yesterday, there was no demand, indeed. Today, there is a great desire for Sweet Apple Acres Incorporated products! The demand exists, now we must bring the supply!”
Apple Bloom, with excitement dancing in her big eyes, nudged her sister forward. Big Macintosh nodded his approval as well, and motioned for her to go.
“Y’all sure? I mean, you don’t need me to oversee things here on the orchard?”
“Please, Applejack,” said Apple Bloom. She pointed to the six hired ponies, and they all instinctively started flexing for her. “Just look at all of the help we have here now!”
“Come with me, Miss Applejack,” Wintergreen repeated. “I am headed to Manehattan, and I believe you should see some of the arrangements made there.” With hesitation, she agreed and climbed aboard.
Within the hour, all four wagons were stocked up and on the road. At an intersection just beyond her land, the four wagons split off into different directions. Applejack watched the landscape turn from rural to urban. She would try to make conversation with the businesspony, but most of his interests were way over her head. She couldn’t follow his understanding of laws of diminishing marginal returns and market ceilings. The noon had passed, and it was already late afternoon once they had arrived. Buildings rose to towering heights above their cart, which seemed much out of place in a big city. She was getting sleepy from the ride when Wintergreen prodded her with a hoof, pointing to the sky. A huge billboard with her face plastered over it stood above one of the most important buildings in Manehattan. Flyers were everywhere, handed out by a pony dancing around in a costume made to resemble Applejack. She could only wonder how he had pulled this all together in one day. Even more so, she wondered how she had become a posterfilly overnight.
They stopped right in the middle of the marketplace square, in front of thousands of ponies passing by. Applejack was amazed at the sheer volume of ponies going about their business in the big city, and could only hope they were hungry enough to buy. With a simple tap, the wagon opened up into a complete sales cart. The costumed mascot danced towards the open cart and attracted the customers over. Applejacks’ legs started shaking with fear. Ponies all around were mad about her image and gathered around to see the real overnight celebrity. Coins were tossed into a cashbox that Wintergreen held onto, and apples were passed out to the hungry, eager ponies.
It was a blur for the rural pony. Within the hour, they had sold out of every apple they had brought of the fresh and day-old varieties. The cashbox could barely be closed with all of the coins inside. Applejack took one look at the profits and gasped.
“That’s triple what we make in one day in Ponyville!” she exclaimed. The glow of the coins filled her eyes, and she could see images of her family dancing about happily and healthily in each piece.
“And that,” said Wintergreen, “was only Manehattan, with a limited supply! Imagine the profits from the other carts we sent out!”
They returned to Ponyville that evening to find the other carts had already dropped off the earnings for the day. After paying the workers and Wintergreen for his cut, there was still a sizable pile of gold bits on the floor of the house. Applejack entered to see her little sister hopping about merrily in a circle around the pile, and Big Macintosh stomping his hooves happily. But Granny Smith was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh no, Granny!” said Applejack, afraid that her grandmother would disapprove of her choices for the orchard. Without missing a beat, Granny Smith burst out from the pile of coins.
“Money!” she exclaimed, and started dancing about, albeit weakly, with Apple Bloom. Applejack breathed a sigh of relief, and found her own hoof tapping. She joined in the hopping, her thoughts on finally fixing that leaky roof and building that new addition to the barn she had been planning for a long time.
By the next week, Applejack would wake up in the morning, don a top hat and coat, and stroll down to the central office that was once her leaky old barn. Dozens of worker ponies were out at dawn planting new lots, bucking trees, and caring for the land. Her office was spacious, with the new Sweet Apple Acres, Inc. logo on the floor in front of her desk. She sat back and raised her hooves on the desk, enjoying the profits pouring in.
The barn had been razed nearly immediately, and plenty of new ponies were hired. Applejack took the lead role in the business, with Wintergreen as her personal monetary advisor. Other like-minded businessponies were hired for tasks such as shipping, accounting, quality control, and Pony Resources. By the end of the week, she was on the cover of ‘Businesspony Weekly’, interviewed about the rapid success of her new startup and featured on business talk shows.
When Rarity received the commission from Applejack for a new suit, she was stunned. She hadn’t imagined such a business would take off so quickly, nor did she expect to see the day she would want a suit of all things. She prepared the suit for her once country-bumpkin friend, and began visiting daily to keep watch on her, under the guise of ‘checking to make sure the suit settled well’.
“My, Applejack,” Rarity had exclaimed during one of her visits, “this place is simply luxurious! And is that a mahogany desk? I didn’t think you had it in you to be so cultured.”
“Indubitably,” Applejack replied. Rarity still needed some getting used to her new vocabulary and manner of speaking. It was as if she had been hanging around with Wintergreen a little too long. “We just finished erecting two new storage facilities on our campus this afternoon.”
“Two storage facilities? Why two?”
“Why, of course, dear friend,” said Applejack. “One is for the apples, and one is for the gems!”
“Gems?” Rarity’s eyes lit up.
“Gems are increasing in market value, so says Wintergreen. I’ve invested my fortune in gemstones, so as to preserve my wealth for the long run.”
“I see,” she said, quieting herself. “Just don’t let Spike near them.”
Applejack laughed at the response, although her laugh was much different. It was short, and stuffy, more of a drole amusement than a true laugh. Rarity felt uncomfortable, and excused herself.
As she headed home, Rarity noticed even newer flyers for Sweet Apple Acres. It appeared they were still trying to sell their goods in Ponyville. She noticed something different with these new advertisements, though. Some said ‘keep your immune system protected with Sweet Apple Acres,’ or ‘fortified with more essential nutrients than our competitors’. Another flyer really struck her: ‘live better with Sweet Apple Acres’. Not something Applejack would say, Rarity thought. She would give the honest, up front truth about her apples tasting good, not resort to some petty organic marketing scheme. She rushed to the house of the one person she knew could help. Outside the treehouse of Twilight Sparkle, she knocked on the door quickly and in a panicked motion.
“Twilight! I need your help!” she cried. “I’ve created a monster!”
Almost immediately, the door swung open. In the threshold stood a purple unicorn, the friend of both Rarity and Applejack. Using her magic horn, she levitated in front of her a book titled ‘Monsters of Modern Equestria’. It was still an old book, with a ratty binding and yellow pages, so Rarity couldn’t understand as to which era the ‘modern’ applied.
“No, no, no!” Rarity exclaimed in response. “It’s our friend, Applejack!”
Twilight dropped the book and summoned over another book. This one had a dark green cover, and appeared just as old as the previous one. It’s title read ‘Rural Monsters of Modern Equestria’.
“Again, no!” she cried once more. “Haven’t you seen what’s happened to Applejack lately? Haven’t you seen the flyers and posters everywhere?”
“Well, to be honest,” the other unicorn said timidly, “there’s this really good book on Starswirl the Bearded I’ve been reading lately, and I just haven’t even had the chance to go outside.”
Rarity peeled a poster that had been stuck to the side of Twilight’s tree, and angrily thrust it in her face. Twilight read the poster and then looked up at her friend quizzically, shrugging. Frustrated, Rarity grabbed her friend by the hoof and pulled her along the southwest side of Ponyville, where the Apple family resided.
The ranch was not the ranch anymore. Twilight walked along, mouth agape, as the two unicorns entered the front gate, which had now been mostly replaced with a large kiosk and special gates. A pair of security ponies checked Rarity in, and with suspicion, allowed Twilight to follow as her “special guest”. The purple unicorn noted the official look both security ponies had: suits, sunglasses, and expensive-looking watches. All about the ranch, ponies hustled and bustled. Some wore suits like the guards; some wore jumpsuits that covered past their flanks down to the back hooves. Carts full of apples were pulled to and fro, making Twilight dizzy as she tried to follow the pattern.
Rarity yanked the bewildered unicorn along to the house. The ranch house looked the same as always, except for a few additions that had been made. Attached to the side was a gigantic, two-story mansion, styled like the early days of Ponyville, but with plenty of modern aesthetic elements. The two unicorns reached the front door of the mansion and knocked.
A butler answered the door, and without saying a word, acknowledged Rarity with a familiar smile. Twilight watched as her friend batted her long eyelashes. He paid no attention to the additional guest, and held the door open. Immediately, Rarity shifted gears and pulled Twilight along quickly. The mansion appeared surreal, with corridors twisting every which way, fancy paintings adorning the walls, and the finest quality of rug beneath their hooves. Suited butlerponies and maidponies were standing at each corner, speaking elegantly and just as well-mannered as the other. It seemed like they were going to be lost in a labyrinth of posh culture when Rarity found the last hallway, which led to a living space.
It was a shock to Twilight. Big Macintosh sat beside the hearth in an upholstered chair, smoking a pipe with one back leg crossed over the other. One of his eyes was covered by a monocle, the frame of which matched the brass accents on his new top hat.
“Eee-quite,” he said when he arrival of Rarity and Twilight. He took another puff of his pipe and sent a ring of smoke into the air, expanding and fading into nothingness as it neared the ceiling. He clapped his hooves together, and nearly immediately a butler made his way into the room, striding past the visitors to present to the red stallion a large glass of apple juice. He took a large sip and shooed away the butler, who bowed gracefully before exiting.
In the center of the room sat Apple Bloom, or what looked like her at least. She wore a large, exquisite dress branded with Rarity’s tags. The fabric was strewn with gems and the finest materials, shimmering with each movement she made. Yet her face was a stark contrast, holding a fierce scowl.
“These gems aren’t bright enough, Rarity!” she exclaimed. “You need to use shinier gems! Do you want me to keep looking this dull? Pathetic! I need to look at least five times more fabulous for the next time I go out in public.”
Apple Bloom crossed her front legs and made a ‘hmph’ noise, turning the other way as she did. Rarity bit her lip and tried to ignore the bratty little filly.
Last was Granny Smith, dressed in fashionable clothing, but nothing overdone. As always, she sat in a rocking chair, although this one was brand new and delicately hand carved.
“I was gonna git me that hip surgery yesterday,” she said, cackling, “but I figured I should do it all at once when I go for my good ol’ fashioned plastic surgery. Gonna git my old face fixed up, ya hear? Look like one o' them fancy ponies in the papers!” She laughed, and kept on rocking back and forth in her chair.
All this time, Twilight said nothing. There were no words needed for these two ponies to communicate their concern. Dapper Big Macintosh, prissy Apple Bloom, and plastic Granny Smith: all three had completely changed in a short period of time.
Rarity and Twilight left the mansion to go find Applejack. The road to the central barn office was paved with cobblestones, making a loud clacking sound beneath each step. With so many ponies walking about their business on the ranch, the sound had grown to an almost thunderous clap that repeated constantly. Each step made Twilight twitch with the volume, as she was used to her library and had been comfortable with the low level of noise there.
While the other members of the Apple family may have worried Twilight, Applejack nearly gave her a heart attack. The former farmpony was sitting at her desk as Rarity had left her when they arrived.
“Miss Sparkle,” said Applejack, “what a pleasure it is to see you this afternoon!”
“Applejack?” Twilight was completely stunned, nearly unable to move. The drawling, rough-and-rumble pony she had called friend was now all dressed up in a clean suit and hat, with her main now fashionably straightened with a braid down the back of her neck.
“Indeed. Isn’t this wonderful?” She pointed a hoof to the window behind her desk, and the two unicorns looked outside. It was a vast expanse of land upon which their apples grew, and the ponies working the fields looked like ants trailing along the grasses, bucking trees with tiny legs and pulling small buckets of miniscule apples to processing or storage.
“What happened to you?”
“Luck happened to me, Twilight. All this time, I was so worried about the next day. Every single day, it was a race to make enough money to support the ranch, and save some more money for Apple Bloom’s education. Even more so, we needed money for the barn and Granny Smith’s hip. But now, that’s all a thing of the past.”
“But where did this all come from?”
“That scoundrel, Wintergreen,” said Rarity.
“He’s not what you think, dear Rarity,” said Applejack. “He’s my most trusted advisor. Sure, I pay him generously, but without him Sweet Apple Acres, Inc. would be nowhere near what it is today.”
“He’s taken our Applejack away, that’s what.”
“Rarity, am I sensing jealousy?” Applejack let out a little laugh and took a sip of apple juice from a flask on her desk.
“Why, I never!”
“Rarity, Applejack, please!” Twilight pleaded. “Both of you cut this out! Applejack, what happened to you? What happened to the honest, good-hearted Applejack I called my friend? This isn’t you!”
“Well, Miss Sparkle,” said Applejack, clearing her throat. “Have you considered that maybe this is better for me? Better for my family?”
“I wonder if you’ve considered that yourself.” Twilight turned her flank, trying her best to hide the fury that was building within her. Rarity saw the red-faced unicorn on the verge of exploding, and patted her shoulder with a hoof, leading her out of the room.
“I hope you’re happy, my little CEO,” said Rarity as she shut the door.
Two minutes later, Wintergreen entered the room, having been in a production meeting all day. He found Applejack with a plaster of anger across her face, front legs folded across her chest. Her bottom lip jutted out and she seemed to glare at nothing in the distance.
“Is everything all right, Miss Applejack?” He placed a few papers from his bag onto the desk. “Our weekly production report is compiled and ready for you.”
“Thanks, Wintergreen,” said Applejack, adjusting herself in the chair. “I’m just not sure what I should be doing, is all.”
“That’s quite all right. You’ve done a fantastic job running this show so far.”
Applejack smiled and shook herself from her slump. She leafed through the report papers before placing them on a stack of other papers.
“Come, Miss Applejack,” said Wintergreen. “We have a meeting in just a few moments for the next shipment plan.” She nodded and followed him out the door.
Night washed over Ponyville, and the Apple family celebrated their new found wealth with a large feast, nothing like they had had in the past. The grand amount of food took plenty of energy for digestion, and soon, Applejack herself very sleepy. She wished her family a good night, although most of them seemed preoccupied with their food or riches.
Snug in her bed, her thoughts dwelled on Twilight and Rarity from the afternoon. Her anger, the argument, and Twilight’s words hung in her head. ‘I wonder if you’ve considered that yourself’. Had she? These were the last thoughts she had before everything faded into a deep sleep.
Just as she had fallen asleep, a loud, thrashing noise jarred her awake. Rubbing her eyes with her hooves, she looked out the window. A fire burned brilliantly over the storage barn full of gems, shimmering and dazzling with the reflective properties of the stones. She hurried out the front door and down the cobblestone path to the barn.
Once she reached the fire, she saw that the structure was already in shambles. She ran inside, risking burns and injuries. Beams fell all about, just as hot as the air in the collapsing building. The gems were being pulled away, and behind the towering pile, she could see the culprit: a massive green dragon. Glistening scales swept up its rough hide, making it more of a surreal illusion rather than a real danger in the heat of the flames. It roared as it scooped up more of her precious gems, and sent a jet of fire in her direction.
Applejack leaped aside and kicked aside a burning beam. She bolted around the gem pile and up to the dragon’s backside. The intruding dragon turned and fired yet another jet of flames, this time at a beam right above her. The wooden structure detached and part of the roof fell, crushing Applejack beneath it. The hit made her head fuzzy as she fell in a slump beneath the wreckage. Then the darkness set in.
Applejack was alone in some dark void, bare as she normally was. Her suit, top hat, and even her old farming hat were missing. The dragon that was attacking just moments ago was gone. She could see herself, but nothing else. It was the deepest darkness she could ever remember experiencing. Cold, empty, and vast, yet at the same time so tiny and choking. At times she felt she was being suffocated, other times drowned in the swell of black that took hold of everything.
“My little Applejack
Do your friends see you’re just a quack?”
The words echoed from nowhere. Applejack tried to speak, to find the source of those words, but nothing came out of her mouth. The darkness was squandering her voice, extinguishing any noises she could make before they could reach her ears. And her ears perked up with the haunting words. As if bewitched, they could not stop listening so intently to the echo.
From the darkness, Discord appeared. He came out from the veil rapidly; his face was within inches of hers in just the blink of an eye. Before she could even register what was happening before he was wrapping his long body around her.
“Which is real and which is fake?
Is that decision yours to make?”
Discord grinned. Applejack felt like her eyes might start spiraling again and tried to keep away from his glance.
“Silly filly, don’t you see?
You’ve already hypnotized yourself for me!
Honest Applejack has been defeated
Before this chaos was even created!”
He laughed in his hideous, crazy manner, and faded back into the dark veil. The echoes lingered, but faded soon after. Applejack opened her eyes again and shivered. Twilight stood in Discord’s place, though there was something different about her. She was a filly again, just barely reaching Applejack’s shoulder in height, and missing a cutie mark on her flank.
The young Twilight said nothing. She just started deep into Applejack’s eyes, tears welling up at each corner. Applejack could do nothing as she was petrified by the younger Twilight’s glare.
“Make it stop,” Twilight said finally as she began to cry. “Make it all stop, please!” Her voice was slightly higher pitched than Applejack ever remembered hearing from her.
Twilight’s legs shook, and she sat down, trying desperately to wipe the tears that were pouring from her eyes. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop wailing. Applejack wanted to comfort her, but she was stuck in place. Twilight continued her crying.
“You’re a horrible person, not helping a weak little filly like me.” Twilight faded into the darkness as well, and her silhouette morphed.
The shadow that was Twilight as a filly began to grow. Wings spread out from its back and stretched widely outwards. Sparks seemed to fly from the darkness, and Princess Celestia stepped forward. Applejack’s first instinct was to bow, but she was still stiff. The princess held no kindness in her face: she looked down on pony, making her feel tiny and insignificant. Her multi-colored hair flowed behind her, even without any breeze to be felt in the darkness.
“Applejack,” her voice bellowed. It echoed even louder than Discord’s, making Applejack feel sick to her stomach. “You’ve been dishonest, selfish, and black-hearted since you converted Sweet Apple Acres. You’ve harmed the land, harmed your friends, and worst of all, harmed yourself.”
Princess Celestia’s horn began to glow and Applejack felt her body become much lighter, as if she was floating. She felt some of the darkness flow past her as she rose higher.
“For your insolence, the punishment is exile.” In her mind, Applejack screamed. No words came forth, but the scream in her head was bloodcurdling. She broke free of the spell and frantically scratched everywhere with her hooves, trying to escape the darkness. The princess’s face disappeared back into the liquid black, and her hooves could do nothing to penetrate it.
No. No! NO!
The lights above her head swirled in her eyes as she weakly opened them. Gone were the beams, the fire, the gems, and the dragon. The first thing she noted was the hospital gown she was wearing, then her friends surrounding her, with the doctor at her side. Instantly, pain seared all throughout her body, and she could see her coat and skin were burned in plenty of places. Everypony breathed a sigh of relief as she came to.
“Where’s the dragon?” she cried frantically.
“Gone,” said Twilight. “It took your gem stash and flew away.”
Nothing registered with the injured pony. Her friends neared closer to comfort her as the realization set in. The darkness was gone, and she wasn’t banished. She still had her caring friends, and her family. Her family! The thought echoed wildly in her mind.
“What happened to Granny, Big Mac, and Apple Bloom?” Her drawl was slowly returning, replacing the eloquent language and manner she had adopted in her new business.
“We’re fine,” said Granny as she hobbled in with her bad hip. She was trailed by Applejack’s siblings, who were no longer graciously adorned as before. “But you’ve been out for two whole days!”
“And what about Wintergreen?” Everypony shrugged at this. He disappeared in the chaos that ensued in the dragon attack. Some of the night workers had called in the fireponies to take care of the fire, and Wintergreen was there at the time, but his whereabouts couldn’t be accounted for after that. Overnight, Wintergreen, the money, and Sweet Apple Acres, Inc. had all disappeared.
“I’m sorry,” said Twilight abashedly. “I shouldn’t have gotten so angry at you for your business. It was good for your family. Don’t worry, we’ll help you rebuild your company.”
Applejack looked to the side and saw that her old brown hat was lying next to her on the bedside table. It was ratty and worn in many places, certainly nothing like that fabulous top hat she had before. Regardless, she popped it back on top of her head. Her head throbbed with the lingering pain, but she endured it. It felt good to wear her old hat again.
“I wouldn’t fret yourself none, Twilight,” said Applejack. “I’m not headin’ back into that kind of business for a while. I miss the old days of buckin’ apples, anyway. Look at these!” She pointed to her hind legs, noting they had softened from disuse in the orchard.
“I’ll have to write the princess a letter,” she continued. “I figure she’d be mighty interested in this. I shouldn’t be reachin’ out to get what I need so quickly. Being subsistent wasn’t a bad thing. At least we were happy, and by Celestia, we will continue to do so.”
Everypony smiled at this.
“Now, how long am I in for?”
“Two weeks,” said the doctor.
“Two weeks!” Applejack exclaimed.
“Don't worry, Applejack,” said Apple Bloom as she hopped over. “We did hold onto a gem or two, so we should be able to last until you’re back and ready to work.” She grinned widely.
“If only I had something to read, so I could keep busy.”
At this, Rainbow Dash and Twilight both hefted up a pile of books and placed them beside her.