“Perfect,” said Applejack.
The apple farmer sighed in contentment as she glanced at her big brother. “An’ ya didn’t think ah could do it,” she said, a teasing lilt in her voice. “Ya trotted out all yar fancy mathematics an’ such. But here ah am, with six perfect dishes an’ nothin’ else in ma way. We’re gonna take the grand prize this year, Big Mac.”
“Mmm,” said Big Macintosh. He was examining the dishes closely.
“Just goes ta show ya what a little hard work an’ motivation can do fer ya. It don’t matter that Carrot Top’s got the whole dang town helpin’ her. Ah can beat ‘em all.”
“We,” corrected Big Macintosh.
“Sure, sure. We then. Point is, victory fer the Apple Trust. An’ ya an’ ma an’ Apple Bloom will… hey, where’s she at?”
“Bed.” Big Macintosh paused. “She’s worried.”
“What, seriously? Carrot Top’s a fine farmer, ah’ll grant, but ah doubt she’s much of a cook. Even with all the tutors in the world –“
“About you,” clarified the stallion.
“About ma? Big Mac, ya ain’t been tellin’ her stories, have ya? Ah’m fine, perfectly fine. Any Apple worth her salt can go a few days without sleep. An’ we just got one more day ta go ta win the match an’ bring home the money fer the Trust. Then ah can rest, an’ ah’ll buy Apple Bloom somethin’ nice too. She’s been a trooper, helpin’ out with the chores an’ the cookin’. Think she’d like a clubhouse?” Applejack didn’t spend much money on herself – every jangle went back into the farm – but she had been known to occasionally dote on her little sister.
Big Macintosh shook his head, looking disappointed, and left without saying anything.
“What?” asked Applejack. What was with him now? He was so moody lately. And his worrying was scaring Apple Bloom, not to mention his comments about it being bad that Carrot Top’s farm was at risk (of course it was bad, but would he rather the Trust take the hit?) Applejack would have to talk to Apple Bloom and set her right. Big Mac’s heart was in the right place, of course, but he just didn’t understand business.
Well, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the competition, and that was going beautifully. The chefs that the Trust had sent in, Gustaf and his minions, had given their stamp of approval to the dishes a little under an hour ago. Dishes and waste had been cleaned up. There wasn’t much left to do now except to wait for the competition.
I could go to sleep, Applejack thought. But then she shook her head. It was a bad thought, a thought of a true Apple. She could sleep when she was done with the competition. Until then, she had to work. As perfect as her dishes were, she should see if she could cook them perfectly a second time. Get some more practice in. After all, a single flaw could drop their placement, and only the top few winners got any money. Without the money, the farm would be less likely to be able to withstand catastrophe, and…
And what was she doing sitting and thinking about it? She had to practice. Applejack forced herself to her hooves and began to approach the refrigerator. She’d start with the dessert; it was easiest and so a good warm-up. That meant getting milk, butter, eggs…
Somepony knocked on her door.
It took Applejack several moments to process the voice. “Uncle Orange! Come in!”
Uncle Orange entered, smiling. “AJ,” he said. “It’s good to see you again.”
Applejack hugged her uncle. “Ah’m glad ta see ya too, uncle. But what’s such a bigshot in the Trust doin’ way out here?”
“Checking up on you. I heard there were some… issues… and I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“Issues? Nah, we’re fine.” Applejack laughed. “Been workin’ hard, but everythin’s under control. We’re gonna crush this thing tomorrow, ya watch.”
“I will.” Orange smiled. “But I wasn’t just referring to the farm. Are you okay, Applejack? You look tired.”
“Oh, ah can keep goin’ fer weeks when ah gotta. Farm comes first, after all.”
“Well, be careful. You’re a very promising employee – you’ve risen quite far, head of your own farm at your age and all that -- and my favorite niece. I don’t want to see you get hurt. If you collapse of exhaustion--”
“Ah won’t, ah swear.”
Orange nodded. “Very well. Then I guess that brings me to the other issues. I understand you aren’t the only Ponyville team?”
“No.” Applejack frowned. “Golden Harvest Farms – they grow carrots – and the whole dang town’s supportin’ ‘em.”
“Trainin’ Carrot Top – she’s in charge of GHF -- an’ sellin’ her ingredients with delayed payment, an’ even helpin’ her with chores while she cooks. She impressed ‘em all when she staked her farm on takin’ home enough money ta buy the whole town irrigation systems.” Applejack scowled. “They don’t care fer all that we’ve done fer ‘em…”
“Is it a problem?” asked Orange, cutting Applejack off. “Is there anything you need from the Trust that would help ensure your victory over Golden Harvest? Ingredients, equipment? Recipes, maybe?”
“No. Ah don’t need anythin’. Ah don’t care if all of Canterlot helps her, she can’t beat ma.” Applejack’s voice was low and stern. “Ah know how vital the Trust is an’ ah will not let it down.”
“Be careful, Applejack. Using the Trust’s resources won’t make you look bad. It will make you look, well, smart enough to use what you have. But losing to a small farm could be very embarrassing.”
“Ah can’t justify usin’ more Trust resources when ah’ve got this thing sewn up anyway. We’ve got a country ta feed. Don’t ya worry; ah’ll get it done, no sweat.”
Orange paused for a minute. And then he said,
“You take care, you don’t let
Their shenanigans blind you!
And you’re wrong, to forget
You’ve got our great Trust behind you!”
Applejack shook her head.
“Ya should know that ya can’t just invoke our name
An’ inspire some dramatic action!
If ah want bad enough then ah’ll win the game
If ah don’t, then ya’r mere distraction!”
Orange smiled at that. “Yes, you’ve always been one of our most zealous and motivated employees.”
“Ah will not let ponies starve,” said Applejack. “That’s all the motivation ah need – an’ more than Carrot Top can possibly understand.”
“You taught me, AJ, how the few who win acquire
What their hearts desire
It’s not practice, nor’s it skill
They’ll help, but, not as much as wanting will.”
Applejack nodded enthusiastically.
“No contest, uncle! Pay no mind to adulation!
Ya want concentration?
When they peel her off the floor
It’s cause ah wanted it a little more!”
Orange glanced at the dishes, then tried one. “Mmm. Delicious apple fritter. This must have taken a lot of work to perfect.”
“Days. But it was worth it. Fer the Trust, anythin’s worth it.”
Orange resumed the song:
“You can win, you can lose
Take or be a possession
You taught me, how to choose
And the key is obsession!”
Applejack glanced in a mirror and had time to briefly note the deep, dark circles under her eyes. She smiled. She’d wear them like badges of honor, proof that she’d struggled and sweated to win the competition and help shore up her vital, crucial farm.
“See ma eyes? Are they safe, are they even sane?
Are they warm when they seem to greet ya?
Ya don’t know, ya can’t tell, but it should be plain
These are eyes that can always beat ya!
Don’t ya ever tell ma ah don’t know the way to play it!
Do ah have to say it?
Doesn’t matter what she tries! Ah’ve got her
Ya can see it in the eyes!”
Orange laughed and tapped Applejack’s hoof. They sang together.
“No contest, baby! Barely any point in playing
When it’s just delaying
What we all already know.
She lost it an Apple and a half ago!”
Applejack almost fell over from laughter, but just barely managed to keep her balance. She made her way back to the refrigerator. “She lost it an Apple an’ a half ago!”
Orange was smiling. “I anticipate no problems then. Best of luck, Applejack, and I sincerely hope I’ll be able to crown you as this year’s winner.” He bowed and left.
Applejack resumed her work, smiling. It was all worth it. She’d win the match, bolster the farm, secure the Trust, and feed everypony. She just had to work hard for one more day. She could do it, and she would, because she had to.
“Ah’ll cook all night,” she murmured. “An’ win. That’s all there is to it.”