Apples & Eyeballs

by forbloodysummer

Aria Again

Aria hung in the sky in much the same way that a brick might have done had it been lucky enough to be born a siren. Magical projections of her face, like vast video screens, adorned the sides of a dozen airships in the surrounding skies, including the two sideways-on zeppelins flanking her. The banners hanging beneath their hulls stretched almost to the ground, each bearing the stylised emblem of an eyeball and the letter A.

The same design was found on the hundred or so purple flags encircling the field before her, marking the boundaries of a seating space no stadium or amphitheatre could contain. Organisers had questioned the need for seating, as building the required chairs had meant felling acres of the Everfree Forest for materials, but Aria hadn’t wanted to feel that she was addressing some mere music festival crowd, and seating could be arranged to give the appearance of formations. How could a siren call herself a purveyor of better vision if her own product launch wasn’t good to look at?

700,000 ponies sat in legions on that plain, most hailing from far across Equestria but all awaiting her every word. It was almost enough to make her feel like Adagio.

Giving no outward sign, she took a calming breath and began.

“Good afternoon, fillies and gentlecolts, and thank you all for coming.” She didn’t need pony magic to amplify her voice at all, since her siren gem took care of all that. Each word she spoke made it glow, like breathing on dying embers.

“We are here today, five months after finalising arrangements with Sweet Apple Acres, to launch our first new product together.” And it could have been three months sooner if the wretched Apples hadn’t dragged their inbred, misshapen hooves at every opportunity, wittering on and on about tradition and the way things had always been done. As if the very idea of innovation were personally offensive to them. Can’t plough a field with ideas? Tell that to the pony who first had the idea of inventing the plough.

“It’s clear from so many of you being here today, in many cases having travelled in from far and wide, that the quality of our products speaks for itself.” Good luck finding cheaper, knockoff eyeballs anywhere. “Our brand has become quite the phenomenon all across Equestria, and we have you ponies to thank for spreading the word of mouth.” Like that’s actually what they’d been trying to do when talking about her farm, not just showing off their trendy new gimmick to their halfwit friends. Yeah, the customers deserved fuckloads of credit and gratitude for that.

“But there are of course a few individuals I’d like to thank in particular.” She always loved those bits in speeches. No one in the audience cared; not a single one of them. They’d all made an effort to be there, and, knowing that, the speaker chose to use his or her time in the spotlight to waste that of the audience, blathering on about the petty contributions of people the crowd could not give a fuck about. Self-importance at its very finest.

She took a moment to compose herself before her features had the chance to show any visible smugness. The lack of siren sweat glands gave her a natural advantage for hiding her nerves, but centuries of associating with Adagio had led to smirks leaping onto her face uninvited at the slightest provocation. For that to happen mid-speech would undo all her hard work practising her open and enthusiastic fake-as-fuck professional demeanour. Reassured by the sincerity on her face as displayed in real-time on a nearby blimp, she carried on with her prepared words.

“Firstly, I’d like to thank the Apple family for making this transition as smooth as possible” – Aria  gesticulated towards them on the podium below with a welcoming hoof, wondering if the Element of Honesty and her family would pick up on how thoroughly she’d just lied through her teeth – “and  for their ceaseless toil and dedication.” Dedication to doing everything they could to shaft her while she broke her metaphorical back struggling to drag them into the present, let alone the future. How could four ponies put up so much fight when a siren offered to turn things around for them and make their piss-stained business profitable again?

“Ponyville saw some local complaint when I moved to buy Sweet Apple Acres,” all whipped up by the Apple family themselves, of course, “and rightly so.” It just wasn’t worth the PR fallout from being seen as swooping in to take over a long-established business when down on its luck, even if luck didn’t really have anything to do with it and their failure was entirely due to their own bloody-mindlessness. That’s what she’d told herself again and again, at least, and Adagio had backed her up on her thinking. All the same, though, playing nice with those that should have been left to starve made her want to bite something.

“The generations of Apples that have poured their labour into Sweet Apple Acres over the decades to make it one of the most respected institutions in Equestria; their effort shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste,” as if the familial bodily fluids they’d also poured into the sodden place left any alternative but to burn it to the ground, “not when careful guiding can instead focus it in a new direction.” Aria swept her eyes over the crowd as she spoke, noting their nods of approval, and again she was thankful she’d had the strength to stick with her decision to integrate Sweet Apple Acres rather than bulldozing it and starting afresh. Although she did want to try bulldozing something, because she’d heard that the Equestrian method used real bulls, and that sounded too amusing to miss.

“So our relationship has been less of a takeover, more of a merging of mutual understanding and expertise.” And once their understanding of the situation had encompassed her being in charge, she’d been able to bring her expertise of human organ cloning and pinpoint ocular replacement surgery, and they’d brought their expertise of kicking trees.

Her vile sycophancy towards Apple tradition and family values over, Aria turned her attention to her own family, or at least the closest thing she had instead. Thankfully, she, Adagio and Sonata were about as far from ‘family values’ as a group could get, and her every interaction with the Apples had left her wanting them all to go on a joint family trip together. She’d thought the Apples might learn something from the experience, but more recently had become convinced they were allergic to learning.

“Just as the Apples have been a family driven by a single purpose for all these years,” because anything more varied than that would be too complicated for such one-track minds to handle, “I really need to mention Adagio Dazzle.” Aria smiled, knowing it would be interpreted as fondness for her fellow siren, and wouldn’t be guessed to be secret delight at publicly comparing her to Applejack. But that was the kind of double-edged comparison she really liked, because fucking no one involved would take it as a compliment or leave happier than before.

“Looks, body, charm, voice, magic... most assume Adagio coasts through life on at least one of these, and that rarely sits well with honest pony folk.” Such were the drawbacks of how good she was at making everything seem effortless, far less worthy of the lazy reputation than Aria herself, whose mantra had always been ‘effort means eff-it.’

“You think you’ve seen hard work, seen ponies throwing themselves against a problem day in, day out, shaping their whole lives around getting a job done; but you’ve never seen her.” On the podium, she saw Applejack’s brows draw down even lower, as she, the most hardworking pony around, had her reputation upstaged. Definitely not deliberately. No. Not at all. “It’s nothing to do with her species, it’s no slight against ponies; that’s just who she is when something needs doing.”

Very occasionally, Aria allowed herself a moment of genuine sincerity towards something other than different levels of anger and disappointment. She had a feeling that her next few sentences would fill her sincerity quotas for decades to come. Without outwardly showing it, she ground her teeth together, hating more than anything else that it was both true and deserved.

“I’m only here in Equestria now because she spent centuries training in mountaintop monasteries across several continents, honing her focus until she could meditate and feel a world’s underlying magic field clearly enough to pick up a distortion around one particular city.” Most of the crowd looked lost after the first sentence. Like, knowing they should be impressed, but not really sure why.

All those blank, confused expressions. So many Sonatas.

“Then we moved there, and she devoted every waking moment to scouring that city with a sustained campaign of siren song echolocation.” Even if the ponies had grasped the concepts, which it looked like at least a few had, they wouldn’t be able to appreciate the difficulties of picking up the almost-imperceptible difference in audible reflections from a wall containing a secret portal to one without, nor the constant concentration required to do so. Sonata had lasted a day. Aria had helped out one day every other week, in exchange for the new eyeballs thing. But Adagio had left the house each morning, spent all day playing urban dolphin, and only returned after nightfall, with one day off every month or so.

“Until finally, one euphoric day, she found a single wall of a statue containing that world’s only portal leading back here.” The cruellest irony, naturally, was the statue being of a pony, which both rubbed their noses in their predicament, and meant that it should have been obvious where the portal was from when they first looked around Canterlot in that world. The universe had thrown banishment at them, and Adagio had thrown herself back at it.

“She brought us home.” Aria’s voice didn’t crack. She knew it didn’t, because she was a siren and had total mastery over her vocal cords, and if the hundreds of thousands of ponies arrayed before her heard it crack, waver or fluctuate with emotion in any way, they’d been mistaken.

Aria concentrated on taking a few steady breaths through her nose, though not too deep, as that would be obvious to those watching. It certainly wouldn’t hurt sales – she knew that the more heartfelt she appeared, the better everything would sell, but bollocks it still rankled. Why couldn’t ponies have found some better virtues to base their culture on? Why did they insist on having Elements of Kindness and Generosity and not things that might actually make interacting with others less of an arseache, like an Element of Indifference, or Not My Problem, or Using Humour to Avoid Discussing Feelings? Hell, maybe the Element of Laughter covered that last one, that’d be something at least.

But ponies were the chosen market, and changing their natures smelled too much like hard work, so Aria focused on the enormous piles of money she’d make from her enterprise, knowing that even if she did have to play to pony rules, she’d twist them to her advantage.

Right then. Eyes on the prize. ...And why hadn’t they remembered that expression  a month previously, when they’d been trying to think of a marketing slogan for the new product? She hoped her internal facehoof didn’t show.

“I’d like to thank our very first customer, who was instrumental in spreading the word about what we were trying to do. A glowing review, and a testimonial to our ambition if ever there were one.” Even if she’d been hard to deal with at times because she was just so damn happy. Christ, Aria had thought living with Sonata for so long had prepared her for those with a needlessly-upbeat outlook on life, but, wow, had she been wrong... And when it came to spreading word-of-mouth amongst ponies, those bottomless wells of good humour were the best thing Aria could have wished for.

“I’m sure you’ll have seen her here and there around town acting as an informal ambassador for us; she’s a lovely grey pegasus with beautiful new golden eyes that both point in the same direction.” And her position as a mailmare had made her ideally suited to spreading the word, since she chatted with half of Ponyville each morning, and for two weeks solidly the only thing she’d talked about was how wonderful her new eyes were. Then she’d moved onto how much better she could fly with them. Shame she hadn’t otherwise really liked her postal job, only taking it as the best out of poor options at the time; she could have made a killing in direct marketing.

“And while I know we’ll all miss her around Ponyville, I wish her the greatest of success when she leaves next month for the Wonderbolt Academy.”

And of course, if a Wonderbolt happened to mention Aria’s farm to the press, business would go stratospheric; they’d never had a celebrity endorsement before. They might have had, because Starlight did have one very useful connection that she’d happily exploited to help Aria, but no, it seemed obvious looking back that Princess Twilight was always going to end up on the Apples’ side of the takeover disagreement. And her pony highness had been keeping fairly quiet ever since, probably seeing how things worked out before saying anything publicly.

But then there was also, uh, did he count as a celebrity? He did used to rule Equestria, even if no living pony remembered it. But then he couldn’t really make public statements about the business either, since he was too close to it officially.

“A big shout-out to Discord, everypony’s favourite lord of chaos and now optician, who runs Specslavers on Ponyville high street.” Insisting on that name had apparently been the ex-king Sombra’s one contribution as silent partner. Yeah, all the old villains were into running business startups now. Queen Chrysalis P.I. had really taken off, once she got some film noir tips from Rarity, though her otherwise-excellent undercover disguises were kind of offset by the musicians hired to follow her around playing smooth jazz. ‘Tirek’s Therapy for Warring Siblings,’ not so much.

The whole thing had started, or so the story went, when Discord had shown Princess Cadence his résumé as a suitable babysitter for Flurry Heart, and she’d responded that she couldn’t believe her eyes. Bizarrely, the references had been genuine, so Discord had set up an optician to prove it was her eyesight at fault. Sombra at that point had crawled out of the woodwork and declared himself all-too-willing to help.

...Cadence had sent them packing, of course, knowing that Discord never stuck with a gimmick for more than a few minutes, so he’d done exactly that just to spite her, and set up shop in Ponyville, where Fluttershy had persuaded the resident princess to be more embracing of the idea.

“His confidence in recommending us helped ponies know that our brand was reputable, and our products could be trusted.”

Sure, at first he might have been prescribing new eyeballs just to be a dick to ponies, knowing they’d never be able to get hold of any, but the spirit of chaos was all about the random and the unexpected, and so probably quite appreciated others being able to surprise him from time to time. And the first pony to happily chirp, ‘sure, I’ll swing by Aria’s farm on the way home’ in response to his diagnosis must have done exactly that, so after a couple of shocked seconds he’d presumably got over his disappointment and gone along with the idea.

On the subject of former villains, she grinned to herself.

“And finally, I would be remiss not to mention my number one assistant.” At that, she lost it for a moment, snickering to herself behind a hoof, glancing down to see Starlight glaring up at her from her Very Important Pony seat on the podium, to which Aria blushed in response. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist,” she waved it off to the audience, explaining, “she hates being called that.”

She delicately cleared her throat, flashing a guilty smile before starting again.

“I would, of course, be remiss not to mention my wonderful marefriend, whose unique gifts have not only proven crucial to getting the business up and running in the first place, they’ve also helped me feel a lot more at home here.” Aria let some of her affection show on her face as she gazed down at Starlight again, hoping the feelings-heavy crap would keep herself from thinking about the other stuff they – no, don’t think about that! Not here, not with everypony watching! Shit, quick, just say something nice or something!

“Starlight, you rock, girl!”

Thankfully Aria was saved by Starlight’s happy peal of laughter, and the ridiculous, mushy thought it prompted: I’m so glad I met you. They held each others’ gaze for a couple more tender seconds, before Aria looked up at the crowd again, finding most of them swooning over her and Starlight.

She genuinely blushed quite a bit at that. Stupid ponies.

Right, before she lost anymore of her self-respect: she had a product to launch, damn it!

“And now,” she leapt into the first cliché, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for...”

She allowed her voice to take on slightly more of a booming quality, reverberating across the field to the distant flags fluttering in the gentle breeze.

“A broken hoof can be fixed,” she declared, raising one foreleg in proclamation. “Cracked ribs, healed,” swapping it for the other. “Dislocated wings, reset.” A collective shudder ran through the pegasi in the crowd, and Aria wondered how many in that instant envied her siren ability to fly by magic while armoured in scales, rather than relying on sensitive wings with spindly hollow bones.

“But eyes,” she said in a more hushed tone, “they’re much harder to mend.” She swept her gaze across the crowd, as if imploring with them. “We rely on them for so much; not just for our primary sense, but also for self-expression. You look someone in the eyes when you’re being honest with them,” or staring them down, or even hypnotising them – so the point stood, but looked less wholesome than it had done, “as my new friends at Sweet Apple Acres know so well.” She gave a slight shake of her head, “And we trust all that to two little orbs in our face, so easily damaged. Shouldn’t we carry spares of something that important?”

Aria shifted her stance and altered her voice to sound more jaded. “‘Would if we could,’ we always said.” Then she steered her voice more towards concern. “But eyeballs quickly spoil when they’re not kept fresh, which needs expensive equipment, lots of space and continuous energy.” With a little more weariness, she added, “And we all know you can’t teleport with them either.” Everyone had tried that once, thinking they’d found a clever solution, and then quickly learned their lesson. “So storing eyes is impractical,” she summarised, “and growing and transporting them takes time.”

She paused just a tiny amount longer than necessary, drinking in the moment she’d been waiting for, and then spread her forelegs wide and raised her voice.

“Well, not anymore, everypony!” She rubbed her hooves together in excitement, letting it carry over into her smile and her voice. “Over the last few months we’ve been working together to refine the magic jars once used to store zap apple jam and adapt them for the modern age.” Granny Smith had explained the preservative methods behind the enchantment on each jar, Starlight had found a way to make it simpler, and therefore easier and more cost-effective to mass produce, and they’d even managed to source some toughened glass from the minotaur kingdom to make the jars considerably less fragile.

“Now, you can carry backup eyes with you wherever you go!” The volcanic dragon sand added to the glass mix had also given the jars a satin black finish, which style consultant Rarity had assured them was very chic. More importantly, it blocked sunlight from spoiling the eyeballs stored within. “Seal in the freshness so you can buy them now and fit them later. At last, you can keep as many spare pairs of eyes as you like in a place convenient for you, whether it’s in a bathroom cabinet or on a bedside table.”

Taking on an air of conversation, she added, “I keep mine in my underwear drawer.” And that’s all she’d wanted, all those years ago, when she’d been looking for a way to keep pre-prepared eyes of colours she’d chosen around for when she needed them. Mission accomplished. Job done. Practical limitations would never stand between her and the cacti of her dreams again. She and Starlight would be grabbing the first one off the production line and then taking a long holiday together, as soon as she’d finished the final two sentences of her speech. She put on her product launch voice for a final time that day.

“And it’s all thanks to our new product, launching today, developed right here in-house at Sweet Apple Acres, based on generations of Apple family tradition. Fillies and gentlecolts, I give you: the Apple eyePod!”