Lightning danced across the darkened sky and bathed the room in a stark white pallor. The flash faded into darkness before a gentle glow dissolved the shadows and materialized in the doorway. A young mare fostered the light, and came into full visibility as she strode in with the lantern in tow. She set it down and adjusted it slightly, smiling as the eerie atmosphere gave way to a more comfortable coziness.
Applejack lowered herself to her haunches, and she breathed soft sigh of contentment. Though she would never openly admit it, the momentary respite from the bitter cold of the outdoors felt wonderful. Frost clung to her slack mane and her forelegs ached from the muddied slurry of the fields. The storm had begun. They were ready and waiting for it. In the urgency of their preparations, she had not noticed her younger sister's absence. However, as the weather turned for the worse, she had found herself needing more and more to know that the little filly was safe.
It was a great relief to find Applebloom where she was. Upon having entered the room, she had come upon her sister and their grandmother curled up close beside the old family photo album. It brought on a sense of fond nostalgia from when she had set beside the matron mare and been shown various photos herself. "Well `ahl be. Never thought `ahd see you payin any mind to yer elders, Applebloom. Does a heart good tah see it. What story are ya telling her, Granny? The one `bout how ya got tha farm?"
Granny Smith shook her head and beckoned Applejack over. "Ah just finished tha one about mah cutie mark, but if`n ya want I should tell ya, than we have time. Tha wires in this house are as old as ah am, so we'll be waitin` a spell afore they come back up."
Applejack moved to her grandmother's side and gently nuzzled the old mare before stepping toward the hearth and inspecting the fireplace. "Ah reckon we've got time. You go ahead an` start, an Ah'll get tha fire goin`. No sense in sittin` in tha dark `n cold."
Granny nodded and began looking through the pages, seeking out just where to begin. It took a few moments before she found the particular photograph she desired and gently tapped it with her hoof. "Here we go…it was after ah got mah cutie mark an` we'd begun tendin` tha farm again…"
The soil was warm beneath her hooves; despite the pleasant sensation, a shiver ran down her spine as a light autumn breeze caressed her lithe frame. Her coat was still damp from the effort of tilling the southern fields, but as she stood and surveyed it, a sense of pride welled within her. Georiga, lost in her thoughts, barely heard the heavy hoof steps that drew near and came out of her thoughts with a start at their owner's presence. However, startled as she was, a smile played upon her features. "Well, Pappy, how do ya like them apples? Or…at least tha fields, anyways."
Georgia always felt small next to her father. The stallion loomed over her and always seemed to have a firm expression set on his features. Ice blue eyes seemed to appraise every inch of her work with a bluntness she always feared, but never seemed to come. It was a few moments before she could expect an answer, and in the meantime she found herself leaning slightly on his broad shoulder.
Rome glanced slowly down at his daughter. As always, she seemed to stare off into the distance, unaware of his gaze. It never lingered long as he averted it to the fields and allowed the faintest hint of a smile to tug at his muzzle. Had he better words to use, he would have praised his daughter on so many things. The only thing he could muster was a deep, "Eeyup" of approval.
Gently, he moved away and allowed his daughter to stand on her own. He watched as she swayed lightly before finding her footing and shooting him a mock look of anger before her features softened. The silent understanding between them realized, he started down the hill and towards the field. Every few yards he would stop and ensure she was close behind before moving on towards the very fringes of their property. Once they had reached their destination he stopped and dug at the ground with a decisive gentleness so as not to disturb the very thing he had beckoned his daughter to see.
Georgia had followed her father faithfully, eager to see just what it was he felt the need to point out to her. Had she missed a square of land? Had she been careless with her tilling of the soil? As she moved from her position behind him, she saw just what he'd deemed so crucial to show her. There, freshly planted, stood a sturdy little dwarf apple tree. The sapling had already been staked and firmly planted in the soil, but another stood not far off that had yet to be planted. She looked between the two trees for a few moments before realization dawned on her and she turned to look up at her father with wide eyes. "Ya want me tah plant tha next tree?"
Rome nodded and moved to bring the sapling to her. Very carefully, he set it down beside a spot he'd marked out for it and began digging at the ground. He started the hole for her before backing off and offering her the lead.
It was nearly sunset before they finished. Every now and again he would stop to correct her or to offer a terse suggestion on how to help the tree grow. It was as if she seemed to thrive off of it, and he found a sort of solace in teaching her what he knew. If that was all he could give to her, then he would give her everything he could from his experience. It was the least he could do for his filly who seemed to grow so quickly, like an apple tree put to seed.
Granny Smith found herself trailing off into quiet as she remembered that afternoon with her father. There was always a price that came with such nostalgia, and it tasted bittersweet even after all these years. She didn't dare let her grandchildren see her sink too far into her past and decided it best to change the subject for at least a little while. "How's that fire commin` along, dear? Tha room's startin` tah warm up at least."
The flames had caught the wood Applejack had piled into the center of the fireplace and now blazed brightly through the thick timber. Applejack breathed softly on the fire to rouse it higher before backing away and laying down beside her grandmother. "Ya can see for yourself that it's turnin` inta a right bonfire. Shouldn't take too long afore the house is nice an toasty."
Quiet as she'd been, it was not of the filly's nature to sit in the comfortable quiet and simply listen to the flames flicker. Applebloom, who had held her peace through the story, eased the photo album away from her grandmother and began leafing through it. There were many that simply depicted family members, the orchard itself, and the various stages of setup that had gone into planting the orchard. However, she felt her brow furrow in concern as what once were happy images slowly began to shift from sunny fields to sterile halls and hospital beds. One particular photo of her grandmother standing beside a bed caught her attention and she gently nudged Granny Smith. "Granny…why are ya in the hospital so much in these? Did something bad happen to ya when ya were young?"
Applejack narrowed her eyes at her younger sister. "Applebloom! Now that ain't nothing ya should be askin` granny about. That's-"
Before Applejack could go any further, Granny Smith raised a hoof to quiet her eldest granddaughter. It caused the younger mare to give her a look of reproach as Granny Smith turned to Applebloom and nodded slowly. "Ya…ya could say that. It happened when ah was about yer sister's age…"
The tree shuddered with the force of impact. Georgia waited for a few seconds before the heavy, ripe apples began falling from the boughs of the great Granny Smith tree that had finally bore fruit. It seemed like only a day before that she had planted her first small sapling, but what once was a sapling had become a tree. What once was a filly was now on the budding cusp of mare hood. Many trees had been planted since then, and not once had one bested her ambition for cultivation. This tree was like all the others, and she appraised the fruit thoughtfully before hoisting it into her baskets. The bushel was nearly full with the result of her labor and she felt a sense of accomplishment with just how many of these same vessels brimmed full back at the farmhouse. "Pappy! We got another fer tha market! Wait till momma sees…"
Her voice trailed off into quiet as she lifted her head and looked around the tiny orchard. Two baskets lay half full beside the tree her father had been working on, and the stallion was nowhere in sight. She felt her brow furrow as she took tentative steps towards the baskets and continued to look around for him. "Pappy?" The only sound that answered her was distant. Somewhere far off, she could hear the stream flowing softly through the trees. A splash hinted that to be where he had wandered, and she started towards it.
A few feet from the edge of the trees, she stopped. There her father stood, downing the sweet stream water as though there wouldn't be a drop left in the world upon sunset. It had been the seventh time he'd stopped today, and even she could see the silent desperation in his eyes as he guzzled the cool liquid. She said nothing, and waited for him to raise his head. Their eyes met, an unsettling tension hanging between them as she averted her gaze and dug at the ground a little.
Rome narrowed his eyes, his jaw setting tight as he moved past his daughter without a word. Her constant surveillance of him made him uneasy. It was merely thirst, nothing more, and what business did she have to question such a simple act? As he reached the apple tree he'd been working on, his hooves collided hard with the trunk. All the frustration he'd been feeling seemed to race through his back haunches and through the tree like an earthquake. He moved to the next and lashed out at it similarly, gritting his teeth harder as his back hooves slammed into it and brought every apple down in simultaneous obedience to him.
After such a display of emotion, he found himself laboring for breath. The air stung his lungs as he panted heavily, inhaling as much of the precious substance as he could to fill his quaking chest. However, as badly as he wanted air, a dryness began to creep over his tongue and he closed his muzzle to ward it away. He smacked his lips softly, trying not to draw attention to it. It was merely thirst clawing at his throat again, and who was he to question that?
"You're thirsty…again. Aren't ya?" she began. Georgia couldn't look at her father as she spoke. "Jus` like an hour ago…an tha hour afore that…an ya been thirsty fer days now, an yer too stubborn to admit it." She closed her eyes, biting her lip slightly as she chastised herself for the tears she could feel pricking the corners of her eyes. She'd promised herself not to cry, at least she had when she had rehearsed how she would broach the subject. His silence ate at her as badly as the thirst that had taken him, and she found herself nearly yelling as she stomped a hoof into ground. "Momma won't bring it up, she's scared you'll think she's jus` fussin. Ya won't admit it `cause yer too stubborn to admit something ain't right, and ain't been for ages now! A-an…an I'm scared…yer scarin` me, an ya don't even care!"
That broke it. Rome started at her, anger rising like fire within his gullet. He didn't care? Was that simply what it was? Every little sob tore at him. Every little hiccup just enraged him with how she thought him so cruel as not to care for his only daughter. As he stood before her, he raised his hoof and swung. Every fiber of him burned hot with his anger, but before it could set his world ablaze, her words caught him mid-swing. "Ah love you, Pappy…please don't leave me an momma…please…"
The hoof that had meant to strike lay gently on her cheek. Georgia opened her eyes to see something that scared her more than being hit ever could. The father she had never known to say more than a few words, or smile and jest with those he held dear, stood before her with tears in his eyes. She barely noticed the ones that streamed down her own cheeks until he began to wipe them away and pull her close to him. Finally she let it all come forth at once, sobbing hard as she buried her face in his chest. "P-pappy please don't leave me, please…Ah never had what tha other fillies did, but ah had you an momma and that was enough! Please don't take that away from me…Please don't leave me, Pappy…"
Rome simply allowed his daughter to cry for a bit before swallowing the dryness in his throat and quieting her the only way he knew. "Nope…" he whispered, hugging her close. ". . .We'll go tah see tha doctor tomorrah. Ah won't leave you. Ah promise." The words felt like a weight being lifted off his chest. For the first time in days he felt he could breathe, and indulged himself by letting out all he'd been holding inside in one long sigh into the wind.
True to his word, the next morning Rome headed down the dirt road toward town. It was sunset before he returned. Despite good intentions, it was a few days more before a letter arrived, summoning the family to the clinic.
From the time they had arrived, Georgia knew something was wrong. The nurses didn't look her directly in the eye when she strode in beside her parents, and her mother refused to acknowledge the behavior at all. All the while her father walked ahead of them, silent as ever. There was no comfort in that quiet though, only a distance that was almost tangible.
As they were ushered into a room by the doctor and the door shut, Georgia felt her heart sink. Her mother sat down on one side and her father the other. She gently grabbed both of their hooves and held them tight, closing her eyes and taking in a deep breath. Even that could not brace her for what came next.
Granny Smith managed a smile. She could see the regret on her grandchildren's faces and tried to give them heart. "T-they called it 'Cushin's Disease' or something like that. Papper weren't done fer yet, but a lot changed. He…he lost a lot of weight, an after a while he couldn' work tha farm no more…" She looked back down at the album and flipped the page. Surely there was a happier memory to be had before her story ended.
Finally, she stopped on a photo of three young mares in dresses that were uncharacteristic for a bunch of farm girls. The picture depicted her two best friends flanking either side, and she smiled down at herself who seemed to peer up with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face as well. "Ah know yer wonderin' what this has got tah do with tha farm, but it's got everythin` tah do with it…"
Things would never be quite the same again. The same old hill was lonely now, and as she looked down at the small orchard she mused how the harvest would now be a solo affair. Georgia barely heard the hoof steps approaching, and started slightly as a hoof rest on her shoulder. She looked up to find Mint offering her a sympathetic smile and Julep settling down nearby. She averted her gaze from her friend and returned her attentions to the orchard. "What're y'all doin` here? This ain't exactly a sight fer pretty eyes…" she murmured, a sort of spite in her tone. "T`ain't nothing but a muddle round these parts now."
Mint clicked her tongue reproachfully and frowned, surprised at her friend's attitude. "Y'all act like yer own eyes ain't pretty, and ain't a muddle for miles, sugarcube." She turned to survey the orchard for a moment before casting her gaze to the sky of late afternoon. "It's almost tha Harvest Ball…an me an Julep been talkin` bout it now for a bit. We think ya should come with us."
The very idea caused Georgia to snort, breaking into raucous laughter. "M-me?! Go tah tha Harvest Ball? Mint, I ain't got time…" her laughter subsided and she smiled sadly. "I jus`…I ain't got time anymore. Pappy can't run tha farm an` I can't leave off tendin` tha harvest for some silly dance for beauties like you an Julep…what'd a hayseed like me even be doin` where she don't belong?"
Julep narrowed her gaze at Georgia as the filly spoke and pushed herself up. She strode up to the Georgia and took her shoulders roughly in her hooves, turning the startled filly towards her. "Stop it. Jus` stop it. Yer one of the most beautiful fillies this town's ever seen - don't ya dare tell me otherwise." A frown formed on her features as her friend merely averted her gaze and fought against her hold. She let go and looked away, stamping the ground in frustration with one hoof. "Darn it all Georgia.."
Georgia brushed herself off and closed her eyes, striding toward the orchard slowly. "I just ain't got time…now if'n you'll pardon me, I have work tah do," she murmured, casting a final glance back before hanging her head and walking away.
Julep started in the opposite direction, down towards the farmhouse. Her sister still hesitated on the crest of the hill, but followed after soon enough with reluctance. The entire way down, the wheels in Julep's head spun and raced to think up a solution. If they could not change her mind, than perhaps…Realization dawned on her and she turned to face her twin. "Mint!"
Mint, who had been lost in her own thoughts, started at the sudden outburst from her normally placid sister. She frowned, finding it a tad suspicious, but couldn't help but indulge her curiosity. "Yes, Julep? Ya seem cheerful all the sudden." Before she could go much further, Julep had her and began pulling her towards the farmhouse. The filly offered no resistance, but squealed at the sudden seizure. "Julep! Slow down!"
The farmhouse was quiet. Rome sat silent by the fireside and stared into the vibrant flames, sighing softly and causing them to emit tiny embers bidden by his breath. It had never suited him to simply lounge indoors on a day like this one. It had never suited him to lounge at all, not while his daughter worked the fields alone. His gaze rose to the pictures framed on the walls and he allowed them to take him back to better times, at least for a brief moment. It lasted for a while, and ended all too soon as the door to the farmhouse opened behind him. The protest of rusty hinges caused him to look back to find his daughter's friends standing in the doorway. It puzzled him as to why they had come in to visit him of all ponies, but he motioned for them to come in and have a seat near the warmth of the flames.
It was sunset before the twins departed the farmhouse. Georgia watched them with narrowed eyes as she slowly cantered home. As she made her way inside, she noted her father had moved from his usual place by the fire to sit by the window. He almost looked out longingly towards the trail her friends had taken, but as soon as he felt her watchful eyes he averted his gaze. "Somethin` interesting out there, Pappy?" she queried, arching a brow. "Tha twins left awful late fer livin as far away as they do. Did something keep `em?"
Rome shook his head and pushed himself up, moving to the kitchen and starting preparations for dinner. Without raising his tone, he simply answered, "Eenope…wash up fer supper. Ma`'ll be home soon."
Any further efforts to glean information proved fruitless. For the next few days the twins returned and went straight into the farmhouse. They stayed for a few hours before heading off, without nary a word to their long time friend. Georgia wasn't a fool, but even pestering her mother, who seemed fully aware of their visits, got her nowhere. Her mother would only smile and shake her head, ushering her off to some task that seemed trivial.
One night that changed. Frustrated with her failed efforts, she left off questioning. That morning, as she always did, she set off to work the fields. The day seemed to fly by without incident until sunset approached and she made her way down to the tiny farmhouse once more. However, no lights shone in the windows. A sense of dread rose in her chest, clawing at her with icy tendrils of fear. "Poppa?" It couldn't be. She swore and sprinted the rest of the way, swiftly closing the distance. The door nearly came off its hinges as she bucked it open and rushed inside, casting her gaze around in desperation to find her father well. "Poppa?!"
The light stung her eyes as it shone suddenly in the darkness. Georgia shook it off and regained her bearings, relief flooding her as she looked up to see her father sitting at the kitchen table. "Oh thank Celestia, Pappy, ya had me worried…"
The words only caused the stallion to smile as he looked her over. Pushing himself up from the table, he nodded to unseen figures. Several other candles were lit within seconds, and within the bask of the glow stood her mother and her two best friends. The twins were dressed in beautiful, extravagant formal wear while her mother seemed to bar something from her sight.
Georgia arched a brow, looking to her father in confusion. "W-what's this about? Pa-" her words were cut short as the massive stallion raised a hood for silence. It was rare he shut her off like this, and she went silent. The look on her face must have said it all, and he was reading her like an open book.
Rome took a few steps towards his daughter. He stopped just a few inches shy of the filly and looked down upon her. It almost looked as though he were appraising some rare jewel, some unnamed starlet who had not yet been shown how to spark. A warm smile spread over his broad muzzle. Finally, he spoke. "Georgia…darlin`…I'm so proud to be yer Pappy. Ya done good, girl. Always have…an` ah can't thank ya enough fer all ya done for me and your Ma." He gently raised a hoof to her cheek and delicately brushed it. He could feel her trembling, even though he didn't quite understand why. Still, he didn't pull away and continued. "Ah want…Ah want ya tah have something. Ah been thinking `bout this a while now, an` yer Ma agrees with me. This farm owes everythin` it has to you. This is yer farm, Georgia. Ah want ya to have it, and represent it."
Georgia found herself at a loss. The very air in her lungs seemed to have left her. Even if she could catch her breath, she didn't know what to say. She turned to her mother for guidance but found that she had moved aside to reveal that which had been kept from her. Hot tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes. Hastily, she scrubbed them away. It was as if they refused to stop as she looked up again to behold a dress of rich gold and reds. The silky fabric fell away in tiers around the bodice of the saddle which crested in gold that tapered simply at the neckline, an emerald green apple clasping it together.
Finally, she found words. Turning back to her father, she shook her head. "A-ah can't, oh Pappy, ah just…ah don't know what tah say…How am ah gonna run an orchard? An what does a girl like me need a dress fer? I-it's beautiful…"
Rome brushed back her mane and leaned down to gently brush his lips against her forehead. "Yer beautiful, Georgia…mah little filly, all grown up." As he gently let her go and took a step back, he motioned to the dress. "A proper orchard needs a proper lady. Ah want ya tah go to that ball, Georgia. Show `em who ya are, an` make a name fer yer farm, girl. Show `em…fer me."
Granny smiled wide and brushed away a tear that had snuck up on her during her nostalgia. "An that's how ah got tha farm…Pappy took tha picture jus` a little while after that, an from that night on, it was known as Sweet Apple Acres." She made to close the album, her story having been told, but found a tiny hoof firmly obstructing her. Curious, she looked up to find her granddaughter glowering at her and tapping a hood expectantly.
"Well?" Applebloom began, "An what about tha ball?! Ya can't end it there, ya jus` can't!"
The bluntness of the statement caused the old mare to burst into laughter. It took her a while to compose herself, but once she regained control she nodded. "An here ah thought ya just wanted tah hear about tha farm." Granny Smith shook her head before opening the album up again and finding the picture that would tell it best. "If'n you insist…"