Pink Cherry Loaf was a long way from Ponyville, but she had been further in her time. And she was fine with that. The Ponyville visitors saw from the town's shiny, lovingly maintained rail station was colorful, and playful, and full of happy, industrious ponies. Pink's family mostly lived and worked on the sunny side of town, but that wasn't where they went when they needed to get things done. And the things that her family had done under the leaves of the Everfree would haunt her until her dying day. She had to get away. And that was why she was so very, very far away from Ponyville, and getting further away minute by minute, hoof by hoof.
The first thing Pink Cherry Loaf noticed about her new home was that it was dry. Drier than Udder Holstein, drier than the badlands east of Ponyville. Not quite as bad as Balk Station had been, though. But Rock Valley certainly lived up to its name. The new rail line had only made it halfway out to Applewood, which worked well enough for Pink and her shiny new husband; they'd have had to get off at Salt Lick City anyways, and the line was thankfully complete that far west.
Her mother had done her best to talk the new couple out of moving back to Bed Rock's hometown, said there was all sorts of opportunities for an enterprising couple, back in the world and ready to make a life of it there in Ponyville. But Pink had things she needed to get away from, and frankly, she was tired of overhanging tree-limbs and the distant howl of timberwolves in the long dark night. The Apples and the Danvers had all the best land around Ponyville, and the way some of the families ran their businesses and farms was… something Pink had had enough of.
Pink wanted a life, a quiet, honest life. And from things Bed Rock had said, and things Bed Rock did naturally, unthinkingly, without even considering the manner in which he did them… Pink thought that maybe, perhaps? Rock Valley might be a good place.
A good place to raise a family. A simple family. One that prized every child, no matter how…
Pink Cherry Loaf and her new husband started the long hike out of Salt Lick City, along a well-hooved road curving slightly to the south and east into the plateau above Applewood and the San Palomino deserts. Pink was unwillingly reminded of Balk Station out in desert, and the dust and the sand and the yelling... The less she remembered of basic training and what came afterwards, the better.
The two of them had bought a pair of light carts to haul the supplies and materials that they'd requested for wedding-gifts in lieu of fancy bedsheets and silver service and all those fru-fru kitchen doohickeys that Pink's cousins and aunts loved so much. The lumber and boxes of fixtures and tools and so forth piled high on their carts, swaying far above the overburdened earth ponies' docks as they struggled with their loads. The hilly track leading up into the plateau upon which Rock Valley rested was a challenge when you were carrying the seeds of a life across your withers.
The wedding had been a typically over-elaborate Ponyville affair, Bed Rock wearing his regimentals, and Pink Cherry Loaf her family's traditional wedding-frock. That dress had over the years been bleached, cleaned, repaired, re-built, re-fabricked, and renovated so many times that Pink was fairly certain that the only thing authentic about it anymore were the diamonds in the petyral. Even the pearls had been replaced, supposedly after her Aunt Cinnamon Swirl's drunken in-laws had spilled something caustic on them during her reception. But that was the Cake Clan's way - to repair what had been damaged, to replace what had been lost, and to pretend nothing ever happened.
Like what had happened at the wedding. Her mother had almost succeeded in banning Pink's sister from the ceremony. Pink's teeth tightened on the bit of her bridle in memory of the offense, straining to keep her cart's load balanced. Cherry Bread was a good filly, a kind filly. She'd taken all of Crispbread's horseapples for Pink for so many years, done everything their dam had demanded of them… It broke Pink's heart to see how Crispbread had treated her, still treated her even now. How Pink had let her mother order her little sister around. Had given her power over her not-daughter.
Crispbread had almost sent poor, dim Cherry Bread into the service. Pink had put a stop to that, sure enough. Holstein would have killed Cherry Bread, if basic and Balk Station hadn't done the job first.
And when Pink came back from her tour with stolid, solid Bed Rock in tow? Crispbread had celebrated like the rest of Pink's family, her other sisters, aunts, uncles – the whole clan. But Cherry Bread wasn't good enough for something as public as a marriage ceremony, so off she would have went into the workshops to keep the machinery running, while Pink Cherry Loaf had her day in the sun. Like she always did.
Well, the hay with that. Pink put her hoof down, and had it out with her mother. And in the end, Cherry Bread's broad, slightly dopey grin blessed Pink and Bed's nuptials, sitting right there next to Graham Cracker and Hardtack and Sheet Cookie. Sheet Cookie's little sisters and Hardtack's little brothers were still hard at work in the workshops, hidden away from the judging eyes of Equestria, but Pink's influence over her mother only went so far. And those humble ponies weren't her siblings the way that Cherry Bread was. They weren't her responsibility. Those ponies were Hardtack and Sheet Cookie's burdens.
Pink heard later on that two of Hardtack's 'little brothers' had run away last year, which perhaps had explained why her mother had been so upset about the idea of 'little siblings' in public. The family was down to just the one Tack and a pair of Cookies when she and Bed had loaded their supplies and the broke-down carts into the train for the ride west. Somehow the family persevered without those little siblings' cheap labor.
Only Cherry Bread had come to see them off. Pink's choice to move out of town, after having put her mother out with the wedding and all – well, the two of them weren't on speaking terms by the time Pink and Bed left town. But Cherry Bread was there. Cherry Bread was always there.
"You shouldn't let her push you down like she does, Cherry," Pink told her little sister. "You've stayed by her all this time, when you could have left any time you wanted, like the little Tacks did."
"Aw, Sis, you know I can't do that. Who'd take care of the ovens, and keep the siblings on track? You know we get confused sometimes. It's not easy being the little siblings, but it can be a good life!"
Pink remembered seeing her sister's face for the first time, in the surface of the pool. The dark, mirrored surface, her mother's lantern lighting the cavern behind her. That was the last time Pink had ever seen a solemn look on Cherry Bread's muzzle. As soon as she'd been pulled from the surface of the mirror-pool, Cherry Bread's lips had broadened into a wide, goofy grin. As if the sum of joy in the world had doubled as soon as she'd entered it. That smile hadn't shifted an iota as Pink Cherry Loaf had recited the words of the ritual, had bound her new 'little sibling' to her will, as Crispbread had so carefully coached her beforehoof.
"Be good now, and strong, Cherry," Pink said to her little sister, as they stood beside the waiting train car. "I'm not coming back, I don't think."
"You came back from the army, didn't you? You'll be back. You'll always be the big sister." Cherry Bread's smile faded just a bit. But it didn't go away. It never really went away. "I kind of… need you to be the big sister."
"You're perfectly capable of being a pony in your own right, Cherry," Pink insisted. "Look at how well you kept things going while I was on my tour! Everything was all ship-shape and Baltimare-fashion. Mother richer than she ever was, the family as prosperous as they've ever been. You've done good!"
"It's mostly been Grammy and her shop, and Hardtack and his business contacts, you know that, Pink! I just keep the ovens going. It's all that a mirror-c-"
"DON'T! Don't… ever call yourself that, Cherry. You're my sister. You're your own pony, Celestia damn it."
Cherry Bread went a little glassy-eyed, and said, somewhat robotically, "Yes, Sister Pink Cherry Loaf. I will never call myself what I almost just said, but won't say again, because you've prohibited me from saying it."
Pink teared up, remembering her accidental invocation of the controls back there at the Ponyville rail station. The damned, blasted controls. The reason she could never stand to be near her little sister for too long. Because Pink Cherry Loaf was a domineering sort of mare – always had been. Being the oldest filly of a solid family like the Cake Clan made it hard to be humble and soft-spoken. And having a 'little sibling' do every alicorn-loving thing you told them to do was kind of – warping.
Pink had gone into the service at least in part to get away from her own self. To let the drill sergeants break her down, break up 'Pink Cherry Loaf', and mold her into a new self. A self that hadn't conjured a little sister out of dark magic and family obligation to be nothing more than her whipping-colt.
Ponyville's contingent of recruits had been full of former little siblings, sent off to do their family's duty in the EUP, to serve the Princess for their family's honor, while their actual brothers and sisters went on with their lives, their happy, feckless, prosperous lives. Lifetimes of obedience and the habit of subservience made for highly effective soldiers – the drill instructors loved it when Ponyville got called up, or so Pink had been told. She sometimes wondered if the DIs knew about Ponyville's little secret. It had been going on for long enough that there had to be little siblings scattered across a good swathe of Equestria by now.
In her darker moments, Pink thought that the Princess had deliberately re-settled the verge of the Everfree to take advantage of the mirror-pool. But then she remembered that they were supposed to keep the existence of the pool a secret from the bureaucrats and the ponies of other towns and most importantly the Princess, and her tenuous belief in the benevolence of their immortal sovereign suppressed the thought.
The fiction that something in the water of Ponyville induced unusually high twin and triplet foalings wouldn't survive even the most casual of investigations, but nopony ever made trouble, especially not the little siblings, bless their hearts.
There was enough trouble in the world, Celestia's servants didn't go seeking it out in sleepy little towns tucked halfway under the eaves of one of the few remaining dark forests in Equestria.
Pink's dark thoughts had pre-occupied her throughout the long, aching haul up the scarp of the plateau. Bed Rock had left her to her musings, being occupied himself with his own heavy load. But finally, they came to the crest, and an easier stretch of the road. They rolled a couple dozen yards down the suddenly-sweeter downward slope, and then Bed Rock came to a stop, and Pink followed suit.
Pink looked around. Beyond the crest was a rolling plain, not quite flat, not quite hills. The tips of the swells were broken by rock outcroppings here and there, like dragons' bones poking out of the shallow soils. She narrowed her eyes, staring at the nearest outcropping, trying to see if they actually were dragons' bones. No… probably not. Maybe?
The lower slopes and the dells were full of nodding heads of grain, and ponies' heads bobbing here and there in the fields, sickles and scythes flashing in the red rays of the setting sun. Pink could see three – no, four McColtric reapers being drawn across the landscape, rolling through the long rows of grain. You could see… almost forever where they stood in the road.
"I didn't… think Rock Valley would be so big. And busy!"
"Hah. This isn't exactly Rock Valley, not yet. Those folks out there are Oats Clan, for the most part. Look at how many of them are still using the old harvesting methods. Stick in the muds, the lot of 'em. Huh. Two more harvesters than the last time I was here. No, three. I guess everypony got tired of Bullet Time and his crowing about how much time his gadget was saving him. Honestly thought they'd shun him instead. Well, time marches on, Princess's progress and all that."
"If this isn't Rock Valley, where are we? And where are all the trees?"
"What do you mean, where are the trees? See those lines of yellow and orange out there? Those are trees. The grain farmers, they need their windbreaks."
"Bed Sheet Rock! Those aren't trees, those're bushes! Are you telling me that that's what passes for a tree in these parts?"
Pink almost giggled, suddenly feeling as free as a pegasus. No trees! No dark, oppressive woods full of curdled secrets and monsters and pools and ponies trafficking with all three!
"I can live with that. How far to Rock Valley from here?"
"Won't make it by sunset, obviously. But maybe before dawn, if we keep going? Or we can see if anypony has a spare bed. They look pretty busy, though. Should have known it'd be small grain harvest season. They're probably a couple weeks out from the marble-cutting back home…"
Pink frowned, watching the bustling grain-farmers racing to get their crops in. As Celestia's sun crested the western horizon behind her, she felt the cool of autumn turn cold on her coat.
"No… no. Don't want my first introduction to any of the locals to be asking for a hoof-out. Let's bundle up, and keep going. Hauling this mess ought to keep us awake and warm, anyways. But get out the overcoats anyways?"
Bed Rock grunted agreement. He was usually willing to go along with her ideas. He'd been a corporal in her escort squad while they'd been in Holstein. The pony who kept anything and everything out of her mane while she did her thing. Most ponies who'd had her job in the Corps had been pegasi, but she'd shown an unexpected talent for cartography, and for quick work in tight spots. Ponies like Bed Rock had been the reason she'd come back intact, their pliability when it was safe, their resistance when they'd known she was about to test her luck.
Like most blessed foals, Pink Cherry Loaf had been born with more than her share of luck. It was what gave her the confidence to run right up to the edge of the enemy's lines and record the lay of the land, and to sketch out the enemy's position as they lay on that land. And to find any hidden tricks of the earth which they or the enemy could exploit against each other.
Pink had lost some ponies in her adventures between the lines, but Bed Rock had made sure that everypony came back, Pink included. No pony left behind, even if you had to carry a former comrade's lifeless body across your withers as you fled under fire.
One of the scouts who had stopped a New Roamish catapult bolt intended for Pink had been a Ponyvillian, and Pink found herself thinking about Carved Log while the twilight over the high plateau faded into night, and Celestia's moon rose in the east with its familiar dark-stained dappling. Carved Log had been Burnt Maple's little sibling; they'd both been a bit older than Pink. Carved Log had proceeded her into the EUP, while Burnt Maple stayed right in Ponyville, like all good elder siblings did. Their purpose in life was to fulfil their destinies, to live as their cutie marks instructed them. They had destinies – unique destinies.
All little siblings had were faded copies of the original marks. Same general talents, same general impulses, but they weren't unique, the destinies weren't really theirs. Or at least, that's what the elders said.
As far as Pink could tell, Cherry Bread's cutie mark wasn't any less defined than hers, and if she was in an honest mood – and had enough mugs of cider warming her innards – she'd admit freely that Cherry Bread was a better baker than she was. Pink had enjoyed her time offworld, the blood and the ugliness aside. She was pretty sure that Cherry would have been miserable, and that was satisfaction enough, to know she'd spared her little sister… that.
Pink looked up at the moon, and the mare in the moon. Holstein had two moons, and neither of them had the uncanny appearance of a dark figure superimposed on them, drifting soundlessly through the haunted night. The stories told in the dark about the Mare in the Moon were as many as there were ponies, and all of them were unsettling. The town had been getting ready for Nightmare Night when she and Bed Rock had been packing to leave.
She'd miss the candy. She'd always had a sweet tooth.
They made better time than Bed Rock had expected, spurred on by the cold and the dark. Pink asked several times about monsters on the moors, timberwolves or manticores or the like. Bed Rock sniffed, and laughed it off.
"The plateau isn't a place for your wild magics. Rock farming ties up too much of the ambient in the stones. It isn't like vegetable or tree-fruit farming, Pinks. Rock farming takes all the magic we've got, and then some. If it didn't, we wouldn't get such good returns on our marbles and gemstones and ensorceleds."
"The old earth pony way, then?"
"Ha! Exactly. We're big on the old ways in Rock Valley. Well, those old ways that work, I suppose."
They continued onwards over the moors, the half-harvested grainfields in the dells and dips hidden in the darkness and shadows, cast by the crests and the rock outcroppings half-lit by the bright moonlight. The rolling country sloped almost imperceptibly downwards from the high north-western edge of the plateau. The road curled gently along the low ridgelines, swaying back and forth and following the flow of the land. Homesteads were tucked here and there within the dells. They shone like fire-flies in their shadowed depths, each little flare an oasis of pony homelife in the darkness.
There were more of them than Pink had thought there would have been, given Bed Rock's descriptions of 'home'.
Eventually they came to the edge of Rock Valley proper, and the road tipped over the edge of the plateau into a slight depression. After a while, they passed out of the shadows back into the bright moonlight, and Pink's dark-accustomed eyes picked out details again, details other than the lights of the houses and homesteads that dotted the darkness all around them. Again, Bed Rock had described Rock Valley as an empty wasteland with nopony around for miles. But Pink could see at least a half-dozen well-lit homes within eye-shot of the road. More came into view as they passed along, and the moon burned the night away.
"More ponies out here than I thought there'd be."
"Really? Compared to what I've seen of Ponyville, there's nopony up here."
"I think maybe there'll be enough. Where'd you say this new store your brother wanted to open will be?"
"About a day's walk east, over towards the Gorge. New settlers out that way, some family, some not. I hear good things about the basalt and the cladding-quality marble."
"But we won't be – "
"Nah, I've never been all that great at turning rock. None of the Rocks have, ironically enough. You can bet we heard no end of that around the Stones on festival days. Well, some, but us in the cadet lines? We find other things to do. The Sheets, we play shopkeeper round these parts. Some of the other cousins, the ones over by the watershed, they work in tools and smithin'. But us? Co-op needs somepony to run the stores."
Shopkeeping. Pink could handle shopkeeping. Wasn't too different from running her family's dining rooms in Ponyville and the neighboring towns. She'd spent a couple seasons doing that before heading off to the induction center.
Pink thought of her last words to Cherry Bread, the ones that she hadn't let Bed Rock hear. How she'd ordered her little sister to never obey her mother or any other pony who told her to do anything she didn't want to do. How she'd ordered her little sister to be her own Celestia-damned pony, for once in her short life.
How she'd ordered Cherry Bread to never come out to Rock Valley, and to keep her distance. Not to write, not to send any messages. Not to ask for anything more, any guidance, any more orders.
Because she knew Cherry Bread was a good pony, but only when she wasn't with Pink Cherry Loaf. Because Cherry Bread wasn't a pony at all when she was with her sister; she was only an appendage, and she never would be her own mare as long as they were in each other's lives.
Finally, as the moon approached the western horizon, and Celestia's sun had begun licking the eastern ends of the sky with wet streaks of false dawn, they reached a couple side-tracks that split off from the main road. At that corner stood a little cluster of buildings mostly unlit and darkened at the crossroads.
"This is it," said Bed Rock, leaning back in his traces. "The homeplace. Not where we'll be setting up shop, of course, but we'll have to build that ourselves." He nodded upwards at the building supplies and sales goods piled high on his cart.
"Like I said, about a day's trot east. We'll be working out of here for now, there's nothing out that way but some tents the sooners have put up, beside the fields they're clearing."
"Winter's coming up fast."
"All the more reason to get out there and get done what needs done. Like going out into the field, right?"
"Hopefully without getting strafed by New Roamish griffons every other day, or chased by goatish scouts."
"Yeah, that too."
"Bed Rock, I'm scared. You come from good ponies, I know that to look at you, but you saw my folks, you saw how much they-"
"Shh. Shh. Momma'll love you, I swear. You're not the ponies you come from. You're the ponies you come home to. Welcome home."
Pink nodded, choked up. They pulled their carts around back of the main complex, the family house attached at the back of a large general store rising up into the dawn falling from the skies. The two earth ponies unhitched themselves as an older mare with a yellow coat and a blue-to-grey mane came out on the porch of the attached house.
"Momma, this is my new wife, that I wrote you about. Pinks, this is my mother Pebble Beach."
The Rock matriarch smiled at Pink. Pink smiled at her through sudden tears.
"Momma Beach, it's very good to meet you. I'm Pink – Pink Rock."
"Call me Pinkie."
And Pinkie was finally home.