4. “The longer she’s in a coma, the less chance there is she’ll be herself when she wakes up.”
“Oh boy.” Vinyl crouched on the floor, the better to lay out the magazine double page spread. Her own face stared up at her, surrounded by text that was no less scathing for its small size. “Wow, that’s harsh. And that. And especially that.” She blinked, peering closer. “’A talentless mare who bought her way to the top so nopony would question the screeching overly produced mess she calls music’? What a hack!”
Quillpoint had gone all out in her retaliation. Personally, Vinyl thought she was overreacting. All she had done was toss a tape recorder out of the window and assert her right to privacy. She could understand the anger over the tape recorder but apparently privacy was a luxury now, not a right.
She smacked the magazine and sat cross-legged, forelegs folded, her lower lip jutting out so far that pegasi could have used it for a landing pad. “That no-account, egotistical, petty, malicious, nasty, mean-spirited … nag!”
“No need to treat me to so many compliments when I’m barely through the door.”
She looked up to see Doctor Thorntree. A tiny smile tugged at what she could see of his lips beneath his moustache.
“Sorry, doc.” Vinyl gestured to the magazine. “I got a crappy write-up for that crappy interview I did.”
“The one your agent begged the hospital to allow?”
“Yup. He shouldn’t have bothered. Quillpoint is a …” She caught herself. “She’s not a nice pony.”
“Why do I get the feeling that wasn’t what you intended to say?”
“Was it that obvious?”
“Only a lot.” He advanced towards the bed, eyes taking in everything with a sharpness that belied his easy manner. Nothing escaped his attention, but from his tone of voice, they could have been sharing afternoon tea and crumpets in some garden on a magnificent estate. He checked Octavia’s charts, flipping through pages as he talked. “So why did you read it if you suspected it would be bad?”
“I don’t know. Masochism, maybe?”
“If that’s the case, I’ll tell Nurse Flower Heart to make sure the supply cupboard door is locked so you can’t get at anything sharp.”
Vinyl laughed. To her surprise, Doctor Thorntree had turned out to have a dry sense of humour that only revealed itself after a considerable amount of time. For the first week of her stay he had been extra formal, but gradually his attitude had relaxed the longer she stuck around. Nevertheless, he had only started calling her Vinyl and not ‘Miss Scratch’ a couple of days ago.
He put down the charts and faced her. “Vinyl, how long have you been here now?”
She shrugged, though she knew exactly.
“Four weeks,” he answered his own question, not giving her time to add more. “You’ve been here just short of a month and, to my mind, the furthest you’ve walked is when the nurses force you to take a stroll around the corridors to keep you fed and from a deep vein thrombosis. How much Vitamin D are you getting these days?”
“Oh. Whatever shines through the window, I guess.”
Doctor Thorntree shook his head. “That’s simply not good enough. If you’re not careful, you’ll get rickets.”
“Hey, doc, you know the deal.”
“Yes, I do, and while I find your devotion to Miss Philharmonica admirable, I also find it a concern. Never mind your career, your health is going to suffer if you keep this up.”
Vinyl’s lower lip made another bid to leap off her face. Why was everypony fighting her on this? “I’m not leaving.”
“You can’t be by her side twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Doctor Thorntree said reasonably, the antithesis to Indigo’s ranting. “It’s not healthy.”
“I’ve done it for a month. You just said so yourself. I can go however long I need to.”
“Vinyl, do you remember what I told you when you first arrived?” His gaze was penetrating. “About her chances the longer she is in a comatose state?”
“Sure, I remember.” Vinyl had replayed it in her head often enough. The information had galvanised her to keep going even when she was at her lowest ebb – like right now after reading that awful interview. It was the first truly bad interview she had ever given and it was biting her on the butt more than she had expected. Mercy was not something that featured in the mind-set of journalists or lawyers.
Doctor Thorntree didn’t look like he believed her.
She blew out a harsh breath. “The longer she’s in a coma, the less chance there is she’ll be herself when she wakes up.”
“If she wakes up,” he corrected, more gently than he would have a month earlier.
Vinyl scowled at him. “Fine. If she wakes up. Happy?”
“Not in the slightest. What happens if she doesn’t regain consciousness? Do you intend to stay here forever?”
“I … that’s not … look, she’s going to wake up. Maybe it’ll be later instead of sooner, but she’s going to. You’ll see.”
Doctor Thorntree’s eyes were sad. He had very blue eyes, like the sky after a particularly brutal rainstorm, when the world smelled fresh and renewed. “Vinyl, I’m not trying to be cruel, I’m trying to point out how unrealistic you’re being. You can’t just opt out of real life the way you’re trying to.”
“I’m being plenty realistic. Tavi is going to wake up and when she does I’ll be here waiting for her.”
“Despite the advances of modern science and medi-magic, comas are still vastly unknown phenomena. Nopony can predict when a patient may come out of one.”
“Which just proves why I should stay right here. What if I leave today and she wakes up and I’m not here? Or what if she wakes up and thinks I don’t care enough to stay with her when she needed somepony?”
“What if she wakes up and she isn’t herself anymore?” Doctor Thorntree asked softly. “It’s an unpleasant thought, Vinyl, but one that you must consider. If she does awaken and she is severely disabled as a result of her coma, or the head trauma, or both, what then?”
Vinyl fell silent. It was something she had thought about a lot. If Octavia awoke and was brain damaged, what would she do? She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t – couldn’t – happen, but the fact remained that it was a possibility. She placed her forehooves on the floor in front of her, drawing in a deep breath. She had discussed this with Octavia but this would be the first time she had said it to somepony who could actually respond.
“Then I’ll take care of her. However she is when she wakes up, I’ll be there to take care of her. I have money and I’d make time. She wouldn’t want for anything. She doesn’t have any family, as you know, so she’d come to live with me and I’d look after her as long as she needs it. Even if that was … the rest of her life.”
Doctor Thorntree looked a little surprised, but it didn’t last long. “Would that be out of pity or guilt?”
“What?” Shocked, Vinyl gaped at him.
He pointed at the magazine. “Nurse Merry Heart gave me a copy to read this morning. It’s correct, isn’t it? You and Miss Philharmonica were once a couple. So I’ll ask again: are you saying you’d take on the responsibility of a severely disabled pony because you pity her or because you feel guilty over how your relationship ended? That’s assuming what Quillpoint says is true, of course.”
“It’s true. Not the stuff about me being a talentless wannabe but the stuff about Tavi and me … that’s true. Our relationship ended … badly.” Vinyl took a shuddering breath. Why were her eyeballs suddenly so prickly? She didn’t have hay-fever. Besides, the window was shut. “I suppose there’s no point in not telling you, since Quillpoint laid it out for everypony to read. I’m still not sure how she figured everything out, though.”
Doctor Thorntree remained standing to listen, though Vinyl stayed on the floor, hind legs drawn up to her chest like a filly who was in trouble and didn’t want to explain to parents what she had done wrong.
“Tavi and I grew up in care together,” she began. “We were best friends for the longest time. She was always this straight-laced filly with impeccable manners while I was … I’d call me a wild child, but my teachers at school called me a pain the butt. Then, at the start of our final year in school, I realised I had no clear plan of what to do next. Tavi was trying out for the Canterlot Music Academy and everypony said she was bound to get in. She already had her cutie mark when I met her so it was obvious where her talent lay. Me? I was still a blank flank. I had no idea what I should do. I sucked at school apart from creative writing. I loved writing poems and … whatever. I’m a pretty good lyricist these days so I guess that didn’t go to waste, but back then I wasn’t good at anything that counted because I’d never really paid attention in class. By the time I figured out I should start trying harder, it was too late. That’s what I figured, anyhow. I got depressed about the whole thing. That was when Tavi suggested I try out for the Academy too.”
“Are you serious?”
“No way, Tavi. It’s pointless. The most I ever did in music class was get my head stuck in a tuba.”
“You are the only student ever to do that, I suppose. But Vinyl, I’m not joking. I think you have talent. I’ve heard you singing when we do chores. You have a good set of pipes.”
“A powerful singing voice.”
“Yeah, right. You need more than that to get into Canterlot Music Academy.”
“True, true, one must be versed in at least two instruments, but voice counts as one and the other is fixable.”
“I’ll teach you.”
“You’ll teach me to play cello?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but I will teach you. And after school each day, I’ll tutor you in your other subjects to help get your grades up. There’s still time to make a good impression on the Academy admissions panel.”
“So she did,” Vinyl went on, her mind whirling with memories of late night study sessions and lunchtimes locked in the music department at school. Octavia had been an exacting and rigorous teacher, which didn’t sit well with Vinyl’s natural desire to buck authority. Added to this, she didn’t like the feeling of being bossed about by somepony her own age. However, she had been self-aware enough to realise that this was her last chance and that Octavia was going out of her way to help her.
“Why are you doing all this for a screw-up like me?” she had demanded once, when trigonometry had her throwing her textbook at the dormitory wall in frustration.
Octavia had fetched it back and placed it in front of her, smoothing out the crumpled pages. “Because you’re not a screw-up,” she had said, pronouncing the word like she had never said it before. “However much you try to convince the world – or yourself – that you are, you don’t fool me, Scratch. Also, I’m repaying a debt.”
“When I first arrived here you took me under your proverbial wing and looked after me. You comforted me when I was sad over my aunt or my parents and you made it so that I could enjoy life after I thought that would never be possible again.”
Vinyl hadn’t known what to say to that, so she had telekinetically picked up her quill and finished the stupid trigonometry questions.
“There are two scholarships for underprivileged students every year at the Academy,” she explained to Doctor Thorntree. “She and I got both of them. I never could’ve done it without her help. We weren’t roommates anymore when we got to the Academy but we still spent practically all our time together and … things just kind of … happened. Evolved, I guess you could say.”
The way things like that usually happened: the evolution of friends into more. Vinyl could clearly remember waking up one day, her tail tangled uncomfortably in the sheets but not untangling herself in case she woke Octavia. She had stayed there, watching the sunrise paint gold streaks across her face and wondering how the heck she had ever reached this time and place.
I am one lucky pony, she had thought more than once. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Making it into a mantra hadn’t stopped her from ruining it all, however.
She sighed. “Once we finished the Academy and entered the real world … things got a little crazy. I got into the DJ thing after some wild parties when I got talking to the ponies at the turntables. I realised that was the kind of music for me when one stallion actually let me have a try and I went home to find my cutie mark had appeared.” She smiled bitterly. “I was a blank flank no more. Tavi was … she was happy for me but I could tell this new music I was into left her cold. I didn’t care. I was just as in love with this new sound I’d discovered as I was with her. I loved taking music that already existed and making something different out of it. I loved finding the new in the old and remaking it so that a whole new generation of ponies could enjoy it. Remixing became my passion. After we graduated, I got an offer from that same DJ who gave me that first taste of the turntables. He said I was talented and he could hook me up with an agent called Indigo. That was when … when I …” She trailed off.
“You don’t have to tell me anymore if you don’t want to,” said Doctor Thorntree.
She startled. She had almost forgotten he was there. “No, I … I think I’d like to. That is, if you don’t mind me babbling like this. Ach, sweet Celestia, what am I even doing?” She scrubbed at her mane, raking it back and then letting it fall loosely back into her face. “I’ve never told anypony this stuff before. Not even Indigo. He’s not really one of those caring agents who holds your hoof and tells you you’re wonderful. He’s the kind who works all hours of the day and night to make sure his clients are the most successful artists they can be. That … that always worked for me. I liked that he wasn’t emotionally involved. I just wanted the opportunity to do what I loved and he gave me that. Sweet Celestia, did he give me that.” After a pause she went on, “Doc, you’ve got to have other work you should be doing right now, instead of listening to me.”
“Actually, I don’t.” She couldn’t tell whether he was lying or not. “And I think you need to get these things off your chest. Who better to tell of a broken heart than a healer?”
“You don’t fix hearts. You fix heads.”
“I can give it a try if you’ll let me.”
She stared at the floor. The picture Quillpoint had chosen was of her last concert, her head thrown back and her hooves a blur. The lights had turned her white fur into a patchwork of colours, while the lens flare off her shades gave the whole image an ethereal quality, as if she was not quite part of this world. She barely recognised herself. She was a white unicorn sitting on the floor of a hospital room. She was not this dynamic creature of light and motion. She wondered why Quillpoint had chosen to use this photograph. Perhaps she hadn’t and her editor had insisted. Whatever the reason, Vinyl was suddenly filled with unbridled hatred of what she looked like while performing. She flipped the magazine shut and telekinetically threw it in the trash.
Doctor Thorntree didn’t understand the significance of what she had done but he still waited patiently for her to continue. After a long moment she did.
“Indigo got me a lot of work. I was literally learning on the job but I loved the work so much I just … absorbed everything like a sponge. What worked and what didn’t. What I liked and what was popular. Sometimes I hated what was popular and went my own way even though he said not to. He yelled at me a lot for that – said I was a hothead and I wouldn’t make it in the industry if I didn’t get over myself and start listening to other ponies with more experience.” She gave a bitter chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth?
“At first I was just like any other artist out there, struggling to make a name for myself, getting by on small shows and guest spots as other DJs’ warm-up act. Then ponies started paying attention to me. What I thought was good became what was popular and Indigo let me loose with the ideas I’d kept in check. It was hard work but I kept at it – I was riding the wave of popularity right as it crested and it took everything I had to make sure I didn’t fall in and drown in those early days. There are always more artists to take your place in the music business – always. I’d spend all day rehearsing and practically all night performing, getting my face out there, being seen by the right eyes and heard by the right ears. Indigo got me a few interviews on radio shows. A couple of magazines wanted to feature me as the breakout artist of the year. All this and I was barely a year out of the Academy. It was all so amazing, it was almost unbelievable, y’know? Not just ‘Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable’ but ‘how the hay did this even happen’?”
“Y’know something, kid? I think you actually might make it. You’ve got the hunger and the drive, plus you’ve got talent. Most ponies I see, they’ve got one or the other, but you? All three in spades.”
“Don’t thank me yet, kid. You’ve still got a long way to go. First off, you’ve got to be more memorable.”
“It’s not enough to just have a good sound. Image is everything in the music industry. If you don’t have the right image and reputation, you’re just another face in the crowd. You’re building your reputation but your image needs work. Ever heard of Curlicue?”
“Isn’t she some manedresser on Thirty-First Street?”
“Don’t ever let her hear you say that. She’s ‘stylist to the stars’. She’s coming to the studio today to take a look at you and see what she can do.”
“Aw crap, I’m getting one of those makeovers?”
“Kid, most ponies would kill just to have her glance at their manes. She might actually cut yours, so act grateful.”
Vinyl stared at her own hind legs, concentrating on them instead of the pony watching her. “The name wasn’t my idea but it worked. I’d already changed it once when I got my cutie mark and I thought … well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. Vinyl Scratch was okay, but DJ-Pon3? They were all over her. I got a new name, a new look, a new sound. Everything was coming up aces.”
Until the day she came home to find half the closet empty and a note. She still had it, though she hadn’t looked at it since the day Quaver threw her out of the theatre. Octavia had said to meet her at a little café not far from their apartment. Still crusty with sweat from the previous evening’s performance and after-party, Vinyl had galloped there to find the mare she loved more than anypony in the world nervously sipping tea and breaking a scone into pieces on its plate.
“What’s going on, Tavi?”
“Sit down, Vinyl.”
“Not until you tell me what this is all about.”
“I think you already know.”
“No, I obviously don’t. Explain it to me.”
“I will if you sit down and stop making a scene.”
The other patrons had been watching. It wasn’t an especially posh place. Octavia’s meagre budget from the quartet didn’t go far. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the kind of place a pony could walk into wearing dead glow-stick bracelets and not be noticed. Octavia had looked embarrassed even after Vinyl sat down.
“Okay, I’m sitting. Now tell me why all your things and your cello are missing from our apartment.”
“This isn’t working, Vinyl. You know it and I know it.”
“What isn’t working?”
“Us. You and me. It hasn’t been right between us for a long time.”
“Me. I say so. And so would you if you took the time to look at our relationship. We’ve barely spent any time together in months. You’re always working and I’m … I’m tired of playing second fiddle in your life.”
“Why the hay didn’t you say something earlier?”
“I did, Vinyl. I’ve been saying things aren’t right for a long time. You were just too wrapped up in your own thing to listen to me. I don’t resent your success – on the contrary, I’m delighted that you’ve found something that sets your passions alight. It has simply become clear to me that I … don’t anymore.”
“No way! No friggin’ way!”
“Don’t deny it, Vinyl. We’ve grown apart. It’s what happens sometimes.” She had shrugged, as if it didn’t bother her that she was breaking Vinyl’s heart. Only the extra shine in her eyes had betrayed how nonchalant she wasn’t. “I thought it would be better to end things cleanly.”
“Please, Vinyl, try to understand. I don’t begrudge you your career. I want you to be happy … but I’m not anymore. Not with you. You …” Octavia had hesitated before plunging the knife in. “You don’t make me happy anymore.”
Her words had rendered Vinyl speechless for several moments – long enough that Octavia was on her feet and heading for the door before she could stop her.
“Tavi, wait! You can’t do this. I won’t let you do this!”
“Let go of me, Vinyl. It’s over. It has been for a while. I’m just making it official.”
“You can’t break up with me without even giving me a chance to change! We can make it work, I swear.”
“I did give you a chance. I gave you lots of chances. You spent them all.”
“No, I didn’t!”
But she had. Even as she had protested, she was remembering times when she had promised she would be at some function or other of Octavia’s, only to miss it when a recording session ran long, or she gave rehearsal the extra hour or two she, or Indigo, or some other pony at the record label had thought it needed. She remembered dinners she had promised to be home for; dinners she had found untouched on the table, Octavia already in bed, when she finally crept home in the early hours of the morning. She had recalled a meeting with a top-notch record producer that had taken the place of a trip she and Octavia had planned to take to Trottingham to visit her parents’ graves on Family Appreciation Day.
“I’ll do better, I promise!”
“You’ve promised that before, Vinyl.”
“This time I mean it.”
Octavia had looked at her then, eyes swimming with tears. “I know you do, but it’s not enough anymore. I can’t cope with more of you promising to schedule me into your life between recording sessions and promotional tours. I love you, Vinyl, but I’m miserable with you. I can’t survive on just the memories of how good it used to be. I’ve tried but I’ve been fooling myself. So this is me finally accepting that things have changed and I have to change with them. Please let me go.”
“Vinyl, let me go!” Octavia had yanked out of her grip with such force she had fallen into an umbrella stand by the door. When Vinyl had tried to help her up, however, she had pushed her away. “Yesterday was your last chance. I told myself I would give you that, but you let me down again. Do you know what day it was, Vinyl?”
“I … I …”
“It was my birthday!” she had yelled, the way she never yelled: out of control and frantic. “It was my birthday and you weren’t there to share it with me. You were gone before I woke up and came home after midnight. I don’t think you even remembered.”
“No, I … that’s not true.” Horror had washed through her like a choking tide of dirty water. Yesterday was the day she had played at the Open Air Arena. That had taken up all her thoughts for weeks. “I … I didn’t …”
She had forgotten. She couldn’t believe it. The date had to be wrong. Except why would Octavia lie about her own birthday?
“I thought so. Goodbye, Vinyl.”
Octavia had walked out of the café and Vinyl had not possessed the strength to push past her shame and go after her.
No, that had come later, when she crashed the quartet’s rehearsal and threw away her last chance at redeeming herself in Octavia’s eyes. She had limped away from that encounter, broken and ashamed. She had thrown herself into her work to block out the pain– if she acted happy and successful on the outside, eventually the inside would match, right?
In the long run her love of music had provided enough solace that she thought she had gotten over Octavia Philharmonica. That was what she had told herself. She had gone on to be one of the most successful DJs in Equestria, her dedication and determination almost legendary within the industry.
And then, the night she played the Manehattan Palladium, the doorpony told her there was a stallion called Quaver who wanted to see her and everything changed.
“So you see, doc,” Vinyl said to her empty hooves. “When I say I’d look after Octavia, it wouldn’t be out of pity or guilt. It’d be because … I love her. I never stopped loving her, even if she stopped loving me.”
“It sounds to me like she didn’t stop either,” said Doctor Thorntree. “Just that the love you two shared wasn’t enough to overcome the tribulations real life put in your path.”
Vinyl thought about that for a moment. “I guess so.” She balled her hooves into fists. “But not this time. This time, I’m going to be there for her. She’s going to be my top priority. I already lost her once, doc. No matter what part of her is left when … if she ever wakes up, I’m not losing her again. That’s why I can’t leave. That’s why …” She trailed off.
Doctor Thorntree was silent for a long time. Eventually Vinyl gave up looking at her own hooves and transferred her gaze to him. He stood with a pensive look on his face, eyes unfocussed.
“Doc? Are you okay? Don’t tell me I babbled you into a coma.”
“Hm?” He blinked, disconcerted. “What? Oh. No, Vinyl, you didn’t. In fact … you’ve given me something to think about. If you’ll excuse me, I … I’d like to speak to a colleague about … hm.”
“What ‘hm’?” she asked, echoing her words from that rain-swept, nightmarish evening when she first met him. “Is that a good ‘hm’ or a bad ‘hm’?”
Doctor Thorntree, however, did not reply. Instead, still wearing that unfocussed expression, he trotted from the room and disappeared down the corridor without looking back.
Vinyl frowned, wondering what she could have said to provoke such an odd reaction. Nonetheless, she felt oddly light after talking to him. It felt like a great weight had been lifted off her chest and she could breathe again for the first time in … actually, she didn’t know how long. Four weeks? Or maybe four years.
She stood up and went to the bed. Octavia still slept, though this time there was no sunrise to paint her face in streaks of gold and they were not in her Academy room. She looked no less beautiful without those things.
“I love you, Tavi,” Vinyl croaked. It was the first time she had actually said the words out loud in all the time she had spent talking to her. “I … I love you.”
But Octavia did not respond.
Merry Heart leaned out from the nurses’ station and clicked her tongue.
“He’s got that look again.”
“What look?” Flower Heart called from behind the pile of badly stacked ring-binders she was carrying.
“That look like he’s up to something.”
“You talking about Doctor Thorntree?”
“Any idea what?”
“Nope, but he just came out of Room 219.”
“Reckon it’s something to do with Vinyl?”
“Maybe. Seems likely. Couldn’t tell you what, though.” Merry heart pursed her lips against her own suspicions. “He’s taken a real shine to that pair. I can’t remember the last time he interrupted his rounds to talk for that long with a single pony. Not even the other doctors get that kind of time from him.”
“Maybe he feels sorry for her.”
“Whoa!” Flower Heart let out a yell as her left hoof attempted to kick her right hoof out from under her. She lurched forward and Merry Heart found herself the unwilling recipient of half a dozen ring-binders. “Look out!”
“Ponyfeathers! Flower, we gotta use a better filing system! This one is going to kill one or both of us someday.”