“You've gotta be bucking kidding me.”
Vinyl Scratch lifted the dark lenses of her sunglasses, peering out at the world around her. The gesture probably wasn't worth the effort, in any case, because there was nothing to see.
Literally, this was what "nothing" looked like. There were no skyscrapers, no nightclubs, no street lights, no grass; just dirt and rocks, stretching for miles, as far as the eye could see. The few trees present had no leaves on them, their naked branches swaying in the breeze. Vinyl wasn't sure if they looked like that because it was winter, or because they always looked that way. The surrounding forest was healthier, and definitely greener, but it had receded, drawn away from this blighted plot of land like a great, graying wound upon the earth. She could see mountains, but they were distant, and far removed from this barren place. The sky was dull and overcast, with no hint of Celestia's light breaking through. While it was still early in the afternoon, the thick, hazy clouds made the hour seem much later, as if nightfall was fast approaching. They certainly weren't in Canterlot anymore.
Canterlot, at least, could be found on a map. The same could be said for Ponyville; even though it wasn't much more than a village, it still had its own train station, where she and Octavia had disembarked. It had also gained some measure of notoriety for being the home of Princess Twilight Sparkle, as well as for the string of unusual incidents—parasprite infestations, ursa attacks, and the return of Nightmare Moon, among other things—that had befallen the little town in recent years.
The rock farm, however, was not marked on any maps, and it was easy for Vinyl to see why: there was nothing to be marked. Writing the name of this place down in an atlas of Equestria—if it even had a name—would have been a waste of ink.
Most disconcerting of all was the lack of ponies. The last time they had seen somepony else was when they left Ponyville, where the road ended at the edge of town. They had come the rest of the way on hoof, trekking through the woods along an old stone pathway that had eventually given way to gravel, which had in turn given way to the grass, twigs, and bare dirt of the forest floor. Vinyl was convinced that if you didn't already know where this place was, you'd never know how to find it. But Octavia seemed to know exactly where she was going; there was no pause or hesitation in her gait as she moved. She appeared to be familiar with the route, which was more than Vinyl could say for herself, and so she had dutifully followed behind her companion, walking where she walked, stepping where she stepped, over the logs and rocks, through the shallow streams, and between the arching trees. Octavia expertly balanced her heavy cello case upon her back as she moved, while Vinyl's magic levitated the heft of her own bass behind her.
The journey itself had been mercifully uneventful, but along the way, they hadn't so much as glimpsed another living soul, without even a tumbleweed for company. Octavia, for her part, had remained completely silent. That wasn't entirely unusual—she'd always been the quiet type—but Vinyl would have been glad to hear something apart from the sound of her own hooves upon the snow-covered ground. Her headphones hung around her neck, unused. She wasn't in the mood for music, a strange mixture of anxiety and fascination swelling in her stomach. She had grown up in the city, and wasn't used to all this wilderness, but she had to admit to being curious about why Octavia had dragged her all the way out here... wherever "here" was.
“Where are we?” she said.
Octavia inhaled deeply, reacquainting herself with the scent of the place. “Home,” she breathed. “Be it ever so humble.”
“Home?” Vinyl repeated, dumbly. She looked upon the blasted landscape once more, as if she expected it to have somehow changed in the moments since she'd last gawked at it. "Humble" was a gross understatement; it seemed incomprehensible to her that anypony could settle here. The only buildings—if they could be called that—were a dilapidated little house, a tall, ramshackle silo, and a rusty old windpump that creaked in the breeze, the only signs that ponykind had ever set hoof in this place. All of it was circled by a rickety wooden fence that was literally falling apart. The two of them might as well have been standing on the surface of the moon. “You lived here?”
Octavia nodded. “For most of my life,” she said. “Until I was old enough to finally get away.”
“But it's so... empty.”
Octavia let out a wry chuckle. “That's what my sister used to say,” she mused. “That's why she left... and why I had to follow her.” She looked around with an air of what could have been either nostalgia or disgust; Vinyl couldn't tell. “It's all just the way I remember it. Somehow, that doesn't surprise me.”
Octavia began to walk toward the house, her hooves crunching in the new-fallen snow with every step she took. Vinyl trailed after her, glancing left and right, in paranoid fashion. Something about the dreary farmstead gave her the creeps. If the weather had been warmer, she would have expected a great black raven—or maybe something worse—to come swooping out of the sky in pursuit of them.
“Damn, girl,” Vinyl muttered. “I know you said that you used to live in the middle of nowhere, but... damn.”
“You don't know what damnation is, Vinyl,” Octavia coolly replied. “Hell isn't a mythical place of fire, smoke, and shadow. It's here, right in front of your eyes. It's a quaint little farm in a quiet corner of Equestria. For a filly who liked to play the cello, hell is a house with four white walls, a field full of rocks, and parents who thought that music was the work of Discord.”
Vinyl shifted uncomfortably upon her hooves. Although they had known each other for years, Octavia rarely talked about herself, and hadn't ever mentioned her family. Vinyl never knew that she had any siblings—never even knew her real name, for buck's sake—before reading that letter on the train. “Come on,” she lamely offered, “were they really all that bad?”
Octavia looked back over her shoulder. Maybe it was a trick of the light caused by the cloudy sky, but she looked tired, and her gray coat seemed even more dull than usual. “They raised me, didn't they?” There wasn't a trace of irony in her voice.
Vinyl winced. “Point taken,” she said. “At least now I know where you got the gray from. It's the same color as the sky... and the ground... and everything else around here.”
Octavia chuckled again. It was a mirthless sound. “That's why I like you, Vinyl,” she said. “You always did know how to make me laugh.”
“Glad I could help,” Vinyl deadpanned. “I think I need a drink.”
“My parents are teetotalers, so I'm afraid you're out of luck. But there's always Sweet Apple Acres, to the south. I hear they have the best cider on the continent.”
“No booze?” Vinyl grimaced. “Then what does your family drink?”
“Water from the pump, of course. You might try water sometime, Vinyl. I hear that it's good for you.”
“They drink water?” Vinyl's frown deepened, as if the very concept were alien to her. “Then what do they eat?”
“Look around you,” Octavia said, gesturing with a hoof. “What do you think?”
Vinyl looked. There were no crops in the fallow fields. No plants, no flowers, not even any weeds. Just rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Her scarlet eyes widened as realization dawned upon her. “No,” she said.
“They're actually quite versatile, you know,” Octavia said. “You can use them to make a variety of dishes. Rock salt, rock candy, rocky road...”
“No,” Vinyl repeated, accusingly pointing a hoof at the other mare. “You're just bucking with me.”
Octavia merely smiled. “Now, Vinyl, I think you know me better than that,” she said, serenely. “Besides, haven't you ever heard of getting more iron in your diet?”
Vinyl lifted a hoof from the snowy ground, pressing it against her lips. “Ugh, stop, stop,” she groaned. “I think I'm gonna hurl.” She was quiet, for a moment, then said, "Tell me something."
“How the hell do you grow rocks, anyway?”
“Remember when I asked you to tell me how magic worked, and you said that it was 'a unicorn thing,' and that I wouldn't understand?”
“It's an earth pony thing. You wouldn't understand.”
Vinyl slowly ran a hoof across her face. “Now I know I need a drink,” she grumbled.
They walked together in silence, for a time. Vinyl glanced upward at the towering, neglected silo as they passed it. It had clearly seen better days; years of exposure to the elements had left the metal exterior battered and dented, the chipped paint almost completely stripped away by the wind and rain. Vinyl assumed that it held some variety of grain, but she was afraid to ask, worried that she might not like the answer.
It was Octavia who spoke up. "Thank you for coming with me, Vinyl," she said. "It means a lot to me."
"Huh?" The sound of her friend's voice had promptly derailed Vinyl's train of thought. "Oh. Yeah, don't sweat it, Tavi. S'not like I had anything better to do. But it's no big deal, it's not like you couldn't have made the trip yourself, or anything."
"I wouldn't be so certain of that," Octavia replied. "I already ran away from this place once. There's no guarantee that I wouldn't do it again."
"Naaah," Vinyl said, dismissively. "You're a big girl, I'm sure you could handle it. Don't need me holding your hoof the whole way." The DJ's tone turned jestful. "Just tell me there's a place to plug in my amps. Or should I start learning how to play the banjo, instead?”
Octavia did not answer.
“Yo, Tavi, that was a joke. You said I make you laugh, remember?”
Again, Octavia did not reply.
“Tavi? Hey, Tavi?” The humor had vanished from Vinyl's voice, and was replaced by concern. “What is it? What's wrong?”
They had come to a halt a short distance from the farmhouse. The front door was only a few yards away. Octavia just stood there, staring at it, as if it were the gaping mouth of a dragon, ready to swallow her whole.
“This was a mistake, Vinyl,” she said. Vinyl could hear the fear in her voice. That surprised her; Octavia had always been the stoic, always firmly in control of her emotions. Vinyl supposed she had to be, considering the strain of her work as a concert cellist. She had never known Octavia to lose her temper, to say nothing of her nerve. “I shouldn't have come back here. I swore to myself, a long time ago, that I never would.”
“Aw, don't tell me you're getting cold hooves,” Vinyl said. For a moment, she considered making a crack about the cold weather, but then thought better of it. “Besides, you're here now, aren't you?”
Octavia said nothing. She was as stiff as a statue. If her ashen pelt had any hint of color to it, Vinyl would have sworn that she had gone pale.
“Look, so you don't get along with your parents. I get that, I really do. I didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with my folks either, y'know? Hell, you think it was easy to raise me? I drove them crazy, especially once I was old enough to do all that stuff they always told me not to. But that didn't mean that I stopped caring about them, or that I never wanted to see them again.”
Octavia remained silent.
Vinyl sighed, rubbing a hoof between her eyes. “Okay. Okay, let's say that we do this your way. Say that we turn around, right now, get back on the train, and go back to Canterlot. This 'Pinkie' of yours invited you out here in the first place. When you write her back, what are you going to say? That you made the trip down here, got all the way to the front door, and then turned back, because you were too scared to knock?”
Octavia swallowed. “She understood me, Vinyl,” she said, her voice wavering. “She was the only one who ever did. If it wasn't for her, I'd still be trapped here, digging up stones during the day, and crying myself to sleep at night. I never had a chance to thank her for that."
“So thank her now,” Vinyl said. “You might not get another chance.”
Octavia turned to face her unicorn counterpart. “But what if she doesn't want to see me?”
“Would she have written you that letter if she didn't?”
Octavia looked back toward the farmhouse. It stood mute and foreboding, a dark shadow against the sunless sky. “And my parents?”
“If they really love you, then they'll be glad you're here. And if they aren't, then, well...” Vinyl shrugged. “... buck 'em. I love you. So does Pinkie, from the sound of it. That'll be enough.”
Octavia managed a smile. It was faint, but Vinyl was thankful for it, nonetheless. “You know,” Octavia murmured, “for a drunken layabout of a mare, you really are the smartest pony I know.”
Vinyl smiled back at her. “You always say the nicest things,” she replied. She gestured toward the door with a hoof. “Now go on. S'your house. Might as well say hello.”
The house itself was every bit as aged and decrepit as the other structures on the farm. The walls were dirty. The roof was some crude amalgam of mud and straw. A rough, lopsided chimney comprised of several different kinds of stone rose from within it, wisps of pale smoke drifting from the top, and into the cloudy sky. A tarnished metal plate on one side displayed the name "Pie," and what might have once been an address, but it was now smudged and illegible. Even the front door looked ancient. Its wooden surface was moldy and discolored, and it probably hadn't been replaced since the day the house was built. There was a vacant hole where the knob used to be; it had been replaced by a metallic knocker in the center of the door, a grotesque thing in the shape of a gargoyle's head.
Octavia looked back at Vinyl once more. The unicorn lifted a hoof in a pushing motion, silently urging her onward.
Octavia took a deep breath, to steel herself, and approached the entrance to the house. She lifted a foreleg to grasp the knocker, but hesitated; the knocker was old, iron, and just as rusty as the hinges upon which the door sat. It looked as if a stiff wind might very well cause it to fall off entirely, and she was afraid that if she knocked too hard, it might do just that. Instead, she rapped lightly upon the frame with her bare hoof, hoping that would suffice.
At first, there was no response, and she thought that perhaps she had not knocked loudly enough. Then she could hear hooves descending the stairs, and floorboards creaking beneath their weight. After all these years, her father still hadn't gotten around to fixing them.
There was the sound of a latch being undone. The door creaked open, slowly, and Octavia looked into the mirror.
The family resemblance was obvious. The other mare had the same long, straight mane that Octavia did, falling over her shoulders and down her back, soft and silky-smooth, shining in the warm candlelight that glowed somewhere within the house. Not at all like the last time she had seen it, so mussed and unruly, like a great cloud of cotton candy. They were both tall, and almost exactly the same height, although Octavia always seemed to think of her as being shorter... probably because she was so young when she'd left the farm, barely more than a filly. She had the same large, expressive eyes, the same delicate curve to her ears, the same posture, the same build, the same distinctive Pie breeding.
There were differences, of course. Whereas Octavia's coat was a subdued, muted gray, the other mare was hot pink, from head to hoof, as if she had been dipped in bubblegum. Her eyes were not violet, as Octavia's were, but were a lovely shade of blue, the color of the sky in better places than this, of the skies above Canterlot, and above Ponyville, where they had both fled in their youth. Big, beautiful eyes that were dulled now, devoid of the laughter they once shared with so many others, filled with sadness, and regret.
Just like Octavia.
“Pie residence,” the pink pony said. The greeting was more sighed than spoken, the words of a mare who had grown accustomed to having her doorstep darkened by disappointment. “Can I help... you...?”
The pink pony paused, canting her head to one side in quiet fascination. She squinted, carefully studying the mare who stood before her. Those blue eyes widened in recognition. “Inkie?” she whispered.
Octavia did not speak.
“Inkie?” the pink pony repeated, more loudly this time, with greater urgency. She leaned in closer to Octavia, gently cupping the gray mare's cheeks within her bubblegum hooves, closely scrutinizing her, as if she were a precious gem being inspected for flaws.
Octavia neither moved nor spoke, but a smile slowly began to spread across the pink pony's face, one that grew bigger, and bigger, until she was positively beaming from ear to ear.
The squeal of joy that erupted from her almost knocked Vinyl off her hooves.
“Inkie!!!” she shrieked, flinging her forelegs around Octavia's neck and nearly tackling her to the ground. Her rigidly straight mane all but exploded outward into a mess of thick, pink, poofy curls. “It's you! It's you! It's you it's you it's you it's you it's you!!!”
Vinyl watched in utter astonishment. The transformation had been complete and immediate; the pink mare might as well have been another pony entirely. The sullen creature who had answered the door bore absolutely no resemblance to the exuberant bundle of energy who now hopped up and down where she stood, with Octavia still held firmly within her grasp, laughing and talking and apparently unable to stop doing either. The only thing moving faster than her bouncing hooves was her mouth.
“It's you! It's really you! Oh my gosh I can't believe you're really here does that mean you got my letter please tell me I'm not dreaming again but if I am don't wake me up oh I haven't seen you in so long I mean okay it hasn't really been that long but that was only for a few minutes and we didn't really get a chance to talk because I was busy with my friends and oh my gosh you have to meet my friends I mean that is if you haven't met them already I don't know I mean I think I would know if you hung out with my friends but it's not like I've been following you around or anything but that's not because I don't care it just means that I didn't know where to find you and I hope that doesn't sound creepy but I missed you so so so much and I'm sure you'll like them I mean I like them and they like me so that means they'll like you too because you're my sister and you're exactly like me I mean not exactly like me but we're family and that's what matters oh speaking of family I need to introduce you to my cousin Applejack which I guess makes her your cousin too or more like your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate but we can figure that out later there's also Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy and Rarity and Twilight Sparkle and the Cakes and the mayor and Joe at the donut shop and Gummy oh my gosh I have to show you Gummy he's the best pet ever some ponies think he's kind of weird but really he's just shy and they act like they've never seen an alligator before I mean Fluttershy keeps a freaking bear in her house but do you hear anypony complain no of course you don't what am I saying you don't even know her but none of that is important right now the important thing is that you're here, you're here, you're here!!!”
This breathless exchange was punctuated by another wordless squeal of delight from the pink pony, who immediately dissolved into a fit of giggling laughter. Vinyl was sure that she looked familiar, but just couldn't put her hoof on where she had seen the manic mare before. She thought they might have met at that wedding gig she had DJ'ed in Canterlot a few years ago, but to be honest, she had gotten so drunk off her flank that night that her memories of the evening were foggy, at best; she was probably just lucky that she'd passed out at home, on the safety of her own couch, instead of wandering into the castle and throwing up all over a priceless work of art, or something.
At least, she didn't think she had.
Vinyl shook her head, clearing her mind of the admittedly bleary memories, and turned her attention back to the pink pony. She hadn't lost a step—or hop, as the case may be—and her mouth was still going a mile a minute.
“Now that you're here, we can really get to work on the family reunion! It's gonna be the biggest, bestest, most fantabulous party ever! Mommy and Daddy and Blinkie will be so excited! Oh, wait, I haven't told them you're here yet! They're gonna be so surprised, just like me! I mean, I always knew you'd come, but none of the others have seen you in a really long time, and they'll all be so happy to see you, especially Daddy! I know you probably think he's still mad at you, but he's really—Inkie?”
Throughout this hurricane of pink-maned enthusiasm, Octavia had remained stock-still. She hadn't moved a muscle, or said a single word. Now, for the first time, the pink pony finally seemed to notice. It was enough to give her pause, and she slowly floated down to the ground—exactly how she managed to do that, Vinyl hadn't the slightest idea—before taking a step back to look intently at the mare in front of her.
“Inkie? Are you okay? What's the matter?”
Grace, dignity, and restraint.
“Inkie, say something!”
Stiff upper lip.
“Inkie, please, you're scaring me!”
Oh, buck it!
It began as a soft whimper of a sound, somewhere in the back of Octavia's throat. One that made the pink pony's ears perk up, then abruptly flatten back, and caused her already wide eyes to grow even wider.
“Oh, no, no no no,” she began. “No, don't—”
Octavia trembled where she stood. Her whimpering grew louder. Her vision blurred, her breathing quickened, and her knees began to buckle beneath her.
“No, shh, it's all right, sis,” the pink pony continued. She was speaking in a whisper. “Really, it's all—”
Octavia collapsed. The case that housed her precious cello fell from her back, and was forgotten before it hit the ground. She surely would have joined it, had the pink pony not been there to catch her. As it was, she sank down upon her hooves, and knew, as she had at the train station, that she would be unable to get back up.
She did not cry. Crying was something that foals did when they skinned their knees, or refused to eat their oats at dinnertime. It was the act of a filly. But Ingrid Octavia Pie wasn't a filly anymore. She was a concert performer, and like any good performer, she didn't do anything small.
Octavia did not cry. She wept. The whimpering in her throat built into a loud, wailing moan, the sound only partially muffled by her baby sister's mane. Her gray body shook with the force of her desperate bawling, and tears flowed freely down both her cheeks. The walls that she had spent years building around her heart, trying so hard to block out the bitterness and resentment, shutting herself off from her emotions, had come crumbling down after only a few moments in her sister's arms, releasing a torrent of black, broken despair in the process. She wanted nothing more than to surrender to that terrible flood, and allow herself to at last be swept away.
But her sister's arms were still there, embracing her tightly, holding her head safely above the dark, raging waters of her soul.
“Shh, it's okay,” she crooned, lovingly stroking a hoof along the ebon strands of Octavia's mane. “Let it out. Let it alllll out.”
Octavia weakly clutched at her sibling with her own forelegs, crumpled into a heap upon the ground. “I'm sorry,” she sobbed, repeating the words over and over again in an anguished mantra. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...”
Vinyl Scratch could only stare, numbly, at the tearful reunion that was taking place before her. She couldn't find her tongue to speak, and even if she did, she would have had no idea what to say. And so, she did the only thing she could: she knelt down and pressed against her friend from the opposite side, embracing her in kind. They held her together, allowing the years of pain, anger, and guilt to drain out of her, and back into the rough, rocky earth upon which she had been raised.
“It's okay,” the pink pony whispered. “Everything will be okay, you'll see. Pinkie Promise.”
She cradled Octavia's head in her hooves, and leaned forward, tenderly rubbing the tip of her muzzle into her sister's mane.
“Welcome home, Inkie,” she murmured. “Welcome home.”