11. “She didn’t love me enough to stick around.”
Vinyl was staring at the bed when Bruiser knocked the door. For somepony who had never suffered from claustrophobia, even he got a jolt from the tension saturating the room. It was like something physical layered on the walls, drawing them in closer and closer. It reminded him of the first time had laid eyes on Vinyl; drowsy and draped across the bed’s occupant.
That was a far cry from now. Vinyl sat bolt upright in her chair, hooves in her lap like she was deliberately not touching Octavia. Though she was completely still, something in her posture vibrated with anxiety. Her unnaturally ramrod spine gave him pause.
She smiled at him when she turned but he could see her eyes were puffy. Bloodshot sclera and red irises made for a nightmarish combination, though he thought he did a pretty good job of not reacting. He wasn’t champion of his poker circle for nothing.
“Oh. Hi, Bruiser,” she said tiredly. “You’re off work early.”
“Break time. New month, new shift rota. Hey, are you okay?”
“Me? I’m hunky dory. Chipper as chocolate. Peachy keen. Insert your favourite saying here.”
“Well you look like crap and you sound like you couldn’t go three rounds with a fruit fly right now.”
She blinked at him a few times before responding. “Thanks. You really know how to improve a girl’s self-confidence. Tell me, does this inspirational speech come with a free kick to the face too?” Though her words sounded normal, her voice was rougher than usual; another indication she had been crying. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Vinyl cry before. She didn’t seem the type, despite what Flower had told him.
Guilt at his reason for being here shot through his veins like he had received a full hypodermic of the stuff.
“You ain’t combed your mane, you clearly ain’t had no sleep and your accent is nearly as thick as mine,” he said. “That only happens when you’re stressed.”
“You know me so well,” Vinyl said dryly. “Did you want something or is this punching bag of a pep talk the reason you’re spending your break time with me?”
“Flower was worried about you,” Bruiser admitted.
For a moment Vinyl looked embarrassed. “Yeah, uh, well, I did kinda snot all over her. Again.” She winced at some internal thought Bruiser wasn’t privy to. “I’ve just … I got a lot on my mind at the moment.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” That sounded lame. He knew it did, but he said it anyhow and then cursed himself for sounding so lame. He could never think what to say in situations like this. He was good for tossing out rabble-rousers and looking scary, not providing comfort and words of wisdom. He supposed he was going to have to learn how to be softer soon. What kind of daddy would he be if his programmed responses to situations were so limited he answered everything with ‘go ask your mother’? “Hey, uh, Vinyl? Did I ever say thank you? For what you did for Flower, I mean.”
“Huh?” Vinyl’s expression turned nonplussed.
“She told you were the one who found her the day she told me about – well, I don’t gotta tell you, since you were outside the door when she told me I’m gonna be a daddy, y’know?”
Her expression cleared. “Oh. Yeah. Right. Probably. I don’t remember.”
“Well … just in case, thanks. Like, a lot. You did a good thing for her.” He sucked in a breath. “Which is why … uh … look, Vinyl, I know things are rough right now, but … can I ask a favour?”
She squinted at him. “That depends. I’m not giving you my social security number.”
“Ha ha.” Lame, lamer, lamest. “No, it’s Flower’s first antenatal appointment tomorrow and I pulled a day shift on the rota. I was wondering … would you go with her?”
“You wouldn’t have to do nuthin’,” he hastily assured, noting Vinyl’s eyebrows, which had claimed into her hairline. “But I know she’d be glad to have somepony there, y’know? Merry Heart’s gotta do her own shift, so I thought … it’s just in the maternity wing, y’know? Wouldn’t be too far from here and … well, like I said, she’d appreciate having somepony with her. First time jitters and everything, y’know? Flower puts up this tough front but inside she’s just a big bag of nerves about this foal. I really wanted to be with her to hold her hoof, y’know? But I can’t because it’s such short notice to get time off, so I thought I’d ask you because … uh … you’re a mare and she’s a mare and … y’know?”
Lame, lame, lame, lame, lame, lame, lame!
“Y’know,” Vinyl said – was she mocking him? “I could take that as a real insult. Not all mares are interested in foals and motherhood, Bruiser.”
Aw crap, he thought. That sounded like a no.
“Does Flower know you’re asking me this?”
“Uh, no, not yet; but she will if you say yes.”
Vinyl continued to look at him strangely. “Okay,” she said at last, seeming to come to a decision within herself. “But only if she agrees and actually says she wants me there.” She averted her eyes and added in a softer voice: “After this latest snot-fest, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wants to keep her distance.” She scrunched something in one forehoof, drawing Bruiser’s attention. It was a balled up tissue. There were no boxes of tissues in the room. The tiny rose in the corner identified it as one of those from the tissue box Flower bought to pretty up the nurses’ station.
“Thanks, Vi,” he said gratefully.
“Call me Vi again and I may have to feed you your uniform. Now go ask Flower. I only go with her if she agrees. Go on, scoot!”
He shook his head as he left. You can take the mare outta the Boondocks but you can’t take the Boondocks outta the mare …
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
“Flow-errrr!” Vinyl did her best impression of a whiny teenager, separating her syllables and drawing out her vowels into a nasally whine. “For the last time yes! I’m fine with being here.”
“No need to bite my head off. I was only asking.”
Vinyl’s irritation deflated faster than an acid-doused balloon. Flower was nervous enough without her adding another layer of stress to the morning. “Sorry. It’s just …” Vinyl blew out a sigh. “You keep giving me Looks.”
“Looks?” Flower arched an eyebrow. “There ain’t no tax on looking.”
“Not just looks. Looks. Capital L.”
“Like you’re just waiting for me to go nutzoid again. Or like I’m some baby bird that needs wrapping up in cotton wool because it fell out of the nest and bust itself up.”
“I ain’t doing no such thing!”
“You are. You may not realise it, but you so totally are.”
“I –” Flower stopped herself. “Okay, so maybe that second one has merit, but the nutzoid thing? No way.”
“How about we agree to disagree?” Vinyl suggested. “Since we’re here.”
The maternity section of the hospital was plastered with comforting friezes of cutesy things that made a deep-seated part of Vinyl want to retch. Fluffy bunnies frolicked with adorable ducklings beneath rainbows, clouds and smiley-faced sunshines. If the sun were to have any face, Vinyl reflected, it would be that of Princess Celestia.
Vinyl felt like the adorable eyes were watching her as she tramped down the corridors, wondering what she was doing there. She made no secret that she was as maternal as a smack to the face. Fillies and colts? Those she could deal with. Helpless little foals? Not so much.
Flower hesitated at the swinging double doors. “We’re early. Maybe we should go back and –”
“No way. You’re your butt in there.” Vinyl all but shoved her through.
Inside the maternity wing was just as ootsy-cutesy, with the addition of kittens playing with puppies. The dogs’ little pink tongues indicated their happiness at the sudden arrest of several thousand years of mutual hatred. The arrows on the floor told Vinyl and Flower which way to go. Vinyl trotted into the lead, dropping her pace when Flower’s hooves began to drag.
“Flower, what’s the deal?”
“Nothing. This just … makes it real.” Flower shot her a watery smile.
No wonder Bruiser had wanted Vinyl to come along. Flower was clearly terrified, though she hid it well. Only when Vinyl met her eyes did she see the naked fear glistening there. It was the same fear that struck all new mothers at some point, though Vinyl could not know that. All she knew was that her friend was scared and she wanted to make what was scaring her go away.
Vinyl searched for something comforting to say. Nothing came. In the end, she voiced the first thing her brain threw up. “Hey, do you think cheese smells yellow?”
Flower blinked at her. “I … huh? What?”
“I think it does but maybe that’s just me.”
“What does that have do with anything?”
“Are you thinking about cheese right now?”
“Well, yeah, but I don’t see –”
“So you’re not thinking about being here, right?”
Flower stopped walking altogether. “No. I wasn’t.”
“There you go then. So what do you think? Does it smell yellow to you?”
This time, Flower’s smile was more solid. “Orange, actually.”
“Orange? So what do oranges smell like?”
“They smell yellow.”
“What? No way!”
They continued on, chatting about foods and smells and colours. The arrows on the floor led them to a waiting room and a kindly unicorn receptionist who took Flower’s details and told them to take a seat. After a few minutes she brought over two clipboards.
“I just need you to fill these out. It shouldn’t be too long before the midwife can see you.”
Flower accepted a clipboard from the glowing pink telekinesis. Vinyl just stared at the one in front of her.
“I have to fill out a form too?”
“Just some personal details. All prospective parents do.”
Understanding flashed through her, followed closely by embarrassment. She stuttered: “Uh, I’m not … I mean, I’m just here ‘cause …”
The receptionist blinked at her and withdrew the clipboard. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just assumed.”
“The father can’t be here today,” Flower said without looking up from what she was writing. “Vinyl’s with me for moral support.” She finished with a flourished signature.
“Will he be attending the pre-natal classes?” the receptionist enquired, accepting the clipboard back.
“Yes,” Flower replied.
“Then he’ll need to fill out this form at the first of those. Thank you.”
Vinyl watched the receptionist trot away and leaned in to hiss at Flower: “She just assumed you and me were a couple?”
“Not everypony is a bigot, Vinyl. Besides, don’t you think we’d make a cute couple?” Flower pouted sultrily and batted her eyelashes.
Vinyl spent an inglorious moment staring, slack-jawed. Then she shook her head. “Nah, you’d get sick of picking up after me all the time.”
“You can pick up after your own damn self! I ain’t your slave! Anyhow, who’s to say you wouldn’t be picking up after me?”
“Are you kidding? I’m the messiest pony on the planet.”
“Bet I could beat you.”
“I once left half a pizza in the middle of our coffee table until the box was glued shut with mould.”
“That ain’t being messy, Vinyl; that’s being disgusting.”
They bickered good-naturedly until the midwife bustled into the waiting room. One could be forgiven for thinking a small, localised cyclone had entered the building. Vinyl resisted the urge to crawl backwards on her chair when the tan unicorn came to a halt in front of them, stamping her hooves and blowing air through a muzzle as white as Vinyl’s own. Half of her face was white, ending in a jagged line of hair beneath her eyes that could not decide whether to be one colour or the other.
“Hello, hello, hello,” she said briskly. “Which one of you is Flower Heart?”
Flower raised a hoof. Abruptly, she found it grabbed as the other mare hauled her to her hooves and led her away.
“I’m Tempest. Come this way, please.”
Tempest. It figured. Vinyl scrambled to follow.
They passed through yet another door and down a series of corridors that almost left Vinyl wondering whether up was down and left was right. Eventually they stopped outside yet another set of double doors labelled ‘Scan Unit’.
“In here please,” Tempest said with that same no-nonsense politeness. “Thank you.” She spoke as if she wished she could roll up the words like a newspaper to smack ponies’ hindquarters to make them go faster.
Once inside, she gestured Vinyl into a chair with strict instructions to stay there until told otherwise. Flower hoisted herself up onto an austere looking bed and wriggled about, trying to get comfortable as she leaned back. Tempest glanced momentarily at her. Then she took a slightly longer look. Wordlessly, she levitated a selection of small compact pillows to prop Flower Heart’s back.
“All right, so today is your first scan?”
“And you’ve opted for …” Tempest consulted her information. “For medi-magic imaging. Would you also like precognitive visualisations?”
Flower took a steadying breath and nodded.
“Hm.” Tempest checked the form and a stack of notes on a nearby unit. She nodded to herself, shoved the whole lot to one side and drew a wheeled chair up to the bed. She poked at Flower’s forelegs, which were folded across her chest. In an act of no-nonsense awfulness, she reached out and wiggled a roll of flesh on Flower’s midriff. “According to your info, you’re just within limits for body mass.” She gave Flower a recriminating look. “Just.”
Flower blushed. It was odd to see the brash, bolshy nurse act so meek. Vinyl didn’t like it. The hairs on the back of her neck rose in indignation as Tempest continued.
“A fat mare is more likely to produce a foal with angular leg deformities and is much more prone to difficulty when foaling. Light regular exercise is good for a pregnant pony. You should take up walking – low impact cardiovascular exercise. Do it at least once a day; twice if you can. How are your vaccinations?”
“All up to date,” Flower replied quietly.
“What’s your diet like?”
Flower’s blush deepened, turning her green cheeks nearly black. “Um … it’s okay –”
“The truth, please,” Tempest interrupted.
Flower’s eyes dropped to her own folded forelegs. “It’s crappy.”
Tempest blew out a sigh, as if she had known this already and had been tired of waiting for confirmation. “You need to pay attention to your nutrition from now on. No more taking shortcuts just for a spurt of sugar or fat in your diet. You need bulk foods rich in protein, energy minerals and vitamins. You’re eating for two now. That means good roughage – that’s high quality hay, not the cheap stuff, and no, that does not mean hay fries. A balanced concentrate of mash with added chaff and protein is what you need. A lot of my patients recommend tofu or soya for the protein but don’t fry it, even if that’s how you prefer all your food.”
Flower’s face had gone lax at the mention of such flavourless, uncompromising fare. Her throat moved but her mouth stayed shut.
“Small portions eaten often are best. Stay away from three meals a day, especially big meals. You need to regulate your energy reserves. You’ll also need to start taking vitamins if you aren’t taking them already. I’ll construct a programme for you after the tests today. Speaking of which.” Tempest uncovered a tray that rested on a nearly trolley. “I’ll need both blood and urine samples.”
“You’re going to make her pee in front of you?” Vinyl blurted. The look she received from the midwife made her ears lay so flat she was surprised they didn’t tickle her bran through her skull. “Um, never mind. Ignore me.”
Tempest drew a blood sample and took care of bagging and tagging it. While she was doing that, she fired off question after question. Flower struggled to field them all, especially when it came to the ones about Bruiser. Tempest retained her blunt, aggressively polite manner throughout. She also did exactly as Vinyl had asked and totally ignored her. When she gave Flower a sample pot and released her to the privacy of the bathroom down the hall, Vinyl jumped at the chance to leave the room.
The bathroom was a single-unit with a lockable door. Vinyl waited outside, twiddling her hooves and counting ceiling tiles. Twice.
After ten minutes of silence she called through the door: “You okay in there?”
“Yes!” Flower snapped back.
“Yeesh, I was only asking.”
“Well don’t!” The throatiness to Flower’s voice betrayed the welter of emotions ribboning through her. “I … I’m having performance anxiety.”
Despite herself, Vinyl held back a snort. “Just think of waterfalls, rain storms and burst pipes.”
“You’re not helping.”
“You drank a whole bottle of soda before your appointment. How can you not need to pee?”
“I don’t know, okay? And I’m not really comfortable discussing the mysteries of my stupid bladder with you!”
“Maybe Tempest scared it all so deep inside you that you’ll never pee again.”
Was that a snigger? “Vinyl, don’t.”
“Don’t what? Say how awful she is?”
“She’s not awful. She’s just doing her job.”
“Yeah, but her bedside manner makes Nightmare Moon look warm and fuzzy.” Vinyl paused. She placed the flat of each forehoof against her cheeks and wiggled them, blowing partial raspberries through her own flapping flesh.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making noises like waves on an ocean.”
“You sound like a cat choking on a hairball.”
In answer, Vinyl pinched and blew harder.
“Do you need to pee yet?”
“I’ll keep doing this until it works.”
Eventually, after much awkward laughter and bits of reassuring small-talk, Flower did what she needed to and they made their way back to the scan room. Tempest awaited them with an expression like her namesake. Nonetheless, her voice remained level as she accepted what Flower gave her and waited for them to arrange themselves back in their previous posts.
“All right then,” she said at last. “Now it’s time for your scan.”
Vinyl expected her to pick up some of the equipment attached to another trolley. Instead, Tempest closed her eyes and ignited her horn. The room light snapped off, leaving the three mares lit only by the soft yellow glow of her magic.
Vinyl wasn’t sure what was going on. She opened her mouth to ask but stopped when a beam of sparkling yellow light shot from Tempest’s horn to bathe Flower’s entire midsection. Flower froze, but not from fear. It was the cessation of motion by someone who knew they were supposed to hold still; like a pony in the dentist’s chair when the drill draws near. The light narrowed to a thin band that passed over her several times, then coalesced into a ball and rose a few feet into the air above her. Both Vinyl and Flower watched as a tiny blob resolved out of the glittery mass. It looked like nothing much to Vinyl’s eyes; slightly rounded at either end with a selection of fronds spraying outward in various degrees of thickness. One in particular was thicker than the rest. Vinyl stared at it and then realised with a jolt that it was moving. No, it was pulsing. All at once, she comprehended what she was seeing.
“It … it’s so small …” Flower breathed.
“It doesn’t look like much yet,” Tempest informed them. “But soon it will more resemble a foal as you’re used to thinking of them. Nonetheless, my scan tells me there are no significant problems with the foetus at this stage. It seems healthy and of a good size, with no major abnormalities that I can sense.”
Flower released a breath that seemed to come from deep within her. Vinyl understood just how worried she had been about this part of the appointment. Abruptly, she wanted to reach out and hold her friend’s hoof, but she was all the way on the other side of the room, goggling like some idiot who had wandered in off the street.
As if sensing her thoughts, Tempest turned her head a fraction. “You can come closer, you know.”
Vinyl got up and shuffled over. She peered at the pulsing mass of yellow light, marvelling that this blobby looking thing was a pony in the making. She marvelled even more at the thought that once she had been a similar blobby mass just like this one. So had Flower. So had Tempest. So had everypony in the world. Once upon a time, maybe even Princess Celestia and Princess Luna had been blobby masses of cells like this. The notion was at once both chastening and anticlimactic.
“Hello, little guy,” she heard Flower say softly. “Or girl. Thing. Uh, no, that’s not a good name for you. Hello there … little one.”
“Do you want me to move on to precog now?” Tempest asked.
“Actually …” Flower hesitated. “Actually, I’m not sure.”
Vinyl looked between their faces. “Precog? Y’mean, like, precognition? Telling the future?”
“Something like that. The name is something of a misnomer,” Tempest explained. “Medi-magic can tell, with some degree of accuracy, the type and sex of a foal in advance. Obviously the margin of error is greater the earlier into the pregnancy the scan is performed, but there are certain genetic markers that can determine these basic facts – skull shape, ribcage depth, bone density, thaumaturgical capacity of red blood cells –”
“Uh … what?”
Tempest make a clicking noise in the back of her throat, as if she couldn’t believe a fellow unicorn would not know this. “The potential ability a body shows for channelling magic. The higher the thaumaturgical capacity, the more likely a foal is to be a unicorn and the more magically inclined that unicorn will be.”
“Oh.” Even though there was no way she could have known this, Vinyl felt like she had failed some sort of test. She stayed quiet as Tempest transferred her attention back to Flower, awaiting her decision on whether the precog-scan should be performed.
Flower bit her lower lip. “Bruiser should … I mean, he’d wanna …” She hesitated. “He did say it was okay to go ahead without him but … I dunno …”
“Do you think he’d want to know whether you’re having a filly or a colt?” Tempest asked.
“Well, yeah.” Flower sighed. “And I guess he’d be disappointed if I told him I’d find out and then didn’t. Go on. Fire away.”
Tempest’s urge to roll her eyes was so clear it was practically a smell in the room. The glowing yellow foetus dissolved into an array of twinkling dots. These swirled around for a moment, finally mingling and fusing back together. The edges of the shape that emerged were hazy, like one of Willow’s pencil drawings, but the shape itself was clear regardless. The smooth head and back were devoid of horn or wings, but that was only one of the things Vinyl noticed about the new glowing blob.
Flower smiled. “Hi there, baby girl.”
The events of the morning driven most things from Vinyl’s head. Making sure Flower was okay and then the firsthoof experience of seeing a foal in-vitro had dominated her attention even when she had suspected they would not. It wasn’t until they had finished up with Tempest and left the maternity wing that reality started to creep back in. As her hoofsteps took her back through the hospital, closer and closer to Room 219, Vinyl’s mood nosedived.
She did not expect to find somepony already in Octavia’s room. She froze in the doorway, not recognising the large pony sitting in her chair. Flower came to a halt beside her, equally confused.
Merry Heart appeared from behind the nurse’s station. “She’s here to see you, Vinyl.”
“Me?” Vinyl switched her stare to Merry, then the stranger, then back again. “Who is she?”
“Oh, you’ll find out.” Something in Merry’s tone made Vinyl wonder whether she wanted to. She sounded entirely too knowing and a little like she wanted to laugh. “C’mon, Flower, I have coffee. You can tell me all about your scans over a cup.”
“I’m not supposed to have coffee,” Flower said glumly. “I ain’t allowed caffeine no more.”
“Good thing I used decaffeinated blend, huh?” Merry tapped the side of her snout. “Two pregnancies, remember? I know all the no-nos. So, is Tempest as awful as she used to be?”
Flower’s eyes widened. “She was a complete –”
Merry drew her away, leaving Vinyl like the last fuzzy target in a Whack-A-Mole game. For a moment she considered following them. Then her eye fell on Octavia and the idea crumbled to dust. All her conflicting emotions flashed through her, as strong and awful as they had been before Flower’s scans gave her mind a brief respite.
“Well? Are you gonna stand in that there doorway all day or are you gonna come in here?”
Vinyl’s head snapped up. “Uh …”
“Child, I did not come all this way to talk to you from the hallway. Get your skinny white butt in here.”
There was something intensely familiar about this pony, though Vinyl was convinced she had never met her before. Even on first glance, this was not a pony you could easily forget. Vinyl was dwarfed as she drew nearer. This mare made Flower Heart look like that super-skinny supermodel, Fleur De Lis. She was tall, crowned by a towering manedo that gave her a further few inches. Her curly white and blue mane and tail reminded Vinyl of sea foam; an impression helped by the mare’s bright blue coat. It wasn’t until she turned to face Vinyl, however, that her familiarity touched on the right memory.
“So you’re the little pony my baby girl made friends with.” The gold eyes that held Vinyl were not Sapphire’s, but they were so close it was almost scary.
At once, the mare’s unimpressed expression cleared like clouds bucked by an expert weather team. “Relax, child. Wow, you spook easier than I thought you would. The way my Saffy describes you, I figured you’d be ten feet tall and made of pure gold.” She got to her hooves and held one out, revealing exactly where Sapphire had inherited her love of shoes. “I’m Pearl Sands, but you can just call me Pearl.”
Vinyl hesitantly shook the hoof. She even managed not to wince when Pearl’s firm shake nearly crushed hers. She didn’t think it was on purpose. Subtlety did not seem to feature much in the way Pearl conducted herself. When she moved, she did so with all the pageantry and aplomb of a stage performer in front of a crowd. Her outfit, constructed from folds upon folds of loose, shimmery fabric, undulated like crashing waves whenever she took a step. In her mane and tail were threaded tiny shells and even tinier gems that had clearly been picked out to match her colouring. She looked like some ancient sea goddess who had risen out of the ocean inside a giant clam and then strutted her way inland until she reached Manehattan General Hospital.
“Uh … hi,” Vinyl managed.
Pearl tilted her head. “Is that lil’ bitty squeak all you got? Heavens, missy, you’d barely raise the roof off a doll’s house with a voice like that.”
Vinyl swallowed. “Uh, hello … Pearl.”
“That’s better. Not good, but better.” Pearl smiled. The resemblance to Sapphire increased again. Her smile dimmed a little as she took a step forward and reached out. Vinyl flinched on instinct. “Goodness, child, I ain’t gonna hit you!” Pearl’s deep voice ratcheted up in dismay at the thought.
“Sorry, I didn’t think that –” Vinyl paused when Pearl pick up a hank of her mane.
“Sweet Celestia, this is terrible! Awful! Frightful, even! Just look at these here split ends! Not to mention the condition … have you been washing your hair in bleach, for Celestia’s sake?”
“Uh, no.” Too late, Vinyl realised the question was rhetorical. Well aren’t I just making a brilliant first impression? She struggled to regain what ground she had lost. “Saph nev-… uh, Sapphire never told me you were coming down here today.”
“That’d be because my baby girl didn’t know.”
“Uh …” Vinyl blinked. “Okay, I’m confused.”
“Now that I can believe.” Pearl gave a knowing smile and dropped the piece of Vinyl’s mane she had been examining. She trotted back to the chair, pulled it slightly further back and gestured. “Sit.”
“Sit down, child. I’m here to cut your mane.”
Vinyl stayed exactly where she was. “Is this a joke?”
“Honey, I don’t never joke about hair. Your mane and tail are in a shocking state. Deplorable. Dreadful. Outrageous, even! My baby girl couldn’t tell you the different between a colour rinse and a curling iron – she has that fancy entourage of hers to take care of that – but even she could tell that much about your mane-don’t. She told me last night at dinner and I knew – just knew – that I had to come right the heck down here and rescue your hair before it was beyond repair.”
Vinyl was still confused.
“After all,” Pearl continued, “I just so happen to be the premier manedresser at Cute Cuts n’ Curls.”
“A manedresser?” Sapphire had never mentioned that. Come to think of it, Sapphire had only ever mentioned her mother in the context of how scary she was. Vinyl was definitely intimidated already, though she supposed some of that scariness came from being a daughter to –
“Am I gonna have to kick your legs out from under you and sit your butt down myself?” Pearl demanded. “’Cause I can’t promise I’d be gentle if you force me to park you like a cart with a busted wheel.”
“What … what are you planning to do to me? To my mane, I mean.”
Pearl smiled wide. “Magic, honey. Pure magic, of the kind you can’t learn from books.” With that, she crossed the short space between them and propelled Vinyl into the chair.
Vinyl sat down with a bump. Looking over her shoulder, she observed Pearl extracting items from a voluminous carpet bag. She used both hooves. Well, of course she would: she wasn’t a unicorn, but an earth pony, just like Sapphire. “Are you sure you’re allowed to do that in here?”
“I ain’t planning drastic disasters, child,” Pearl responded. “Now tell me, when did you last wash your mane?”
“Uh … the day before yesterday? Or maybe the day before?”
Pearl froze. “Seriously?”
Inwardly, Vinyl cringed. She used to wash it every day without fail, if not at home then in a preparation chair while stylists swarmed around her, getting her ready for whatever concert or public appearance she was about to do. In all honesty, she had enough time to keep up a better regime than she had, but had let things slip lately. It just hadn’t seemed worth the effort.
“No wonder it’s in such bad condition,” Pearl muttered. She snapped the carpet bag shut. “Okay, child, where’s the nearest restroom?”
“I don’t think – ow!” Vinyl held her ear, belatedly registering that it had been tweaked. “The heck?”
“When it comes to hair, you don’t think, child. You just do what Pearl tells you. She got the magic hooves, okay? You gotta trust in the magic hooves. Now tell me, where’s the nearest restroom?”
Vinyl opened her mouth to speak. Then she thought better of it and just pointed.
Over half an hour later, Vinyl was back in the chair, the roots of her mane throbbing where Pearl had massaged shampoo and then conditioner into them. It wasn’t that she had been especially rough; more that she took the edict ‘be thorough’ to heart in her work. Her ministrations had been gentle enough that Vinyl’s face was never dunked into the full basin of water, but neither was any scrap of scalp left untended. They had used the disabled bathroom on the floor below, since it had more room and a large sink, over which Vinyl had bent forward as Pearl used the meagre facilities to the best of her abilities. Thus, it was a damp but very clean Vinyl Scratch who plonked back down into her chair next to Octavia’s bedside.
“Now sit still and keep facing forward,” Pearl instructed.
“But what are you - ”
“Sit. Still. And. Face. Forward.” Pearl had no compunction over placing her hooves either side of Vinyl’s skull and showing her where to look when she tried to turn around. “Good girl. You can trust me. I did all my babies’ hair while they were growing up. My appointment book at the salon is always the first to fill. Ponies, they’re willing to wait a whole month for me to get my magic scissors on ‘em.”
Vinyl was more concerned with what those magic scissors were going to do to her right now. Pearl took a comb through the blue mass drooping from Vinyl’s head, her movements practised and rhythmic. Wet, Vinyl’s mane was even longer and easily touched the hooves folded into her lap. Despite her misgivings, she had to admit that somepony else touching her felt rather nice. The comb had stiff teeth but Pearl never let them dig into Vinyl’s head the way stylists had in the past.
A thought struck Vinyl. “Are you going to cut it in my old … I mean regular style?”
“That choppy thing?” Pearl said in disgust. She paused. “Do you want me to?”
Vinyl gave it some thought. “No,” she said at last.
“Good answer.” Pearl resumed combing, sometimes stopping to hold the comb vertical, as if measuring Vinyl’s mane against it. “Hmm…”
“What ‘hmmm’? Is that a good ‘hmmm’ or a bad ‘hmmm’?” Wow, déjà vu.
“It’s a ‘never you mind because Pearl has magic hooves and knows what she’s doing more than any other pony you ever met’ hmm.”
Vinyl couldn’t help herself. She let out a short bark of laugher. “Good answer.”
Pearl gave one last rake of the comb and placed it aside. Vinyl heard the tiny ‘shing-snip’ of scissors. Unexpectedly, her stomach clenched. Were those nerves?
“Don’t. You. Worry. Child.” Pearl enunciated each word with such clarity and forcefulness that it was like having sharpened consonants drill through Vinyl’s hooves, nailing them in place, while the vowels encircled her tongue, preventing any protests.
Vinyl swallowed. This was stupid. Since where did she care what stylists got up to with her mane? She had sat for the best and let them do whatever they wanted, then smiled at the results, no matter what she actually thought. Just because she hadn’t had a manecut in a while didn’t make this any different. It wasn’t like she had been looking after her hair, after all. How much could she care, really, if she had failed to do anything about it growing out or getting dirty and greasy until now?
Nonetheless, she found herself squeezing her eyes shut at the first snip.
“Goodness, child, anypony’d think I was using a venomous snake instead of scissors,” Pearl remarked. “You’re wound tighter than a kitten in a wool basket.”
“Why be sorry? The way I hear it, you got a lot tangling up your head these days.”
“Uh … yeah.” Vinyl bit the inside of her cheek. “How much … how much did Sapphire tell you … about me?”
“She didn’t break no confidences, but she told me enough,” Pearl said cryptically. “She especially told me not to believe half the stuff in the press about you and your Tavi over there. She didn’t tell me why she had such a long face when she came to dinner after she saw you last. The day my baby girl don’t wanna eat her jackfruit casserole, nor talk to her Momma, well, that’s the day Pearl Sands knows she’s gotta get involved.”
“So you’re here to yell at me for my argument with Sapphire?” Vinyl said flatly.
“No, I’m here to cut your mane.” Pearl snipped twice in quick succession and ran her hoof down the back of Vinyl’s head, as if making sure something looked the way she had planned it to. “Us manedressers, we talk. If you wanna talk back, that’s fine. Even if you don’t, that’s fine. I’m pretty good at holding a conversation by myself. I raised seven teenagers on my own. I’m used to talking to me, myself and I.”
“Oh.” Vinyl sighed, then sat straighter when her posture began to droop. “Sorry.” She peeled the words off her palette, unpleasantly reminded of her conversation with Dr Thorntree. She was getting pretty good at apologising to parents for how she had treated their daughters. If Octavia’s parents had been alive, no doubt she would have gone through this with them, too. Big time. “Saph and I … we had an argument about … dating.”
Snip. “Well, she could do a lot worse than somepony like you.” Snip.
“No, me! I mean me dating! I mean, not me dating her! Not us dating! I mean – ” Vinyl was halted by Pearl’s resonant laugh.
“Settle down, child, I knew you didn’t mean that. Though she could do a lot worse. You’re a good pony. I’d be one happy momma mare if my baby girl brought somepony like you home to dinner instead of those wastrels and no-good-niks she used to sit down at my table like they were royalty when she was a teenager.” Pearl gave a long-suffering sigh. “Mmm-mmm, the stories I could tell you. When you see her next, you ask her about Tangerine Blossom and Orange Blossom; see what she says. I’d bet my bodacious boots that she’ll turn beet red and clam up, fast as lightning.”
“Who were they?”
“A set of twins she dated in high school, one after the other – and I swear, the first one passed on their shared brain cell when they switched over. Not a lick of sense between ‘em. Tangerine actually asked me how old you gotta be to be twenty-one. An’ he wasn’t kidding.” Pearl gave another long-suffering sigh. “That ain’t even to mention when she went through her black eye-liner and studded jacket phase – and you know she went bottom of the barrel when she boarded that apple cart. Those ponies’ manes would’ve taken a week of washing to get even halfway clean and still she treated ‘em all like they were related to Celestia herself.”
“Really?” Vinyl’s ears pricked. To hear stories, however short or vague, about the illustrious Sapphire Shores being something other than illustrious was equal parts amusing and confusing. “Would she be okay with you telling me this?”
“I’m her momma. I could tell you far worse. But I won’t.” Pearl snorted. “I gotta keep back a little, don’t I? I love my baby girl but that don’t mean I gotta pussyfoot around her mistakes.” She switched her snips to the left side, just below Vinyl’s ear. “Besides, I already boxed a few of those ponies’ ears when they hurt her. Ain’t nopony, no way, no how gonna break my baby girl’s heart without her momma bustin’ their heads. When she’d let me, that is. We understand each other, my Sapphy an’ me. We make allowances for each other’s … how should I put it? Quirks? Foibles? Eccentricities, even? ”
“That’s … nice.” Vinyl stared at her hooves. “Real nice, actually.”
Pearl’s hoof smoothed Vinyl’s mane in regular, even strokes. Her touch was gentle. It made the back of Viny;’s neck prickle.
She swallowed. And swallowed again. “M-My mom died when I was a filly.”
“Oh honey, I’m sorry.”
“It … it was a long time ago. She was in a rehab clinic. She actually did really well. The doctor … her doctor told me she was one of the most determined mare he ever met.” Swallow. “She got through the first half of the treatment programme with flying colours.” Swallow. “But then … th-then …” Swallow. “Her doctor said she tried, but she just … she couldn’t hack it.” Swall- choke. Cough. Sides of throat too sticky. Vinyl drew a breath, feeling it wash over the sides of her throat. The words came quickly, like uncorking a fizzed-up bottle. “So she cracked open a fourteenth storey window to break the anti-magic wards on it and teleported herself to the wrong side instead.”
Cold. Clipped. Toneless.
Vinyl froze too. She wasn’t sure why she had said all that. In the growing seconds that followed, a vacuum seemed to suck all the air from the room. She stared so hard at her hooves they began to blur. Her eyes stung with the strain. Why had she said that? She never talked about that. Indigo had spent hours lecturing her about how she should never talk about that. And to say it to a stranger? She didn’t even know Pearl! The last pony she had actually spoken to about what her mom had done was … Tavi.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
“Oh, honey...” Pearl pushed all the air back into the room with those two soft words.
“It’s fine.” Forgetting about sitting still, Vinyl waved a hoof. “It was years ago. I’m over it.”
“Over it?” Surprise laced Pearl’s tone.
“Sure. I mean, I loved her and everything but … but it was years ago. Years. And I didn’t turn out so bad. Not really. Right? Everypony thought I’d be a major screw-up because of it. The foster ponies I went to, I mean. But I’m not. Well, I screwed up a few times, but I came back fighting. I … I came back, at least, which is the main thing. I never just gave up. Not on anything. Or anypony. Not on my career, or T-Tavi or …. I didn’t … even when it was hard I d-didn’t give up like my mom d–”
There was a noise that sounded rather like ‘glurk’ as Pearl wrapped her huge forelegs around Vinyl from behind and pulled her into a strong hug.
Vinyl wanted to protest. She wanted to wriggle free. This wasn’t even what she was supposed to be talking about. Pearl had come down her because Vinyl had argued with Sapphire, and she had argued with Sapphire because of Tavi and Willow and love and regret and the future and the past and …
Celestia damn it, if I cry again, I’m going to ram my head against the wall until my horn breaks off so I have something to friggin’ well cry about!
The ceiling fan whirred incessantly into the silence.
Pearl did not let go, but she did stroke the top of Vinyl’s head and ears, the way one might gentle a newborn foal.
“I miss her,” Vinyl said thickly. “I don’t talk about her. I don’t really think about her. It … it hurts too much. I loved her. Love her. She’s … she was my mom. But she didn’t love me enough to stick around.” Vinyl shook her head. “The thought of me sitting in that care home, waiting for her to come get me … it … I wasn’t enough to keep her going.”
Pearl squeezed tighter. “Sometimes it ain’t about that, child. Sometimes it’s about being in a place so deep and dark inside yourself that it ain’t about not wanting to think of others – you just can’t. Even when you try, even when you know you should, you can’t see the bigger picture.”
“Yeah. I know that. I … I forgave her years ago when I … I went to a pretty dark place myself. After Tavi and I broke up, I kind of understood what it must have been like for her … feeling so alone, even when she was surrounded by other ponies trying to help her. I just …” Vinyl sniffed. “I miss her. Times like now, when I hear about how close you and Saph are, I … I miss my mom,” she finished in a small voice. She scrubbed at her eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say any of that. I wasn’t trying to make you feel sorry for me so you wouldn’t yell about how I argued with Saph.”
“You hush!” Pearl said somewhere above her head. It felt very much like there was a chin balanced on top of her skull. “Who cares if you meant to or not? You said it. Now you’re getting a hug ‘cause, child, from all I hear, you’re owed a whole bunch of hugging.”
“No, I meant … you said you came to cut my mane, but I know you came to talk to me about Sapphire.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re her mom and you really obviously care about her. You came to see whether you needed to bust my head or box my ears or whatever, right?”
Pearl paused for a long moment. “Maybe.”
Vinyl smiled. She tasted salt. Friggin’ … gah! No more crying! No, no, no! I’m sick of crying! Tears, get back in my friggin’ eyes or I’ll ... I’ll look up a spell to remove my friggin’ tear ducts!
“Seems to me like you got enough busting your head from the inside out as it is,” Pearl went on. “Ain’t nopony should go through even one of the things you’ve gone through, child. You’re a real strong pony to weather so much heartache.” She lifted her chin, releasing her bone-crushing embrace and half turning Vinyl to look at her. “But honey, everypony’s got their breaking point. Everyone reaches a brick wall eventually. You don’t gotta carry everything on your own.”
“I’m … kind of still learning that part,” Vinyl admitted. “I don’t think I’m very good at it yet.”
“Good thing I taught my Saffy tenacity then. She’ll come back and see you once she’s cooled off. Probably bring you a peace offering, if I know my baby girl.”
“Bring me a peace offering? But I was the one who was craptacular to her!”
Pearl raised one elegant eyebrow. Good eyebrows, like shoe-love, were apparently a family tradition. “What-tacular?”
“Uh, awful. I was awful to her.”
Pearl nodded. “Better. And she’ll bring it because that’s the way she rolls. You’re important to her. She don’t got many friends. Ponies in school were always kinda jealous of her. Then she got picked up by a talent scout straight outta high school and … well, you know what colour friendship runs in the music business. Telling it plain, honey, I’ve been worried about her for years. I always wished she had somepony she could count on as an actual friend.” Pearl pinched Vinyl’s cheek like she was a chubby foal in a crib. “And you? You I approve of.”
Vinyl held her sore cheek. “Saph was trying to tell me I should date other ponies in case Tavi never wakes up from her coma,” she blurted. “That’s what we fought about.” She blinked. Again? What was with her spilling her guts today? Pearl wasn’t a unicorn. Could she be one of those shaman things, using her magic to make Vinyl say things she had no desire to say? No, you had to be a zebra to be a shaman, right?
“She said that?”
“Well … not in those exact words,” Vinyl admitted.
“I see.” Pearl looked at Octavia. She looked for a long, long moment. “Hmm.” Before Vinyl could say anything, she added: “That’s a ‘the future ain’t written yet, y’know’ hmmm.”
“That’s what I told Saph. I told her Tavi might still wake up, so I can’t risk a relationship with anypony else in the meantime.”
“Is that really what you think?”
“Yes!” Vinyl nearly shouted. “What kind of pony would I be to go through everything I’ve gone through, to do everything I’ve done, just to be a hypocrite and give up now?”
“I’ve done everything I’ve done because I love Tavi. If I give up and say I love somepony else now, that’s being a hypocrite.”
“Do you love somepony else?”
“Honest to Celestia?”
“You ain’t never loved nopony but her?”
“Not in any way?”
“Not even your momma?”
Vinyl choked. “What?”
Pearl lowered her eyebrows to a single straight line across her brow. “Cheap shots taste terrible.” She stuck out her tongue to illustrate. “You said you ain’t never, could never, and will never love anypony but your Tavi. Does that mean you don’t love your momma? Or that you did once but now you’ve stopped?”
“But my mom … that’s different!”
“What?” Vinyl was confused.
“Different types of loves for different types of ponies, child.” Pearl gestured expansively. “Everypony knows the difference between familial, romantic and platonic loves. You don’t love your family the way you love your partner, and the love you got for your friends is different again, but they’re all still love. And you can divide each type up even more on top of that. I love every one of my babies, but I also love my clients, my gals at the salon, my own momma and my husband, Celestia rest his soul.” She sighed. “Not everypony gets their 'sincero amore'.”
“Sincero amore.” At Vinyl’s nonplussed look, Pearl explained, “A love you don’t gotta question. You just know you love someone and will always love them, even when you hate ‘em at the same time. That’s rare. Most ponies, they grow to love someone, or they’re friends-and-a-bit-more that’s kind of like romantic love, but ain’t quite there all the way. Sometimes that lasts, sometimes it don’t. I’ve known marriages based on a lot less. Not a one of them is a bad pony because they settled for something other than their ‘sincero amore’.”
Vinyl’s head buzzed. “So are you telling me to move on too?”
“Don’t you go putting words in my mouth, child.”
“But you’re saying I’ll be happier if I forget about the ‘sincere amaretto’ or whatever that I had with Tavi, and settled for something less that can still be called love if you squint at it or give it a few years to mature like … like cheese?”
A chuckle rippled up Pearl’s throat. “You sure do got a way with words, sweetie. I’m not saying anything about the best way for you to be happy. I don’t know you well enough to say what’d be the best way for you to be happy. I’m just saying to you the same thing I say to myself: happiness ain’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got.”
“So I should be happy with Tavi being in a coma?” Vinyl all but spat. “Ow!” She grabbed her ear.
“Be glad all I did was tweak it,” Pearl warned. “I don’t appreciate being sassed by somepony putting words in my mouth when I already warned ‘em not to do that. Your life is your own, Lil’ Miss Vinyl Scratch. You ain’t gonna get me to tell you how to live it, nor should anypony else tell you neither. You think I agreed with every life decision my kids made? No, I most certainly did not; but did I tell them how I thought they should live their lives? No, I most certainly did not. And I ain’t gonna do for you what I wouldn’t do for my babies. It’s your life. Your decisions. Your heart. All I’m saying is that before you get all het up about what you will an’ won’t do with all that, you take a good long look at yourself and what you are and aren’t capable of first.”
Vinyl fell silent. Eventually, when it became clear no answer would be forthcoming, Pearl went back to stroking a comb through her mane. The ‘snip snip’ of scissors began to chime once more, as Pearl’s words chimed through Vinyl’s head in tandem with the noise. She didn’t even notice when the weight of her mane began to lessen and barely registered when Pearl’s face appeared by her side.
“Huh?” Vinyl blinked at her.
“I’m gonna cut your tail now, honey. I need you to stand so I can swivel this here chair sideways.”
“Oh. Uh, sure.” Vinyl stood and levitated the chair herself, switching the tall back so that it faced right. When she say back down, Pearl insisted she shuffle backward until her tail and most of her butt hung over the edge of the seat.
“It ain’t the best position to be in, I’ll admit.” Pearl studied Vinyl for a moment. “Nor the most attractive. Still, it’s what we got to work with. Lean your elbows on the edge of the bed and put your head on ‘em. This might take a while. Some of these splits go right to the middle of your tail!” She sucked in air between her teeth and chuntered to herself as she worked.
Vinyl did as she was bade. It was a deceptively comfortable position, she found, and Pearl’s muttering provided a soothing aural backdrop alongside the whirring ceiling fan. So soothing, in fact, that her eyelids began to droop. She forced her eyes back open, staring straight ahead at the lump of Octavia’s hind legs.
She suddenly remembered how Tavi had shown her the proper stance and made her practise, practise, practise before the Academy audition. She remembered the feel of Tavi’s hoof along the back of her thigh, shifting her left leg into a better place.
“It’s more stable this way if you’re going to be on two legs instead of four.”
“Ugh, this feels weird. I hate being on two legs. Can’t I just use magic to play instead?”
“No, you cannot! The board are looking for skill, not showboating!”
“Aw, but I’m good with magic. I suck at holding a bow or pressing strings with my hoof. It’s too fiddly.”
“You do not suck! I’ve heard you play. You’re remarkably good. You have natural talent. Now stop trying convince yourself you’re awful. I know you’re trying to make yourself feel better for if things go wrong, but that kind of thinking is counterproductive, not to mention counterintuitive.”
“Someone’s been learning her vocabulary sheet.”
“Oh hush. I just want us to be perfect.”
“You already are. I’m the screw-up.”
“You are NOT A SCREW-UP!”
“Uh … wow, Octavia, no need to yell.”
“I’m sorry but … ugh, it does annoy me, how you always put yourself down so much. You’re not a screw-up, nor an imbecile, nor a failure, nor anything like that. You just have self-confidence issues, that’s all.”
“Oh really? When did you get your diploma, Doctor Philharmonica?”
“Oh never mind. I can see you’re going to be obtuse today. If you insist on that, then there really is no point in continuing to practise like this.”
“Tavi … wait, I … humph. Do I stand like this?”
“Move your right leg back a smidgen.”
“You’ll be great, okay? Believe in me, if not in yourself.”
“Easier said than done but … I’ll try, okay? That’s the best I can do. I’ll try.”
I’ll try, okay?
Vinyl’s head snapped up. Had she spoken out loud? The room seemed darker. Oh no; had she fallen asleep after all?
“I repeat, try what?”
That voice. It wasn’t Pearl’s.
Slowly, Vinyl turned her head. A pony stood behind her. It wasn’t Pearl. Pearl was gone, just like the sunshine through the window. Just like the window. And the ceiling fan. And the ceiling. And the floor. And the edges of the room.
The pony stared at her expectantly.
Vinyl swallowed hard. “P-Princess Luna?”