• Published 5th Jun 2013
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Playing With My Heart - ObabScribbler



Four years ago Vinyl and Octavia broke up. It was messy, painful and left scars on both. Four years on, Vinyl receives news that Octavia has been in an accident and is in a coma from which she may never wake. Can she succeed where medicine failed?

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5. “Life can turn on the head of a pin.”

A/N: Minor warning, this chapter contains swearing. Swearing that is integral to the plot, but if that offends you then please avert thine eyes.


5. “Life can turn on the head of a pin.”


“Vinyl?”

Vinyl blinked awake. Ponyfeathers, had she fallen asleep again? Her throat felt tacky, like she had been sleeping with her mouth open. The sides stuck together as she reached for the plastic slurpy cup she typically kept her drinks in to stop them filling up with dust. She turned as she sipped to see Doctor Thorntree and a green pegasus mare in the doorway.

“Hi, doc. What’s shaking?”

“Vinyl, I’d like you to meet someone.” Doctor Thorntree gestured to the mare. “This is Medley. I think you might be interested in an idea I’ve had that involves the two of you.”

“Hi.” Vinyl stuck out her hoof, which the pegasus shook willingly. “I’m Vinyl.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” Medley smiled.

“Medley is a music therapist,” said Doctor Thorntree.

“A what?”

“A music therapist,” Medley repeated.

“I heard that part. I just have no friggin’ idea what that is.”

“Music therapy is a form of healthcare where we use music to help patients address physical, emotional, cognitive and social problems,” she explained, in a way that made Vinyl wonder whether she had it memorised. She was a pretty mare, her features delicate and her bottle green eyes huge, with lashes that seemed to swish whenever she blinked, though Vinyl could see no hint of make-up. Medley had tied her mane into pigtails, which trailed yellow ribbons either side of her face. It gave her a slightly immature look, though this was negated by the words coming out of her mouth. “It’s not just turning on a radio to fill the silence and make ponies feel better, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s more complex than that. Music therapy involves creating, singing, moving to, and listening to music, or any combination of those. If ponies are undergoing treatment and it’s not going well, they have a tendency to get downhearted, which doesn’t help their recovery. Music therapy helps increase those ponies’ motivations to become engaged in their treatment again. It can also provide emotional support for their families. It’s about providing an outlet for expression of feelings, the way other therapists do with talking or writing things down.”

Vinyl nodded politely but was confused. “That’s real interesting, but why do you think I’d want to know about this stuff, doc? Are you planning to send me to therapy?”

Doctor Thorntree coughed into his hoof. “Since you’re adamant about staying here at the hospital, I was thinking you could put your talents to good use by working with Medley a little. She comes in a few times a month to work with our younger patients. You could work with her to help them too. The foals’ ward could always use an extra set of volunteering hooves.”

“I … what?” Vinyl shook her head involuntarily. “No. No, doc, I told you, I’m staying here with Tavi.”

“And I told you that it’s not healthy to stay by her side every second of every day. I’m not suggesting you abandon her completely, just take a timeout now and then to do something positive and constructive – for the benefit of your own psyche, if nothing else. You might be surprised how much it helps you in return.”

“I’m not cuckoo, doc. I’m not batty, loony, nutty or crazy either. My psyche is fine just the way it is – in here, like I said, with Tavi.”

“Vinyl, this morning you told me a lot of things that lead me to believe this might be good for both you and our other patients if you don’t let yourself revolve totally around this room and what it represents.” He stared at her with those penetrating blue eyes of his. Vinyl was astounded to see a hint of … pleading in them? What the hay? “Just give it a chance. At the very least, it will give you something else to talk about with Miss Philharmonica.”

Vinyl was caught. She looked between him and Octavia, indecision pinning her tongue to the floor of her mouth.

“If you like,” Medley suggested gently, “I could talk to you here about what I do. If you get a feel for what would be involved, maybe that would help to convince you.”

“I …” Vinyl deflated. “All right. I guess I could do that.”

Medley beamed. “Fantastic! I’ll go get my things.”

“Your things?”

Already halfway out the door, Medley glanced over her shoulder with a faintly devious grin. “Of course. It’s not often I get to show off so I’m going to make this worth it.



“You play all these instruments?”

“Not usually all at once.”

“Smartass.”

Vinyl gaped at the array laid out before her. In the end Medley had brought up only a fraction of her retinue, since any more would be hazardous in the limited space of Octavia’s room. It felt cramped with just this many. Vinyl picked up a black rectangular case and, after getting silent permission from Medley, flipped back the catches. Inside were the separated pieces of an oboe.

“The last time I tried one of these was when Tavi was helping me choose my instrument for the Academy exam.”

“Did you like it?”

“I sounded like a farting goose.”

Medley giggled. She didn’t seem to mind as Vinyl pawed through the instruments, marvelling at some and pulling faces at others.

“A xylophone? Seriously? I thought only nursery school foals played these things.”

“Actually, it’s a glockenspiel. Xylophones are made of wood, not metal. And you’d be amazed at the powerful effect to be had from hitting something really hard and still getting a pretty note out of it.”

“Is that what you do? Get ponies to play these things so they feel better?”

“Sometimes.” Medley paused a moment. “How much do you know about music therapy?”

“Right now? Everything you just told me.”

“Okay, so … it’s probably best if I just tell you the kind of things that I do, rather than bombard you with all the theories behind it. Music therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of treatment. It’s very individual. When I first meet a patient, I have no idea what kind of tactics I’m going to have to use with them. It’s creative and adaptive in a way a lot of medicine isn’t – especially medi-magic.” She shuddered. “Generally I deal with younger ponies – from foals to teens is my usual remit, though I have done some with pensioners too. I can be called in to help with ponies who have undergone severe trauma and withdrawn from the world, or ponies who are falling into depression following their physical treatment programmes, or any kind of psychological case. It’s my task to try and get these ponies to a mental and emotional place they feel comfortable. Where doctors use medicine or unicorn practitioners use medi-spells, I use music.”

“Yeah, but how does that even work?” Vinyl asked, curious despite herself.

She picked up a giant triangle with her telekinesis and felt the weight of it. It was the kind of thing that belonged on a farmhouse porch to call worker ponies in for supper. Next to it was a harmonica, a kazoo and a tambourine, while propped against the wall was a guitar case and a trombone. She was immediately struck by the memory of the young stallion she had met the night she arrived at Manehattan General. He had played trombone, too. The instrument was actually a lot bigger than Vinyl had expected. Next to it she spotted a set of castanets and maracas nestled beside a case marked ‘flute’ and another labelled ‘trumpet’. She was impressed by the variety of directions in which Medley’s talent ran.

“How do I use music?” Medley thought for a moment. “It really depends on the situation. You, of all ponies, should know about the power that music can have over ponies – well, over any creature, really.”

Vinyl pictured the writhing mass of a crowd at one of her concerts. The picture was unseated, however, by a much clearer memory of Octavia one day in school, when Vinyl had found her practising her cello in what she thought was an empty music room. Vinyl had frozen outside the door, peering in at the serene expression on Octavia’s face and the graceful way she drew her bow across the cello’s strings. It was as close to bliss as Vinyl had ever seen on anypony until their first night together.

“Yeah,” she said weakly. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“Well, music therapy is when you take that power and convert it into empathy. Ponies who are hurt, or in pain, or who just don’t want to interact with the world anymore, put up barriers inside themselves that make it difficult for others to help, or even understand them. Sometimes they don’t realise they’re doing it, sometimes they do. The kinds of patients I treat have usually already tried conventional methods of therapy before they get to me. Whether through letting them play these instruments, playing to them, listening with them, helping them to move to it in dance, or something else entirely, I use the power music has over all ponies to get past their pain and gather insights into their mind. Only when you know what a problem is and how the pieces fit together you can begin to fix it, so I use music to figure out the problem and then, if I can, the solution.” Medley blinked. “Goodness, did that come out as preachy as I think it did?”

Vinyl shook her head. “No, it was … it sounds really interesting, actually.”

She was surprised by her own curiosity. To her, music had always been a method of glorious self-expression, but also a means of getting what she had been trying to snag since she was a foal pulling pranks on the orphanage staff: an audience. As a musician, ponies watched and listened to her more than when she was just herself. As the performer DJ-Pon3 they flocked to her, giving her high after wonderful high spurred by her own passion and creativity. She had never really thought of music as a comfort. It seemed stupid when she thought about it – music had been her comfort after Tavi left her, hadn’t it? Or … had it just been a means to block out the past instead of ease it? ‘Music soothes the savage beast’ was the phrase, right? You had to be a real dingbat to miss something like that.

Then again, her type of music had never been about soothing anyone. Ponies came to her concerts to jump and bounce and generally exhaust themselves. They came to share in her high, their enjoyment feeding her emotions, which compelled her to perform more and more until they all collapsed in an almost post-coital morass of ringing ears and trembling limbs. She had been pandering to that pattern for so long, she had stopped seeing what else music could do – if she had ever really paid attention in the first place.

“Now remember, when you’re in front of the panel, no showboating.”

“I know, I know, just play it like we practised. Don’t worry, Tavi. We’ll knock those snooty Canterlot ponies on their butts with how awesome we are.”

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m afraid of. Vinyl, please, you have to take this seriously. The goal is for both of us to get into the Academy.”

“You worry too much, Tavi. We’ll be fine. Trust me.”

Ponyfeathers, she was sure reliving more of her past these days than she had in the last four years. She supposed that was what happened when you stepped off the treadmill and had time to take stock of your life.

“Are you okay?” Medley waved a hoof in front of her face.

“What?”

“You spaced out for a while there.”

“Sorry, I was just thinking about … some stuff. It’s not important.” Vinyl’s eyes flicked involuntarily to the bed. Since she wasn’t wearing her shades it was obvious to see.

Medley regarded her. Then she slapped her forehooves together and got up. “C’mon, you’re coming with me.”

“What?” Vinyl pulled away from the helping hoof she was offered. She scrambled backwards on her butt towards the bed, stopping just short of crashing into it. “No!”

“You need to get out of here for a little while. It’s driving you crazy. Even somepony like me, who doesn’t know you very well, can see it. I’m going downstairs to the foals’ ward. Why don’t you come with me and help me in a group session?”

“I … I don’t …” Vinyl’s breathing quickened. She couldn’t leave Octavia’s side. She mustn’t.

“Would she want you to put your entire life on hold like this? To give up everything you love for her sake?”

“I don’t begrudge you your career. I want you to be happy”

“Half an hour,” Medley promised. “Just give it half an hour, then you can come straight back up here.”

Vinyl remained where she was for a few more agonised moments.

“I want you to be happy.”

Slowly, she got up. “Just half an hour, okay? Maybe this will get everypony off my back …”


“So how did you get into this gig?” Vinyl asked as she telekinetically lifted the heavier instruments above her head. After nearly crashing into several gurneys and one gaping porter, who couldn’t seem to believe his eyes when he saw Vinyl, the two mares had found this was the safer method for transporting things through a busy hospital.

“How anypony gets into any gig they weren’t expecting, I guess.” Melody shrugged. “I know somepony who knew somepony.”

“So you weren’t always a music therapist? What were you before this?”

“If you’d believe it, I was a weather pony in Cloudsdale.”

Vinyl was surprised. She had expected her to say musician or therapist – one component of the combination she now was. Weather pony was so unexpected she had to clarify she had heard right. “A weather pony? You?”

“Uh-huh. For six years I cleared the skies, herded rainclouds, bucked bolts and carved snowflakes.”

“That’s a long time. What made you decide to do this instead?”

“I finally got a clue and accept how unhappy I was, doing what I was doing. Hi, Dream Heart.” Medley nodded at a nurse pushing an elderly pony in a wheelchair. Familiarity radiated from the small acknowledgement and the bright smile it provoked from the nurse. “How’s your poodle this week?”

“Much better, thanks,” the nurse enthused. “I tried mashing the pills into some warm food instead of cold like you said and it worked a treat. He’s back to chewing the sideboard and digging up my roses.” She beamed. “And I wouldn’t have him any other way.”

“Great! See you around.” Medley carried on without breaking stride.

“You’re a vet, too?”

“No,” she laughed. “I once had a patient who owned a dozen dogs. She was elderly and when she went into a care facility they had to be rehomed. She reacted badly – withdrew into herself and wouldn’t interact with anypony. She was wasting away until I played some music from when she was a teenager and was lucky enough to land on the song she danced to with her husband on their wedding day. After that she told me she’d always had dogs since he bought her one to keep her company while he was away on business after they first got married. She’d had dogs ever since, getting even more when he died, and she couldn’t cope with living without them. Every week when I went to that care home, even when I was working with other ponies and not her, she’d call me into her room to tell me some new story about her dogs. One of them hated taking his arthritis medicine and she figured out that if you warm up dog food, the smell of the food confuses a dog’s sensitive nose so it can’t taste the mashed up pills.” She nodded at another nurse, though she kept speaking to Vinyl. “Stuff like that is a reminder to me of why I got into this line of work. I was an awful weather pony. I did the work but I didn’t listen to the message of my cutie mark at all. I thought it was better to do what pegasi are famous for than try to make a career out of my hobby. I mean, for every successful musician there are a hundred failures, right?”

“Right,” said Vinyl, thinking of how she had been plucked from obscurity just by being in the right place at the right time for the right pony to hear her. She loved DJ-ing but it wasn’t the career she had expected either.

“Life can turn on the head of a pin,” as Octavia had said when Vinyl came home with her brand new cutie mark. “I’m so pleased you found something you love this much.”

“Friggin’ A! But you know what?”

“I do wish you wouldn’t talk like that. There are so many beautiful words in the world and you insist on using that … thing.”

“What? Friggin’? Heh, you know I only do it because it irritates you.”

“And irritating me is such a good thing?”

“Sure. It makes your cheeks go all pink. You’re cute when you’re mad.”

“I … Vinyl!”

“Anyhow, like I said, you know what?”

“No. What?”

“I already found something I love. This cutie mark is great, but I wouldn’t have minded one of you.”

“Vinyl …”

“I’m not always successful,” said Medley, her voice dashing the warm memory. “Sometimes patients just don’t respond to music therapy, or they refuse to let it reach them. It can get frustrating sometimes, but other times it’s really rewarding.”

“Mmm,” Vinyl responded, noncommittal.

“Aaaand we’re here.” Medley stopped and tried to open the door with her rear without dropping the smaller instruments she was carrying. The door glowed pale blue as Vinyl levered out a small amount of telekinesis from the main mass and held it open for her.

“Thanks. Wow, that’s some wonderful fine control you have there. Most unicorns can only do one thing at a time with their magic.”

“I’m well practised. When you’ve got two turntables, a light show and half a dozen other things going on at once on stage, you get used to multitasking with magic.”

“I might hold you to that,” Medley said cryptically. “Now, Vinyl, before we go in, I’m going to remind you that these are kids in this unit.”

“Sure.”

“Just keep that in mind. They’re sensitive.”

“I said sure, didn’t …” Vinyl trailed off as she caught sight of a dark blue colt hobbling towards them, his hoof clamped in a nurse’s. “… I?”

The colt’s face lit up when he saw them. “Melly!” he slurred. “Yur heah! Dun star yeh, ‘kay. Am gonna baffrum.”

“Okay, Lancer, I won’t start until you’re back from the bathroom,” Medley replied like he had spoken as clearly as anypony. “I need some time to set up first, anyhow. This is my friend Vinyl. She’s going to be joining us today.”

“Coo!” the colt replied. “Nuss Braii Har, we godda huy!”

“We’ll go as fast as we can, Lancer,” said the yellow nurse, whose cutie mark was a red cross with a small sun poking out from behind it. “Hi, Medley. Nice to meet you, Vinyl,” she added as they passed.

When they were out of earshot Vinyl leaned in close. “His face,” she said in alarm. “It was … his mouth was … all those scars! What happened to the poor little guy?”

“Didn’t you read the sign above the door?” Medley asked in surprise. “Or the ones above the arrows in the corridors?”

“No. I was … thinking about something else.”

“This is the burns unit. I thought you realised. Ponyfeathers, it’s my fault, I must not have said it out loud. I thought I did but I must have gotten caught up in talking about my work and … sweet Celestia, Vinyl, I’m sorry. If you want to leave, you can. It’s a bit shocking, and like I said, they’re sensitive foals.”

Vinyl swallowed, still seeing the mangled, angry red mess that was left of Lancer’s muzzle. Half of it was just gone, presumably burned away by whatever fire had left his face hairless and his mane missing to halfway down his neck. “No, it’s okay. Just … before we go in, tell me … are they all like that colt?”

Medley chewed her lip. “No, not all of them.”

“But some are?”

“Like I said, you can go back if you’d rather –”

Vinyl imagined an entire ward of small, scarred, mangled faces. Her hind hoof took an involuntary step backwards. Then she shook herself. How can I say I’d accept Tavi however she is if I can’t even face a bunch of foals? What, if I don’t like that she drools, or can’t look after herself anymore, I’ll chance my mind and turn tail? I have to do this. I have to prove I can deal with ponies who aren’t …

Normal? Whole? Perfect anymore? The ugly words hovered at the edges of her mind but she refused to let them in. Instead, she took a determined step forward.

“C’mon, or he’ll be back from the bathroom before we’ve unpacked anything.”

The greeting Medley received was overwhelming. Eight of the beds were filled. A ninth that presumably belonged to Ace was unoccupied but the sheets were rumpled and a sippy cup of juice sat on the hinged table. Medley allowed the young ponies to crowd around her, laughing and answering questions. When she introduced Vinyl they transferred their affections to her, each clamouring for her attention.

“Your mane is awesome!” declared a blue colt who didn’t have one anymore. His scalp and neck were covered in bandages but there was no tell-tale bulge of hair and Vinyl could see red patches of skin poking out from under the edges when he moved.

“You’re white, just like me!” shrieked a filly who really was no more than a foal. A tiny yellow bell cutie mark wiggled like the bell was trying to ring as she waved her tail from side to side like a joyful puppy. “See! See! Your fur is the same colour as mine! Your mane and tail are different, though. Yours is blue and mine is orange. I know lots of colours! My mane is orange and my coat is white, just like my sister’s. My other sister, my big sister, she’s pink and her mane and tail are blue, kinda like yours only yours is all streaky and her isn’t. Teddy’s coat is the same colour as her mane and your tail. Do you know what colour that is? Blue! And his tail is orange like mine, but he doesn’t have a mane so I don’t know what colour it would be –”

“It was orange too, stupid.” The colt who had complimented Vinyl’s mane blushed.

“Don’t call me stupid!” protested the filly. She made as if to stamp her hoof but stopped herself at the last moment, probably because the bandages wrapped around it from base to shoulder had reminded her that it would hurt. “I’m not stupid! I’m not, am I Medley?”

“No, Jing-a-Ling, you’re not. Now sit in your circle, everypony.”

“Are we singing again, Medley?” asked a soft-spoken filly whose burns covered so much of her back she had trouble walking with so many the bandages restricting her movements. Nevertheless, she went to her place in the circle unaided.

Lancer had returned and the nurse pretended to do paperwork at her desk as they all sat down together.

“We sure are.” Medley took the guitar from its case and sat in the circle too. “What would you like to start with today, Sweetheart?”

The filly looked down at her hooves as the others shouted out suggestions. Her eyes slid left to the blue colt but immediately snapped back again. “Um …Teddy Bears’ Picnic?”

“Excellent choice!” Medley enthused. She caught Vinyl’s eye and gestured for her to join the circle too. “How about it, Vinyl?”

All eyes looked at her expectantly. And so did a patch. Sweetheart only had one eye. The other had been lost in the morass of burn scars that made up the left side of her face, as if they were oozing out from under the patch. The new skin was hairless and an angry red that made Vinyl’s stomach feel as though she had swallowed a cup of needles.

“Um … sure. I know that one.” Vinyl cleared her suddenly dry throat as Medley strummed a few notes. “I-If you go down to the woods today, you’d better go in disguise,” she sang.

“If you go down to the woods today, you’d better go in disguise,” the circle chorused much louder, Medley included.

“For every bear that ever there was,” Vinyl continued, her voice growing stronger, buoyed by their enthusiasm. They weren’t all in tune but they made up for that in volume. “Is gathered there for certain, because –”

“Today’s the day the teddy bears have their piiiiiinic!” shouted the little ponies.

They finished that song and moved on to another. Vinyl sang and clapped her way through ‘Five Little Monkeys’, ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally Oh!’ and ‘The Animal Fair’. For the last Medley got them all up on their feet and Vinyl was forced to watch the foals to copy actions they already knew by heart. It was a silly song with silly movements to go with the lyrics, but the fast pace meant everypony made mistakes and nopony cared enough to notice.

“I went to the animal fair! The birds and the bees were there!” Medley sang. “By the light of the moon the hairy baboon was combing his auburn hair!”

“The monkey fell out of his bunk! BUMP!” yelled the little ponies plus Vinyl, miming the poor monkey’s descent by slapping the flats of their hooves together. “And slid down the elephant’s trunk! WHEE!”

“The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees and what became of the monkey?” Medley strummed her guitar thought a couple of repetitive bars as the group began to chant.

“Monkey, monkey, monkey, monkey, monkey, monkey –”

“Sing it in a round now!” Medley instructed over their voices, nodding her head to her left. “This half the circle up to Jing-a-Ling first, the other half second. Ready? Go!”

“Um, the animal fair!” Vinyl struggled to catch up as she missed her cue. She hadn’t missed a cue in her whole musical career, yet now she really couldn’t care less that she had missed the first few words when ponies younger than half her age hadn’t. She stomped her hooves in time with the others, her heartbeat racing even though it was only a little exercise. She had never sung nursery rhymes before, at least to the best of her recollection. They had been way uncool when she was a filly, so she had made up dirty lyrics and sung those instead, irritating her teachers in the process. Until this moment she would have dismissed the real versions as just stupid kiddy stuff, yet the atmosphere in this room was stirring and contagious. “The birds and the bees were there!”

“Second half, go!” Medley called out, setting off the remaining fillies and colts.

They kept singing faster and faster as Medley sped up her playing. Eventually everyone lost their place and it ended in breathless giggles all round. They sat down panting, awash with grins. Even Vinyl was smiling wider than she had in a long time. It was an open smile, not the knowing, slightly cynical one she usually used. She felt great and the little ponies’ laughter only made her feel even better.

Medley put away her guitar and brought out the percussion instruments. “Okay, everyone, time to make some music.”

“Yay!” shouted the group.

“I want the giant triangle!” shouted Teddy, diving for it.

“Now, Teddy, what have I said about snatching?”

He hung back, shamefaced. “Can I have the triangle please?”

“Sure, since you asked first and nicely.” She gave it to him and he took it eagerly. “Sweetheart, do you want the chimes? You said you liked the sound they made last time.”

“Um, yes please.” The one-eyed filly accepted the instrument and stepped away as the others clamoured around Medley. Sweetheart spent a moment looking around before Teddy rolled his eyes and invited her to share the corner he had claimed.

“I want the maracas!” Jing-a-Ling wailed when she saw Lancer with them. “I want the maracaaaas!”

Lancer looked at them, then at her. He shambled over and held them to his chest. “Dop yeln.”

“Huh.”

“Dop yeln.” He mimed what he meant. “Doo noyee.” He pointed at her, then at his ears and winced. “An’ ruud. Dun yell an ahl givum d’ya.”

Jing-a-Ling squinted at him. “If … I stop yelling … you’ll give them to me?”

He nodded.

She clicked her hooves together and pressed her lips so tight they wrinkled up at the edges. “Mrrf!”

“Bedda.” Lancer nodded again and held out the maracas. “Dun natch. Noh Puhlide.”

“It’s okay, I won’t snatch,” Jing-a-Ling said, taking them gently from his distorted, hairless hooves. She gripped one in her mouth and one in her unbandaged hoof, but then paused. She looked at her bandages, then back at him, then at the maraca in her good hoof. She thrust it towards him and said through her grip on the other, “You wanna share?”

Lancer’s terrible face lit up. Though his mouth barely moved, it was clear he was trying to grin. “Uh-huh!”

Vinyl watched all these little exchanges, noting that the nurse was also doing so. She edged closer to the other mare. “Lancer seems like a real nice colt.”

“Oh, he is,” Nurse Bright Heart enthused. “Lancer’s a real trooper. He has physical therapy for two hours every morning and salve spells applied for an hour every evening but he never complains.”

“Am I allowed to ask what happened to him?”

“House fire.” She winced. “His family lives in one of those mansions on Luminary Hill. A fire started in his room and by the time anypony got to him the whole place was alight. It’s a miracle he survived at all.”

“Poor little guy. Still, he seems cheerful.”

“That’s because he lives for these sessions. He loves music. Since he can’t talk very well anymore, he likes making noises that ‘sound proper’, as he puts it. He also likes it that when he plays ponies listen instead of look at him.” Sadness tinged her voice. Vinyl could see she had a real soft spot for Lancer.

Vinyl watched as Lancer awkwardly sat next to Jing-a-Ling and they tried to shake the two maracas in time with each other. Jing-a-Ling concentrated so hard on getting it right that her tongue stuck out the side of her mouth. Around the ward, fillies and colts created acoustic chaos that echoed off the high ceiling and sterile walls. The place was alive in a way Vinyl would not have thought possible before seeing it in action. A burns unit was a sombre place, filled with ponies whose lives had been irrevocably altered by fire. A foals’ unit like this one should have been even more dismal, but instead it was filled with colours to be heard, not seen. She closed her eyes for a moment to soak in the happy pandemonium.

When she opened them again, however, she noticed one little tan pony not playing. He sat on a bed at the far end of the ward, hunched up and pointedly not looking at the others. Vinyl looked around, spotted the glockenspiel she had made fun of earlier, picked it up and headed over to him. When he saw her approaching he pulled the bed-sheet over his head, making himself into a little lump instead of a colt.

“Hey there,” said Vinyl when she was close enough for him to hear her without the need for her to raise her voice. “Don’t you want to join in?”

“No,” came the sullen reply.

“Aw, c’mon. It’s fun.”

“No it’s not. Get lost.”

Vinyl was taken aback by the raw hostility in his voice. She was about to do as he said when she stopped herself. He was only a colt. Since when did she take orders from little colts? She tried the cajoling path instead. “I brought you a glockenspiel. And a hitter thingy too.” She used a sliver of telekinesis to hold up both. “Which might be important if you’re not into hitting it with your head. Or butt. Actually, that might work too, but it’d be way less tuneful.”

“Go away!” the colt snarled. “I don’t want to play any stupid glockenspiel.”

“Are you sure?” Vinyl sat on the floor and placed it in front of her. She levitated the hitter and pinged out a note. “See? It’s not difficult.” She plinked and plonked and plunked randomly but the colt remained under the sheet. “I didn’t see you in the circle. Were you hiding then too?”

“The circle’s stupid. You’re stupid. I hate it when that green nag comes with her stupid instruments. Go away and leave me alone.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“I’m not very nice. So go away already.”

“Well that’s too bad, because some ponies would say I’m not very nice either. What’s your name, kid?”

“Go away!”

“That’s a weird name. Hi, Go Away, I’m Vinyl Scratch.” She hit the glockenspiel again. “Hey, Go Away, what’s your favourite song? Maybe I can ruin it on this thing by getting the notes all wrong.” When he didn’t respond she tried to hit another note but missed and struck two at once. The discordant sound was chiming and not altogether unpleasant but could hardly be called good music. The notes gave her an idea, however. Carefully and with many errors, she played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. It was the easiest thing to play on a glockenspiel and she eventually got to the end. Then she went right back to the beginning and tried to play it again without so many mistakes. “Do you recognise it yet?”

The lump moved. She managed to play it through twice more before the colt said, “You’re really bad at that.”

“You could always show me how it’s done.”

“No.” After a moment he added, “I’d be really bad at it too.”

“Who says? You can’t screw it up any more than I did on my first try.”

She hit a bum note and cussed under her breath when the hitter slid off the metal and struck her other hoof. That was what she got for playing the thing without using magic, but she had seen enough of the colt before he hid to know that he was an earth pony. It felt wrong to use her unicorn magic when she was trying to tempt him to have a go too. His huddled little body reminded her a lot of somepony and she was filled with the abrupt desire to make him smile like all the other fillies and colts had.

The lump moved. “You said a bad word.”

“So what?” She sucked the tip of her hoof, which hurt like blazes.

“You’re not allowed!” He said it like it should be obvious.

“Says who?”

“Well … adults.”

“I’m an adult. I say it’s okay to cuss a little when you’ve hurt yourself.” She hit the offending note. “Friggin’ glockenspiel.”

“Is that cussing too?”

“What, friggin’? Nah. I use it when I want to cuss but can’t because I’m in polite company.”

“Oh.” The lump moved again. The whole thing shifted closer and the edge pulled up, revealing a tan snout and nothing else. “How did you hurt yourself?”

“I slipped and got myself with this thing.” She held up the hitter, wishing she knew what it was really called. “I’m a lot less musical to hit than this thing.” To demonstrate, she played the first few notes of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ again. “See? I just say ‘ow’ and curse words.”

“And friggin’.”

“Yeah, and friggin’.”

“And those things are okay to say if you’re hurt?”

“I guess.”

“Could I …” A little tan hoof appeared, reaching for the hitter.

“Sure, but won’t you fall off the bed if you lean over like that?”

He didn’t reply, but he did tap the glockenspiel. A soft, high note rang from it. Across the room Teddy clanged the gigantic triangle with enough force to bring home an entire extended family of farm workers for their supper, but in that moment Vinyl had eyes and ears only for the little tan face easing out from under the bed-sheet. Strands of pale blond mane appeared too. The colt coming into view watched the glockenspiel with bright blue eyes, as if afraid someone might yell at him for what he had done. When nopony did, he hit it again. The note came clearer this time, and even louder the third time.

Vinyl wondered if she dared speak. Would that shatter the spell she suddenly felt like she was under? She opened her mouth but shut it again when the colt spoke before she could.

“Friggin’,” he said softly. He hit the glockenspiel again, a different note this time. “Crap.” He hit two notes in quick succession. “Friggin’ crap.” Two more notes followed suit, hit with such force that the metal bars jumped and Vinyl’s ears twitched involuntarily. “Friggin’ crap!” The colt kept hitting random notes with more and more force, each time repeating those two words like a mantra. “Friggin’ crap! Friggin’ crap! Friggin’ crap!”

“Uh, kid?”

“Balls!” he yelled, smacking the glockenspiel so hard it skidded a few inches towards her. He leaned out from the bed, putting one foreleg on the ground to balance himself so he could keep on hitting the glockenspiel. “Shit! Bastard! Crap! Friggin’ crap! Friggin’ shit! Friggin bastard shit crap balls – whoa!” Leaning too, he tumbled from the bed. His little body rolled towards Vinyl and she caught him, shoving aside the glockenspiel so he wouldn’t land on it and hurt himself.

“I’ve got you,” she said automatically. The hitter struck her in the side but she didn’t let go. In fact, her hold on him tightened when she saw his hind legs.

His hooves were twisted and ugly, riddled up to the haunch with partly healed burns and the leftovers of bandages he hadn’t quite torn off. The edges of each hoof curved inward, as if the natural rigidity had given way under tremendous heat and turned to jelly. The muscles above them were wasted, demonstrating more than words could that he wasn’t able to walk on them, much less do anything else. Yet most heart-breaking of all was his cutie mark – the mark all ponies wore that showed what they were best at in all the world.

The little tan colt’s was a soccer ball.

“Friggin’ crap!” he said brokenly, reaching behind him to hit the glockenspiel again. He had kept hold of the hitter. It was as if all the anger and injustice at his injuries had boiled up inside him and spilled over, spewing out at the instrument. Tears ran down his cheeks as he continued to beat it, producing a clear, high note each time.

“You’d be amazed at the powerful effect to be had from hitting something really hard and still getting a pretty note out of it.”

On impulse, Vinyl held the colt close. She didn’t know why she did it; it just felt like the right thing to do. After a moment the hitter fell to the floor and he pushed his face against her chest, sobbing enough to make his entire body tremble. Vinyl held him tight as he cried, tears prickling the backs of her own eyes.

“It’s not fair, kid. I know it’s not.” She thought of Octavia, upstairs in her hospital bed, dead to the world and all the music she loved. She might never be able to enjoy her special talent again either. “It’s not friggin’ fair.”

He couldn’t reply. He was sobbing too hard to form words. That told Vinyl enough. She rocked him back and forth, adopting a different rhythm than the one that thrummed through her when she was behind her turntables. Different, but no less powerful.

“I’ve got you, kid,” she repeated. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. I won’t let go.”

“I d-don’t w-wanna be l-like thi-is,” he eventually choked out. “I w-wanna be n-normaaal!”

Vinyl didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know enough of medicine or medi-magic to say whether he would ever be healed. In the dearth of words, she just kept doing what she was doing, which actually seemed to help. Eventually the colt stopped sobbing, though his body kept up a silent juddering long after his tears had subsided. Vinyl finally released her crushing embrace and allowed him to slump against her, all his strength spent by that wild burst of emotion.

Hoofsteps came up behind her. Feeling drained herself, she lifted her head to see Medley smiling down. She mouthed the words “Good job.” At her side, Nurse Bright Heart picked up the colt and deposited him in his bed, stroking his mane off his face with a gentle hoof.

Only then did Vinyl realise the room was completely silent. She peered around Medley to see all the other fillies and colts gaping. Even Jing-a-Ling was silent, though she hadn’t let go of her maraca. Medley turned and gestured at them. Still in silence, they gathered up the instruments and put them back in their cases with an ease that bespoke long practise. Medley pulled Vinyl to her feet and went to pick up the collection, but Vinyl used her telekinesis to lift it all herself – even the pieces she had previously left Medley to carry. She practically galloped for the door while Medley went around to each bed and said a quiet goodbye to the young patients.

Out in the corridor, Medley was more vocal. “You did a really good job in there.”

“Then why do I feel so friggin’ crap?” Vinyl winced at her own phrasing.

“You shouldn’t. You just made a real breakthrough with Ace. He’s being treated by medi-magic to re-form his hooves but he hasn’t responded to any treatments since he arrived last month and he resists everyone like crazy. We suspected why but he’d bottled things up so much it was impossible to get him to open up. What did you do?”

Vinyl thought back. “I, uh … cussed.”

“You what?”

“I told him it’s okay to cuss if you hurt yourself. I was just talking about stubbing your hoof or stuff like that, y’know? Not … whatever that was.”

Medley nodded. “Ace stole his father’s lighter and was playing around with it in the garage where nopony could tell him off. He knocked over a can of turpentine and set himself alight by accident.”

“He did?” Vinyl’s eyes widened. “So in his mind … he hurt himself?”

“I guess so.”

“Wow.”

“Wow indeed. You did something wonderful today, Vinyl. You’re a natural at this.” Medley bumped Vinyl’s shoulder with her own. “And I thought I was supposed to be the one helping you.”

“Say what?” Vinyl broke out of her thoughts about the tan colt to stare at her.

“Oh … ponyfeathers.” Medley looked embarrassed. She sighed and dipped her head a little. “Doctor Thorntree told me he was worried about you being cooped up in your partner’s room all the time. He thought maybe I could help you, since you’re so invested in music and I’m a music therapist …” She trailed off. “Please don’t be mad at him. He’s an interfering old coot but he means well. He was just worried about you. You seem to mean a lot to him.”

“I do?” Vinyl was even more surprised. She shook her head: one thing at a time. “So this whole time you were actually giving me therapy?”

“Didn’t you feel better after cutting loose with all that singing?”

She had to admit she did. Had. Still did. Whatever. Even so, she felt slightly miffed at the machinations behind her back. Or she would have, had it not been for what had happened in the burns unit. “I’m not mad,” she said truthfully. “At him or you. I feel weirded out by what just happened, and weirdly tired, and just … weird. I feel weird. But not mad.”

“I suppose that’s a good thing,” Medley smiled. “I wasn’t lying, by the way, or stroking your ego. You really did do a good job with Ace.”

“It didn’t feel like a good job when he was crying and snotting all over me.”

“Maybe not, but it’s the first step on a long road for him. He’d convinced himself he could never walk again so he didn’t bother to try at any of his physical therapy programmes and the medi-magic can’t do much without that. Patients undergoing that type of magic have to be able to visualise themselves getting better but Ace never could – or would. Now maybe he’ll be more open-minded about it.” Medley’s smile was sad. “He had also convinced himself he would never cry.”

“One crying jag can’t fix everything,” Vinyl pointed out, shuddering to remember Ace’s twisted hooves. The pain he must have gone through as they lit on fire beneath him, burning away hair and skin, down through flesh and –

“No,” Medley agreed, “but it’s catharsis.”

“Cath-what?”

“Catharsis. Getting all the harmful negative feelings out. Think of it like … an emotional burp. You can’t get at the good feelings underneath the bad ones until you’ve made the bad ones go away.”

Vinyl had a hard time believing that crying was good for that. Crying was what you did when you were weak and crumbling under pressure. It was a sign that ‘harmful negative feelings’ were getting the better of you, not that you were conquering them. “So he will walk again?”

“With time, maybe. That’ll be all up to Ace. Sometimes the best medicine is self-belief.”

Vinyl pondered that as they made their way along the corridor. It was time for Medley to go, so she levitated the instruments to the cart parked in the visitors’ lot outside. As Medley attached herself to the harness and slid her wings through the slats, Vinyl secured her equipment with the buckled straps attached to the inside of the cart bed.

“All done,” she called.

“Thanks. Will you flip the back closed?”

Vinyl obliged and stepped back, shading her eyes against the sun. She realised with a start that this was the first time she had been outside in a month.

“Hey, Vinyl?”

“Yeah?”

“Next time I’m here, do you want to join us again?”

Vinyl considered her answer. She thought of Ace’s twisted hooves and tearstained cheeks. She thought of Lancer’s mangled face, Teddy’s bandaged neck, Jing-a-Ling’s foreleg, Sweetheart’s missing eye, plus all the other injuries she had seen on the other members of the burns unit. They swam in her memory, but not as much as everything else: their laughter, their singing, the way they had shared instruments and space like they weren’t all broken in some way. Most of all, she thought of the feeling that had gone through her when Medley praised her for her inciting Ace’s breakthrough: a thrill of excitement that she had made a difference. Her, not anypony else.

“Sure.”


Doctor Thorntree sat in his office stroking his moustache. It was an old habit, one his ex-wife had chastised him for constantly. She had said it was unhygienic and that, as a doctor, he should know better. Part of him agreed, which was why he tried not to do it outside this room. After the divorce, his work was his life and he strived to appear professional at all times. It was only when he came here, to his little sanctuary with the blinds across the window and door, that he felt able to let the mask slip and just be Sloe for a while.

He had been a doctor longer than most ponies in Manehattan General had been alive. That was a sobering thought. He didn’t often feel his age. Most days he felt experienced and superior, as interns came to him with questions and nurses followed his orders to the letter, trusting his judgement implicitly.

Sometimes, however, when his legs hurt from standing all day, or his horn ached from long hours of surgery, or he realised he had almost walked out of his office with his glasses perched on top of his head … those times he felt old. And not just old, either, but old. Last birthday Nurse Apple Heart and Nurse Gentle Heart had bought him a pipe and slippers as a joke. He had laughed along with everypony else but been secretly put out at the implication. The two mares had only been joking but the gifts had been a reminder of his advancing years.

He dared not tell anyone that he wore the slippers while completing paperwork late into the night. He wasn’t ready for retirement yet. His mind was still sharp as a tack and his surgical skills had not diminished one iota. He could wield a scalpel defter than any surgeon in this hospital, no matter what their department or speciality.

So why did he feel so ancient today?

He levitated a cup off its saucer to his lips. The tea was only lukewarm, so he downed it in one and replaced the cup with a noisy jingle of ceramic. Other ponies settled for the coffee machine but he refused to drink that swill. One perk of tenure was an office with enough plug sockets to cope with an electric kettle, a microwave and a desk lamp. He hadn’t yet stretched to a fridge in which to keep the snacks he cooked, but that was more to force himself to go out and interact with others instead of sequestering himself away like some old hermit.

The lamp was off now but hung like the sharp edge of a guillotine above the papers he had spread across the desk’s surface. Octavia Philharmonica’s file was not as full as some. He had pulled all her records and learned that, prior to her accident, she had been a remarkably healthy young mare. One thing in her family history stood out, however, and it was this that had him stroking his moustache in deep thought for so long that he had allowed his tea to go cold.

He wondered whether Vinyl knew. She was a cagey mare; deceptively open while at the same time giving nothing away that hadn’t been prised out of her. She had the gift of the gab and no mistake. He had watched her skew conversations so that the other pony thought they were in control while she steered them from topic to topic of her own choosing. He had read an interview with her after finding a magazine in one of the waiting rooms with her picture on its cover – a far nicer one than that awful journalist Quillpoint had published. Over the past weeks he had learned that the energetic, spirited DJ Vinyl portrayed to the world was only half the story. Until today he had only been able to suspect the hidden truths to her character. Now he wasn’t sure whether he actually wanted to know them.

Vinyl was a bright, talented pony, the best in her field, with enough determination and gusto to take her right to the top – and it had cost her the pony she loved. Her story had nauseating parallels to his own. Substitute music for medicine and there he was, though Tulip had not nearly been killed by a stage light. She had walked out on him, though. When Vinyl mentioned coming home to a note, his heart had lurched in his chest at the memory of another pony’s spidery writing pinned to the fridge with a magnet shaped, ironically, like a heart.

Vinyl was the only pony who stayed later at the hospital than he did – and that was because she never went home. Some days he wished he didn’t have to either. Home to an empty apartment. Home to dinners for one. Home to everything in exactly the same place he had left it that morning. Home to a silence broken only when he turned on the radio and filled it with something other than the sound of his own breathing. Home was not the comfort it should have been even after all these years of time to adjust.

Vinyl had admitted she had thrown herself so fully into her career after Octavia left her that it blotted out all else. Sloe Thorntree knew that story. He knew it all too well. He knew it in the tick-tock of his office clock, the familiarity of his journey to and from home and the softness of the slippers his colleagues gave him on a birthday that just marked one year closer to retirement. What was to come after that? His empty apartment had never seemed as daunting as it did today, as he pictured a white mare’s blue mane also whitening with age as she worked on and on, alone apart from her grief and memories of her lover.

He glanced again at the sheet of paper that had caught his attention. He should speak to Doctor Crabtree about this as soon as possible, he thought. His horn glowed as he levitated the receiver of the telephone to his ear. It was connected to an internal system, yet he held down the button for an outside line. He hesitated only a moment before dialling a number he knew by heart by rarely used.

The line clicked. The connection wasn’t good. It probably wouldn’t go through. He should just hang up now. Yes, he should –

Someone answered. “Hello?”

His mouth was too dry to speak.

“Hello?” said the voice again. It had the same accent he did, all the consonants clipped and perfect. Well, they would be after all those elocution lessons Tulip insisted on ‘to stop her picking up that dreadful Manehattan accent’. Tulip had always hated Manehattan. She had hurried back to Trottingham the moment the divorce was finalised. “Is somepony there?”

He swallowed compulsively, trying to summon enough saliva to enable speech.

“Look, if this is a prank call, I’m hanging up. I’ve had enough of your perverts with your heavy breathing and –”

“No, honey,” he croaked. “It’s not a prank call. It … it’s me.”

The pony at the other end of the line was shocked. “Daddy?”

“Yes.” He tried to think what to say next. Things had been so strained after he and Tulip separated. She had blamed his dedication to his work for the failure of their marriage. Almost as if in defiance, he had thrown himself into that work afterwards and neglected everything else.

Everyone else.

“Daddy, are you okay?” Worry clung to the other pony’s voice.

“I’m … I’m fine, Willow.”

He closed his eyes, remembering a time long ago, when he had fed ducks in the park and pushed a tiny filly in a swing as she squealed to go higher. Work really had blotted out everything until it was too late. He had missed practically her whole foalhood and regretted it only after it was over. He had blinded himself to what was really important only after he had nearly lost it and then had to make tenuous overtures to a daughter he barely knew anymore. Their relationship was still so fragile he felt like a strong gust of wind or a single wrong would blow it away.

He pictured Vinyl, hunched in her chair at Octavia’s bedside, waiting fruitlessly for her to wake up; telling her things she could have said before, when they mattered, but hadn’t.

Speaking with more resolve, he said, “I just wanted to hear your voice. How have you been?”


Author's Note:

“Vinyl, I’d like you to meet someone.” Doctor Thorntree gestured to the mare. “This is Medley.

-- While I’m aware there is a background pony with the placeholder name ‘Medley’, this is actually the character from G1 given a revamp. I realised I was filling this fic up with OCs when there is already a wealth of unused characters from previous MLP generations to use, many of which made up my childhood, so quite a few of them appear in this chapter. ^_^ The ones named specifically are Medley, Jing-a-Ling, Teddy, Ace, Lancer (his canonical cutie mark is a fleur-de-lis, so make of that what you will considering it matches a certain G4 background character), Sweetheart and both Melody and Ting-a-Ling get described but never actually named. Info and images of Medley, Ting-a-Ling and Jing-a-Ling can be found at http://mylittlewiki.org/wiki while http://mlptales.wikia.com/wiki is best for the rest.

“Uh-huh. For six years I cleared the skies, herded rainclouds, bucked bolts and carved snowflakes.”

-- Not so subtle references to ‘The Last Round-Up’ and ‘Snowdrop’.

The filly looked down at her hooves as the other shouted out suggestions. Her eyes slid left to the blue colt but immediately snapped back again. “Um …Teddy Bears’ Picnic?”

-- I don’t know how prevalent this song is outside the UK and US, so here is a link for reference, just in case -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZANKFxrcKU.

“I went to the animal fair! The birds and the bees were there!” Medley sang. “By the light of the moon the hairy baboon was combing his auburn hair!”

-- I have fond memories of singing this one around a campfire at Girl Guides and the lyrics are the ones I remember, which don’t quite tie in with a lot of the versions on YouTube, so I went for the most similar as reference for those who don’t know the tune -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUW5Fe1eJHA.

Last birthday Nurse Apple Heart and Nurse Gentle Heart had bought him a pipe and slippers as a joke.

-- Those Apple ponies sure do get everywhere. ;)

Sloe Thorntree knew that story.

-- My fondness for wordplay and obscure facts coming into play here. ‘Sloe’ is another name for the blackthorn tree, one of the only true indigenous thorn trees in the UK. Incidentally, at Christmas, lots of people make ‘sloe wine’ from the berries.

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