Playing With My Heart

by ObabScribbler

First published

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?

Four years ago Vinyl and Octavia broke up. It was messy, painful and left scars on both of them. Four years on, now one of the most successful DJs in Equestria’s history, Vinyl receives news that Octavia has been in a terrible accident. The doctors say she may never recover from her coma, but Vinyl refuses to believe them. There are all sorts of stories about coma patients who are brought back by the voice of someone they care about, right? No matter what anypony else says, offers or threatens, and no matter what it costs her personally or professionally, she is determined to stay by Octavia’s side and do all she can to wake her.

But four years is a long time, and no matter how many fairytales end with the princess waking up, real life owes no-one a happy ending.

Featured on EQD - 3rd August 2013

Now with a fabulous dramatic reading by the even more fabulous Goombasa!
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPJutr2gUiE&list=UU4c-khcV1wmr1l_ZRfdp9uQ]
[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibcPvvXSn8c&list=UU4c-khcV1wmr1l_ZRfdp9uQ]

1. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you?”

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1. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you?”


DJ-Pon3 was a slick, sassy and sensational. Ponies from all over Equestria regularly competed for tickets to see her and scalpers could make a month’s rent from one night avoiding authorities outside her shows. Even ponies who didn’t like her style of music had to agree she was one heck of a performer. With her penchant for ending concerts up to an hour after the scheduled close if she was enjoying herself, elaborate lighting displays, dancers that doubled as acrobats and arguably the quickest hooves on the turntable circuit, whether at a club, on a stage or in an open amphitheatre, DJ-Pon3 gave one hell of a show.

The pony who slammed through the doors of Manehattan General was not slick, unless you counted the rainwater gluing her mane to her skull. She was not sassy, unless you counted the way she sassed the receptionist. She was definitely not sensational, unless you counted the tantrum she threw in the middle of the waiting area. She did, however, give one hell of a tantrum.

“What do you mean you can’t tell me where she is?”

“Family only,” said the receptionist, a middle-aged mare with hair the colour of barbed wire and a mouth to match. She flipped through her notes, though it was clear she wasn’t actually reading them. “You’re not family.”

“I’m practically family!”

“’Practically’ doesn’t cut it, ma’am.” She said ‘ma’am’ the way others might say ‘nutcase’. “Blood relation, spouse or adoptee. Are you any of those?”

“Well, no, not exactly, but –”

“Then step aside please. You’ll have to wait down here for news. Next!”

Two white hooves planted themselves on her desk. Given that the receptionist was protected by an enchanted, shatter-resisted window with a hole cut in the bottom, the dramatic move was ruined by lack of space to properly slam them down. “Listen, I need to get in there. I ran all the way here from the friggin’ Palladium! I skipped out on a sold-out show to be here!”

“My heart bleeds for you,” the receptionist deadpanned. “Rules are rules. Next!”

“Why you –”

“Next!”

“Listen, can’t you just –”

“Next!”

“Augh! I’m not going anywhere no matter how many times you say that.”

“Ma’am, if you don’t move I’m going to have to call security to forcibly remove you from the hospital.”

The two mares engaged in the kind of staring match that, if sheer willpower were converted into a physical force, would have levelled a city block. Neither said anything for several seconds – long enough for a hesitant voice to interrupt.

“Is that … are you DJ-Pon3?” A young stallion, no more than a colt really, levered himself off the row of uncomfortable plastic chairs to get a better look. He crept closer, face lighting up. “You are her, aren’t you? I almost didn’t recognise you without your glasses.”

She was in no mood to pander to a fan right now, but her instincts as a consummate performer kicked in. She tried to keep DJ-Pon3 and Vinyl Scratch separate, but becoming a big star had blurred the lines. Nevertheless, it was definitely DJ-Pon3, not Vinyl, who turned her mouth up in a smile and shot off a salute that she usually used to end each show. There were no fireworks exploding behind her this time but the effect was the same.

The colt squealed like a filly half his age again.“Sweet Celestia, it’s DJ-Pon3!”

“Who? Hey!” The mare in the chair he was standing in front of pulled her hooves in. “Watch the merchandise there, junior!”

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” he giggled, not seeming to realise he had stepped on her when he jumped up and down. “I can’t believe I’m, like, three feet away from DJ-Pon3! This is so cool!” He blinked, looking around at where they were. “Or … maybe not. Why are you here? Aren’t you meant to be doing a concert tonight? I tried to get tickets but they were all sold out by the time I convinced my dad to make them my birthday present.”

“Yeah, there’s a concert tonight.” A concert she had run out from. A concert that was going to cost her record company a whole lot of bits to reimburse. A concert she should turn around and head back to – except that there was no way that was going to happen. “I’m here because my … friend was admitted.”

“Aw, dude, that’s harsh.” The colt trotted up to the front desk. Evidently he had heard enough to understand some of what was going on. Or maybe he had simply felt the tension crackling through the air. He landed his own hooves on the desk and leaned towards the hole to speak to the grim receptionist. “Look, lady, do you know who this is? This is DJ-Pon3 and she has a concert to perform tonight to over three thousand ponies at a little place called the Manehattan Palladium. Maybe you’ve heard of it? So why don’t you just tell her what she wants to know and then she can get back to those three thousand ponies who are all waiting for her? Okay?” He leaned back, as if his intervention had solved everything.

“Family only,” the receptionist impassively replied.

He deflated. “Can’t you make an exception?”

“No.”

“But she doesn’t have any family!” Vinyl exclaimed in frustration. “We grew up together in a friggin’ orphanage. Check your records. It’ll say so.”

The receptionist consulted her note, this time actually reading them. “Hm.”

“What ‘hm’?” Vinyl demanded. “Is that a good ‘hm' or a bad ‘hm’?”

She rose to her hooves. “Wait here, please. I need to consult somepony.”

“Yeah, well … you go do that!” Vinyl called after her. The riposte was weak and made more so by the door behind the reception desk slamming shut. She sighed harshly and raked her mane off her face. It was bucketing rain outside and she had galloped several dozen blocks to get here. She must have received some strange looks but she was beyond caring, her mind awhirl with what Quaver had told her.

“In the hospital? Why? For how long? Is this why she hadn’t been returning any of my calls? I thought she was just mad at me. Where is she? Which hospital?”

“One question at a time, Scratch!”

Quaver didn’t like her. Vinyl knew that. His insistence on not using her full name was a constant reminder. That just made it more significant that he was the one to come and tell her. She wondered absently whether he was he still at the Palladium. She couldn’t imagine that well-groomed pony dashing into the rain.

The colt next to her jiggled from hoof to hoof. Vinyl glanced sidelong at him. Did he need the bathroom or something?

“You okay, kid?”

“Could I … um … c-could I … couldIhaveanautograph?” he babbled.

She sighed. “Sure, why not. What do want me to sign?”

He scuttled back to his chair, upon which sat a backpack ornamented in swirls of marker pen. She realised after a moment that they were actually lyrics. Moreover, they were all things she had remixed. Off the zipper hung a collection of key-rings bearing her image, her logo and that cartoon version of her from the failed TV show pilot that had aired last year. The kid really was a fan. Most ponies didn’t even know of that cartoon’s existence. He rummaged in his bag and brought out a CD, which flashed under the halogen strip-lights. It was her latest album. He also retrieved the eponymous marker pen, which he presented with a flourish.

“Who should I make it out to?” Vinyl asked.

“Tone. I mean Dulcet!” He flushed. “Dulcet Tone. Sorry, I’m just so … I mean you’re … my name’s Dulcet Tone,” he finished in a mumble.

She blinked at him. She had left her shades at the concert, which was just as well, since she couldn’t see crap in the dark while wearing them. She might have ended up under a carriage or a taxi-cart in the street and been whisked here herself as a patient. Then again, if that meant she got past this friggin’ desk it might be worth trying.

“This is so awesome,” Dulcet continued to mumble excitedly. Even though she was signing his CD he kept jiggling so that no more than two hooves were on the floor at once. “I’m almost glad my cousin fell out of my treehouse and broke his collarbone. Not that I don’t like the dude or anything, but if he hadn’t then I’d be home right now instead talking to you. I have all your CDs! They’re on a special shelf in my bedroom. My mom says it’s going to collapse one day but I refused to put any in the attic when she said so. I got to see you once when you performed at the Hearts n’ Hooves Charity Concert – I was right at the back but I saw you on the big screens and it was so totally amazing!”

“That’s great, kid. It’s always cool to meet somepony who likes what I do.”

“Like? Like? I love your music! You made me want to be a musician when I grow up.” For a moment he pouted. “My mom made me pick trombone as an extra-curricular though. I don’t want to be a dumb trombonist. I want to be a DJ, like you!”

Vinyl smiled tightly. So did hundreds of other ponies, if not thousands. She wondered how many actually realised the amount of work involved to make it in the music business, let alone rise to the top like she had. A band of nausea snapped across her stomach. A thought like that, right now? Here? Topical yet terrible. She knew exactly how much you had to sacrifice to get to the top.

Before Dulcet could say more the door behind the empty receptionist chair opened and the grey mare reappeared, followed by a pony in a white doctor’s coat. She looked like she had swallowed the contents of a doggy poop bin in the park. When the doctor unlatched the door into the waiting room and came through to speak to Vinyl, it became clear why.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, Miss Scratch, my colleague was misinformed about who was allowed entry. If you’ll accept our sincerest apologies and follow me, I’ll escort you from here.”

“About friggin’ time.” Vinyl finished signing ‘DJ-Pon3’ across the front of the CD with a jagged underline and gave it back to Dulcet. “Thanks for the assist, kid. I appreciated the effort.”

“Wow.” He stared at the autograph like she had used liquid gold instead of ink. “So. Awesome.”

She stepped after the doctor but paused, struck by a thought. “Hey, kid?”

His head snapped up. “Yeah?”

“Don’t knock being a trombonist. All music’s cool, yeah?”

“Um, yeah,” he agreed, even though a few seconds ago he had clearly hated the trombone.

“Maybe someday I’ll do a remix of some famous trombone piece, yeah?” she offered. She knew Indigo would throw a fit if she did and call it unmarketable, but the encouraging words rolled off her tongue anyway.

Dulcet’s eyes rounded and she could hear him squealing under his breath as she followed the doctor to the elevator.

“My name is Doctor Thorntree,” he said, pushing the button. “I’m the neurosurgeon assigned to this case.”

“Case?” Vinyl said sharply, all thoughts of trombones and her agent driven from her mind. The elevator pinged and they stepped inside, slightly skewed versions of themselves reflected in the mirror at the back. Her white coat matched Doctor Thorntree’s mane and tail, though he had obviously gained his colour from age. His coat was greying but had clearly once been gingery orange, his flank bearing a stethoscope and scalpel that stood out against the pale fur. “What case? Quaver told me there was an accident.”

He nodded. “There was. A stage light, I believe. It came loose and fell during a rehearsal. The incident occurred…” His horn glowed as he levitated a clipboard out of one oversized pocket to hover in front of his nose. “Seven days ago.”

“A week!? A friggin’ week!? Why didn’t you tell me this before? Was I not important enough? I knew you hated me, but this is low, even for you.”

“You always have to make everything about you, don’t you? This isn’t about you, Scratch. It’s about her.”

“Exactly!”

They exited the elevator when the doors pinged open. Vinyl noted the sign on the wall that read ‘Neurology Department – Recovery Unit’. It was quieter than she had expected. Their hooves echoed as they walked to an unassuming door labelled ‘Room 219’. Apparently there weren’t many ponies on this floor. Even the nurse’s station, which was right outside, had nopony there at present.

Doctor Thorntree pushed open the door to Room 219 and gestured for Vinyl to enter. Once all four of her hooves were across the threshold she stopped, unable to go any further. Her insides compressed in on themselves like a black hole had spontaneously opened in her gut and was sucking them through. Even when he cleared his throat she remained frozen, every scrap of her taken up with staring at the sole bed and its occupant.

“Miss Philharmonica has a special clause in her health insurance mandate stating that you are to be treated as family.” Doctor Thorntree cleared his throat again. Maybe he was choking on his moustache, which was the size and shape of a juniper shrub, or maybe her intensity was just unnerving him. So few ponies were born with red eyes, it always unnerved others when she stared, especially if she didn’t blink for a long time. “This is, if you’d like to hear the details.”

“Go ahead,” Vinyl said flatly.

He cleared his throat again. “Blunt force head trauma was the most significant injury. She sustained a depressed fracture that required surgery. There were also some complications from brain swelling. It was necessary to remove a small piece of skull to give the brain room to expand.”

“You took part of her skull away?”

“Only temporarily. Once the swelling had gone down the piece was returned and a small valve was placed inside the skull to measure pressure on a moment-to-moment basis.” Doctor Thorntree looked up at Vinyl, who still hadn’t moved. “Do you want me to go on? I’ll understand if you don’t.”

“Go on,” she said, her tone still flat as a shadow. “Tell me everything. All the gory details. And don’t try to dumb it down or sugar-coat it for me. Tell me exactly what’s wrong and I’ll ask if I don’t understand.”

“All right then. If you insist.” He cleared his throat. “I first have to emphasise to you that trauma to the head is a complex issue. It can produce many problems because so many components may be injured. Brain tissue is surrounded by the skull and also by a tough membrane called the dura, which is right next to the brain. Within and surrounding both of these are arteries, veins and important cranial nerves. The most obvious damage from head trauma is a broken skull, but even more dangerous is if these blood vessels, nerves, or the brain tissue itself are damaged. Miss Philharmonica’s injury was life-threatening because the impact of the stage light did not merely splinter her skull but broke an entire piece off and pushed it inwards onto the dura and brain. However, because she was operated on quickly, ischemia was avoided.”

“Is-what?”

“Sorry. Ischemia. When trauma is enough to swell the brain, the blood supply to it may be blocked, which can lead to tissue death.”

“Tissue? You mean brain tissue? That didn’t happen to her, right?” Panic edged Vinyl’s question. Tissue death? That meant brain damage, didn’t it? Octavia couldn’t be brain damaged. That wasn’t possible. It would be too … too …

Except that it was. It was entirely possible. The weight of that reality settled over Vinyl’s brain like a shroud.

Doctor Thorntree shook his head. “No, she suffered no significant tissue death during the surgery.”

She blew out a sigh, which hitched when he continued.

“However, after the surgery was completed she did not regain consciousness when she should have.”

“Yeah.” Vinyl choked slightly on the bowling ball she didn’t remember swallowing. “I can see that.”

Octavia looked so small, surrounded by beeping machines and stuck all over with wires and tubes. Her skin was exposed where they had shaved her fur, leaving ugly pink patches, slightly raised where needles poked in. A gigantic swathe of bandages encompassed the whole top half of her head. They were clean and such a bright white that they hurt Vinyl’s eyes but she could all too easily imagine them red with blood.

Octavia’s blood.

Vinyl could see nothing but her eyes. The lower half of her face was obscured by a breathing mask that looked like it belonged in some sci-fi movie. Octavia’s eyelids were closed, the eyes beneath perfectly still. Vinyl remembered waking more than once and watching her in the predawn light, wondering what she was dreaming about that had her closed eyes moving faster than a caffeinated jackrabbit.

“There’s something called the Glascow Coma Scale,” Doctor Thorntree was saying. “It’s how we assess the severity of patients with head injuries. It runs from zero to fifteen based on various parameters and tests – things like motor functions, responsiveness to light and the like. Fifteen is the best prognoses possible, with little to no lasting effects. That usually refers to things like concussions. Less than eight is the worst prognoses.”

“And what does she score?” Vinyl croaked.

He hesitated before admitting, “Three.”

Vinyl’s heart sank. With great effort she asked, “What does that mean for her?”

He hesitated again. “How blunt do you wish me to be?”

“I said I wanted all the gory details, didn’t I?” she snapped acidly.

He recoiled a little but spoke in the same calm manner. He had probably learned to talk that way at doctor school, she thought bitterly. “Her score would rise significantly if she recovers consciousness – but there’s no guarantee she will after this long. However, that’s not to say she won’t, and if she does there’s a twenty-five to thirty percent chance she would have a reasonable to good long-term outcome. That means she would retain full control of all her brain and bodily functions. However, there’s also a seventeen percent chance she would sustain moderate to severe disabilities.”

“Those sound like okay odds.” They didn’t, not really, but twenty-five percent in favour of Octavia waking up and still being Octavia was better than a seventeen percent chance of … something else.

Doctor Thorntree audibly breathed out, though once again his tone did not change. “There’s also a thirty percent chance she will die. Or she may remain in a permanent vegetative state, as you see here. The fact that she has not recovered consciousness at all since the surgery is not a good sign. Even a small moment of waking would raise her score but there has been nothing. To put it in layman’s terms, the longer she stays in her coma, the less likely her chances are of a good recovery.” He winced. “Or, indeed, any recovery.”

If Vinyl had thought her heart dropped before, now it plummeted through the floor, smashed through all the stories below and tunnelled into the earth, where it found a dark cave and huddled, whimpering to itself. “I …” She stopped, unable to think what to say. “Magic. You’re a unicorn. Isn’t there some sort of magic you could do to help her?”

“You’re thinking of medi-magic, I suspect.” Doctor Thorntree paused, as if thinking how best to phrase himself.

Vinyl was suddenly transported back to her school days, the years before Octavia came into her life, when she couldn’t give a rat’s butt about her grades and spent more time blowing spit-wads while the teacher wasn’t looking than actually paying attention. Her bravado had only stretched as far as end-of-semester exams, when she sat and stared at questions she had no idea how to answer while her classmates beavered away and left her in their dust. Knowing Doctor Thorntree was putting things into smaller words for her to understand made her feel just as stupid and useless as she had back then.

“Medi-magic is … problematic,” he said at last. “It’s a controversial issue. Perhaps you’ve seen things about it on the news? No? Oh. Well, you see, because the brain is such a complex, uh … thing.” He watched for her reaction. Vinyl pulsed with irritation but motioned for him to go on. “Because it’s so complex we don’t fully understand how it all works. What we do know is that exposure to magic can cause unpredictable side-effects, some of which can be worse than the initial injuries a doctor is working to repair. This is especially true if the magic they use is more than basic telekinesis, or if a patient possesses a great deal of magic. I could, for example, lift and use tools during an operation that requires more delicate work but no more than that, and even then I would have to take into account whether a patient is a unicorn, pegasus or earth pony. The more magic a patient has, the less a surgeon can use when operating on them.”

“So what you’re telling me,” Vinyl said slowly as her brain raced to keep up, “Is that medi-magic is a big bunch of donkey dung?”

“Not at all!” Doctor Thorntree looked affronted. “It is simply not as widely used as some might think – especially since such a high proportion of doctors are unicorns. There are some hospitals that champion its use but Manehattan General is more circumspect. Um, what I mean by that is –”

“I know what circumspect means,” Vinyl bit off. “Whatever. Tell me what that means for Octavia.”

“It means that because she is an earth pony I was able to use telekinesis during surgery to ensure the repair work on her skull was completed with an extra delicate touch. However, because I was operating on her brain, I could use no more than that and would not recommend using any medi-magic to supplement her healing progress, since nopony can guarantee what sort of side-effects it may have.”

“What do you mean by ‘side-effects’?”

“Ruptured arteries. Memory loss. Early onset Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis. There are other documented consequences but these are the most common.” Doctor Thorntree put a hoof on Vinyl’s shoulder like he expected her to knock it away. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a lot to take in all at once.”

Vinyl wanted to shrug him off but hadn’t the energy. “So there’s nothing you can do to wake her up? Drugs or something like that?” Surely there was something. You heard all the time about how medical science was getting better every day, even if medi-magic was no use.

“Other than take care of her physical needs and maintain palliative care, no.”

“Palli-what?”

“We can dull the pain for if she does wake up.”

“Oh.” Vinyl swallowed compulsively but her mouth was dry as a desert. “I should’ve … been here,” she croaked. “Sooner. I should’ve been here sooner.”

“I’ve heard a lot of loved ones say things like that. I’ll say to you what I’ve said to them: you cannot change what is past and you cannot predict the future, therefore you must focus on the present. Your friend is alive, Miss Scratch, and the surgery was successful. The swelling in her brain has gone down and I can see no reason why her skull fracture will not heal cleanly.”

“But she’s still in a coma.”

“Yes, but that isn’t to say she will remain in one.”

“But you said her Glass-thingy score is only three!”

“Again, yes, her GCS score is less than optimal, but that isn’t to say her fate is written in stone. You must focus on the positive rather than negative.”

Vinyl turned away. “Easier said than done. I’m seeing a crapload of negatives and not many positives.”

“The most significant things in life usually are easier said than done. That does not make them any less worthwhile.”

His words struck home. They entered through Vinyl’s ears but sparked things in her heart that she hadn’t allowed herself to feel for a long time. In the farthest recesses of her memory something stirred. It felt like a box opening – a box she had shoved a great many things into before snapping off the key in the lock. Doctor Thorntree’s advice was apparently the mental equivalent to a locksmith. Though Vinyl would usually sit on the box to keep its contents from getting out, now she let it creak open and a few memories slipped free.

“Hi there. I’m Scratch.”

“My name is, uh … my name is Octavia Philharmonica.”

“Wow, two names. Classy. Hey, you don’t gotta sound so nervous. I don’t bite, I promise. Well, not very hard. We’ve all had first days and they always suck. You want me to show you around?”

“I … I suppose so.”

“Wow, you talk real funny. Where the heck are you from?”

“Trottingham, but I was living with my aunt here in Manehattan until she … um … until she … mrrf!”

“Hey, you don’t gotta talk about it if you ain’t ready. We’ve all got stories about how we got here. How about I give you the grand tour and you ask me questions about living here and work real hard at getting that scared rabbit look off your face? Afterwards, we’ll take it from there. Sound good?”

“It … I … yes, that sounds good.”

Vinyl could still remember pressing her hoof to the frightened grey filly’s mouth to stop her talking about the obvious pain behind her eyes. Now she couldn’t even see Octavia’s mouth, much less touch it.

She spotted a chair in the corner of the room. It was just like the uncomfortable plastic things downstairs in the waiting area. She forced herself to move, dragging it to the side of the bed before sitting down. She inched it back a little, in case she accidentally jarred one of the many machines attached to Octavia. Only then did she look at the doctor.

“Is it okay if I stay?”

“By all means. Talk to her. You may have heard stories of patients who wake up when they heard the voices of ponies they care about. Well, they aren’t as commonplace as media would have you believe, but they aren’t all bunkum either.”

“Bunkum?” The word distracted her from the suspicion that he was only saying that to make her feel better. It was a very Octavia word. Vinyl narrowed her eyes at the doctor. “Your accent … where are you from?”

“Me?” Doctor Thorntree looked surprised at the question. “Silverdale. It’s a small village outside Trottingham,” he added when the name provoked no recognition.

For no explicable reason whatsoever, that gave Vinyl comfort. She looked back at the bed, though it still made her stomach lurch and her heart cower in its burrow. “I thought it might be something like that.” When she was silent for several minutes she heard him start to trot away. “Hey, doc?”

“Yes?” He sounded put out. Evidently he didn’t like his title being shortened.

“I need to contact the Manehattan Palladium and tell them I’m not coming tonight.”

2. “You should laugh more. It’s nice.”

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2. “You should laugh more. It’s nice.”


“I swear to you, dude, it’s DJ-Pon3!”

“Who?”

“You know!” The porter waved his hooves wildly. “The DJ!”

“I guessed that from her name. Is this something to do with that dubstep garbage you like listening to?” His friend continued pushing a gurney and snapping his gum, wondering where he could stick it that nopony would notice. It had totally lost its flavour. Maybe under the table in the cafeteria …

“It’s not garbage. It’s totally awesome. You have no taste.” The first porter lifted his head sharply as an idea came to him. “She did a collaboration with Sapphire Shores. You like her, right?”

“Sure, I like Sapphire Shores. That mare is fine! Plus, she can actually sing, not just play around scratching up records on a gramophone.”

“Gramophone? What century are you living in, dude? Anyhow, DJ-Pon3 worked with her on a single last year.”

“Which one?”

“Hoof to Hoof.”

“Really?” His friend was surprised. “I like that single.”

“So you like DJ-Pon3!”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well you should like her. She’s awesome.”

“Well that single wasn’t garbage, I guess. So she’s here in the hospital? What’d she do, break her wrist on a record player or something?”

“They’re called turntables and I don’t know,” the first porter said truculently. “But I swear to you, dude, she’s right here in this very building. Isn’t that awesome?”

“It’d be more awesome if you’d quit steering this gurney into the walls, ‘dude’.”

“Whoops! Sorry Mr. Storm Star.”

“He’s unconscious, dummy. He can’t hear you.”

“Oh.”


“Is she still awake? It’s your turn to check.”

Nurse Merry Heart peered around the edge of the door. She snapped back like a foal trying to pluck up the courage to visit the scariest house in town on Nightmare Night. She scurried back to the nurses’ station, which was essentially an oversized semi-circular desk piled high with paperwork, abutting a wall of shelves also crammed with bulging folders of paperwork. “Yes, she’s still awake.”

Nurse Flower Heart shook her head. “That has to be at least forty-eight hours now, assuming she didn’t sleep during the day before she got here. Has she eaten anything?”

“I saw her go to the vending machine earlier when the interns were checking on her friend. I was changing Mr. Grizzleberry’s bedpan so I wasn’t paying much attention to anything except not splashing myself.”

Flower Heart frowned. “A candy bar is no substitute for real food. Hasn’t she been to the visitors’ café?”

“I don’t think so.” Merry Heart mirrored the frown. “Does she even know there is one? I don’t think she’s gone further than the bathroom at the end of the hall since she got here, in spite of how loud that stallion in the suit yelled at her.”

The dark blue unicorn stallion had marched in like he owned the building and stomped into Room 219 before anypony could stop him. The two nurses had been able to hear his raised voice from three rooms away, even above Mr. Grizzleberry’s yelling. They would be so glad when the crotchety old goat was discharged and hoped never to see him again – provided he didn’t try butting heads with his neighbour again and end up back in the neurology department.

Flower Heart wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t like that stallion. His suit was cheap. Plus, did you see how he oiled his mane? Never trust a stallion who oils his mane, my mother always used to say.”

“Your mother used to say never to trust any stallion.”

“Well, she was usually right. Especially about the bums in our neighbourhood - and especially about ones who oil their manes, wear cheap suits and yell at ponies sitting vigil at their friend’s hospital bed. I mean, who does that? Seriously, who’s that cold? Bruiser – y’know, that colt in security I’ve been seeing? He told me they had to carry him out – literally carry him out – when he tried to force her to leave with his telekinesis. The idiot was yelling and cussing and causing such a ruckus about the fact she’s missing work. I mean, can you believe it? What a … a …”

“Doodyhead?”

“Actually, I was gonna say cretin. Doodyhead? What are you, a filly? No adult says ‘doody’.”

Merry Heart sighed. “You get out of the habit when you have kids.”

“What habit? Cussing? That’s just sad. How the hay do you cope when Mr. Grizzleberry drops grapes on the floor and then pinches your flank? Or when he deliberately unplugs his monitors? Or when he throws his dinner out the window and then tells his daughter we ain’t feeding him? I gotta go into the break room and yell obscenities at the wall.”

“I internalise and imagine a pool of soothing blue calmness.”

“Soothing blue … have you been listening to those relaxation tapes again?”

“… Maybe. Look, I had to justify buying them, okay?”

Flower Heart paused. “We should bring her some actual food.”

Merry Heart didn’t need to ask to whom she was referring. Flower Heart had been her friend for years and she was used to the other mare’s habit of wandering off the topic only to snap back to it when everypony else in the conversation had forgotten what they started talking about. “I have some couscous I made for my lunch. I always make too much in case you’re still hungry after you have yours. It has those peppers in it you said you like. Do you think she likes peppers?”

“How should I know? She barely said two words to me in all my shifts.”

“She must be saving her breath for the patient.” Merry Heart paused. “It’s touching, I guess. They aren’t related, are they?”

“Not according to the records,” replied Flower Heart. “But she got some sort of special clause that says we’re supposed to treat her that way anyhow. Doctor Thorntree was very particular about making sure we knew that. Apparently that receptionist, Kind Wishes? Y’know, the one who looks like she needs a stick-in-butt-ectomy?”

“I know the mare.” Merry Heart pulled a face she last saw her son make when she served him boiled spinach. “I still don’t understand what her parents were thinking. Why didn’t anypony encourage her to change her name when she got her cutie mark? I mean, a clipboard? A clipboard with math on it? That cutie mark and ‘Kind Wishes’ don’t go together. If either of my kids turns out to have wildly inappropriate names when they find their special talents, I wouldn’t mind if they chose to change –”

“As I was saying,” Flower Heart interrupted, adjusting the bun on the back of her head with an air of annoyance. “Kind Wishes messed up and Doctor Thorntree had to go all the way down there to apologise, so he made real sure we all know we’re supposed to treat that mare like family.” Her hoof hesitated in tucking back a lock of unruly mane. “Uh, I mean the patient’s family, not ours.”

“Wow.” Merry Heart was impressed. “They must be really close for somepony to go to that kind of effort. I know my health insurance wouldn’t let me do anything like that. I’m lucky if they’ll call my husband’s heart attack a heart attack and not an ‘episode’ so they don’t have to pay for as much treatment.”

Flower Heart, however, was not listening. She pursed her lips in thought. “Hey, do you think they’re …” She looked around before tapping her front hooves together meaningfully.

“Huh?” Merry Heart didn’t understand for a moment. When she did, her cheeks flushed. “I wouldn’t know! Besides, I don’t think it’s any of our business.”

“But it would make sense,” Flower Heart insisted. “Who else would do what she’s doing?”

“A friend?”

“No friend of mine would.”

“Hey, I’m your friend!”

She waved a dismissive hoof. “You know what I mean. You’d come to visit me, sure, but you’d eventually go home and feed your kids, see your husband, take care of the day-to-day things. That mare has pretty much put her life on hold to be here, even though there ain’t no telling how long it’ll be before anything happens.”

Disgruntled at the insult, however unintentional it had been, Merry Heart had to agree. “She practically hasn’t stopped talking the whole time. Every time I go past I can hear her voice. I wonder what she has so much to talk about.”

Flower Heart lifted her shoulders. “Search me.”


Vinyl’s eyelids pulled like she had tiny weights hanging from each eyelash. She shook off sleep for the millionth time and carried on her one-sided conversation.

“So she said to me, ‘You can’t count that as music’, which was just friggin’ rude. You know what I said to her? Well, you should, since it’s pretty much what I said to you the first time you bashed one of my mixes. Remember that? I said ‘The feel of music is as important as the sound of it’. I was always pretty proud of that line. I was especially proud because you couldn’t disagree. You always said music was about feeling as much as hearing. Remember, back in school? You always wanted to get in that extra hour of practise when I wanted to go home. Was it twice or three times the janitor accidentally locked us in? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. I should totally use that line as an album title someday. Maybe I could remix some of your quartet’s work. One of your concertos would sound ace with a beat. What do you think? Huh, Tavi? What do you think of me defiling one of your precious concertos with some dubstep?”

Octavia didn’t respond. She hadn’t so much as flickered in all the time Vinyl had been there.

Vinyl’s heart had crawled back into her chest a while ago, but now just sat like an aching lump of meat, beating only enough to keep her alive. Not even using Octavia’s nickname had provoked anything.

In the early days, when Vinyl had been trying to draw the nervous filly out of her shell, Octavia once chased her across every single bed in the girl’s dormitory at the orphanage for calling her ‘Tavi’. It was the first time she had really lost her temper or done more than whisper nervously and look sad. Feathers had gone everywhere when she launched a pillow at Vinyl’s head and it snagged on her horn. They had both been in so much trouble. Matron had forced them to repair the pillowcase and all the sheets they had muddied. Vinyl had never been able to look at soap flakes again after her hooves turned wrinkly from washing. She recalled how Octavia had sewed the way she played cello, her foreleg moving with even, fluid strokes.

“That was so unbelievably cool.”

“How can you say that? We got into trouble.”

“So what? I’m always in trouble. At least this time I had fun first.”

“You’re a bad influence.”

“Excuse me? I wasn’t the one who started that pillow fight. You have really good aim, by the way. I bet you’d be friggin’ ace at paintball.”

“You always use that word. What does it even mean?”

“What, ace?”

“No, the other one.”

“Paintball? You don’t know what paintball is?”

“No, I … oh, never mind. It sounds rude, whatever it means.”

“Hey, Octavia?”

“So you do remember my real name.”

“Ooh, the sarcasm! It burns! I was just gonna say it was good to hear you laugh. It was a shame Matron had to come in and spoil everything. You should laugh more. It’s nice. In fact, I’m gonna make that my new mission: make Tavi laugh more.”

“I told you, my name is Octavia!”

“For Celestia’s sake, Tavi, will you wake up already? I’m busting a friggin’ gut out here trying to think up new things to talk about. Wake up and yell at me for saying friggin’, at least. Or correct how I pronounce words. I’m almost as bad now as when you met me. Tell me my accent’s hard to understand. Criticise my grammar. Anything.” She let her face fall into her hooves. “Just … wake up already. Just … wake … up …”

The next thing she knew, somepony was gently shaking her shoulder. She startled and nearly fell out of the chair.

“Careful!” It was one of the nurses, a pale green unicorn with a bright yellow mane. Wisps had come untucked from the bun all the nurses wore and curled around her ears and bottle green eyes. Her cutie mark was a red cross, also just like the others who answered that calling, but a sunflower bloom decorated one side. She spoke in the same harsh accent Vinyl had once possessed, indicating she was from the Boondocks, a part of the city renowned for toughness and poverty. “Hey there, sweetie. Feel any better? You’ve been asleep a couple of hours.”

“Hours?” Vinyl was horrified. “No, I can’t have … that’s not possible.” A quick glance at the clock on the wall said otherwise. She had wasted three hours she could have used to stop Octavia fading further from the waking world. She imagined her words like a fishing line constantly being cast in the hope it would snag on something, her voice the lure to keep Octavia from swimming away into oblivion.

“You obviously needed the rest, sweetie,” said the nurse. “You were running on empty. You’ll be no good to anypony if you exhaust yourself into a hospital stay of your own. I’ll bet you ain’t eaten more than a candy bar, either. Look here, I brought you something to eat, to keep your strength up. Do you like couscous?”

Vinyl stared at the plastic container and spork. “I … huh?”

“We figured it’d be contrary to our jobs to let you starve. Do you think your friend would appreciate you passing out by her bedside because you didn’t take care of yourself on her account?”

“I … no, I guess not.” Vinyl accepted the container. “We?”

“Nurse Merry Heart and me. I’m Nurse Flower Heart, by the way.” Like all nurses, she had added the word ‘Heart’ onto her name like the other bookend to her cutie mark. Nursing sure was meticulous when it came to that sort of thing.

“Oh. Right. Thanks. This is … this is really generous of you.”

“Ain’t no bother, sweetie.” Nurse Flower Heart patted her on top of her head. She was a generously proportioned pony, so her pat shoved Vinyl’s neck down an inch or two. “Actually, it was Nurse Merry Heart who fixed it, but we both reckon you should eat something substantial if you’re planning to stay here a while.”

Vinyl looked back at the bed. “Yeah, I’m planning to stay.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, sweetie, for how long?”

Vinyl considered this for a moment. “As long as it takes, I guess.”

“Um …” The nurse looked uncomfortable.

“Yeah, I know there’s a chance she might not recover. I want to stay anyway.” Vinyl swallowed her first bite of couscous. She had never eaten the stuff before. It was surprisingly tasty. The peppers gave it a real tang. Or maybe that was just her ravenous hunger talking. She realised with a jolt that she was starving and practically inhaled the food. “Or worse,” she said through a mouthful. “But there’s also a chance she could wake up. She’s a fighter. You’ll see. She plays with one of the top classical quartets in the entire Manehattan music scene.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh.” Vinyl shoved more couscous into her mouth to prevent the next words itching to get out: Not that I’ve ever seen them perform. “They play at functions and parties. She even performed at the Grand Galloping Gala last year.”

“For Princess Celestia herself?” Nurse Flower Heart sounded genuinely impressed.

“Yup.” Vinyl couldn’t help the pride in her voice. Of course, they had shared the stage with half a dozen other instrumentalists and Quaver had put a dampener on proceedings by rehearsing them morning, noon and night until they could all barely see straight. Still, Octavia had gone to every rehearsal early and stayed later than everypony else. Her dedication was staggering. Vinyl had always admired that, from their music lessons at school to just last week when Octavia told her all this.

Had it really only been a week ago that they last spoke? Octavia had said to call her and then never picked up or responded to any messages. Vinyl had thought old scars were too hard to get past. She was now left to wonder whether Octavia would have called her back, had she been able. The very real possibility that she might never know was terrifying.

The nurse looked at Octavia appraisingly. “I was never into all that classical music, myself. I prefer me some jazz.”

“Each to their own,” Vinyl shrugged. She put the spork inside the empty container and passed it back. “Thanks. That really did hit the spot.”

“See? I said you needed some real food.” The nurse made to leave, but paused in the doorway. “Sweetie, I ain’t being rude, but how come you’re still here? You could always go home, get some sleep in a real bed and then come back again.”

Not you too. Vinyl could still remember Indigo’s shouts as the security ponies escorted him away. He was going to be majorly mad, even after he calmed down from that. “I just want to be with her. Is that so wrong?” she snapped, more harshly than she intended.

Nurse Flower Heart raised her forehooves. “Whoa, sweetie, you can stay as long as you like. Ain’t no hair off my snout. Personally, I think it’s sweet that you’re so devoted to your, uh …” She trailed off, as if realising she had no end to her sentence only when she got midway through it.

Vinyl understood in a heartbeat. “We’re not a couple.” Not anymore. But we might have been again, if this hadn’t happened. Maybe.

“Oh. I understand. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cause offence.”

“I’m not offended. She’s a wonderful, kind, gifted mare. Anypony would be crazy not to fall in love with her after five minutes in her company.” She looked up, but the nurse’s image had fractured into dozens of tiny shifting blurs. She blinked, cursing inwardly until the traitorous wetness was reabsorbed. She would not cry. She had promised long ago that she would never show that kind of weakness again. “She’s got this super sense of humour too, even though you wouldn’t know it at first. It takes a lot to make her laugh, but she’s got that whole sarcastic wit thing down pat. She used to have me in stitches with the things she’d say about our teacher whenever he turned his back.” She chuckled, the noise only slightly jagged around the lump in her throat. “And the things she’d say about the school orchestra conductor when … when … damn it.” She coughed the croak from her voice like it had offended her.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Nurse Flower Heart said softly. “It sounds like you two are pretty close.”

“We are. Were. We had a … a falling out a few years back.”

“This isn’t working, Vinyl. You know it and I know it.”

“She didn’t speak to me for … a long time, but recently she got in contact and we started talking again.” Vinyl closed her eyes against the wash of memory. Old wounds could hurt just as much as fresh ones. “I guess it doesn’t matter. If she wakes up, she might not even remember me. She might be a vegetable.” She gave a short, humourless laugh. “She used to make me eat all the vegetables off my plate, even the ones I didn’t like.” One of the manifold things that had irritated her, but which she had grown to love over time, and eventually missed just as much as everything else. “Could … could you leave me alone please? I … want to be alone with her for a while.”

“Sure thing, sweetie.” The nurse backed through the door and pulled it shut behind her.

Vinyl sucked in a breath, gathered her thoughts and started talking again. “Hey, did I tell you about the cartoon show they nearly made about me? Only the pilot got animated in the end, but I was played by a celebrity voice actor…”


“Sweetie?” Nurse Flower Heart tapped the open door lightly with her hoof. She could be surprisingly delicate for a pony of her size. “I got some visitors out here to see Octavia. Just thought you might wanna know.”

“Huh?” Vinyl wondered who it could be. The sound of their voices reached her seconds before the ponies themselves. Of course. Who else could it be?

“Oh!” Cavatina, one of the violinists in Octavia’s quartet, froze in the doorway when she saw Vinyl. Behind her two other ponies urged her forward. They stepped into the room one after another, until they were ranged in a line like three soldiers instead of musicians.

“What are you doing here?” Quaver demanded.

He was the leader of the group and its designated spokespony, even without consulting the others. His brown coat and black mane were just as perfectly clipped and coiffed as the last time Vinyl saw him. Even from across the room she could smell the oil he put on his hooves each day so his grip didn’t damage his viola. Octavia used to wear it too after she joined them. Vinyl saw the bottle in the bathroom cabinet every day and had once spilled it on the rug. The stuff stank so much the smell endured even after the rug had been cleaned several times.

Vinyl threw the rug out after everything went wrong, unable to bear the memories it invoked.

She met Quaver’s eyes impassively. Easier said than done, as she wasn’t wearing her shades and felt sure she must be giving off sparks at his tone. “Where else would I be?”

He snorted. “Anywhere but here.”

“Quaver?” Cavatina tapped his shoulder. She was a petite, pale violinist who looked like she had once been bright yellow before somepony put her through the wrong washing machine cycle. Her cream coloured mane and tail only made her look more like a used dishcloth, Vinyl thought uncharitably. “Quaver, why is she here?”

“You could always ask me yourself,” said Vinyl, shifting her gaze to look at the other mare instead. “You don’t need a go-between.”

Cavatina shrank behind Quaver as if she was frightened Vinyl might get up and bite her. “Why are you here?” she asked tremulously. Everything she had ever said around Vinyl had been spoken tremulously. It was intensely irritating.

“Quaver told me what happened.”

Cavatina was aghast. “You told her, Quavey? Her?”

Irritation frosted Quaver’s features, though whether at Vinyl’s presence, because she had spilled the beans, or because Cavatina had called him ‘Quavey’ wasn’t clear. “That was days ago. Shouldn’t you be on a tour right now? I thought the Palladium was the first date on a tour.”

“Yes, it was.”

And hadn’t Indigo thrown a hissy fit over that? It was only five dates over a two week period, mostly small gigs, but the Palladium had been the cornerstone of the whole affair. The ponies in charge had said they understood but Indigo had railed at her for her unprofessionalism and she had not been able to argue. She had run out on a gig without warning. It was one of the worst sins in the industry. There was no way to sugar-coat it.

A thought suddenly occurred to her. “Hang on, you knew I was going on tour, Quaver? Is that why you waited a whole week to tell me what had happened?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Did you except me to leave and never find out about the clause Tavi put in about me being treated like family?”

Quaver actually looked shocked. Beside him, Coda mirrored his expression – as long as you were talking about a fairground mirror that made everything looked bigger. He was the other violinist of their group but looked like he belonged in the ring wrestling somepony with a name like ‘The Masked Mangler’.

“She didn’t,” Coda breathed.

“She did,” Vinyl confirmed.

“Why would she do that? She hadn’t even seen you in four years.”

“Apparently I mean more to her than any of you thought.” Though she lifted her chin in a ‘so there’ gesture, Vinyl wished she could put her hoof on her heart and say this was true. She didn’t know why Octavia had allowed her access like this when in all other ways she had pushed Vinyl out of her life.

“Ridiculous!” Quaver shook his head and took a step towards her. It occurred to Vinyl that he was trying to be threatening. It would have held more weight if he wasn’t wearing spats. “You need to leave. Now.”

“Nope.” She leaned back in her chair, linking her forelegs behind her head. “Actually, I don’t. I’m staying right here, whether you three like it or not.”

“She wouldn’t want you here!” Cavatina appeared from behind Quaver to spit the remark.

“Wow, you almost sound brave for once,” Vinyl replied easily.

“Go away!” The words snapped across Cavatina’s palette like they were full of sharp edges. Unlike Octavia, her accent was the result of long hours practising to hide her Hoofington brogue. She gave Vinyl a poisonous look before disappearing again behind Quaver’s reassuring frame.

“You mean you don’t want me here.” Don’t lose your temper. That didn’t work out last time with these ponies. Don’t, don’t, don’t lose your temper with them. “That’s different. Tavi wants me around. Otherwise, why would she have called me last week and talked about meeting up?”

“She didn’t!” Coda protested.

Quaver merely stared at Vinyl, his jaw so tight a small muscle jumped in his cheek.

“You knew, didn’t you, Quaver?” Several things suddenly added up in Vinyl’s head. “You knew she’d called me.” Rage uncurled inside her like a waking dragon. “So why did you wait a friggin’ week to tell me she was in hospital? Did you hope I’d just go away? Leave to go on tour and be out of the way where none of you had to deal with me?”

“You’re not good for her,” he replied softly. “Or did you forget?”

Vinyl’s spine straightened. “That was four years ago.”

“Four years or forty, it doesn’t matter. You’re a bad match. You make her miserable.”

Vinyl wanted to object, but instead shot back, “Says the pony who barely met me before he threw me out of his theatre. You don’t know anything about us.”

He lowered his head, peering at her from under hooded eyes. “Doesn’t that say a lot?”

The dragon hissed and spit, but its fire breath turned to ice. Part of Vinyl, the part that still remembered the feel of a window frame against her sides as she tried to wiggle through it, cringed at his accusatory question. “You don’t know anything,” she said again, though not with the same fervour. “Tavi and I were happy together.”

“So why did it end so badly if you were so happy?”

She fell silent, searching for a comeback. “We were happy. Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You’ve never seen a million bits but you know it exists.”

Quaver rolled his eyes. “Don’t try that old chestnut. Maybe you were happy. I don’t know. She never talked about you after that day.”

The whole dragon turned to ice in Vinyl’s stomach; a cold, crystalline lump weighing her down. “Never?”

Cavatina reappeared, a triumphant light in her pale green eyes. “Never. She forgot all about you.”

“Butt out, you,” Vinyl snarled, turning her impotent rage on the smaller mare. Cavatina squeaked and went back to hiding. Quaver actually stepped in front of her protectively. His stance was that of a warrior willing to take arrows and slingshots for somepony else. Coupled with the pet name Cavatina had used, Vinyl wondered if they were an item. He certainly wasn’t protecting Coda the same way.

“How do you know how she feels? How are you fit to judge me or our relationship? You’re just her colleague.”

“Wrong. I’m her friend.”

“Or are you something more? She won’t even talk to me! Are you the reason? Are you sleeping with her?”

“Get a grip, Scratch. You’re being totally irrational, not to mention hysterical.”

“I’ll bet that’s it. You old pervert! There’s no way she’d ever refuse to see me unless you were pouring poison into her ear. You’re just trying to keep her for yourself–”

“That’s it. You’re leaving.”

“I’m not going anywhere until I’ve seen Tavi.”

“Oh yes you are.”

Past conversations rose in Vinyl’s memory like butterflies, flashing to the front of her mind in brief splashes of colour and sound, and then gone again as she refocused on the present. Quaver looked older now. Four years had put lines around his eyes. How the heck did somepony like him get laughter lines? He never friggin’ smiled! He was substantially older than Octavia – middle-aged at least. The whole quartet was a different generation than her. She had been ecstatic when they selected her to join them.

“I’m the youngest member they’ve ever had, but Quaver said I’m the most talented cellist he’s ever seen and I’ll only get better as I get older. Isn’t it wonderful?”

“That’s great, Tavi!”

“Vinyl! Vinyl, put me down! Viiiinyllll, I’m getting dizzy!”

“Hey, if you puke, I can say I got puked on by the youngest, most talented cellist the Quaver Quartet ever had.”

“Vinyl, you dork.”

“Hey, you used one of my words!”

“It seemed appropriate.”

“Well do you know what’d make this dork put you down?”

“What?”

“If she could also say she kissed the youngest, most talented cellist the Quaver Quartet ever had.”

“Vinyl …”

Memories. So many memories. The good ones hurt even more than the bad. Vinyl shoved them away. It used to be so easy to put aside things she didn’t want to think about and concentrate on her work instead. Work blotted out everything. Why was it so much harder now?

Maybe because Octavia was right in front of her, injured, helpless and further away than she had ever been even though Vinyl could easily reach out and touch her hoof. You couldn’t push aside thoughts of a pony when she was right under your nose.

Likewise Quaver and his band of merry idiots. No matter how much Vinyl wanted it, they weren’t going away. Why should they? These were the ponies of Octavia’s world since she and Vinyl parted ways. These were the stallions and mare who had been there for her over the last four years when Vinyl had not. These were her colleagues and, yes, her friends. They had been there when she was happy, supported her when she was sad, worked with her, socialised with her, done everything that Vinyl once had – or once should have done.

Three phone calls. That was Vinyl had to go on. One hesitant, awkward and brief – an unexpected thing she would have missed if she hadn’t arrived home early from the recording studio. The second had been planned and longer, though no less awkward. Vinyl had locked her door and spent the whole time twirling the phone cord nervously around her hoof, until she worried she would pull it out of the wall and lose even that tenuous connection to the pony who had once been her whole world. The third was longest of all, ending with the cautious question Vinyl had wanted to ask since the beginning.

“Can … y’know … maybe I could see you sometime?”

“Oh, I … I don’t know about that, Vinyl. I still don’t even know if this much was a good idea.”

“We’ve been talking for nearly three hours. That’s a long time for you to start doubting now.”

“We have? Really? For that long? Goodness gracious. Why … why are you laughing?”

“I haven’t heard anypony say ‘goodness gracious’ in ages!”

“Oh.”

“No, no, it’s … it’s nice. I missed it.”

“You always made fun of the way I talk.”

“And you didn’t? I remember you giving me elocution lessons the whole summer before the Academy.”

“Golly, I’d forgotten about that.”

“So … what do you say? We could meet somewhere neutral – someplace we’ve never been before.”

“I don’t know, Vinyl, I really don’t.”

“Can I at least ask you a question?”

“Isn’t that one?”

“Why did you call me?”

“I … because we arranged for me to phone you today.”

“Not this time. The first time.”

“I … I don’t … Vinyl, I …”

“Octavia? Are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here. I’m not sure why I phoned you. I just … I suppose I … missed you.”

“It’s been four years.”

“Yes, it has, hasn’t it?”

“You only just missed me now?”

“Vinyl, don’t. Don’t push me. This was a difficult decision. I wanted to pick up the phone before but I … I never plucked up enough nerve. You’re so famous now. You jet-set all over the place and I … I’m still just me. Then the time got longer and longer and I … Look, you could have phoned me!”

“I didn’t have your number. You cut all contact, remember?”

“Oh. Yes. Right. And I suppose that … would have been a bit awkward after … what happened, wouldn’t it?”

“Just a smidge.”

“Careful, Vinyl. You’re starting to sound like me.”

“Wouldn’t be a bad thing. A ridiculously uncool thing, but not a bad one. Hey, wow, is that actual laughter I hear?”

“Maybe.”

“You should laugh more. It’s nice.”

“Yes.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, I’ll meet with you. Just … just give me a chance to think where we can go. But yes. My answer is yes, Vinyl.”

“Friggin’ A!”

“Scratch? Scratch!”

“Huh? What?” Vinyl stared dimly at Quaver for several seconds before registering his scowl.

“You should leave, Scratch.”

Vinyl’s hooves curled. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t lose your temper! “No.”

“Nopony wants you here.”

“Except the one who counts.”

“She’s not here to vouch for you.”

“She’s right there, or did you miss the friggin’ obvious?” Vinyl gestured sharply at the bed. “What’s the matter, Quaver? Does it bother you that you can’t throw me out this time?”

Quaver glanced at his friends and let out a short breath. “Fine. We can’t stop you from being here, however much we want to.” He paused, as if assessing the wisdom of his own thoughts before letting them reach his mouth. “But could you at least let us visit in peace? She means a lot to us and this is hard enough as it is without you watching.”

For the first time, Vinyl noticed the strain in his face. She had been so focussed on his scowl she had missed the extra layer of stress coating all of them like a film of grease they could smear but not wash off. If she looked in a mirror, she guessed she would see it all over herself too.

“Fine.” She got up and moved away from the bed. “But don’t you dare try pulling anything to make the hospital throw me out, Quaver.”

“Go away, Scratch.” Quaver sounded tired, some of the fight gone out of him. His neck wasn’t as arched as it had been when he came in. His ears were half-turned, not quite flattened but no longer perked either. His gaze rested on Octavia and the myriad machines surrounding her. “Please,” he added quietly.

Vinyl backed out of the room and didn’t protest when they closed the door.

3. “Broken hearts make ponies do stupid things.”

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3. “Broken hearts make ponies do stupid things.”


The sun was setting. Vinyl watched it sleepily through the window. She yawned into a hoof and snuggled in the chair amidst the blankets her housekeeper had brought over to make it a little less uncomfortable. She never would have thought she was the type of pony to need or want a housekeeper. True, she loathed cleaning with a fiery passion; and true, Octavia used to drop a wet dishcloth over her eyes while she slept as a gentle reminder that the plates in the sink were growing mould. Even so, paying someone to clean up after her had never crossed her mind until Indigo set hoof in the apartment three months after Octavia left and declared it a health hazard.

Vinyl sighed. No matter what she thought of, everything spiralled back to Octavia somehow.

Gwendolyn, the goat sent by the agency ‘Dolly Mops’, was such a wonder that when Vinyl finally moved from the apartment, leaving behind all the painful memories it contained, she had taken her along to her new swish house in Green Lake, the upper side of Manehattan where you couldn’t even go to fetch your morning paper off the step without spotting a celebrity neighbour. Vinyl wasn’t sure she needed all the rooms in the house but she sure needed someone to keep her from messing up one after another whenever she was home, as well as someone to make sure there was food in the fridge so she didn’t starve to death by forgetting to buy things while she was working. Nowadays, with her time filled by so many things even her agent had trouble keeping track, Vinyl didn’t know how she had ever managed without a housekeeper.

Well, all the things she had been doing until now.

Nine days was a long time to take out of a schedule like hers. After the cancelled concerts and personal appearances, reporters had finally come sniffing around Manehattan General. Their ingenuity was one challenge after another to hospital security. Some claimed they had appointments. Some pretended to be visiting other patients. A couple even pretended to be patients, resulting in a hefty fine for wasting paramedics’ time and one penitent reporter with a broken collarbone. Another journalist from the Coltchester Courier actually scaled a drainpipe, despite being an earth pony of considerable girth who had no way to stop himself when his weight pulled the pipe off the brickwork.

“Can you believe the stuff these hacks print?” Vinyl asked Octavia. She smacked the newspaper levitating in front of her. “According to them, I hit you with my carriage and that’s why I’m doing this. I don’t even own a friggin’ carriage! Plus they got your name wrong. Who the hay is Octavia Melody?”

“G’night, sweetie.” Nurse Merry Heart called from the doorway. She had her jacket on and a pink scarf wrapped about her neck. The scarf was full of ugly bobbles and pulled threads. Vinyl knew from talking to Nurse Flower Heart that Merry Heart’s son and daughter had knitted it for her for Mother’s Day and selected the wool to exactly match her mane and tail. They had even tried to add white tassels to match the rest of her coat too, though most of those had fallen off. “My shift’s over, so I’m going home.”

“Goodnight,” Vinyl waved back. “Say hi to your kids for me, okay?”

“Sure thing, sugar. Thanks again for that autograph. Glow danced right the way around our house holding it in the air. All her little friends at school are jealous. Of course, Chip pretended he didn’t care until I gave him that CD.”

“Cool. Just let me know if you want any more.” When she was gone Vinyl leaned in close to the bed. “Hey, Tavi, what do you say we go to that filly’s school and surprise her once you’re out of this place? She can worship the ground I walk on while you try to convince her classical music isn’t more boring than watching grass grow.”

Octavia’s lids remained closed.

Vinyl blew out a sigh. “Yeah, you’re right. That’s a dumb idea. Classical ain’t as bad as all that.” She paused. “Sorry. Isn’t.”


Bruiser didn’t ask for much out of life. He enjoyed his job, was good at it, owned his own apartment and even had a girl he got to see most days at work. Of course, Flower Heart never let anything happen at work, but he minded that less than he’d thought he would. He wasn’t exactly a colt anymore and was learning to appreciate a mare who respected herself as a way of respecting him. It didn’t even bother him that she was a terrible cook who couldn’t even heat up canned soup without it turning into a culinary disaster. He liked to be needed, and not just because his muscles kept muggers away, although that was pretty good too. Being better than somepony in the kitchen was a new and novel experience he had yet to grow tired of.

So when he saw Flower Heart and her pal leaving the building, he trotted over to catch her before the sliding glass doors shut behind them.

“Hey, Flower Heart! Hey!”

She turned at the sound of his voice, and then looked back at her friend. “Catch you tomorrow, Merry.” She turned back to him, smiling, but he noted instantly that her eyes were troubled. Flower Heart could no more hide her emotions from him than he could fit into a teapot.

“What’s up, doll-face?” he asked.

“Your hooves if you call me doll-face again and force me to punch you out.” She said the words automatically, her half of an old joke they had shared since they started dating. Everypony assumed that two ponies from the Boondocks had to have a relationship filled with blazing arguments – especially if one of them was big enough to take on a bear in a hoof-fight and win, and the other could out-cuss any sailor if pushed far enough. Bruiser imagined it would disappoint a lot of stereotypes if they knew he and Flower Heart had reasonable discussions and compromises instead of knock-down, drag-out fights. He didn’t think she even owned a rolling pin.

“Seriously, Flower, what’s wrong? You got a face on you like a dog waiting to be fixed by the vet.”

She pulled a face. “Ew! You couldn’t think of anything better than that to compare me to?”

Bruiser shrugged. “So what’s up?”

She sighed. “Feh. There’s a patient upstairs who ain’t looking too hot.”

“Ain’t the first time you’ve dealt with one of those.”

“I know, but this one’s got a visitor attached.”

“Ain’t the first time–”

She cut him off. “I know that too, Bruiser. This one’s … I don’t know, it’s different somehow. It feels different to me. It’s hard to explain what I … You ever seen real devotion?”

“Huh?” Bruiser scratched his head with one soup-plate hoof. “Like, with family?”

“Not family.”

“I had a dog once who kept breaking outta our building to follow me to school. Does that count?”

“It’ll do. Imagine that times a hundred and you’ve got this pony. The thing is, the patient? It ain’t good.” Flower bit her lip. “I mean it really ain’t good.”

“You’re thinking the patient might die?”

“No, but maybe …” She chewed her lip again, biting down so hard she left teeth marks Bruiser couldn’t help watching as she spoke. “I feel awful for even thinking it, but maybe that’d be best. At least then sh… the visitor could grieve and move on. I’m worried that if the patient remains this way … broken hearts make ponies do stupid things.” She shook her head. “What am I saying? I shouldn’t even be talking about this. Sorry, hun.”

“Hey.” He chucked her under the chin, gently forcing her head so she met his eyes. “Quit that. I know how it is. This place gets under your skin. You got it way worse than I do. I know I’m here to deal with scumbags, so it’s hard when I gotta deal with hysterical loved ones causing a ruckus instead. It makes me feel like crap when I gotta throw ‘em out. You? You gotta deal with all that and more. You put on a good act, sweet-cheeks, but you don’t fool me with that tough girl attitude. It don’t do nopony any good to keep inside the kinda junk we get outta this place. If you can’t talk to me about it, who can you talk to?”

“You lunkhead,” she murmured affectionately, rolling her eyes. “You ain’t nothing but a softy underneath all that muscle.”

“Shh. Don’t let that get around or I’ll have to pound a few heads to keep my rep intact.”

“You just keep yourself intact.” She grabbed the collar of his uniform and pulled him close for a quick smooch. “Dinner at mine tonight?”

She would order in. She always ordered in. She liked grande sized pizzas with all the toppings and could match him bite for bite. Last week they had tussled over the last slice until they rolled off the couch onto the floor and forgot all about food. He had found it stuck in his tail afterwards and hadn’t even cared. He liked that Flower Heart wasn’t skinny. Once upon a time he had told himself he would only ever date leggy, lean mares with high cheekbones and hooficures, but these days he couldn’t imagine being with anypony but Flower and couldn’t imagine her being anything but the way she was. If anypony had told him when he was younger that one day he would prefer a chunky girl who not only couldn’t cook like his Ma, but couldn’t cook at all, he would have laughed in their face. You really couldn’t predict the future, no matter how much you thought you could.

“You betcha, doll-face.”

“Ooh, you are so asking for it.” She biffed him playfully on his shoulder.

He laughed and turned away to return to his post. “I get off shift in a couple of hours, so keep the pizza warm for me.”

“How’d you know I’m ordering pizza?”

He grinned. “Lucky guess.”

He had only gone a few steps she called him back. “Hey, Bruiser?” She hesitated before continuing, “That dog. The one that kept following you to school. What happened to it?”

He winced at the memory of leaving school one day to find the dog dead in the road, having been run over by a carriage while it was crossing the street. He had been wracked with guilt that it had died trying to see him and refused to have another pet in case it loved him so much it, too, died and left him bereft. The foalish logic had stuck and he had never had a pet in all his adult life either.

Sensing this was exactly the wrong answer to give Flower Heart, he paused before replying, “Lived a long and happy life. Plus he had a great time making about a million puppies with the neighbourhood dogs.”

“Ew!”

Bruiser saw out the end of his shift without any problems. He almost wished another reporter would try something, just to break the monotony, but the time ticked by and he clocked out without incident. As he slipped his time card back into place, however, Flower Heart’s words echoed through his mind and he once more saw the troubled look in her eyes.

She didn’t often look that way. She was a professional and good at keeping herself just distant enough from patients and their families that their suffering didn’t derail her own sanity. It was all too easy to let the tragedies and heartbreaks get to you in a place like this. Bruiser had been at Manehattan General for fourteen years and witnessed the departure of more than a few who couldn’t make it past basic training. Flower Heart was not one of those ponies.

He hesitated, glancing at the clock. “Aw, horsefeathers.”

The trip up to Neurology was as uneventful as everything else had been that evening. Maybe he was doing this out of simple boredom and nothing more. Yeah, that was probably it. Nevertheless, he exited the elevator and went several yards before realising he was walking on tiptoe. The night nurses looked up from their station, raising eyebrows at his presence, but didn’t question it. A security uniform was like a free pass anywhere in the hospital.

“Hey, Cherry Heart?”

“Yeah?” The nearest nurse got to her hooves, revealing a red cross cutie mark wreathed in bits of pink blossom. “Can I help you, Bruiser?”

He paused. This was dumb. What the hay was he even doing? Yet once again, Flower Heart’s face and voice returned to him.

“This one’s … I don’t know, it’s different somehow. It feels different to me. It’s hard to explain.”

“Do you got a patient up here with a visitor who’s been sticking around, like, longer than usual?”

Cherry Heart visibly relaxed. Apparently she had assumed he was up here to deliver bad news or evacuate them. She nodded at the door directly across from the nurses’ station. “Room 219. Why?”

“I’m investigating something.”

She exchanged a look with her companion, a black stallion called Loyal Heart who was one of the few male nurses in the hospital. They both wore matching looks of curiosity.

“Nothing bad,” Bruiser added. “And nothing that affects you two. Just … something. Mind if I look in?”

“Be our guest,” said Cherry Heart. “I think they’re both sleeping, though, if you wanted to talk to … well, you could only talk to Miss Scratch.”

“Miss Scratch, huh?” Flower Heart had diligently not mention names when talking to him downstairs. Bruiser had heard of the pony ‘Vinyl Scratch’ when all those reporters started casing the hospital, especially from one of the new batch of porters who hadn’t even been here six months and seemed to think transporting patients and equipment around the hospital was some elaborate game of pony pinball. Bruiser hadn’t recognised the mare’s name but knew she was famous for some reason. No wonder Flower Heart hadn’t wanted to identify her when talking about her concerns in a crowded waiting room.

He couldn’t hear anything from the room so he peered around the edge, noting the slowly revolving ceiling fan and heavy air. It smelled strange; clean but redolent of something he couldn’t place. It didn’t take him long to pick out the bed and pony in it, since the room was typically bright. He often wondered how patients got any sleep when hospital policy was to keep the lights on all the time.

The white mare in the chair was doing her best to show everypony else how to do it. Her body sprawled, torso looking as if it had erupted out of the blankets that had pooled around her waist when she flung herself across the bed. Evidently she was a restless sleeper, stretched as if she was trying to climb over the bedridden pony’s hind legs to get to the other side. Her own hind legs were concealed by red tartan that didn’t match any part of her startlingly white coat or variegated blue mane. Her face was turned away from the door but her chest rose and fell with an evenness that could only come from sleep.

Emboldened, Bruiser stepped fully into the doorway and examined the pair, wondering more than ever what had inspired Flower Heart to worry about them. The scene reeked of tragedy, sure, but no more than any other case. Heck, the patient looked like she still had all her limbs and no facial scarring. If anything, she looked better off than some patients he had seen –

At that moment the white pony rubbed her nose as she slept, turning her face towards the door in the process. Her eyebrows were wedged into an expression of deep distress and held none of the smoothness that usually came with slumber. Instead, her whole body vibrated with tension and she hugged the other mare’s legs as a foal in its crib might hold a comfort blanket, reassuring itself that the inexplicably precious thing had not gone away while it slept.

Maybe he made some noise, or maybe she instinctively felt his gaze on her. Whatever the reason, the white mare’s eyes opened. She looked directly at Bruiser, her own gaze a sleepy but disturbing red. Bruiser had never seen eyes that colour before and backed away a few steps before he caught himself. What was he doing? He was the freaking security guard, for Celestia’s sake – the senior security guard. He retook those steps and a couple more besides, asserting his stallionhood by closing the distance between him and that unnerving, unblinking red stare.

He expected the mare to sit up, ask him what he was doing there, or at least make some comment on his presence. Just as his uniform was a free pass to get around the hospital, it was also a powerful truth serum and loosener of tongues. He had lost count of the number of ponies who had revealed the inner workings of their minds to him simply from suspicion of why he was standing near them.

This mare, however, did not sit up. In fact, she just blinked a few times and curled a hoof further over the unconscious pony’s body. Bruiser realised after a few seconds that she was putting herself between him and the patient, as if trying to protect her from him by using her own body as a shield. Him, of all ponies! He was twice her size and could beat her in a fight blindfolded and with both hooves behind his back. Yet she had perceived him as a potential threat and acted accordingly, at least in her own drowsy mind. Her body language was clear: This pony is mine and whoever you are, I don’t care, you can’t have her.

The silent action drove Bruiser backwards to the door again. He paused in the ridiculous game of hokey-cokey and nodded at her. “Evening,” he said with an approximation of amiability. “Just … doing my rounds.” He coughed. “Everything seems fine in here.”

The white mare watched him wordlessly until he turned to leave. He glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see those horrible red eyes still watching him, but she had turned her face once more and buried it into the bedclothes over the patient’s legs. She lifted her head, looking up the bed to the pillow with an expression so soft and vulnerable that Bruiser would not have recognised her as the same pony if he had not seen that she had not moved. Her face was so unguarded in that moment that he quickly walked away, feeling like he had peeped at something private, meant only for those two and not muscle-bound lunkheads like him.

He hurried down the stairs, forgoing the elevator, and out of the hospital at a near-gallop. Once outside he headed straight for Flower Heart’s apartment, a little wiser now about why she had looked the way she had when talking about the ponies in Room 219.

The last time he had seen emotion like that, it had been shining in his dog’s eyes the morning before it ran under the wheels of a carriage in its eagerness to get to him.


Nurse Merry Heart squealed when she came in carrying a vase of flowers and nearly fell over Vinyl.

“Sorry!” Vinyl scrambled up. “Are you okay?”

“Did I step on you?”

“No, I’m fine, you didn’t step on me,” Vinyl assured her.

“What the hoo-haa were you doing on the floor?” Nurse Merry Heart asked. Unlike Nurse Flower Heart, Nurse Merry Heart’s voice was burnished with a soft drawl that reminded Vinyl of the time she had played in Ponyville.

The little town was nothing but a blip on the map, famous only for its proximity to the Everfree Forest and the part a few ponies from it had played in redeeming Princess Luna last summer than because it was a hub of musical or fashionable prowess. However, Indigo had got wind that Princess Celestia’s favourite student was involved in some fashion show thing and had snapped up the chance to get Vinyl the gig. He had been right, of course. Indigo usually was right about things, which was why Vinyl had learned to defer to him so much. If not for that piffling fashion show she never would have clinched the contract for the royal wedding. That almost made up for the disaster the fashion show itself had been.

Almost.

Vinyl had walked away from the gig, unlike the models, who had limped away with their pride in tatters. Hearing Nurse Merry Heart talk reminded her of the orange mare in galoshes and overalls who had trundled off the stage and kicked off all four pieces of footwear so hard she dented a metal strut.

“I was just doing some sit-ups,” Vinyl explained.

“Sit-ups?”

“Yeah. You know.” She did her best to mime the belly-crunches she had been counting before she was interrupted. “Stomach exercises.”

Nurse Merry Heart just blinked at her. “Was there a reason you were doing them on this here floor?”

“I’m supposed to do at least a hundred every morning.”

Plus all sorts of other things too. For years her visits to the gym had been daily, gruelling and usually done under duress. She hated the gym, especially at some of the odd hours she had to go there. Running on a treadmill at three in the morning, with only your own reflection in the surrounding mirrors for company, was a special kind of lonely. However, with her hectic work schedule she had to fit in sessions whenever she could. She had a personal trainer and everything, though when she was only free in the wee hours he wasn’t available, so she had to pound the equipment on her own in routines that were so familiar she could have done them in her sleep. She complained like crazy but never skipped her daily exercise, even when she was on tour. Image was everything in the music industry, as Indigo kept telling her. With gossip magazines forever ready to photograph you eating a pastry and plaster it across their front page with headlines like ‘Is It All Over For DJ-Pon3’s Waistline?’ or feature her in articles called ‘Stars Have Cellulite Too!’ Vinyl knew she couldn’t afford to let her regime slip.

“A … hundred?” Nurse Merry Heart’s attention snagged on the number. “As in one-zero-zero?”

“Uh-huh, at least. Two hundred if I have time, but I have to leave a break in between reps if I’m doing that many. Plus glute-raises, push ups and a staggered twenty minutes of plank.”

“Plank?”

Vinyl demonstrated, lying flat on her belly and then pushing up onto the very tips of her hind hooves, leaning her weight forward onto her elbows. After only a few seconds her muscles started to tremble, most notably in her shoulders and stomach. “It’s a bitch,” she grunted. “But I have to do it.”

“Landsakes, why?”

“To stay in shape.”

Nurse Merry Heart looked her over. “Honey, you got less fat on you than a butcher’s pencil. You can’t be doing that kind of exercise on the little you eat.”

Vinyl was momentarily confused by the weird phrase, but let it go. “I eat plenty.”

Nurse Merry Heart’s eyes ticked into a frown. Everything about the kind mare was themed around pink and white, so when she frowned Vinyl had to stop herself from thinking of her as an angry marshmallow. “Is this a diet thing? Because I’ve seen ponies brought into this hospital who are just skin and bones after reading about those gosh-darn ridiculous celebrity diet fads–”

“No, no, it’s just … it’s what I have to do.” Vinyl shrugged. “It’s part of my job. Like emptying bedpans is for you.”

“Thanks for reminding me, honey.”

“Whoops. Sorry.”

Nurse Merry Hear looked like she wanted to berate Vinyl some more, but instead she sighed and placed the vase on the bedside table. “Just … don’t do them right in front of the door again, at least?”

“Will do. Uh, I mean, won’t do. Whatever. I’ll try not to do my exercises where I can get squished.”

Still looking unhappy, Nurse Merry Heart left.

Belatedly, Vinyl dashed to the door. “Hey, hang on, who are the flowers from?”

“Sorry, honey, I can’t remember. Read the card.”

“Card?” Vinyl turned back to the vase. Sure enough, a tiny card dangled over the edge. She opened it up and then dropped it again. “Quaver and his cronies. What the hay did you ever see in those bozos, Tavi? Quaver’s a moralistic butthead and maybe if you smooshed the other two together you’d get something like a personality. A crappy personality, but more than they have apart.”

They had sent lilies. White lilies. Who the heck sent white lilies to a hospital patient? Those were for funerals! Vinyl wanted to throw them in the trash right now but figured Quaver would just kick up a stink the next time they were here, so she begrudgingly left them alone. Much as it galled her to admit, Octavia would not want her to spurn their offering. She would probably have placed the vase even more prominently than Nurse Merry Heart had, to honour them for deigning to think of her.

Then again … the Octavia who had hero-worshipped the Quaver Quartet had been the one Vinyl knew four years ago. Four years was a long time, especially if you were working with ponies almost every day. Octavia probably knew too many of their secrets and personal habits to hero-worship them now. Who knew what her relationship with them was like these days? Maybe the lilies had some special significance Vinyl wasn’t aware of – the way some ponies gave each other nicknames or had rituals only they understood, and which made the rest of the world scratch its head in confusion.

“Do you … like lilies, Tavi?” Vinyl asked. “You never said. Come to think of it, do you have a favourite flower? Do you even like flowers? I’m sure you told me once but … I can’t remember.” Her voice tailed off, chin dropping onto her chest. She had forgotten. It was only a small thing but it felt like a disaster. She had forgotten whether Octavia liked flowers or not. The bare bedside table had not looked wrong to her, but maybe it had struck Quaver, Cavatina and Coda and they had sought to rectify it with the bouquet.

Vinyl had only reached eighty-six sit-ups. She knew she had to finish and then move on to glute work. It was in her regime and even more important now she wasn’t going to the gym. Yet when she lay on her back she simply stared at the ceiling for a while, then turned on her side and curled up with her head on her hooves, tail over her eyes to block out the world.


“You have to!”

“No, I don’t.” Vinyl kept writing, her horn glowing as the pencil moved across the page. She always wrote music in pencil, so she could erase what she didn’t like when she had a chance to actually play it to test it out. “I gave that press release, remember? No engagements until further notice.”

“But –”

“Indigo, read my lips: I’m staying here.”

Her agent stamped a hoof in frustration. He was not used to Vinyl defying him. “You’re going haemorrhage money!”

“Not for a while. My accountant tells me I’m loaded.” Sarcasm clung to her words but it was a thin veneer. “Besides, there are more important things in life than money.” She erased a crotchet, changing into a semi-quaver. Humming wasn’t as good as playing but it would have to do for now. Usually she would finish a composition and then immediately whisk it into the basement she had converted into a studio to work out the bugs. Oh well, it wouldn’t do her any harm to sit on it for a while this time. Maybe it would even improve with age, like cheese or fine wine.

She was possessed of a sudden urge to say this aloud, in case it made Octavia sit bolt upright to call her a heathen. It was one slim hope among many if she couldn’t hear Indigo’s ranting.

“Vinyl, be reasonable,” Indigo tried, softening his voice to a more cajoling tone. “You’ve been here twelve days already. You’re not a blood relative. Nopony is expecting anything like this much effort from you.”

“I know nopony expects it.” She thought of the run-in with Quaver, Cavatina and Coda. She had avoided them during their subsequent visits but the lilies seemed to stare at her from the bedside table. “I’m still going to do it.”

“You have to do this interview!” Indigo shouted, losing his cool once more.

Vinyl brushed bits of eraser off her paper. “Nope.”

“What if they come here instead? They’re willing to compromise. They really want this interview, Vinyl. It’s Mane Music Monthly! Do you know how much good publicity you could get from an interview with them? Not enough to combat the bad press from running out on the Palladium and cancelling the tour, but if you could get a sob story out there to explain why you cancelled, it would sure be useful damage control.” He blew out a sigh. “Work with me here, Vinyl. I’m not your enemy so quit treating me that way.”

She eyed him critically. “Was coming here their idea or yours?”

“They got wind of what you’re doing here when they heard about you running out on a gig. You’ve never done it before and they want your side of the story. They’re willing to make allowances to hear it and their readership is huge. Vinyl, it’s a paid interview in one of the biggest magazines in the industry! Don’t pass this up. For me, if not for yourself.”

Vinyl glared at her sheet music. She rolled the pencil up in it and tossed the whole thing into the trash. “Fine. Whatever. Ask the hospital. If they say it’s okay, I’ll do it.”


Quillpoint was a pony whose name was almost scarily accurate. Her pelt was the exact colour of spilled ink, while her head was wreathed in a feathery mass of white mane that looked like it ate brushes for breakfast and picked its teeth with combs. Yet her eyes where what usually drew ponies’ attention. They were so pale they appeared almost white, a thin azure rim the only visible boundary between iris and sclera unless you were standing close enough to feel her breath on your face. She beamed at Vinyl and sucked the tip of her quill. Her tongue had an inky groove at its centre, indicating she did this a lot.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me,” she enthused.

“Sure. Thanks for agreeing to compromise.” Vinyl was in full DJ-Pon3 mode, though their setting had nothing to do with her stage persona. Bringing the two sides of herself together like this felt wrong. She smiled anyway, using her shades to hide the fact it didn’t reach her eyes. Indigo had brought a pair with him hours ago when he arrived to prep her. She had put them on with some surprise, realising she hadn’t worn any in almost three weeks. Doing so now felt strange. Had they pinched the bridge of her snout this much before?

“Well, let’s get started, shall we?” Quillpoint gave another smile and plunged ahead without waiting for a response. “So, DJ-Pon3, you’ve been working non-stop for several years now and your career seems to be going from strength to strength. What’s your secret?”

“Raw talent, baby.” Vinyl knew the exact tilt of her chin that would make this statement charmingly self-assured instead of arrogant. She then smiled, puncturing the mask of conceit and letting humbleness show instead. “Actually, it’s all down to hard work and time. You have to give both if you want to be the best.”

“And you do indeed appear to be the best in your business.”

“You’re making me blush, girl.”

“No, seriously. In the last five years you’ve had three platinum albums, a string of sold-out tours across Equestria and you played at the royal wedding. Any one of those would be enough for most artists.”

“I think we can both agree I’m not most artists.” Raising her eyebrows high enough to be seen over her shades was difficult, but she was practised at it. Three weeks of going without had not dented her proficiency at the perfect eyebrow wiggle.

“I guess not,” Quillpoint chuckled. She tapped her quill against her notepad. “There are even rumours of you branching out into a world tour. How do you feel about taking your act outside Equestria? It’s a pretty big world out there for a musician, even one like you. Performing for zebras, addax and gazelle instead of ponies?”

“I’ve played to mixed audiences before. No addax can ever rock the house as much as a griffin or a dragon when he gets his groove on, and don’t underestimate a donkey in a mosh pit.” Vinyl smiled. “It’d be a lot of work, sure, but that’s the nature of this game, yeah? You’ve gotta slog it out to make it.”

Ponyfeathers, she had forgotten about that tour. It was an idea Indigo had mooted a few months ago. She had not been convinced she wanted to do it but he had latched onto the prospect like a barnacle, haranguing her until she felt like saying yes just to make him shut up. That had all been before Octavia’s accident, of course. All tours were tabled for now. At least, that was what she had told him. Apparently he or someone in his employ had leaked information of this one. She wondered whether that had been deliberate to force her hoof. If so, he was going to get a nasty shock. She would not be blackmailed into leaving Octavia’s side.

Quillpoint blinked at her, baffled. “Slog it out? What does that mean?”

“Huh? Oh, it means work really hard. Like, ‘work your guts out’ kind of hard.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase before.”

“It’s one of –” Vinyl stopped, realising what she was about to say: It’s one of Tavi’s weird Trottingham sayings. Octavia was full of words and phrases that hadn’t spread beyond that region of Equestria. Vinyl used to love adopting them just to see her wince at the sound of them in her own Manehattan drawl. She hadn’t meant to use one now. She never had before in an interview. It had just slipped out.

“One of what?” Quillpoint asked.

Vinyl thought fast. “One of the lyrics to my newest track. But shh.” She held a hoof to her lips and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anypony. It’s a secret until the track’s finished, yeah? Just between you and me.” She grinned fiercely. Reporters loved it when you seemed to take them into your confidence, even when both of you knew what you had said would be printed or broadcast tomorrow.

“I won’t breathe a word,” Quillpoint fibbed. She leaned back, once more consulting her notepad. “So, DJ-Pon3, with so much on your schedule and all these successes both behind and in front of you, why have you spent the last three weeks hidden away at Manehattan General Hospital, at the bedside of Octavia Philharmonica, cellist with the little-known Quaver Quartet?” She breathed out the information dump without stopping or faltering once.

Little-known? Maybe they weren’t superstar famous but they weren’t exactly unknown either. It wasn’t just anypony who got to play at the Grand Galloping Gala. “I’ve known Octavia since we were fillies,” Vinyl replied. “We grew up together in the care system. When I heard she’d been hurt in a stage accident, I rushed over as fast as I could. As you can see, she didn’t come out of her coma after the surgery to save her life and it felt like I was deserting her if I didn’t stay. She doesn’t have any family to do this. We were pretty close growing up so it felt right for me to sit and talk to her. They say ponies in comas can hear the voices of those outside and that’s sometimes enough to wake them up, so I figured that if I talk enough, eventually she’ll have to wake up to tell me to shut my mouth and give her ears a break.”

Quillpoint nodded. “Yes, about that. You say you rushed over but my sources say you didn’t come to see her until a whole week after the accident. That doesn’t sound like the actions of a long-time friend. Why didn’t you come sooner?”

Because Quaver is a pile of friggin’ diamond dog droppings. “I wasn’t aware of what had happened until then. If I had been, I would definitely have come sooner.”

“Would this have anything to do with Quaver, the leader of the Quaver Quartet? My sources say there’s some hostility between you two. Care to comment?”

Wow, right on the nose. “Quaver and I have had our differences, sure, but that’s what you get when you mix classical with my kind of sound.” Vinyl smiled just as brightly as Quillpoint, though an unpleasant knot twisted in her stomach. “Some things just don’t mix well. Y’know, like nitrogen and glycerine.” She gave a barking laugh, trying to break the sudden tension.

Quillpoint laughed politely. “But seriously, isn’t it true that he once threw you out of the theatre where he and his quartet play? And I don’t just mean he asked you to leave. I mean he picked you up and literally threw you out. That’s some impressive upper body strength for a pony who only plays the viola.”

Vinyl frowned. How had she found out about that? “Don’t believe everything you hear, sweet-cheeks. Like I said, he and I have had our differences.”

“Oh, come now, DJ-Pon3, that sounds like more than just a few differences. I’ve had my differences with other reporters but I’ve never picked one up and hurled them into the street. What in the name of Celestia could provoke such an extreme reaction from a stallion who is, by all accounts, generally mild-mannered?”

“I … uh …” Vinyl searched for something to respond with. She didn’t get the chance. As she stuttered, Quillpoint fired off another question.

“And isn’t it true that after that incident he left instructions for you not to be allowed in to see any of the Quartet’s performances or rehearsals? And that those instructions have been maintained throughout the four years since he gave them? Wouldn’t you agree that this sounds like more than just a few ‘musical differences’?”

“Uh …”

“Why did he do that? Was it something to do with Octavia?” The familiar way she said Octavia’s name made Vinyl want to break something. Possibly Quillpoint’s face.

“He didn’t like that I upset her.” Vinyl only just managed to keep the growl from her voice.

“You upset her? Your long-time friend? The pony you grew up alongside and bonded with during your time in the care system? You upset her enough that her colleague not only became uncharacteristically physical, but also specified that you were never again to see her play? And she never challenged this edict, either, did she? Not once in four years did she get him to rescind his instructions and allow you to attend one of their performances. What in Equestria did you do to upset her that much?”

Vinyl caught Indigo’s eye over Quillpoint’s shoulder. He looked panicked, since he was able to read her mood more skilfully than anypony else in the room. He could see her mounting anger even if Quillpoint had the survival instincts of a lemming climbing into an eagle’s nest.

“I think this interview is over,” Indigo said in a mock cheerful voice. Out the side of his mouth he hissed, “This isn’t what you told me you were going to cover, Quillpoint.”

“But it’s what I am asking about. You can’t expect me to just swallow whatever she says about Octavia without doing some research into the mare and their history together. If I’m doing a story, I’m doing it right.”

“Story?” Panic suffused Indigo’s exclamation. “You said this was just an interview.”

“Oh, it is,” Quillpoint replied easily, not budging from her chair. Though she was talking to Indigo her eyes hadn’t moved from Vinyl. “Why aren’t you willing to answer, DJ-Pon3?”

Vinyl’s horn glowed. “Because.” The small tape recorder Quillpoint had on her lap suddenly levitated into the air. Quillpoint grabbed for it but wasn’t quick enough. “My private life.” The window opened. “Is private.” The recorder sailed out. “And if there are parts of it I don’t want to discuss.” The window slammed shut. “If I want to maintain my privacy and not have it splashed all over your magazine.” The lock slid home. “Then that’s my business and you need to respect that.”

Quillpoint stared between Vinyl and the window in shock. “I … you just … you can’t do that!”

“That’s funny, I thought I already did. Indigo, please show her out.” Vinyl turned her chair towards the bed and its array of beeping and whirring machines. She carefully reached out with a tendril of magic and brushed a damp lock of Octavia’s mane off her face. She should have known it was a bad idea to let her professional life intersect in any way with her personal one. Though unintentional, she had brought sleaze into Octavia’s hospital room and would not forgive herself for that poor decision. “And if she doesn’t want to go, please tell her she can follow her equipment if she’d prefer.”

Quillpoint couldn’t leave fast enough. Her clicking hooves had scarcely faded before Indigo rounded on Vinyl. He was incandescent with fury.

“What the hay was that all about?”

“Exactly what I said,” Vinyl said mildly. “Weren’t you listening?”

“That’s total horsefeathers –”

“No, it’s not. I said I’d tell her why I’m choosing to take some time out from my career to be here for Octavia. I didn’t say I’d air all my dirty laundry in public to help her sell a few more copies of her trashy magazine. If you can’t accept that, you can leave too.”

“Mane Music Monthly is not some trashy magazine!” Indigo protested.

“Missing the point there, Indy.”

For a moment she thought he was going to yell again. He actually trembled with rage. His brown eyes shrank to pinpricks and his chest rose and fell like that of a trapped mouse. Sweet Celestia, he wasn’t about to have a stroke, was he? Well, at least they were in the right place. It would save the paramedic ponies a trip.

However, instead of yelling he slammed out of the room so hard the door bounced back and hit the wall. She could hear him stamping down the corridor in the same direction as Quillpoint. Perhaps he was chasing her to perform some PR triage.

Let him, Vinyl thought. But he’ll be doing that alone. She wasn’t about to apologise for wanting some privacy.

How the heck had Quillpoint got hold of that information, anyhow? Her anonymous ‘sources’? Baloney. Even so, Vinyl hadn’t told her and she couldn’t imagine any of the Quaver Quartet breathing a word, especially Quaver himself. She wondered whether Quillpoint had bugged their theatre and overheard the quartet talking privately. Or maybe she had bribed one of the stage-hooves to recount conversations they’d had behind closed doors. Cavatina and Coda had made their feelings clear when they found Vinyl here at the hospital and Quaver would not have held back his disapproval of Octavia’s decision to make contact with Vinyl again. He genuinely believed that letting Vinyl back into her life would only hurt Octavia. However much it galled Vinyl to admit it, and however much of an ass he was about showing it, his opinions were because he cared about Octavia.

That was what had motivated him to act as he had when Vinyl crashed their rehearsal and refused to leave even when Octavia begged her to go. Vinyl had been convinced that if she could talk to her, she could convince Octavia to come back. Half-crazed with grief, Vinyl had followed her through the stage exit to her dressing room and banged on the closed door for twenty minutes before Quaver reached the end of his tether and literally threw her out when she accused him of stealing Octavia away. Her attempts to crawl back in through the bathroom window had also ben repelled, so she had stood in the alley behind the theatre and shrieked out her pain in the hope that Octavia would hear and take pity on her.

“I’ll change! I will if it means I don’t lose you! Tavi, please, just talk to me! Don’t let it end like this! Tavi! Octaviaaaa!”

Nurse Merry Heart poked her face around the door, snapping Vinyl out of her disagreeable memories. “Are you okay in here, honey? I just saw two ponies heading on down the hall and they looked madder than mules chewing on bumblebees. One of them was your agent so I thought I’d better check on you.”

“Yeah, Merry Heart, I’m fine.” Vinyl blew out a breath, realising in that moment that her own hooves were shaking too. “The interview didn’t go as well as planned, but it’s nothing, really. Thanks for asking.”

“Well, if you need anything, sugar, you just ask, okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

What I need is for Tavi to wake up, she thought bitterly. Four years apart and then tentative contact could not be allowed to end like this. This could not be the end of their story. I need her to wake up!

Of course, the mere act of wanting something is rarely enough to actually make it happen.

4. “The longer she’s in a coma, the less chance there is she’ll be herself when she wakes up.”

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4. “The longer she’s in a coma, the less chance there is she’ll be herself when she wakes up.”


“Oh boy.” Vinyl crouched on the floor, the better to lay out the magazine double page spread. Her own face stared up at her, surrounded by text that was no less scathing for its small size. “Wow, that’s harsh. And that. And especially that.” She blinked, peering closer. “’A talentless mare who bought her way to the top so nopony would question the screeching overly produced mess she calls music’? What a hack!”

Quillpoint had gone all out in her retaliation. Personally, Vinyl thought she was overreacting. All she had done was toss a tape recorder out of the window and assert her right to privacy. She could understand the anger over the tape recorder but apparently privacy was a luxury now, not a right.

She smacked the magazine and sat cross-legged, forelegs folded, her lower lip jutting out so far that pegasi could have used it for a landing pad. “That no-account, egotistical, petty, malicious, nasty, mean-spirited … nag!”

“No need to treat me to so many compliments when I’m barely through the door.”

She looked up to see Doctor Thorntree. A tiny smile tugged at what she could see of his lips beneath his moustache.

“Sorry, doc.” Vinyl gestured to the magazine. “I got a crappy write-up for that crappy interview I did.”

“The one your agent begged the hospital to allow?”

“Yup. He shouldn’t have bothered. Quillpoint is a …” She caught herself. “She’s not a nice pony.”

“Why do I get the feeling that wasn’t what you intended to say?”

“Was it that obvious?”

“Only a lot.” He advanced towards the bed, eyes taking in everything with a sharpness that belied his easy manner. Nothing escaped his attention, but from his tone of voice, they could have been sharing afternoon tea and crumpets in some garden on a magnificent estate. He checked Octavia’s charts, flipping through pages as he talked. “So why did you read it if you suspected it would be bad?”

“I don’t know. Masochism, maybe?”

“If that’s the case, I’ll tell Nurse Flower Heart to make sure the supply cupboard door is locked so you can’t get at anything sharp.”

Vinyl laughed. To her surprise, Doctor Thorntree had turned out to have a dry sense of humour that only revealed itself after a considerable amount of time. For the first week of her stay he had been extra formal, but gradually his attitude had relaxed the longer she stuck around. Nevertheless, he had only started calling her Vinyl and not ‘Miss Scratch’ a couple of days ago.

He put down the charts and faced her. “Vinyl, how long have you been here now?”

She shrugged, though she knew exactly.

“Four weeks,” he answered his own question, not giving her time to add more. “You’ve been here just short of a month and, to my mind, the furthest you’ve walked is when the nurses force you to take a stroll around the corridors to keep you fed and from a deep vein thrombosis. How much Vitamin D are you getting these days?”

“Say what?”

“Sunlight, Vinyl.”

“Oh. Whatever shines through the window, I guess.”

Doctor Thorntree shook his head. “That’s simply not good enough. If you’re not careful, you’ll get rickets.”

“Hey, doc, you know the deal.”

“Yes, I do, and while I find your devotion to Miss Philharmonica admirable, I also find it a concern. Never mind your career, your health is going to suffer if you keep this up.”

Vinyl’s lower lip made another bid to leap off her face. Why was everypony fighting her on this? “I’m not leaving.”

“You can’t be by her side twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Doctor Thorntree said reasonably, the antithesis to Indigo’s ranting. “It’s not healthy.”

“I’ve done it for a month. You just said so yourself. I can go however long I need to.”

“Vinyl, do you remember what I told you when you first arrived?” His gaze was penetrating. “About her chances the longer she is in a comatose state?”

“Sure, I remember.” Vinyl had replayed it in her head often enough. The information had galvanised her to keep going even when she was at her lowest ebb – like right now after reading that awful interview. It was the first truly bad interview she had ever given and it was biting her on the butt more than she had expected. Mercy was not something that featured in the mind-set of journalists or lawyers.

Doctor Thorntree didn’t look like he believed her.

She blew out a harsh breath. “The longer she’s in a coma, the less chance there is she’ll be herself when she wakes up.”

If she wakes up,” he corrected, more gently than he would have a month earlier.

Vinyl scowled at him. “Fine. If she wakes up. Happy?”

“Not in the slightest. What happens if she doesn’t regain consciousness? Do you intend to stay here forever?”

“I … that’s not … look, she’s going to wake up. Maybe it’ll be later instead of sooner, but she’s going to. You’ll see.”

Doctor Thorntree’s eyes were sad. He had very blue eyes, like the sky after a particularly brutal rainstorm, when the world smelled fresh and renewed. “Vinyl, I’m not trying to be cruel, I’m trying to point out how unrealistic you’re being. You can’t just opt out of real life the way you’re trying to.”

“I’m being plenty realistic. Tavi is going to wake up and when she does I’ll be here waiting for her.”

“Despite the advances of modern science and medi-magic, comas are still vastly unknown phenomena. Nopony can predict when a patient may come out of one.”

“Which just proves why I should stay right here. What if I leave today and she wakes up and I’m not here? Or what if she wakes up and thinks I don’t care enough to stay with her when she needed somepony?”

“What if she wakes up and she isn’t herself anymore?” Doctor Thorntree asked softly. “It’s an unpleasant thought, Vinyl, but one that you must consider. If she does awaken and she is severely disabled as a result of her coma, or the head trauma, or both, what then?”

Vinyl fell silent. It was something she had thought about a lot. If Octavia awoke and was brain damaged, what would she do? She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t – couldn’t – happen, but the fact remained that it was a possibility. She placed her forehooves on the floor in front of her, drawing in a deep breath. She had discussed this with Octavia but this would be the first time she had said it to somepony who could actually respond.

“Then I’ll take care of her. However she is when she wakes up, I’ll be there to take care of her. I have money and I’d make time. She wouldn’t want for anything. She doesn’t have any family, as you know, so she’d come to live with me and I’d look after her as long as she needs it. Even if that was … the rest of her life.”

Doctor Thorntree looked a little surprised, but it didn’t last long. “Would that be out of pity or guilt?”

“What?” Shocked, Vinyl gaped at him.

He pointed at the magazine. “Nurse Merry Heart gave me a copy to read this morning. It’s correct, isn’t it? You and Miss Philharmonica were once a couple. So I’ll ask again: are you saying you’d take on the responsibility of a severely disabled pony because you pity her or because you feel guilty over how your relationship ended? That’s assuming what Quillpoint says is true, of course.”

“It’s true. Not the stuff about me being a talentless wannabe but the stuff about Tavi and me … that’s true. Our relationship ended … badly.” Vinyl took a shuddering breath. Why were her eyeballs suddenly so prickly? She didn’t have hay-fever. Besides, the window was shut. “I suppose there’s no point in not telling you, since Quillpoint laid it out for everypony to read. I’m still not sure how she figured everything out, though.”

Doctor Thorntree remained standing to listen, though Vinyl stayed on the floor, hind legs drawn up to her chest like a filly who was in trouble and didn’t want to explain to parents what she had done wrong.

“Tavi and I grew up in care together,” she began. “We were best friends for the longest time. She was always this straight-laced filly with impeccable manners while I was … I’d call me a wild child, but my teachers at school called me a pain the butt. Then, at the start of our final year in school, I realised I had no clear plan of what to do next. Tavi was trying out for the Canterlot Music Academy and everypony said she was bound to get in. She already had her cutie mark when I met her so it was obvious where her talent lay. Me? I was still a blank flank. I had no idea what I should do. I sucked at school apart from creative writing. I loved writing poems and … whatever. I’m a pretty good lyricist these days so I guess that didn’t go to waste, but back then I wasn’t good at anything that counted because I’d never really paid attention in class. By the time I figured out I should start trying harder, it was too late. That’s what I figured, anyhow. I got depressed about the whole thing. That was when Tavi suggested I try out for the Academy too.”

“Are you serious?”

“Indubitably.”

“No way, Tavi. It’s pointless. The most I ever did in music class was get my head stuck in a tuba.”

“You are the only student ever to do that, I suppose. But Vinyl, I’m not joking. I think you have talent. I’ve heard you singing when we do chores. You have a good set of pipes.”

“A what?

“A powerful singing voice.”

“Yeah, right. You need more than that to get into Canterlot Music Academy.”

“True, true, one must be versed in at least two instruments, but voice counts as one and the other is fixable.”

“How?”

“I’ll teach you.”

“You’ll teach me to play cello?”

“Well, no, not exactly, but I will teach you. And after school each day, I’ll tutor you in your other subjects to help get your grades up. There’s still time to make a good impression on the Academy admissions panel.”

“So she did,” Vinyl went on, her mind whirling with memories of late night study sessions and lunchtimes locked in the music department at school. Octavia had been an exacting and rigorous teacher, which didn’t sit well with Vinyl’s natural desire to buck authority. Added to this, she didn’t like the feeling of being bossed about by somepony her own age. However, she had been self-aware enough to realise that this was her last chance and that Octavia was going out of her way to help her.

“Why are you doing all this for a screw-up like me?” she had demanded once, when trigonometry had her throwing her textbook at the dormitory wall in frustration.

Octavia had fetched it back and placed it in front of her, smoothing out the crumpled pages. “Because you’re not a screw-up,” she had said, pronouncing the word like she had never said it before. “However much you try to convince the world – or yourself – that you are, you don’t fool me, Scratch. Also, I’m repaying a debt.”

“What debt?”

“When I first arrived here you took me under your proverbial wing and looked after me. You comforted me when I was sad over my aunt or my parents and you made it so that I could enjoy life after I thought that would never be possible again.”

Vinyl hadn’t known what to say to that, so she had telekinetically picked up her quill and finished the stupid trigonometry questions.

“There are two scholarships for underprivileged students every year at the Academy,” she explained to Doctor Thorntree. “She and I got both of them. I never could’ve done it without her help. We weren’t roommates anymore when we got to the Academy but we still spent practically all our time together and … things just kind of … happened. Evolved, I guess you could say.”

The way things like that usually happened: the evolution of friends into more. Vinyl could clearly remember waking up one day, her tail tangled uncomfortably in the sheets but not untangling herself in case she woke Octavia. She had stayed there, watching the sunrise paint gold streaks across her face and wondering how the heck she had ever reached this time and place.

I am one lucky pony, she had thought more than once. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Making it into a mantra hadn’t stopped her from ruining it all, however.

She sighed. “Once we finished the Academy and entered the real world … things got a little crazy. I got into the DJ thing after some wild parties when I got talking to the ponies at the turntables. I realised that was the kind of music for me when one stallion actually let me have a try and I went home to find my cutie mark had appeared.” She smiled bitterly. “I was a blank flank no more. Tavi was … she was happy for me but I could tell this new music I was into left her cold. I didn’t care. I was just as in love with this new sound I’d discovered as I was with her. I loved taking music that already existed and making something different out of it. I loved finding the new in the old and remaking it so that a whole new generation of ponies could enjoy it. Remixing became my passion. After we graduated, I got an offer from that same DJ who gave me that first taste of the turntables. He said I was talented and he could hook me up with an agent called Indigo. That was when … when I …” She trailed off.

“You don’t have to tell me anymore if you don’t want to,” said Doctor Thorntree.

She startled. She had almost forgotten he was there. “No, I … I think I’d like to. That is, if you don’t mind me babbling like this. Ach, sweet Celestia, what am I even doing?” She scrubbed at her mane, raking it back and then letting it fall loosely back into her face. “I’ve never told anypony this stuff before. Not even Indigo. He’s not really one of those caring agents who holds your hoof and tells you you’re wonderful. He’s the kind who works all hours of the day and night to make sure his clients are the most successful artists they can be. That … that always worked for me. I liked that he wasn’t emotionally involved. I just wanted the opportunity to do what I loved and he gave me that. Sweet Celestia, did he give me that.” After a pause she went on, “Doc, you’ve got to have other work you should be doing right now, instead of listening to me.”

“Actually, I don’t.” She couldn’t tell whether he was lying or not. “And I think you need to get these things off your chest. Who better to tell of a broken heart than a healer?”

“You don’t fix hearts. You fix heads.”

“I can give it a try if you’ll let me.”

She stared at the floor. The picture Quillpoint had chosen was of her last concert, her head thrown back and her hooves a blur. The lights had turned her white fur into a patchwork of colours, while the lens flare off her shades gave the whole image an ethereal quality, as if she was not quite part of this world. She barely recognised herself. She was a white unicorn sitting on the floor of a hospital room. She was not this dynamic creature of light and motion. She wondered why Quillpoint had chosen to use this photograph. Perhaps she hadn’t and her editor had insisted. Whatever the reason, Vinyl was suddenly filled with unbridled hatred of what she looked like while performing. She flipped the magazine shut and telekinetically threw it in the trash.

Doctor Thorntree didn’t understand the significance of what she had done but he still waited patiently for her to continue. After a long moment she did.

“Indigo got me a lot of work. I was literally learning on the job but I loved the work so much I just … absorbed everything like a sponge. What worked and what didn’t. What I liked and what was popular. Sometimes I hated what was popular and went my own way even though he said not to. He yelled at me a lot for that – said I was a hothead and I wouldn’t make it in the industry if I didn’t get over myself and start listening to other ponies with more experience.” She gave a bitter chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth?

“At first I was just like any other artist out there, struggling to make a name for myself, getting by on small shows and guest spots as other DJs’ warm-up act. Then ponies started paying attention to me. What I thought was good became what was popular and Indigo let me loose with the ideas I’d kept in check. It was hard work but I kept at it – I was riding the wave of popularity right as it crested and it took everything I had to make sure I didn’t fall in and drown in those early days. There are always more artists to take your place in the music business – always. I’d spend all day rehearsing and practically all night performing, getting my face out there, being seen by the right eyes and heard by the right ears. Indigo got me a few interviews on radio shows. A couple of magazines wanted to feature me as the breakout artist of the year. All this and I was barely a year out of the Academy. It was all so amazing, it was almost unbelievable, y’know? Not just ‘Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable’ but ‘how the hay did this even happen’?”

“Y’know something, kid? I think you actually might make it. You’ve got the hunger and the drive, plus you’ve got talent. Most ponies I see, they’ve got one or the other, but you? All three in spades.”

“Thanks, Indigo.”

“Don’t thank me yet, kid. You’ve still got a long way to go. First off, you’ve got to be more memorable.”

“Huh?”

“It’s not enough to just have a good sound. Image is everything in the music industry. If you don’t have the right image and reputation, you’re just another face in the crowd. You’re building your reputation but your image needs work. Ever heard of Curlicue?”

“Isn’t she some manedresser on Thirty-First Street?”

“Don’t ever let her hear you say that. She’s ‘stylist to the stars’. She’s coming to the studio today to take a look at you and see what she can do.”

“Aw crap, I’m getting one of those makeovers?”

“Kid, most ponies would kill just to have her glance at their manes. She might actually cut yours, so act grateful.”

Vinyl stared at her own hind legs, concentrating on them instead of the pony watching her. “The name wasn’t my idea but it worked. I’d already changed it once when I got my cutie mark and I thought … well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. Vinyl Scratch was okay, but DJ-Pon3? They were all over her. I got a new name, a new look, a new sound. Everything was coming up aces.”

Until the day she came home to find half the closet empty and a note. She still had it, though she hadn’t looked at it since the day Quaver threw her out of the theatre. Octavia had said to meet her at a little café not far from their apartment. Still crusty with sweat from the previous evening’s performance and after-party, Vinyl had galloped there to find the mare she loved more than anypony in the world nervously sipping tea and breaking a scone into pieces on its plate.

“What’s going on, Tavi?”

“Sit down, Vinyl.”

“Not until you tell me what this is all about.”

“I think you already know.”

“No, I obviously don’t. Explain it to me.”

“I will if you sit down and stop making a scene.”

The other patrons had been watching. It wasn’t an especially posh place. Octavia’s meagre budget from the quartet didn’t go far. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the kind of place a pony could walk into wearing dead glow-stick bracelets and not be noticed. Octavia had looked embarrassed even after Vinyl sat down.

“Okay, I’m sitting. Now tell me why all your things and your cello are missing from our apartment.”

“This isn’t working, Vinyl. You know it and I know it.”

“What isn’t working?”

“Us. You and me. It hasn’t been right between us for a long time.”

“Says who?”

“Me. I say so. And so would you if you took the time to look at our relationship. We’ve barely spent any time together in months. You’re always working and I’m … I’m tired of playing second fiddle in your life.”

“Why the hay didn’t you say something earlier?”

“I did, Vinyl. I’ve been saying things aren’t right for a long time. You were just too wrapped up in your own thing to listen to me. I don’t resent your success – on the contrary, I’m delighted that you’ve found something that sets your passions alight. It has simply become clear to me that I … don’t anymore.”

“No way! No friggin’ way!”

“Don’t deny it, Vinyl. We’ve grown apart. It’s what happens sometimes.” She had shrugged, as if it didn’t bother her that she was breaking Vinyl’s heart. Only the extra shine in her eyes had betrayed how nonchalant she wasn’t. “I thought it would be better to end things cleanly.”

“No!”

“Please, Vinyl, try to understand. I don’t begrudge you your career. I want you to be happy … but I’m not anymore. Not with you. You …” Octavia had hesitated before plunging the knife in. “You don’t make me happy anymore.”

Her words had rendered Vinyl speechless for several moments – long enough that Octavia was on her feet and heading for the door before she could stop her.

“Tavi, wait! You can’t do this. I won’t let you do this!”

“Let go of me, Vinyl. It’s over. It has been for a while. I’m just making it official.”

“You can’t break up with me without even giving me a chance to change! We can make it work, I swear.”

“I did give you a chance. I gave you lots of chances. You spent them all.”

“No, I didn’t!”

But she had. Even as she had protested, she was remembering times when she had promised she would be at some function or other of Octavia’s, only to miss it when a recording session ran long, or she gave rehearsal the extra hour or two she, or Indigo, or some other pony at the record label had thought it needed. She remembered dinners she had promised to be home for; dinners she had found untouched on the table, Octavia already in bed, when she finally crept home in the early hours of the morning. She had recalled a meeting with a top-notch record producer that had taken the place of a trip she and Octavia had planned to take to Trottingham to visit her parents’ graves on Family Appreciation Day.

“I’ll do better, I promise!”

“You’ve promised that before, Vinyl.”

“This time I mean it.”

Octavia had looked at her then, eyes swimming with tears. “I know you do, but it’s not enough anymore. I can’t cope with more of you promising to schedule me into your life between recording sessions and promotional tours. I love you, Vinyl, but I’m miserable with you. I can’t survive on just the memories of how good it used to be. I’ve tried but I’ve been fooling myself. So this is me finally accepting that things have changed and I have to change with them. Please let me go.”

“No!”

“Vinyl, let me go!” Octavia had yanked out of her grip with such force she had fallen into an umbrella stand by the door. When Vinyl had tried to help her up, however, she had pushed her away. “Yesterday was your last chance. I told myself I would give you that, but you let me down again. Do you know what day it was, Vinyl?”

“I … I …”

“It was my birthday!” she had yelled, the way she never yelled: out of control and frantic. “It was my birthday and you weren’t there to share it with me. You were gone before I woke up and came home after midnight. I don’t think you even remembered.”

“No, I … that’s not true.” Horror had washed through her like a choking tide of dirty water. Yesterday was the day she had played at the Open Air Arena. That had taken up all her thoughts for weeks. “I … I didn’t …”

She had forgotten. She couldn’t believe it. The date had to be wrong. Except why would Octavia lie about her own birthday?

“I thought so. Goodbye, Vinyl.”

Octavia had walked out of the café and Vinyl had not possessed the strength to push past her shame and go after her.

No, that had come later, when she crashed the quartet’s rehearsal and threw away her last chance at redeeming herself in Octavia’s eyes. She had limped away from that encounter, broken and ashamed. She had thrown herself into her work to block out the pain– if she acted happy and successful on the outside, eventually the inside would match, right?

In the long run her love of music had provided enough solace that she thought she had gotten over Octavia Philharmonica. That was what she had told herself. She had gone on to be one of the most successful DJs in Equestria, her dedication and determination almost legendary within the industry.

And then, the night she played the Manehattan Palladium, the doorpony told her there was a stallion called Quaver who wanted to see her and everything changed.

“So you see, doc,” Vinyl said to her empty hooves. “When I say I’d look after Octavia, it wouldn’t be out of pity or guilt. It’d be because … I love her. I never stopped loving her, even if she stopped loving me.”

“It sounds to me like she didn’t stop either,” said Doctor Thorntree. “Just that the love you two shared wasn’t enough to overcome the tribulations real life put in your path.”

Vinyl thought about that for a moment. “I guess so.” She balled her hooves into fists. “But not this time. This time, I’m going to be there for her. She’s going to be my top priority. I already lost her once, doc. No matter what part of her is left when … if she ever wakes up, I’m not losing her again. That’s why I can’t leave. That’s why …” She trailed off.

Doctor Thorntree was silent for a long time. Eventually Vinyl gave up looking at her own hooves and transferred her gaze to him. He stood with a pensive look on his face, eyes unfocussed.

“Doc? Are you okay? Don’t tell me I babbled you into a coma.”

“Hm?” He blinked, disconcerted. “What? Oh. No, Vinyl, you didn’t. In fact … you’ve given me something to think about. If you’ll excuse me, I … I’d like to speak to a colleague about … hm.”

“What ‘hm’?” she asked, echoing her words from that rain-swept, nightmarish evening when she first met him. “Is that a good ‘hm’ or a bad ‘hm’?”

Doctor Thorntree, however, did not reply. Instead, still wearing that unfocussed expression, he trotted from the room and disappeared down the corridor without looking back.

Vinyl frowned, wondering what she could have said to provoke such an odd reaction. Nonetheless, she felt oddly light after talking to him. It felt like a great weight had been lifted off her chest and she could breathe again for the first time in … actually, she didn’t know how long. Four weeks? Or maybe four years.

She stood up and went to the bed. Octavia still slept, though this time there was no sunrise to paint her face in streaks of gold and they were not in her Academy room. She looked no less beautiful without those things.

“I love you, Tavi,” Vinyl croaked. It was the first time she had actually said the words out loud in all the time she had spent talking to her. “I … I love you.”

But Octavia did not respond.


Merry Heart leaned out from the nurses’ station and clicked her tongue.

“He’s got that look again.”

“What look?” Flower Heart called from behind the pile of badly stacked ring-binders she was carrying.

“That look like he’s up to something.”

“You talking about Doctor Thorntree?”

“Who else?”

“Any idea what?”

“Nope, but he just came out of Room 219.”

“Reckon it’s something to do with Vinyl?”

“Maybe. Seems likely. Couldn’t tell you what, though.” Merry heart pursed her lips against her own suspicions. “He’s taken a real shine to that pair. I can’t remember the last time he interrupted his rounds to talk for that long with a single pony. Not even the other doctors get that kind of time from him.”

“Maybe he feels sorry for her.”

“Maybe.”

“Whoa!” Flower Heart let out a yell as her left hoof attempted to kick her right hoof out from under her. She lurched forward and Merry Heart found herself the unwilling recipient of half a dozen ring-binders. “Look out!”

“Ponyfeathers! Flower, we gotta use a better filing system! This one is going to kill one or both of us someday.”


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

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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?”


6. “Promise she’s coming back for me.”

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6. “Promise she’s coming back for me.”


Vinyl was still thinking of Ace, the burns unit and Medley’s offer as she ascended in the elevator to the Neurology Department. She was so distracted that she didn’t see the pony immediately outside the elevator until she stepped out and nearly knocked him over. Sidestepping in surprise, she registered Doctor Thorntree’s bushy moustache and a smile broke out across her face.

“Hey, doc! So,” she said teasingly, “You thought I needed therapy, huh?”

She wasn’t offended. The smidgen of indignation that first blossomed had withered away just as quickly. Just as Medley had said, he had only been trying to help. Vinyl had learned from her interactions with him that Doctor Thorntree had his own way of doing things – especially interfering – but his heart was generally in the right place.

Doctor Thorntree was slow to respond. His face was marred by a scowl, which instantly had Vinyl on high alert.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, all humour evaporating like froth off a cappuccino. “What’s happened? Is Tavi okay?” She tried to push past him.

“She is quite all right,” Doctor Thorntree replied, his accent sharper than usual. That only happened when he was agitated. “The nurses came to fetch me from my office.” He didn’t sound pleased about it. “There is somepony to see you. Your agent, I believe.”

“Indigo’s here? As in, up here? Not waiting in the café like usual?”

“Evidently he remembers your insistence that you would not leave Miss Philharmonica’s room during his previous visits. He has apparent decided to cut out the middle pony and come straight here to see you.”

The one day I wasn’t here for him to see. Vinyl’s gaze went to the door, just visible over the doctor’s shoulder. There was no sign of Indigo in the corridor. “He’s in there?”

“When he was informed that you were not present, he insisted that he wished to visit Miss Philharmonica while waiting for you to return. Since it is technically visiting hours he is within his rights to do so.” Doctor Thorntree’s tone indicated how much he disapproved, regardless of the rules. “Her dressings have been changed, though this evening she will need to be bathed.”

“Fine.”

Despite sleeping with Octavia for several years, Vinyl was not permitted to be present while the nurses washed her. She had fought it at first but since worked it into her routine as a time to feed herself and stock up on magazines and other reading material from the small hospital shop. She would stretch her legs walking to the ground floor via the stairs and mooch back with a full belly and whatever she had bought tucked under a foreleg. She had started her first novel in years in want of something to talk to Octavia about, resulting in her reading aloud to the unconscious mare. If coma patients really could hear the outside world, then like Vinyl, Octavia was three chapters away from finishing ‘Harry Trotter and the Filllyosopher’s Scone’. It was probably too foalish for Tavi’s tastes, but Vinyl rarely had time read books. Whenever she tried to, she was assaulted by feelings of guilt that she should be rehearsing, or grabbing a few extra hours in the studio, or doing something else for her music. Now, however, she was free to read without reprisal. During their time together Octavia had read classic literature to match her love of classical music, but Vinyl was pleased with herself for picking up something that wasn’t glossy and didn’t have ads on every other page.

“Can I go in?” she asked, indicating the door with a nod of her head.

“Hm? Oh, yes, of course.” Doctor Thorntree stepped aside and she trotted to the room, trying not to read too much into his troubled expression.

Indigo was indeed inside. He stood beside Octavia’s bed and for a moment Vinyl was struck by how close he seemed. She paused, wondering why this made a knot tighten in her belly. Many ponies got just as close when checking on Octavia, yet something about Indigo’s posture made Vinyl clear her throat to see whether he would jump back guiltily.

He didn’t. He just raised his head and gave her a grim not-smile. “Vinyl.”

“Hey, Indy.” Vinyl resisted the unwelcome urge to tackle him to the floor and move him to the doorway by the scruff of his neck. She had never wanted to do anything like that to him before, even when he was at his most irritating. “How’s tricks?”

“So much for you never leaving her side.” Accusation threaded the words.

“I had a therapy session.”

His eyes widened. “Don’t say stuff like that so loud! You don’t know who can hear you!” he hissed. Only after chastising her did he add, “Therapy?”

“I was helping a music therapist who volunteers in the foals’ ward, but it’s nice to know my mental health features so high on your list of concerns.”

“My list of concerns right now starts and ends with this.” He was wearing a set of silvery saddlebags; a gift from a fashion designer whose products she endorsed during the last Spring is Sprung Festival in Canterlot. She hadn’t wanted the bags and so had donated them to Indigo as an act of goodwill. Now her agent unbuckled one side to pull out a copy of Mane Music Monthly. He held it up, though Vinyl already knew which page he wanted to show her: Quillpoint’s article.

“That nag needs a buck in the teeth,” Vinyl growled. “Can you believe the crap her editor lets her get away with?”

“That nag, as you put it, has painted a pretty costly picture of you.”

Here it goes, she thought. “It’s one article, Indy.”

“In the topmost selling music magazine in Manehattan, if not Equestria. Whatever happens in the Manehattan music scene is followed by every other city soon after. Ponies pay attention to what these reporters have to say.” He levelled a glare at her. “And Quillpoint has a lot to say about you.”

“I know. I read it.”

“Then you get why I’m having trouble understanding your reaction. Why aren’t you more upset? Why didn’t I get a frantic phone-call this morning? Why didn’t I get any phone-call?”

Vinyl shrugged. “It didn’t seem that important.”

“Not that …?” Indigo spluttered. He got himself under control with what looked like extreme effort. “Vinyl, this is bad. Damage-control-bad. Damage-control-with-potential-collateral-losses-bad.”

“It’s garbage. She got mad at me and wrote a lot of insults. It’ll blow over soon enough.”

“It’s not all insults,” Indigo gritted. “They may be dressed up as insults, but there’s information in here that could be extremely harmful to you, especially if any of your sponsors see it. Which they probably will, since this is Mane Music Monthly. Ponyfeathers, half of them have ads in here! I mean, look at this!” He flipped the page to show a full-page advert featuring her own face, looking coyly over her shoulder at the camera as a crowd danced in front of her turntables. On a hidden shelf was a blue can that seemed to have a halo of telekinesis around it. The poison green text read: ‘Scarlet Taurus gives you the energy to be the best’. It was not one of Vinyl’s favourite ads, given that it put her success down to a drink instead of her own natural talent, but she had done it anyway.

“Whatever.” She shrugged again and shuffled sideways, trying to reach the bed and simultaneously turn Indigo sideways so that he had to step away from it.

Indigo’s face darkened further, his eyes seeming almost luminous. Could repressed irritation make a unicorn glow? His horn wasn’t alight but he sure was radiating some sort of power. Maybe he was about to rage-flare. Like all unicorns, Vinyl had been taught as a filly about how some unicorns, given enough provocation and ambient magic, could literally erupt in flames. She had never seen it herself. Maybe that was about to change.

“Your sponsors all have reputations to maintain and they won’t be kind about it. There’s no loyalty amongst businessponies, Vinyl. Lil’ Latte hasn’t started running your ad yet and now they might pull it before it airs. Electric Beauty has your face above every one of their make-up stands across Manehattan, Canterlot and Fillydelphia because they want to be associated with a hot artist, not a train wreck. EQ Enterprises don’t want their brand represented by a fillyfooler! They may cut you loose if we don’t respond to this … this filth!” He shook the magazine, in case she had forgotten it was there.

Vinyl snapped back to herself like her brain was on a piece of taut elastic. She stared, unsure whether she had heard him correctly. “What did you just say?”

“You heard me. We stand to lose a bundle over your tantrum with Quillpoint. What the hay were you thinking, tossing her equipment out of the window like that?”

“No, not that. Go back. I read that article. I don’t remember her calling me a fillyfooler.”

“Maybe she didn’t use the word, but the implication is there.”

“What implication?” Vinyl’s tone darkened, nearly matching the colour of Indigo’s pelt. “Fillyfooling means foal molestation, Indy.”

“She says you had a lesbian affair with a mare, Vinyl.” He shook the magazine at Octavia. “This mare. When I first took you on, you agreed that your image would be your top priority. You’ve maintained it for over four years. Now you pull a stunt like this, practically fess up everything about your sordid past to a journalist – a journalist you subsequently gets mad enough at you to print the story – and you don’t think that’s important?” Incredulity crackled off him like tiny bolts of electricity.

“Indigo has got me a dinner with a producer – a real one from Prima Pony Records!”

“That’s wonderful, Vinyl. I’m so happy for you!”

“It’s at Chez Cheval in Manehattan. Can you believe it? Chez Cheval! It’d take us, like, a month of rent money just to order a starter in that restaurant!”

“That’s marvellous, sweetheart. I’ve always wanted to eat there. Can I come too?”

“Uh …”

“Vinyl, what is it?”

“Indigo says I should meet this guy solo. Apparently he’s more likely to sign me if he thinks I’m … y’know …”

“What?”

“Hmmf.”

“Single?”

“Kind of. That’s part of it, yeah.”

“Vinyl?”

“Don’t make me say it.”

“What do you – oh! Oh, I see.”

“Please don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad.”

“It’s just what I’m supposed to do. Indigo knows these kinds of ponies. I have to follow what he says if I’m going to hit the big time.”

“Vinyl, it’s fine. Really.”

“Tavi –”

“Actually, I think I’ll have an early night. It was a busy day at work. Come up … whenever you’re ready.”

Vinyl shook her head. “Being gay doesn’t mean you molest foals, Indy. That’s just out-dated stereotyping.”

“You’re missing the point over semantics,” he snapped, totally missing her point in return.

“You called me a fillyfooler. You’re my agent. The two shouldn’t go together. You’re supposed to defend me against insults like that, not say them in the first friggin’ place!” Her voice rose towards the end of her sentence, until she was nearly shouting.

“Oh, grow up, Vinyl. So I used a word that offended you. Big deal. Quillpoint used plenty. She’s the one who drew the conclusions over this ridiculous … bedside vigil.” He sounded like he wanted to call it something else entirely. “This has to stop. Now. We can get past what she’s accusing you of – you’re big enough now that a few skeletons in the closet won’t be a career-ending thing. It might even give you an extra edge if we can spin it right; say it was experimentation while you were young. Other ponies do drugs or get drunk – you stuck your hooves in ponies with the same genitalia. But that’ll only work if it stays in the past. That means you can’t be here anymore. If we’re going to spin this as you being concerned for a pony you had a fling with once upon a time – a pony you haven’t seen or spoken to in four years – you can’t be seen draping yourself all over her hospital room. I’ve already been in touch with the PR agency and they’ve agreed to do everything they can to fix this, but they agree with me. You cannot stay here like this anymore.”

Vinyl lowered her face so that she was looking up at Indigo from beneath a thatch of overhanging hair. It was a look she had perfect as a filly. She knew it made her red eyes look extra malevolent, so she had often pulled it out when adults got on her nerves or tried to tame her wild spirit. She hadn’t used it in years, but now seemed like a good time to resurrect it. “I’m. Not. Going. Anywhere.”

“Vinyl!” Indigo threw up his hooves. His telekinesis also lifted the magazine and for a second she thought he was going to swat her with it like a disobedient dog. “Be practical!”

“I have already told you why I am here and why I will continue to be here until something develops,” Vinyl said slowly, enunciating each word as if he was hard of hearing. “I understand what you are saying and I will do whatever you suggest – within reason and without leaving this hospital.”

“You’re fuelling the rumours!”

“What rumours? That I’m gay? Newsflash, Indigo, I am. Ponies were already asking why I haven’t had a relationship for all the years I’ve been in the scene. Those stallions you hired to go with me to launch parties weren’t going to fool them forever, and no matter how many times you tried to get them to link me with other celebrities, none of them stuck. Why do you think that is? The press isn’t stupid. Mean-spirited and ruthless, maybe, but not stupid. They’re going to figure it out eventually, so why shouldn’t I do it on my terms instead? I did what you said when you first took me on and I ended up sacrificing someone really important to me because of it. Not this time. This time, ponies either accept me for who I am and who I love, or they don’t, but I’m not lying again.”

She could barely believe the words coming out of her mouth. She had never stood up for this part of herself before. She played the role of the sassy DJ, the wild card who didn’t give a damn about authority and did things her own way. That was her stage persona in a nutshell: bright, brassy and bringing it. Yet she had always towed the line behind the scenes. She had never turned down an autograph session in a record store, or a photo op, or a spotlight interview. She had endorsed products she didn’t agree with, shaken hooves with politicians whose policies she hated and rubbed shoulders with every stallion Indigo organised to escort her to awards ceremonies. The fact that she was now resisting all of it shocked her more than she was willing to show, or even admit to herself. DJ-Pon3 was a consummate performer and a professional.

Except that right now, she didn’t feel much like DJ-Pon3. She felt as distant from the glossy pony pictured in that glossy magazine as it was possible to be without actually transforming into someone else and thinking of all this as some elaborate dream.

“This is a tough industry, kid. You’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices and play the game by the big boys’ rules or you won’t get anywhere. There are a thousand starving artists ready to replace you if you put a hoof wrong and you aren’t well known enough to get away with even half the dung you read about in the magazines. Don’t go thinking you’re the next Sapphire Shores and make diva demands before you’ve even released your first single. Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?”

“Yes, Mister Indigo.”

“Good, but just call me Indigo … Vinyl, was it?”

“Vinyl Scratch, sir.”

“Drop the ‘sir’ thing too. You’ll be learning on the job but this ain’t no school. Hm, Vinyl Scratch, huh? Has that always been your name or did you change it when you got your cutie mark?”

“I was just called Scratch before.”

“We might be able to work that that name, but if the PR ponies say it’s not good enough, be ready to change it again, okay?”

“Uh … okay.”

“So you plan on coming out?” Indigo demanded. “Publically? You want to turn this whole mess into a big open closet shenanigan?” Indigo rolled up the magazine and shove it back in his saddlebag. “You’re seriously telling me, even with all you know about this industry, that’s the way you want to spin this?”

“I’m not spinning anything. I’m just telling you what I will and won’t do this time.”

“Your popularity might not be enough to see you through something like that. You’ll take hits if you do this – bit hits, Vinyl. The kind some artists never recover from.” He loaded his words with as much emphasis as he could. They teetered like an overfull china cabinet balanced on its edge, ready to fall and smash everything inside. “Think it over. Don’t make any hasty decisions.”

“This decision isn’t hasty.” It was, but then again it wasn’t. When she had time later she would wonder whether she had wanted to do this from the moment Octavia walked out on her or whether it truly was a kneejerk reaction to Quillpoint’s article and Indigo’s demand for her to leave Tavi’s bedside. For right now, however, Vinyl kept her jaw set and her eyes forward. There would be time for everything else later.

“Whatever.” Indigo rolled his eyes and stalked past her. “I’ll speak to your PR team about it and see what they say. You always listen to them, at least.”

“Whatever,” Vinyl echoed, letting him leave without turning around. She bit back the urge to add, “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”


Everything was wrong. The ponies that came and went were too big and this place smelled strange. She didn’t like it. She especially didn’t like how they left her on this old couch, hooves stuck straight out because her legs were too short to reach the floor. When the purple one with the name tag around her neck came back, she looked harassed, though she tried to smile.

“Mommy?”

“No, sweetheart,” said the purple pony. “I’m not your mother. My name is Skydandy.”

“I know you’re not her.” She scowled. She was good at scowling. When she went to school, the fillies and colts there said it made her look evil. “I meant where’s my Mommy? She said she’d be right back. She promised.”

“I know, sweetheart, but she –”

“Where my Mommy!?”

“Problems in here?” An orange unicorn stuck her head around the door so fast she had obviously been waiting just outside.

“Um, yes, actually,” the purple mare stuttered, backing away from the couch. “New arrival. She’s quiet agitated.”

“I want my Mommy!”

The orange unicorn advanced. “Sweetie, I’m very sorry, but your mother can’t be with you for a while.”

“Why not?” Truculent tone. Forelegs folded. Bottom lip jutting, ready to quiver. She knew the way to throw a good tantrum was to build up to the screaming part. Usually adults gave in long before your lungs reached maximum capacity or your voice hit its highest pitch.

The orange unicorn didn’t react properly, however. Instead of capitulating or trying some sweet-talk, she sat on the couch too and brought her face level. She had a name tag necklace too. It had a really bad photo of her next to the word ‘Matron’. “Your mommy is very sick, sweetie.”

“No she isn’t.”

Not today. Sometimes, when she came home from school, Mommy was sick. Sometimes there was even puke that hadn’t been cleaned up. She never minded cleaning up because she knew that on good days she had the best Mommy in the whole world. On good days there was no school, just playtime all day. Sometimes they even went to the park to eat food from the street vendors and play frisbee. Mommy would laugh and laugh when she didn’t catch it – sometimes a little too much and ponies would start staring as she rolled around hysterically in the grass. A couple of times she had gotten angry and broken the frisbee but that hadn’t happened in a while.

The orange unicorn nodded sadly. “I’m afraid she is. She checked herself into a special clinic and left you here with us. We’re going to look after you until she … gets better.”

She didn’t like the way the orange unicorn hesitated. “But she’d gonna get better, right? And then she’ll come back for me?”

“That’s the plan, sweetie.”

Something was up, but she couldn’t tell what. Maybe it had something to do with the way Mommy had yelled when she got home from school yesterday and tried to help her pull the medicine needle out of her foreleg when it looked like she couldn’t do it herself. She had cried and said all sorts of unintelligible things, and then this morning she had packed a mostly-empty suitcase and they had come here.

“Promise.”

“Excuse me?” The orange unicorn looked shocked.

“Promise she’s coming back for me.”

“I … I can’t do that, sweetie.”

“Then you’re a big fat liar and I don’t want to stay here. I want my Mommy!” She brought out the big guns, climbing to her hooves and jumping up and down. Adults always hated it when you jumped on the furniture, especially if you yelled at the same time. “I want her! I want her! I want her! I want her! I WANT HER!


She hated this school even more than her old one. She had to come here every single day and there weren’t any days off to visit the park and eat vendor food anymore. Instead, they made her memorise multiplication tables and spellings and sing dumb songs about dumb things like dumb Harvest Festival. Even their Nightmare Night celebrations were dumb – a couple of lanterns, some paper pumpkins and a cardboard skeleton coated with glow-in-the-dark paint that frightened the little foals and had to live in the store cupboard after that.

She was seeing how long it to grind her pencil all the way through the corner of her exercise book when Principal’s aide knocked the door and summoned their teacher into the corridor for a few seconds, during which the whole class started whispering. Nopony whispered to her. She had made it way clear at the beginning that she wasn’t going to be here long enough to need friends.

Both teacher and aide came back inside. She was surprised when they called her name and gestured her out into the corridor with them. She was escorted to the principal’s office, where the stallion himself sat her down in a chair and knelt in front of her, even though she knew for a fact that he had a bad hip that meant he couldn’t run fast after anypony who flour-bombed him as he left school of an evening.

“What’s this all about?” she asked, wondering whether they had finally figured out who put cherry bombs in the teachers’ toilets and blew out the whole plumbing system last semester. She had traded twenty-eight Wonder Pony comics for those things and had thought her reputation was enough to keep anypony quiet about who was responsible. She had spent nearly a whole school year building up that rep, after all.

The principal didn’t look mad. In fact, he looked gloomy, like someone had drawn a moustache on the photo of his mother he kept on his desk. Mentally she had put that photo off-limits, even for her. “I’m … I’m afraid that your…” he started, and then stopped almost immediately. He blew out a breath and she could see him gathering his courage before speaking again. “It’s … I’ve received a message that you’re to return to … there’s somepony coming to fetch you. You see it’s … it’s your mother …”


It was amazing how far a tray of food could fly – especially when it was propelled by burgeoning telekinesis. She only had a few sparks in her but she used them to devastating effect. Matron only just shut the door in time.

“I don’t want any dinner!” she screamed. Her eyes felt hot and scratchy, like someone had replaced them with balls of chewed gum rolled in gravel.

“You have to eat, sweetie –”

“No I friggin’ don’t! I don’t need food! I don’t need you! I don’t need anything except … ex … cept …”

Except the one thing she couldn’t have.

More tears. She had thought she was all cried out. She turned her face into her pillow and sobbed like a dumb weakling, cursing everything and everyone in the whole dumb world.

“Mommy …”


“There’s a carriage coming up the driveway!” one of the colts from the boys’ dorm yelled as he galloped past. There was a gathering at the window that he fought to get through.

They all moved aside when she appeared. She looked out, unimpeded and unimpressed. She was about to turn away when she saw a little grey filly clamber out. It wasn’t the filly herself who caught her attention, but the massive weird-shaped case that followed after. The stallion with her had trouble fitting it through the carriage door. Why the heck hadn’t it gone on the luggage rack strapped to the roof with everything else?

“Who is she?”

“Is she coming here?”

“Of course she is, bozo. Why else would she bring bags with her?”

“I heard she’s a permo.”

Permo. Permanent resident; not somepony staying at the home for a while. Not somepony who still had family to take her in.

“Uh-huh, I heard Matron and Skydandy talking about it yesterday. Her parents died, so she moved here to Manehattan, and then her guardian died too!”

“Of the same thing?” a filly asked, alarm clear in her voice. “Is it infectious? Should we be worried?”

“Don’t be stupid. Would they let her come here if she was carrying some horrible disease?”

“So she’s in a new city and she lost her family? Talk about bad luck.”

“Uh-huh, and I also heard that …”

She didn’t listen to the rest. She was already trotting along the corridor, heading for the front entrance and the new arrival coming through the door.


“Hey. Hey, new girl. Hey!”

The tight bundle of blankets shifted slightly. “What?”

“Are you crying?”

The bundle sniffed. “No.”

“You totally are. It’s okay. Everypony feels rotten at first.”

“Is it … does the rotten feeling go away?”

“Eventually, sure. I’ve been here six years and I stopped feeling rotten about the place ages ago.”

“You’ve been here six whole years?”

“Yup.”

The bundle turned so that a single purple eye could be seen in its depths. “Weren’t you placed with a foster family? The social worker told me that’s what she expects will happen to me.”

“Oh, sure, I’ve been in plenty of foster homes, but none of them worked out, so I always ended up back here.”

“That can happen?”

“They don’t make you stay with ponies you don’t like. There ain’t that many ponies out there who want to foster – they got a shortage or sumthin’. Generally, though, I landed on the doorstep each time with a big ‘return to sender’ note stuck on my horn. Hey, whoa! I’m kidding, I’m kidding, they don’t really do that! Quit with the waterworks!”

The bundle trembled with sobs that were obviously aimed into a pillow. “I’m not crying about that. I … I just miss … my aunt and m-my … my parents.”

“Aw, crap.”

“I miss them so m-much and this place is s-so strange and … and awful. I don’t want to be here. I want to go ho-ooome!”

“Um … crap, I’m no good with this kinda stuff. Uh … hey, wossyourname? New girl? Octavia! Yeah, that was it! Octavia, quit crying for five friggin’ seconds, okay?”

“You’re very rude,” the bundle sniffed.

“Now how d’ya like that? And here was me all ready to let you get into my bed so’s you don’t have to be alone on your first night. Well now you can just get lost.”

“Sleep in your bed?”

“Yeah. It’s what I do when new kids are all with the crying and stuff. Usually the new kids are a lot younger than me, but I guess I can do the same for you.”

“Isn’t that a little strange for you to offer?”

“I’m the oldest.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to –”

“Going once. Going twice. Going –”

“No, wait! I … I think I’d like that, if you wouldn’t mind.” The bundle raised itself up and tiptoed gingerly across the cold floor, perching on the edge of the neighbouring mattress. There it stayed, facing resolutely forward.

“So are you gonna stay here or go back to your own bed? ‘Cause I wanna catch some zees of my own, y’know. We’ve got school tomorrow, in case you forgot.”

“I’ll … I’ll stay.” Slowly, it tilted sideways and curled up in a tight ball, allowing the filly already in the bed to spoon it awkwardly.

The position was uncomfortable and awkward, yet she didn’t complain; merely stroked the bundle as she might any distraught newcomer. She was used to fillies who were little more than foals, but the grief radiating off the new girl was so powerful she could almost taste it.

“You must think I’m terribly foalish,” the new girl said after a while.

“No way. You shoulda seen me my first night here. I was a wreck.”

“You were?”

She shrugged. “Probably.”

“Probably? You mean you don’t remember?”

“Nope,” she lied. “But I bet I was a wreck. Foals that age always are, in my experience.” And they usually got snapped up faster by fosterers and adoptive parents too, but she didn’t mention that.

“So I am acting foalish, blubbing like this. I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for? You get upset, you cry. Whatever. Ain’t no big deal.”

“Do you ever cry?”

“Pffft! No way. I never cry. I’m too tough for that.” She realised what she had said a moment after she had said it. “I mean, uh … aw crap, I said I was bad at this stuff.”

“It’s all right,” the bundle sighed. “You’re being very kind. Thank you.”

“No sweat. Just try to get some sleep, okay? Everything seems way worse when you’re tired and cranky.”

“I don’t know how things could get any worse,” the new filly said, so softly that she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to hear.

“You could have scabies.”

“What?”

“Or slugs for hair. Could you imagine a mane and tail made of slugs?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Things that could make this moment worse. You could have raging diarrhoea. And be a weight lifter. In public.”

“That’s … disgusting.”

“You think that’s disgusting? I can do way better than that. Let me see. How about …”

“No! No, the mental image of … that was quite enough, thank you.”

“You’re right. You’re way too skinny to be a weight lifter anyway. I bet you couldn’t bench press more than an apple. Or maybe two apples. At a push. With help.”

A tiny judder made her lift her head off the pillow. Crap, was the other filly crying again? To her relief, however, the judder coalesced into an even tinier giggle.

“You’re very peculiar, Scratch.”

“Cool. Usually ponies just say I’m a pain in the butt. Uh … what does ‘peculiar’ mean?”

The giggle came again. “Strange. But in a good way.”

“Oh. Right. Cool.”

Silence fell. It was a good note to end on, so she didn’t try to keep the conversation going. However, she did wait until the other filly’s breathing evened out into slumber before closing her own eyes.


The air held a vague smell of tomato. She opened her eyes and sighed. Nope, her nap was not going to happen today, even though all the other fillies and colts had cleared out like they always did when she wanted to snooze. She looked around at the whitewashed walls, old pine furniture and stains on the walls where generations of foster kids had left their marks. Yep, there was the red splodge where the food fight she had started with Bilberry had gotten out of control and a tomato impaled itself on Matron’s horn, splattering her face and the wall behind her. This was called the Rec Room but it was more like the Wrecked Room. Everything looked worn, including the couch on which she lay. She remembered sitting on this when her legs were too short to reach the floor. She didn’t have that problem these days.

The door opened. A familiar grey pony walked in, dragging a wheeled suitcase. She scrambled off the couch and abruptly fell on her face.

“Ouch!”

Octavia smiled, though her eyes were troubled. “I just came to say goodbye.”

For some reason she had trouble meeting Octavia’s eyes. Involuntarily, she glanced at the calendar pinned to the wall instead – the one with things like ‘sexual health talk for fillies’ and ‘bedding change in colts’ dormitory’ in loopy writing. She recognised that writing. Skydandy was one of the only staff at the orphanage who thought the kids in their care deserved to know the monthly schedule too. Today had been circled in red ink: ‘Octavia leaving’.

“Were you asleep?” Octavia asked.

“Nah, nah, it’s all good. Your new foster family seem nice.”

“Yes. They’re very nice. Mrs. Racer is just helping Mr. Racer hitch himself to their cart.”

“You better not keep them waiting.”

Octavia tucked a curl of hair behind her ear. She had tied it into a ponytail high on the back of her head. It made her look young and sort of vulnerable. Her neck looked too skinny, like it couldn’t properly support her head, which dipped forward onto her chest. “I’ll miss you.”

“You’ll be fine. You’ll see. In five minutes you’ll forget all about this place.”

“I won’t forget about you.”

She blew a raspberry that had Octavia frowning.

“I won’t! You’re the first proper friend I’ve ever had.”

“No way. Wait, you’re serious?”

Octavia nodded. “My parents home-schooled me. After they died Aunt Melodia sent me to the local public school but I … I found it rather difficult to make friends there.”

She could believe it. Octavia’s impeccable manners and posh voice had instantly marked her as an outsider here too. She was so timid she attracted bullies like wasps to honey – vicious girls who dropped hurtful comments like upturned tacks for the unwary to step on. It would have been the same story here if she hadn’t stepped in. Nopony messed with Scary Scratch, the filly who could make you laugh one minute and macramé your face the next.

“You were the first pony around my age who was nice to me and didn’t want anything in return,” Octavia mumbled. “So no, Scratch, I won’t forget you. I won’t forget you at all.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. Luckily a sunshine yellow mare stuck her head around the door at that moment.

“Octavia? We’re ready to leave, darling. Have you said your goodbyes?”

“I … yes.” Octavia started to turn away but stopped. She hesitated a moment and then dashed forward to fling her forelegs around Scratch in a hug. “Don’t forget me either, all right?”

“No problem.”

And then Octavia was gone.

She watched from the window of the rec room as the Racers’ cart went down the long driveway. Octavia kept turning around to wave, even though there was no way she could see anypony inside from that distance. She waved back, even though she knew Octavia couldn’t see her either. Then she went back to her spot on the couch, told herself this was no different than any other time one of the other fillies or colts got fostered, and curled up with her tail over her face to block out the world for a while.


The Rec Room was turning into a crappy place to nap. The million-year-old threadbare couch with the uncomfortable lumps in the middle cushion used to be fine, but today she had retreated to the garden and stretched out under a tree. It provided just enough shade for a tired pony to fall asleep in the sun. Nevertheless sleep did not come. She simply stared up at the leaves, awaiting its arrival, until she became aware of hoofsteps nearby. She didn’t have time to sit up before a face filled her line of sight.

“What the … Octavia?”

Octavia smiled down at her. “Hello.”

“What the hay are you doing here?”

“It didn’t work out, I’m afraid.”

“What?”

“The Racers. It didn’t work out.” She smiled sadly. “Or rather, I didn’t get on with their daughter. She objected to me practising my cello and they said I couldn’t do it anywhere but at school because it hurt her ears. Although, to tell you the truth, I think she was just a spoiled brat who objected to sharing her mum and dad with me.” She shrugged. “Oh well.”

“Aw, crap. I’m sorry.”

“What the dickens are you sorry for? It’s not your fault. Like you told me; sometimes these things just don’t work out.”

“You’ll get another foster family in no time, you’ll see. Anypony would be crazy not to snap you up as their daughter.” Except that they rarely went for the older fillies or colts. Foals were cuter and usually had less baggage. Once you’d been in the care system a while, nopony would touch your case. She knew that firsthoof.

“We’ll see, shall we? In the meantime, would you mind terribly if I joined you out here? It’s a lovely day and I need a little sunshine.”

“Huh? Oh sure. Whatever. Cop a squat.”

“I do wish you wouldn’t use phrases like that. It’s terribly uncouth.”

“Look who’s talking, Miss Prissy-Pants. ‘What the dickens’? What kind of friggin’ weird saying is that?”

They laughed together, the tops of their heads touching as they lay on their backs in the cool grass.


Moonlight and melodies washed over the grounds. This year’s prom committee had really outdone themselves. They had managed to rent Quartz Hall, a wannabe country home on the outskirts of Manehattan. It had cost a front and hind leg to hire out for the evening, and involved everypony getting transport there from their neighbourhood, but everypony agreed that it had been worth it. Their prom would go down in the history of the school as one of the best. Quartz Hall beat the school gym into the ground and then jumped on it in a ball-gown and fancy shoes.

Speaking of which …

“I can barely breathe in this thing!”

“But you look lovely.”

“Say what? I look like a dog’s dinner.” She pulled ineffectually at the lacy collar cutting into her windpipe. “After the dog already threw it up once.”

Octavia giggled. “Nopony could ever accuse you of putting on airs, Scratch.”

“Unzip me a little, please!”

Octavia found the zipper on the back of her dress and pulled it down a smidge. A hearty gasp met the action.

“Thank Celestia for that! Didn’t anypony ever tell Matron that fashion shouldn’t hurt this much?”

“Don’t be like that. It was nice of her to lend you her old prom dress.” Octavia gave a small twirl. “I, for one, adore Skydandy’s.”

“That’s because you and she are about the same size. Apparently when she was our age, Matron had a neck the size of a celery stick. Friggin’ heck, I think my windpipe’s been severed!”

“You’re overreacting.”

“Says the one with the plunging neckline.”

Instead of answering, Octavia looked up at the night sky. They had come out onto the balcony for some privacy to rearrange the suffocating dress, but the lack of other prom-goers out here had other advantages too. At least out here there was nopony to laugh at them for having no dates.

Everypony in this school is friggin’ whacked, she thought angrily. No-one had even asked her to the prom, which she had kind of expected. Her rep made it difficult for anyone to approach her, or want to be seen with her. Who wanted to look at yearbook pictures and remember the night they escorted the school psycho to a dance? No, what really burned her buns was that nopony had asked Octavia, either. That was completely ridiculous, especially considering how good she looked when she dressed up.

“You know something, Scratch?” Octavia said suddenly. “This evening is actually turning out far better than I expected.”

“Huh?”

“No, really.”

“Octavia, we came stag, we haven’t danced once, we both hate the choice of music, I’m almost sure that idiot Rusty spiked the punch and tomorrow we hear back about the Academy audition. What the hay is even remotely good about tonight?”

“I don’t know. I should be a bundle of nerves, but I’m not. Perhaps this is a last burst of laissez-faire aplomb before the axe falls?” Octavia shrugged. “Don’t you think?”

“I don’t even know what you just said!”

Octavia laughed softly. “I can’t explain why I’m so relaxed. I’m just really glad I came, and I’m glad I came with you. Aren’t the stars pretty tonight?”

The non-sequitur flummoxed her for a moment. “Uh …”

“You can really see them out here, away from the city lights.”

“I guess.” She looked up. They just looked like stars to her; okay but nothing special. She could admire Princess Celestia for being powerful enough to make them appear each night, but the stars themselves did nothing for her. “If you like that sort of thing.”

“Mmm.” Octavia tilted her head back. She had worn her hair loose tonight. It fell over her ears and back like a length of shimmering dark silk. A tiny breeze picked up a few strands and blew them back, making her close her eyes. She looked so content, so unthinkingly peaceful, that her image instantly overlaid every single other memory of this night.

A burst of bright white streaked across the sky.

“Hey, look!”

“What?” Octavia’s eyes snapped open. “What is it? I don’t see anything.”

“A shooting star!”

“Oh, Scratch, that means you must make a wish!” Octavia exclaimed. “Heavens, I wish I’d seen it too. Trust me to have my eyes closed at the wrong moment. What are you going to wish for? Oh wait, no, don’t tell me. If you tell me it won’t come true.”

“You’d probably guess it anyhow. I wished we could always be pals – together forever, you and me, Scratch and Tavi, Tavi and Scratch, the gruesome twosome.”

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t call me Tavi!” The annoyance, however, was clearly fake. Octavia looked at her quizzically. “You really wished for that?”

“Well, what else was I going to wish for?”

“Good news from the Academy tomorrow?”

A beat. “Aw, crap.”

Octavia laughed again, making her close her eyes against the breeze that made them sting for some reason.


The air was full of heat and intimacy. It was a warm night – warm enough that the windows had been left open and the curtains billowed inward. Outside a radiant moon was concealed by clouds, but the ponies inside the small room did not need any light to see by. They knew each other better than they knew themselves; every curve, every curl, every place that needed kissing and how best to kiss it. Theirs was the language of touch and it was a more expressive one than words alone.

Eventually the bedclothes stilled and the curtains became the only movement. The sky lightened to purple, then mauve, then the colour of a fading bruise that gave way to the yellowish glow of encroaching dawn. The bedclothes stirred once more, but this time in bleary waking, and they froze just as quickly.

Tavi was warm against her, their hind legs still entwined. Beneath the covers the hair of their tails was so tangled it would take them a few minutes to separate it out when it was time to get up. It was always that way after nights like this. She lay quietly, breathing in the scent of Tavi’s mane. It smelled of sweat and that apple shampoo she had bought from a fellow student whose family sold apple-themed toiletry products to help pay the exorbitant school fees. As scholarship students they had little money between them, yet Octavia still liked helping out those she felt were less fortunate than herself, as if she felt like she was still paying off a debt owed for her own happiness.

I am one lucky pony.

The thought popped into her head fully formed, no effort required. She couldn’t argue with it either. Not with Tavi curled against her like this.

I am one damn lucky pony

Octavia stirred. “Mrrf … why are you sniffing my head?”

“I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were. I could … oargh …” She interrupted herself with a yawn. “I could feel it.”

“You could feel me sniffing your head?”

“Of course. Mrrf, is it morning yet?”

“Nope. Not even close.”

“Liar. I can see the clock from here.”

“We didn’t go to bed until nearly one o’ clock and it wasn’t like we were sleeping. We’re owed some extra zees.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“It does in my world.”

“Then your world must be a wonderful place to live.”

She pulled Octavia – her Tavi – even closer and nuzzled her mane. “It sure is.”


She was in a completely different room. She fumbled about for a second before realising that she was stretched out across a row of plush seats. The seats were the flip-down variety you got in theatres or particularly swish cinemas. When she moved they flipped up, trapping her momentarily between red velveteen base and red velveteen backs.

“Unk!” she cried out, righting herself awkwardly. She all but rolled off onto the floor and stood up, looking around to figure out where she was. She felt discombobulated; a pony out of time and place. Her head was full of images – her mother, her first day at the orphanage, a carriage coming up the driveway, a cart driving away, the shape of a cello case, the acceptance letter from Canterlot Music Academy, the prom, a set of billowing curtains …

This is a dream, she thought. It has to be a dream.

“Take five, everypony.” A voice rang out from the front of the room. It was a voice she recognised like the unmistakable smell of rancid milk when you opened the fridge – it cut through her brain and uprooted even more memories, these much less pleasant. The scruff of her neck twinged as it reminded her what it felt like to be tossed from a building. “Cavatina, you might like to check your keys. That last piece sounded a little flat. We’ll resume rehearsal in ten minutes.”

She looked up, recollections flittering back into place like pieces of confetti falling impossibly into a single mosaic of her life. This was impossible. She had never witnessed one of their rehearsals. Yet there they were: Cavatina, Coda, Quaver and …

“Octavia,” she breathed. Before she knew what she was doing, she was on her hooves. Not one of them noticed her walking towards the stage. “Octavia?” She raised her voice to above a whisper. “Tavi?”

Octavia didn’t respond. She fiddled with the strings of her cello, plucking at one, tightening its key and then plucking it again. She moved gracefully even in that small action. Her eyes crinkled in concentration, just as they had four years ago. Just as they had years before that, in the shade of a tree in the orphanage garden. Just as they had on prom night, as she smiled over a wish made on a shooting star …

“Tavi!” Why couldn’t anypony heard her. She waved but that reaped no results either. Stupid dream. And it was a dream, she was certain of that. Dream logic made physics and perceptions do peculiar things. Maybe if she willed it, they would hear her. Maybe Octavia would hear her.

She was focussed so hard on the stage she only caught the movement in her peripheral vision. Her eyes ticked upwards and she knew with sudden, horrific certainty what day this was. She started running, calling even though nopony reacted and her hooves left no impressions in the plush carpet.

“Get out of the way! The light! Tavi, move! Tavi!

Even if they couldn’t hear her, maybe she could reach the stage in time and rugby tackle Octavia. Maybe she could stop –

A creak. The swish of black metal and glass. A scream from Cavatina. Octavia looking up too late. Each thing passed in less than a second yet seemed to last a lifetime. A noise like someone biting into an apple. A mane fluttering like dark silk behind a body as it fell.

“Taviiiii!”

Vinyl fell back into her own head, her whole body trembling. She stood up reflexively, knocking over her chair. It took almost a whole minute for her to process where she was and accept that she wasn’t still dreaming. Her legs buckled and she collapsed half against the bed.

“I’m awake,” she muttered, over and over. “I’m awake. It was just a dream. I didn’t really see that. Not any of it. I’m awake and it was just a dream.”

Still, the sight of Octavia looking up mere moments before the light struck her was imprinted on Vinyl’s mind like somepony had taken a hot iron and branded it there. She could tell herself what she had seen was a dream all she liked, but the accident really had happened. Maybe not in that exact way, but Octavia really had been hurt and really was in a coma. It was difficult to dispute those facts when her hospital bed was the thing propping you up.

“Tavi …” she muttered brokenly.

She wasn’t sure which hurt more: the happy memories or that nauseating vision. Flashes of each bullwhipped through her mind, leaving raw welts in their wake. Everything had felt so real. She wouldn’t be surprised to find grass stalks on her back or strands of Tavi’s tail accidentally wound into her own.

“I’m awake,” she continued to mutter. “It was just a dream. I’m awake and it was just a dream…”


Some time later there came a tentative knock on the door. It couldn’t be Indigo again but Vinyl didn’t feel up to conversation with anypony. The events of the day had caught up to her. Despite her nap she was wracked with such tiredness that everything from her guts to her brain wanted to curl into a ball and join Octavia in her coma.

“Sweetie?”

“Oh, Flower, it’s you,” she said dully. She had abandoned the chair entirely. After using the bed as a prop she had just let herself continue her trajectory and slid to the floor. Now she sat with her back against the bed, forehooves lolling at her sides

Nurse Flower Heart crept into the room. “You shut the curtains? Why? It’s darker than a tax collector’s conscience in here.”

“The sun was too bright.”

Her tone alerted the nurse that something more than usual was amiss. “Vinyl? Sweetie, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Vinyl felt her face twitch and turned it away.

“Your mouth says ‘nuthin’ but the rest of you says ‘sumthin’. Wanna talk about it?”

“No. I told you, it’s nothing.”

Nurse Flower Heart came closer, her hoofsteps tentative in the dim light. “And after all the time you’ve spent here, I can tell when you’re lying to me. It ain’t healthy to bottle stuff up, sweetie. So c’mon and tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing!” Vinyl’s voice cracked. It was like a fissure in a dam. She swore she actually felt something inside her rupture. Her eyes tickled. She sniffed her suddenly stuffy nose. “Everything.”

“Oh, sweetie!”

Nurse Flower Heart crossed the remaining distance and enclosed her in a hug without asking if that was okay. She smelled of antiseptic, coffee and, bizarrely, strawberries. She was also soft, her plumpness providing a cushion that was just right to hide a teary face. Her hug was the kind Vinyl had always imagined a mother’s would feel like. Not her own mother’s of course. Her mother had been too bony for cuddles and things. Even as a foal, Vinyl had worried she would break her if she hugged her too hard. Vinyl found herself clinging to Nurse Flower Heart, who held her tight as the tears Vinyl hadn’t even realised she was shedding trickled down her cheeks.

Vinyl sobbed. She sobbed as she had not done since she was a foal whose mother abandoned her. She sobbed harder than she had the night after she and Octavia broke up and she had promised she would never cry again. She sobbed until she felt like she was going to throw up: all the bad things inside rising into her throat to spread acid across the back of her tongue. The fissure inside her widened, her fears, worries, doubts, dashed hopes and dreams, uncertainties about the future – all of it swelling and bubbling like she had swallowed a storm cloud full of lightning bolts and it was trying to break free. Her shoulders shook violently, as if she was having some sort of seizure. When she was finally able to speak, her voice kept hitching.

“I think … I may have ruined … everything … in my life …”

“That ain’t true –”

“It is. I-I had … so much … so much good stuff and I … I wrecked it …. I ruined what I had with Tavi … I r-ruined the interview with Quillpoint and n-now she’s throwing muck at me in the p-press … I ruined my reputation b-by pulling that stunt at the Palladium and cancelling the t-tour … and now I might have r-ruined my career completely because I … I …”

“Because what?” Nurse Flower heart stroked her mane like she was comforting a small foal.

“Because I don’t want to hide anymore,” Vinyl said softly. “I wasn’t very good at it anyway but I … I tried because I was supposed to and I … I wanted so much to be … no, I had to be a success because I’d already sacrificed so much to get it and … and now I can’t … I don’t …” She sniffed, her voice shaking. “For so long, all I had was my career. I … I d-didn’t think … I n-needed any … anypony. Not like … like I n-needed … her. I thought that if I c-could be a success I’d be h-happy … so I … so I made sure I was successful and now … n-now I might l-lose Tavi all over again and m-my career too and … a-and everything!”

“Shhh, it’s okay, sweetie. It’ll all be okay.”

“No it won’t. You s-said yourself, Tavi might never wake up. I m-might never get her back, and even … even if I do … it might not be her anymore. It might … she might be … I said I’d take care of her and I mean that but I keep hoping … and I don’t … I c-can’t … oh, Celestia, it’s too much. It’s all just too m-much ...”

“Shhh, sweetie. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Vinyl allowed herself to be coddled but couldn’t bring herself to believe the kind words.

7. “Make me understand.”

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7. “Make me understand.”


Vinyl slumped in her chair. It was most definitely her chair now. Pulled up beside the bed and littered with tiny white hairs when she got up, nopony could mistake it for anything but the seat of somepony on an endless vigil.

Head back, she stared at the ceiling fan. It was oppressively hot in the little room. The fan only moved around warm air. The motors from Octavia’s monitors, plus the breaths of two ponies, heated the place alongside the ambient warmth from the sunny day outside. Light streamed through the window, though Vinyl only had a view of the parking lot. She watched as a pegasus coasted into a space and unhitched his cart, folding in the enchanted fins that allowed something with wheels to become airborne. In another parking space a burly earth pony stallion allowed himself to be hitched up by a much smaller mare, craning his neck to allow her better access.

Vinyl had never pulled a cart. It was a strange thing to think. She was full of strange thoughts and realisations these days, especially about things she had never done. She had never learned how to teleport with her magic. She had never eaten lima beans. She had never played badminton. She had never climbed a mountain and shouted her name to hear it echo. Each tiny realisation eroded another piece of her good humour, leaving her cranky and monosyllabic, and then unwilling to speak at all.

The nurses were worried. She could tell. They whispered to each other and peered into the room without coming in. They seemed almost scared to approach, though she hadn’t snapped at anyone in days. She hadn’t, however, eaten any of the food they left for her. She had no appetite. Not even Nurse Merry Heart’s couscous with peppers was enough to tempt her. Doctor Thorntree was away at some sort of conference until tomorrow. Vinyl was glad. She didn’t want the kindly stallion to see her brought so low.

Reluctantly, Indigo had arranged a press conference. The thought terrified her. She hadn’t left the hospital in over a month. Just the thought of going outside was daunting after so long indoors. She would have to cross Manehattan to get to the building he had booked. All those streets, all those buildings and then, at the end …

At the end. What a revealing way of putting it. Would it be the end? Indigo seemed to think so. She had heard him muttering about letting her go if this went south. He didn’t think she would recover from this decision. Surely not everypony in Equestria was as close-minded as him? Surely not that many would even care whether she was straight, gay, or whatever? It wasn’t as big a deal as Indigo was making it out to be.

“This isn’t the Dark Ages, Indy. Ponies aren’t shunned or called unnatural for this kind of thing anymore. Equestria is a modern land with modern values. You’re totally overreacting.”

“Equestria is one thing. Regular ponies can do what they want without anyone batting an eye. Media sponsors on the other hoof? They’re a lot more conservative than the average consumer and they don’t like it when the ponies they’re chosen to represent their brands do stuff that doesn’t match their mission statement.”

“Mission statement? This isn’t a war, Indy! It’s selling crap!”

“Don’t you ever let me hear you say it like that again.”

“Okay. Whatever. Sorry. But Indy, why can’t I drop all this sponsorship stuff altogether? Why do I have to let it dictate my life on and off stage? Why can’t it just be me and my music?”

“Get real, Vinyl. That’s not how this industry works and you know it. Sponsors and the work you do for them help pay for your tours. Their money buys your equipment. They pay the wages of the ponies who make your music even possible. Where would your shows be without lighting technicians or soundstage engineers? Everypony needs to take home wages at the end of the day.”

“Doesn’t the record company pay for all that out of the revenue I generate from the music itself? Album sales, radio airplay, that sort of thing?”

“How can you have been in this game so long and still be so naïve? That’s only a fraction of it. Everything’s connected. If you don’t get sponsors, you don’t have enough bits to promote yourself. If you aren’t promoted, nopony knows you have a new single or album out. If nopony knows, nopony buys it. If nopony buys it, the record company eventually decides you’re not worth it anymore, doesn’t renew your contract and your career ends with a whimper. So if those conservative sponsors don’t feel like you represent their image anymore, or just don’t like the negative press you’ve generated lately with your behaviour, they may drop you and the whole spiral begins.”

“It’s … surely it’s not as bad as all that.”

“Get a clue, Vinyl. The rules are different for celebrities.”

Stinking rules. She hadn’t liked them as a filly and she didn’t like them now. At least school rules and those at the orphanage made a modicum more sense than this. It was all so old-fashioned – something she had never thought she would say about the world of electronic music.

The music isn’t the problem, she thought bitterly. It’s the friggin’ ponies who are a pain in the flank.

A ruckus outside the room barely caught her attention. It was probably one of the other patients, or perhaps their distraught family. That happened when their loved ones had irreversible brain-damage. During her stay Vinyl had witnessed at least three families collapsing around the Neurology Department, weeping and wailing that one of them was no longer the same behind the eyes. The first had terrified her with its implications. Watching her greatest fear play out in reality, even if she wasn’t in a starring role, was a cruel reminder of might be in store for herself and Octavia in the future. By the third time, however, she was numb to the broken ponies’ cries. If she tried to feel their anguish as well as her own she really would go mad.

She got up to close the door on the commotion. She didn’t need someone else’s crap invading her own. However, as her hoof shoved it she found her elbow bending under the force of a pony shoving back from the other side. The other pony had a lot of strength behind their push, sending Vinyl staggering backwards as the door opened determinedly.

“Viiiiiinyl, honey!” drawled a familiar voice that Vinyl nonetheless had trouble placing. For a moment the disconnect between it and the surroundings fogged up her brain. Then the pony’s identity clicked into place.

“Sapphire?”

“The one and only, honey!” Sapphire Shores gave the biggest, brightest smile, all super white teeth and expertly applied lipstick. Whether singing to thousands, signing autographs or, apparently, visiting hospitals, she always looked like she had just stepped out from under the make-up ponies’ brushes. Her grin faltered a little. “Girl, you look like ten miles of bad, bad road.” She trilled the words as thought they were lyrics from one of her songs. She did that a lot. Vinyl didn’t mind so much but she knew it irked other ponies something fierce.

“You never do pull your punches, do you?”

“I just call ‘em as I see ‘em, honey, and frankly? You look more tired than that dress Tutti Frutti wore to the Musicality Awards.” Sapphire lifted her chin. “Scarlet chiffon – can you believe it? With her colouring? And puffed sleeves with yellow citrines sewed all over! She looked like a busted tomato. I, of course, was totally rockiiiiing it in a jewelled number whipped up special by this fabulous little designer in Ponyville. I won Most Melodious Mare, natch, aaaaand Best Dressed On the Red Carpet. Boy, was Tutti Frutti liviiiiid! No matter what she does, that girl cannot outdo me.”

“The Musicality Awards happened? When?”

“Last Thursday. You won Best Dubstep for that remix you did, ‘Stepping On My Dreams vs. Open Your Heart’? Didn’t anypony tell you? Cyclonic Clyde accepted it on your behalf?” Everything Sapphire said came out like a question, as if she genuinely couldn’t believe Vinyl had no knowledge of what she was talking about.

Cyclonic Clyde was another of Indigo’s clients, a young DJ from Hoofington who had been making waves recently. “No. Last Thursday? What day is today?”

Sapphire looked at Vinyl askance. “I take it back. You’re more like twenty miles of bad road. I thought it was weird you missed the awards ceremony but then Tic-Tac-Toe, my stylist – a gorgeous pony who could revamp an ironing board and make it catwalk-worthy – she showed me that nasty-ass article by that nasty-ass Quillpoint in Mane Music Monthly. Well, when I heard where you’ve been all this time I just had to come see you.”

“Uh, that’s really nice of you but … why?”

“Don’t tell me it’s thirty miles and I’m the hitchhiker you left behind at the side of the road!” Sapphire exclaimed. “We’re friends, honey.” She broke into full song. “Thaaaat’s what friends dooooo!”

Friends? Vinyl blinked as she processed this. She had guested on two of Sapphire’s singles and Sapphire once put in a surprise performance at one of Vinyl’s shows. The audience had gone wild seeing two of Equestria’s musical powerhouses on the same stage, each performing her best, trying to outshine the other with no preparation or forewarning. Sapphire was a formidable mare in the flesh but in concert she was like lightning on four hooves. She danced like she sang – with all her heart. As Vinyl recalled, when she reared up on two legs to hit a particular high note and Vinyl had combatted it with a wave of electronic sound they had nearly blown out the speakers.

After the performance they had gone out for breakfast, since they were so wired. It was late enough to count as ‘early’ anyway, and Sapphire knew a place that served breakfasts 24/7. They had talked for several hours, still high on the thrill of the concert and, eventually, on the sugar from more doughnuts than either of their agents or wardrobe mistresses would have liked. Afterwards they had gone their separate ways and Vinyl had thought no more about it. Sapphire, however, had interpreted it as the stamp of friendship – and when Sapphire Shored decided something, it stayed decided it if knew what was good for it.

“Oh,” Vinyl said awkwardly. “Well … I’m fine.”

“Oh, no, no, no. You are many things, sugar-lips, but right now? Fine ain’t one of ‘em.” Sapphire shook her head, emphasising the assertion with a stomp of a hoof. “I’m fine. I am so fine. You? You’re maybe the f.”

“No, really, I’m doing okay.”

Sapphire’s eyes flicked to the bed. The nurses had washed Octavia that morning. Her mane had dried in the warmth of the room and shone from Vinyl’s careful brushing. By comparison, Vinyl’s own mane hung drearily on one side of her neck. The jagged cut was growing out and it hadn’t seen mousse or gel in several …she wanted to say days but it might actually have been weeks. When had she last taken the time to even shampoo it? She couldn’t remember.

Sapphire’s mouth twisted into an imperious line, blue lipstick almost disappearing into her pursed lips. “Vinyl Scratch, I do declare, I have never before seen you look as beaten down as you do at this very moment. If you insist on insulting me by trying to tell me you’re okay, then sugar-lips, I may have to bury one of my very expensive velveteen-lined slippers in that bony white ass of yours. And if you make Sapphire Shores sacrifice her shoes, heads will rollllll!”

Vinyl stared at her, mouth slightly open – and not just because that last note had almost burst her eardrums. “Okay, so I won’t tell you.”

“Honey, you know what you need?”

The power of time travel? “You’re going to tell me, aren’t you?”

“You need some pampering! Ain’t nopony nowhere whose mood couldn’t perk up with some pampering. I know this fabulous little salon on Star Street, not too far from here, where they do these to-die-for seaweed body wraps –”

“Thanks, but no.” Vinyl was quiet but firm. “You read that article, right? I don’t leave this hospital.”

“Not even for a spa visit?”

Vinyl grimaced. Even when she wasn’t so dejected she wouldn’t have wanted some fancy-schmancy spa visit. Instead of divulging this, however, she just said, “Not even.”

“By Celestia’s fabulous footwear!” Sapphire exclaimed. “This is worse than I thought.” She flicked her eyes at the bed again. Something shifted in her gaze. When she next spoke her volume had dropped a couple of levels from bust-your-ears to merely loud. “I take it this here is the outstanding Octavia?”

“Yeah.” Vinyl’s mouth went dry. “That’s her.”

Sapphire nodded assessingly. “Grey and black, understated but it works somehow. Eye colour?”

“Uh, purple.”

“Of course! Amethysts would look wonderful with that colouring. I have a necklace that would look magnificent on her – shaped like a shooting star, y’know, to match moi since I am a star. Wow, her genes sure did her proud.”

“I wish you could see her with her eyes open,” Vinyl said softly.

Sapphire said nothing for a long moment. Then, out of nowhere, she spun around and plonked her decorated derriere on the floor. “Tell me about her.”

“What?”

“Octavia. Tell me about her.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s important to you, sugar-lips,” Sapphire replied, as if this answered any computation of questions Vinyl could ever think to ask. “You did all this for her. When I spoke to you last, you were all work-work-work. I ain’t never met nopony as driven as you. Well, not since the last time I looked in the mirror. Yet here you are.” She spread her hooves at the room. “You, the biggest workaholic this side of anywhere, spending more than a month out of the game? I want to know why. She must be some dang fine mare to make the inexhaustible DJ-Pon3 give up her turntables for this long to talk to her when she can’t even talk back. So make me understand.” After a moment she added, “Honey, you’re staring, and while I truly adore being the centre of attention, leaving your mouth wide open like that ain’t attractive in nopony.”

Vinyl clicked her jaw shut. She scrubbed uncertainly at her mane. Her first impulse was to resist. Maybe Sapphire thought they were friends, but that was news to her. DJ-Pon3 didn’t have friends. Vinyl Scratch definitely didn’t have friends. And yet …

And yet.

A wave of intense loneliness swept through her. Not the loneliness of being alone, but the kind that came from feeling alone. She choked back the emotion as it clogged her throat – not with tears, but with a sudden, pervasive desire to scream just to see if anypony would care. The helplessness that had been building inside as her world seemed to fall apart around her swelled like a beach ball being inflated inside her gullet. It was too much. She was going to explode from the sheer size of the feeling if she didn’t do something to get it out of her. And how was a pony supposed to combat loneliness?

With somepony else of course.

Her butt hit the floor hard enough to make her wince. She opened her mouth but nothing would come out. She almost laughed. The big-mouthed, can’t-shut-her-up-if-you-try Vinyl Scratch, unable to talk? The pony whose first kiss with her beloved came from Octavia trying to shut her up as they argued about whether dubstep had the same staying power as classical? She closed her eyes, remembering that abrupt feel of lips against hers and the adrenaline that had flooded her when her brain caught up with her body. Nopony who knew either of them would have guessed Octavia had made that first, momentous move. The first overture, even.

“What … the …”

“I-I’m sorry, I was just … I didn’t mean to … I’m sorry!”

“Wait, Tavi, come back! Don’t run off. Look at me for a second. Seriously, look at me.”

“I can’t. I’m too embarrassed.”

“Say what? You just planted one on me and now you’re embarrassed? You didn’t seem so embarrassed a minute ago.”

“I wasn’t thinking very … clearly.”

“Lucky for me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Tavi, did you not notice the part where I kissed you back?”

“Well, I … I just thought you were being …”

“What?”

“Polite.”

“Seriously? Tavi, if some stranger had kissed me like that on the subway, I wouldn’t have kissed back, I would have kicked some ass!”

“Vinyl …”

“Octavia, all joking aside, why did you kiss me?”

“I … because I …”

“Because you what? You were bored? You were trying to make me shut up? You wanted to see what I had for lunch? What?”

“Because I love you!”

“Say … what?”

“I … I think I love you …”

“You think you love me?”

“This is all coming out wrong. I never meant to kiss you. We were just arguing and I kept thinking how you wave your hooves a lot when you get mad and your face contorts into so many peculiar expressions so close together that it’s hard to tell one from another and then … then I was looking at your mouth … and then I was kissing it. You. I was kissing you.”

“Because you think you love me.”

“Don’t say it like that. It sounds so awful! Oh, Vinyl, I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined our friendship. You didn’t ask for this and I shouldn’t have –”

“No, Tavi, you should. You really should.”

“Excuse me?”

“In fact, I reckon you should have sooner.”

“Vinyl …”

“Vinyl? Honey? Are you still with me?”

Vinyl’s eyes snapped open. “She hates cheese whip,” she blurted.

Sapphire raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Cheese whip.”

“You mean that nasty-ass orange cheese that comes in cans?”

“Uh-huh. I love it but Octavia can’t stand the stuff. I used to keep a can of it on the windowsill by the radiator in my room at Canterlot Music Academy, so it’d be nice and gooey by the time I’d finished my assignments every evening. I’d squirt it on some crackers, or straight into my mouth if I’d run out – which I did a lot because I was so busy practising my music I’d forget to go buy any. I always felt like I was falling behind at that place so I’d study real hard. Like, obsessively hard. You may not know it today, but I was a real study nerd back then. She thought the cheese whip thing was disgusting and made gagging noises whenever I did it. Yet on my birthday, she gave me eight cans with blue ribbons tied around the top of each one and enough crackers to last three months of my nightly ritual.”

Sapphire nodded, everything about her body language radiating attentiveness. If she minded about the non-linear approach she didn’t say, nor insist Vinyl go back to the beginning, the way she had with Doctor Thorntree. “Go on.”

Vinyl looked at the ceiling, recalling the thousand and one things that had etched themselves into her memory during those years together, whether as friends or as lovers. Once upon a time she had thought they would be together forever, each one the single constant in other’s life along with music. They had wrapped themselves around that core of mutual interest and each other, sharing hopes, dreams, fears, their pasts, present and future – or so they had thought.

Somewhere along the way that had gotten messed up. Ever since it happened, all Vinyl could think about whenever she thought of Octavia was how it had ended – how she had made the wrong decisions and done the wrong things, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. The rest of their relationship had become subsumed by the events that finished it. That sense of her own failure had tainted everything else, shoving itself in the way whenever she tried to push past it to the better times before. So she had stopped trying to reach for the better times, instead ignoring the good and bad memories alike. Now, after so long of forcing herself not to, Vinyl summoned up their history. Instead of keeping it inside and allowing it to hurt her with the thought that it would never be that way ever again, and that this was her fault, she let the memories out. Her willing audience allowed her to purge herself in haphazard retelling after haphazard retelling of what had made her fall in love and stay in love with Octavia Philharmonica, even if she hadn’t been willing to admit the latter until it was too late.

Sapphire listened, apparently enrapt. Once or twice her gaze travelled to the door and her head shook imperceptibly at ponies who risked interrupting. The nurses on duty and her own handlers all found themselves dismissed and unable to argue with the sheer force of will she exuded without ever saying a word.

A pony is not a vacuum. Through Vinyl’s words, Octavia began to take shape in the room, as if her personality and spirit were coalescing out of the ether like one of Sapphire’s light shows. Sapphire employed several unicorns to project magic images of wild and wonderful things on stage with her while she performed. They could create anything, whether it was a chorus line of dancing dragons or wild spacescapes of undulating stars that drew in her audience so that they blinked like they were waking from a dream when it was over. That same sensation swirled around the little hospital room, until she felt like if she looked away from Vinyl, she would see the hazy shape of a pony hovering above them. Octavia was alive in the bed but she truly lived again through Vinyl’s words.

When Vinyl finally ran out of energy, if not stories, she slumped back on her haunches. She had been talking non-stop for so long she felt disoriented and stared around her. Her gaze grew dull at the pale walls and occupied bed.

Sapphire whistled. Even that was loud enough to make a pony’s ears weld themselves against her head. “Now that was amaaaaazing.”

“Huh?”

“Sugar-lips, if you weren’t so clearly cuckoo about her, I might just have to fall in love with her myself after that.”

“You … what?”

“Oh now, honey, don’t you go looking at me like that. You’re wondering whether I swing that way, right?”

“You … what?” Vinyl was still coming down from going so far into her own head. The question bounced off her, then ricocheted back into her ear when she realised what Sapphire had said. “What?”

“Would I be right in thinking that press conference your nasty-ass agent called is a coming out party?”

Vinyl winced. “I wouldn’t exactly call it a party.” She let out a breath. “But it’s something … it’s something I’ve got to do. I know a lot of ponies would disagree, or say I’m throwing away my career for nothing, especially if Tavi … if she doesn’t ever wake up, or wakes up … different.” Why was that still so hard to say? She should be used to it by now but it still felt like a knife to the heart every time she had to speak the words out loud. “I know some ponies would wonder why it even matters, or why I’m making such a big deal of it. Indigo, for one. He’d rather I deny everything and say Tavi’s just a close friend. He even suggested I say she’s like a sister to me and that’s why I’m making all this effort for her, and that Quillpoint was lying in her article because I threw her tape recorder out the window.”

Sapphire grimaced. “I knew he was a nasty-ass. His eyes are too dang close together. Who the heck looks at their sister the way you do about your Tavi?” She paused. “Actually, don’t answer that. I don’t even wanna know.”

Vinyl, however, didn’t hear the last part of her sentence. Her brain had snagged on the words ‘your Tavi’ like cloth on a rusty nail. Octavia hadn’t been hers in a long time. She had thought she had let go, but had to admit now that she never had. She had forced herself not to think about her but couldn’t force herself to forget.

“Wait a second, you threw Quillpoint’s tape recorder out the window?” Sapphire let out a belly laugh that almost shook the ceiling. “Girl, I wish I had been here to see that! That reporter is a pain in everypony’s butt.” Her voice dropped a few decibels. “It’s a crying shame her poor excuse for journalism is what prompted you to come out. The way you talk about Octavia, it’s … I’m trying to think of a word.” She stamped her forehooves rhythmically against the floor as she searched her mind. “Pure?”

“Huh?”

“I know, I know, cliché, cliché. What I’m trying to say is, you talk about how much you guys fought and argued, but there wasn’t never no hate there. Not even when you broke up. That was a terrible business, but I never got no hate vibes about it.”

“No, I never hated her for breaking up with me,” Vinyl admitted. “I think part of me thought she was right to do it. I was a crappy girlfriend by the end and I hadn’t taken any of the opportunities to fix myself. She actually told me several times that our relationship was suffering but I never took any notice. I was so wrapped up in myself I didn’t see the problems that was causing.”

“We hardly even see each other anymore, and when we do it’s when you crawl into bed and try not to wake me or when you’re galloping off in the morning. I can’t remember the last time we shared a meal or went out together. Whenever I get back from the theatre the place is empty and you never get home at a time reasonable enough for us to make actual use of it. That’s not healthy for a couple, Vinyl. We need to each of us set aside some time to spend together. And I mean a whole day, not just an hour when you can fit me in.”

“Sure, Tavi. Sounds great. Hey, have you seen that letter that came for me? It has the address on it of the place I’m going to this morning and I –”

“Vinyl, you’re not listening to me!”

“Sure I am. Us time. Set it aside. I’ll get right on it. Oh, here’s the letter. Listen, I’ve got to go, I’m late already. See you tonight.”

“I bet you weren’t as bad as you think you were,” said Sapphire. “Remember, girl, you’re looking at this through break-up glasses.”

Vinyl shook her head. “No, I was really, really crappy.”

“Tavi? What are you doing here?”

“I came to walk you home from the studio.”

“You did? Why?”

“I thought it would be nice to take a stroll together through the park. It’s a lovely evening and it’ll be light for another hour yet.”

“You … I can’t believe you came here.”

“Why? I looked up the number in the phone book and when I called they gave me the address. Vinyl, what’s wrong?

“Nothing, I just … let’s hurry and go for that walk.”

“Vinyl, stop pushing!”

“Vinyl! Vinyl Scratch!”

“Oh no.”

“Wow, you’re still here? You were here late last night too, weren’t you – and the night before. Don’t you have a home to go to?”

“Oh … hey, Mr. Clef. Um, Tavi, this is Mr. T. Clef III. He owns the record company who produce my music.”

“Charmed, my dear. I like to look in on my artists now and then to see how they’re turning out – can’t have any dead weight on the team, right? Ha ha ha!”

“Ha ha … ha.”

“So, Vinyl, aren’t you going to introduce us?”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Um, Mr. Clef, this is Octavia Philharmonica, my … friend.”

“Charmed, I’m sure. Do you play an instrument, my dear? I can see by your cutie mark that you have some connection to music.”

“Yes, sir, I play the cello.”

“Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous. Mayhap you can audition for me sometime – I’m always looking for new talent to replace the old. One has to ride the wave of whatever is popular as long as one can and then create a new wave to ride – ha ha ha!”

“Ha ha ha.”

“Yeah. Heh.”

“Well, dash it all, I really must be going or my wife will shout at me. She hates it when I’m late home. Toodle-pip!”

“Uh, yeah. Toodle-pip.”

“We’d better go home too, Vinyl.”

“Tavi, come back! Tavi! Tavi! Tavi, I had to. Indigo said I shouldn’t mention about–”

“I said let’s go home.”

“But what about walking in the park?”

“I don’t feel like it anymore.”

“Eventually something had to give and that thing was … us,” said Vinyl. “The signs were all there. I just didn’t see them. Or maybe I didn’t want to see them. I thought everything would turn out the way I wanted without me having to change the way I was acting. I was selfish but thought I was justified because my career was taking off and that seemed like the most important thing in the world. Tavi had always been there for me so I assumed she would keep being there. Stupid, huh? But at the time, I couldn’t see past the end of my own nose.”

A knock at the door startled her. “Sapphire?” said a tremulous voice.

“What it is, Wave Whisperer?”

The skinny green mare standing there hesitated at her abruptness. “Miss, you have an appointment and I really can’t put them off any longer.”

“I do? Can’t you tell them I’m busy?”

“It’s your mother. She says if you’re not at the table in ten minutes she’s going to feed your dinner to the dog.”

Sapphire rolled her eyes but got to her feet. “I can shout down anypony in Equestria except for that one. Sorry, sugar-lips.”

“No, no, it’s okay,” said Vinyl, waving her hooves. “You’ve been great, Sapphire, a real … friend.” Warmth blossomed in her chest and she found herself actually wishing the other mare could stay longer.

Sapphire went to the door, causing the green unicorn to duck gratefully out of sight. However, Sapphire paused before leaving. “Vinyl?”

“Yes?”

“If you love her, you love her. Ain’t nopony should tell you that’s wrong. Too much crap in the world as it is to stamp out even a little bit of love.”

The sense that the end of her career was hurtling towards her returned, tightening Vinyl’s throat like a noose. “Thanks.”

“But if things go belly-up for DJ-Pon3, my record label’s way cooler, and the director?” She winked. “He’d be happier than a snail that blew up the salt factory if he could snatch you away from Prima Pony Records.”

“Thank, Sapphire. That means a lot, but I think …” Vinyl looked at Octavia. “I think I should probably think about something other than my career for a while.”

“If that’s what you think is best, sugar-lips. Hey, do you write songs in a special place?”

“Huh?” The non-sequiter flummoxed Vinyl.

“Like, do you have to be in the studio to write?”

“Uh, no, I can write anywhere. Why?”

“Oh, just ‘cause I was wondering whether you’d write some stuff for me. Your remixes are fiiiine, but truly? I prefer your original stuff. You wrote that ballad for Charisma Canoodle last year, didn’t you?”

“Uh, yeah.” Charisma had picked up the sheet music after Vinyl mistakenly left it in the lobby outside Mr. Clef’s office and had turned it into one of the year’s biggest selling singles. Nopony knew that DJ-Pon3, dubstep extraordinaire, had penned the haunting, ethereal song. Except, apparently, for Sapphire Shores.

“Great!” Sapphire enthused. “Be seeing you, sugar-lips!”

She left in a cloud of hairspray, perfume and dawning realisation of what she was actually getting at. A small smile quirked Vinyl’s lips. “Thanks, Sapphire.” She went over to the bed and sat in the chair, stroking a lock of hair off Octavia’s face. “Hey, Tavi, it looks like all those lessons you gave me on how to write music are more useful than even I thought …”


8. “I watched her fade away – watched her die!”

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8. “I watched her fade away – watched her die!”


Vinyl all but staggered into Room 219 as if she had come from a fight. It felt like it too. She flopped into her chair and spent a moment staring at the ceiling.

“Well, Tavi,” she sighed. “It’s done.”

It was indeed done – and it had been just as fraught and invasive as she had feared. Reporters, in her experience, were often like sharks in shallow water, latching onto exposed limbs of ponies who weren’t paying enough attention. There were some decent journalists out there but they were rare and, unfortunately, didn’t last long if they didn’t sharpen their own ruthlessness against that of their competition. Those at the press conference had all been sharp toothed and Vinyl had sat before them with a sense that she was about to cut herself and give them fresh blood to chase.

Indigo had played up the notion that the conference was to confirm she was taking a sabbatical, the reason being her desire to stay at Octavia’s side. Needless to say, each and every one of the reporters there had read Quillpoint’s article and Vinyl had been spoilt for choice over which waving hoof to pick to ask the million-bit question: Were you and Octavia Philharmonica lovers?

She hated the sense that her relationship with Octavia was being made into a side-show attraction. Even worse was the grubby feeling that clung to her afterwards. Vinyl wished she could have asked permission to air their dirty laundry in public, but the certainty that this was something she had to do remained constant inside her. Her love for Octavia was nothing to be ashamed of, she kept telling herself. When even that didn’t stop her trembling knees on the carriage ride to the press conference, she imagined it in Sapphire’s voice.

“If you love her, you love her. Ain’t nopony should tell you that’s wrong. Too much crap in the world as it is to stamp out even a little bit of love.”

If Vinyl had to sacrifice the only pony she had ever loved just to get ahead in the music industry then … then maybe she was in the wrong career!

Telling herself this, however, was different than feeling it. She had been wedded to her career for so long. It formed so much of who she was. If she didn’t have her career, who was she? DJ-Pon3 wasn’t Vinyl Scratch, but was Vinyl Scratch just DJ-Pon3 without the stage lights? Taking this risk created a knot of dread in her guts that would not go away no matter how much she told herself she was doing the right thing. It had gone on too long. Music was her core. Being a music artist was her. It was the only job she had ever had – everything she did revolved around it. She had organised things that way four years ago and now the claws were sunk deep. She had wanted it that way. She had.

She should have done things differently. She should have admitted to their relationship four years ago. She should have realised what she was doing to Octavia. She hadn’t. She had chosen her career back then and now she had to deal with the consequences of that decision. It felt like a choice between one misery and another, which the press conference had done nothing to dispel.

“Now I guess I just have to wait for all my sponsors to cancel their contracts,” Vinyl said, tilting her head towards the bed. Octavia, of course, did not reply. “Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe Indigo was just blowing smoke. He doesn’t know everything.”

Except the inner-workings of the music business. Except exactly what it took to get to the top and how steep the fall back down was. Vinyl groaned and covered her face with her hooves.

“I wish I could talk to you about this, Tavi,” she whispered. “Properly talk to you. I need somepony removed from the situation but who has my best interests at heart. One or two of those journalists said it was touching that I want to stay with you while you’re like this, but the rest were just interested in getting a sound-bite of me saying ‘I’m gay and I’ve been hiding it all these years’. I’m not sure which would sell the most magazines: me being gay or me being dishonest about it. Indigo says that the sponsors will hate the sexuality thing most and the fans will hate the dishonesty. I can’t please anypony, no matter what I say – but if I say nothing I’m just making myself miserable.”

She slid lower in her seat, wondering when life had got so complicated. Her eyes started to close, dragged down by a combination of mental and emotional fatigue. She had been living on her nerves for days in the run-up to the press conference. Additionally, leaving the hospital for the first time in two months had been more daunting than she had expected. Just breathing air that didn’t smell vaguely of antiseptic had been odd. The world outside was the same as it had always been but she had stepped cautiously, as if there were hidden bear-traps all around the parking lot where her stretch-carriage with the tinted windows waited.

Vinyl wasn’t aware of falling asleep. She was, however, acutely aware of waking up. Being shaken roughly by somepony so you fall out of your chair tends to have an adverse reaction – in her case, flailing limbs and rampant cursing.

“What the –” Her stream of expletives halted abruptly when she saw who had shaken her. “Quaver?”

“What,” Quaver said without preamble, “did you think you were doing?”

“Huh?” Vinyl blinked, trying to orientate herself. She was on the floor. Her butt hurt from falling on the floor. Quaver had put her on the floor. Why wasn’t she punching him already? “Wait, I mean … huh?”

“Declaring to the whole world that you’re Octavia’s secret lover?”

Click. Click. Click. Boom. Everything fell back into place like some nightmarish jigsaw in her head. “How the hay do you know that already?”

“Come off it, Scratch,” Quaver scoffed. “It’s all over the radio.”

“It is?” What time was it? That had to be some kind of speed record. “Oh.”

And of course, Quaver had rushed right on over here to tackle her about it. He didn’t seem to have brought Cavatina or Coda as back up, so he must have been in a real hurry.

Vinyl shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Well, it’s not like you didn’t already know Tavi swings that way.”

Quaver’s eyes burned. Vinyl took a moment to get a better look at him and noted that his mane wasn’t quite as coiffed as usual. The dark brown sweep had several locks running in the wrong direction, as if he were a dam and they were leaks springing out through cracks in the brickwork. Vinyl had always thought Quaver seemed made of stone, which gave extra weight to a situation whenever he finally did lose his temper. Now the lines around his eyes were tight with scrunched up fury and his mouth was a hard, grim line.

The quartet had visited a lot over the last two months; enough that Vinyl felt increasingly wrong about bad-mouthing them to the nurses. She had settled for avoiding them whenever they were around. It was practically the only time she left Octavia’s side voluntarily, sneaking back to be with her once they were gone, sneering dully at the gifts they had always brought. The small room was littered with tiny mementos of a life they had shared with Octavia that Vinyl had no clue about, even as her curiosity about it grew. What was the significance of the spring of dried lavender Coda had left on the windowsill? Where had the picture of a smiling Cavatina and Octavia propped on the bedside cabinet been taken? Vinyl had recognised the one of the whole quartet taken at the Grand Galloping Gala, posing with the other musicians of the evening – plus one pink pony at the front she also recognised from her own gig in Ponyville, then again at the royal wedding. Vinyl remembered that mare introducing herself as Pinkie Pie and whooping next to her as she laid down some wicked tracks for Princess Cadence and Shining Armour’s first dance. Pinkie Pie had been energetic, enthusiastic and an all-around party animal the whole evening.

Vinyl’s interactions with Quaver had been limited to curt nods in the corridor ever since that first awful meeting. He had not wanted to speak to her and, despite her curiosity, Vinyl had not wanted to speak to him either. She figured she would get the same effect by sticking scorpions on her head and letting them sting her ears and eyes.

She wasn’t wrong. Quaver was now incandescent with fury.

“That,” he said, snapping off each word like an icicle he wanted to stab her with, “is not the point. You announced to the world that you are her lover. Not were. You have aired her private life to all and sundry, and you did so without her consent, fabricating a relationship that no longer exists just to satisfy your own monstrous ego in this charade of a fairytale fantasy you insist on perpetuating. How could you do that to her?”

The impulse to respond with an insult was instinctive. The urge to knock him flat was even stronger. Vinyl had to hold herself back. She stared at him; at his flaring nostrils, blazing eyes and a posture wound tight as a spring. Outrage was written in every fibre and every hair. To say he was angry at what she had done would be an understatement.

Yet his anger came from a sincere place. He wasn’t mad for himself, he was mad for Octavia. He cared enough about her to defend her when she could not defend herself and, much as it galled Vinyl to admit it, she couldn’t fault him for that. She could be as maddened as a bulldog chewing a wasp, but she couldn’t fault him for wanting to protect his colleague and ...

And friend. Yeah, Tavi’s his friend too, isn’t she?

“Are you done?” Vinyl asked calmly – far more calmly than she actually was. Quaver had an uncanny knack of making her want to break things just by being in the same room.

“Excuse me?”

“Am I allowed to talk now? I mean without you interrupting.”

“You brazen little –”

“If you’re going to start using cuss words, at least make them count. None of that ‘blasted’ or ‘golly gee whizz’ baloney.”

Quaver fizzled with temper but nodded at her to speak. “All right. I’ll do you the courtesy of trying to explain yourself – though I warn you now, I doubt you can say anything that will make what you have done tolerable.”

Vinyl gathered herself. All the reasoned arguments she had practised surged to the fore of her mind but what came out was simply, “I had to.”

“You did not ‘have to’!” Quaver thundered.

She held up a hoof. “My turn, remember? Now, I don’t know why ponies are saying I’m Tavi’s current lover – I made it real clear that our relationship ended four years ago. What I was trying to do was explain why I’m doing what I’m doing now.” Her eyes shifted to Octavia’s face. “And why I’m going to do what I’m going to do next.”

“What?” Quaver’s voice became wary.

“She isn’t getting any better, Quaver. I talked it over with Doctor Thorntree, her neurosurgeon, and some of the other staff here. There’s a limit on how long the hospital will consider her … viable.” That was the word, right? She remembered it from somewhere in all the medical jargon but wasn’t sure if she had plucked it from the correct place or was even using it correctly now.

“Viable?” Quaver echoed. “What does that mean?”

“It means that after a certain number of months the hospital recommends that coma patients be moved to a long-term care facility. Some hospitals offer this on site but Manehattan General isn’t one of them.”

“Long term … you mean a nursing home?” Quaver put two and two together. “How many months does Octavia have before that happens?”

“It depends on the individual patients and how they react to medi-magic and scientific medicine. For Tavi? Not many more. She’s stable apart from the coma – her organs are healthy and she has the potential to live a long life with the right care, but she doesn’t have any life-threatening injuries anymore. Her head wound responded really well to all the treatments they’ve done. She’ll have scarring, but when her mane grows back properly it’ll cover that.” Vinyl sighed. “But they can’t induce her to consciousness with either drugs or magic. She’s like … like Sleeping Beauty.” She gave a bitter laugh. “So maybe what you said about the fairytale fantasy wasn’t so farfetched, just without the ‘happily ever after’ part.”

“A nursing home?” Quaver said again, his voice strange, as if he was choking on a piece of food that had gone down the wrong tube.

Vinyl glanced at him and saw the shock in his face. It had replaced some of the fury. She understood what he was thinking and feeling at that moment. she had thought and felt it herself when Doctor Thorntree introduced her to Doctor Crabtree and the two of then gently told her why Tavi couldn’t stay at Manehattan General indefinitely.

When Vinyl thought of hospitals, she thought of places where ponies went to get better. Patients only emerged when they were fully recovered or on their way to their own funeral – good health or death, those were the two reasons you left. Since Tavi was not at risk of dying from her wounds anymore, that only left the other reason: she would leave when she was healed. That was clearly the assumption Quaver had made too, even if only subconsciously. He had assumed that while she was still in a coma she would remain here, but Vinyl had done her research and knew different.

“There is a second option,” she said. “That’s the one I’m going for.”

“You?” Quaver snorted, wrenching himself out of his daze. “You don’t get to make decisions like this on her behalf.”

“Apparently I do.” One final breath for good measure. Or maybe it was good luck. He was between her and the door, after all, and he had proven before that he wasn’t above getting physical when somepony pushed him far enough. Then again, four years of gruelling training to look good in media appearances had left her more toned than the last time they had tussled. She reckoned she could take him. “Octavia told you how her aunt died, right?”

“What?” Quaver blinked. “Uh, of course. Cancer.”

“Lymphoma, to be precise. Her family had a history of it. Her aunt was the age Octavia is now when she died. Her own mother – Tavi’s grandmother – died of it too when she wasn’t much older. Tavi has known she’s at risk of contracting it ever since I met her. Well, I guess it was kind of hard to ignore after she’d just lost her aunt to it.”

“Tavi? Tavi, what’s wrong?”

“Don’t c-call me th-that.”

“I woke up and you weren’t there. Hey, are you crying?”

“N-No.”

“You friggin’ are.”

“You and that stupid w-word.”

“Sorry, sorry, but Tavi, what’s wrong?”

“N-Nothing, I j-just fancied a cup of t-tea.”

“At three o’clock in the morning? I’m surprised you didn’t wake everypony in the fri- … in the whole dorm.”

“It’s always t-time for t-tea.”

“Here, give me that. You’re in no fit state to deal with hot water. I’ll pour it into the teapot; you sit down at the table. No, don’t try holding the kettle away from me. I can be trusted to make tea, since you spent so much time teaching me the ‘proper’ way.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s fine. You’re not. You look terrible.”

“I … had a bad dream. One of the bad dreams. You know the ones.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know them.”

“It was … so real. I woke up and it was like I was a filly again and it had only just happened. It was so real …”

“Oh, Tavi.”

“No, don’t hug me. I’m being terribly silly. It was … it was years ago. I should be past all that by now.”

“Not if it ain’t time for you to be past it.”

“Ain’t?”

“Sorry. Isn’t”.

“Better. I … I suppose it was worse because I haven’t had one of those dreams for a while.”

“Should I ask which one it was this time?”

“Aunt Melodia. I was … she was …”

“You don’t have to tell me, love. Not if it hurts.”

“No, I-I want to. Then maybe it won’t keep going around in my head so much. It feels like my brain is about to explode. It was the morning I found her. Everything, clear as crystal. I got up, realised I was late for school because nopony had woken me, and went into her room in case her alarm clock hadn’t gone off. Part of me knew something was wrong the moment I opened my eyes. She used to get up with the dawn so she could rehearse downstairs in the practise room until it was time to wake me. That was before the cancer made her so ill, of course. Some days she was so weak she went back to bed the moment she was alone, but she always woke me and took me to school, even on bad days. I think she was frightened that if I was out on the street alone I’d be in an accident like … like Mum and Dad. Every day she’d walk me right up to the school gate, kiss me goodbye and say “Well-bred fillies live by the precept ‘grace under pressure’, Octavia.” Then she would lean in close and whisper, “But if that doesn’t work, kick them in the shins while nopony’s looking”.”

“She sounds like a heck of a mare.”

“She was. She really was. The morning I found her I … I was devastated. I called the emergency services but I knew … I knew she was gone. But in the dream, when I got to her bed and tried to wake her like I did then, it … it …”

“Tavi-”

“It wasn’t her! It was me, as I am now. Me, asleep forever, like she was!”

“Tavi! Tavi, c’mere. No, don’t push me away. It’s okay, love, it was just a dream.”

“P-Partly, but p-part of it was real. I l-lived it, Vinyl. I l-lived through it. I watched her fade away – watched her die! It was horrid, just … just horrid. During her treatment I c-could see her bones sticking out. She was like a … a skeleton covered in fur. And not much fur after it started falling out …”

“Hey, now, shhh, shhh, I’m here.”

“The worse she got, the more mornings I’d wake up and worry that would be the day I lost her. She was all I had after Mum and Dad … and I was watching her die right in front of me. I don’t know which was worse – not getting to say goodbye to them or getting to say goodbye to her a little bit more every day. She pretended she was fine and that nothing was wrong when it was so obvious she was ill. She wanted to carry on like usual and I couldn’t … I couldn’t deny her that even when it felt like my heart was breaking. Even I just wanted to cry about how unfair it was. She used to wear these floaty scarf things wrapped around her head so it wasn’t so obvious that her mane was gone. She had floaty dresses too to cover what was left of her tail. We went on shopping trips to these little boutiques in the boho district to buy them and she’d let me choose because my fur is the same colour … I mean was. Was the same colour.”

“I’m sorry, Tavi. Nopony should have to go through that.”

“Exactly! Vinyl, you know my family history. You know I’m at risk of getting it too. I can’t make you go through what I went through. I can’t -”

“Hey now, don’t talk dumb.”

“It’s not dumb, it’s -”

“It’s dumb. D-U-M, dumb!”

“That’s not how you spell it.”

“Whatever. Yeah, your family history for this sort of thing sucks worse than an industrial vacuum, but right now you’re healthy and you get regular checks to make sure you stay that way. You’re doing everything you’re supposed to and then some.”

“But I might not always be healthy!”

“Shh, you’re gonna wake everypony!”

“Aunt Melodia thought she would be healthy forever and she was wrong! She planned to get old and retire from the orchestra and teach students and – Vinyl, if I get sick, you can’t stay with me.”

“Say what?”

“You can’t. You simply can’t. I won’t allow it. I won’t let you live through what I lived through. You can’t stay with me. It’s too big a risk. If I get cancer like Aunt Melodia, you are to walk away and not look back, do you understand me?”

“Welcome to Crazy Town, population: you.”

“Vinyl! I’m being serious!”

“So am I. You? Are talking like a crazy pony. Maybe I should start padding your room -”

“Vinyl, stop being facetious!”

“I would if I knew what that meant. Tavi, you’re talking like you’ve already been diagnosed with a terminal illness. You’re fine. Mad as a diamond dog licking piss off a nettle, but I’m gonna chalk that up to sleep deprivation and the aftereffects of bad dreams.”

“But Vinyl -”

“No buts. Serious face moment. See my serious face? Serious face means you shut up and listen. No, no, no – you shushy, me talky. Tavi, Nopony knows what the future holds. Yeah, your genes gave you fantastic musical ability but are sucktastic in other ways. You could say the same for my genes. You know about my mom – and no, this isn’t a ‘my family angst versus your family angst’ thing, this is just me making a point. If all we do is worry about turning out like the adults in our lives, I could worry about becoming an addict and screwing up my life the same way she did.”

“That’s silly. You don’t even drink alcohol, let alone anything else.”

“But I could. If I worried about my hypothetical future based on her past, I could hypothetically drive myself insane and send you away now in case I hypothetically ever get hooked and you ever hypothetically find me like I found her. Do you get how ridiculous that sounds? I even used the word ‘hypothetical’ so you can tell I’m being serious.”

“I … I …”

“Hypothetical illness or not, Tavi, you don’t get to tell me what I can and can’t do. You don’t get to send me away if you ever do get sick. You don’t get to be alone if you’re scared of the future and need somepony to hold you and let you cry on them, like you’re doing right now. Your aunt didn’t have anypony like me in her life. You do. Do you honestly think I would walk away if you were sick like that? Do you?”

“But -”

“You’re truly still gonna argue with me on this? For a pony with so many smarts in her brain, you can be really dumb sometimes. I’m in this for the long haul, you moron. C’mere. You can’t get rid of me that easily, Tavi. I’m like a boomerang with a beat. Hey, speaking of beats, why don’t you come to the club with me tomorrow night? That DJ I told you about is playing – the one who let me try his turntables the night I got my cutie mark. We can make a night of it.”

“I …”

“Serious face gives way to vampiric puppy dog eyes! You know you can’t resist vampiric puppy dog eyes.”

“Vinyl … you’re an idiot sometimes.”

“But you love me anyway. And this idiot? Ain’t going nowhere.”

“Ain’t?”

“Sorry. Isn’t.”

“Better.”

Vinyl shook her head against the flood of memory. She centred herself. Press conference. Quaver. Doctor Crabtree the long-term-care specialist. Yes. “My point is, Tavi worried about getting cancer someday, so she made a living will in case she ever wasn’t able to make decisions for herself because of medical problems.” Vinyl watched the steady rise and fall of Octavia’s chest. “She never meant anything like this, but the will serves the same function. She granted me power of attorney.” Pause. Quaver was waiting. Deep breath. Light headedness. Was that a good sign or a bad one? “She never changed it after we broke up.”

“No!” Quaver exclaimed.

“Yes,” Vinyl said, calm surrounding the word like iron. “I spoke to her lawyer and he confirmed it. She told him that we weren’t together anymore and he asked her point blank whether she wanted it changed. She said no. The will is legal and binding. While Tavi’s in a coma, I have ultimate decision-making control over her finances, her estate, her placement, plus everything else.”

“She would never … she … she couldn’t …” Quaver spluttered.

“She did, Quaver,” Vinyl said quietly. “It shocked me too. That’s why I’ve been able to stay with her for so long and why the doctors have been telling me things about her condition that somepony who isn’t a spouse or blood relation shouldn’t be told. It’s why I have more rights than an ex should in a situation like this. She … she left me to look after things – to look after her – if she ever couldn’t do it herself. She trusted me to take care of her.”

The act had not been accidental. Octavia’s lawyer had told Vinyl in no uncertain terms that he had actually advised Octavia to let him rewrite her will to grant somepony else power of attorney. Octavia had refused. It was the ultimate gesture of trust that Vinyl had ever known – and of love. After everything Vinyl had done, all the hurt and broken promises, Octavia had still trusted her with her life – literally. Vinyl drew in a shuddering breath. She had known this information for a while but it still shocked her to her core that Octavia would trust her this much after all that had happened between them.

“So this is my decision, and I don’t want to hear any friggin’ bellyaching from you about it,” she announced. “When her time’s up here, Tavi is going to come and live with me. I’m having my home outfitted to be able to properly care for her and … well, you already heard that I’m taking time off from my career. I’m going to be her carer.”

“You can’t!”

“Why not? I can afford it and I want to do it. The alternative is to put her in a nursing home with ponies she doesn’t even know. They may be trained professionals and really nice and yadda-yadda-yada, but they won’t know her. They won’t know who she really is. They’ll just see her as she is now: a mare in a coma.”

“But you can’t –”

“Do you know how to change a colostomy bag, Quaver?”

“What?”

“How about a catheter? Can you insert a nutrient IV without air bubbles? Do you know how to change the sheets of a bed with an unresponsive pony in it after they’ve soiled themselves? Or prevent pressure ulcers? Or deep vein thrombosis?”

“I … I –”

“Because I do. I’ve been learning how. I’m fully aware of what I mean when I say I’m going to be Tavi’s carer. It’s not some spontaneous statement for the media to chop up and make into sound-bites. You may think I’ve been living out some fairytale fantasy, sitting by Tavi’s bedside like some prince who has come to kiss the sleeping princess, but you’re wrong. I’ve been learning all the gory details of how to care for her as she is now, and let me tell you, there’s nothing fantastical or fairytale about it. It’s dirty and humiliating and full of stuff nopony likes to think about, but I’ve been doing it. Do you know why? Because I love her and love isn’t always pretty. It’s full of ugliness and hard edges and landmines you never expect, that rip pieces of you off and leave great big holes where they used to be, but you keep going anyway because that’s love. You have to take the bad with the good. You can’t say you love someone and then ditch them when they’re inconvenient. I said four years ago that I still loved Tavi. You heard me, remember? I was an idiot back then. Maybe I’m still an idiot now, but I do love her. That never changed, even if you’d rather it wasn’t true. So you may think I’m bad for her, Quaver, or that she’s better than me and deserves somepony better too. You’d probably be right. Tavi deserves somepony way, way better than me, but do you know what else? None of that matters. None of it. Right now I may not be the pony you want, or that she would want if she could say so, but I’m the pony she needs and I’m going to make that trust count.”

Vinyl was breathing hard by the end of her tirade. Strained quiet fell over the small room. The beeping of Octavia’s heart monitor was like the knell of a church bell calling ponies to a funeral.

Eventually Quaver spoke.

“Are you done?”

Vinyl almost laughed at hearing her own words thrown back at her. “Yeah, I‘m done talking.”

“Good. Now it’s my turn to speak and your turn to be quiet.” Quaver looked at her for a moment; really looked at her, as if he was seeing her for the first time. Vinyl tilted her chin at him defiantly but he didn’t react. He just blinked at her. He sure did have long lashes for a stallion. Did he use a curler on them or something? “I’m of the notion that a leopard doesn’t change its spots.”

“You –”

“Ah-ah!” He held up one imperious hoof. “My turn, remember? So shut your bloody pie-hole for once, Scratch.” The unexpectedly coarse language rendered Vinyl momentarily speechless. Quaver made full use of that moment. “I spent four years watching Octavia pretend to get over you. I was there for her when you weren’t – both before and after your relationship died a well-deserved death. No matter how many times you profess your love for her now, I saw what being with you did to her.

“She was such a vibrant, positive mare when we first met; like a breath of fresh air in our dusty old theatre. She brought a spark of life to our quartet that hadn’t been there previously. We were in a rut. Music had started to become an unpleasant routine for us – nothing more than a job we went to each day, devoid of enjoyment. That was what made our previous cellist leave and opened the spot that Octavia took. I am not a young pony, Scratch, but being around her made me feel young again. She had such life, such energy, and she felt music the way we had before we forgot. I daresay the quartet would have folded long ago, had she not arrived on our doorstep. We were not a successful group when she joined us. We were living on past glories and it was beginning to show. Ponies had ceased to attend our concerts and we were getting fewer and fewer invitations to play at functions. Only one pony auditioned for the cellist’s chair – one.

“Octavia brought the magic back for us. It was impossible to be around her and not fall back in love with music, just so we could share in her passion for it. Her passion infected each of us – myself, Cavatina and Coda – and pushed us to make something of ourselves again. It is not overstatement to say that she saved the Quaver Quartet and we all grew very fond of her. So when it became clear how miserable she was – how miserable the problems in your relationship were making her – we naturally all became very defensive. Yet we said nothing, because she professed to love you too and her eyes when she said that were just as full of …” He coughed and averted his gaze but the slip did not go unnoticed.

For a moment the silence of the room seemed overwhelming. Even the beeping was stifled under the terrible weight of Quaver’s unintended meaning.

“She faded, right before our eyes. She played, but the passion that had brought us back to life started to wane in her music. Despite her technical prowess, it was easy for a fellow musician to tell. The birthday before she ended things with you, she spent practically the whole day staring at the door or out of the window. She was distracted. She made beginner’s mistakes and berated herself so harshly that we were all shocked. She had reached her breaking point. When she arrived the next day for rehearsal, after she had seen you and ended things, she was a broken pony. As much as being with you made her miserable, Scratch, not being with you hurt her more.”

Vinyl’s breath caught in her throat.

“Your uncouth display in our theatre did little to lessen my misgivings about how healthy it was for her to be around you. I was convinced that you were bad for her. I am not unconvinced of that now.”

Her throat started to burn.

“And yet, if you are indeed telling the truth about your intentions … then you have proved me wrong … in at least … some small way.” The words came like he was prising them off his tongue with a spatula, thick with gluey chagrin. He kept his eyes averted so Vinyl could not read them properly, but his shoulders were high and tension rode roughshod throughout his whole body. “Let’s be clear of one thing: I do not approve of you claiming to be something you are not. You are her ex-lover, whatever you may have read into her recent contact with you. A few phone-calls do not make a reconciliation.”

No, but it was a start. Vinyl held her tongue.

“If things were different, I would be counselling Octavia to think very, very, very deeply about what she is doing. Was doing.” The correction made him hesitate. He shook his head as if to dispel an unpleasant thought and waved a hoof at the bed. “Had this situation not occurred, my estimation of you would still be exactly nil. While Octavia locked away her hurt and her misery and refused to even talk about what had happened, you got over her remarkably quickly. While she was alone except for us, you had seemingly everypony in Equestria vying for your attention. You had replaced her with everything she was not and that hurt her more than she ever let on. We all watched your rise to fame, vulgar as it was. You were living the high life while her playing remained passionless for a long, long time.” Quaver paused. “She did not forget you. She saw a few ponies socially, at our insistence, but nothing worked out. Eventually she started to come out of her shell again, but it was as if something was still missing for her, even after she regained her passion for playing her cello. Octavia did not refer to you by name but a pony with her passion for classical music does not squirrel away dubstep records unless there is a reason.”

You pompous cretin. The willpower it took for Vinyl to stay silent was incredible. Tavi had collected her music? Albums or singles? Did it even matter? She had collected them even though it was Vinyl’s addiction to her music that had caused a lot of the problems between them.

A lot of the problems, but not all of them, Vinyl acknowledged with a self-awareness that almost scared her. Her selfishness had always been a part of her, right from when she pulled pranks to get attention as a foal. Sometimes she could control it, sometimes she couldn’t. Getting obsessed with her career, especially the wonderful elation and congratulations it brought from other ponies, was just the next step on a path she had been walking for a long time without realising it.

Even losing Octavia had not been enough to make her fully aware of what she was doing. She had mourned the end of their relationship and never really gotten over her mistakes, but it had not stopped her from making more by doing what she had always done: throwing herself into a new obsession so unreservedly that it blotted out everything else. She had lived her life moving from one obsession to another: pranks and playing the class clown at school, studying to get into the Academy and then to come top of her classes while she was there, dubstep and her fledgling career as a DJ – even Octavia herself. For a time Octavia had dominated Vinyl’s every waking thought for a time and the euphoria of their romance had been intoxicating. It had knocked her studying power, taking the shine from her previous obsession, and sent her right to the bottom of her classes at the Academy as a result. Yet as soon as that initial buzz wore off and she was faced with the humdrum of life in the real world, and the tribulations of maintaining a relationship instead of just a romance, Vinyl had moved on to the next thing that made her feel enthralled and engaged. She had not been aware she was doing it, but faced with the time and inclination to look over her past actions during her vigil at Octavia’s bedside, Vinyl was finally forced to recognise this deep-rooted character flaw.

She remembered further back, to a pale pony with a needle in her foreleg, a damp kiss goodbye and a message delivered by a headmaster who really didn’t want to. Addiction was more complex than anyone realised. You could get addicted to life and its many wonders as easily as drugs, drink or other illicit substances.

Vinyl had never been very good at maintaining a balance between her obsessions and her responsibilities. She was an all or nothing pony, living on the edge, always chasing that next good feeling. Now she had been presented with this opportunity to make up for something she had done in her quest for the next good feeling and she wasn’t about to waste it. Life was generous with dealing out bad luck but it wasn’t too hot on second chances.

Quaver was still talking, she realised. She missed the first few words but heard enough to get the gist.

“… only met you only a few times, Scratch, none of which were enough to convince me that you were a pony of any worth. You struck me as a selfish, self-absorbed mare with little regard for the feelings of those around you as long as you were happy.”

Damn, he had hit the nail right on the friggin’ head. Vinyl winced, which seemed to please him, at least until he said what he had to say next.

“But if you are sincere in this venture and you are willing to set aside your own desires to care for Octavia, even though there is no gain in it for you and the risk of a great deal of heartache … well then, I suppose I may have … misjudged you.”

Comebacks flew to Vinyl’s mind. ‘There, was that so hard to admit?’ ‘Aw, I didn’t know you cared.’ ‘See, I told you so!’ Instead, all she said was, “Thank you, Quaver.”

“Don’t thank me,” he snapped. “If you abuse your power of attorney in any way, if you neglect her for even one single second, I will do everything possible to wrest that power from you.”

“Wrest? Is that even a word?”

“Be serious, Scratch!”

“I am, and it’s Vinyl. I’m going to continue doing song-writing for other artists while I’m on sabbatical, Quaver, but as Vinyl Scratch, not DJ-Pon3, so get used to using my name, okay?”

“You’re what?”

“A friend gave me the idea. If I give up everything to do with music I’ll end up resenting Tavi, and I don’t want that to happen. Writing fits in with the life I’m going to be living from now on. I can do some composing around caring for her, keep my hoof in and stop myself doing something dumb if I get bored or start thinking I can’t handle it. Tavi’s not the only one with a passion for music, Quaver. You may not like my sounds but they’re my passion as much as classical is yours.” She swallowed. “And hers. Tavi’s the one who taught me how to play music and got me started. Without her, I wouldn’t love music the way I do. Her passion inspired me as much as it did you. I owe her for that, if nothing else.”

Quaver stared for a long moment. Finally he turned away from her and reached the door in a few quick strides. One there he paused, glaring over his shoulder. “Don’t make me regret this. Don’t make her regret this.”

“I won’t,” Vinyl replied earnestly.

“The bizarre thing is I may actually believe you.” Quaver gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Goodbye … Vinyl.”

Before she could respond, he was gone.

9. "This ain't me!"

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9. “This ain’t me.”


“Aw, c’mon!” Only the presence of other ponies in the corridor prevented Vinyl from turning around and bucking the vending machine. “Don’t do this to me!” She pressed her face flush against the glass, behind which her purchase was being imprisoned.

“Problems?” said a deep voice.

She turned to see a tall stallion smirking at her. His pressed blue shirt bore an ID tag with the hospital logo but she didn’t need to read it. “Hi, Bruiser. Yeah, the machine ate my money but the twirly metal thingy got stuck.” She glared at it. “I need my peanut butter crackers!”

“What is it with mares and peanut butter crackers?” Bruiser muttered, clearly amused by her plight. “Here, let me handle this. You can’t force Old Betsy. You gotta charm her.”

“Old Betsy?” Vinyl echoed. “Charm the vending machine?”

“You mock, but watch this.” Bruiser leaned his wide head close, strands of black mane trailing over the buttons. He had tied it back but, as usual, it was coming loose in ratty clumps and by the end of his shift he would have tired of it and pulled out the –

“Hey, is that a scrunchie?”

“Shush.”

“It is a scrunchie!” Vinyl peered closer. “It’s one of Flower Heart’s scrunchies!”

Bruiser ignored her, focussing entirely on the vending machine. “Hey there, Betsy. This cheeky mare here has paid good money for those peanut butter crackers. You’re gonna get a reputation if you don’t give ‘em to her. What’s the deal, girl? You want a bad rep? Nopony will use you anymore. They’ll all use that other machine in Reception instead. You want that? Of course you don’t. So c’mon, Betsy. Give this loudmouth her crackers so she goes away and we all stay happy. Okay?” He drew back one massive forehoof and whacked it against the side of the machine. The precariously balanced packets of peanut butter crackers jittered and fell from its perch. “Good girl, Betsy,” Bruiser said as he reached in, fetched out the packet and presented it to Vinyl. “Here you go.”

“Ponyfeathers!” Vinyl exclaimed. “You just hit it!”

“I gave her a gentle tap when she was good and ready to play ball,” Bruiser replied, grinning.

“Po. Ny. Feathers.” Vinyl accepted the packet.

“Don’t I get a thank you?”

“Thank you, Bruiser, you big, strong, hero of a stallion, for rescuing my poor, defenceless snack from the mean ol’ vending machine. I don’t know what I would have done without you, you champion of the hungry and destitute.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Sorry, girl, I’m taken.”

Vinyl’s smile froze only a moment and then thawed again. It wasn’t any easier than it had been a week ago, in the immediate aftermath of the press conference, but she was getting better at not reacting. She knew Bruiser hadn’t meant anything bad by his remark – he joked like that all the time – but a week wasn’t long enough to forget the things splattered across the tabloids about her.

She sighed and trotted along the corridor. Bruiser went with her to the end before veering off towards the security guards’ station.

After only a few steps he paused and called, “Hey, Vinyl?”

She stopped. “Yeah?”

“Has Flower Heart … has she seemed … I dunno, off to you lately?”

“Off? What, like old cheese?”

He shook his head. “No jokes for a second. Does she seem okay to you?”

Vinyl frowned. “I guess so.” She hadn’t really noticed anything out of the ordinary. Then again, she hadn’t really been paying attention. “Why do you ask?”

“Hmmf.” Bruiser shook his head. “I guess it ain’t anything important. Just me being stupid.”

“Bruiser you’re a lot of things, but stupid ain’t one of them.”

“There are ponies who’d disagree.” He smiled and trotted away, leaving Vinyl to do likewise in the opposite direction.

The only vending machine in the whole hospital that stocked these much-vaunted crackers was close to the front entrance. Vinyl made her way back to the elevator to return to Octavia’s room. She hummed as she went, testing the new tune she had composed, trying to work out the bugs. It was a counter melody for a song she had already mostly finished. She was familiar with counter melodies but was used to composing them for electronic instruments, not actual voices. She was a little unsure of herself and worried that her skills as a songwriter weren’t all she had hoped they would be. Counter melodies were tricky things. If they blended properly you had an earworm that could last for days. If they didn’t all you had was a musical mess nopony could forget fast enough.

She barely noticed the other mare waiting for the elevator until the doors pinged open and they both tried to enter at once.

“Oh, sorry!” said the other mare. She gestured. “After you.”

“Nah, you go on. I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Vinyl replied.

“No, really, I insist.”

“No, I insist.”

The other mare blinked at her. “Well, this is awkward.” Her clipped voice held an undercurrent of laughter. “At this rate we might as well take the stairs.”

Vinyl chuckled. “I’ll fight you for it?”

The other mare blinked again before realisation dawned. “Oh. Oh! You’re joking. Sorry, I thought … oh golly, never mind what I thought!”

“You actually thought I’d fight you for first dibs on the elevator?” Vinyl said incredulously.

“Yes. I mean no! I mean … um … I think I’ll just run away and die of embarrassment now.” The other mare turned to leave.

“Hey, wait.” Vinyl stepped into the elevator and hit the button to keep the doors open. “Problem solved. What floor do you want?”

Sheepishly, the other mare stepped in and Vinyl allowed the doors to ease shut behind her. “Second floor, please.”

“Hey, me too.” Vinyl punched in the number. “You’re, uh, not from around here, are you?”

“Is it that obvious?” The other mare sighed. “I’m here visiting my father. We’re not supposed to meet for lunch until later, but my train arrived early and I thought I’d surprise him. Now I’m wondering whether that was such a good idea. It’s been nothing but a catalogue of disasters ever since I stepped onto the platform. First my bag split open when I was loading it into the taxi carriage and my art supplies went all over the pavement – um, I mean … sidewalk?”

Vinyl nodded.

“Then I realised when I came to pay for the taxi that some rotter had stolen my purse while I was picking up my things. I barely had enough bits in my saddlebags to cover the fare. They say bad luck comes in threes, so I dread to think what else is going to go wrong today.”

Vinyl regarded the other pony. Her pale orange face was marred by a dejected expression, but would have been quite pretty if she had smiled. Her bright pink mane fought to escape the two braids she had tamed it into. Successful escapee tufts wound around her horn like ribbons around a maypole, or perhaps like she had stuck her hoof in a power socket. Chunky wooden jewellery clonked around her neck and ankles, giving her a bohemian, avant-garde look, as if she was about to go antiquing or do some kind of performance art in Manehattan Park. She could have been anywhere between twenty and forty and, despite her haphazard appearance, there was something intensely familiar about her. The cultured Trottingham accent helped immensely in identifying what that something was.

“Are you … Doctor Thorntree’s daughter?”

She looked surprised. “Why, yes I am.”

“Huh.” Vinyl studied her some more. The same blue eyes. The same thick eyebrows. Any one of the stylists she had visited in her career would have apoplexy at the sight of those bushy hedgerows on a mare. Stick a white moustache on her and it wouldn’t be exact, but it would be dang close. “He never said he had a daughter.”

“We’re … somewhat estranged. This is the first time I’ve been back to Manehattan to visit him in … well, several years, actually. That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to just wait for him at the restaurant, or wander around sightseeing until it was time to meet him.” She gave Vinyl a once-over of her own. “You know my father?”

“He’s my … my ex’s neurosurgeon.” Vinyl paused momentarily before settling on the term.

“Oh! You’re Vinyl, aren’t you?” Just as Vinyl had suspected, when the other mare smiled it completely changed her face. Features that sat uneasily together were transformed into something that was, if not pretty, then at least handsome in an unconventional, unkempt way. “Daddy told me about you. Well, as much as he could without breaking patient confidentiality, but I was asking whether he’d been affected by those beastly stories in the tabloids, since he works here at Manehattan General, and he told me they were all complete rot and –”

The elevator juddered.

Vinyl stumbled, catching hold of the safety bar with a hoof. Doctor Thorntree’s daughter wasn’t so lucky. She staggered forward, stepped on her floaty scarf and landed on her knees with a choked noise.

“What was that?” she asked hoarsely, unhooking first one hoof and then the other from the unintentional noose.

The elevator juddered again. It emitted a whirring noise above their heads that evened off into a low hum and finally shivered away into silence. The glowing red numbers above the doors flickered and went out.

“I think we’ve jammed,” said Vinyl. She stabbed a hoof at the button for the second floor. Nothing happened. She tried sending them back to the ground floor. Nada. “Yep, we’re stuck.”

“Oh, marvellous.” The other mare got to her hooves and immediately turned to knock her head against the mirrored wall. She closed her eyes and rested her snout against it, making two tiny circles of condensation with her breath. “I told you: bad luck runs in threes.”

“That’s just horseapples,” Vinyl replied, though she had to admit, the timing was uncanny.

“I’ve always been unlucky. Golly, I’ll bet you wish you’d taken the stairs after all. Um … what are you doing?”

Vinyl had flipped open the bottom of the control panel, revealing a large red button. “I saw this in a movie once. There’s supposed to be a separate magically powered emergency alert thingy in every elevator installed in Manehattan buildings in the last twenty years. Way more reliable than the electric ones they used to have, especially if this is because of a power cut. Here’s hoping this elevator is less than two decades old.” She pushed the button and they both waited for something to happen.

A bright flare of iridescence shot out of the control panel and traced the shape of the doors as if checking they really were shut tight. In a few seconds it had circled the elevator, funnelled around both ponies and shot away through the ceiling, leaving them blinking in its wake.

“I guess it is,” said Vinyl.

“Golly!” exclaimed Doctor Thorntree’s daughter. “That was clever of you.”

“Hey, I ain’t just a pretty face.”

She bit her lip and looked around. “So what do we do now?”

Vinyl flipped the control panel closed and sat down. “Wait to be rescued, I guess.” She thought of Octavia’s room upstairs and was surprised when no irrational clutch of fear whipped through her at the idea of being away from Tavi longer than a few minutes. Then she winced, glancing at the peanut butter crackers she was holding. “My friend is gonna be so mad.”

“What? Why?”

Nopony and nothing gets between her and her peanut butter crackers. It just ain’t healthy to get in the way.”

“She can’t possibly blame you for getting stuck in a lift. Uh, I mean elevator,” the other mare corrected hastily, as if using the wrong word would offend Vinyl.

“Blame me? No. Chew off my leg if I don’t hoof them over fast enough once we get outta here? Maybe.”

“That’s … um … wow, that’s … really rather wow. That’s ...”

“That’s Sapphire Shores,” Vinyl finished for her.

She was still surprised at how easy it had been to let Sapphire take up a place in her life. Not that Sapphire would have let her say no had she had tried, of course. Vinyl wasn’t accustomed to having somepony around who not only called herself ‘friend’ but threw herself into acting like one too. Words were cheap and Sapphire preferred currency of a different sort. She never did anything half-heartedly, so Vinyl supposed she should have expected it. Nevertheless, she still hadn’t been ready for the influx of so much big, brash, bodacious pony in her routine here at the hospital. In the last week Sapphire had come to see her three times, on each occasion arriving with something unexpected. Yesterday it had been the next book in the Harry Trotter series. Today it was a tupperware container of her mother’s curried callaloo, plus strict instructions to make sure Vinyl ate it ‘and put some meat on them skinny bones’.

“Trust me, girl, you do not wanna cross my momma. You think I’m an interfering ol’ nag? You ain’t seen nuthin’ ‘till you met her.”

“When did I ever call you a nag? Or say anything about you interfering?”

“You didn’t. I’m sayin’ it for myself. Call a rock a rock and a dog a dog, as my momma used to say. Actually, she still says it. ‘Speak plain, Sapphire, if you know what’s good for you’, she says, and she’ll bust your head from the inside out if you say different. I know when I’m sticking my fine, fine snout into other ponies’ business. I just don’t care much whether you want me to stop, sugar-lips. You been dealin’ with this mess on your own for too dang long, Vinyl. It’s time somepony helped you share some of that weight. And me? I come from ponies with stroooong legs and broooaaad shoulders.”

“I … I don’t know what to say, Sapphire.”

“Don’t say nuthin’, girl. Just eat.”

“Okay. Uh … what exactly is callaloo?”

Vinyl was used to only answering to herself and her agent – not that Indigo had been overexerting himself with visits or phone-calls lately. Allowing Sapphire to insert herself so quickly and so thoroughly was unexpectedly liberating.

And then Sapphire had wanted peanut butter crackers, and Vinyl, in an act of goodwill, had offered to go fetch them. She had been shocked at herself, volunteering to leave Tavi’s side for something so trivial, but the act had made Sapphire beam and pull Vinyl into a perfumed hug so tight her ribs hurt afterwards.

Stupid peanut butter crackers, she thought.

“Sapphire Shores?” Doctor Thorntree’s daughter gaped. “Here? Today?”

“Yep. Why, are you a fan?”

“Oh, goodness, yes! I … I mean, oh dear … my mother always hated her music, you see, but I … that is to say I … my mother and I, we don’t really get on but … no, you didn’t need to know that, did you? I used to listen to Sapphire Shores songs while I was at university and I carried on after I started doing this for a living. She was my inspiration for my final thesis project! I called it ‘Gemstone Melodies’. I’d spend whole evenings in the studio, painting and singing along with her records … and she’s here? And I’m stuck in a bloody lift? A lift!? Oh golly, oh gosh, I … I’m babbling, aren’t I? I’ll stop. Oh my gosh …”

Vinyl laughed. “She’s pretty cool. If you’re meeting your dad, you’ll probably see her. They’re on the same floor.”

“I think I might faint if that happened,” the other mare murmured. “I don’t deal with pressure very well.”

“You seem to be coping okay right now.”

“That’s because in my head I’m listing the pros and cons of whether it would be better to paint you in watercolours or oils. I find thinking about my art helps me relax. I understand art. I … I don’t always understand the rest of life.”

“You … what?” Vinyl stared at her. “Paint me?”

“I think you’d look good in either, to be honest. Watercolours would give you softer edges but, considering some of the more dynamic poses I’ve seen in your photographs, oils would bring out the vibrancy of your mane and eyes. They really are quite striking, aren’t they? Red and blue work as perfect counters, and pairing them with a white background only adds emphasis to the composition as a whole … oh dear, I’m babbling again.”

“Uh … hey, what’s your name?” Vinyl asked, changing the subject in an effort to get herself back on solid ground. “You never said.”

“Oh, me? I’m Willow. Willow Thorntree. Of course, you knew that last part, didn’t you? Although I was Willow Juniper until recently. Daddy … doesn’t know yet that I switched back to his surname.” Her orange cheeks darkened in a blush. “I was going to tell him today.”

Vinyl glanced at the ceiling. “I wonder how long it’ll be before we get out of here.”

“Not too long, I hope.” Willow cast her a sidelong look. “You know, you aren’t exactly what I imagined.”

“Huh?”

“You don’t look like your pictures in the magazines. Maybe oils would work for the way you looked in them, but looking at you now … hmm …” She squinted calculatingly and Vinyl got the feeling she was being compared to some unknown yardstick.

“Oh.” Absently, Vinyl pawed at her long, unshaped mane. Apparently she had the quickest growing hair in Equestria, because it swished way past the bottom of her chest now and often brushed her knees as she walked. “I guess not.”

“I half expected you to be wearing sunglasses indoors,” Willow laughed. “But I suppose that’s just silly.”

Not so long ago I would have worn them, Vinyl thought self-consciously.

“Hey, Tavi, how do you like the new shades? Cool, huh?”

“Can you even see out of those? They’re practically opaque.”

“Sure I can. Don’t they look awesome? Ow!”

“That was the coffee table.”

“I just wasn’t looking where I was going – whoa!”

“Mind the umbrella stand!”

“Why do we even have one of those?”

“To keep umbrellas in, of course.”

“Whatever. I still say these shades are totally cool. Indigo took me to a stylist today and she said they really improve my image with my new manecut.”

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“Does image come before or after practicality?”

“Image comes before everything.”

“I take it that’s the world according to bloody Indigo again.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing. Look, Vinyl, could you at least take them off inside the apartment? You’re going to do yourself a mischief if you keep crashing into things.”

“I can’t. I gotta get used to wearing them indoors and out. The PR ponies at the record label said it’s better that I wear them whenever possible to cover up my eyes.”

“What? Why?”

“Duh! Because red eyes are too freaky. They’ll put off ponies from buying my records.”

“Freaky? Vinyl, that’s absolute rubbish! How can they say … I mean, just look around at the average crowd of ponies! There are more eye colours than you can shake a stick at!”

“Shaking sticks at eyes? Well that ain’t very safe.”

“Isn’t, not ain’t, and your eyes are lovely.”

“Not that you’re biased or anything.”

“I always thought your eyes were lovely, Vinyl. It was you who had the hang-ups about them.”

“Because I’ve never met another pony with eyes like mine. They are what they are, Tavi: freaky and unnerving.”

“Unnerving? That doesn’t sound like a word you’d use. Did that come from these PR ponies? Or Indigo?”

“That, uh, doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that I get used to wearing these shades as soon as possible.”

“But you shouldn’t have to hide your eyes just because they’re unusual!”

“Thanks, Tavi, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the team on this one. They know what they’re talking about when it comes to the music industry, after all.”

“Hmmf. Well … all right, I suppose. But I want it known that I disagree with this! Wholeheartedly!”

“Duly noted.”

“There’s some pizza left if you want it. I popped it in the oven to keep it warm for you.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I gotta lose a few pounds.”

“What!? Since when?”

“Since the PR team, um, put me on the scales today. I’m at least ten pounds over my optimum according to my height and age.”

“What balderdash! You’re perfect just the way you are.”

“Aw, Tavi, you say the sweetest things.”

“Vinyl … are you sure this is all worth it?”

“What? Sure it is! Indigo says I could go all the way to the top. He says I’ve got the talent – and he should know, right?”

“… Right.”

“Aw, don’t get jealous. C’mere and give me a kiss – ow!”

“Coffee table again.”

A gusty sigh broke Vinyl’s from her thoughts.

Willow cleared her throat and said nervously, “Um … this might sound strange and odd and … vaguely stalkery, actually – but I assure you, it’s not! Um … I mean, you can completely say no if you like … or don’t like, as the case may be, but, um …” She bit her lower lip.

“Go on,” said Vinyl.

“Since we might be stuck here for a while … might you let me sketch you? I have some materials in my saddlebags – I never go anywhere without them. Never know when inspiration will strike, after all, so it’s best to be prepared, right? Um … so … would you mind terribly?”

“You want to draw me?” Vinyl repeated, making sure she had this right.

“Are you offended?”

“What? No. Why would I be?”

“Some ponies can be funny about this sort of thing. Like I’m stealing their soul by committing their image to paper without their permission, or something.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Vinyl looked at herself in the three mirrored walls of the elevator. Each reflected both the real her and the other reflections, resulting in dozens upon dozens of ever decreasing Vinyls stretching off into the fake distance that, if she were to try to reach it, would deliver a sharp smack of reality. An infinity of shrinking white ponies with blue hair, freaky red eyes and no sunglasses. “Image … is a funny thing.”

“So, um, may I?”

“Hm?” Vinyl tore her gaze away from that of the nearest reflection. “What?”

“May I sketch you? It would really help to calm me down, having something concentrate to concentrate on, instead of the fact that we’re trapped in a small meal box suspended between floors in a shaft with lots of empty air below us.” Willow’s breathing quickened as she spoke and her eyes became a little unfocussed. “Lots and lots of very, very empty air –”

“Uh, sure. Sure, you can draw me if you like.” Vinyl looked at the peanut butter crackers. “You want me to stow these someplace first?”

“Oh, I don’t want you to pose or anything. I often sit outside Le Café Équine in Trottingham and do quick sketches of passing ponies at the end of a stressful day at the studio. Just do as you’ve been doing. You have a very sketchable body.” Willow’s horn glowed with a soft pink aura. A large sketchpad of coarse paper, a pencil and a wrapped stick of charcoal floated out of her saddlebag and hovered in front of her.

A very sketchable body? Vinyl silently repeated. What the hay?

Willow spent a few moments glancing between the pad and Vinyl, making a few quick strokes with her pencil before puffing out her cheeks like a hamster. “Your posture has suddenly gone very stiff.”

“Has it?”

“Yes. Your spine is ramrod and it looks like all the joints in your legs have suddenly locked. Are you nervous?” She sounded like she didn’t believe it even as she said it. After all, how could the great DJ-Pon3 be nervous of something as simple as this?

“Uh, no,” Vinyl said automatically. She’d had her photo taken dozens of times, played on stage before audiences of thousands and featured in more club scenes than she could count. She was no stranger to attention. No way could one sketch artist make her nervous. No way!

Except that she was. She really, really was.

“Your entire body has gone rigid,” Willow said in even more surprise. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Vinyl muttered. “Never better.”

“You look tense.” Willow peered over the top of her sketchpad. “You sound tense. I’m bothering you. I should stop.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Vinyl blew out a sigh. “I’ve just … had a lot on my mind lately, that’s all. Sometimes it just hits me all in a big bunch. I’ll be fine in a minute or two.”

“Oh.” Willow’s eyes widened in realisation. “Oh, right. Yes, I can imagine. Well, no, that’s a foolish thing to say. I can’t put myself in your place because you’re you and I’m, uh, me. Not you. Because you’re you. Um, but I can imagine that it’s … not … been … easy … ugh, I’ll just shut up now.” Her head ducked back behind the screen of her sketchpad.

Vinyl’s shoulders sagged. “No. No, you’re right. It hasn’t been easy.”

“I, um, read some things. In the press. I subscribe to some, um, magazines.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Ghastly stuff, most of it.”

“The stuff you read or the press in general?”

“Both?” Willow giggled uncertainly.

“I hear that.” Vinyl’s ears twitched at the sound of pencil against paper. “So what did you read?”

“You want me to repeat it back to you?” Willow asked incredulously.

“Uh, no, I guess not. By any chance, did you read anything by a reporter called Quillpoint?”

“That beastly mare? Certainly not. Daddy told me what a sod she was to you. He was really quite upset by it. I wouldn’t touch her rag of a magazine with a ten foot barge pole!”

“Doctor Thorntree was upset?” Vinyl was shocked. The doc played all his cards pretty close to his chest – in some cases so close he was playing poker with his own heart and lungs. He had never mentioned a daughter and, though his demeanour towards Vinyl had softened since she first came here, he wasn’t exactly king of the warm fuzzies.

“Oh yes,” Willow said absently. The scritch of pencil increased as her glances over the top of the sketchpad became less subtle. Concentration settled over her face, smoothing out the tense lines as she worked. “He wrote Mane Music Monthly a very stern letter. I can’t imagine they did more than throw it in the bin, but he was adamant about sending it. He read it to me over the phone. Daddy isn’t so good with words sometimes – not if they aren’t medical terms. He wanted my advice. I was rather touched that he’d value my opinion, actually; especially since I’m, uh, not so good with words either. You might have noticed.” She chuckled wryly. “I’m better with images than words. You can say a lot with art that you can’t simply by talking. Although I suppose you, of all ponies, already knew that.”

“I’m no artist,” said Vinyl. “The best I can draw is stick figure ponies.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean like that. Your music is your art, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” Vinyl contemplated this. She had been called a ‘music artist’ for so long now the words had lost much of their meaning. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for musicians,” Willow admitted. “I’m about as musical as an orthopaedic shoe. The amount of emotion in some music makes me want to do better at my art – like I want to get the kind of emotional reaction the music inspired in me out of somepony else when they look at what I’ve done. I paint, mostly, but I also do some sculpting and when I listen to music it tends to come out in whatever I’m creating. Sometimes I say ‘sod the planning stage’ and just paint straight onto canvas to see what happens. I can never sell those pieces but I sure as heck feel better after doing them.”

Vinyl nodded. “I used to sing,” she admitted. “Just because I could.”

“You sing?” The pencil stopped. “But I thought you were an electronic musician.”

“Yeah, but that’s not how I started out.”

“You were a singer?”

“It was something I did.”

“You did other things too?”

Vinyl closed her eyes, throwing her mind into memories of cramped music practise rooms at high school and the Academy, a bow drawing out high, aching notes that mixed with the sonorous bass of a cello in harmonies that she missed so much it made her stomach hurt. The counter melodies from those long lost years whirled through her mind and, with a jolt, she realised what she had been missing in her current composition. Like a jigsaw piece slotting into place in her mind, she could suddenly see the whole thing as if sheets of written music were hovering telekinetically before her.

“Wow,” Willow breathed. “That’s a lovely tune.”

Vinyl’s eyes snapped open. “Huh?”

“You were humming.” Willow’s chin was balanced atop her sketchpad. She had been watching, enrapt, and Vinyl hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t noticed that she had started to hum, either, but apparently she had. “Sorry,” Willow hastily apologised. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ve spoiled your concentration.”

“It’s okay.” Vinyl cleared her throat. “You, uh, liked it?”

“What I heard of it, yes.”

Vinyl cleared her throat again. When did this elevator get so hot that her whole mouth dried out? Hesitantly, she hummed the central refrain again. She paused and then hummed the counter melody, wishing she had a tape recorder so she could listen to them together. She hummed one and then the other in quick succession, and then moved into what would be the verse once it had lyrics attached. She had barely thought about lyrics yet; too caught up in first getting the music itself right. Closing her eyes once more, she hummed the first melody all the way through, then circled around and took herself into the newly finished counter melody. She looped back to the start of the first melody, graduating to ‘ah-ing’ partway through the chorus. Her voice grew stronger the more she repeated the notes, chest swelling with increased inhalations for more volume. She imagined what instruments would treat this song best. Dubstep was her baby but it wasn’t right for this one. Strings, maybe? The trill of a flute – no, a piccolo – sounded demandingly in the back of her mind. Maybe even a –

The phosphorescent flash of magic startled her back to reality. She jumped back from the elevator doors. Willow squeaked and fell to her haunches, sketchpad clutched to her chest. A few more chunks of hair struggled loose from her braids as the staticky sensation of heavy-duty magic filled the tiny space. Vinyl felt like her stomach was being pulled through the bottoms of her hooves as they whole elevator jerked upwards.

“We’re moving!” Willow exclaimed.

Seconds later the doors flashed with more brilliance and squeaked open. Through the sparkling green dots it left on her vision, Vinyl could make out pony-shapes on the other side.

“There we go,” growled the closest one. Vinyl recognised the uniform of the janitor.

“They’re okay!” said a voice that sounded like Nurse Merry Heart. “Thank Celestia, they’re okay.”

“They were only stuck between floors.” Nurse Flower Heart’s harsh accent bullwhipped across her friend’s joy. “It ain’t that big a deal.”

“Oh, hush, you big ol’ faker. You were as worried as the rest of us when that there alarm sounded an’ the spell tol’ us who was inside.”

“Well, haven’t I been saying for ages that those elevators are getting too old? Nopony ever listens to me –”

“Willow?” Doctor Thorntree’s voice was unmistakable, as was the surprise infusing it.

“Uh, hello Daddy.” Willow gave a little wave with one hoof. “I came to surprise you. So … surprise,” she finished weakly.

“But … I thought we weren’t meeting until after six?”

Willow dipped her face, hooking her chin over the top of her sketchpad. “I wanted to see you,” she mumbled, almost inaudibly. She looked and sounded so much like foal in the moment.

For a few seconds Doctor Thorntree said nothing. Then he cleared his throat with such a dramatic cough that everypony took a step away as if he had plague. “Well then … um … it’s … good to see you.” He paused ever so briefly, before adding equally softly, “Sweetheart.”

Willow’s face erupted into a blush.

“Would you like to come along to my office?” he asked. “We can have a nice, long chat in there.”

“But don’t you have patients to see? I thought I would just say hello and then go wait in the café or something –”

“My rounds aren’t for another half hour. Besides which, you’ve just been through a trauma. No, I think some hot, sweet tea in my office is the best course of action. Vinyl, would you like to join us?”

Ah, the incessant politeness of Trottingham ponies. Vinyl opened her mouth to say no – she wouldn’t dream of encroaching on this time between father and daughter – when a voice to defeat all others bellowed from the back of the crowd of ponies.

“Move aside, y’all! My girl Vinyl’s finally free of that extremely exasperating evil elevator!”

Sapphire didn’t quite resemble a bowling ball knocking down pins, but it was close. The gigantic blue feather boa she had chosen to wear today trailed behind her like a pair of wings as everypony moved aside to let her march past.

“Hi, Saph,” said Vinyl.

“Don’t you sass me with no Saph, sister!”

Grinning despite herself, Vinyl held out the troublesome little packet of peanut butter crackers. “Would this help?”

The fire in Sapphire’s eyes dimmed a little, though it didn’t die completely. “It might.” She accepted the packet like a queen accepting the gift of an explorer who had been to visit a faraway land. “Hold this for me, will you, sugar?” She gave it to Nurse Merry Heart without waiting for a response, grabbed Vinyl and pulled her into a fierce hug. “Can’t I leave you to do nuthin’ unsupervised, girl?”

Vinyl froze for a moment. However, she did return the hug. It was neither motherly nor romantic, but gave its own kind of fierce, crushing comfort.

“I finished the song,” she whispered into Sapphire’s ear. “Well, I finished composing it. It just needs writing down now.”

Sapphire held her away, studying her face. “You serious? That thing you been workin’ on all week? It’s done?”

Vinyl grinned. “Friggin’ A.”

“Girl, I don’t even know what that means, but you got a date with a pen an’ papeeeer.” She whirled around, holding out a foreleg as she barrelled ahead. “Outta the way, fillies an’ colts. Destiny waits for nopony if she don’t get her skinny white butt in gear!” She plucked the packet from Merry Heart’s startled grasp. “And destiny sure does taste better with peanut butter crackers. Mmm-hmmm!”
.


Sapphire stared at the sheet music critically.

“Well?” Vinyl resisted the urge to chew on a piece of her mane. She had outgrown that disgusting habit years ago. Why the hay did she want to go back to it now?

Sapphire blew out a harsh sigh, lowered the paper and looked at her with what Vinyl could only call anguish. Her perfectly plucked eyebrows drew together, forming a peak above eyes that did not look happy.

A lump formed in Vinyl’s throat. “It’s crap, isn’t it? I knew I was too out of practise to write anything decent. I was just –”

“This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” Sapphire said hoarsely. Nevertheless, Vinyl did have to struggle to hear her. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s still rough around the edges – but girl, I think you got something special on your hooves here.”

“You think so?” Vinyl was amazed. While putting the melodies to paper she had found several glitches that she had been sure would ruin the whole composition, even after she debugged the thing.

“Sugar-lips, would I lie to you?” Sapphire refocused on the sheet and hummed the first few bars. Despite what her critics said, she could indeed soften her voice for ballads as well as ramp things up for big band numbers. Vinyl listened to the central melody and, though she could still see flaws, in Sapphire’s voice it did sound pretty nice. “And you say I can have this?”

“Sure.” Vinyl shrugged. “Why not? You were the one who gave me the idea, after all.”

“Girl, my record label has paid ponies more moolah than is decent for songs half this much talent.”

“So be sure to name me when ponies ask where you got the awesome track.”

“Vinyl Scratch –” Sapphire began warningly.

“Call it a gift, Saph.” Vinyl raised a hoof as if to ward off whatever Sapphire had been about to say. “A thank you for being there for me when I needed somepony.”

Sapphire’s shrewd eyes softened. “Dang it, girl, that’s what friends do. You don’t need to go givin’ me no gifts – that’d be like payin’ me to be your friend and that ain’t the way I roll.”

“Like I said, be sure to big up my name as a songwriter whenever you get the chance and we’ll call it even.”

“Your nasty-ass agent wouldn’t like this.”

“My ‘nasty-ass agent’ hasn’t spoken to me since the day after the press conference.” With a grim smile Vinyl added, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was avoiding me.” She sighed. “The last time we spoke was when he called to tell me three of my sponsors were pulling out of their deals. He was mad about it, but you know something? I couldn’t actually bring myself to care. How friggin’ dumb is that? Before the press conference I was terrified about losing them and what it would mean, but now?” She shook her head.

“You got different priorities now, girl.” Sapphire glanced at the bed. Octavia was damp from being washed that morning. A single tuft of hair stood out sideways from her head.

Vinyl trotted over, licked her hoof and carefully smoothed it down, avoiding the nutrient drip and heart monitor wires with practised ease. “Yeah, I do.” Shaking herself, she inhaled sharply and spun to face Sapphire. “So, you like the song?”

“Does gold go with everything?” Sapphire shot back. “You got any lyrics to go with?”

“Not yet.”

“How about a title?”

“Not yet either.”

Sapphire shrugged. “You’ll think of something.”

Her faith in Vinyl’s skills was heartening. Sapphire could really make something of this song – something that she, Vinyl, had written. Not a dubstep remix, nor a sampling track, but something she had written entirely by herself. Moreover, something way, way outside her comfort zone. She knew dubstep. She was secure when she wrote dubstep. This felt more like prising her ribs apart and pinning a bull’s-eye on her still-beating heart.

Oh boy …

A hesitant knock at the door made both mares look up.

“Um, h-hello.” Willow trembled, drooping under Sapphire’s stare like the branches of her namesake. “I’m s-sorry if I’m interrupting. V-Vinyl, Daddy and I are going to the restaurant now, b-but I wanted to give you this before I g-go.” She held out a sheet of rough-textured paper, dotted with broken perforations across the top where it had recently been attached to a sketchpad.

Vinyl stepped forward to accept it, coming up short when she realised Willow was studiously avoiding even glancing in Sapphire’s direction. Her brain performed a quick bit of two-plus-two, coming up with exactly four.

“Sapphire, this is Willow Thorntree. She and I got stuck in the elevator earlier. Willow, this is –”

“S-S-Sapphire Sh-Sh-Shores!” Willow squeaked.

“Willow is a big fan of yours.”

Sapphire quirked one elegant eyebrow. “Oh she is, is she? Well then, this girl got impeccable taste.” She thrust out a foreleg. When Willow wasn’t quite fast enough, she grabbed her hoof and pumped it up and down. “Thanks for looking after my girl Vinyl today. She got a knack for getting herself in trouble in all-caps – T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”

“I-I-I-I …” Willow seemed lost for words.

Sapphire leaned in conspiratorially. “Thorntree, huh? You related to that there Doctor Thorntree?”

Willow nodded mutely.

“Celestia’s sweet-ass shoes!” Sapphire shrieked, nearly shattering the lights. “Your daddy is one treeeemendous pony, girl! He done looked after Octavia and Vinyl these last few months. If you or he ever needs a favour, you just remember what my momma always taught me: ‘a tit for a tat, butter for a rat, you lose your dog, you can have my cat’.” She scrubbed at Willow’s messy hair, but paused to pick up a braid. “Wow, girl, you could give Vinyl a run for her money with this hair-don’t.”

“Hey!” Vinyl protested.

“How many time I gotta tell you I just call ‘em as I see ‘em, sugar-lips? Your mane needs workin’ over in a big way.”

“Whatever.” Vinyl waved a hoof, ignoring how a few strands of her own mane had gotten caught on her eyelashes and were making her blink.

“Um … th-thank you,” said Willow, doing her best impression of a baby bird’s first soft peeps.

“Say, is that Vinyl?” Sapphire tilted Willow’s foreleg to get a better look at the paper she was holding. She let out a low whistle. “Wow.”

“Hey, let me see.” Vinyl held out her own hoof.

Willow’s horn ignited with magic as she levitated the sheet over. Vinyl held it away from her to get a better look and had to stop her jaw dropping open. “This ain’t me.”

It couldn’t be her. She knew what she looked like and this? This wasn’t it. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

The pony in the drawing was rendered in a rough, sketchy style, each line feathered from multiple strikes with the pencil, but the ultimate purpose and destination of each was clear nonetheless. The feathering almost gave the impression of fog, as if the subject was being viewed through a pall of morning mist. This etherealness translated through the image itself. The pony seemed almost ghostly; head tilted back, one foreleg raised as though she might be about to spring away and disappear into thin air. In reality there had been a packet of peanut butter crackers balanced on that hoof, but Willow had chosen to leave that out, thus changing the look of the pose from awkwardly practical to almost shy hesitancy.

Yet it was the eyes that stood out most. They were half-lidded, only part of the pony’s distracted gaze visible, and that little bit was fixed in the middle distance. It should have made the pony look dopey or sleepy, but instead made her seem … sad.

“This ain’t me.”

“Isn’t, not ain’t.”

“It isn’t me,” Vinyl repeated with growing agitation.

“What you talkin’ about, girl?” A hint of reproach entered Sapphire’s tone. “That’s you all right. I’m lookin’ at you right now.”

“This. Isn’t. Me!” Vinyl turned the paper over and shook it towards the two mares. Part of her wondered at the anger the drawing inspired, but her growing temper overwhelmed the misgivings before they could take hold. “I’m not so … so …”

“Pretty?” Sapphire offered. “Cute? Artistically rendered?”

“Fragile! This makes me look like I’d break in half if somepony pushed me over!”

Both Sapphire and Willow blinked in surprise at her raised voice.

“Girl –” Sapphire began.

“It’s a beautiful sketch, Willow. You’ve got a lot of talent. But this?” Vinyl shook her head emphatically. “It isn’t me.”

“Vinyl, why in the name of Luna’s luscious lightshows are you gettin’ so wound up over this?” Sapphire demanded. Her eyes slid to Willow’s stricken expression and her brows hooked upwards in disapproval. “It’s a gift. Ungrateful much?”

Vinyl had also seen Willow’s face crumple but her anger refused to be dislodged. The drawing made her look so friggin’ vulnerable. She was Vinyl Scratch, damn it! She wasn’t vulnerable, or fragile, or … or …

Or weak.

Who are you kidding? whispered the little voice, shifting aside glowing embers of ire to be heard. This is who you are now. That is who you are now.

No way. She shook her head. No friggin’ way.

Octavia’s heart monitor continued its beeping, now the only noise in the stuffy room. Suddenly it seemed inordinately loud. Each beep was perfectly spaced, like a metronome tapping out the rhythm for a song she’d be singing for the rest of her life.

“I … I need some air,” Vinyl mumbled, pushing past Sapphire and Willow.

“Hey, Vinyl –” Sapphire tried to say something, but Vinyl’s trot became a canter in defiance of the ‘don’t run’ signs on the walls. “Vinyl, come back!”


Manehattan General’s bathrooms weren’t the ickiest in Equestria. That wasn’t to say they were especially nice, either. You couldn’t eat your dinner off the floor and if you ever did see you face in it, you had probably slipped on a spill from the basins and face-planted on the tiles.

Vinyl was breathing hard when she burst through the doors of these. She glanced around and immediately headed for a stall, shooting the bolt home. She lowered the toilet lid, sat down and drew her hind legs up to her body, looping her forelegs around them and leaning back against the cistern to stop herself toppling off. With the cool ceramic against her back, she closed her eyes and tried to centre herself.

What the heck was that all about?

She couldn’t really explain it. Something about Willow’s picture had made her want to either break things or run away. Given that choice and the ponies she had been with, she thought she had made the better choice.

Except that now she was locked in a toilet stall and had no idea what to do next. She couldn’t go back and face Sapphire and Willow after that stupid outburst. How could she explain to them when she couldn’t understand herself?

Stupid, stupid, stupid …

It was official: she was her own worst enemy. She pressed her face against the curve of her foreleg, only then realising that her horn still tingled with magic. In the manner of a foal in a tantrum, instead of releasing the sketch she had held tighter and – oh, the irony – brought it into the bathroom with her.

She plucked it out of the air, allowing her magic to release its stranglehold. It was a beautiful drawing, no doubt about that, but she simply could not reconcile it with what she knew of herself. It was more than just the lack of DJ-Pon3’s iconic sunglasses and choppy manecut. Willow had added in her cutie mark and shaded her mane and tail so the light and dark streaks were recognisable. No, something else about it felt like a buck to Vinyl’s guts.

She didn’t know how long she looked at the sketch. When the bathroom door burst open she was so surprised she nearly fell off the toilet. She caught herself at the last moment before snout met door. Somepony hurried in, slamming into the stall at the far end. The loud noise of throwing up echoed off the walls.

Vinyl narrowed her eyes. There was something very familiar about the voice that whimpered between the retches. Rolling up the sketch, she tucked it into a fresh smidge of telekinesis and carefully drew back the lock. The other mare had not bothered to shut the door to her stall; or perhaps she hadn’t had time. Vinyl recognised her cutie mark instantly.

Flower Heart?

The nurse curled her body, all but hugging the toilet. Bits of mane had come loose from her bun and now fell into her face, perilously close to her slimy lips. Instinctively, Vinyl reached out with another strand of telekinesis to hold them away so they wouldn’t get covered in puke. Flower Heart looked up in surprise. Her eyes registered Vinyl’s presence right before another violent spasm shook her.

Several minutes later, Flower Heart finally pushed herself to her hooves and depressed the toilet handle. She sniffed, eyes red with tiny broken capillaries.

“Thanks,” she croaked.

“Are you okay?” Vinyl asked.

“Sure.” Flower Heart gave a husky chuckle. “Never better.”

Vinyl winced. “Okay, that one tops the list of Dumbest Questions I’ve Ever Asked.”

“Won’t hear me arguing.” Flower heart advanced on the wash basins and Vinyl released the telekinesis holding back her mane. It flopped forward as the nurse poked her snout sideways beneath a streaming faucet to swill out her mouth.

“Should you be at work if you’re sick?”

“I ain’t sick.”

“Really? ‘Cause that was a friggin’ good impression of a sick pony.”

Flower Heart shook her head. She braced her forelegs on either side of the basin and drew in a shuddering breath. “I ain’t sick.”

“Then what was with the psychedelic spit?”

Flower Heart glanced up at Vinyl. Her gaze was heavy, and not just because of the dark circles around her eyes. Vinyl was immediately reminded of Bruiser’s question in the corridor before the elevator incident. In all the excitement she had forgotten about it until now.

“Has Flower Heart … has she seemed … I dunno, off to you lately?”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Boom.

Vinyl’s eyes widened and her mouth formed a small ‘o’ of comprehension.

“Yeah. That.”

Flower Heart looked at herself in the mirror about the wash basins. In it both of them were reflected under the unforgiving halogen strip-lights. The lights did neither of them any favours. Vinyl was shocked when she realised Flower Heart’s hollow eyes were a perfect match for her own – and also a perfect match for those in Willow’s sketch.

“Bruiser doesn’t know, does he?” Vinyl asked needlessly. Why would he have asked her opinion on Flower Heart’s wellbeing if he already knew? She thought back to the hesitant but clear concern in his tone.

“No jokes for a second. Does she seem okay to you?”

“No, I haven’t told him yet.” Flower Heart’s gaze shifted to meet that of Vinyl’s reflection. “I’m … too scared to tell him.”

“What? Why?” Bruiser was an okay guy and clearly adored Flower Heart. During her months at Manehattan General Vinyl had seen them interact plenty of times and she never ceased to be surprised at how gentle and biddable the menacing stallion could be.

“How the hay am I supposed to start something like that? ‘Hey, sweetie, how are you at knitting booties? Because we’re gonna be hearing the pitter-patter of tiny hooves soon!’ ‘Hey, Bruiser, I know I ain’t prime mommy material, since my apartment’s messier than a dumpster and I don’t know how to cook for myself, let alone a foal, but you can pick up the slack, right?’ Or my personal favourite: ‘Bruiser, would you leave me if I told you I was pregnant?’” Flower Heart shook her head. “Oh joy, the choices and possibilities sure do make my heart sing.” Sarcasm sharpened each word into a perfectly enunciated point. She barely sounded like herself.

“Hang on, hang on, hang on.” Vinyl folded her forelegs. “How do you know he wouldn’t be thrilled?”

“Are you kidding?” Flower Heart let out a short, bitter laugh. “I don’t even know how I feel about this. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I’m not ready to be a mother!” She let out a soft curse and leaned heavily against the washbasin. “Ponies like Merry Heart make good mothers, not ponies like me. Mothers are caring and responsible and junk like that.”

“Um, I hate to be the one to point this out, Flower, but you’re a nurse. That kinda indicates a level of caring and responsibility above the norm, otherwise the ponies in charge of this place wouldn’t let you keep working here.”

Flower Heart said nothing but her ears folded back.

Vinyl bit her lip. “Are you … do you want to keep it?”

“I don’t know,” Flower Heart whispered. “I … I honestly don’t know. Part of me wants to but … I never planned for this. I never saw myself as parent material. Like, ever. I barely saw myself as girlfriend material until Bruiser asked me out. I’m thirty-eight. I’m too old to be a mother for the first time but … but when I saw the little line on that stick ... Sweet Celestia, Vinyl, what do I do?”

Vinyl hadn’t a clue. She was usually the one asking that question. “Somepony, please, tell me what to do so if it goes wrong it’s not all my own fault!” This situation was so far outside her comfort zone she had to check to make sure gravity hadn’t reversed and time wasn’t running backwards.

“I don’t know what to do …” Flower murmured, tears in her eyes. “I just don’t know what to do …”

“Do you … do you want me to get Merry Heart?” Vinyl asked hesitantly.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” A tear ran down Flower Heart’s face and off the end of her nose. “Sweet Celestia, I’m blubbering. Sorry, Vinyl. I didn’t mean for you – or anypony, for that matter – to see me like this. I’m just … feeling a little lost right now, y’know? This is … this is big. This is life-changing type big and I … I don’t know if I’m up to make that kind of decision. Not on my own. But if I tell Bruiser and he isn’t … if he doesn’t want …” Her volume dropped so low Vinyl could barely hear her at all. “I wish I knew what to do …”

Without asking permission, Vinyl advanced and wrapped her forelegs around Flower Heart in an awkward sideways hug. Flower Heart was bigger than her, plus the angle made things difficult, but she hoped it was comforting and not just uncomfortable. After a few frozen moments, Flower Heart’s forelegs gave out and she sagged against the washbasin, tears streaming down her face.

“S-Sorry –” she choked out.

“Don’t be sorry,” Vinyl replied. This was a little scary, but she held on as Flower Heart broke down in her embrace.

“S-Sweet Celest-tia … t-talk ab-bout a r-role r-reversal …” Flower Heart’s breath hitched as Vinyl followed her to the floor, still hugging her as her hind legs gave way. “L-Last t-time it was m-me c-comforting y-you.” She sniffed back a river of unpleasant snot and frightened, desperate tears. “I g-guess we’re e-even n-now, huh?”

“It ain’t about payback or being even,” Vinyl replied. She hadn’t, actually, been thinking about when she had woken from her nightmares and Flower Heart had let her cry herself raw on the floor of Octavia’s room. She had just seen that Flower Heart was in pain and wanted to do something – even if only a small thing – to make it stop. “You’re my friend.”

And, bizarrely, it was true. She said it before she really thought about it, but it really was true. She considered Flower Heart her friend. Merry Heart too, now she came to think about it. And Bruiser. Maybe even Doctor Thorntree, in a slightly distant, pokerfaced way.

It had been bizarre enough to realise Sapphire was her friend, but this … this was greedy, surely? She had gone from having no friends to having more than she knew what to do with.

When the friggin’ heck did that happen?

She stayed on the grimy floor of the hospital bathroom until Flower Heart’s shoulders finally stopped juddering. They stayed there a while longer after that, neither saying a word until, finally, Flower Heart leaned her head sideways to rest it against Vinyl’s.

“Thank you,” she croaked. “I didn’t mean to go to pieces like that.”

“I don’t think any of us do, but when it happens, it happens,” Vinyl shrugged. “I’m just glad you weren’t alone when it did. Trust me, that ain’t healthy. Or pretty. Or fun.”

“Definitely not fun,” Flower Heart agreed. She cleared her throat, dragging a foreleg across her face. It came away stained with the heavy mascara and the bright yellow eye-shadow she always wore. “Aw, ponyfeathers. I’m gonna look like an old nag if I go out there bare-faced.”

“I think you should get yourself cleaned up,” said Vinyl. Carefully she released her hold, looked over her shoulder, tore off a wad of toilet paper from the roll of the nearest stall and levitated it over. Flower Heart accepted it gratefully, mopping at her face and blowing her nose in a noisy, unladylike blast.

“I don’t suppose you got on make-up on you, huh?”

“No,” Vinyl admitted. “But I, uh, know a pony who never goes anywhere without it …”


Sapphire was not in Room 219. Neither was Willow. Octavia was alone, still in her bed and unmoving. Vinyl cursed under her breath as she stood in the doorway.

“I think I screwed up again, Tavi.”

“Maybe not as much as you think, sugar-lips.”

She whirled at the familiar voice. “Sapphire!”

Standing beside the nurse’s desk, Sapphire eyed Vinyl with a mixture of wariness and disapproval. One eyebrow was already hoisted high, as if she had been standing there the whole time, just waiting for Vinyl to notice her as she barrelled past.

Aw, horseapples. “Were you there the whole time?”

“Given that I had to comfort an actual weepin’ Willow an’ so missed where the hay you ran off to, pretty much. I knew you couldn’t stay away from your Tavi for long though. I figured I just had to sit tight and you’d eventually reappear.” Sapphire’s aerobic eyebrow lowered. “Mind explainin’ what the hoo-haa that was all about?”

“I, uh, will, sure, but right now … Saph, do you have some mascara?”

Sapphire blinked at her. “Okay, not the answer I was expecting. Since when do you prettify yourself with make-up, girl? Not that it wouldn’t be a welcome thing – I’ve been itchin’ to doll you up some since I first laid eyes on you in that room – but this is real sudden.”

“It’s not for me; it’s for … a friend.”

There went that aerobic eyebrow again. “Oh really?”

Vinyl glanced around. “Yeah, um … well … look, I can’t really tell you much, so you’ll have to trust me that it’s real important she gets some fresh mascara right now. And … would you have any yellow eye-shadow?”

“Vinyl, what the hay is this all about?”

“I told you, it’s for a friend.” She looked around, wishing Merry Heart was there. Where was that mare, anyhow? “She’s hiding in the bathroom because she cried off all her make-up and I said I’d ask you for some so she wouldn’t have to come out bare-faced.”

Sapphire’s expression shifted. “Well why didn’t you say so? Let me just get my purse, sugar-lips. This is a cosmetic emergency!”
.


“Flower?” Vinyl’s voice echoed off the bathroom walls and ceiling. “Did you leave already?”

The snap of a lock said no. Flower Heart peeped out, eyes widening when she saw Sapphire. “I thought you were just bringing some mascara!”

“Hey, sassafras, where my make-up bag goes, I go,” Sapphire trilled. “Are you the friend-in-need my girl Vinyl here told me about?”

“Um …”

“I can see your eyes from here, sugar, so be careful how you answer.”

Flower Heart sighed and exited the stall.

Sapphire sucked in a breath. “Dang it, girl, you need more than mascara. Here.” She snapped open the purse slung around her neck, rummaging inside and emerging with a tiny plastic phial. “There here are an eye-brightenin’ elixir I use before I go on stage. The effects last a few hours and should cover up those bloodshot peepers of yours.”

“Elixir?” Flower Heart eyed the phial suspiciously.

“Made by the finest unicorns in the cosmetics industry. It’s safe, just not permanent. You want to apply it or you want me to do it?”

“I, uh …”

“My momma had five foals besides me. I grew up thinkin’ I was gonna be a make-up artist before I figured out I’d be doing the music world a disservice if I didn’t become a singer. My brothers and sisters got a lotta makeovers while we all were growing up. I know what I’m doin’, sugar.”

Flower Heart bit her lip but accepted the offer and craned her head back as Sapphire judiciously applied the elixir. Being an earth pony, Sapphire used her hooves, but they were just as steady as any telekinesis. She brought out a tiny pallet of eye-shadows and a brand new, unopened mascara wand that Vinyl recognised as one of the most expensive brands on the market.

“I don’t got any yellow,” Sapphire said apologetically. “But how about this here shade of green? It’s lighter than your coat and I reckon might suit you even more than your regular colour.”

“Um, yeah. Sure.” Flower Heart closed her eyes dutifully. “This was definitely not what I expected when I woke up today.”

“Life’s full of surprises, sugar,” Sapphire muttered, dabbing lightly at Flower Heart’s eyelids with the eye-shadow brush.

“You’re telling me,” Flower Heart mumbled, not quite hiding the emotion in her tone.

Sapphire paused incrementally – just long enough to catch Vinyl’s eye. Vinyl didn’t nod or shake her head, but she got the feeling Sapphire knew more after that single glance than she had known before it. Their mutual gaze fell away as though it had been a physical thing, now unfastened. Vinyl felt it drop like a rope or heavy chain to the floor and half wanted to check whether something was actually there on the tiles.

“Oh,” murmured Sapphire as she put away the eye-shadow and broke open the seal on the mascara. “So that’s how it is.”

Flower Heart stiffened, eyes still closed. “That’s how what is?”

Sapphire went to work on her lashes. “You tell me, sugar.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I reckon you do.”

“Well you reckon wrong,” Flower Heart replied hotly.

“I wouldn’t fight it if I were you, Flower,” Vinyl advised. “She does this. It’s kinda creepy, actually.”

“Like I said, I grew up as one of six little ponies in a house with a momma who could tell you were lyin’ even before you opened your mouth,” said Sapphire. “I learned at the hooves of a master. Ain’t nopony nowhere can lie to me an’ get away with it.”

“I … you … I don’t even know you!”

“Sure you do. I’m Sapphire Shores. You got me to sign an autograph for you just last Wednesday.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Flower Heart’s cheeks darkened as a blush fought its way through her green fur. “You can’t just waltz in here and start saying things like … like that!”

“Girl, this is a public bathroom. I can waltz in here and do a whole lot worse.” The mascara wand paused in Sapphire’s hoof. “Okay, that came out nastier than I intended, but you get the idea.”

“I … I …” Flower Heart fumbled. She opened her eyes, meeting Sapphire’s implacable gaze. Vinyl swore she could hear another heavy thump as that one fell away too. Flower Heart dipped her head and sighed.

Sapphire nodded and patted her shoulder. “Girl, I won’t insult you by pretendin’ I know what you’re goin’ through right now, but you got a good friend in Vinyl here, so whatever you decide to do, you won’t be alone.”

Shock jack-knifed through Vinyl. She had only just figured out she was friends with Flower Heart and Sapphire was already declaring her a good one?

“I know,” Flower Heart replied, sending another bolt of shock through Vinyl. She was confirming Sapphire’s statement? What the – “I don’t suppose you got any advice, do you?”

Sapphire thought about this for a moment. She opened her mouth to dispense her pearls of wisdom. “Vinyl, you wanna field this one?”

“Huh?” Vinyl said intelligently. At Sapphire’s pointed look and Flower Heart’s pleading one, she closed her mouth and swallowed. No pressure. None at all. Nope.

Phooey.

Thanks, Saph. Thanks a lot.

Vinyl glanced from side to side, searching for inspiration. She caught sight of the mirror again, and once again saw her changed reflection in it. She realised with a jar of a dismay that she had let go of Willow’s sketch earlier when she hugged Flower Heart. The piece of paper sat next to the washbasin, slightly water-stained where it had landed in a damp spot. The drawing of her was still visible, however, and juxtaposed with her reflection this way, Vinyl could finally see some of what Willow had seen in the elevator. She did indeed look fragile. There was no other word for it. She looked like she had galloped to Tartarus and back, dragging an ever-increasing load as she went.

Except that she wasn’t dragging that load alone anymore. She had friends, and those friends had chosen to help her share it; not because they had to, not because she had asked them to, but because they cared about her and wanted to help her.

“It ain’t about payback or being even.”

“Honesty,” she said. “I vote for honesty, Flower.”

Flower Heart stared at her for a long, splintered moment. Then she dropped her head in a mixture of defeat and fear. “I … I guess you’re right. I just … I’m scared to tell him.”

“I’ll go with you,” Vinyl said instantly.

“Hey, you two ain’t leavin’ me out,” Sapphire protested. “I’m a part of this thing too now, y’know. This fine piece of pony here is wearin’ my Marebelline. That makes me an interested party.”

Despite herself, Vinyl snorted.

Flower Heart gave a watery smile. “Thanks.”


Of the two porters pushing a gurney, both saw the trio of mares scuttling towards the elevator, but only one cared to look a second time. He paused, watching as they drew up short at the doors and the smallest one shook her head, sending her long variegated blue mane rippling the way water does after somepony has thrown a pebble into it.

The tallest mare said something, but the gurney was too far away for him to make out the words. The smallest one shook her head again. He recognised the last mare as one of the nurses here at the hospital. They had eaten lunch together a few times in the canteen. Sunflower Heart? Petal Heart? Something like that, anyway.

He had no trouble remembering the names of the other two ponies. As they trooped through the double doors into the stairwell, he let out a squawk at a tap on his shoulder.

“Yargh!”

“Hey, buddy, am I doing this alone or what?”

He whirled to face the other porter. “Dude! Don’t do that!”

“You were off in la-la land again, buddy.”

“I was not! I was just …”

“Watching DJ Pon-3 and Sapphire Shores argue with Nurse Flower Heart over whether to take the elevator or stairs?”

He gaped.

The other porter gave a stern smile. “It’s possible to notice stuff like that and still be able to push a gurney, buddy.”

“What do you suppose they were up to?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “All I can say for sure is that Manehattan General wasn’t exactly a quiet place to work before, but now …” He left the statement hanging. “C’mon, buddy, help me with this guy.”

“Uh, sure.”

Life had, indeed, gotten a whole lot more interesting since those ponies arrived. Yes indeed.

And things were about to get even more interesting, too.


Bruiser looked up from the newspaper he had been pretending to read when somepony knocked on the door of the security station. He was on his break but had chosen to take it by the monitors, since his junior guard was off sick and they were running short-hoofed.

“It’s unlocked.”

The door opened and a pony walked in.

“Flower?” He scrambled to his hooves. “What is it? You never visit me on duty. Is something –” He paused. There was something different about her.

He was still trying to work out what it was when she drew a deep breath and glanced over her shoulder. The two faces peering around the sides of the door vanished guiltily, though Bruiser didn’t hear any hoofsteps walking away.

“Bruiser.” Flower Heart interrupted his thoughts, dragging his gaze back to her. “There’s … there’s something I gotta tell you …”


Vinyl trotted into Room 219 and flopped into her chair. “Well, Tavi, that has gotta be one of the weirdest days of my life. For serious. Maybe not the weirdest day ever, but in the top ten. Maybe even top five.”

Octavia didn’t respond. That, however, did not stop Vinyl’s diatribe.

“First I got outwitted by a vending machine, then I got stuck in the elevator, then I overreacted over a dumb sketch, then I helped Flower Heart make the biggest confession of her life.” She shook her head. “I guess I have some experience in that last one, especially lately. I only wish the reaction at my press conference had been as positive.” She smiled, reaching out to stroke Octavia’s foreleg on top of the bedclothes. “I didn’t even know Bruiser’s voice could get that high. And do you know he giggles when he’s happy? Like, really, really, really, really insanely happy? Saph was laughing all the way to her carriage about how high he got.” Vinyl frowned slightly. “What’s a castrato, anyhow?”

The ceiling fan whirred. The monitor beeped. Octavia breathed evenly.

And Vinyl smiled.

It faltered a little as she thought about what she had to do next. Her day was not over yet.

“I gotta apologise to Willow, Tavi. I was totally rude to her, not to mention insulting and ungrateful and … just plain crappy, actually. Sometimes the truth hurts real bad. You’d think I’d have learned that by now, right?”

Octavia did not reply.

Vinyl sighed. “How many times do you think I’m gonna learn that lesson before it friggin’ sticks?”


10. “I think we should end this conversation before one of us says something she regrets.”

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10. “I think we should end this conversation before one of us says something she regrets.”


Merry Heart wandered into the staff lounge, hooves aching from the first half of a long shift spent running around more than usual. Her mood flagged at the thought of the other half she still had to complete.

Why the hoo-haa did I decide to become a nurse again?

The lounge was dotted with other ponies, most of whom had divided into pairs and little groups that glanced at her before turning back to their own conversations. Strange, she thought, how everyone thought cliques were just a high school thing. Adult life was supposed to be so different, yet the same pettifoggery wormed its way into everything there, too. As a nurse, she was expected to mix with other nurses first, just like doctors mixed primarily with doctors, porters with porters and cleaners with other cleaners.

Darn stupid, if’n you ask me, Merry thought truculently. She sighed. Not that anypony ever does.

On bad days she wondered whether she was only valued for her ability to empty a bedpan. Today was shaping up to be a pretty ghastly day, though it hadn’t made the full progression into ‘bad’. On her way into work she had been hit by a runaway gurney and her flank still hurt from the developing bruise. Added to that, her daughter had cried with nerves that morning over a presentation she had to give in front of her class. Merry had stroked her mane and given the requisite words of comfort, but shaken her head when Glow begged to be allowed to stay home. Merry had faith that the nerves would subside and Glow would be fine in the end, but the thought that she could ultimately do nothing but hope for the best made Merry’s stomach hurt. If she could have done the presentation for Glow, she would have. Anything to bring a smile back to her daughter’s face. Yet what would that have taught her? That it was okay not to face your fears as long as Mommy was around? That you should run away from your problems or tasks that scared you? That taking responsibility was something only other ponies did?

Weighed down by her heavy thoughts, Merry flopped onto one of the threadbare couches lining the wall. The pony on the other end hid his face behind a newspaper. Merry frowned, vague recognition chiming in her brain. The chime became a knell as the face peeping out from behind the paper clicked into place: this was the stallion who had run after the gurney that hit her.

He disappeared back behind the newspaper when he saw her looking his way. For a moment Merry considered just ignoring him, but then the headline of the newspaper caught her eye. She heaved herself up, walked the few paces between them and sat back down next to him.

“Seems almost unbelievable, don’t it?” she said conversationally.

The newspaper quivered. “Huh?”

“A brand new princess. Who’d a’ thunk it?”

“Um …” One pale yellow eye hove into view. The stallion appeared to be considering giving up his protective shield. “Well … I guess … nopony?”

“I sure didn’t.” Merry tapped at the front page headline with a hoof.

Every news outlet was still dominated by news of the newest alicorn in Equestria. Of course, after three days and three versions they were running out of ways to retell how she had finished Starswirl the Bearded’s unfinished spell and landed in the middle of Ponyville town square in a burst of light. It was the kind of thing everypony who had witnessed it would tell their children someday: where were you when Twilight Sparkle became an alicorn? So, in a burst of creativity, the media had converted their coverage into stories about the upcoming Summer Sun Celebration and how both Princess Luna and Princess Twilight Sparkle would fit into proceedings.

“I didn’t even know alicorns could be made. Just goes to show you, don’t it?” Merry chuckled, allowing her southern accent to turn her words into a lazy drawl. In her opinion there was nothing more comforting to a nervous pony than a good drawl. It had worked on Glow this morning; at least enough to get her to the school gate.

“Show what?” said the stallion behind the newspaper.

“That life can always surprise you. Take me, for instance. This morning, I was surprised by you an’ your drivin’ technique.”

The stallion’s cheeks flushed from beige to scarlet. “I’m really sorry about th–”

“An’ take right now,” Merry went on. “I’ll bet you’re worried I’m gonna yell at you some more. I gotta admit, I wasn’t exactly actin’ ladylike. Then again, I’d challenge anypony to act genteel with a sore butt an’ the contents of her purse scattered on the floor.”

“I –”

“So I bet you’ll be surprised when I’m the one to say sorry for yellin’ at you when it was jus’ a lil’ ol’ accident. That corridor’s sloped, though nopony seems to realise it. I’ll bet you took your hooves away for jus’ a second an’ things kinda –” She went in for the kill: a smile as honest as a brand new dawn. “Ran away from you. Is that right?”

“That’s … right,” the stallion said regretfully. “I don’t like using the elevator that broke anymore. I know it’s dumb, and it’s all fixed now, but I’ve started using the one in that corridor instead. I didn’t realise about the sloped floor. Usually there are two of us to each gurney, but I was on my own today. I was punching the button on the elevator – it really was just a second – but when I turned around the gurney wasn’t there. I ran after it as fast as I could but I couldn’t stop it before it got the doors, and you were coming through, and I yelled, but I guess you didn’t hear me, and … and …” The newspaper descended. “And then I panicked when you were yelling and ran away before the elevator doors closed. I’m really sorry I hurt your … uh … that I hurt you,” the stallion apologised. “I should’ve stayed to help you pick up your things.”

“And I shoulda watched where I was goin’.” Merry shrugged. “How about we leave it there? That way you can stop takin’ the long route around the hospital when you see me. You musta walked an extra ten miles today! Deal?”

“Uh … deal.” He nodded. His eyes ticked to the newspaper page he had been ‘reading’. Merry saw that it, too, was about Princess Twilight Sparkle and the brouhaha surrounding her ascension. A story about how the Summer Sun Celebration was being held in Canterlot for the first time in over a hundred years sat next to an editorial about royal nepotism. Merry read the words ‘if other ponies had been given the same opportunities as the vaunted Twilight Sparkle maybe there would be a lot more alicorns in Equestria’ before averting her eyes.

“It never fails,” she sighed. “Sumthin’ truly amazin’ happens an’ all some ponies can think to do is bellyache about how life ain’t fair. Personally, I don’t think I’d wanna be in Twilight Sparkle’s shoes right now, no matter how spangly they are.”

“Huh?” The stallion looked up at her. “You wouldn’t want to be a princess?”

“Heck no!” Merry said emphatically. She had learned a lot about fame in the last few months. The fame of a princess eclipsed every other type of celebrity. “Once ponies get into the public eye, the public done feels like they own ‘em! I couldn’t be dealin’ with feelin’ like I oughta answer to everypony else ‘afore myself.” She shook her head. “I wonder whether Princess Twilight realises what she done let herself in for yet.”

“But … but she’s a princess!” the stallion protested, as if this was the answer to any argument she could possible come up with.

“Yeah.”

“Doesn’t everypony want to be a prince or a princess?”

“Do you?”

“Sure! I’d love to be famous and have lots of money and a big house and glitzy clothes and –”

“An’ never have no privacy, an’ have everyone judgin’ you on how you spend your time an’ all that money.” Merry’s thoughts circled around on themselves like dirty water down a plughole, dragging behind them memories of Vinyl Scratch and her ongoing battle with the media. The more Merry learned of celebrity life, the more she appreciated her own humble one. It wasn’t modesty – she would have been glad for extra cash to cover bills and a few luxuries – but no amount of glitz or glamour was worth the heartache and headaches that seemed inherent in that kind of life. Maybe Merry wasn’t anypony of note, but she was happy. That surely counted more than fame and fortune, right? “I’d rather be my own pony, thank you very much.”

“Oh.” The stallion seemed taken aback by her vehemence. “You … you work up in Neurology, right?”

“I do indeed,” Merry replied.

“So … you see DJPon-3 a lot, right? And Sapphire Shores?”

“I do indeed,” Merry said again, though with a little less aplomb. She had gotten so used to referring to Vinyl by her real name she had almost forgotten her stage one. Where was he going with this?

“I’m a huge fan of both of them,” he started, gabbling a little. “Could you … could you tell DJ-Pon-3 that I think she’s real awesome and that I –”

A piercing whistle cut through the air. Both Merry and the stallion winced.

“Hey!” called a black stallion in a porter’s uniform from the doorway. “What the hay are you still doing in here? Your break ended ten minutes ago.”

“Aw, crud.” The newspaper landed at Merry’s hooves as the stallion she had been speaking to launched himself from his seat. “I lost track of the time.” He hurried away, but paused in the doorway. Looking back, he said, “Tell her I think she’s awesome and brave and I don’t care whatever anypony else says, she still rocks.” That said, he galloped out.

Merry picked up the newspaper to see whether it contained anything else worth reading. A thought occurred to her as she turned the page; one that probably should have occurred to her when the porter stallion was still there.

Just what the hoo-haa was his name, anyhow?


“Um, Doc?”

Doctor Thorntree turned before entering his office, smile faltering a little. “Oh. Vinyl.”

She scuffed a forehoof. “Do you, uh … is Willow still around? In Manehattan, I mean, not at the … ‘cause it’s a new shift for you and everything … since, y’know … I just thought … did she go back to Silverdale yet?”

His moustache twitched. She couldn’t tell whether that was a good or bad sign. “Yes, she’s still in the city.”

“Could I, uh …” Vinyl searched for the right words. His gaze was so penetrating she half expected a laser to shoot out of his eyes and pin her brain to the wall behind her. She frowned. Sweet Celestia, her subconscious was gross. When the thousand yard stare didn’t let up she sighed and abandoned delicacy. Again. “Look, Doc, I was really crappy to her and I wanted to say sorry before she goes home.”

Was it her imagination or did his moustache twitch upwards this time? “She won’t be going home until the end of the week. I can ask her to come in this afternoon, if you’d like.”

“Oh!” Vinyl had been expecting a phone number. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’d be … good.” Crap on toast, apologies were harder face-to-face. Then again, she had asked for this the moment she threw Willow’s nice gesture back at her and then ran off like a coward. Time to face the heat or get out of the kitchen. Or something.

Doctor Thorntree nodded, apparently satisfied. “Was there anything else?”

“Uh, no. no, that’s fine. I, uh …” Vinyl raised her eyes. “Are you mad at me?”

Doctor Thorntree puffed out a breath. “You mean am I mad at you for making my daughter cry on her first trip to visit me in several years?”

“Uh … yeah.”

“No, Vinyl, I’m not mad.” He paused. “Not anymore, at least.”

Which meant he had been. “Oh. Sorry.”

“It’s not me you need to say that to.” He crossed the short distance between them and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “But if you’re willing to apologise to Willow, we’ll say no more about it. I know you’re not a malicious pony, Vinyl, so I doubted you had intended to hurt her. Willow is just –” He seemed to search for the right words. “She’s a sensitive soul. Some might even say too sensitive.” He frowned at some private thought or memory. “Regardless, she was very complimentary of you over dinner. She was actually rather worried she had ‘made you hate her’ with her sketch.”

“Say what?” Vinyl was aghast. “Why would she think that? Willow’s a great girl, I just flipped out of the sketch for … well, it was a dumb reason. I never said I hated her!”

“As I said, she’s a sensitive soul. She does rather take things to heart, and when the choice comes to blaming herself or somepony else for something, she tends to blame herself.” Another tiny frown. Vinyl wondered what he was remembering. How often had Willow blamed herself for something that wasn’t her fault?

The problem was mine, not hers. Aw, friggin’ heck. Resolve galvanised Vinyl into saying firmly, “Well I’ll fix that.”

“Yes.” Doctor Thorntree looked at her thoughtfully. “Yes, I’m sure you will. You know, Vinyl, if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would barely recognise you as the pony I first met.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve changed.”

Well, duh. She bit her tongue against the horrible reply. Her subconscious was apparently a douche as well as gross. “Ponies change, Doc. I’ll bet you ain’t the stallion you used to be, either.”

“No, I certainly am not,” he chuckled. He actually chuckled.

Vinyl couldn’t see what was funny but she smiled nonetheless. Anything was better than that penetrating stare of his. Tension leeched out of her as he dropped his hoof from her shoulder and turned to go into his office.

“Oh, Vinyl?” he said, as something had suddenly occurred to him. “Have you spoken to Doctor Crabtree in the last few days?”

“I’m supposed to talk to him today.” Vinyl remembered the untidy tawny stallion who had walked her through the legal and logistical issues surrounding Octavia’s future care arrangements. She hadn’t spoken to him in over a week, though she had been in touch with her lawyer. Things were moving along like a great conveyor belt that would eventually deposit both Tavi and herself in her newly renovated house.

“Good, good. I’d better be getting along now.”

“Uh, yeah, right. And, uh, Doc?”

He looked over his shoulder at her. “Yes?”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Getting mad at me when I hurt Willow.”

His expression registered surprise. “You’re thanking me for being angry at you?”

“Well, yeah. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like it or anything. I’m not a friggin’ masochist. It just, y’know, it shows you care about her. And that’s nice. For a dad to care about his kid like that. I mean, I’d have been stoked if my mom ever got mad at somepony for hurting me. Like, majorly. Majorly stoked, I mean, not majorly mad. Um, I mean … you’re a good dad, Doc.” Aware that she was babbling, Vinyl turned and trotted away. “So, yeah. See you around.”

She was so eager to extricate herself from the situation, she totally failed to see Doctor Thorntree smile as he closed his door.


Vinyl stared into her mug. Hot chocolate was nice and all, but who actually bought it for anything other than a mountain of whipped cream on top? Once that was gone the actual drink seemed like an anti-climax. Somewhere in the back of her brain a tiny voice yelled rabidly about empty calories and fat content and how many sit-ups it took to work off a treat like this, but she took great pleasure in ignoring it. Some ponies drank alcohol for courage. She opted for fatty treats. If she could have found someplace that sold cheese in a can, she would have been knocking that back like it was going out of style.

Was it ever in style? she wondered. Probably not. Saph is all about being stylish and I can’t imagine her eating canned cheese. Or canned anything, actually. Do they do peanut butter in a can? I betr she’d be all over that, stylish or not – whoa!

Hot liquid scalded the back of Vinyl’s throat as somepony tapped her shoulder. She spluttered, sending a spray of choclately liquid over the table in front of her.

“Oh my gosh!” Willow’s distinct squeak preceded her wild dash-and-grab for serviettes from the dispenser on the counter. The pony at the cash register watched in surprise as she rushed back and forth across the tiny café floor, her panic apparently making her forget that she could take more than one serviette at once. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you! Here, let me get that!”

Vinyl made a noise somewhere between a cough and the last gasp of a pony in the middle of a Saddle Arabian desert. She tried to wipe at her chin at the back of one hoof but Willow dabbed at it first with a serviette, turning Vinyl’s face up towards her like a mother wiping a grubby foal.

“I’m so sorry!” she kept saying. “Oh my! Oh no! Your lovely white coat is all covered in muck now!”

“It’s … fine,” Vinyl wheezed. She drew deep breaths, trying to cool her burned throat. “Totally fine. Just excuse me a minute while I hack up a lung.”

Willow bit her bottom lip. “Hang on a tick.” She hurried back to the counter once more, returning a minute later with a bottle of water so cold it was already beaded with condensation. “Here. Sip this.”

Vinyl drank gratefully. When she could speak normally again, she said, “Thanks, Willow. ‘Preciate it.”

“Why are you thanking me? I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like that.” Willow twisted her hooves up in the floaty scarf wrapped around her neck. It was blue today, providing a neat contrast to her gingery orange coat. Vinyl was no expert on fashion – hence she had deferred to stylists who knew better as she climbed the ladder of fame – but she was pretty sure blue and orange weren’t supposed to go together. Maybe it was that whole bohemian thing, or maybe she knew even less than she had thought, but somehow on Willow it worked.

“You keep that up and you’ll strangle yourself,” Vinyl remarked.

“What? Oh … yes. Right.” Willow untangled her hooves. “Um …”

Vinyl gestured to the seat on the opposite side of the faux-Prench table. For some reason the hospital had decided to deck out the visitors’ café like something that belonged on the streets of Prance, with curlicue metal on all the tables and light fittings, and chairs painted white with lines of poetry inked on the back. Vinyl knew Willow’s chair read ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops - at all’. The quote on her own chair was the reason she first sat here months ago, and had picked this same spot every time she used the café ever since: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.

“My, um, my dad said you wanted to speak with me?” Willow said hesitantly.

Vinyl took a breath. “Yeah. I wanted to say sorry, Willow. You did a nice thing for me and I was … well, I was an ass,” she said bluntly.

Willow’s eyes settled on a spot over Vinyl’s shoulder. For one blinding moment Vinyl panicked that one of the café workers actually was an ass. She knew one of Bruiser’s security guards was a mule and a trio of elderly nanny goats staffed the gift shop, so there might well be an ass working here too – somebeast she had just insulted in earshot. Vinyl glanced over her shoulder. However, behind the counter was only a very curious looking stallion wearing the nametag: ‘Hi! My name is Star Shower. How can I help you?’

Vinyl looked back at Willow, whose gaze was still fixed on some point in the middle distance. “It’s all right,” she murmured. “Really. It’s fine. It was just a silly sketch.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Vinyl tapped the tabletop, punctuating her words with each hollow ‘tink’. “Uh …” Suddenly lost for how to phrase her thoughts correctly, she stumbled. “It was a really … good … sketch. Um … look, Willow, the point isn’t the sketch. Well, it kind of is, but at the same time, it kind of isn’t. I mean … uh … ah, ponyfeathers. This isn’t coming out at all how I planned.”

“How did you plan it?” Willow asked softly.

Vinyl shrugged. “I just wanted to say sorry for making you cry. Granted, I don’t know you all that well, but you seem like an okay pony. Well, a nice pony, actually. Definitely not the kind of pony who deserves some inconsiderate idiot making her cry when she was just trying to do something nice.”

Willow’s gaze flickered to Vinyl’s face for a half-second, but just as quickly snapped away again. “Don’t be too sorry. I’m a bit of a cry-baby. My mother is always telling me I need to toughen up, but somehow I still always end up blubbing.”

“Uh … well, I’m still sorry.”

“Apology accepted.”

Vinyl sat for a moment, wondering what to do next. Somehow she had expected more from this conversation. Another case of whipped cream and hot chocolate. But not as sweet, she thought, searching her brain for something to say. “Uh, can I buy you a drink?”

“Excuse me?”

Vinyl’s mouth twisted into wry smile. “Yeah, that did sound like a weird. I mean a hot chocolate. Or something. Uh, to make amends?”

“Vinyl, I can’t help thinking you’re making more out of this than it warrants. I drew a picture of you to pass the time and calm myself down while we were trapped in a lift. You didn’t like it and I did my usual trick of being a weepy-woo. It’s no big deal. Really.”

“A weepy-woo?”

“Yes. You know, like that noise you make when you cry? ‘Woo-woo-woo?’” Willow paused. “Or that might be just me.”

“When I cry, it’s more ‘snrrrrkkhhghkkk!’” Vinyl did a fair impression of emptying a nose in a flurry of mucus and goo.

Willow pulled a face but her mouth beneath her hoof was curled into a tiny smile. “That’s … rather disgusting.”

“But truthful.”

“Indeed.”

Vinyl smiled. Willow’s Trottingham accent was nice to listen to. It had a lilting quality she could appreciate. “So how about that hot chocolate? They make it real nice here. I think it’s to give ponies who come in here something to think about other than … y’know, the reason they’re at the hospital.”

“Well, if you’d recommend it.”

“I would. Here, try some of mine. If you like it, I’ll get you one of your own.”

“Well … all right then.” Willow accepted the mug shoved towards her and delicately sipped at the contents. When she raised her face she was smacking her lips appreciatively. “It is good! Ooh, I think I will have one!”

“Wait here.” Vinyl rose and went back to the counter.

Hi-my-name-is-Star-Shower-how-can-I-help-you? beamed at her as he mixed the two mugs she asked for. His eyes kept returning to her face as he spooned cocoa powder, vigorously shook the whipped cream and seemed to take great delight in making art from their drinks. He even went so far as to place a cherry on each cream mound, though he hadn’t when Vinyl purchased her solo mug earlier.

She thanked him and returned to her table. “Bon appetite.” Phrase thoroughly mangled by her attempt t pronounce it, she slid into her chair, downing the lukewarm remains of her old mug before warming her hooves on the new one. “That’s how they talk in Prance, right?”

“I don’t know. I failed Prench at school.” Willow wrapped her hooves around her mug and drew it towards her. “And Mathematics. And Science. And PE, actually. I was never one for running around and getting sweaty when I didn’t need to. I preferred art. Well, that’s obvious, I suppose. I was a school journalist, too, though I never did anything like the Foal Free Press. Did you see that in the news last Spring? The little school newspaper that was all full of national-secret level gossip and kept scooping the actual national papers?”

“Yeah, I saw it.” Indigo had nearly had apoplexy that something would be printed about her. If those young ponies could take pictures of Princess Celestia covered in cake, no celebrity was safe. Thankfully it had all blown over relatively quickly and Vinyl had come out unscathed – unlike the princess, who now got at least one cake-based question whenever she did public appearances. “It turned out to be three fillies who had an in with the princess’s protégé.”

“Do you think she was giving them their information?” Willow asked.

Vinyl tapped her chin but eventually shook her head. “I don’t think so. She didn’t seem the type.”

“You’ve met her?” Willow boggled. “Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

Vinyl fought the urge to sigh. “Well, she wasn’t a princess back then. I worked two gigs at events she happened to be at – the royal wedding and a fashion show.” She shrugged. “I didn’t even realise who she was the first time I saw her.”

All dolled up in stars and spangles that made her look like an explosion in a glitter factory. If somepony had told Vinyl back then that the purple pony in beelybubs would someday be an alicorn princess, she would have laughing in their face. Heck, if somepony had told her that two weeks ago, she would have laughed! Of course, that was before Twilight Sparkle, personal student of Princess Celestia, became Princess Twilight Sparkle, newly minted sovereign. The press had been full of her ascension, for which Vinyl was grateful. The more they focussed on somepony else, they less likely they were to rake a recently outed musician over the coals some more. She felt a pang of guilt for wishing the media hounds in Twilight’s direction, but it was nice not to wonder what fresh sludge she would read about herself every morning.

“What was she like?”

“Hm?” Vinyl was startled from her thoughts by Willow’s question.

“Twilight Sparkle.”

“Oh. Okay, I guess. We didn’t really talk much except when she was rehearsing her song for the reception; and, I guess, at the reception itself, but I was working then, so it wasn’t real easy to have a conversation with anypony over the beats I was laying down.”

And hadn’t that whole song been a last minute thing? Vinyl had been about ready to burst with anger at constantly being told no when she asked for the groom’s sister to come and practise it. In the days prior to the wedding Vinyl had thought her a stuck-up mare who thought herself too good to practise the first friggin’ number her brother and his bride were supposed to dance to. Twilight had never attended a single rehearsal and the one time Vinyl had cornered her she had mumbled something about being busy and galloped away without a second glance. Only after all the excitement was over and the real wedding took place did she learn that Twilight had been thinking about much bigger things than whether she could telekinetically catch a microphone on cue.

“Vinyl … Scratch?”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it – oh, it’s you, Miss Sparkle!”

“Uh, just Twilight will do. I know you’re very busy, getting set up and everything, but I just wanted to come and apologise before the ceremony starts.”

“Apologise? What the he- uh, what for?”

“You tried to speak to me yesterday and I was incredibly rude to you.”

“Uh, considering what you did for Equestria today, I think you’re covered in the ‘it’s okay’ department. If it weren’t for you, I might have a changeling sucking out my soul right now.”

“Love.”

“Huh?”

“They feed on love, not souls. Changelings, that is. They consume love the way we consume food and drink.”

“No kidding?”

“No. No kidding.”

“Wow. No wonder they crashed this love-fest then. What better place than a wedding to find ponies getting all lovey-dovey-gushy-mushy, right? So I guess I should give you extra credit. It must have been extra friggin’ hard to beat them if they were all running on high power.”

“To be honest, I’m just glad everyone okay. I’d like nothing better than for everything to go back to normal. That’s why I came to see you. You wanted me to practise my song for the reception?”

“Well, yeah, it’d be good if we could work out a few timings and things. That pink bridesmaid – the one with the really poofy mane and tail? Carrying the tray full of cupcakes? On her head? While dancing?”

“That would be Pinkie Pie.”

“Yeah, her. She was saying something about announcing your cue from behind my turntables.”

“Yes, she told me. Would you mind?”

“Well I don’t usually let ponies other than me at my decks during a show, but I guess I could make an exception for the royal wedding.”

“That’s very generous of you.”

“Whatever. It’s fine. With all the love in the air, who am I to be a lead balloon?”

“That’s rather poetic.”

“You think so?”

“I do. Would you have time to practise my cue now?”

“Yeah, sure. C’mon, it’s this way. I’m not going to the main ceremony so I can totally spare the time.”

“Oh, would you like to go? I’m sure we could squeeze you in. it’s standing room only but if you’d like to –”

“Nah, I’m cool. That whole scene ain’t my style. I was pretty surprised that your party-planner picked me as the entertainment, to be honest. Weddings aren’t usually my thing. I’m more nightlife than high-life, if you know what I mean. I do functions too but this is my first wedding.”

“Have … have we met before?”

“Uh, sorta. I played a fashion show in Ponyville once.”

“Oh no! That was you? I’m so sorry!”

“What the heck are you sorry for? It wasn’t your fault that designer’s dresses sucked.”

“Actually, it was, but that’s a long story. The designer is a friend of mine. She’s one of the other bridesmaids, actually. In fact, she designed all our dresses. Although … considering it was Queen Chrisyalis who ordered them all changed, I wonder whether we’re going to use the old or the new ones … Tch, I’ll have to ask Cadence what she wants us to do.”

“It’s her special day, after all.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

“Hey, don’t look so glum. You won, remember? You rescued the damsel and the hero, kicked butt and completely saved the day. Everypony’s safe and sound because of what you did. If anyone should be feeling the love right now, it’s you.”

“Yes … yes, I suppose you’re right. I guess I’m just nervous about … well, everything. The ceremony and the reception and the decorations and the entertainment and the carriage and whether I’ll fall over my skirt because I never practised walking in it or have a coughing fit during the vows or miss my cue and mess up this song or fail to catch the microphone and knock myself out and ruin –”

“Hey, whoa, breathe!”

“Gah … sorry.”

“Don’t you have, like, an assistant to help you will all this wedding junk? Uh, I mean wedding para … paraphen … paraphee … stuff?”

“Yes, I do, but … never mind. Junk? I take it you’re not very romantic.”

“Meh, not so much. Romance kinda leaves me cold these days. Uh, not that I ain’t stoked to be performing here tonight! Don’t get me wrong, because I am! Stoked, I mean, not wrong. Uh … I mean … can I get a do-over on this part of the conversation?”

“I think I’d like a do-over on this whole week. I know I was right about Cadence and Chrysalis in the end but I … I did some stuff I’m not proud of. Not even after I was proved right. I got so caught up in what I was doing, I stopped thinking about how I was affecting others. I kept telling myself I was just worried about my brother and my friends, but it wasn’t just that. I knew something was wrong and it … it bothered me that nopony took me seriously. I needed to be right. In the end, I put my own need to be right above the feelings of the ponies’ I care most about and for while … I thought they’d abandoned me. I thought they hated me; or at least thought less of me for what I’d done, whatever my intentions had been.”

“Uh … Miss Twilight, are you sure I’m the pony you should be saying this stuff to? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure if you toss a cupcake in the air and say her name three times, Pinkie Pie will appear in a puff of smoke.”

“Hm? Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just thinking out loud, I guess. This has been a very strange few days.”

“You’re telling me. Come for the wedding, stay for the near-apocalypse. I gotta say, though, whatever disagreements you and your friends had, I saw you fighting those changelings. Talk about kick-ass! You guys were awesome.”

“Heh. Thanks.”

“They can’t have hated you if they were willing to put themselves on the line like that.”

“I guess not. I’m just being silly. I love my friends and they love me. It’s … just a little hard to remember that when you’re sitting in a crystal cavern watching a bug queen laugh about how she’s turned them all against you.”

“Well that bit- changeling is halfway to Gryphona by now and you’re still here. So are your friends. And your brother. And your soon-to-be-sister-in-law. And the princesses. And … what seems like half of Equestria, actually.”

“Goodness, when you put it like that, I’m getting jitters – and it isn’t even my wedding!”

“So let’s make it the best friggin’ wedding we can, yeah?”

“I guess.”

“Nuh-uh. Nopony will be able to hear you even with a microphone if you sound all weak and wimpy-voiced. It’ll be you and your song versus several hundred party guests who nearly got smushed by bugs today. They’ll be talking real loud, so you gotta be louder. Say it with me, okay? Yeah!”

“Yeah!”

“Again! Yeah!”

“Yeah!”

“Again! Louder”

“Heh. You remind me of a friend of mine. Yeah!”

“Then she must be a pretty awesome pony. Now do it louder! Don’t worry about ponies looking. They’re just jealous of our awesome lungpower. Again! YEAH!”

“YEAH!”

“YEAH!”

“YEEEEEAH!”

Vinyl contemplated her memories. “She was … normal,” she said eventually. Yes, that summed up Twilight Sparkle: probably the most powerful pony in all Equestria after the princesses, able to cast magic even the fabled Starswirl the Bearded hadn’t mastered, but if you talked to her you’d think she was just any other nervous pony trying to do her best and find her place in the world.

“Oh.” Willow seemed disappointed in this summation. Her horn glowed as she levitated something from the top of her hot chocolate. “Would you like my cherry?”

Vinyl snorted whipped cream up her nose.

It took a few seconds for Willow to realise why. When she did, her whole face flushed crimson. Her telekinesis died and the cherry landed on the table, smearing cream in a half-circle. Willow covered her mouth with both forehooves. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed, voice muffled. “I didn’t … I mean, I wouldn’t … I’ve never … and in public? I didn’t mean to … oh my goodness!”

Vinyl choked for the second time that day, waving her hooves around wildly. This time, however, she was not choking on shock, but on laughter. “You … you just asked me …” Another snigger rippled up her throat. It wasn’t even all that funny, but after the tension of anticipating this meeting, her emotions were in high gear. She laughed until her sides were sore and her cheeks hurt. When she could talk again, she wheezed, “S-Sorry, Willow … it’s just been … a weird couple of days …”

Willow hid her whole face behind her hooves. “I can’t believe I just asked you that!” she groaned. “What in Celestia’s name must you think of me?”

That you’re damn funny and cute when you blush, supplied Vinyl’s back-brain, but she shelved that one before it reached her mouth, sensing it would not help Willow’s embarrassment. “I think that you should laugh about it.”

“Why would I do that? Ugh, I’m so embarrassed!”

“That’s exactly why. Laughing makes you feel less of an idiot when you do something funny.” She chuckled again at the question. “’Would you like my cherry’? Classic!”

A tiny, muffled giggle made Vinyl’s ears twitch. “I really cannot believe I said that.” Willow’s eyes appeared over the tops of her hooves. She giggled again. It was high and flutey.

“There you go!” Vinyl smiled. “You should laugh more. It’s nice.”

“You should laugh more. It’s nice.”

“Yes.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, I’ll meet with you. Just … just give me a chance to think where we can go. But yes. My answer is yes, Vinyl.”

“Friggin’ A!”

Vinyl sat bolt upright. All laughter died in her throat, which seemed to close like as if anaphylactic shock. She suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

Shocked, Willow leaned towards her. “Vinyl, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I … I’m fine.” Vinyl pushed her mane from her eyes. Something cold prickled up her spine. She turned around but there was nopony behind her, save the stallion at the counter. Turning back to Willow, she shoved tufts of mane from her eyes again, irritated at it for getting in her way. Some of the tips were coated in cream where they had draped too close to her mug. She didn’t want the hot chocolate anymore. Just looking at it made her feel nauseous.

Was this was unfaithfulness felt like?

Don’t be dumb, she berated herself. There were a million and one reasons why that was a stupid thought.

So why did she feel like she had just been caught cheating?

“Vinyl –?”

“I … I have to go.” Vinyl stood, her hot chocolate abandoned. “Thanks for accepting my apology, Willow. I’m sorry but I … I just remember, I have to be … someplace. S-Someplace else.” She backed away from the table. “Thanks again. I’ll … I’ll see you around, okay?”

Only through supreme self-will did she walk through the door of the café instead of run. Thankfully Willow stayed at the table, confusion written across her face, as Vinyl beat her hasty retreat.


A hoof laid itself over Vinyl’s. She looked up, irritation flaring inside her until she realise who it was. “Saph? What are you doing here? You’re not meant to be here until four.”

“It is four, girl.” Sapphire’s voice was a mix of her usual high energy and concern. “I’ve been standin’ in that doorway for almost five whole minutes. It ain’t every day Sapphire Shores gets ignored, sugar. I gotta say, I ain’t used to it an’ I ain’t fond of it.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry, Saph.”

“You were so focussed on your lil’ bit of paper there, it was like there weren’t nopony else in the room!” Sapphire leaned in to look at the sheet upside down. “What is it? Your song?”

“Uh, yeah.” Four o’ clock already? Vinyl was shocked.

Sapphire gave her a reproving look. “Honey, how often do you work on this thing?”

“My composition?” Vinyl pondered the question. “Every day, I guess.”

“How many hours a day?”

“I don’t know.” A defensive note crept into her voice. “Why?”

“Every time I’ve been here this week, you’ve had your nose so close to the paper you practically got treble-clefs for eyes.” Sapphire’s voice dropped to a lower pitch. In a song it would have been sultry, but right now it sounded anxious. “You’re doin’ it again.”

“Doing what again?”

“Gettin’ obsessive.”

The pale blue telekinesis moving the pencil froze. Vinyl looked up at Sapphire, mouth open. “Say what?”

“I know, I know, it ain’t the same as the other stuff you told me about, but still, it ain’t healthy. Remember what you said I should do if I caught you goin’ – as you so eloquently put it – ‘all friggin’ crazy over one thing again’?”

Vinyl’s mouth worked for a moment. “That you should tell me,” she said at last. She looked down at the paper, recalling that particular conversation; one of many she and Sapphire had shared.

There were still things lurking in Vinyl’s past that nopony but herself and Octavia knew about, but Sapphire had somehow managed to prise loose a few nut and bolts until Vinyl’s mouth was flapping like an unfastened barn door in a storm, spilling secrets and confessions she had never thought she would ever be able to say to anypony. How the heck did Sapphire do that? She wasn’t a unicorn, so it wasn’t magic –

“Vinyl, honey? Yoo-hoo!” Sapphire waved a hoof in front of her nose. “You in there?”

Vinyl startled. If she had been in her chair the legs would have screeched. Since she was crouched in the corner of the room, all she could do was arch backwards into the wall. “Whu?”

Sapphire looked around theatrically at the rest of the room, the folded her forelegs. “Why are you sittin’ in the corner like a naughty foal?”

“I dunno.” Vinyl shrugged a little truculently. “I just wanted to sit in the corner while I worked.”

The look she received was entirely sceptical. It made her feel strangely embarrassed. When she looked away, Sapphire loosed a breath that could have uprooted a few trees, turned around and sat beside her. She wiggled until she was comfortable, shoving Vinyl over a few inches. Part of Sapphire’s bright blue tail ended up across Vinyl’s lap, draped over the sheet of music, but Vinyl didn’t try to flick it away.

“Okay, what’s up?” Sapphire asked.

“The ceiling.”

“Don’t you sass me, girl. Something’s got you rattled.”

“Nothing’s got me rattled.”

“Duck!”

“What?” Vinyl looked up.

“Or the low flyin’ pigs will hit you,” Sapphire deadpanned. “No sass, no sauce an’ no lies, girl. What happened to you since I saw you last? Yesterday you were O-K-A-Y.”

Vinyl gave her a sidelong look. “Isn’t okay just spelled O-K?”

“What’d I say about no sass?” Sapphire adopted an expression of hurt dignity, thrusting her nose in the air and pursing her lips. “You can’t spell ‘sass’ without ‘ass’ and you’re real close to bein’ one of those right now.”

Vinyl shook her head. “It’s … dumb.”

“Ah! Now we’re gettin’ somewhere.” Sapphire’s nose lowered, though her lips remained pursed. “Dumb is relative, sugarlips. When I was a filly I failed pretty much every class in school ‘cept math an’ music. I thought I was dumb as a bag of hair, but nopony else thought so when they wanted to copy my homework for every class ‘cept those two.”

“Are you a dropout, Saph?” Vinyl playfully reproached.

“You kiddin’?” Sapphire’s pitch climbed a few notches. “My momma woulda kicked my sorry flank from here to Timbucktoo an’ back again if I ever even thought about droppin’ outta school!” Her voice lowered, as if she was afraid somepony might hear her. “I swear, that mare really can read thoughts. I never got a report card past the door that she didn’t already know about.” She gave an exaggerated shiver. “She could pry out secrets you didn’t wanna tell like warm honey from a jar.”

Maybe that’s where you get it from, Vinyl thought.

“So what’s so dumb it’s got you sittin’ in the corner like a naughty foal?” Sapphire insisted.

Vinyl winced. “Uh, I talked to Willow.”

“Ponyfeathers, Vinyl! Did you make her cry again?”

“N-No!” Vinyl protested, though the hesitation in her voice did not go unnoticed.

“Did she make you cry?”

“No way! You know me, I never cry! Well, almost never. We just had hot chocolate together at the visitors’ café. I wanted to apologise for that whole debacle with the sketch she gave me.”

Sapphire nodded. “Debacle. Good word.”

“Saph!”

“So what happened? Didn’t she accept your apology?”

“Yeah, she accepted it.” Vinyl drew her hind legs up, encircling them with her forelegs. The sheet of composition floated the floor, telekinesis evaporating when it touched down. “We got talking. It was … nice.” She refused to look at Sapphire, suspecting that just the admission would be ringing the same alarm bells in her head as it had in Vinyl’s own.

“Oh,” Sapphire said, confirming the suspicion. “Like just nice, or like nice-nice?”

“What’s the difference?”

“You an’ me, we get along just nice.”

“Then I guess … I think it was … a little more than just nice.” Vinyl buried her face. “I’m an awful pony.”

“No you ain’t –”

“Yes, I am, Saph. I was having fun. It felt … it felt normal! Talking with Willow, just chatting about random stuff, no pressure, no designs, none of that crap … it was nice. It felt like … like …” She pressed her face so hard against her legs that her nose started to hurt and her voice came out muffled. “It felt like it used to with Tavi. Before everything went wrong.”

“Oh, honey –” Sapphire seemed to stop herself from saying something. She sucked in a breath. “Maybe … maybe it’s better this is comin’ up now, instead of later. Maybe you oughta think about it before you’re on your own with your Tavi in that big ol’ house of yours.”

“Think about what?”

“Well…” Sapphire appeared to be choosing her words very carefully. “Vinyl, you an’ I both know there’s a chance your Tavi ain’t never comin’ back. There’s a strong possibility she won’t never wake up. Are you … do you plan to be alone for the rest of your life because you can’t have her back?”

“I’m an awful pony.”

“Vinyl –”

“I’m awful because I don’t know, Saph! I don’t know if I was enjoying myself today because Willow reminded me so much of Tavi – even her accent is the same! – or because … because I actually did … because I actually could …” She shook her head, mane draping over her face, obscuring what little of it was visible. “I don’t want to feel that way for anypony else! I was on my own for four years! I never wanted anypony in all that time. And I wasn’t like I didn’t get offers, y’know? I couldn’t acknowledge half of them for pretty obvious reasons, but even if I had come out years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted any of the mares who threw themselves at me. And I mean they literally threw themselves at me.”

“I hear that,” Sapphire said sagely. “The first time a unicorn levitated their whole desperate self at me, I nearly bust down the doors of the hotel I was goin’ into. No slur on him, he mighta been a real sweetie, but three hundred pounds of gigglin’ pony comin’ atcha head would give anypony a fright.”

“Oh. Yeah. So you get it, right? There was tail available. I never wanted it. Not any of it.”

“Because you wanted Octavia.”

“No. Yeah. Yes, because I wanted Tavi. I just … I guess I never put it into words at the time. But yeah, because in the back of my mind, Tavi was the only mare I … I ever … Even after everything that happened between us, even after years of not talking, I only wanted her; not anypony else. And now … with all this –” Vinyl waved a hoof blindly, not needing to look to know where the bed was. “Now I start looking at other mares? I’m an awf–”

“Vinyl Scratch you are not an awful pony, an’ if you call yourself that one more time I am sure as sugar gonna do something to you so bad you’ll cringe every time you so much as think about it.”

Vinyl raised her head. “S … Saph?”

Sapphire Shores was not a pony who did ‘angry’. She shrugged off bad feelings, laughed in their face or just plain ignored them until they realised how insignificant they were and slunk away. Vinyl couldn’t ever remember seeing her mad before, but the expression on her face now was unmistakable.

“You ain’t an awful pony just because you’re cravin’ some love an’ affection! Sweet Celestia, if that were truth, half of Equestria would be downright evil! You said you spent four years not wantin’ nopony but your Tavi? Tell me, what ex-act-ly were you doin’ for those four years?” She enunciated her words so sharply they were like pins being driven into Vinyl’s ears.

“Uh, I was … I was working,” she stammered.

“And did I, or did I not, hear you tell me before that you used work to block out how much you were missin’ Octavia and to stop yourself thinkin’ about all the stuff you didn’t want no little itty bitty part of thinkin’ about?”

“Uh, yeah, but –”

“So maybe – just maaaaayyyybe – now you ain’t goin’ so hot-to-trot on your DJ-ing career these days, you’re maybe, perhaps, possibly and even feasibly just now experiencin’ some honest-to-goodness emotions that ain’t self-hatred an’ regret? That just, just, just, just maaaaaaayyyybe your beaten-black-an’-blue-lil’-heart is startin’ to beat red again?”

“I … I …” Vinyl had no answer to that. She waved her hooves wildly, crisscrossing her forelegs in a gesture of cessation. “Wait, wait, wait! Saph, you’re missing the point! I don’t want anypony else! I want Tavi! I made a commitment – that’s why I’m here, remember?”

“No, Vinyl, I think you’re the one who’s missin’ the point. You never wanted nopony before because you never got past the first stage of grief over your relationship endin’! You were stuck there like you were stuck every night on those dang treadmills at that dang gym – runnin’ but never gettin’ noplace! Now you’re of that treadmill, girl. You’re movin’ forward again an’ you’re meetin’ all the emotions you shoulda met back then.”

“I … I…”

“Put it this way: if you could talk to Octavia right now, right this very second, do you think she’d tell you she wanted you to put your heart on hold forever? Do you think it’d make her feel good to know that you’d decided to dedicate yourself to bein’ alone except her the way she is now an’ your memories of her? To never, no-how, no-way never even consider startin’ a relationship with somepony else, even if it’d make you happy, just because she can’t be with you the way you want her to?”

The backs of Vinyl’s eyes felt hot and itchy. “Why are you saying this stuff?” Wow, her voice sounded weird! All gluey, like she had downed a glass of 100% proof treacle. “After all I’ve told you? About her, about me, about us – I told you almost everything, Saph. And now you come out with this … this crap!? What kind of friend does that?”

Sapphire’s face shifted for a fraction of a second, as if Vinyl’s question had struck a nerve. “I’m sayin’ it because it needs to be said, sugarlips. An’ … I’m sorry, but there ain’t no pleasant way to bring this up. Not really. You need to think about this. I’m not sayin’ you need to make any decisions. Not now, maybe not for years to come, but … Vinyl, I am your friend. I know how lonely this life can get. I don’t like the idea that you’re totally closed off to even thinkin’ about lovin’ anypony ever again. An’ … an’ I don’t think Octavia would be either. She cared about you. She wouldn’t want you to stick yourself on another treadmill –”

“You don’t even know her!” The words came out more aggressive than Vinyl intended. She started to get to her hooves. “You never met Tavi before she was like this!”

“No, but you’ve told me enough that I don’t think she’d want you to be alone forever on her account.”

“I love her!” Vinyl thundered, gesturing wildly. “Only her! I don’t want anypony else but her! Ever! All this crap you’re talking is just that: crap! And if you don’t stop talking crap that I … I …”

For a long moment Sapphire just stared at Vinyl. Then she got up, brushed off her skirt and headed for the door. “I think we should end this conversation before one of us says something she regrets.”

“I don’t regret saying I love her!”

“That ain’t what I mean. Vinyl, I know this probably ain’t the best time, but it is the time this subject has come up and it is the time you gotta think about it. I’m not sayin’ you should go throw yourself at Willow or anypony else right now. You don’t even know if Willow sings that tune. What I am sayin’ is that you don’t gotta consign yourself to a life without any love but the memory of what you an’ your Tavi had. A pony can’t live life in reverse. She’s gotta move forward, an’ sometimes that means thinkin’ about stuff she really don’t wanna.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Vinyl demanded. “I’ve spent that last few months doing nothing but thinking about stuff I don’t friggin’ want to, making decisions I don’t friggin’ want to and doing stuff I don’t friggin’ want to! That’s! Why! I’m! Here!” She stomped a hoof on the floor with every yelled word.

Sapphire stopped. Took a breath. Let it out slowly. “An’ now this is somethin’ else to add to that. You’ve been makin’ some heavy decisions lately about the kinda pony you wanna be.” She looked at Vinyl without turning her head. “Scratch. Vinyl. DJ-Pon3. Tell me, if all this pain you’ve been puttin’ yourself through, barin’ your soul to the media, fightin’ with Indigo, openin’ yourself up to all the slurs an’ insults you been gettin’ – if all that was to be truer to yourself like you said, then what’s the point in ignorin’ this truth just because you don’t like it?”

Vinyl stared at her, mouth open but no words coming out.

Apparently having said all she had to say, Sapphire left. Vinyl felt a powerful urge to go after her and pick a fight some more, but she stopped herself. Instead, she returned to the corner and almost sat down again. At the last moment she hesitated. In a snap decision, she levitated the composition into the air and followed it to her chair by Octavia’s bedside. She sat down and laid the music on Octavia’s stomach, as if presenting it to her for approval.

“What do you think, Tavi?” she asked softly. “I worked hard on this but I still don’t have a name for it. It’s probably nothing you’d be impressed by, but I kind of like it. Usually I hate everything I write until … unt-til it’s…” Her voice snagged. She leaned forward, pillowing her head on her forelegs. Throatily, she whispered, “What should I do, Tavi? Tell me, what should I do?”

No answer.

As always.

As it always would be?

Was this Vinyl’s life for always?

She didn’t resent being by Tavi’s side. She had fought tooth and hoof to stay here. She had almost certainly burnt her bridges with Indigo to do this, had taken a sabbatical from her DJ career and ostracised sponsors who had previous been so eager to please. She had learned how to care for Octavia, all the ugly things she would have to do to look after a coma patient. She had resigned herself to what she would have to do and decided it was worth it because she loved Octavia. How could she even consider being unfaithful to those feelings now? That brief burst of attraction to Willow had been just an echo of memories with Tavi, nothing more. Definitely nothing more.

Definitely.

“What I am sayin’ is that you don’t gotta consign yourself to a life without any love but the memory of what you an’ your Tavi had."

“Tavi … are you ever coming back?”

“A pony can’t live life in reverse.”

“Can you even hear me in there, or have I really wasted all these months like Indigo said?” She shook her head vehemently. “What am I saying? Idiot. Idiot! Time with you ain’t wasted! Not even like this. Not ever! I … I just wish I’d had the chance to … to see you when you could still …” She trailed off. “I hope you can hear me, Tavi, I really do. I … I love you so much. I was unbelievably stupid to ever let you go. I could say that I was young and naïve, but it was mostly just stupidity and selfishness. You were my lynchpin, y’know? That part of my life that never changed. I thought … I thought you’d always be there, no matter what I did. No matter … how much I hurt you. But I was wrong. I was so friggin’ wrong – about everything! I was so lonely without you. I didn’t think I was, but now … now I have friends I can see that … that I …” She stopped and had to centre herself before continuing. “I thought I had friends before, but not like this. Having real friends … it’s opened my eyes, Tavi. I was lonely. Every friggin’ day I was so lonely and I never even realised it until now. Talk about dumb, huh? I t-told you I was dumb when we were still in school but you never believed me. You always …” Her throat tried to close again. “You always had faith in me.”

Vinyl stared at the smooth, unruffled face on the pillow. Octavia looked very young. Not quite as young as when she and Vinyl had first met, but certainly younger than when their troubles had gotten the better of them. She had looked haggard back then, though Vinyl had been too caught up in her work to see the physical differences in her lover. Octavia had lost weight. Her cheeks had become hollow, her eyes sunken in a way that anypony unfamiliar with her would not have noticed, but someone close to her should have. Vinyl had not. Now, by contrast, Octavia’s face seemed fuller, her beauty restored by tragedy.

The universe had a sick sense of humour.

Vinyl reached out a hoof and stroked Octavia’s cheek. The fur there was just as soft as it looked. That simple touch reminded Vinyl of so many other times she had been able to reach out and stroke Tavi’s face.

Tavi.

Her Tavi.

Still her Tavi?

“She’s gotta move forward.”

“I will always love you,” Vinyl whispered. “I will always be your Vinyl. That w-won’t ever f-friggin’ change. Not ever. I’m always yours. I always was.” She let her face rest in her hooves. “Celestia damn it! Tavi, what should I do?”

Octavia did not answer

As always.


Flower Heart intercepted Sapphire on her way out. She had never been one for standing on ceremony, but even she was surprised at how easy she found talking to a celebrity these days. It was all too simple to stop thinking of them as real ponies when you saw their pictures plastered across magazines and billboards all the time. Their problems seemed worlds away from those of regular ponies. Having Vinyl around had taught her that some things were universal. She sensed from Sapphire’s expression that this was one of those times.

“Hey!”

Sapphire looked up from where she had been trying to bore a hole in the elevator doors with her eyes. She broke into a smile but it was strained at the edges. “Heeeey,” she singsonged in the curious way she sometimes did. “How’s it shakin’, smooth girl?”

Flower hesitated. “Smooth girl?”

“Gonna be roundy-girl soon. Thought I’d use the name while I still can.”

Flower twisted her lips into a wry smile. Talking with Bruiser and planning their new life together had given her the buoyancy she had lacked when first trying to cope with the thought of impending motherhood. She still wasn’t entirely sure of herself, but she was certain of one thing: she wanted this foal. She almost laughed when she thought about everything that had led her to this moment and this strange revelation. She, the confirmed singleton who fiercely guarded her independence, not only had a partner but was also starting a family – and she didn’t hate the idea! Would wonders never cease?

She refocused on Sapphire. “What was all the yelling about?”

Sapphire’s expression folded in on itself. “Oh. That.”

“Yeah, that. What happened in there?” Flower tossed her head towards Room 219. “It sounded pretty heated.”

“Nuthin’ …” Sapphire started. Then she stopped herself. “My girl an’ I, we had a chat about some stuff she didn’t wanna chat about.”

“What kinda stuff?” Sapphire’s cagey tone made Flower suspicious. Protectiveness made her hooves tingle with the desire to smack anything that threatened Vinyl’s tenuous happiness – not easy when the major problems in Vinyl’s life weren’t tangible and therefore weren’t smackable. “Is she okay?”

“She’s …” Sapphire paused. “She’s bein’ very Vinyl about the future.”

“Oh. You mean she’s fighting against it with all four hooves an’ a baseball bat?”

“You got it.”

“What exactly is she fighting against this time?” Flower chose her words carefully. There was nopony in earshot except Merry Heart but it paid to be circumspect in a hospital.

Sapphire seemed to be choosing hers equally carefully, though Flower speculated her reasons were quite different.

Sapphire seemed to be getting something out of her friendship with Vinyl that Vinyl herself wasn’t aware of. Flower had worked in Manehattan General long enough to see more waiting rooms filled with distraught creatures than she liked to remember. She had seen weepers, wailers, screamers, those beset by silent shock and others who got angry at hospital staff, as if it was their fault they were stuck in this place waiting for news of loved ones. It didn’t matter whether they were ponies, goats, griffins, minotaurs or some other creature who lived in Equestria, the patterns were always the same. Grief, worry and loneliness were universal emotions. The creatures who lodged most in her memory, however, were those who pretended everything was fine while their eyes told another story. Sapphire Shores was the biggest personality Flower had ever met but it was only recently that her eyes had started to shine as much as the rest of her.

“I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to love somepony the way Vinyl loves Octavia,” Sapphire said eventually, her tone flat and strange. “An’ then sometimes I’m glad I don’t know. I sing about love all the time. Not one of them love songs gets it right, I reckon. Love is magical an’ fantastic an’ perfect … but I ain’t never sung no song about how much it can hurt to love somepony with all your bein’ – so much that you’d give up your whole heart even when they can’t love you in return, an’ then you refuse to take it back again or use it to love somepony else. Like, ever.”

Flower nodded, beginning to understand.

“Movin’ on after a relationship has hit the skids ain’t no big deal, right? Movin’ on after somepony else decides it ain’t workin’ out is harder, but not impossible. I done had plenty of coltfriends in my life, an’ I done cried over a few.” Sapphire smiled wryly. “More than a few. Once, I threw a cake at a wall. I’d baked it for him for his birthday an’ he dumped me when I was only two hooves through the door. Celestia’ shiiiiiiiny horn, did that make a mess! A real satisfyin’ one. Then I went home an’ cried on my bed ‘til I could barely see straight. But I got over him ‘cause I realised later that he wasn’t the one I wanted to give my heart to. Not that way. I missed him, sure, but I didn’t mourn for him.” Her neck was a little less arched; her smile a little less bright as she examined the thoughts in her head. “It’s hard to watch somepony isolate herself when she done so good at un-isolatin’ herself in so many other ways.” Sapphire blinked. “Un-isolate is a word, right?”

“I dunno,” Flower said hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “Good as any, I guess.”

“Yeah. I guess.” The elevator finally dinged and opened. “I better go. See you later, smooth girl.” Sapphire twinkled a hoof at Flower before stepping inside. “Do me a favour? Keep an eye on Vinyl? She’ll be thinkin’ some hard thoughts right now, an’ … well, you know how she is.” The doors started to close. “All four hooves an’ a baseball –”

Click.

Flower watched the numbers above the elevator decrease. After a moment she turned and trotted to the door of Room 219. Peering around the edge revealed Vinyl by Octavia’s side, sobbing into her folded forelegs.

Flower was beside her faster than any unicorn with a teleportation spell. Vinyl resisted at first, but when she realised who it was she allowed herself to be held.

“I d-don’t want anypony but her!” she choked out. “N-Never! There’ll n-never be anypony b-but her!”

Flower shushed and held her. She was aware of Merry in the doorway, obviously drawn by the noise and how fast Flower had run inside.

“It’s not just me being s-stubborn!” Vinyl railed. “I love her! Why else would I d-do all this? I n-never s-stopped loving her! How could I ever l-love anypony else when I s-still love her so much? It’s not f-fair! Why is all this happening to me? What d-did I do to d-deserve all this … all this … all this crap!? I don’t want to m-make that kind of d-decision! I l-lost her once! I can’t just g-give up on her after I m-missed her for so long! I can’t! I won’t! I won’t!

Vinyl’s words devolved into incoherence, but Flower could guess at least some of what was going on. Sapphire’s words plus this breakdown added up to a heart-breaking picture. The desire to fix everything and make it all better tightened Flower’s hold on Vinyl. Holding her was the only thing she could do at that moment.

“You want me to fetch somepony?” Merry whispered. She had drawn closer, face tight with concern.

“I d-don’t want anypony …” Vinyl mumbled into Flower’s chest. “J-Just my special s-somepony … I ain’t gonna n-never love nopony else. J-Just my T-Tavi …”


Merry Heart nosed open the door quietly but Vinyl still heard her. Her head snapped up, causing Merry to halt in her tracks.

“Uh … I brought you shome coushcoush,” she said around the plastic food-tub in her mouth. “Wit’ peppersh. Jusht th’ way you like it.”

“Thanks,” Vinyl said flatly. “But I’m not very hungry.”

Merry removed the tub and held it in one hoof so as to speak more easily. “You ain’t never hungry any time I ask. Darlin’, one o’ these days, I do declare, you’re gonna waste away to skin’ an bone.”

Vinyl didn’t respond. Her eyes seemed … Merry hated to think it, but her eyes seemed haunted; almost the way they had looked when she first took up her vigil so many weeks ago. vinyl had made so many improvements since then, becoming a happier, healthier pony, that it was a shock to see such a sudden relapse. Vinyl blinked, her focus somewhere in the middle distance, one hoof laid possessively over Octavia’s foreleg.

“Couldn’t you manage a bite? Just one?” Merry fought to keep her voice normal instead of letting it drop into the maternal tone she used with her kids. “I’ll go away if’n you do.”

Vinyl grunted. “Whatever.” Nonetheless, she accepted the tub of couscous and prised off the lid.

She used her hooves, not her magic. Merry didn’t whether that was significant. She was an earth pony who had grown up around earth ponies and spent her formative years in a tiny community of earth ponies on the southernmost border of Equestria. Her life before she came to Manehatten had been one distinctly lacking in wings and horns, so it had been a shock when she first got to the big city and saw ponies flying about and levitating things like it was nothing special. When she was in school back in Cattywumpus, fillies on the cusp of marehood had told each other how lucky they were that puberty had not struck them with rampant magic outbreaks or ‘wing boners’, which had made them all giggle. Merry had giggled too, though she hadn’t fully understood what that meant until she rode the subway on her first day at nursing college and one lascivious pegasus educated her with his uncomfortable stare and erect wings.

As Vinyl forked couscous into her mouth, Merry checked on Octavia. It was both duty and a reason to linger in the room. A pile of paperwork awaited her back at the nurses’ station, but Merry had no intention of returning to it until she had said what she had come in here to say. It had taken courage for her to even get this far. She inspected the IV drip, noted readouts from the monitors and even spent a moment rearranging the unconscious mare’s mane. Octavia certainly was a striking pony. Her mane and coat weren’t vibrantly coloured, yet something about her remained elegant, even like this.

“You don’t have to be extra nice to me just because I cried,” Vinyl said suddenly.

Merry sighed. “Darlin’, that ain’t it at all.”

“So you’re feeding me because you feel sorry for me?”

“I’ll thank you to quit puttin’ words in my mouth.”

Merry wasn’t as close to Vinyl as Flower had become. Technically, the friendships each of them had developed with her were a little unprofessional, but neither nurse cared much. Nursing was one third professionalism and two thirds heart. Merry liked to think that was why anypony who wanted to be a nurse had to add ‘Heart’ to the end of their name. Still, she vacillated. Perhaps it would have been easier for Flower to do this. On the other hoof, by the very nature of what she had to say, Flower couldn’t do this.

Stalling, Merry added, “I got enough of my own I need to say without you addin’ more.”

“Huh?” Vinyl blinked at her like a sleepwalker.

Merry gathered her nerve. She rarely talked about this. Not that she couldn’t, and certainly whenever Chip or Glow wanted to, she answered their questions willingly, but it wasn’t something she brought up very often. Some ponies wore their history like badges of honour. Some hid it away. She was content to simply let it sit and be what it was, where it was: in the past.

Still, now seemed an appropriate time. She liked to think he would want her to help somepony in need. Hadn’t that been what he said when she first told him she was a nursing student?

“You know I have kids, right?”

“Uh, sure. Glow and Chip.” Vinyl said their names with the familiarity of one who had heard all about them without ever actually meeting them.

Merry nodded. “They ain’t angels, either of ‘em. Chip’s a moody lil’ pubescent an’ Glow’s still at that stage where she thinks throwin’ a tantrum is the best way to get what you want when reason fails.” She smiled to herself. “Still, I love ‘em both, warts an’ all. I hate takin’ ‘em to the grocery store an’ I dread school report day as much as they do, but I’d fight off a rabid manticore if it tried to hurt either one of ‘em. So would Blackjack.”

Vinyl nodded to indicate she remembered her husband’s name from past conversations.

Merry let out a breath. “Which is extra special ‘cause, y’see, Blackjack ain’t their daddy.” She tightened her stomach against the old scrunch of grief, though it was more of a prickle these days. “He’s their step-daddy. Their daddy … he died when Glow was jus’ a newborn foal. He was sick an’ then … then he died.” Quickly, but not so fast that she was unintelligible, she went on, “We met when I first moved to Manehattan. We were both students, scrimpin’ an’ workin’ our flanks off to graduate college so’s we could move into the workin’ world. He was an engineer. When he came to my graduation ceremony, he was so much bigger than everypony else, I could see him all the way from the podium.” She smiled at the memory of his frantically waving hoof, horn sparking in delight at other ponies’ acknowledgement of her success. “Around a year later he got a lil’ bitty lump in his fetlock. It itched a bit, so he went to the doctor, who said it was a grass seed that got lodged under his skin. After a while the itchin’ stopped an’ it didn’t bother him none, so he forgot about it. Five years he lived with that tiny lil’ thing, neither of us realisin’ it weren’t no grass seed.”

“What was it?” Vinyl asked, her voice still croaky from crying.

“Subcutaneous lymphoma,” Merry replied. “Cancer. Some doctors call it ‘iceberg cancer’ - tiny bump on the surface, all spread every which way underneath. By the time he started to feel sick, it’d gone too far. He held on ‘til he saw Glow, held her for the first time an’ then … then the next day he was gone. He was the love of my life an’ he suddenly weren’t there no more. I blamed myself for the longest time. I mean, I’m a nurse. I shoulda been able to tell things weren’t right. But I didn’t. In retrospect, even if I had realised, there weren’t nuthin’ nopony could do.” She gave a humourless laugh. “Not that anyone coulda convinced me of that at the time.”

“Merry –”

“I know it ain’t the same, Vinyl, but I wanted you to know sumthin’.”

Understanding dawned in Vinyl’s eyes. “Merry, stop –”

Merry ploughed on regardless. “I tol’ myself I’d never love nopony else ever. Why would I want to? All I wanted was my foals’ daddy. I loved him so much I felt sick when I lost him. If I couldn’t have him … well, I didn’t want nopony at all. Nopony could measure up to him, nopony could replace him, nopony could ever make me feel like he did. What kinda wife would I be if I allowed myself to replace him in my heart?” She raised her eyes, making sure she locked gazes with Vinyl, as if she could somehow force the lessons learned from her own experiences into the other mare’s brain. Being told something wasn’t the same as living it, but she had to at least try. “I was wrong.”

Vinyl tore her gaze away. Merry kept staring, but she felt like a piece of frayed cloth, whipping helplessly in an invisible wind.

“Vinyl –”

“Merry, I understand why you just told me that, but …” Vinyl trailed off. “I don’t wanna cheapen what you went through, or what you’re trying to do by sharing this with me, but I’m afraid that if I say anything right now I’m gonna do just that.” She closed her eyes, pinching the spot between them. It was a posture of utter exhaustion. “Maybe … sweet Celestia, I feel like a heel for saying this, especially since … but … would you mind leaving?”

“Sure thing, darlin’,” Merry said gently. She had been in this job too long to get offended at the request. “But before I go, I wanna say one more thing.”

“What?” Vinyl’s voice held an edge of desperation, as if she wasn’t sure she could handle ‘one more thing’.

“I still miss him with all my heart an’ soul. Lovin’ Blackjack never changed nor lessened that, an’ it didn’t make what we had any less. At first, I thought it made me a bad pony an’ a terrible wife. How much could my love for him have meant if I could love somepony else? But y’see, that ain’t how it works. What me an’ Blackjack have, it’s different, but it ain’t no better nor worse. Jus’ different.” She paused before saying the crux of what she wanted Vinyl to know. “You shouldn’t let tragedy define who you are, darlin’. It ain’t wrong to move on. It ain’t wrong to let yourself be happy again, even if that means bein’ happy with somepony else.”

Vinyl’s whole body convulsed; just once, like a violent hiccup. She didn’t speak. In fact, her jaw seemed clenched shut. Merry took this as her cue to depart.

She didn’t know whether she had done any good. You couldn’t teach some things. They had to be lived, experienced firsthoof, and those experiences had to translate into a pony’s own decisions. Still, she had felt like she had to try. She wanted Vinyl to know that there was life beyond the bad times; that she was living proof of that.

Regardless, Merry’s heart did its own convulsion when she caught the strangled whisper Vinyl clearly had not wanted her to hear.

“It’s not the same. Tavi ain’t dead.”


11. “She didn’t love me enough to stick around.”

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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.

“Uh, Vinyl?”

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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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?”

Flower nodded.

“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.

“Vinyl!”

“Do you need to pee yet?”

“No.”

“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.

“Um …”

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.”

Pearl Sands.

Sapphire’s mother.

Her mother.

Oh crap.

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.”

“Say what?”

“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.”

“Always, sweetie.”

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?

“Uh …”

“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.”

“Sorry.”

“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.

Pearl froze.

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?”

“A hypocrite?”

“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?”

“No!”

“Could you?”

“No!”

“Truly?”

“Yes!”

“Honest to Celestia?”

“Yes!”

“You ain’t never loved nopony but her?”

“Never!”

“Not in any way?”

“No!”

“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!”

“Exactly.”

“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'.”

“Their what?”

“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.

“Get up.”

“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.”

“Like this?”

“Better.”

“Hmmmffft.”

“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?

I’ll try.

Try.

“Try what?”

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?”


12: “Please don’t leave me!”

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A/N: Hi everyone. Been a while, hasn't it?


12: “Please don’t leave me!”


Vinyl’s throat closed up. She wondered whether the floor might actually be able to open up and swallow her in a dream. Maybe she could will it to happen.

“Do not be frightened.” Princess Luna took a step toward her. “I intend you no harm.”

Vinyl opened her mouth. A small squeak came out. She shut it again.

“Such shyness from the great DJ Pon3.” Princess Luna smiled. It was like moonlight on a foggy night, piercing the gloom to guide ponies home. Unbidden, Vinyl felt her muscles unclench. “Thrice I ask thee – I mean you – you will try to what?”

Vinyl sucked in a breath. “I will try to not poop myself in fear right now,” she squeaked.

It was as if the whole universe stopped. Princess Luna stared at her. Even her mane and tail seemed to cease undulating. Vinyl cursed her mouth, her brain and any other body part that had caused that very, very stupid attempt at levity.

Rule number one of talking to royalty: don’t mention poop in front of a friggin’ princess!

Luna opened her mouth to yell at her for her temerity. Vinyl covered her head. She had heard all about the Royal Canterlot Voice. Stories said it could flay the flesh right off your face if you stood too close to the princesses when they used it.

Luna laughed. It thrummed around them, sweeping the clouds into a swirling vortex of humour that buffeted Vinyl’s own mane. She vaguely noticed that it still appeared uncut in her dream, the trimmed off pieces glued back on like it was Pearl who had been the dream.

“Twilight Sparkle was correct!” Princess Luna roared, grinning widely. “You are indeed a character.”

“Twilight Sparkle?” Vinyl tried very hard to make herself sound less like she was being strangled. She even lowered her hooves from her face. “You talked to her about me?”

While Twilight was the approachable princess who had once been ordinary pony, the alicorn before Vinyl was anything but. Princess Luna was mysterious and elegant. She was the enigmatic diarch who had not been seen for a thousand years and returned in a blaze of prophecy and dark magic. Something ancient clung to her and Vinyl had never quite been able to shake the idea of her as a hostile phantom from Equestria’s past. Hearing her laugh like a regular pony was weird enough but to know the pony responsible for raising the friggin’ moon had talked about her with one of the saviors of the whole country was … weird cubed!

Tiny cubes of light rose around Vinyl. She blinked, confused.

Luna’s laughter abated. She tilted her head at the slowly rotating cubes. “Curious.”

“Um … what?”

“Your dreamscape is a very visual place.”

Vinyl looked around at the endless dark. “You think?”

“To answer your previous question, Twilight Sparkle and I have indeed talked of you. We talk of a great many things in our pursuit of the ways of friendship.” Princess Luna said this with more than a hint of pride, as if counting Twilight among her friends was one of her life’s greatest achievements. Vinyl supposed it was. Everypony knew the story of how Twilight Sparkle and her friends had used the Elements of Harmony, long since though lost, to save the lost princess and bring her home to her sister.

“Oh,” Vinyl murmured. “Spiffy.”

“Are you not going to ask why I am here?”

“To be honest with you, your majesty, I’m trying really, really hard not to just run shrieking into that blackness over there. Hanging on to my nerve by a thread, really. A very thin thread.”

Princess Luna’s head tilted the opposite direction. “You do not exhibit the kind of deference we might expect from somepony who has not experienced the dreamscape in such a manner before.”

“Um … should I bow?”

“No, it is not necessary.” She cleared her throat, muttering, “Though it might have been nice.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“We often visit ponies in their dreams.” Princess Luna opened her wings, which seemed even more expansive in the void.

“We?”

I often visit ponies in their dreams.” The barest hint of irritation frosted her words. Vinyl shrank back. “Do not be afraid, little pony.”

Easy for you to say.

“Perhaps you would be more comfortable in a more familiar setting?”

Bright light momentarily blinded Vinyl. When she reopened her eyes, a baying crowd lay before her. Sheets painted crudely with her name were strung across the safety barrier and similar posterboards stuck up from random points in the throng. The beveled roof of the Palladium arched above them all, enclosing the sound of thousands of voices raised in a single repetitive shout.

“We want DJ Pon3! We want DJ Pon3! We want DJ Pon3!”

Vinyl stepped back. The scene was bathed in lurid pink and her nose felt pinched. She took off her sunglasses to survey the stage. Her equipment was meticulously set up, everything perfect right down to the position of her water bottle in a hidden compartment and an energy bar just in case she did an encore.

She stepped back as if stung.

“We want DJ Pon3!”

“I did not think it possible for a pony of thy hue to appear even paler,” Princess Luna murmured into her ear.

Vinyl was too gripped by panic to even acknowledge her closeness. “Please … take us somewhere else.”

“As you wish.”

More bright light. Vinyl tried and failed to keep her eyes open this time. When she could focus again she was inside a messy apartment. Take-out boxes not entirely devoid of food lay strewn across the floor and coffee table. There was a dark stain on the carpet. Automatically her gaze flicked to the corner, which was bare. Of course it was. Tavi had taken her cello with her when she moved out.

Except that Vinyl, too, had moved out of this place a long time ago.

“Curious indeed.” Princess Luna levitated a rotting box of Chineighse noodles up to her face and sniffed delicately. “Even the odours. You remember this place exceptionally well.”

“What?” Vinyl looked around, recognizing the old lamp, the peeling sideboard and the ugly flowery wallpaper neither of them had ever liked but which the landlord wouldn’t let them change. “Why did you bring me here?”

“It is not I choosing our destinations.” Princess Luna deposited the box back in the mess. If telekinesis could have shaken itself like a hoof, hers would have.

“Huh?”

“This is your dreamscape, DJ Pon3.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Your name is immaterial. Whatever you call yourself, this is your mind in which we stand, little pony.” She waved a silvery shoe. “Your memories. You selected this destination from the myriad possibilities you could have taken us.”

“No I didn’t!”

In answer, Princess Luna merely raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t!” Vinyl protested. “I’d never choose this dump! I hated this place!”

The eyebrow climbed higher.

“Nothing but bad stuff happened here.” She kicked the coffee table. A glass of what had once been juice tipped over and oozed across the detritus.

The eyebrow descended low across Princess Luna’s eye, pulling its twin into a frown. “Nothing but ‘bad stuff’?”

“Take a look around! Does this look like a happy place to you?”

The princess did look. She looked very, very hard. A smattering of voices bubbled up in the room.

“I’m telling you, the rent is great! It’s a bit of a fixer-upper but totally worth it.”

“You say fixer-upper, I say deathtrap.”

“Aw c’mon, Tavi. Please? Don’t you wanna live together?”

“You know I do. Hmmf. Well … at the very least can we get rid of that awful chintzy wallpaper?”

“Done and done! You just wait, Tavi, this is gonna be so friggin’ sweet!”

Princess Luna looked at Vinyl. It was like being stared at by a piece of eternity. Vinyl found herself turning her head away, unable to meet that gaze.

“Nothing but ‘bad stuff’?” Princess Luna repeated softly.

Vinyl shut her eyes. “Why are you doing this to me? Don’t you have more important ponies to visit in their dreams?”

“That depends entirely on your definition of ‘important’.” Luna’s steps drew nearer. “You, for example, are important to my friend Twilight Sparkle. She asked me to check on you. She was concerned for your wellbeing. Given that a visit from either of us to Manehatten General Hospital might garner more attention than you would want, this seemed a preferable option.”

“Twilight … uh, Princess Twilight asked you to check in on me?”

“This surprises you? Your name is hardly uncommon to hear these days. One may hardly pick up a newspaper without seeing it.”

“You read newspapers?”

“I like to keep up to date on current events. I was absent from Equestria for a long time.” The scene around them fluctuated at the edges. Princess Luna glanced upwards. “Twilight Sparkle reads a lot, as you may know. She was worried at the stories the … media have reported of you.” She seemed to struggle with the word as if it was unfamiliar to her mouth; something to be tasted and then spat out like a bad grape. “They have perturbed her of your welfare.”

“Um, kind of comes with the territory, princess. You get famous and suddenly everypony cares about your private life.”

Princess Luna tilted her head to one side. “Indeed. I am aware of this phenomenon. I, too, have been the subject of some controversy in the … media.”

Vinyl blinked. “Oh. I … I guess you have, huh? Sorry. Um, I mean, my apologies your high –” She was cut off by a raised hoof.

“Spare me your platitudes, Vinyl Scratch. My status as an alicorn grants me a little distance from the ponyrazzi.” If possible, she managed to inject even more disdain into that word. “Photographers and reporters are more hesitant to climb my balcony when a swathe of guards await them at the top and the subject of their torrid stories may literally drive them insane with nightmares.”

Vinyl’s ears dropped so flat they were attempting to burrow through her skull to her brain. “Uh …”

Princess Luna smiled. It was … playful. Could an all-powerful deity smile playfully? Apparently so. Could that playful smile be anything less than creepy though? The jury was still out on that one.

“Be not afraid, Vinyl Scratch. I learned my lesson long ago of the power of nightmares.” She paused. “I also learned the power of reputation and other ponies opinions; and how, though one may convince oneself that one does not care what others think …”

“One actually really, really does?” Vinyl finished for her.

Princess Luna paused before saying, “Indeed.”

“So … Princess Twilight asked you to come and give me a pep talk?”

“Uh … I think so?” Luna’s nose wrinkled. Evidently cute and creepy could also be bedfellows. Who knew? “A pep talk is when one comforts and buoys another pony’s mood and demeanor through the power of well-chosen words, yes?”

“Um … I think so?”

They stared at each other for a moment.

“This is … not how I imagined this going when you turned up in my dream,” Vinyl admitted.

“Nor I.” The barest hint of a pout tugged at Princess Luna’s bottom lip. “My sister makes well-chosen words seem very easy to summon whenever they are appropriate.”

“I guess she’s had a lot of practice.”

“Yes. Over a thousand years.” An invisible fish-hook indented the royal lower lip even further. Princess Luna seemed to realise this and shook it off admirably. “All ponies are prey to the same pettiness and … mortalities. Even royal ponies.”

“Immortal royal ponies are prey to mor-“ Vinyl screeched to a half in the middle of her sentence. “Never mind. Can I wake up now please?”

Princess Luna blinked at her. “Wake up? My dear little pony, you are beyond exhausted. Every scrap of your mind screams out for rest.”

“It does?” Vinyl processed the princess’s words. Her eyes widened. To her own chagrin, she found herself clamping her hooves over her ears. “You can read my thoughts?”

“No. I can read your dreams. The sleeping mind is an unprotected place. It is my duty to safeguard my subjects and ensure their rest is peaceful.”

Vinyl could not imagine a less peaceful kind of sleep than one containing a royal deity who once tried to murder the Sun Princess and wasn’t currently a figment of one’s own imagination. She managed to keep this unvoiced, however. It helped that Princess Luna had not finished speaking.

“Ponies in this modern age are very … loud when they sleep.”

“Hey, we can’t help it if we snore –”

“That is not what I meant. Their minds broadcast emotions and hold nothing back. Mostly I am able to blend their minds together into a mélange that protects their privacy as one might hide a face in a crowded room. However, sometimes troubled minds broadcast even louder than most. In those cases, it is my responsibility to soothe those minds in order to allow their owners the rest their bodies require. Otherwise they may wake even more tired than before they retired to bed.”

Vinyl felt like she was expected to make some comment on that. She searched her mind for an appropriate response. “Huh.” It was much easier to come up with insults to fling at herself for saying such a dumb response. “Mélange. Good word.”

“I am grateful for your approval.” Without even seeing it, Vinyl could hear the tiniest of smiles in Luna’s voice.

“So … you’re keeping me asleep against my will?”

“Your body wills it. I cannot compel ponies to sleep. I can only soothe them so that their slumber is restful.”

“So if I chose to wake up right now there’d be nothing you could do about it?”

“Do you truly find my presence so abhorrent?”

The question caught Vinyl by surprise. “No, no, no! That’s not it at all. I was just … uh … asking … for … research?”

Princess Luna quirked at eyebrow at her.

Vinyl dropped her head. “Aw crap, even in my dreams my excuses friggin’ suck.”

“Do you wish for me to wake you?” Princess Luna asked softly. “Such a thing is within my power. Though, as I say, your body in the waking world is exhausted and I would not recommend waking before you have replenished it with sleep.”

“You can force ponies who are asleep to wake up?” Hope, that fleeting sliver, darted through Vinyl’s mind. She lifted her head; reached out to grab it. “What about ponies in comas?”

Princess Luna’s face seemed to fold in on itself and straighten into a calm mask all at once. Vinyl was aware of their surroundings wavering but she was too fixed on the alicorn to pay much heed.

“Long ago, in the time before I … fell from grace. Before I was banished to the moon.” She blinked slowly. “We did not have the words you have today. ‘Coma’ was not in our vocabulary. Back then, I called it ‘the dreamless sleep’.” Lashes down. Lashes up. Perfect moonlit pupils shining down with the cruel honesty of someone trying their best not to be so blunt that they brutalized their listener with the truth. “This dreamscape is my realm, but it is not the only realm of the unwaking world. There are many layers to it where dreamers – and myself – may roam, but there is also a place beyond it. Below it. A dark place where sleeping ponies no longer dream. And without dreams … I cannot reach them.”

Vinyl’s hope flickered and died. “Can you at least tell me whether it’s even possible for her to wake up anymore?” She didn’t need to say the name. Their surroundings had settled into a theatre with a troupe of ponies performing on stage. Vinyl squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see this again.

“All dreamers eventually wake.”

“Is that a euphemism for ‘someday they die’?” she demanded bitterly.

Princess Luna did not reply. Vinyl opened her eyes to find her staring at the stage where a single grey pony now stood beneath a creaking stage light. The princess’s horn glowed and everything froze in place before it could play out.

“You blame yourself. Why?”

“Huh? I don’t blame myself. The light falling was an accident.”

“And yet you carry guilt in your heart.”

“Well … yeah,” Vinyl conceded. “But not … over that. Over a lot of crap that went down between us. But not that.”

Princess Luna raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“I mean … doesn’t everyone carry around a bunch of junk and guilt and regret inside them? That’s just … that’s life, y’know? Show me a pony with no regrets and I’ll show you a friggin’ liar.”

“I am rather familiar with the concept of regret,” Princess Luna said quietly. “It is often quite irrational. It … defies logic. We seek to suffocate it, to have the forgiveness of others squash it, to at least quiet the buzz of it in our minds through work, friendships and other pursuits. Yet it persists. Irrationally.”

Vinyl stared at her. She opened her mouth to ask which one of them the princess was talking about but snapped her jaw shut again like a steel trap on the leg of a very stupid manticore.

“My sister sometimes says that the purpose of negative emotions is that they contrast the good. How might one recognize happiness without unhappiness? How might one know what it is to be content without sadness? And, indeed, how might one understand satisfaction without regret? One may only prize the decisions one has made that are positive if one has poor decisions with which to compare them.” Princess Luna’s brilliant blue eyes slide sideways, pinning Vinyl beneath their stare. “I … disagree.”

“You do?” Vinyl rasped.

Princess Luna nodded. “I cannot see the value in something existing only for the sake of another thing. Everything exists in and of itself and for the sake of itself. At least, that is how I perceive the world. My sister may accept disharmony as a means of defining harmony but I feel that things are a little more complicated than that.”

“So I guess you weren’t real big on Discord being let loose then, huh?”

Princess Luna stiffened. “We ... had words about that unilateral decision of hers, yes.” She exhaled something that might have been a sigh. “To value something only for being not something else is … disheartening to me.”

“Like the night not being the day?”

“You tread an interesting line considering only a short while ago you expressed you were about to soil yourself at my mere presence.”

“I … holy crap, was that a joke?” Vinyl clapped both forehooves over her mouth. “Holy crap, did I just say holy crap in front of a princess!?”

Princess Luna, regent of the night and all its glories, stared at her. And then laughed. “I find myself amused by you, Vinyl Scratch. I understand now why Twilight Sparkle bestowed such attention upon you and your wellbeing despite her new status and responsibilities.”

“Twilight is a cool mare.”

“Cool.” Luna seemed to process this. “Yes. Inasmuch as I understand the term, I agree.”

“Um …” Vinyl searched for words. “is she okay? Bring a princess and everything? Seems like a lot of … pressure.” She paused. “I mean … living in the public eye is a pain in the patoot when you ask for it but when it happens to you by accident…”

“You speak from experience.” It was not a question.

“Sure I do. If even you’ve seen my face splashed across the media … um …” She regretted her sentence the moment it passed her lips.

Princess Luna, however, did not appear to be offended. “Indeed, I am not exactly a connoisseur of pony pop culture, despite my efforts to educate myself on this modern age, but even I in my ivory tower have heard of your, ah, exploits.”

Vinyl did not fight the urge to cover her face. Luna stamped her hoof with a loud metal clang. A whooshing sensation signaled the departure of Octavia’s accident and entry into a landscape of stars and effervescent swirls of mist.

“I myself have endured some … unpleasantness in that regard.”

Vinyl stared around at her new surroundings, unable to look at the princess directly. “Ah … yeah … I remember reading some of it.”

“In times of old we took traitors and criminals and made public spectacles of them in an attempt to dissuade others from perpetrating their same mistakes. It seems to me that while Equestria has progressed much in my absence, things are not so very different now.” Princess Luna sighed. “I committed many crimes that led to my imprisonment on the moon. And several more upon my return, before Twilight Sparkle and the Elements of Harmony saved me. I cannot blame ponies for being suspicious of me. Though it is indeed unpleasant, it is fathomable to me.” There was a heaviness to her words that, inexplicably, made Vinyl want to give her a hug. “Though I must admit, the gamut of what is acceptable behavior and what is not is more … nuanced than I remember. Crimes much smaller than my own are treated to public besmirching with no less vigour.”

“You’re not friggin’ kidding.”

“Your public lashing in the … media is simply because you lay with mares?”

“Uh … sort of.”

Stars jingled when Luna shook her head. “In times of old I lay with both stallions and mares and no comment was made.”

“I think ponies back then might have been too scared to say anything, to be honest.”

“Mayhap. Nonetheless, it perplexes me how sensibilities have altered to the degree that love must be quashed for the sake of modern propriety.”

Vinyl looked up at her. “Um … thanks, princess. That … actually means a lot to hear, coming from you.”

“It does?” Luna smiled. “That pleases me.”

“It pleases you to please me?” Vinyl’s eyes widened. “Um … that didn’t sound so smutty in my head.”

Luna barked a laugh that made the starscape ripple. “You have allies, Vinyl Scratch. You must remember this in time of hardship and woe. Friendship is a valuable commodity but one we oft underestimate when we are at our lowest ebb.”

“Yeah … I know. I’ve … been a crummy friend lately.” She thought of Sapphire. Her stomach sank at the memory of her expression when she left after their argument.

“Nopony is perfect. All we can do is our best.”

“Easier said than done.”

Luna nodded. “This I know. Categorically.”

“My … well I guess she’s my bestie. We fought. It was … really bad.”

“Very little is as unfixable as it first appears. I am living proof of that fact.”

“I guess.” Vinyl bit her lip. “We fought about … Octavia. About her maybe never waking up and me … not wanting to move on from her. Um, romantically.”

“Your heart is still hers.”

“Yeah.”

“Is your heart your own?”

Vinyl blinked at the question. “I … uh … how do I answer that?”

“A query pondered by many minds over the centuries. Libraries have been filled with their cogitations on the topic. When one falls in love, does one give one’s heart to the object of one’s affections? And if one does give it, does one give it wholly and totally or merely a piece?”

“What did all those egghead ponies decide?”

“They agreed to disagree. There is no categorical answer to the question, you see. Love is love, but love is different for everypony. It is not always constant. It is not always eternal. It is not always easy. But then, nothing in life is any of those things. We cannot expect love to be if that is not the natural order of the world. Nothing lasts forever so we must enjoy it for what it is while it is.”

“Aren’t you eternal? I thought alicorns were immortal. So don’t you buck the natural order?”

“Nay, Vinyl Scratch. Do not confuse longevity for immortality. Alicornhood extends our lives but we shall someday meet our end as surely as anypony.”

“So … everything ends and I should just suck it up and accept it?” How was it possible to get a lump in your throat in a dream where you didn’t actually have a throat?

“Something like that.” Princess Luna stepped closer and tilted Vinyl’s chin up so that she was forced to meet those glittery eyes. “Things end, Vinyl Scratch. All things. To fight that is to fight the entire universe – and that is a battle nopony can win. And in fighting to keep something, we stop ourselves from enjoying it. We focus on what we have lost or what we think we stand to lose, not what we have had. Grief is an overwhelming emotion. It consumes us. It changes us if we let it. We cannot fight it. We cannot stop it. Yet we can accept it and learn how to live with it as a part of us.”

“I … I …” Vinyl stared at her. She felt something wet slide down her face. “ I c-can’t …”

“You can,” Princess Luna insisted gently. “The future is as yet unwritten, Vinyl Scratch. You are not beholden tomorrow to the choices you make today – or do not make today, as the case may be. Yesterday I chose to let darkness and bitterness consume me. Today I am no longer beholden to that choice.”

Vinyl felt the ghostly imprint of a hug that smelled of bow resin. It was so fleeting and yet so familiar it made her choke on her tears. Princess Luna’s hug tasted of starlight and sounded like vapor. Vinyl’s senses went crazy trying to process it – and then she was tilting backwards and falling, falling, falling …

She smelled darkness. Starshine flitted from her tongue and sculpted her sight into a chaotic mix of black and dark and dark and black and tumbling down, down, down, falling, falling, falling into, under, through, beyond –

A hug of old sweat, smiles, missed schooldays and sorrow. She clung to it, buried her face in fur and fear and needles and musty despair.

“I’m so sorry, baby. I let you down. I’m so sorry I wasn’t strong enough to be what you needed. I’m so sorry I left you behind …”

Vinyl held tighter but was still falling, falling, falling, down, down, down. She pulled the despair and sorrow with her until she wasn’t sure if she was holding it or it was holding her. Vice-like hooves locked around her, squeezing tight, holding her prisoner in something she wasn’t sure she wanted to break out of.

“Mom!” she tried to shout. “Mom, please don’t leave me!”

Moonlight and the darkness between breaths, between heartbeats, between moments of moments of moments. And down further still, beyond words or thoughts or even space and time to something as close to infinite as the universe was capable of being.

Vinyl screamed into it.

“Please don’t leave me!”

Somewhere in the darkness beyond darkness she spun and reached and screamed – and fractionally felt something spin and reach and scream back. The darkness became a mirror, pristine and smooth, and Vinyl found herself staring into her own eyes.

Her own … purple eyes?

“Vinyl …”

Her world exploded in light.

Vinyl staggered back out of Luna’s embrace. The princess seemed dazed too, though much less so. Vinyl’s legs trembled. Her breathing was ragged. Sweat ran into her eyes.

“What … the hell … was … that?”

“You dream.” Luna blinked at her. “It was … your dream.”

“I … I saw …” Vinyl gulped air she could not convince herself she did not need. “I saw my … m-my mom … I think. And … and …”

Another burst of light shot down from above and engulfed Vinyl.

“Huh?”

She heard a clatter of hooves and a jangling that sounded kind of like bells.

“What’s going on?”

“You are waking up,” said Luna somewhere outside the light. “Goodbye, Vinyl Scratch. Heed my words and remem-”

Vinyl jolted backwards so hard she overturned her chair. She hit the floor with a ‘whump’.

“OhmigoshI’msorryyyyyyy!” squealed a voice.

“… Ow …” Vinyl found breath enough to groan but not to move. “ … much ow … very hurting …”

“Are you injurieded?” the voice continued to shriek. “I’m so sorryyyyyyyyyyyyy!” The word resolved into the unmistakable whine of a foal.

“M’fine,” Vinyl mumbled just as Pearl’s voice drowned her out.

“Landsakes , child, what a racket. An’ here I thought you was such a big girl. Now you’re carryin’ on like a lil’ ol’ baby.”

“I’m not … a baby …” sniffed the foal.

“ … so much ow …”

“Vinyl, quit whinin’. You barely bumped your tushie.”

“My tushie is fine. It’s my head that aches.” Vinyl squinted at her legs, wrapped around the edge of the upended chair. She noted with consternation that she had a tiny rise of belly. When had that appeared?

“I’m sorry Miss Vinyl,” sniffled the familiar childish voice.

“S’okay.” Vinyl untangled her legs and rolled onto her front. “Um … Jing-a-Ling?”

The little white filly had a nose running with snot and eyes red with crying but her name and face popped into Vinyl’s mind like a balloon being pricked by a surprising drawing pin. Despite her tears, the filly beamed.

“You remember me!”

“Um … yeah.” Vinyl got to her hooves and cast about. “Did you come all the way up to this floor from your ward on your own?”

“Silly.” Jing-a-Ling sniffled the river of snot back into her snout. Vinyl fought the urge to grimace. “I got released from the ward ages n’ ages n’ ages ago. I came back as an out-pay-shunt.” She enunciated each syllable with the carefulness of one who has taken great pains to learn the proper term.

“Lil’ tearaway came sneakin’ in here like a thief in the night,” Pearl added. “If it weren’t for them bells she’s wearin’ even I might not have noticed her.”

“I heard the lady doin’ drawings in the lobby talking about you so I snucked away from my mommy an’ sisters an’ came up to find you.”

“That’s … wow, they must be worried about you! Didn’t you tell them where you were going?”

Jing-a-Ling shook her head staunchly. “I’m a big girl now,” she replied, as if this solved everything.

“Oh my stars an’ garters!” Pearl exclaimed. “Your poor momma must be worried sick! Child, we gotta find her an’ tell her you’re okay –”

“No!” Jing-a-Ling darted away from Pearl’s outstretched hooves. “Mommy always told me not to talk to strangers an’ not to let ‘em touch me ever!”

Pearl withdrew her hoof. “Fair enough. But Vinyl here ain’t no stranger to you?”

“We did singin’ in the ward. Once.” Jing-a-Ling turned such a stony look on Vinyl that she was remined of cockatrices. “Medley brought her. She’s the music theh-rah-pizz. Vinyl helped Ace walk again. He couldn’t walk an’ after Vinyl came he changed. He was nice an’ not so grouchy anymore ‘cause of her.”

“That right?” Pearl’s questioning look made Vinyl turn away.

“Um, y-yeah. It was a while ago.”

How long ago exactly? Time blurred in her mind. She had always meant to go back, she honestly had, but then … things had gotten complicated and it just kept slipping her mind. Legal paperwork and meetings and endless, endless phone-calls to all and sundry, not to mention the swift gear change on her career and all that had entailed. Guilt gnawed at her even as the logical part of her brain pointed out all the ways she hadn’t done anything wrong. Same old story, really.

Pearl sighed gustily. “I’ll go tell them nurses so’s they can fetch this poor filly’s momma up here. Can you keep an eye on her for a spell?”

“A spell?” Jing-a-Ling’s eyes shone. “You gonna do magic with your horn, Miss Vinyl?”

“Um …” Vinyl stared helplessly at Pearl but the older mare was already on her way out the door, hailing Nurse Flowerheart with the aplomb of a ringmaster in a circus. “Maybe … not right now, Jing-a-Ling.”

“Oh.” The filly’s face fell.

“Well … maybe a little telekinesis wouldn’t hurt, I guess.” Vinyl’s horn glowed and the chair levitated back onto its feet. Jing-a-Ling sat back on her haunches and clapped her forehooves, giggling. The reaction brought a tiny smile to Vinyl’s lips. With a quirk of her magic, the chair did a little loop-de-loop and wiggled from side to side like a dog wagging its tail. Jing-a-Ling’s giggle increased.

“I wish I was a unicorn,” she sighed. “Then I’d be the best bell-ringer in the whole school orchestra, ‘stead of just bein’ a stupid triangle player.”

“So you’re back at school now, huh?” Vinyl asked, trying to keep her occupied while Pearl did her thing.

“School is dumb. I liked it better here. It was boring sometimes but with didn’t have to do math.” Jing-a-Ling stuck out her tongue. “Sums are yucky. I wish we had music for every lesson.” As if she had just reminded herself of something important, she fixed Vinyl with that stony stare again. “Miss Vinyl, how come you never came back to see us?”

“I …uh …” Vinyl struggled to answer in a way a child would understand. “I was … kind of busy, Jing-a-Ling.”

“That’s what Medley said too.” It didn’t sound like Jing-a-Ling had believed it then either. She folded her little forelegs, wobbled on her haunches but maintained her stance without breaking eye contact. “We missed you. Ace was sad.” She said this in the manner one might say ‘You broke that poor boy’s heart’. Vinyl’s own heart clenched.

“I’m sorry, kiddo.” She meant it too. “I really was busy, I swear.” She gestured at Octavia.

Jing-a-Ling’s eyes followed to the bed. Instantly, her mouth formed a little moue of understanding. Vinyl blinked at the oddly adult expression.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh. Your princess!”

Vinyl boggled. “My what?”

“Medley said you had a sleeping princess you were watching over. We all thought it was just some story she made up because you didn’t like us anymore and she didn’t want us to know; like she thought we’d swallow anything just because we’re kids.” Jing-a-Ling rolled her eyes. “Why do so many adults think kids are dumb just because they’re not all old and fuddy-duddy?”

“I …uh … I don’t …”

“I better find Medley too an’ apologise to her.” Jing-a-Ling pursed her lips. “Phooey. So why didn’t you kiss your princess awake already?”

“Huh?”

“Sleeping princesses need to be kissed awake. It’s the only way to break the spell.” Jing-a-Ling’s brow furrowed. “Oh. Is it because you’re not a prince? In fairytales it’s always princes who kiss awake the sleeping princesses. Maybe it only works if a stallion kisses her?” She nodded as if deep in thought. “Maybe you need to get a prince in here to wake her up for you. But no … that won’t work because it still has to be true love’s kiss, an’ it’d be awful if some stallion came along and woke her up an’ became her true love when she’s your princess.” She scowled in affront.

Vinyl couldn’t tell if she wanted to laugh or cry at the filly’s little speech. “Uh, yeah, I wouldn’t appreciate somepony else kissing her awake.”

“Have you tried it?”

Vinyl blinked. “Uhhhh …”

“You haven’t tried kissing her awake?” Jing-a-Ling boggled. “You gotta! It might not work but you gotta at least try! You gotta! You gotta! YOU GOTTA!” she shouted, voice rising in pitch.

Vinyl frantically waved her hooves to quieten her. “Okay, okay, I’ll try! Just keep the noise down, huh? Ponies will think I’m trying to murder you in here or something.” She already wondered what she was going to say to Jing-a-Ling’s family when they arrived.

Jing-a-Ling stared at her expectantly. “Well?”

“Uh …” Vinyl trotted over to the bed. “Okay.” She pecked Octavia on the cheek.

“Not like that! You gotta do it proper or it’ll never work! On the lips. All princes kiss their princesses on the lips.”

Vinyl made a face. It felt invasive to just plant one on Octavia like this, not to mention weirdly exposed to kiss anypony with a tiny audience watching with bug-eyed intent.

“Sorry about this, Tavi,” she murmured as she leaned in.

Briefly, so gently that their lips barely touched, she kissed Octavia’s mouth. The sensation was familiar and alien at the same time. Octavia’s lips were just as Vinyl remembered from kisses past but there was no reciprocity to the action. She might as well have been kissing a porcelain doll that only looked like her Tavi.

A long moment passed.

Jing-a-Ling’s face fell. “Oh. I guess it does need a prince after all.”

“Sorry kiddo.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Tears filled Jing-a-Ling’s eyes. “I wanted it to work so you’d be happy again, Miss Vinyl. You made Ace happy again. He never smiled before you came down to see us an’ he never stopped smiling after you left.” She sniffed. “You look so sad. She was supposed to wake up so you could be h-happy an’ go h-home …”

Vinyl wavered for a moment before crossing the room to pull the crying filly into a hug. “Hey now, why are you crying? That’s a lovely thing to want for somepony else. You’re a good kid, Jing-a-Ling.”

Jing-a-Ling continued to cry into her shoulder, dampening the fur with tears.

“Oh my freaking Celestia!” said a voice Vinyl had never heard before.

She looked up to see a bright pink pony with frothy blue mane and tail watching them from the doorway. The pony was a teenager and had accentuated her appearance with a barrage of barrettes and more ear piercings than Vinyl could count. She pressed one bedazzled hoof to her mouth, heavily made-up eyes wide above it.

“You’re Vinyl Scratch! I mean DJPon3! I mean … you’re really her!”

“Uh … yeah.”

“Hi Melody,” Jing-a-Ling sniffled. “Is mom mad at me?”

The pink pony’s eyes snapped to the filly. “Your butt is in so much trouble, Jing-a-Ling. Mom hit the roof when she realised you were missing. She thought you’d been, like, stolen by a foal-abductor or something.”

“Sorry. I just came up to see Miss Vinyl.”

“So … when you said she came to your ward … you weren’t making it up?” The pink pony’s eyes widened yet further. “Holy mother of Celestia …”

Vinyl twinkled a hoof self-consciously. “Howdy.”

“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! I have, like, all your albums! I’ve been to see you in concert, like, seven times. I even dressed as you to take my sisters Nightmare Nighting last year!”

“It’s true. She put talcum powder in her fur and everything,” Jing-a-Ling confirmed.

“Ohhhkay. Well it’s always nice to meet a fan.” The old smile slid onto Vinyl’s face like a hot knife into butter. “Your sister here is quite the character.”

“Uh, she sure is. You should see her when she’s with her twin. They’re, like, total gruesome twosome. Uh … could I … could I get an autograph? Like, literally none of my friends will believe that I met you if I just, like, tell them.”

“Sure. You got a pen and something write on?”

The pink pony pranced in place. “Uh, no, but … but wait right here! Don’t go anywhere!” She vanished through the door.

“Why would you go anyplace else?” Jing-a-Ling frowned. “Your princess is here.”

“Exactamundo, kiddo.”

The teenager reappeared holding a wad of tissues and a ballpoint she had clearly filched from the nurse’s station. “H-here,” she stuttered. “Um … you could lean on … my back?”

“Nah, wall’s fine. What’s your name?”

“Um, Melody.”

Vinyl telekinetically pressed the tissues flat against the wall and scrawled. She was suddenly reminded of that first night when she arrived here and that kid in the waiting room who had stood up for her and then shyly asked for an autograph. What was his name again? Something Tone? Sweet Tone? Melodic Tone? Um … Dulcet Tone, that was it! Wow, she hadn’t thought of him since then. It felt like a whole lifetime had passed between that rain-washed evening and now. She felt like a completely different pony, too.

“Here you go.” Vinyl passed the tissues back to Jing-a-Ling’s sister.

The girl squealed, reading aloud what she had written. “To Melody, don’t let anything stop you from achieving your dreams but remember to keep your hooves on the ground too. From Vinyl Scratch aka DJPon3!” She hugged the wad to her like it was the most precious thing in the world. “Like, thank you so, so much!”

“It was no problem. Uh, is … your mom coming up here too?”

“No she’s, like, still talking to that Pearl lady who came and told us where Jing-a-Ling went.” Reminded of the task she had been given, Melody held out a hoof, using the other to keep clutching the tissues to her chest. “C’mon, you. Mom said we have to hurry back or she’ll give all your pudding cups to Ting-a-Ling.”

“Nooooooo!” Jing-a-Ling wailed. “That’s not faaaaiiiir!”

“Well neither was, like, giving mom a heart attack by disappearing like that.”

“If you want, kiddo, I can come down and explain to your mom what you were up to.” At Jing-a-Ling’s glance at the bed, Vinyl added, “It won’t take long. I can’t leave my princess waiting on her own, can I?”

A sharp gasp signaled that Melody had only just noticed the other occupant of the room. “Is that … Octavia Philharmonica?”

“Uh, yeah,” Vinyl replied, unsure of the girl’s tone.

“Woooow,” Melody breathed reverently. “That is, like, so totally romantic. You really are waiting by her bedside for her to wake up, even after all this time.”

“Um … yeah, I –”

“She kissed her to make her wake up!” Jing-a-Ling chimed. Her face creased in childish woe. “But it didn’t work ‘cause she’s not a prince.”

Melody frowned, clearly not fully understanding.

Vinyl sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I think I probably know most of it. Not that I, like, believe most of the stuff those trashy magazines print.” Melody pointed her nose in the air primly. “It’s all gossip with no, like, substance behind it and even when it’s based on facts they’re all, like, twisted up to make a juicier story and junk. It’s awful. My friend Patch held a bonfire the day after your press conference. All those horrible things ponies printed about you – it was just, like, hateful stuff that wasn’t even true. I watched the raw broadcast. I knew. Patch could see I was upset so she, like, bought all the ones from our local newspaper stand and made a big pile and set fire to them. It was kind of, like, awesome actually. Seeing all that hate go up in smoke.” A private smile turned up the corners of Melody’s mouth, her eyes unfocussed, clearly seeing into the past in that moment.

“You mean your special somepony Patch,” Jing-a-Ling said pointedly.

Melody’s cheeks flamed. “You shut up!”

Jing-a-Ling ducked back, hiding behind Vinyl. “What? She is!”

Melody looked like she was about to explode.

“But she is! Patch is cool an’ fun an’ she plays with me in the treehouse. She even plays pirates an’ doesn’t make me walk the plank like Ting-a-Ling does. I like her.”

“Mrrf.”

Melody sank down onto three legs, one still clasped to her chest, the tissues now a crumpled mess in her tightly clenched hoof. She took a few deep breaths that Vinyl was not inclined to interrupt. She sensed the girl wanted to say something and, quite honestly, she didn’t know what else to fill the silence with.

“I … I got up the courage to … to ask Patch out after … hearing about you and Miss Philharmonica,” Melody mumbled. “I was always, like, so scared before. I mean … I’ve had boyfriends … but nopony ever clicked the way me and Patch do. But … she’s a mare. Mares don’t date mares, right?” She sniffed, as if suddenly on the verge of tears. “I’m popular. Everypony knows it. Including me. I’m Head of the Cheerleading squad. I’m in a band – and not even the bass guitar player, I sing.” Vinyl smirked a little at that. “I … I like being popular. I was so focused on keeping up my rep that I … I just went with it, y’know? I didn’t want to lose it all. But then you … you did give it all up. You sacrificed your rep for … her.” Melody gestured vaguely at the bed, not really looking. “Because you love her. It could have cost you everything but you were willing to take that risk. And it … it made me look at my own life, y’know? It made me really look and … and see what I’d been trying really, really hard to ignore. Like … what was actually important. And it wasn’t pom-poms or singing lead vocals.” She took a shaky breath. “So … I asked her out. Right there in front of that bonfire. She was so shocked she fell in the wheelbarrow we used to carry them all. I was, like, totally ready to turn and run. But … but she said yes.” There was that private smile again. “So … I guess I’d better say thank you.” Finally she raised her eyes, glassy with unshed tears. “For, like, giving me the courage.”

Vinyl’s throat felt closed off but she managed to cough out, “Uh, you’re welcome. But it sounds like that was all you, not me.”

“Are you kidding? I never would have had the nerve to do it if you hadn’t, like, set the example or whatever.” Melody pressed the tissues to her face to wipe away her tears. Milliseconds later she realised what she had done. The smear of ink on her cheek stretched as her mouth fell open. “Oh my … Sweet Celestia, I can’t believe I just did that.”

Vinyl laughed. It cleared her throat some. “How about we head down to the lobby and I’ll get some paper from that lady drawing portraits to give you a new autograph.” Her mind settled into a decision. “I need to talk to her anyhow.”

“Would you? Oh my gosh, you are so totally even more beyond awesome than I thought you’d be!” Melody jogged from hoof to hoof.

“Can you tell my mom not to yell at me?” Jing-a-Ling asked.

Vinyl reached behind her to ruffle the filly’s mane. “Heh, I can try kiddo.”