The Ponies You Come Home To

by Mitch H

First published

'Pinkie' Rock just wants a simple life, a family life, somewhere simple and far away from the madness which is Ponyville and, er, family.

Pink Cherry Loaf came back from the Princess's service with a fiancee and a plan. That plan is to get as far away from her family and Ponyville as she can, as far as she can get and still be in Equestria. Her new husband has a job lined up with his family in Rock Valley, which is pretty dang remote. 'Pink Rock' has left behind her family, her name, and everything to do with her old life. 'Pinkie' hopes that'll be enough.

But no matter how far you go, family will find you. It's what they do.

The Road To Rock Valley

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Pink Cherry Loaf was a long way from Ponyville, but she had been further in her time. And she was fine with that. The Ponyville visitors saw from the town's shiny, lovingly maintained rail station was colorful, and playful, and full of happy, industrious ponies. Pink's family mostly lived and worked on the sunny side of town, but that wasn't where they went when they needed to get things done. And the things that her family had done under the leaves of the Everfree would haunt her until her dying day. She had to get away. And that was why she was so very, very far away from Ponyville, and getting further away minute by minute, hoof by hoof.

The first thing Pink Cherry Loaf noticed about her new home was that it was dry. Drier than Udder Holstein, drier than the badlands east of Ponyville. Not quite as bad as Balk Station had been, though. But Rock Valley certainly lived up to its name. The new rail line had only made it halfway out to Applewood, which worked well enough for Pink and her shiny new husband; they'd have had to get off at Salt Lick City anyways, and the line was thankfully complete that far west.

Her mother had done her best to talk the new couple out of moving back to Bed Rock's hometown, said there was all sorts of opportunities for an enterprising couple, back in the world and ready to make a life of it there in Ponyville. But Pink had things she needed to get away from, and frankly, she was tired of overhanging tree-limbs and the distant howl of timberwolves in the long dark night. The Apples and the Danvers had all the best land around Ponyville, and the way some of the families ran their businesses and farms was… something Pink had had enough of.

Pink wanted a life, a quiet, honest life. And from things Bed Rock had said, and things Bed Rock did naturally, unthinkingly, without even considering the manner in which he did them… Pink thought that maybe, perhaps? Rock Valley might be a good place.

A good place to raise a family. A simple family. One that prized every child, no matter how…

Pink Cherry Loaf and her new husband started the long hike out of Salt Lick City, along a well-hooved road curving slightly to the south and east into the plateau above Applewood and the San Palomino deserts. Pink was unwillingly reminded of Balk Station out in desert, and the dust and the sand and the yelling... The less she remembered of basic training and what came afterwards, the better.

The two of them had bought a pair of light carts to haul the supplies and materials that they'd requested for wedding-gifts in lieu of fancy bedsheets and silver service and all those fru-fru kitchen doohickeys that Pink's cousins and aunts loved so much. The lumber and boxes of fixtures and tools and so forth piled high on their carts, swaying far above the overburdened earth ponies' docks as they struggled with their loads. The hilly track leading up into the plateau upon which Rock Valley rested was a challenge when you were carrying the seeds of a life across your withers.

The wedding had been a typically over-elaborate Ponyville affair, Bed Rock wearing his regimentals, and Pink Cherry Loaf her family's traditional wedding-frock. That dress had over the years been bleached, cleaned, repaired, re-built, re-fabricked, and renovated so many times that Pink was fairly certain that the only thing authentic about it anymore were the diamonds in the petyral. Even the pearls had been replaced, supposedly after her Aunt Cinnamon Swirl's drunken in-laws had spilled something caustic on them during her reception. But that was the Cake Clan's way - to repair what had been damaged, to replace what had been lost, and to pretend nothing ever happened.

Like what had happened at the wedding. Her mother had almost succeeded in banning Pink's sister from the ceremony. Pink's teeth tightened on the bit of her bridle in memory of the offense, straining to keep her cart's load balanced. Cherry Bread was a good filly, a kind filly. She'd taken all of Crispbread's horseapples for Pink for so many years, done everything their dam had demanded of them… It broke Pink's heart to see how Crispbread had treated her, still treated her even now. How Pink had let her mother order her little sister around. Had given her power over her not-daughter.

Crispbread had almost sent poor, dim Cherry Bread into the service. Pink had put a stop to that, sure enough. Holstein would have killed Cherry Bread, if basic and Balk Station hadn't done the job first.

And when Pink came back from her tour with stolid, solid Bed Rock in tow? Crispbread had celebrated like the rest of Pink's family, her other sisters, aunts, uncles – the whole clan. But Cherry Bread wasn't good enough for something as public as a marriage ceremony, so off she would have went into the workshops to keep the machinery running, while Pink Cherry Loaf had her day in the sun. Like she always did.

Well, the hay with that. Pink put her hoof down, and had it out with her mother. And in the end, Cherry Bread's broad, slightly dopey grin blessed Pink and Bed's nuptials, sitting right there next to Graham Cracker and Hardtack and Sheet Cookie. Sheet Cookie's little sisters and Hardtack's little brothers were still hard at work in the workshops, hidden away from the judging eyes of Equestria, but Pink's influence over her mother only went so far. And those humble ponies weren't her siblings the way that Cherry Bread was. They weren't her responsibility. Those ponies were Hardtack and Sheet Cookie's burdens.

Pink heard later on that two of Hardtack's 'little brothers' had run away last year, which perhaps had explained why her mother had been so upset about the idea of 'little siblings' in public. The family was down to just the one Tack and a pair of Cookies when she and Bed had loaded their supplies and the broke-down carts into the train for the ride west. Somehow the family persevered without those little siblings' cheap labor.

Only Cherry Bread had come to see them off. Pink's choice to move out of town, after having put her mother out with the wedding and all – well, the two of them weren't on speaking terms by the time Pink and Bed left town. But Cherry Bread was there. Cherry Bread was always there.

"You shouldn't let her push you down like she does, Cherry," Pink told her little sister. "You've stayed by her all this time, when you could have left any time you wanted, like the little Tacks did."

"Aw, Sis, you know I can't do that. Who'd take care of the ovens, and keep the siblings on track? You know we get confused sometimes. It's not easy being the little siblings, but it can be a good life!"

Pink remembered seeing her sister's face for the first time, in the surface of the pool. The dark, mirrored surface, her mother's lantern lighting the cavern behind her. That was the last time Pink had ever seen a solemn look on Cherry Bread's muzzle. As soon as she'd been pulled from the surface of the mirror-pool, Cherry Bread's lips had broadened into a wide, goofy grin. As if the sum of joy in the world had doubled as soon as she'd entered it. That smile hadn't shifted an iota as Pink Cherry Loaf had recited the words of the ritual, had bound her new 'little sibling' to her will, as Crispbread had so carefully coached her beforehoof.

"Be good now, and strong, Cherry," Pink said to her little sister, as they stood beside the waiting train car. "I'm not coming back, I don't think."

"You came back from the army, didn't you? You'll be back. You'll always be the big sister." Cherry Bread's smile faded just a bit. But it didn't go away. It never really went away. "I kind of… need you to be the big sister."

"You're perfectly capable of being a pony in your own right, Cherry," Pink insisted. "Look at how well you kept things going while I was on my tour! Everything was all ship-shape and Baltimare-fashion. Mother richer than she ever was, the family as prosperous as they've ever been. You've done good!"

"It's mostly been Grammy and her shop, and Hardtack and his business contacts, you know that, Pink! I just keep the ovens going. It's all that a mirror-c-"

"DON'T! Don't… ever call yourself that, Cherry. You're my sister. You're your own pony, Celestia damn it."

Cherry Bread went a little glassy-eyed, and said, somewhat robotically, "Yes, Sister Pink Cherry Loaf. I will never call myself what I almost just said, but won't say again, because you've prohibited me from saying it."

Pink teared up, remembering her accidental invocation of the controls back there at the Ponyville rail station. The damned, blasted controls. The reason she could never stand to be near her little sister for too long. Because Pink Cherry Loaf was a domineering sort of mare – always had been. Being the oldest filly of a solid family like the Cake Clan made it hard to be humble and soft-spoken. And having a 'little sibling' do every alicorn-loving thing you told them to do was kind of – warping.

Pink had gone into the service at least in part to get away from her own self. To let the drill sergeants break her down, break up 'Pink Cherry Loaf', and mold her into a new self. A self that hadn't conjured a little sister out of dark magic and family obligation to be nothing more than her whipping-colt.

Ponyville's contingent of recruits had been full of former little siblings, sent off to do their family's duty in the EUP, to serve the Princess for their family's honor, while their actual brothers and sisters went on with their lives, their happy, feckless, prosperous lives. Lifetimes of obedience and the habit of subservience made for highly effective soldiers – the drill instructors loved it when Ponyville got called up, or so Pink had been told. She sometimes wondered if the DIs knew about Ponyville's little secret. It had been going on for long enough that there had to be little siblings scattered across a good swathe of Equestria by now.

In her darker moments, Pink thought that the Princess had deliberately re-settled the verge of the Everfree to take advantage of the mirror-pool. But then she remembered that they were supposed to keep the existence of the pool a secret from the bureaucrats and the ponies of other towns and most importantly the Princess, and her tenuous belief in the benevolence of their immortal sovereign suppressed the thought.

The fiction that something in the water of Ponyville induced unusually high twin and triplet foalings wouldn't survive even the most casual of investigations, but nopony ever made trouble, especially not the little siblings, bless their hearts.
There was enough trouble in the world, Celestia's servants didn't go seeking it out in sleepy little towns tucked halfway under the eaves of one of the few remaining dark forests in Equestria.

Pink's dark thoughts had pre-occupied her throughout the long, aching haul up the scarp of the plateau. Bed Rock had left her to her musings, being occupied himself with his own heavy load. But finally, they came to the crest, and an easier stretch of the road. They rolled a couple dozen yards down the suddenly-sweeter downward slope, and then Bed Rock came to a stop, and Pink followed suit.

Pink looked around. Beyond the crest was a rolling plain, not quite flat, not quite hills. The tips of the swells were broken by rock outcroppings here and there, like dragons' bones poking out of the shallow soils. She narrowed her eyes, staring at the nearest outcropping, trying to see if they actually were dragons' bones. No… probably not. Maybe?

The lower slopes and the dells were full of nodding heads of grain, and ponies' heads bobbing here and there in the fields, sickles and scythes flashing in the red rays of the setting sun. Pink could see three – no, four McColtric reapers being drawn across the landscape, rolling through the long rows of grain. You could see… almost forever where they stood in the road.

"I didn't… think Rock Valley would be so big. And busy!"

"Hah. This isn't exactly Rock Valley, not yet. Those folks out there are Oats Clan, for the most part. Look at how many of them are still using the old harvesting methods. Stick in the muds, the lot of 'em. Huh. Two more harvesters than the last time I was here. No, three. I guess everypony got tired of Bullet Time and his crowing about how much time his gadget was saving him. Honestly thought they'd shun him instead. Well, time marches on, Princess's progress and all that."

"If this isn't Rock Valley, where are we? And where are all the trees?"

"What do you mean, where are the trees? See those lines of yellow and orange out there? Those are trees. The grain farmers, they need their windbreaks."

"Bed Sheet Rock! Those aren't trees, those're bushes! Are you telling me that that's what passes for a tree in these parts?"


Pink almost giggled, suddenly feeling as free as a pegasus. No trees! No dark, oppressive woods full of curdled secrets and monsters and pools and ponies trafficking with all three!

"I can live with that. How far to Rock Valley from here?"

"Won't make it by sunset, obviously. But maybe before dawn, if we keep going? Or we can see if anypony has a spare bed. They look pretty busy, though. Should have known it'd be small grain harvest season. They're probably a couple weeks out from the marble-cutting back home…"

Pink frowned, watching the bustling grain-farmers racing to get their crops in. As Celestia's sun crested the western horizon behind her, she felt the cool of autumn turn cold on her coat.

"No… no. Don't want my first introduction to any of the locals to be asking for a hoof-out. Let's bundle up, and keep going. Hauling this mess ought to keep us awake and warm, anyways. But get out the overcoats anyways?"

Bed Rock grunted agreement. He was usually willing to go along with her ideas. He'd been a corporal in her escort squad while they'd been in Holstein. The pony who kept anything and everything out of her mane while she did her thing. Most ponies who'd had her job in the Corps had been pegasi, but she'd shown an unexpected talent for cartography, and for quick work in tight spots. Ponies like Bed Rock had been the reason she'd come back intact, their pliability when it was safe, their resistance when they'd known she was about to test her luck.

Like most blessed foals, Pink Cherry Loaf had been born with more than her share of luck. It was what gave her the confidence to run right up to the edge of the enemy's lines and record the lay of the land, and to sketch out the enemy's position as they lay on that land. And to find any hidden tricks of the earth which they or the enemy could exploit against each other.

Pink had lost some ponies in her adventures between the lines, but Bed Rock had made sure that everypony came back, Pink included. No pony left behind, even if you had to carry a former comrade's lifeless body across your withers as you fled under fire.

One of the scouts who had stopped a New Roamish catapult bolt intended for Pink had been a Ponyvillian, and Pink found herself thinking about Carved Log while the twilight over the high plateau faded into night, and Celestia's moon rose in the east with its familiar dark-stained dappling. Carved Log had been Burnt Maple's little sibling; they'd both been a bit older than Pink. Carved Log had proceeded her into the EUP, while Burnt Maple stayed right in Ponyville, like all good elder siblings did. Their purpose in life was to fulfil their destinies, to live as their cutie marks instructed them. They had destinies – unique destinies.

All little siblings had were faded copies of the original marks. Same general talents, same general impulses, but they weren't unique, the destinies weren't really theirs. Or at least, that's what the elders said.

As far as Pink could tell, Cherry Bread's cutie mark wasn't any less defined than hers, and if she was in an honest mood – and had enough mugs of cider warming her innards – she'd admit freely that Cherry Bread was a better baker than she was. Pink had enjoyed her time offworld, the blood and the ugliness aside. She was pretty sure that Cherry would have been miserable, and that was satisfaction enough, to know she'd spared her little sister… that.

Pink looked up at the moon, and the mare in the moon. Holstein had two moons, and neither of them had the uncanny appearance of a dark figure superimposed on them, drifting soundlessly through the haunted night. The stories told in the dark about the Mare in the Moon were as many as there were ponies, and all of them were unsettling. The town had been getting ready for Nightmare Night when she and Bed Rock had been packing to leave.

She'd miss the candy. She'd always had a sweet tooth.

They made better time than Bed Rock had expected, spurred on by the cold and the dark. Pink asked several times about monsters on the moors, timberwolves or manticores or the like. Bed Rock sniffed, and laughed it off.

"The plateau isn't a place for your wild magics. Rock farming ties up too much of the ambient in the stones. It isn't like vegetable or tree-fruit farming, Pinks. Rock farming takes all the magic we've got, and then some. If it didn't, we wouldn't get such good returns on our marbles and gemstones and ensorceleds."

"The old earth pony way, then?"

"Ha! Exactly. We're big on the old ways in Rock Valley. Well, those old ways that work, I suppose."

They continued onwards over the moors, the half-harvested grainfields in the dells and dips hidden in the darkness and shadows, cast by the crests and the rock outcroppings half-lit by the bright moonlight. The rolling country sloped almost imperceptibly downwards from the high north-western edge of the plateau. The road curled gently along the low ridgelines, swaying back and forth and following the flow of the land. Homesteads were tucked here and there within the dells. They shone like fire-flies in their shadowed depths, each little flare an oasis of pony homelife in the darkness.

There were more of them than Pink had thought there would have been, given Bed Rock's descriptions of 'home'.
Eventually they came to the edge of Rock Valley proper, and the road tipped over the edge of the plateau into a slight depression. After a while, they passed out of the shadows back into the bright moonlight, and Pink's dark-accustomed eyes picked out details again, details other than the lights of the houses and homesteads that dotted the darkness all around them. Again, Bed Rock had described Rock Valley as an empty wasteland with nopony around for miles. But Pink could see at least a half-dozen well-lit homes within eye-shot of the road. More came into view as they passed along, and the moon burned the night away.

"More ponies out here than I thought there'd be."

"Really? Compared to what I've seen of Ponyville, there's nopony up here."

"I think maybe there'll be enough. Where'd you say this new store your brother wanted to open will be?"

"About a day's walk east, over towards the Gorge. New settlers out that way, some family, some not. I hear good things about the basalt and the cladding-quality marble."

"But we won't be – "

"Nah, I've never been all that great at turning rock. None of the Rocks have, ironically enough. You can bet we heard no end of that around the Stones on festival days. Well, some, but us in the cadet lines? We find other things to do. The Sheets, we play shopkeeper round these parts. Some of the other cousins, the ones over by the watershed, they work in tools and smithin'. But us? Co-op needs somepony to run the stores."

Shopkeeping. Pink could handle shopkeeping. Wasn't too different from running her family's dining rooms in Ponyville and the neighboring towns. She'd spent a couple seasons doing that before heading off to the induction center.

Pink thought of her last words to Cherry Bread, the ones that she hadn't let Bed Rock hear. How she'd ordered her little sister to never obey her mother or any other pony who told her to do anything she didn't want to do. How she'd ordered her little sister to be her own Celestia-damned pony, for once in her short life.

How she'd ordered Cherry Bread to never come out to Rock Valley, and to keep her distance. Not to write, not to send any messages. Not to ask for anything more, any guidance, any more orders.

Because she knew Cherry Bread was a good pony, but only when she wasn't with Pink Cherry Loaf. Because Cherry Bread wasn't a pony at all when she was with her sister; she was only an appendage, and she never would be her own mare as long as they were in each other's lives.

Finally, as the moon approached the western horizon, and Celestia's sun had begun licking the eastern ends of the sky with wet streaks of false dawn, they reached a couple side-tracks that split off from the main road. At that corner stood a little cluster of buildings mostly unlit and darkened at the crossroads.

"This is it," said Bed Rock, leaning back in his traces. "The homeplace. Not where we'll be setting up shop, of course, but we'll have to build that ourselves." He nodded upwards at the building supplies and sales goods piled high on his cart.

"How far?"

"Like I said, about a day's trot east. We'll be working out of here for now, there's nothing out that way but some tents the sooners have put up, beside the fields they're clearing."

"Winter's coming up fast."

"All the more reason to get out there and get done what needs done. Like going out into the field, right?"

"Hopefully without getting strafed by New Roamish griffons every other day, or chased by goatish scouts."

"Yeah, that too."

"Bed Rock, I'm scared. You come from good ponies, I know that to look at you, but you saw my folks, you saw how much they-"

"Shh. Shh. Momma'll love you, I swear. You're not the ponies you come from. You're the ponies you come home to. Welcome home."

Pink nodded, choked up. They pulled their carts around back of the main complex, the family house attached at the back of a large general store rising up into the dawn falling from the skies. The two earth ponies unhitched themselves as an older mare with a yellow coat and a blue-to-grey mane came out on the porch of the attached house.

"Momma, this is my new wife, that I wrote you about. Pinks, this is my mother Pebble Beach."

The Rock matriarch smiled at Pink. Pink smiled at her through sudden tears.

"Momma Beach, it's very good to meet you. I'm Pink – Pink Rock."

"Call me Pinkie."

And Pinkie was finally home.

Store Credit

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The 'little brother' stood sheepishly on the porch of Pinkie's husband's new co-op store. Well, it wasn't actually a porch yet, more of a dry patch of gravel in front of the door-frame. They hadn't been able to get in a proper door, yet, either, so the entrance was covered with a bit of canvas rigged on its own frame so that the 'door' swung open like it was, you known, an actual wooden door.

Maybe Pinkie was getting a little tired of being on the back end of nowhere when it came to shipping costs and deliveries. And two days hard march from the nearest grove of carpentry-quality trees. They actually had cut stone sufficient to build up a nice front patio for the co-op, if Pinkie could find some cheap labor to help her level the ground and lay the stone.

If there was anything in surplus in this end of Rock Valley, it was stone, cut or otherwise. Pinkie and Bed Rock had been lured out here with the promise of high-quality stone and gems, sufficient to likewise lure eager new settlers to make a living at the rock farming game. The East Valley was full of would-be rock farmers.

Increasingly hungry, frustrated, ineffectual rock-farmers. Nopony had found the 'sweet soil' yet in this end of the Valley. What they did find, was barely worth working. The soil just took magic, and took, and took, and took, and gave almost nothing back. Pebbles. Gravel.

Like the stuff currently resting happily beneath her brother's misplaced little sibling. The fool.

Not her little sibling, thank Celestia and all her stars for that much. One of Hardtack's idiot little brothers, looked exactly like him, last time she'd seen Hardtack. Must be fresh out of the pool. Literally wet behind the ears. That was a new record, if Hardtack had conjured a new sibling, and then lost control of him before Pinkie could produce a foal for her new family.

Close enough, she though, her hoof sneaking its way back to her ever-rounder belly. Today was a good day, not sick at all.

Well, not before this idiot Tack boy decided to ruin her otherwise-happy day. And interrupt her inventory count.

With Bed Rock away, now that Pinkie thought about it. Oh, she wasn't worried about the Tack clone. Clones were harmless to their families, she'd never heard of one becoming violent. They were innocents, pliable and generally willing to do whatever you told them, if you got their proper attention first.

But if you left them a way out of their orders, they were as prone as any other underpaid laborer or underling to take a scarper. And most families - including her own! – didn't bother to pay their 'little siblings' a damn thing beyond room and board.

Pinkie didn't blame the Tack for hightailing it out of Ponyville. If Pinkie had been the little sibling, and not Cherry Bread, she'd have left a long, long time ago. Which she had… done, on her own terms, almost as quickly.

So bad example.


"Tell me it again, Flapjack. Tell it to me slow, and don't leave any little bits that you think weren't especially important this time, because I think we're miscommunicating somehow. Why are you on my husband's patio?"

"Is that what this is? It looks like gravel. I thought patios was something fancy ponies had, like Canterlot unicorns or somethin' like that. Y'all rich ponies already, big sister?"

"I ain't your big sister, you slap-hock pop-skulled galoot! That was Hardtack, and he ain't here! I ain't the one to take you in, on account of we're not siblings. I also don't have work for you, as we don't have money, and barely have enough food to keep our neighbors and ourselves from eating the seed-stones. I can't take you in, and I got no obligation to do so. What the hay made you come all this alicorn-forsaken way from anywhere important or useful?"

"Cherry Bread was always saying how generous you were, how much y'all loved us siblings. Was… was Cherry Bread wrong? Did you, I dunno, lie to her?"

The silly galoot was tearing up, his lip quivering. If he weren't a full-grown alicorns-damned earth pony stallion, twenty-five stone if he was a pound, it would be cute. As it was, it was just kinda… sad. And silly.

"No, damn your eyes, I wasn't lying to my little sister. But I told her no damn communications, none whatsoever. I didn't want to ever hear from her again! Never! I can't keep from messing with her if she won't stop messing with me! And that means you other little siblings, too! This ain't Ponyville, I've left the family behind, Rock Valley doesn't know from 'little siblings', and they don't want to hear about it!"

"Aw, please, Miss Loaf, I came all this way, and I ate my last bit of bread back in Salt Lick. I'm a good worker, you know Hardtack. We ain't none of us lazy ponies."

"No, you just run the first time somepony leaves a gap in your instructions, don't you? What are you, the fourth one Hardtack's let get away?" Pinkie glared out past her idiot brother's idiot clone at the darkening skies, and the first few heavy droplets of the rains. Spring weather was turning out to be brutal this deep into the high plateau.

"Fifth one, I think, ma'am. Mr. Tack, he didn't say, but the Cookies, they gossip something fierce."

"Bah, get your pooka flank in here, it's going to be coming down manticores and basilisks in five minutes, and I won't leave a drowned pony in front of my husband's place of business."

She let the clone into the front of the store. It didn't matter so much if he didn't kick the mud off of his hooves in there, it was still mostly packed dirt.

Flapjack looked around at the sad, empty racks of nothing in particular arranged artfully around the sides of the main room. A few cans here, a shelf of relatively fresh bread and muffins, a rack of shiny new hammers and shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, and some pails in the corner. They took up a pitiful small percentage of the shelving Pinkie had so-optimistically nailed together with their spare lumber, before she realized the relatively low demand being exerted by their nearest neighbors, and the difficulty of arranging regular deliveries of dry goods up from Salt Lick.

She'd stopped after lining the walls nose-high. No need to put in the higher racks that she'd had in her family's supply shops attached to their dining rooms back home. There was no point in building shelving for inventory they didn't have, no matter how fast they could sell them through to their increasingly desperate customers.

Bed Rock wanted to start extending credit, but Pinkie was worried that if nopony's claims paid out, they'd be bitless. She'd never been bitless in her life, and wasn't sure if she'd be able to handle it.

She saw the starving clone staring at her fresh bread and muffins. The afternoon crowd hadn't come in out of the nearby rock-fields, and from the look of the weather outside, nopony would until evening. The food would be a combination of dried out and soggy by the time it was dinner.

"Go ahead, Flapjack. Those will just go to waste. Flour, flour I have." Pinkie glared at the offending sacks in the other corner. The sooners had moved out here without their significant others for the most part, and none of them could bake for a wish or a buck. They wanted the cheap and fast stuff, that they could eat without fighting with a field oven or fancy kitchen equipment. They'd come in and overpay for her fancy muffins and breads – she'd sold plenty this morning at breakfast – but in bad weather, the food would just go to waste.

The starveling clone devoured four muffins before he was satiated. After the third one, Pinkie got tired of watching somepony enjoy her baking. she stood staring out at the hard, driving rain. The runoff was curling down along the bottom of the track towards the main road west. She'd told those damn foals that they'd run the track along the blasted gully-line, and that it'd wash out every five weeks in the season. And there… there it went. Watch that sucker go!

"What are you looking at out there, Miss Loaf? Wow! That's something else. I- I was walking that a half hour ago!"

"And nopony will be walking it again for a couple days, I think. Foals, the lot of them. Good thing I busted a better track out across the back forty, and up the ridgeline. Don't worry about it, we're not cut off. The back track isn't wide enough for Bed Rock's cart, though. He'll probably be late, until we pack the supplies saddle-bag-style when he gets here."

"Bed Rock – I remember him! That stallion they were talking about, looked so handsome in his reds and buffs!" Flapjack blushed, looking thrilled at the memory. Pinkie remembered something she'd suspected about her brother Hardtack, who'd never had a marefriend while she'd been home, and hadn't talked about such things after she got back from the war. Or ever been mentioned in connection with a potential wife. Huh. OK.

Pinkie gave her brother's clone a Look. "Keep your hooves off the merchandise, boyo. The locals are kind of traditional about that sort of thing."

Flapjack looked around at the empty shelves, and blinked in confusion. "Uh… yes'm. If there were any merchandise, I'd keep out of them. Uh, is there anything I can do for you to… pay for the muffins?"

"No bits, I'm guessing?"

"No'm, spent my last jangle for some bread in Salt Lick. I can work, I swear!"

"Damn right you can. I was in the middle of taking inventory when you interrupted." Pinkie picked up a ledger, counted the last three cans of beans on the shelves, marked them down, and closed the ledger after cleaning off the quill and putting it carefully away.

"That being done, let's go clean the pots and pans and suchlike. They'll be starving and covered in mud when the rainstorm lets up. We need to get the dinner-rush bread and such going."

"Who's 'they'? I didn't see anypony for miles!"

"Don't be surprised when they come out. These hills hide a marvel's worth of filthy mud-grubbing rock farmers where you'd never think they were scrabbling. Just wait until the dinner-bell rings, and they descend with half the mud in the province sticking to their hides and hooves."

And so they cleaned, and they baked, and Flapjack avoided telling Pinkie about anything important at all. And when the rain let up, and the skies cleared, the rock farmers started tumbling down out of the hills all around the co-op. And not a one of them had a jangle more than Flapjack had to pay for their bread and muffins.

Pinkie had to break out the fresh ledger and start taking credit - just out of basic equine decency, just to get through dinner without shaming anypony. Once everypony was full, the porch outside was full of a good dozen or so locals resting on dry rock for a change. Or, rather, less-muddy gravel. Pinkie and her little sibling followed the last farmer out of the salesroom, which had been churned to a bit of mud itself from the hoof-traffic. They joined the group sunning themselves as the clouds broke and Celestia's sun began to warm the cold mud into something a bit drier outside.

Flapjack hadn't said a word since the first rock-farmer had appeared like magic in the co-op. Some of the siblings were like that, never talking to ponies who weren't family. Pinkie wondered how he had fed himself on the way between Ponyville and her front door if he wasn't willing to talk to outsiders.

She talked over the progress of the farmers' claims with the resting ponies, how they all were faring. Almost everypony here had gone into the East Valley before Bed Rock and her had set up shop; nopony had tried to make a claim in the middle of winter, or in the waning days of fall, either, for that matter. It felt like Rock Valley was holding its breath, seeing if the sooners would make anything of the new settlements, or if they'd just wash out like a badly-placed hoof-track.

In the meantime, nopony had the bits to set up more of a homestead than the sad little tents most of the farmers had stuck up one draw or another in the neighboring hills. The search for sweet soil was absorbing every bit of energy her neighbors could spare from survival.

Speaking of which, somepony told her that Wild Oats had given up trying to turn rock over towards the Gorge, and had gone home to collect some seed stock from her family. Spring oats and barley, word was. That might ease some of the pressure on poor Bed Rock's back, hauling all of their supplies over the muddy and no doubt washed-out track down out of the Valley proper into the sooners' claims.

Basalt Block and his brother Fault Scarp said they might have a line on some Maressippi washstone, Scarp showed Pinkie a hoof-full of the characteristic blue and purple gravel. Good export-quality stone, if still kind of bulk and low-density-value. Not really worth packing out on the current roads, and too damn good to line those tracks and make them safer for carters to haul over. But their cousin Pyroclastic Flow had plenty of red lava popping on her claim. About as low-quality as you could get, and still call it 'rock', but it'd suffice for local roads.

Pinkie considered trying to talk the farmers into re-laying the track out to the main road again, but everypony was too exhausted and listless at the moment to listen. Maybe when they got out there and saw how much of the last corvee's work had been washed into the gullies and out of the roadbeds, they'd be more receptive.

That was when little Purple Quartzite came stumbling down out of the shadows falling over the draw that marked her and her brother Red's claim to the northwest, bleeding from cuts on her withers and dock, wild-eyed.

After some yelling and shouting, the crowd organized itself into a rescue party, and the whole assembly went galloping up the Quartzite draw, to see if they could pull Red Quartzite out of the mudslide that had buried the unfortunate stallion in his tent. Pinkie carried her first aid kit with her, and Flapjack followed, silent as ever.

The Quartzites ended up sleeping with Flapjack in the back room with Pinkie that night, mostly to keep an eye a the disoriented and badly battered Red, who had been insensate with more bruises than Pinkie cared to think of, and a compound fracture of his left rear leg. She hadn't been a medic in the EUP, but she remembered enough to set a break.

She thought.

Damn, she was ready for Bed Rock to get back.

The rescue party had found Red Quartzite buried under what looked like half the slope, and it had taken some time to dig the unfortunate out of the ruins of his property. Some of the other rock farmers had been excited about something they'd found in the washout, but Pinkie had been too occupied in finding the missing stallion, and getting him patched together when they'd dug him out.

She was sure she'd hear enough about whatever the rockhoppers had been yelling about in the morning, or tomorrow evening at the latest.

Pinkie'd emptied her shelves of baked goods to fill the heroic crowd back up before they struggled back to their claims and tents for the night. She left the store-credit ledger be while she gave those exhausted ponies their 'second dinner', but resolved to be stricter in the future.

The co-op wasn't a charity, after all.

In the morning, Flapjack was up before Pinkie was, and got the ovens running early enough to fill a couple shelves with hot piping bread and baked goods. It was more like Pinkie helped Flapjack, than vice-versa. She wasn't feeling the best after all that exertion the day before, and it didn't help when the breakfast crowd had to be called out to pull Wild Oats and her cousins out of the bog the track up to the main road had become overnight. The new excitement helped Pinkie get past her morning sickness, sure enough.

At least the carts those sooners had gotten stuck up to their hubs had been full of flour and seed. Their loads had been lightened right into Pinkie's storeroom, in exchange for store credit and all of Pinkie's remaining hoes and rakes and farming implements of destruction, such as she had on hoof.

Bed Rock and Pinkie hadn't planned on supplying grain farmers in their original business plans. Pinkie hadn't known, but Bed Rock should have thought about it. She'd talk it over with her husband when he got back. If he ever got back.

The Oats girls went off with Wild Oats and her seed-stock, to get to working on planting more flour – no, more grain. Pinkie needed to stop thinking like a Cake, and to start thinking more like a co-op manager.

Ironically enough, there still wasn't an actual co-op to claim the couple's 'co-op store'. The sooners just weren't organized enough yet to incorporate. Bed Rock had brought the paperwork, carefully copied out by the accountants and business managers of the grange back in the main Valley, and the creation of a grange for the East Valley was just waiting on everypony to make enough of a start to justify all the fuss and bother.

In all of the excitement and the unexpected business, Pinkie had left the kitchen to Flapjack, who kept the ovens going, and kept feeding ponies as they appeared. The sunny weather kept a decent churn of neighbors from all over the new stakes that whole day, and the next day too, and some of them even still had cash bits to pay Pinkie. By the time Bed Rock straggled in over the back track, cart and all, Pinkie's shelves were empty, she and Flapjack and Purple Quartzite were laying some of Pyroclastic Flow's lava gravel in the showroom, and they had a ledger full of credit accounts, and more than a few jangles and bits in the cashbox.

"What the discord is your brother Hardtack doing here, Pinks?"

Oh, horseapples.

Foals, Flints, and Flapjack

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Oatmeal was grey, when she wasn't red-faced and screaming. She was tiny, demanding, furious at the world for having brought her into it, and she was the most beautiful thing Pinkie had ever seen. When Pinkie saw Bed Rock looking in at the two of them, she felt so proud that she was like to burst.

She was also more tired than she'd ever been in her life, even more so that one run out past Quadrupycchium when the Roamish hoof-cavalry had cut off the detail and they hid in a swamp with a company of Celestia's Own Griffish Rangers for six starving days. Oatmeal cried, and ate, and cried, and now and again slept a little in between the crying.

And somehow Pinkie and Bedrock kept the co-op from going under in all the foal chaos. Well, give credit where it was due – Pinkie's littlest brother Flapjack helped. A lot.

But Oatmeal scared the horseapples out of Flapjack. Her tininess, her rages, all her yelling – Pinkie's little sibling was terrified of his tiny little niece. Pinkie learned to not ask Flapjack to take care of the newborn foal. Fillies were clearly not within his range of capability.

Flapjacks were. As were bread-baking, muffin-making, kitchen-running, a little light clerking and retailing in the show-room, working in the supply closets – Flapjack had been invaluable in bringing the co-op through that calamitous spring, and the lean summer that followed.

The fall was looking to be fatter than the summer had been, thank Celestia for that. Now that the claims up the Quartzite Draw were starting to produce export-quality slate and flints, the East Valley's penury wasn't quite the crisis it had felt like in the spring. There were starting to be actual bits in circulation. Pinkie's credit ledgers were still more red ink than black, though.

Cash was good, all the same. The first time she'd tried to pay Flapjack his wages, he looked at the coins, and asked her what he was going to do with them – buy something from the empty shelves? After that, Pinkie just marked down Flapjack's wages on a page in one of the ledgers, and made sure to include that line-item in their budgets. He'd find a use for the money someday.

None of the customers asked where Flapjack had come from. The rockhoppers were too busy and too desperate to question a pony who could feed them, and feed them on credit at that. Flapjack helped matters by continuing to be the most silent pony you ever did see. Pinkie never saw him exchange more than a half-dozen words with any customer in all the time he'd been with them.

Words were for family.

Bed Rock had taken Pinkie's explanations about the sudden appearance of a sibling out of nowhere with admirable calm. Even when Pinkie stuttered through a brief and very… edited version of how the mirror pool worked, how ponies used it... she could tell by Bed Rock's level expression that he didn't buy her cleaned-up descriptions of the practice. Bed Rock let it pass without comment. And in general, he was kind to her brother's mirror-clone, especially after Pinkie had let slip some things she'd suspected about Flapjack's likely treatment at the hooves of his 'big brother'.

It helped that Flapjack was so bashful, and sweet-tempered. Hardtack had been a hard brother to love, with a mean streak a mile wide, and precious little concern for the feelings or needs of other ponies. He'd always been getting into fights, and had made a regular practice of disappearing for days or weeks at a time. He'd come back covered in bruises and cuts, smiling an angry smile, snickering whenever anypony asked about what he'd been up to, out wherever it was he went to disappear.

Flapjack, on the other hand, was gentle as an April shower. He was a shuffling, shy demonstration of how the mirror-pool distorted as much as it reflected. As far as Pinkie was concerned, the clone brother was ten times the pony his progenitor had been. But unfortunately, that had other knock-on effects.

For one thing, it became increasingly obvious to Pinkie that Flapjack was young, terribly young. He hadn't existed this time last spring; Hardtack must have pulled him from the mirror pool at most a month or so before she and Bed Rock had returned from the demobilization center. Little siblings come out of the waters retaining a little bit of memory and knowledge derived from their creators, but by the nature of the magic, it tended to fade fast. Especially if what they started out with weren't used constantly on a day to day basis, day in, day out.

As the borrowed memories of Hardtack faded, the parts that weren't used fell away. Flapjack became more and more his own pony, and he shed those last physical and verbal tics which had marked him as a copy of her brother. It left him strangely… undeveloped. He was like a full-grown yearling, awkward when he thought about how to move his limbs, but graceful when distracted and concentrating on other things. His vocabulary shrank to those words and expressions they used around him on a daily basis. Because he was so reserved and quiet around other ponies, it was almost as if he'd imprinted on Pinkie and Bed Rock. Like a puppy. A puppy almost half again her weight, and a hoof and a half taller than his 'big sister Pinkie'.

Bed Rock got real quiet when Flapjacks cutie mark faded away in late July, though. Pinkie had to admit it had been unsettling, to say the least. But she thought it was maybe part of the process, maybe something that was meant to happen. Part of Flapjack becoming his own pony. They made him wear a long apron over his flanks after that, though. No point in scaring the neighbors.

Pinkie didn't tell Bed Rock at the time, but she envied Flapjack when his copied mark went away. She thought about the cutie mark she shared with Cherry Bread, the mark Cherry had always lived up to so much better than Pinkie had ever managed. Pinkie kind of wished she could have left it to her sister, like a bequeathal. To start over again… find your own mark, make your own mark.

The discovery of a cutie mark was wasted on the young, anyways. Better to know your destiny when you were old enough to know better. To be more your own pony, than your family's. Your mother's

Meanwhile, it was like having a toddler in the co-op, dealing with Flapjack. A toddler that could bake, and run the front desk if you didn't stress him. On the other hoof, Pinkie discovered that the recovering clone, while he was still a practiced, professional baker and retail worker, had, when it came to the ledgers, and the accounts... To put it plainly, Flapjack had become as illiterate as a timberwolf.

Well, not quite that bad. More like, the new Flapjack was like parrot who had been taught how to record transactions in a ledger, but didn't understand what he was writing. He knew that these marks and those were how you closed a transaction, this mark and that meant this customer or that. She found herself yelling at the poor colt on a number of occasions as she tried to untangle the messes he'd made of her nice neat ledgers, all uncomprehending confusion and missed columns, before she finally, furiously quizzed him on his reading comprehension – and found he had no earthly idea what he was doing.

He'd just been watching what marks she'd made for which customers, and doing his best to follow along.

After that, she spared an hour after every day's evening rush, trying to teach him his p's and q's. But Pinkie was nopony's idea of a schoolmarm.

She talked to Bed Rock one weekend after he returned with the weekly supply load, and they started planning. They made resolutions to order schoolbooks and spare writing materials and, eventually, maybe a schoolmarm. Flapjack wasn't the only uneducated rockhopper in the East Valley. And Oatmeal wouldn't be the last foal in town, even if she had been the first. Although the way things were going, maybe there wouldn't be a town at all – maybe they'd just be an appendage of the main Valley, and she'd have to send her precious little filly off to stay with her grandmother at the main store just down the road from the Valley's prized schoolhouse.

Well, that was a heartache for another year. This one was a screaming foal disrupting the lunch hour at the co-op. Pinkie bound her howling filly onto her back, and hurried out the back and up the track beyond the Quartzite place. It was a sunny early-fall day, and she saw Purple Quartzite in the distance, out in the fields, turning over bits of this and that in the baking dirt uphill of what once had been the twins' tent. What canvas they'd been able to salvage, plus some building materials from the co-op, had been set up in a more secure location on the side of the unstable slope away from the landslide. Pinkie found Red Quartzite laying in the sun outside of the twins' new hovel on some rolled-up bedding, cleaning the flints his sister had brought him.

Whatever had caused the landslide, it had exposed a leyline, something strong enough that ponies could jumpstart the farming process in its vicinity, all along the rent in the exposed hillside. The part of the slide which had fallen into the Quartzite's claim, that was theirs. Purple Quartzite had worked her hooves to the frog, coaxing a bumper crop of some of the loveliest flints Pinkie had ever seen, flints which were exactly what the market wanted that first summer.

Not that Pinkie had ever given the first thought to flints or other such stones before she'd come to the Valley. But the Valley focused your mind on the important things, no matter what you might have concerned yourself with before you came there. And this fall's important things? Foals and flints.

Red Quartzite put aside his work for a bit and cooed and aahed at little Oatmeal, while Pinkie looked over the twins' latest harvest, and cooed and aahed in return at the darling little cherts and marl Red had been busy knapping into clean, salable stock.

At the rate the Quartzites were going, they were going to be one of the founding investors in the co-op. They were making bits. When the accounts were settled for the year, and the paperwork finally filled out, the East Valley would need a grange board, a president, a director, somepony to take responsibility for matters. Pinkie's frogs itched to get those pre-written incorporation papers for the co-operative signed by the right ponies. Some days, she'd be willing to see them signed by any ponies. She and Bed Rock had been running the co-op on spec, waiting for some semblance of a grange leadership or council of town elders to emerge. The Quartzites were her two prime candidates for the job. If only Red would get up off of his goldbricking flank.

The other ponies involved in the slate and flint strike were a bunch of go-getters who had traded in their dry claims over by the washed-out road for fresh claims on the upper edges of the leyline exposure. These new uphill neighbors of the Quartzites were also on Pinkie's short list. A half-dozen rockhoppers that had split up the strike-face among themselves, and between the lot of them they were producing flints and slate almost as pretty as those the Quartzites were turned out of the suddenly activated dirt along the floor of the Quartzite Draw.

When, that is, the lot of them weren't butting heads over the new claim-lines that had gotten sloppily staked out in a tearing hurry. Bed Rock and a couple of the uninterested rockhoppers from the other draws had broken up more than a couple fights in the last couple months. The new-claim rockhoppers would have the bits to be grange founders and maybe leaders one day, but they were a quarrelsome lot today.

Most of the magic was flowing through the Quartzites' place, though. Pinkie could sort of picture the flows now, as if the landslide was still ongoing, or like a gentle waterfall, or a spring – eddying here, rushing there, pooling… here. Red Quartzite had begun to play with her suddenly happy little filly, amusing Oatmeal by shining sunlight through a bit of clouded quartz he'd cut out of a block of chert. Pinkie left the stallion as he made rainbows dance in the dust for the fascinated infant.

Pinkie walked slowly, following the lines of her vision.

A pool. A wide, not that deep, but still close to the surface – pool.

Pinkie reached out with a hoof, and turned over the dry dirt over the center of the imagined pool, her other three hooves planted firmly in magic-suffused soil, and then, suddenly…

She felt the surge.

There was something solid under her frog, something pushing up out of the earth. She got the edge of her hoof under the thing in the packed dust, and pried it up and out of the dirt.

A munged, filthy bit of something weighty and solid. She brushed it off, and discovered that she'd found herself a beautiful piece of chert, white with streaks glittering a little bit green and black once she spat on it and cleaned off the dirt.

Jasperite. Huh.

She brought her new 'find' over to Red Quartzite and the now-fussy filly, and showed it to the crimson-coated stallion, who still wouldn't get up on his hooves. His cast had been off for a month and a half, but he still wouldn't put any weight on the healed limb. He just sat there in the dust in front of his half-built house, and stared at the bit of chert she'd found, not forty feet from where he had been sitting.

Sitting like an old, crippled stallion.

"Damn, boy," she prodded him. "Look what some fool city-mare found on your property. Maybe you ought to go look for yourself one of these days?"

He blushed and frowned, looking down at his gimp leg.

"I know it hurts, rockhopper. But it ain't ever gonna stop hurting until you start exercising it more. Come on, get up, come look at this." She showed him the pool, which was still spreading along the flat space below his house.

Red wobbled a bit, weak from his long convalescence. But Pinkie didn't let up on him, and she walked him back and forth across the 'pool' she had noticed, pointing out the edges, and encouraging him to poke around. He found bits of flint and quartz ore everywhere he put his hoof down. This was his talent, after all. This was his land. He could do it, if he just stopped feeling sorry for himself.

He wasn't the first pony to catch a raw break. Ah, well. Pinkie wasn't sure about Red Quartzite yet, but she knew his sister was a good 'un, and she hoped that meant that Red might make something of himself yet, if he got over feeling sore.

She left her future grange-chairman, or maybe town elder, digging in the dirt, pulling treasures out of the soil. The longer he went, she thought, the less he looked like he was favoring his gimp leg.

Maybe some ponies just needed some prodding.

As she walked away, Oatmeal fussing and sniffing on her back, she thought to herself, so that was what a bonanza looked like. The flows, the magic in the dirt. Her family had never been farming folk, true-dirt earth ponies. But maybe it was something she could do, or help with, if she let herself think past what she'd done in the past.

She had a baker's mark, but maybe not a baker's life anymore.

The track down out of the main Valley was full of new ponies. Word about the rock strike had spread. New would-be rockhoppers passing through. Pinkie eyed the under-equipped new ponies, and estimated to herself how much they'd have to order for these new ponies. These sooners – no, shouldn't call these folk that. They missed the first wave. These were settlers.

Oatmeal began crying in earnest as Pinkie reached the turn-off for the co-op. The new mother hurried on home, to find some privacy so that her hungry little filly could drink her fill.

Pearls, Pies, and Progress

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The Pearl sisters were contesting the assay results again. Pinkie's co-op subcommittee had signed off on her measures – and the part-time assayist's work – twice now. But here was Black Pearl again, demanding an expert to be brought down from the college in the West Valley to make an 'unbiased assessment'. Pinkie knew she wasn't anything approaching an expert, and the part-time assayist hadn't even gotten his degree from the college before coming out to the new lands, but Fair Weights was an honest and clever pony, and the equipment was the next best thing to new.

Those two pests just didn't want to admit that their cultivation scheme wasn't paying off like they thought it would. Pearls weren't dryland crops, and their elaborate rituals weren't producing useable seed pearls, let alone gemstone quality stone.

The fact was, nopony in the East Valley were getting gemstones out of their acreage other than the Corundums. Everypony had gotten so excited in the early summer when Ruby Red's first big gems had passed through the co-op's hooves, that a lot of rockhoppers had wasted their time and soil on malformed lumps of nothing in particular. Pinkie was of the opinion that everypony would have done better to concentrate their sweat and tears on another boring season of slate and other pavement-quality rock, the hay and butter of rock-farming.

A lot of co-op members were going to be behind on their dues for the year. Pinkie's attention drifted from the lower half of a grumbling Fair Weights muttering his irritation into the shadows underneath an half-disassembled assayist desk and returned to her swelling belly. Oatmeal's tuition in her distant school in the Middle Valley, and the way that little Gneiss ate his head off, and with this new one getting ready to join the family… well, they'd lived on less, she supposed.

And the store wasn't all that deep in debt. Their receivables were more than enough to cover the bank notes and payables. Assuming nopony else defaulted this year.

Two families in the old Quartzite Draw claims had thrown in the horseshoe last winter, after it was obvious that the leyline was played out, and the only way anypony was getting any further yield out of those upper slopes was by bloody-minded effort and toil. Pinkie and Bed had agreed to write off those debts as irrecoverable. Nopony was going to chase failed rockhoppers for their old debts to the co-op, even if it was in aggregate almost as much as Oatmeal's tuition for a season.

Or Gneiss's, when the time comes to send them both.

The Quartzites, on the other hoof, had made the brief seasons of bonanza pay, and both Red and Purple were looking pretty prosperous these days. They'd plowed the magic back into the soil and the dirt, exploited the deep ponding of ley-line magic on their claim as far as it would go, and now, today, they were harvesting high-quality white marble and flints in wholesale lots from their land. Pinkie was optimistic that she could get them to pick up the abandoned claims technically in the possession of the co-op, if only she could get one of the Quartzites to come in for a meeting and agree to the transaction.

"I give up, Missus Pinkie," said the pale yellow stallion, as he scrambled out from under the desk. "I can't see a blessed thing wrong in there that could cause a weighing error. Let alone… here, let me show you."

Fair Weights got up and picked up one of the slightly off-centered 'pearls' sitting on a tray off the side of the office. He carried it over to Pinkie, and held it up in the frog of his left fore-hoof.

"See? Looks like a pearl, good-sized, too, if not of the first water. But," he bobbed it up and down in his hoof, and then tossed it at Pinkie.

She fumbled a bit, but caught it in her own hoof. And then her eyes widened.

"Too light!"

"Damn right it's too light. And not only too light by mechanical weighing, but too light to the hoof. Here!" He took the 'pearl' back, and placed it on the assaying station, and then took up a small hammer his mouth, and brought it down sharply on the sample.

It split in half, and spilled out a small puff of dirt and sand. What was left was a thin shell of yellow-white pearlescence, even more irregular on the inside than it had been on the outside.

"See that? Just a thin veneer of nacre over a little clump of dirt. I really kind of think this type of stone just isn't meant to be farmed. I talked to Keshi about where the Pearls came from, and she admitted that, back home, they had pried these things out of animals, can you believe it? I've never heard anything so barbarous!"

Fair Weights, unlike many of the rockhoppers and settlers of the East Valley, had never been in the service. As far as Pinkie was concerned, his sensibilities were a little, hrm, overwrought? Nopony lasted long in the EUP being so squeamish.

"Well, it was a good try, I suppose, but if this is what they're producing, I can't see that they'll get any further going the way they are. They're sure they can't try again on a creekbed and do something with irrigation?"

"Aw, shucks, they think I'm cheating them, they don't want to hear anything from me."

"Maybe I should try talking to them again? Talk's cheap, cheaper than having the college ship out a specialist to eat her head off for a week before telling the Pearls what we could tell them ourselves, if they'd just listen."

"Missus Pinkie, they think I'm cheating them on your say-so. Last time I was up their way, that good old colt of theirs was polishing a long, odd-looking spear and giving me the stink eye!"

"Haw! They were just rattling your cage, Weights. You can't let that sort of thing put you off your feed. Go get some supper from the kitchen, and call it a day, we won't have any call for you until Thursday."

Gneiss woke up, just then, almost as if he'd sensed their conversation coming to an end. Pinkie went to collect him from the daybed in the back office, figuring he'd settle down and stop crying if he got a chance to stretch his legs.

They needed to check on the operation, anyways.

The original co-op shack had been converted to storage, and the new store was a purpose-built one-storey which still managed somehow to be sprawling. It might have been the way that Bed and Pinkie had just kept adding wings and additional extensions off of the original structure, but it took up most of the north side of the compound, now. Storerooms, the central store, the dining rooms (plural!), the kitchens, and the dry and cold storage. It was almost as big as the central Valley co-op, and from what little Pinkie had seen of the old West Valley co-op store, bigger than that venerable establishment.

The main reason for the expanse of their over-grown complex towered off on the southern fringe of the gravel-lined central yard, a half-dozen silos, two elevators, and two full-mast windmills. The day's winds, quite brisk for mid-summer, meant that both of the windmills were running full-out, and Pinkie could hear the heavy grumbling noise from out in the yard. Hyper little Gneiss galloped out ahead of his mother, yodeling in delight.

Gneiss loved the grindstones.

Pinkie and Bed Rock were still paying off the note to the Rock Valley Bank for the capital investments which the grain mill complex represented. The revenue flow more than paid for the services of Mill Bill and Hopper Colt and their collection of part-timers and carters. And the overflow from the supplies in the silos meant that the costs for the kitchens and the dining-rooms were at absolute rock-bottom. It all made sense financially, Pinkie was positive of that, and the other members of the board of directors, after having gone back and forth and back again over the books, endorsed her judgment.

But stars, wasn't it a lot of bits to tie up in a facility? And it was the main reason why the East Valley co-op was so much bigger than it should have been. The swarm of Oats and Furrows and Plowshares had filled up all the gaps in the settlement pattern left by all of those mayflies giving up the horseshoe and abandoning their claims back in the early years of settlement. The East Valley turned out to be some of the best dryland cropland in the western provinces.

It was almost enough to make one give in to the grain-farmers' demands for a weather-team.

Meanwhile, they had more grain than they could grist, and more flour than they could ship overland. Pinkie had sent some letters to the railroad company's management suggesting a spur line south off the main line to Applewood, but it was one tartarus of a long road over some pretty poor territory. In fact, some ponies - who sounded like they knew what they were talking about – said it would make more sense to run a spur off of the proposed line down into the southern provinces. But that would require a bridge over…

Ghastly Gorge. The absolute eastern border of the Valley, one way or the other. Nopony with a lick of sense settled the open acres available on the edge of the Gorge. Too many explorers over the years had been eaten by critters or otherwise disappeared down that way. Pinkie was just thankful the monsters of the Gorge largely stayed in the gorge.

Until Pinkie and the co-op board could convince somepony to run a rail line into the Valley, though, they were stuck with overland haulage. Which was turning out to be one of the most expensive aspects of the whole business. Which, also, was driving this craze for highly portable gemstones or ensorcelled widget-stone. Why go and put all that food into hauling a couple tons of pavement-stone overland into Salt Lick City and the depot there, if you could just pack out a hundred stone or less of high-value precious rocks or gems?

Great idea, but the execution… so far, only the Corundums had figured out the process, and even they ended up producing cheap garnets for the most part, only occasionally carving a low-end fire ruby out of their blessed soils.

Gneiss danced around the spinning grind-stones as the part-timers worked over the controls, directing the scoop-machinery and the belts that brought the grain into the grinder, and the flour out into barrels or back into the silos. Pinkie engaged in a shouted conversation with her two millers, discussing nothing of particular interest or import, mostly chewing over the ongoing grinding of the winter crops. Between the winter barley and wheat, and the spring oats, barley, rye and wheat later in the year, it meant that the mills were running at best, four or five months out of the year.

Pinkie would have preferred it if the damn things were paying off their loans year-long, but nopony had figured out how to grow summer or fall crops and get them harvested in the dead of the year. The farming-ponies and the pegasi and the Princess did so many miraculous things, what was one more miracle among the rest? She didn't understand it, not really. If a pegasus weather-team could help the small-grainers produce a third or fourth crop, she might even re-consider her opposition to the whole concept.

Especially if the prospect was enough to get the railroad corporation to run their damn rail line up into the interior.

Meanwhile, they were entirely self-sufficient in grains and so forth. They could keep as many carters and rockhoppers fed as cared to live up here on Celestia's vast back end. Flapjack and his three assistants were kept busy pretty much all week long, cranking away, taking flour and other foodstuffs in one end and kicking well-fed rockhoppers out the other side.
Flapjack had truly found his place in the world in the co-op's kitchens. His new cutie mark bore a very strong resemblance to the old one, differing in minor details that only a Cake or another baker-pony would have been able to identify. It mattered to Flapjack, though. He was very proud of his new mark, and Pinkie was proud for him. Especially since it had tripled his efficiency, and vastly improved the productivity of the kitchens.

These days, the kitchens sent out delivery-ponies to all of the major farms around the co-op, making daily deliveries to households throughout the neighboring hills and dells. Pinkie supposed that in a reasonable world, the local farmers would be feeding themselves by now, but with the co-op right there? Flapjack's ponies and their efficiency meant that the rockhoppers and the farmers could concentrate on pouring their magic into the soil, hour by hour, sunrise to sunset, without ever pausing to fight with their own baking or cooking or any of the rest of it.

They'd even accumulated a small corps of fast-hooved delivery-ponies who could carry still-piping-hot pastries deep into the back hollers in time for a nice, warm lunch for the dirty, hungry rock-farmers. Pinkie couldn't be prouder if she'd done it herself.

Pinkie had to pull her son out of the grainmill. He whined as she dragged him out by the scruff of his neck. She sometimes thought she was spoiling little Gneiss. Perhaps because she missed Oatmeal, she thought. Still, it might just be the difference between the two foals. Oatmeal had been a solemn child, quiet and reticent. Gneiss was flamboyant right from the moment he popped out in a sudden rush, as if he had been in a hurry to be born. Less than an hour's labor, and then, bam! Colt.

He was a bottomless hole when it came to oatcakes, though.

On their pass back through the showrooms, though, Pinkie found herself trapped by an unexpected bit of business. Seed-stone salesponies. Pies. The Pies were infamous in the Valley, purveyors of over-priced seedstone, incredibly expensive seedstone by Pinkie's estimation. She would never have been able to afford the gristmills if she'd given into the blandishments of the Pie salesponies the first half-dozen times they'd passed through the co-op.

The sales-pony this time was a very, very young colt named Sandstone, and a very, very little colt. Sandstone introduced the littlest colt to her and Gneiss as his little brother, Igneous. Gneiss and Igneous weren't really the same age – Igneous was probably closer to Oatmeal in age – but he was a very easy-going little colt, and he led Gneiss off to entertain the tiny Rock while his brother…

Sold at Pinkie. Again. Everypony knew about the Pie seedstones, how they gave a hoof up on everypony else when it came to growing nice, clean cladding – or pavementstone, or damn near anything else that required a certain amount of complexity in the growing. The East Valley's rock-farmers had figured out gravel, and rough building-stone, and to a certain extent, slate and flints. Stuff that required rough growth and un-directed, blocky construction? The East Valley's well-established farmers had that nailed down.

When it came to clever, cleanly grown construction-grade material, on the other hoof, well. That hadn't quite come along yet. And the damn Pies bragged day and night about how their blasted seed-stone could grow just about any shape your ambition required. Pinkie had seen demonstrations of their product at some of the recent provincial rock-fairs. They had been impressive indeed. As had been the accompanying price-tags.

Nothing was worth that mark-up. The co-op's ponies just couldn't afford Pie witchcraft, as far as Pinkie was concerned. No matter how clever this Sandstone was in his sales technique, no matter how affable and useful little Igneous was in supporting his big brother in their double-headed sales attack. Pinkie sent off both Pies with a bee in their ear about bothering her just before supper.

She only realized when she was feeding little Gneiss and chewing on her own muffin, that she'd forgotten she had planned to go out to talk to the Pearls. Oh, well, their impossible dreams of pearls grown in the drylands could wait until another day.

Pinkie fed her little colt, and dreamed of her absent filly away at school, filling up to the top of her silos with Rock Valley knowledge, Rock Valley wisdom. Pinkie would never be a Rock Valley pony, no matter how much she tried, no matter what she changed her name to. Oatmeal had been born in the Valley, and Oatmeal would truly be a Rock.

So would Gneiss, she hoped. This new foal, too, once he got done being born.