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The crowd roared, legs thrown haphazardly into the air, manes swishing from left to right and back as they danced to the music. All lights were focused on the stage, where a lone unicorn stood, her four hooves planted firmly on the polished marble of the Royal Canterlot Ballroom, her eyes shut with focus as she belted out her lyrics in a voice both smooth and onerous. Where once a year high-class unicorns milled about as invitees to the Grand Galloping Gala, fans of all three pony races and social statuses now raved under the heavy curtain of Sweetie Belle's music.
Some complained that the new singer was given special treatment because her sister had an in with the princesses. Others argued that it was Sweetie's talent and her talent alone that caused her to rise from relative obscurity to fame so quickly. The truth was probably somewhere in between the two extremes. Regardless, the young unicorn was Canterlot's newest sensation, and if the sheer amount of her fans was any indication, she would not be a simple one-hit wonder.
Her curled pink and purple locks were drenched in sweat, clinging to her face in small clumps. Perhaps subconsciously, she had obtained a habit of singing with the side of her flanks facing the audience, showcasing her cutie mark in all its glory: a pink dynamic microphone with a heart-shaped receiver. She had received it late in life, as a young teenager, and had immediately refocused all of the energy she had, up until then, focused on the gaining of her cutie mark, on to the cherishing of her new talent and its physical avatar. She even sang into a microphone designed as a replica of her cutie mark in every concert, as much out of superstition as of showmareship. Muzzle wide open, she shrieked the chorus to her latest song:
"Find me, my darling
My baby, my dear.
Find me and take me
Oh so far away from here.
'Cause I don't care to say
Why I feel this way;
Just trust me and find me
And take me away."
The song's lyrics were vague; Sweetie Belle had written them that way on purpose. She didn't have much room to be specific. Her manager, a laid-back ex-DJ named Vinyl Scratch, had been unimpressed with the new song, though she hadn't admitted it. Still, Sweetie could tell, somewhere in the way her manager's eyebrows raised as she spoke or within the inflections of her voice, that she found the vague love-song theme hackneyed and overdone. Sweetie Belle had a sixth sense for those sorts of things, often able to detect other ponies' moods when she had no reasonable way to do so. And she could definitely sense a souring in Vinyl Scratch's mood when Sweetie's newest song came on the radio. "Write about your life," Vinyl would remind her incessantly, especially when conversation drifted to Sweetie's newest single. "Awkward lyrics about something you know is always better than poetic ones you don't know horseapples about."
And the fact was that there wasn't much romance in Sweetie Belle's life. It wasn't that she lacked the drive to be in a relationship; neither was it that stallions didn't find her attractive. In fact, Sweetie Belle was a determined young mare who loved to meet new ponies, and her celebrity status and cute image made her quite popular around Canterlot. Rather, she simply had never managed to forge any connection beyond friendship with the stallions she went on dates with. Vinyl's advice aside, there was always a large factor of imagination and guesswork that went into Sweetie's love songs. Vague was really the only direction to travel in.
After the performance, Sweetie Belle removed her makeup backstage, while Vinyl Scratch lounged lazily in a hammock beside her. The singer frowned at her image in the mirror as she dabbed a cotton ball at her face, eyeing her smudged eyeshadow. "Did I really look like this the whole time?" she said to nopony in particular, not expecting nor desiring an answer. During her first few months in Canterlot, Rarity had tagged along with her and Vinyl, and the application of Sweetie's makeup had been her area of expertise. Eventually, Rarity had been forced to retire back to Ponyville to manage her boutique, and Sweetie had never quite mastered the art as well as her older sister.
Vinyl was holding a radio in her forehooves, playing Sweetie Belle's most recent album. Her spectacled face bobbed in time to the music. "Sweetie Belle," she began, springing the conversation from nowhere. "Do you like mares?"
Sweetie dropped the cotton ball she had been holding in place with her magic, swinging her head around to stare at her manager bemusedly. "Huh?" she squeaked, her frustrated glower transforming to a small surprised pout.
Vinyl shrugged, adjusting the volume dial on her radio. "Hearts 'n' Hooves Day is coming up, you know," she pointed out, ignoring the singer's bewilderment. "Now, I've set you up on blind dates with stallion friends of mine for the last three Hearts and Hooveses, and it's never gone anywhere. Now, I'm gonna set you up on another date this year, but at this point I'm beginning to wonder if there's a problem with the fundamentals here." Now Vinyl Scratch shut the radio off completely, and used her other forehoof to raise her sunglasses, revealing two striking, narrowed red eyes. "Have I been setting you up with the wrong gender all this time, Sweetie Belle?"
Sweetie Belle blushed, turning back to her mirror as she returned to wiping off the last remnants of her makeup. "I... I dunno..." she replied slowly as she used her magic to toss another used cotton ball into the waste bin. She stood staring at her reflection for a long while--Oh Rarity, why couldn't you have stayed just a little longer?--before returning to the conversation at hoof. "I'm not one of those fillies who panics at the thought of spending Hearts and Hooves Day dateless, but..."
"But you're a sweet pony and I like you, 'Belle," finished Vinyl Scratch. Her eyes were kind and understanding despite their violent color. The ex-DJ was still a popular mare, even though she was growing to the age where most ponies began to settle down in life; for Vinyl, it seemed that age was going to come far later, if at all. There was a reason she knew enough stallions to set Sweetie Belle up with a new one every time she was feeling lonely. But even among her wide range of close friends, Vinyl Scratch had a soft spot for Sweetie Belle. "I want you to be happy."
The singer smiled wide at that, genuinely touched. "Thanks," she said simply. Then, traversing into deeper conversation, "I might like mares. I dunno. They're prettier than stallions, usually. I mean, I like stallions, too, but it might not be, um... mutually exclusive." As always, Sweetie Belle had a habit of lurching into more sophisticated vocabulary despite her often-simplistic way of speaking. "Y'know what I mean?"
Vinyl grinned, replacing her sunglasses with a quick bob of her head. "I feel ya, Sweetie Belle," she said. "Actually, I think I've got just the girl for you. You free for dinner in a few days?"
Abandoning her mirror, Sweetie Belle trotted to her manager's side and gave her a gentle hug. "I'm free for the next two weeks, Vinyl Scratch; I don't think you'll have any problem there," she joked, her speaking voice momentarily giving way to a light, lilting giggle. "Thanks."
"Aw, you're welcome. Don't get too wild with the lucky filly, all right?"
A neon sign dangled from a horizontal post, loud and startling among the classy Victorian buildings that crowded most of Canterlot. "SUNSPOT" declared the sign in large, imposing capital letters, and techno music poured from its open doorframe. Vinyl Scratch approached its entrance with recognizable enthusiasm, two-toned blue mane bouncing in rhythm with her own bobbing head. Sometimes Sweetie Belle wondered whether she did that by choice, or if the head-bobbing was an instinctive reaction to the power of rock.
Vinyl turned to her companion as they came closer and closer to Sunspot's entrance; the curly-maned unicorn took an uncertain step back. "Vinyl... this isn't where my date is, is it?" she queried, her voice barely heard above the drone of the club's rhythmic music.
The spectacled pony laughed uproariously; it seemed her proximity to the nightclub was reawakening her inner party animal. "Nooo, Sweetie! Of course not! This is just where I'll be spending the evening. Your date is over there." She raised a forehoof, gesturing towards the building opposite. This one was dark and quiet, painted dark violet with Renaissance architecture. Looking closer, Sweetie spotted a sign reading "Dusk's Bistro" in elegant cursive above the front entrance. It was the exact antithesis of Sunspot, which was probably why she hadn't noticed it until now: it fit in perfectly with the rest of Canterlot. Vinyl used the same hoof to prod Sweetie Belle in its direction. "Go on now! Your date's waiting!"
The singer jumped back, startled, though after she recovered from her initial surprise she let out a high-pitched giggle. "Vinyl Scratch, are you drunk already? At least tell me what my date looks like!" she protested--despite the fact that she was already trotting her way over to Dusk's. Just because she was a musician didn't mean she fancied the idea of being deafened by it, at least not outside of work.
"Just tell 'em Vinyl sent you!" her friend called. "They'll show you where she is!"
Sweetie nodded in affirmation, raising a hoof to wave goodbye. Vinyl Scratch returned the gesture, then giggled madly again, cantering into Sunspot. Sweetie Belle took one final look back before disappearing into her own destination.
The noise from the nightclub opposite fell silent immediately as Dusk's heavy front doors swung shut behind her. For a moment the unicorn wondered if her manager had really made that much of an entrance, before logic took over and she realized that the doors were simply soundproof. It was probably a necessity if one was going to set up business near Sunspot.
"Welcome, miss," greeted the mare behind the counter, a scarlet-maned unicorn with her mane pulled back into a ponytail. She reminded Sweetie a bit of her childhood friend Applebloom, if Applebloom had possessed a horn and the ability to speak without sounding ridiculous. Of course, that had been part of her charm. "Table for one?"
"Oh--no, actually," corrected Sweetie Belle. "I'm meeting somepony here. We had a reservation, I think. The name is under 'Sweetie Belle.' Maybe 'Vinyl Scratch.' One of us."
"Right!" cried the waitress, staring intently at her customer as a look of recognition spread across her face. "You're Sweetie Belle, aren't you? I thought I recognized your voice!" Sweetie nodded sheepishly, prompting another burst of gushing from the ponytailed unicorn. "I'm a big fan! Your newest single--"Far Away," was it?--Anyways, I love it. Absolutely love it. Oh, I just wish I could have been at the concert on Tuesday..."
"Sweetie Belle?" called another voice, this one from within the dining room. Sweetie turned to face the source by instinct, only to let out a thrilled gasp as her heartbeat sped and her eyes landed on an orange pegasus sitting alone at a nearby table. The purple-maned mare was grinning, raising a foreleg in greeting. "I didn't know you moved out of Ponyville, Sweets!"
Abandoning (rather rudely, she would later admit) the waitress, Sweetie Belle galloped over to take the seat across from her old friend, admiring the longer, more feminine mane-cut she had adopted since they had last spoken. The pegasus was still clearly a tomcolt--if the short, spiky tail didn't make it obvious enough, the motorcycle on her flanks certainly did--but she also knew how to look good, as evidenced by the golden lightning-bolt necklace she was wearing around her neck. "Scootaloo!" cried Sweetie Belle, clapping her fore hooves together with excitement. "What're you doing in Canterlot?"
Even before the three Cutie Mark Crusaders had declared their mission statement, even before Applebloom had joined the group of destiny's rejects, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle had been friends. Their personalities had been too different to get along, according to some ponies, Rarity included, and they were all right. But the two fillies' squabbling didn't dash their friendship, only strengthen it. Their volatile friendship had lasted all the way through foalhood, until Scootaloo had departed for Cloudsdale to make a pass at the Wonderbolts. If rumors were any indication, Scootaloo hadn't made it in, but seeing her now, Sweetie Belle imagined the rejection hadn't been particularly traumatic. She was glad; for a long while, the singer had worried for her old friend.
Scootaloo chuckled, relaxing against her chair and tossing a backhoof up onto the table. She used another leg to rub at her unruly bangs sheepishly, her cheeks coloring slightly. "Well, to be honest... I let a friend set me up on a blind date. I haven't met the filly yet, but--"
"Ah-HA!" cried Sweetie Belle so loudly that a nearby unicorn waiter nearly dropped his tray in surprise. She extended a foreleg, pointing at her foalhood friend triumphantly. "I won!"
Scootaloo blinked absently, bewildered. "Wait, what'd you win?"
"Applebloom bet me ten bits the day you left for Cloudsdale that you weren't a fillyfoo--er, that you didn't like mares..." Sweetie was beginning to realize what it was that she had burst out with, and it had just dawned on her that a pony might not want her sexuality announced to all of Canterlot. Lowering her voice, she continued, "I tried to tell her that you liked Rainbow Dash, but she told me you just saw her as a big sis. But I was right!"
Scootaloo had another moment of confusion before relaxing again. "Oh..." she replied simply; she honestly had no idea that her friends had determined that much about her, even back in high school. For hay's sake, she hadn't even known it herself then! Was she that transparent? "Well. I guess you did."
Sweetie's grin evaporated, sensing the insecurity in Scootaloo's voice. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I didn't mean to say anything bad. I was just excited to see you is all!"
The pegasus shrugged off her pensiveness, fluttering her wings. "Aw, don't be sorry," she insisted. "It's cool to see you too! I hear you're a singer now, right?"
The unicorn perked up again. "Yeah! My first album just came out! Ooh, Scootaloo--you should listen to it! You don't even have to buy it; I'll just give you a copy, okay?"
Scootaloo extended and then relaxed her wings in the pegasi's version of a shrug. "Sure; I'll give it a shot..." She considered adding a clarifier of something along the lines of "but you owe me if it sucks!" but decided against it at the last moment. She wouldn't have hesitated a millisecond in their foalhood, but now that both mares had matured, she was afraid the comment would come across as rude rather than joking. She had learned the hard way that sarcasm couldn't always be conveyed between ponies, even in face-to-face interaction.
It had been a dumb move, in hindsight, but pegasi weren't known for their forethought--Scootaloo in particular, even less so. She had been a young adult, visiting Cloudsdale for the first time, and able to speak to her idol as an equal--again, for the first time. She hadn't just been literally walking on clouds. When Rainbow Dash had complimented Scootaloo's cutie mark, the statement had just poured out: "Yeah, I'm way too cool to be looking up to the likes of you now!" It was a joke, of course; Scootaloo still idolized the rainbow-maned Wonderbolt with a passion. But Rainbow Dash was... sensitive. Not as confident as she appeared. Their friendship had ended the day it began.
Scootaloo touched the golden pendant on her necklace without thinking about it. This lightning bolt may have been monochromatic, not like that which belonged to her beloved idol, but it was still a kind reminder. She could never forget the mare who had inspired her to get this far. Meanwhile, her companion tilted her head to the side in response to the pegasus's sudden silence. "Scoots?"
The orange mare shook her head, clearing it of thoughts. "Yeah. Sorry."
Sweetie giggled, then shot Scootaloo a reassuring grin; she wasn't entirely sure why the pegasus had needed reassuring, but something in Scootaloo's face had flown a red flag in her mind. She had worn the same expression that Rarity had donned during her time in Canterlot with Sweetie, each and every time the Carousel Boutique had come into the conversation. A look that signified the loss of something monumental, something that defined a pony. "So," she said lightly, searching for a suitable subject to jump to. "What are you doing currently, anyways? For a job, I mean?"
Scootaloo cracked a smile, relaxing again. "Oh--I'm a stuntpony. Mostly I do shows at sports events and stuff; I jumped ten chariots with my wings tied during the halftime show last Hoofball Championship!"
The unicorn's eyes grew wide. "You jumped?! That far?"
In response, Scootaloo stood, gesturing towards her motorcycle cutie mark. "Not on my own!" she chuckled. "I've got a bike now. It's like my old scooter, but way cooler." She leaned in at the last three words, faux-whispering conspiratorially. Sweetie felt her face flush as the pegasus's breath touched her coat. Scootaloo had grown up so much since they had last spoken, had grown so much... prettier. Aw, come on, Sweetie! she scolded herself. Scoots is your friend! You can't really be that hard-up, can you?
She broke eye contact with Scootaloo, looking back to the restaurant's entrance and frowning. "Oh, I should probably go find my date before they think I stood them up," she murmured. Her temporary... lapse in judgment in response to Scootaloo's proximity had been a rude reminder of the real reason she was here.
"Yeah, and I gotta find mine and chew her out for standing me up," yawned Scootaloo, evidently unconcerned with her apparent rejection. "And Vinyl said she was sweet..."
Sweetie Belle's ears pricked up. As the situation dawned on her, she forgot her misgivings at her earlier proximity to Scootaloo and collapsed on the table before her, mane brushing her friend's coat. She laughed again; not a giggle this time, but a loud, uproarious laugh. "Vinyl? Oh, for harmony's sake--!"
The pegasus gave her a startled look, her expression clouded with confusion. Then, like an illuminating ray of sun, understanding came to Scootaloo as well, and she joined in with Sweetie Belle's riotous laughter. "Oh, great; you're my date! Some luck I have!"
She wasn't quite sure about that last sentence the moment it left her mouth, but Sweetie Belle just laughed it off. "She told me not to get too 'wild' with you! Wild! With you! She was trying to be subtle, like I don't know what couples do together! With you!"
"I should have known when she told me my date was kind of a ditz!" joined in Scootaloo, sides beginning to ache.
"She called me a ditz!? I am sooo mad at her!" Despite her words, Sweetie Belle's tone didn't make them very convincing. Then, again for good measure. "With you!" The two laughed until they were left panting for breath, both with their heads resting on the polished granite of the table.
Sweetie finally settled into a regular breathing pattern, though mad giggles managed to escape her snout every few moments. A vision of the familiar waitress from the front counter appeared in her mind from nowhere. "I wish Applebloom were here too," she nickered, and Scootaloo nodded horizontally in agreement.
Sweetie raised her gaze, inhaling deeply... She caught sight of Scootaloo's necklace; it glinted at her flirtatiously. Did Sweetie Belle really want Applebloom there, right now? She felt guilty for thinking it, not only for snubbing her old friend, but also for the myriad reasons why she would do so, but... No. She didn't; Sweetie honestly didn't. Another time, of course, she would love to see her, but... not now. Her expression slowly morphed from an innocent smile to a wry grin. "Scootaloo?" she called softly.
The pegasus lifted her head off of the table; the world spun for a moment as she reoriented herself. "Yeah...?" she asked, admiring the elegant curls in Sweetie Belle's mane. They were pink and purple, sure, which would usually suck because those were Scootaloo's two least favorite colors. But something about the unicorn made her an exception; she had always been an exception.
A hoof caught her necklace, and drew her into a kiss that sent sonic rainbooms dancing through Scootaloo's perception. The two locked lips for fifteen silent seconds before Sweetie Belle released her friend's jewelry, replacing her hoof on her chair tenderly. She had acted in a sudden rush of boldness, but now she felt her cheeks burning with embarrassment. A rush of emotions shot through her: guilt for putting her friend in such an awkward position, shame at herself for daring to see a foalhood friend in... that... way, regret for potentially ruining a foalhood friendship, and, worst of all, an odd sense of triumph. "Uh... I'm sorry, I'm--"
Her companion felt the same mix of emotions, save for one explosive difference: Scootaloo's feelings of victory had managed to eclipse each and all of the others. The pegasus placed both forehooves on the table forcefully and returned the favor, wings spread wide. As with all things, she approached the embrace head-on, pressing her nose up against the white unicorn's with rash emotion. The same waiter who had fumbled with his tray earlier caught a glimpse of the couple out of the corner of his eye and became too distracted to notice his magical control over the wineglass he was delivering fading. Neither mare noticed the crash of shattered glass.
They parted again, and Scootaloo narrowed her eyes at the pink-maned beauty. "Wanna head over to Sunspot?"
A white unicorn with cropped blue hair trotted into Canterlot's resident recording studio, nodding her greetings at the security and neglecting to remove her sunglasses as usual. There was a theory going around the studio that they were surgically attached to her face; it was the sort of gossip that everypony laughed at and mocked as ridiculous among company, but sometimes, in the shadiest corners of their mind, found just the tiniest bit plausible. It was also a bald-faced lie, but Vinyl just didn't have the heart to break it to them.
Vinyl Scratch met with her talent in the elevator, raising an eyebrow as she turned to face the singer. Sweetie Belle's eyes were tired, her head drooping ever so occasionally as if she meant to fall asleep right there. In no condition to record a decent track, probably, but there was no way Vinyl could just let her off the hook. This was just going to be too much fun. "My pal Dusk told me there was a bit of a stir in his restaurant on Hearts and Hooves day," she commented nonchalantly, keeping her eyes on the unreadable musician. Sweetie didn't move.
Vinyl wasn't done yet. Oh, no, she was going to hear the story from the pony's mouth if it killed her! "I told you not to get too wild," she reminded Sweetie Belle in a singsong voice. Sweetie didn't respond, just clenched her teeth together in what could either be upset or excitement.
As the elevator stopped and the doors began to open, Sweetie Belle finally turned to acknowledge Vinyl Scratch, and now she was grinning mischievously. "I'm mad at you today," she informed her manager politely. The spectacled mare raised her eyebrows in silent question. "Because," Sweetie explained in a mock-scolding voice. "You called me a ditz."