3. “Broken hearts make ponies do stupid things.”
The sun was setting. Vinyl watched it sleepily through the window. She yawned into a hoof and snuggled in the chair amidst the blankets her housekeeper had brought over to make it a little less uncomfortable. She never would have thought she was the type of pony to need or want a housekeeper. True, she loathed cleaning with a fiery passion; and true, Octavia used to drop a wet dishcloth over her eyes while she slept as a gentle reminder that the plates in the sink were growing mould. Even so, paying someone to clean up after her had never crossed her mind until Indigo set hoof in the apartment three months after Octavia left and declared it a health hazard.
Vinyl sighed. No matter what she thought of, everything spiralled back to Octavia somehow.
Gwendolyn, the goat sent by the agency ‘Dolly Mops’, was such a wonder that when Vinyl finally moved from the apartment, leaving behind all the painful memories it contained, she had taken her along to her new swish house in Green Lake, the upper side of Manehattan where you couldn’t even go to fetch your morning paper off the step without spotting a celebrity neighbour. Vinyl wasn’t sure she needed all the rooms in the house but she sure needed someone to keep her from messing up one after another whenever she was home, as well as someone to make sure there was food in the fridge so she didn’t starve to death by forgetting to buy things while she was working. Nowadays, with her time filled by so many things even her agent had trouble keeping track, Vinyl didn’t know how she had ever managed without a housekeeper.
Well, all the things she had been doing until now.
Nine days was a long time to take out of a schedule like hers. After the cancelled concerts and personal appearances, reporters had finally come sniffing around Manehattan General. Their ingenuity was one challenge after another to hospital security. Some claimed they had appointments. Some pretended to be visiting other patients. A couple even pretended to be patients, resulting in a hefty fine for wasting paramedics’ time and one penitent reporter with a broken collarbone. Another journalist from the Coltchester Courier actually scaled a drainpipe, despite being an earth pony of considerable girth who had no way to stop himself when his weight pulled the pipe off the brickwork.
“Can you believe the stuff these hacks print?” Vinyl asked Octavia. She smacked the newspaper levitating in front of her. “According to them, I hit you with my carriage and that’s why I’m doing this. I don’t even own a friggin’ carriage! Plus they got your name wrong. Who the hay is Octavia Melody?”
“G’night, sweetie.” Nurse Merry Heart called from the doorway. She had her jacket on and a pink scarf wrapped about her neck. The scarf was full of ugly bobbles and pulled threads. Vinyl knew from talking to Nurse Flower Heart that Merry Heart’s son and daughter had knitted it for her for Mother’s Day and selected the wool to exactly match her mane and tail. They had even tried to add white tassels to match the rest of her coat too, though most of those had fallen off. “My shift’s over, so I’m going home.”
“Goodnight,” Vinyl waved back. “Say hi to your kids for me, okay?”
“Sure thing, sugar. Thanks again for that autograph. Glow danced right the way around our house holding it in the air. All her little friends at school are jealous. Of course, Chip pretended he didn’t care until I gave him that CD.”
“Cool. Just let me know if you want any more.” When she was gone Vinyl leaned in close to the bed. “Hey, Tavi, what do you say we go to that filly’s school and surprise her once you’re out of this place? She can worship the ground I walk on while you try to convince her classical music isn’t more boring than watching grass grow.”
Octavia’s lids remained closed.
Vinyl blew out a sigh. “Yeah, you’re right. That’s a dumb idea. Classical ain’t as bad as all that.” She paused. “Sorry. Isn’t.”
Bruiser didn’t ask for much out of life. He enjoyed his job, was good at it, owned his own apartment and even had a girl he got to see most days at work. Of course, Flower Heart never let anything happen at work, but he minded that less than he’d thought he would. He wasn’t exactly a colt anymore and was learning to appreciate a mare who respected herself as a way of respecting him. It didn’t even bother him that she was a terrible cook who couldn’t even heat up canned soup without it turning into a culinary disaster. He liked to be needed, and not just because his muscles kept muggers away, although that was pretty good too. Being better than somepony in the kitchen was a new and novel experience he had yet to grow tired of.
So when he saw Flower Heart and her pal leaving the building, he trotted over to catch her before the sliding glass doors shut behind them.
“Hey, Flower Heart! Hey!”
She turned at the sound of his voice, and then looked back at her friend. “Catch you tomorrow, Merry.” She turned back to him, smiling, but he noted instantly that her eyes were troubled. Flower Heart could no more hide her emotions from him than he could fit into a teapot.
“What’s up, doll-face?” he asked.
“Your hooves if you call me doll-face again and force me to punch you out.” She said the words automatically, her half of an old joke they had shared since they started dating. Everypony assumed that two ponies from the Boondocks had to have a relationship filled with blazing arguments – especially if one of them was big enough to take on a bear in a hoof-fight and win, and the other could out-cuss any sailor if pushed far enough. Bruiser imagined it would disappoint a lot of stereotypes if they knew he and Flower Heart had reasonable discussions and compromises instead of knock-down, drag-out fights. He didn’t think she even owned a rolling pin.
“Seriously, Flower, what’s wrong? You got a face on you like a dog waiting to be fixed by the vet.”
She pulled a face. “Ew! You couldn’t think of anything better than that to compare me to?”
Bruiser shrugged. “So what’s up?”
She sighed. “Feh. There’s a patient upstairs who ain’t looking too hot.”
“Ain’t the first time you’ve dealt with one of those.”
“I know, but this one’s got a visitor attached.”
“Ain’t the first time–”
She cut him off. “I know that too, Bruiser. This one’s … I don’t know, it’s different somehow. It feels different to me. It’s hard to explain what I … You ever seen real devotion?”
“Huh?” Bruiser scratched his head with one soup-plate hoof. “Like, with family?”
“I had a dog once who kept breaking outta our building to follow me to school. Does that count?”
“It’ll do. Imagine that times a hundred and you’ve got this pony. The thing is, the patient? It ain’t good.” Flower bit her lip. “I mean it really ain’t good.”
“You’re thinking the patient might die?”
“No, but maybe …” She chewed her lip again, biting down so hard she left teeth marks Bruiser couldn’t help watching as she spoke. “I feel awful for even thinking it, but maybe that’d be best. At least then sh… the visitor could grieve and move on. I’m worried that if the patient remains this way … broken hearts make ponies do stupid things.” She shook her head. “What am I saying? I shouldn’t even be talking about this. Sorry, hun.”
“Hey.” He chucked her under the chin, gently forcing her head so she met his eyes. “Quit that. I know how it is. This place gets under your skin. You got it way worse than I do. I know I’m here to deal with scumbags, so it’s hard when I gotta deal with hysterical loved ones causing a ruckus instead. It makes me feel like crap when I gotta throw ‘em out. You? You gotta deal with all that and more. You put on a good act, sweet-cheeks, but you don’t fool me with that tough girl attitude. It don’t do nopony any good to keep inside the kinda junk we get outta this place. If you can’t talk to me about it, who can you talk to?”
“You lunkhead,” she murmured affectionately, rolling her eyes. “You ain’t nothing but a softy underneath all that muscle.”
“Shh. Don’t let that get around or I’ll have to pound a few heads to keep my rep intact.”
“You just keep yourself intact.” She grabbed the collar of his uniform and pulled him close for a quick smooch. “Dinner at mine tonight?”
She would order in. She always ordered in. She liked grande sized pizzas with all the toppings and could match him bite for bite. Last week they had tussled over the last slice until they rolled off the couch onto the floor and forgot all about food. He had found it stuck in his tail afterwards and hadn’t even cared. He liked that Flower Heart wasn’t skinny. Once upon a time he had told himself he would only ever date leggy, lean mares with high cheekbones and hooficures, but these days he couldn’t imagine being with anypony but Flower and couldn’t imagine her being anything but the way she was. If anypony had told him when he was younger that one day he would prefer a chunky girl who not only couldn’t cook like his Ma, but couldn’t cook at all, he would have laughed in their face. You really couldn’t predict the future, no matter how much you thought you could.
“You betcha, doll-face.”
“Ooh, you are so asking for it.” She biffed him playfully on his shoulder.
He laughed and turned away to return to his post. “I get off shift in a couple of hours, so keep the pizza warm for me.”
“How’d you know I’m ordering pizza?”
He grinned. “Lucky guess.”
He had only gone a few steps she called him back. “Hey, Bruiser?” She hesitated before continuing, “That dog. The one that kept following you to school. What happened to it?”
He winced at the memory of leaving school one day to find the dog dead in the road, having been run over by a carriage while it was crossing the street. He had been wracked with guilt that it had died trying to see him and refused to have another pet in case it loved him so much it, too, died and left him bereft. The foalish logic had stuck and he had never had a pet in all his adult life either.
Sensing this was exactly the wrong answer to give Flower Heart, he paused before replying, “Lived a long and happy life. Plus he had a great time making about a million puppies with the neighbourhood dogs.”
Bruiser saw out the end of his shift without any problems. He almost wished another reporter would try something, just to break the monotony, but the time ticked by and he clocked out without incident. As he slipped his time card back into place, however, Flower Heart’s words echoed through his mind and he once more saw the troubled look in her eyes.
She didn’t often look that way. She was a professional and good at keeping herself just distant enough from patients and their families that their suffering didn’t derail her own sanity. It was all too easy to let the tragedies and heartbreaks get to you in a place like this. Bruiser had been at Manehattan General for fourteen years and witnessed the departure of more than a few who couldn’t make it past basic training. Flower Heart was not one of those ponies.
He hesitated, glancing at the clock. “Aw, horsefeathers.”
The trip up to Neurology was as uneventful as everything else had been that evening. Maybe he was doing this out of simple boredom and nothing more. Yeah, that was probably it. Nevertheless, he exited the elevator and went several yards before realising he was walking on tiptoe. The night nurses looked up from their station, raising eyebrows at his presence, but didn’t question it. A security uniform was like a free pass anywhere in the hospital.
“Hey, Cherry Heart?”
“Yeah?” The nearest nurse got to her hooves, revealing a red cross cutie mark wreathed in bits of pink blossom. “Can I help you, Bruiser?”
He paused. This was dumb. What the hay was he even doing? Yet once again, Flower Heart’s face and voice returned to him.
“This one’s … I don’t know, it’s different somehow. It feels different to me. It’s hard to explain.”
“Do you got a patient up here with a visitor who’s been sticking around, like, longer than usual?”
Cherry Heart visibly relaxed. Apparently she had assumed he was up here to deliver bad news or evacuate them. She nodded at the door directly across from the nurses’ station. “Room 219. Why?”
“I’m investigating something.”
She exchanged a look with her companion, a black stallion called Loyal Heart who was one of the few male nurses in the hospital. They both wore matching looks of curiosity.
“Nothing bad,” Bruiser added. “And nothing that affects you two. Just … something. Mind if I look in?”
“Be our guest,” said Cherry Heart. “I think they’re both sleeping, though, if you wanted to talk to … well, you could only talk to Miss Scratch.”
“Miss Scratch, huh?” Flower Heart had diligently not mention names when talking to him downstairs. Bruiser had heard of the pony ‘Vinyl Scratch’ when all those reporters started casing the hospital, especially from one of the new batch of porters who hadn’t even been here six months and seemed to think transporting patients and equipment around the hospital was some elaborate game of pony pinball. Bruiser hadn’t recognised the mare’s name but knew she was famous for some reason. No wonder Flower Heart hadn’t wanted to identify her when talking about her concerns in a crowded waiting room.
He couldn’t hear anything from the room so he peered around the edge, noting the slowly revolving ceiling fan and heavy air. It smelled strange; clean but redolent of something he couldn’t place. It didn’t take him long to pick out the bed and pony in it, since the room was typically bright. He often wondered how patients got any sleep when hospital policy was to keep the lights on all the time.
The white mare in the chair was doing her best to show everypony else how to do it. Her body sprawled, torso looking as if it had erupted out of the blankets that had pooled around her waist when she flung herself across the bed. Evidently she was a restless sleeper, stretched as if she was trying to climb over the bedridden pony’s hind legs to get to the other side. Her own hind legs were concealed by red tartan that didn’t match any part of her startlingly white coat or variegated blue mane. Her face was turned away from the door but her chest rose and fell with an evenness that could only come from sleep.
Emboldened, Bruiser stepped fully into the doorway and examined the pair, wondering more than ever what had inspired Flower Heart to worry about them. The scene reeked of tragedy, sure, but no more than any other case. Heck, the patient looked like she still had all her limbs and no facial scarring. If anything, she looked better off than some patients he had seen –
At that moment the white pony rubbed her nose as she slept, turning her face towards the door in the process. Her eyebrows were wedged into an expression of deep distress and held none of the smoothness that usually came with slumber. Instead, her whole body vibrated with tension and she hugged the other mare’s legs as a foal in its crib might hold a comfort blanket, reassuring itself that the inexplicably precious thing had not gone away while it slept.
Maybe he made some noise, or maybe she instinctively felt his gaze on her. Whatever the reason, the white mare’s eyes opened. She looked directly at Bruiser, her own gaze a sleepy but disturbing red. Bruiser had never seen eyes that colour before and backed away a few steps before he caught himself. What was he doing? He was the freaking security guard, for Celestia’s sake – the senior security guard. He retook those steps and a couple more besides, asserting his stallionhood by closing the distance between him and that unnerving, unblinking red stare.
He expected the mare to sit up, ask him what he was doing there, or at least make some comment on his presence. Just as his uniform was a free pass to get around the hospital, it was also a powerful truth serum and loosener of tongues. He had lost count of the number of ponies who had revealed the inner workings of their minds to him simply from suspicion of why he was standing near them.
This mare, however, did not sit up. In fact, she just blinked a few times and curled a hoof further over the unconscious pony’s body. Bruiser realised after a few seconds that she was putting herself between him and the patient, as if trying to protect her from him by using her own body as a shield. Him, of all ponies! He was twice her size and could beat her in a fight blindfolded and with both hooves behind his back. Yet she had perceived him as a potential threat and acted accordingly, at least in her own drowsy mind. Her body language was clear: This pony is mine and whoever you are, I don’t care, you can’t have her.
The silent action drove Bruiser backwards to the door again. He paused in the ridiculous game of hokey-cokey and nodded at her. “Evening,” he said with an approximation of amiability. “Just … doing my rounds.” He coughed. “Everything seems fine in here.”
The white mare watched him wordlessly until he turned to leave. He glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see those horrible red eyes still watching him, but she had turned her face once more and buried it into the bedclothes over the patient’s legs. She lifted her head, looking up the bed to the pillow with an expression so soft and vulnerable that Bruiser would not have recognised her as the same pony if he had not seen that she had not moved. Her face was so unguarded in that moment that he quickly walked away, feeling like he had peeped at something private, meant only for those two and not muscle-bound lunkheads like him.
He hurried down the stairs, forgoing the elevator, and out of the hospital at a near-gallop. Once outside he headed straight for Flower Heart’s apartment, a little wiser now about why she had looked the way she had when talking about the ponies in Room 219.
The last time he had seen emotion like that, it had been shining in his dog’s eyes the morning before it ran under the wheels of a carriage in its eagerness to get to him.
Nurse Merry Heart squealed when she came in carrying a vase of flowers and nearly fell over Vinyl.
“Sorry!” Vinyl scrambled up. “Are you okay?”
“Did I step on you?”
“No, I’m fine, you didn’t step on me,” Vinyl assured her.
“What the hoo-haa were you doing on the floor?” Nurse Merry Heart asked. Unlike Nurse Flower Heart, Nurse Merry Heart’s voice was burnished with a soft drawl that reminded Vinyl of the time she had played in Ponyville.
The little town was nothing but a blip on the map, famous only for its proximity to the Everfree Forest and the part a few ponies from it had played in redeeming Princess Luna last summer than because it was a hub of musical or fashionable prowess. However, Indigo had got wind that Princess Celestia’s favourite student was involved in some fashion show thing and had snapped up the chance to get Vinyl the gig. He had been right, of course. Indigo usually was right about things, which was why Vinyl had learned to defer to him so much. If not for that piffling fashion show she never would have clinched the contract for the royal wedding. That almost made up for the disaster the fashion show itself had been.
Vinyl had walked away from the gig, unlike the models, who had limped away with their pride in tatters. Hearing Nurse Merry Heart talk reminded her of the orange mare in galoshes and overalls who had trundled off the stage and kicked off all four pieces of footwear so hard she dented a metal strut.
“I was just doing some sit-ups,” Vinyl explained.
“Yeah. You know.” She did her best to mime the belly-crunches she had been counting before she was interrupted. “Stomach exercises.”
Nurse Merry Heart just blinked at her. “Was there a reason you were doing them on this here floor?”
“I’m supposed to do at least a hundred every morning.”
Plus all sorts of other things too. For years her visits to the gym had been daily, gruelling and usually done under duress. She hated the gym, especially at some of the odd hours she had to go there. Running on a treadmill at three in the morning, with only your own reflection in the surrounding mirrors for company, was a special kind of lonely. However, with her hectic work schedule she had to fit in sessions whenever she could. She had a personal trainer and everything, though when she was only free in the wee hours he wasn’t available, so she had to pound the equipment on her own in routines that were so familiar she could have done them in her sleep. She complained like crazy but never skipped her daily exercise, even when she was on tour. Image was everything in the music industry, as Indigo kept telling her. With gossip magazines forever ready to photograph you eating a pastry and plaster it across their front page with headlines like ‘Is It All Over For DJ-Pon3’s Waistline?’ or feature her in articles called ‘Stars Have Cellulite Too!’ Vinyl knew she couldn’t afford to let her regime slip.
“A … hundred?” Nurse Merry Heart’s attention snagged on the number. “As in one-zero-zero?”
“Uh-huh, at least. Two hundred if I have time, but I have to leave a break in between reps if I’m doing that many. Plus glute-raises, push ups and a staggered twenty minutes of plank.”
Vinyl demonstrated, lying flat on her belly and then pushing up onto the very tips of her hind hooves, leaning her weight forward onto her elbows. After only a few seconds her muscles started to tremble, most notably in her shoulders and stomach. “It’s a bitch,” she grunted. “But I have to do it.”
“To stay in shape.”
Nurse Merry Heart looked her over. “Honey, you got less fat on you than a butcher’s pencil. You can’t be doing that kind of exercise on the little you eat.”
Vinyl was momentarily confused by the weird phrase, but let it go. “I eat plenty.”
Nurse Merry Heart’s eyes ticked into a frown. Everything about the kind mare was themed around pink and white, so when she frowned Vinyl had to stop herself from thinking of her as an angry marshmallow. “Is this a diet thing? Because I’ve seen ponies brought into this hospital who are just skin and bones after reading about those gosh-darn ridiculous celebrity diet fads–”
“No, no, it’s just … it’s what I have to do.” Vinyl shrugged. “It’s part of my job. Like emptying bedpans is for you.”
“Thanks for reminding me, honey.”
Nurse Merry Hear looked like she wanted to berate Vinyl some more, but instead she sighed and placed the vase on the bedside table. “Just … don’t do them right in front of the door again, at least?”
“Will do. Uh, I mean, won’t do. Whatever. I’ll try not to do my exercises where I can get squished.”
Still looking unhappy, Nurse Merry Heart left.
Belatedly, Vinyl dashed to the door. “Hey, hang on, who are the flowers from?”
“Sorry, honey, I can’t remember. Read the card.”
“Card?” Vinyl turned back to the vase. Sure enough, a tiny card dangled over the edge. She opened it up and then dropped it again. “Quaver and his cronies. What the hay did you ever see in those bozos, Tavi? Quaver’s a moralistic butthead and maybe if you smooshed the other two together you’d get something like a personality. A crappy personality, but more than they have apart.”
They had sent lilies. White lilies. Who the heck sent white lilies to a hospital patient? Those were for funerals! Vinyl wanted to throw them in the trash right now but figured Quaver would just kick up a stink the next time they were here, so she begrudgingly left them alone. Much as it galled her to admit, Octavia would not want her to spurn their offering. She would probably have placed the vase even more prominently than Nurse Merry Heart had, to honour them for deigning to think of her.
Then again … the Octavia who had hero-worshipped the Quaver Quartet had been the one Vinyl knew four years ago. Four years was a long time, especially if you were working with ponies almost every day. Octavia probably knew too many of their secrets and personal habits to hero-worship them now. Who knew what her relationship with them was like these days? Maybe the lilies had some special significance Vinyl wasn’t aware of – the way some ponies gave each other nicknames or had rituals only they understood, and which made the rest of the world scratch its head in confusion.
“Do you … like lilies, Tavi?” Vinyl asked. “You never said. Come to think of it, do you have a favourite flower? Do you even like flowers? I’m sure you told me once but … I can’t remember.” Her voice tailed off, chin dropping onto her chest. She had forgotten. It was only a small thing but it felt like a disaster. She had forgotten whether Octavia liked flowers or not. The bare bedside table had not looked wrong to her, but maybe it had struck Quaver, Cavatina and Coda and they had sought to rectify it with the bouquet.
Vinyl had only reached eighty-six sit-ups. She knew she had to finish and then move on to glute work. It was in her regime and even more important now she wasn’t going to the gym. Yet when she lay on her back she simply stared at the ceiling for a while, then turned on her side and curled up with her head on her hooves, tail over her eyes to block out the world.
“You have to!”
“No, I don’t.” Vinyl kept writing, her horn glowing as the pencil moved across the page. She always wrote music in pencil, so she could erase what she didn’t like when she had a chance to actually play it to test it out. “I gave that press release, remember? No engagements until further notice.”
“Indigo, read my lips: I’m staying here.”
Her agent stamped a hoof in frustration. He was not used to Vinyl defying him. “You’re going haemorrhage money!”
“Not for a while. My accountant tells me I’m loaded.” Sarcasm clung to her words but it was a thin veneer. “Besides, there are more important things in life than money.” She erased a crotchet, changing into a semi-quaver. Humming wasn’t as good as playing but it would have to do for now. Usually she would finish a composition and then immediately whisk it into the basement she had converted into a studio to work out the bugs. Oh well, it wouldn’t do her any harm to sit on it for a while this time. Maybe it would even improve with age, like cheese or fine wine.
She was possessed of a sudden urge to say this aloud, in case it made Octavia sit bolt upright to call her a heathen. It was one slim hope among many if she couldn’t hear Indigo’s ranting.
“Vinyl, be reasonable,” Indigo tried, softening his voice to a more cajoling tone. “You’ve been here twelve days already. You’re not a blood relative. Nopony is expecting anything like this much effort from you.”
“I know nopony expects it.” She thought of the run-in with Quaver, Cavatina and Coda. She had avoided them during their subsequent visits but the lilies seemed to stare at her from the bedside table. “I’m still going to do it.”
“You have to do this interview!” Indigo shouted, losing his cool once more.
Vinyl brushed bits of eraser off her paper. “Nope.”
“What if they come here instead? They’re willing to compromise. They really want this interview, Vinyl. It’s Mane Music Monthly! Do you know how much good publicity you could get from an interview with them? Not enough to combat the bad press from running out on the Palladium and cancelling the tour, but if you could get a sob story out there to explain why you cancelled, it would sure be useful damage control.” He blew out a sigh. “Work with me here, Vinyl. I’m not your enemy so quit treating me that way.”
She eyed him critically. “Was coming here their idea or yours?”
“They got wind of what you’re doing here when they heard about you running out on a gig. You’ve never done it before and they want your side of the story. They’re willing to make allowances to hear it and their readership is huge. Vinyl, it’s a paid interview in one of the biggest magazines in the industry! Don’t pass this up. For me, if not for yourself.”
Vinyl glared at her sheet music. She rolled the pencil up in it and tossed the whole thing into the trash. “Fine. Whatever. Ask the hospital. If they say it’s okay, I’ll do it.”
Quillpoint was a pony whose name was almost scarily accurate. Her pelt was the exact colour of spilled ink, while her head was wreathed in a feathery mass of white mane that looked like it ate brushes for breakfast and picked its teeth with combs. Yet her eyes where what usually drew ponies’ attention. They were so pale they appeared almost white, a thin azure rim the only visible boundary between iris and sclera unless you were standing close enough to feel her breath on your face. She beamed at Vinyl and sucked the tip of her quill. Her tongue had an inky groove at its centre, indicating she did this a lot.
“Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me,” she enthused.
“Sure. Thanks for agreeing to compromise.” Vinyl was in full DJ-Pon3 mode, though their setting had nothing to do with her stage persona. Bringing the two sides of herself together like this felt wrong. She smiled anyway, using her shades to hide the fact it didn’t reach her eyes. Indigo had brought a pair with him hours ago when he arrived to prep her. She had put them on with some surprise, realising she hadn’t worn any in almost three weeks. Doing so now felt strange. Had they pinched the bridge of her snout this much before?
“Well, let’s get started, shall we?” Quillpoint gave another smile and plunged ahead without waiting for a response. “So, DJ-Pon3, you’ve been working non-stop for several years now and your career seems to be going from strength to strength. What’s your secret?”
“Raw talent, baby.” Vinyl knew the exact tilt of her chin that would make this statement charmingly self-assured instead of arrogant. She then smiled, puncturing the mask of conceit and letting humbleness show instead. “Actually, it’s all down to hard work and time. You have to give both if you want to be the best.”
“And you do indeed appear to be the best in your business.”
“You’re making me blush, girl.”
“No, seriously. In the last five years you’ve had three platinum albums, a string of sold-out tours across Equestria and you played at the royal wedding. Any one of those would be enough for most artists.”
“I think we can both agree I’m not most artists.” Raising her eyebrows high enough to be seen over her shades was difficult, but she was practised at it. Three weeks of going without had not dented her proficiency at the perfect eyebrow wiggle.
“I guess not,” Quillpoint chuckled. She tapped her quill against her notepad. “There are even rumours of you branching out into a world tour. How do you feel about taking your act outside Equestria? It’s a pretty big world out there for a musician, even one like you. Performing for zebras, addax and gazelle instead of ponies?”
“I’ve played to mixed audiences before. No addax can ever rock the house as much as a griffin or a dragon when he gets his groove on, and don’t underestimate a donkey in a mosh pit.” Vinyl smiled. “It’d be a lot of work, sure, but that’s the nature of this game, yeah? You’ve gotta slog it out to make it.”
Ponyfeathers, she had forgotten about that tour. It was an idea Indigo had mooted a few months ago. She had not been convinced she wanted to do it but he had latched onto the prospect like a barnacle, haranguing her until she felt like saying yes just to make him shut up. That had all been before Octavia’s accident, of course. All tours were tabled for now. At least, that was what she had told him. Apparently he or someone in his employ had leaked information of this one. She wondered whether that had been deliberate to force her hoof. If so, he was going to get a nasty shock. She would not be blackmailed into leaving Octavia’s side.
Quillpoint blinked at her, baffled. “Slog it out? What does that mean?”
“Huh? Oh, it means work really hard. Like, ‘work your guts out’ kind of hard.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase before.”
“It’s one of –” Vinyl stopped, realising what she was about to say: It’s one of Tavi’s weird Trottingham sayings. Octavia was full of words and phrases that hadn’t spread beyond that region of Equestria. Vinyl used to love adopting them just to see her wince at the sound of them in her own Manehattan drawl. She hadn’t meant to use one now. She never had before in an interview. It had just slipped out.
“One of what?” Quillpoint asked.
Vinyl thought fast. “One of the lyrics to my newest track. But shh.” She held a hoof to her lips and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anypony. It’s a secret until the track’s finished, yeah? Just between you and me.” She grinned fiercely. Reporters loved it when you seemed to take them into your confidence, even when both of you knew what you had said would be printed or broadcast tomorrow.
“I won’t breathe a word,” Quillpoint fibbed. She leaned back, once more consulting her notepad. “So, DJ-Pon3, with so much on your schedule and all these successes both behind and in front of you, why have you spent the last three weeks hidden away at Manehattan General Hospital, at the bedside of Octavia Philharmonica, cellist with the little-known Quaver Quartet?” She breathed out the information dump without stopping or faltering once.
Little-known? Maybe they weren’t superstar famous but they weren’t exactly unknown either. It wasn’t just anypony who got to play at the Grand Galloping Gala. “I’ve known Octavia since we were fillies,” Vinyl replied. “We grew up together in the care system. When I heard she’d been hurt in a stage accident, I rushed over as fast as I could. As you can see, she didn’t come out of her coma after the surgery to save her life and it felt like I was deserting her if I didn’t stay. She doesn’t have any family to do this. We were pretty close growing up so it felt right for me to sit and talk to her. They say ponies in comas can hear the voices of those outside and that’s sometimes enough to wake them up, so I figured that if I talk enough, eventually she’ll have to wake up to tell me to shut my mouth and give her ears a break.”
Quillpoint nodded. “Yes, about that. You say you rushed over but my sources say you didn’t come to see her until a whole week after the accident. That doesn’t sound like the actions of a long-time friend. Why didn’t you come sooner?”
Because Quaver is a pile of friggin’ diamond dog droppings. “I wasn’t aware of what had happened until then. If I had been, I would definitely have come sooner.”
“Would this have anything to do with Quaver, the leader of the Quaver Quartet? My sources say there’s some hostility between you two. Care to comment?”
Wow, right on the nose. “Quaver and I have had our differences, sure, but that’s what you get when you mix classical with my kind of sound.” Vinyl smiled just as brightly as Quillpoint, though an unpleasant knot twisted in her stomach. “Some things just don’t mix well. Y’know, like nitrogen and glycerine.” She gave a barking laugh, trying to break the sudden tension.
Quillpoint laughed politely. “But seriously, isn’t it true that he once threw you out of the theatre where he and his quartet play? And I don’t just mean he asked you to leave. I mean he picked you up and literally threw you out. That’s some impressive upper body strength for a pony who only plays the viola.”
Vinyl frowned. How had she found out about that? “Don’t believe everything you hear, sweet-cheeks. Like I said, he and I have had our differences.”
“Oh, come now, DJ-Pon3, that sounds like more than just a few differences. I’ve had my differences with other reporters but I’ve never picked one up and hurled them into the street. What in the name of Celestia could provoke such an extreme reaction from a stallion who is, by all accounts, generally mild-mannered?”
“I … uh …” Vinyl searched for something to respond with. She didn’t get the chance. As she stuttered, Quillpoint fired off another question.
“And isn’t it true that after that incident he left instructions for you not to be allowed in to see any of the Quartet’s performances or rehearsals? And that those instructions have been maintained throughout the four years since he gave them? Wouldn’t you agree that this sounds like more than just a few ‘musical differences’?”
“Why did he do that? Was it something to do with Octavia?” The familiar way she said Octavia’s name made Vinyl want to break something. Possibly Quillpoint’s face.
“He didn’t like that I upset her.” Vinyl only just managed to keep the growl from her voice.
“You upset her? Your long-time friend? The pony you grew up alongside and bonded with during your time in the care system? You upset her enough that her colleague not only became uncharacteristically physical, but also specified that you were never again to see her play? And she never challenged this edict, either, did she? Not once in four years did she get him to rescind his instructions and allow you to attend one of their performances. What in Equestria did you do to upset her that much?”
Vinyl caught Indigo’s eye over Quillpoint’s shoulder. He looked panicked, since he was able to read her mood more skilfully than anypony else in the room. He could see her mounting anger even if Quillpoint had the survival instincts of a lemming climbing into an eagle’s nest.
“I think this interview is over,” Indigo said in a mock cheerful voice. Out the side of his mouth he hissed, “This isn’t what you told me you were going to cover, Quillpoint.”
“But it’s what I am asking about. You can’t expect me to just swallow whatever she says about Octavia without doing some research into the mare and their history together. If I’m doing a story, I’m doing it right.”
“Story?” Panic suffused Indigo’s exclamation. “You said this was just an interview.”
“Oh, it is,” Quillpoint replied easily, not budging from her chair. Though she was talking to Indigo her eyes hadn’t moved from Vinyl. “Why aren’t you willing to answer, DJ-Pon3?”
Vinyl’s horn glowed. “Because.” The small tape recorder Quillpoint had on her lap suddenly levitated into the air. Quillpoint grabbed for it but wasn’t quick enough. “My private life.” The window opened. “Is private.” The recorder sailed out. “And if there are parts of it I don’t want to discuss.” The window slammed shut. “If I want to maintain my privacy and not have it splashed all over your magazine.” The lock slid home. “Then that’s my business and you need to respect that.”
Quillpoint stared between Vinyl and the window in shock. “I … you just … you can’t do that!”
“That’s funny, I thought I already did. Indigo, please show her out.” Vinyl turned her chair towards the bed and its array of beeping and whirring machines. She carefully reached out with a tendril of magic and brushed a damp lock of Octavia’s mane off her face. She should have known it was a bad idea to let her professional life intersect in any way with her personal one. Though unintentional, she had brought sleaze into Octavia’s hospital room and would not forgive herself for that poor decision. “And if she doesn’t want to go, please tell her she can follow her equipment if she’d prefer.”
Quillpoint couldn’t leave fast enough. Her clicking hooves had scarcely faded before Indigo rounded on Vinyl. He was incandescent with fury.
“What the hay was that all about?”
“Exactly what I said,” Vinyl said mildly. “Weren’t you listening?”
“That’s total horsefeathers –”
“No, it’s not. I said I’d tell her why I’m choosing to take some time out from my career to be here for Octavia. I didn’t say I’d air all my dirty laundry in public to help her sell a few more copies of her trashy magazine. If you can’t accept that, you can leave too.”
“Mane Music Monthly is not some trashy magazine!” Indigo protested.
“Missing the point there, Indy.”
For a moment she thought he was going to yell again. He actually trembled with rage. His brown eyes shrank to pinpricks and his chest rose and fell like that of a trapped mouse. Sweet Celestia, he wasn’t about to have a stroke, was he? Well, at least they were in the right place. It would save the paramedic ponies a trip.
However, instead of yelling he slammed out of the room so hard the door bounced back and hit the wall. She could hear him stamping down the corridor in the same direction as Quillpoint. Perhaps he was chasing her to perform some PR triage.
Let him, Vinyl thought. But he’ll be doing that alone. She wasn’t about to apologise for wanting some privacy.
How the heck had Quillpoint got hold of that information, anyhow? Her anonymous ‘sources’? Baloney. Even so, Vinyl hadn’t told her and she couldn’t imagine any of the Quaver Quartet breathing a word, especially Quaver himself. She wondered whether Quillpoint had bugged their theatre and overheard the quartet talking privately. Or maybe she had bribed one of the stage-hooves to recount conversations they’d had behind closed doors. Cavatina and Coda had made their feelings clear when they found Vinyl here at the hospital and Quaver would not have held back his disapproval of Octavia’s decision to make contact with Vinyl again. He genuinely believed that letting Vinyl back into her life would only hurt Octavia. However much it galled Vinyl to admit it, and however much of an ass he was about showing it, his opinions were because he cared about Octavia.
That was what had motivated him to act as he had when Vinyl crashed their rehearsal and refused to leave even when Octavia begged her to go. Vinyl had been convinced that if she could talk to her, she could convince Octavia to come back. Half-crazed with grief, Vinyl had followed her through the stage exit to her dressing room and banged on the closed door for twenty minutes before Quaver reached the end of his tether and literally threw her out when she accused him of stealing Octavia away. Her attempts to crawl back in through the bathroom window had also ben repelled, so she had stood in the alley behind the theatre and shrieked out her pain in the hope that Octavia would hear and take pity on her.
“I’ll change! I will if it means I don’t lose you! Tavi, please, just talk to me! Don’t let it end like this! Tavi! Octaviaaaa!”
Nurse Merry Heart poked her face around the door, snapping Vinyl out of her disagreeable memories. “Are you okay in here, honey? I just saw two ponies heading on down the hall and they looked madder than mules chewing on bumblebees. One of them was your agent so I thought I’d better check on you.”
“Yeah, Merry Heart, I’m fine.” Vinyl blew out a breath, realising in that moment that her own hooves were shaking too. “The interview didn’t go as well as planned, but it’s nothing, really. Thanks for asking.”
“Well, if you need anything, sugar, you just ask, okay?”
What I need is for Tavi to wake up, she thought bitterly. Four years apart and then tentative contact could not be allowed to end like this. This could not be the end of their story. I need her to wake up!
Of course, the mere act of wanting something is rarely enough to actually make it happen.