CHAPTER 3: SUBSTITUTION
The door clanged against the wall as Vinyl swung it open for Octavia, who walked through into the coffee shop. The unicorn mare adjusted her glasses nervously as they entered. Mocha sat behind the counter polishing a mug with a surprisingly clean-looking rag. He looked up as they approached, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, Vinyl, it’s certainly early for you.” He cracked a smile. “What, are you sick or something? And who’s this?” He asked, gesturing towards Octavia.
“Oh, you know, she’s a friend. Octavia, meet Mocha Swirl.”
The aged stallion grinned cheekily. “Oh, just a friend, huh?”
The blue-maned DJ gave him a dirty look, but he simply shrugged. “For you information, Mocha, I just met her tonight.”
“Oh-ho, so she’s that kind of friend! Vinyl, I’m surprised at you!”
Octavia laughed, and held out a hoof.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mocha.”
“Likewise, Miss Octavia.”
“Please, don’t call me ‘Miss’.”
The aging stallion gave Vinyl a sidelong look, and grinned.
“Well, Vinyl she’s got better manners than you. And she knows how to take a joke, too. I guess you’re not my favorite anymore!”
“Yeah, yeah, funny. Now, can we please get some coffee? This is a coffee shop, right?”
He gave her a purposefully blank look. “No, we don’t serve that here.”
She rolled her eyes, looking to Octavia in her hopelessness, who simply grinned, and nodded to the barista.
“Could we get two coffees here, Mocha?”
He gave her a warm smile.
“Anything for you, Octavia.”
Vinyl rolled her eyes again, and then turned to the cellist.
“Well, would you like to sit down, Octavia?”
They did so, and settled down in one of the booths in the far corner of the shop.
“So, Vinyl, how do you know Mocha?”
She shrugged unconsciously, and then lowered her hood.
“I’ve known him since I was just a kid. He took me in off the streets, gave me a place to stay. He’s a good pony.”
Octavia nodded slowly.
“Not many are that generous.”
Vinyl’s face turned to a sardonic expression. “Especially in this city.”
Octavia gave a small laugh, and Vinyl continued.
“Still, I think he was just lonely, after his wife died. He’s still got his son, but I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it much.”
There was an awkward silence for a moment or two, but soon, Mocha bustled out of the kitchen with a tray, three mugs on it.
“So, girls, how are you doing?”
They looked at each other and shrugged in an eerily identical gesture.
“Eh, we’re alright.”
After the fire, they’d walked the several blocks to the coffee shop, most of that time spent in introductions.
The stallion cleared his throat.
“So, Octavia, I noticed your cutie mark is also musically related. What do you do? Vinyl here,” he ruffled her hair,” is a DJ, and a damn good one at that.” She blushed.
Octavia nodded and smiled. “I’m well versed in all string instruments, but I prefer the cello.”
Vinyl nearly did a spit-take. “Wait, you’re that Octavia? As in, the Royal Conservatory Octavia?”
She returned a bitter smile. “The very same.”
“Well, you don’t sound very enthusiastic about it...” Vinyl trailed off, and the cellist shrugged absently.
“It isn’t as appealing as it once was.”
“And why’s that?”
She sighed, and shook her head unconsciously. “It’s beginning to wear on me, really. I just get the feeling I’m not really being appreciated anymore. Do you know what I mean?”
Vinyl grimaced in understanding, taking a sip of her coffee.
“I know what you mean, actually.” She sighed. “DJ’s work hard for their money too, you know. You tend to learn quickly that if the crowd isn’t happy, you’re not doing a good job. So you do what they want, you cater to them, and after a while, you aren’t playing music for the sake of playing music anymore. It’s all about pleasing somepony else, then.
Octavia nodded somberly. “That’s about right. Sometimes I wish I could just play for myself, you know?” She trailed off, but soon righted, and began to speak again. “Anyway, how do you know who I am, Vinyl?”
The alabaster unicorn shrugged, pushing her ever-present shades higher on her face. “I enjoy classical music too, you know. It’s not like I only appreciate electronica. I’m a composer myself, actually.”
Octavia nodded slowly. “Hmm. I didn’t expect that.”
The DJ opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the door swinging wildly open, a frantically worried Harpo having charged through it.
“Octavia! Octavia! Are you here?”
The jet-maned cellist raised an eyebrow, and then replied.
“Yes, I’m right here, dummy.”
He turned around, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I was so worried, I woke up to the sirens, and then I ran over to the apartment, and it was on fire, and I couldn’t find you, and then somebody said they saw you, and then I ran over, and anyway—”
He stopped mid-explanation, suddenly noticing there were other ponies in the room. He flushed uncomfortably, stepping back and forth awkwardly on his hooves. Octavia gave him a questioning look.
“Everyone, this Harpo, in all of his dysfunctional glory.”
He gave an amused smile. “Heya. How ya doin’?” He turned to address the cellist. “Anyway, Octavia, you wanna introduce me to your new friends?”
She pointed in succession. “Harpo, meet Vinyl Scratch and Mocha Swirl.” Harpo gave an exaggerated bow.
“It’s nice to meet both of you.”
Vinyl raised an amused eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Mocha, on the other hand, cleared his throat and spoke.
“I don’t mean to address the elephant in the room, but what’s this about your apartment being on fire, Vinyl? Octavia?”
Vinyl nodded slowly. “Yeah, the two of us barely got out in time. Fwoosh. All up in flames. That’s how we met, actually. Both sat down on the same street bench.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me?!”
She gave him an innocent grin. “Precisely. I’m a big kid now, you know.”
He gave her a wry grin. “Well, it’ll be good to have you living at home again.”
“Who says I’m staying with you?”
“You have any other options?”
Vinyl gave a wry smile, and sighed.
“Not really. Just thought I’d figure something out. I feel bad about taking advantage of you, Mocha.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it. I’ve got plenty of room here. And besides, every functioning adult needs to live with their parents at some point, it’s a rite of passage.” He smirked.
Vinyl raised an eyebrow, and pursed her lips. “Well, I guess if you insist, I’d love to.”
Mocha then turned to Octavia. “Normally, I wouldn’t offer this to just anyone, but I’d be happy to give you a place to stay as well, at least until you get back on your hooves again.”
The cellist blushed and shook her head. “No, there’s no way I could—”
The patron of the shop stopped her mid-sentence. “No, I insist. Don’t worry about it.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled. “Well, I guess that means I won’t have to stay with Harpo.”
“Hey, who says I would have offered!” he squawked, indignant.
“Me, you dope. Besides, you’re such a softy, of course you would have.”
He grumbled something unintelligible under his breath.
“Anyway, you wouldn’t happen to be the Harpo Nadermane, would you?” Vinyl asked.
“The one and only.” Harpo wore his signature grin, beaming at the blue-maned unicorn.
“I’m a fan of your work.”
“Alright, Octavia, you can keep her! She’s cool, and she appreciates my work.”
Octavia sighed. “Who says I don’t appreciate your pieces? I’m the one who has to play them, you moron.”
“Yeah, but... but... You’re you.”
“Wow, thanks for the stunning compliment, Harpo.”
“I was being... sarcasti—nevermind.”
Mocha finally spoke up, somewhat reserved in the face of the three musicians.
“So, again, to bring to light my ignorance, what exactly do you do, Harpo?”
“He’s a composer, Mocha. One of the more radical ones, actually. He’s been working at the Conservatory since graduation from Canterlot University.”
“Took the words right out of my mouth. Although, you did forget that I’ve currently been writing pieces, solo and otherwise, for Miss Octavia Philarmonica,” he gave an overstated bow, “prize cellist of the Royal Conservatory.”
She shot him a sidelong look. “Thanks, Harpo.”
“Ragh! Why do you keep doing that! I was being sarcastic. You know I was!”
He smiled his signature smile, and his friend huffed.
“And, of course, you can’t forget my irresistible charm!”
Octavia rolled her eyes, followed shortly after by Vinyl.
“Yeah, that’s exactly why I drag you around, Harpo.”
“I’m going to smack you.”
She turned to Mocha. “Do you think you could get Harpo a coffee too? He’ll probably want some kind of frilly bullshit in his or something. Just put it on my tab.”
The older pony laughed. “Nah, that won’t be necessary. Don’t worry about the money.” He turned to address Harpo. “Now, what would you like?”
His eyes sparkled. “A grande mocha double-shot cappuccino, caramel swirls at top and bottom, half lightly-whipped cream, half skim milk, extra dry.”
Vinyl raised an eyebrow, and Octavia burst out laughing, while Mocha went about his work, grumbling something unintelligible.
“Yeah, I don’t know how I put up with him.”
“Honestly, me neither.”
A moment of short silence followed, before the older stallion plunked down a truly feminine coffee in front of the composer, who licked his lips eagerly.
He sipped it gingerly, draining an infinitesimal amount of liquid from the whipped-cream-capped cup.
The composer set his mug down gently.
“That has to be the best coffee I’ve ever had. No offense, Octavia, but he beats you hands down.”
Vinyl nodded. “Mocha is a master of his trade. Not a better cup in all of Canterlot.”
The proprietor smiled a little at the praise, then stood up and began to wipe down some of the tables with his omnipresent rag.
He didn’t turn around, but cleared his throat and spoke.
“The regulars are probably gonna be coming in soon. If you all wanna go upstairs to the living room or something, be my guest. Vinyl, you can show Octavia her room.”
The DJ nodded in agreement and beckoned at the other two. Octavia shrugged.
You see, space is kind of a premium in Canterlot, it being on the side of a mountain and all. So most shop and business owners typically have living quarters on top of their respective establishments. All things considered, the Swirl household was fairly large size.
Octavia walked up the stairs into the living room. Harpo set his mug down gently on the table, then flopped on a nearby couch.
Vinyl looked rather bemused. “Make yourself at home, I guess. C’mon, Octavia, I’ll show you your bedroom.”
They walked to one of the side doors, which opened to a rather... er... cozy... looking room.
A bunk bed lined the wall on one side, and a desk on the other. And that was about it.
“Sorry,” Vinyl winced, “it’s a little bit tight in here. Java and I used to share this room. By the time I was ready to move out, he had already appropriated the guest room and I saw no point to changing this one.”
Octavia peered up at the walls and around the relatively small room.
“It’s better than sleeping at Harpo’s,” she laughed. “But really, just let me know if Mocha needs me to do anything to help out. It’s the least I can do, considering the fact you guys are giving me someplace to stay.”
Vinyl shook her head. “Nah, we’ll be okay. Stay as long as you want, I think Mocha could really use the extra company sometimes.”
“If you insist.”
Vinyl moved over to the bunk bed, clambering up to the top bunk.
“You cool with me having top bunk?”
“I’d prefer bottom anyway,” replied the cellist.
Vinyl pulled herself under the covers, careful not to ruffle the sheets. Octavia looked at her, a little bemused.
“Anyway,” the DJ said, “I have a concert tonight, so I’d actually like to get some sleep today. Tonight. Whatever.”
And with that, she put her head down and closed her eyes.
Octavia looked at the clock. Half past four. In the morning. Ouch.
She decided some rest wouldn’t be amiss, and flopped down on the bottom bunk. Adjusting the covers around her, she lay her head down on the pillow and closed her eyes.
Sleep came easily.
The room was half-dark when she finally drifted back into awareness. Cracks of amber light cascaded about the small space, revealing little trails of dust where they fell.
Octavia tossed the covers back, cracking her neck and legs after rolling off the bed. The DJ’s jacket and glasses were gone, and so was she. A note, written in thin, spidery script, lay on the desk, though.
Show tonight. Gone until late tonight. Feel free to use the shower. See you later.
Octavia shrugged. She would have liked to use the time to get to know her new roommate, but no loss. She was a musician, too. She knew what it was like to have a nightly show.
She looked at the clock, and was startled to find out it was already the early evening. All things considered, though, she thought she deserved to sleep in.
She poked her head out the door of the room and walked down a nearby hallway to the bathroom. Turning on the shower, she stepped in, savouring the hot water. After a few minutes, she shut it off and stepped out, drying herself off with nearby towel.
Walking back to the room, finally clean and dry, she trod back to the room. What did she have to do tonight? No concert, and she didn’t think getting drunk in the Swirl residence was the kind of first impression she was looking for.
She examined her bowtie from the night before. It was crumpled, and smelled like smoke, but it would do, at least until she could get some more. Couldn’t go without her signature attire, after all! She smoothed it out and deftly affixed it around her neck. Her hair didn’t appear to be in too bad of shape, so she left that the way it was.
Ready to go.
Ready to go where, though? That was the question.
Well, downstairs was a good start.
She took the stairs one at a time on the way down, emerging from a small door to the side of the counter in the official shop.
Mocha stood behind the counter, offering a few friendly words to a customer, who left, a smile on his face, with a pastry and an insulated cup.
The older stallion cracked a smile as she approached.
“Well, look who’s finally awake, huh?”
Octavia raised an eyebrow. “You know, I think I was a little justified in my sleeping hours. So anyway, where’s Vinyl? And did Harpo get home okay last night?”
He sighed. “Straight to the point, I see. Your friend left a bit after you two turned in, and Vinyl? Well she’s setting up for her gig tonight at the club. It doesn’t start for another couple hours, but you know how she is.”
“Actually, I don’t. Enlighten me?”
“Well, with Vinyl, everything has to be... just right, do you know what I’m saying?”
It made a little bit of sense to her, oddly enough. The nearly geometric arrangement of the room, the very precise way the DJ had placed her glasses down the night before, carefully correcting them to be exactly in the center of the desk.
She cocked her head to the side.
“You know, I do kind of understand what you’re saying. Also—”
“Actually, Octavia, that does kind of feed into what I’m trying to get at, here. Do you mind sitting down to talk for a second?”
“Sure, anything you want.”
“Alright, just sit down at one of the tables over there,” he gestured with one hoof. His face brightened into a smile. “And I’ll bring some of those excellent mini quiches, I’m sure you’re hungry.” He turned around to face the kitchen. “Oi! Java! Man the register for a bit, will ya!”
Mocha joined her at one of the side tables, carrying a plate of small, pie shaped egg affairs, true to his word. Her stomach rumbled at the near-divine smell, and she did have to concede, she was famished.
He let her eat in silence for a few minutes, but did eventually open his mouth to speak.
“So, Octavia, I’m sure you’re at least a little curious as to why I offered to let you stay with us.”
She nodded in acknowledgement, mouth still full of quiche.
He sighed, and turned his head away.
“For as long as I’ve taken care of Vinyl, she’s never really been... close, to anyone. Never really had many friends, very introverted, you understand. She’s always been a little bit strange, which isn’t a bad thing, you know, but just always very quiet. And obviously, there’s the little bit of obsessive compulsiveness, which doesn’t exactly help. The reason I offered to let you stay here is that she brought you to see me, and while you may not exactly be friends, I hope one day that can be the case. It’s just,” he buried his head in his hooves. “I’m trying to look out for her, you know? No one should live their life alone, and I’m just trying to help her get out there.”
Octavia nodded slowly.
“I understand where you’re coming from, and I’ll do my best. Besides, I like Vinyl. She seems very nice, if a bit distant, and we have similar interests. And besides, its the least I can do. It’s refreshing to be around somepony who’s interested in music just for the sake of playing music. Where I come from,” she sighed, and gave a wistful look. “That’s not something that’s very common. Also, to be honest, I don’t exactly... have a lot of friends either. Harpo is there, obviously, and I give him a lot of crap, but he’s the only one who’s ever stuck with me.”
She exhaled a deep breath, closing her eyes. He gave an awkward smile.
“I’m sorry to dump all of this on you, Octavia. It’s the last thing I want to do right now. You just lost your home too. All I want to do is look out for Vinyl.” He seemed a little distant as he nearly echoed his last statement. “Anyway, I should probably get back behind the counter. Just let me know if you need anything.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you could tell me where Vinyl’s show was tonight.”
He looked a little bemused, but answered nonetheless. “It’s at the normal venue.” She raised an eyebrow. He went on to explain where that was. She listened as he gave her directions, idly toying with her bowtie.
The show didn’t start until later, so she still had time to kill. Upon reflection, she decided to get Harpo.
She knocked on the door.
“Come on, Harpo, drag your ass out here, we’re going to Vinyl’s show.”
“Octavia, you don’t even like electronic music, why would we—”
“I’m willing to bet there’s a bar there—”
There was a sudden impact to the door as the aforementioned stallion surged to it, forgetting to turn the doorknob in his haste. It subsequently opened, revealing a grinning Harpo.
“Ready when you are.”
She sighed, and clapped one hoof to her face.
“Take those absurd sunglass off, please.”
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t let me wear them!”
“Because they look ridiculous on you. And besides, we’re inside, in the middle of the night! Why would you wear them now?”
“Well, Vinyl wears hers during sets!”
“Yeah, but she’s a DJ!”
Octavia nodded to an absurdly jacked bouncer in passing, who appeared more a sentient slab of muscle than anything else, let alone a normally proportioned individual.
“What’s your point?”
“She’s cool. You’re not.”
He whistled. “Ouch, Octavia, that’s harsh.”
“I think you deserved it.”
“That may be so.”
They arrived in the club proper, and shortly after, Harpo made a beeline to the bar, muttering something about ‘getting trashed beyond comprehension.’
She made her way closer to the floor. The building appeared to be an old warehouse, the actual dance area formed by stacks of haphazardly placed crates, casting odd, disjointed shadows in the half-light.
She took a deep breath and rounded the corner.