Playing With My Heart

by ObabScribbler

9. "This ain't me!"

9. “This ain’t me.”

“Aw, c’mon!” Only the presence of other ponies in the corridor prevented Vinyl from turning around and bucking the vending machine. “Don’t do this to me!” She pressed her face flush against the glass, behind which her purchase was being imprisoned.

“Problems?” said a deep voice.

She turned to see a tall stallion smirking at her. His pressed blue shirt bore an ID tag with the hospital logo but she didn’t need to read it. “Hi, Bruiser. Yeah, the machine ate my money but the twirly metal thingy got stuck.” She glared at it. “I need my peanut butter crackers!”

“What is it with mares and peanut butter crackers?” Bruiser muttered, clearly amused by her plight. “Here, let me handle this. You can’t force Old Betsy. You gotta charm her.”

“Old Betsy?” Vinyl echoed. “Charm the vending machine?”

“You mock, but watch this.” Bruiser leaned his wide head close, strands of black mane trailing over the buttons. He had tied it back but, as usual, it was coming loose in ratty clumps and by the end of his shift he would have tired of it and pulled out the –

“Hey, is that a scrunchie?”


“It is a scrunchie!” Vinyl peered closer. “It’s one of Flower Heart’s scrunchies!”

Bruiser ignored her, focussing entirely on the vending machine. “Hey there, Betsy. This cheeky mare here has paid good money for those peanut butter crackers. You’re gonna get a reputation if you don’t give ‘em to her. What’s the deal, girl? You want a bad rep? Nopony will use you anymore. They’ll all use that other machine in Reception instead. You want that? Of course you don’t. So c’mon, Betsy. Give this loudmouth her crackers so she goes away and we all stay happy. Okay?” He drew back one massive forehoof and whacked it against the side of the machine. The precariously balanced packets of peanut butter crackers jittered and fell from its perch. “Good girl, Betsy,” Bruiser said as he reached in, fetched out the packet and presented it to Vinyl. “Here you go.”

“Ponyfeathers!” Vinyl exclaimed. “You just hit it!”

“I gave her a gentle tap when she was good and ready to play ball,” Bruiser replied, grinning.

“Po. Ny. Feathers.” Vinyl accepted the packet.

“Don’t I get a thank you?”

“Thank you, Bruiser, you big, strong, hero of a stallion, for rescuing my poor, defenceless snack from the mean ol’ vending machine. I don’t know what I would have done without you, you champion of the hungry and destitute.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Sorry, girl, I’m taken.”

Vinyl’s smile froze only a moment and then thawed again. It wasn’t any easier than it had been a week ago, in the immediate aftermath of the press conference, but she was getting better at not reacting. She knew Bruiser hadn’t meant anything bad by his remark – he joked like that all the time – but a week wasn’t long enough to forget the things splattered across the tabloids about her.

She sighed and trotted along the corridor. Bruiser went with her to the end before veering off towards the security guards’ station.

After only a few steps he paused and called, “Hey, Vinyl?”

She stopped. “Yeah?”

“Has Flower Heart … has she seemed … I dunno, off to you lately?”

“Off? What, like old cheese?”

He shook his head. “No jokes for a second. Does she seem okay to you?”

Vinyl frowned. “I guess so.” She hadn’t really noticed anything out of the ordinary. Then again, she hadn’t really been paying attention. “Why do you ask?”

“Hmmf.” Bruiser shook his head. “I guess it ain’t anything important. Just me being stupid.”

“Bruiser you’re a lot of things, but stupid ain’t one of them.”

“There are ponies who’d disagree.” He smiled and trotted away, leaving Vinyl to do likewise in the opposite direction.

The only vending machine in the whole hospital that stocked these much-vaunted crackers was close to the front entrance. Vinyl made her way back to the elevator to return to Octavia’s room. She hummed as she went, testing the new tune she had composed, trying to work out the bugs. It was a counter melody for a song she had already mostly finished. She was familiar with counter melodies but was used to composing them for electronic instruments, not actual voices. She was a little unsure of herself and worried that her skills as a songwriter weren’t all she had hoped they would be. Counter melodies were tricky things. If they blended properly you had an earworm that could last for days. If they didn’t all you had was a musical mess nopony could forget fast enough.

She barely noticed the other mare waiting for the elevator until the doors pinged open and they both tried to enter at once.

“Oh, sorry!” said the other mare. She gestured. “After you.”

“Nah, you go on. I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Vinyl replied.

“No, really, I insist.”

“No, I insist.”

The other mare blinked at her. “Well, this is awkward.” Her clipped voice held an undercurrent of laughter. “At this rate we might as well take the stairs.”

Vinyl chuckled. “I’ll fight you for it?”

The other mare blinked again before realisation dawned. “Oh. Oh! You’re joking. Sorry, I thought … oh golly, never mind what I thought!”

“You actually thought I’d fight you for first dibs on the elevator?” Vinyl said incredulously.

“Yes. I mean no! I mean … um … I think I’ll just run away and die of embarrassment now.” The other mare turned to leave.

“Hey, wait.” Vinyl stepped into the elevator and hit the button to keep the doors open. “Problem solved. What floor do you want?”

Sheepishly, the other mare stepped in and Vinyl allowed the doors to ease shut behind her. “Second floor, please.”

“Hey, me too.” Vinyl punched in the number. “You’re, uh, not from around here, are you?”

“Is it that obvious?” The other mare sighed. “I’m here visiting my father. We’re not supposed to meet for lunch until later, but my train arrived early and I thought I’d surprise him. Now I’m wondering whether that was such a good idea. It’s been nothing but a catalogue of disasters ever since I stepped onto the platform. First my bag split open when I was loading it into the taxi carriage and my art supplies went all over the pavement – um, I mean … sidewalk?”

Vinyl nodded.

“Then I realised when I came to pay for the taxi that some rotter had stolen my purse while I was picking up my things. I barely had enough bits in my saddlebags to cover the fare. They say bad luck comes in threes, so I dread to think what else is going to go wrong today.”

Vinyl regarded the other pony. Her pale orange face was marred by a dejected expression, but would have been quite pretty if she had smiled. Her bright pink mane fought to escape the two braids she had tamed it into. Successful escapee tufts wound around her horn like ribbons around a maypole, or perhaps like she had stuck her hoof in a power socket. Chunky wooden jewellery clonked around her neck and ankles, giving her a bohemian, avant-garde look, as if she was about to go antiquing or do some kind of performance art in Manehattan Park. She could have been anywhere between twenty and forty and, despite her haphazard appearance, there was something intensely familiar about her. The cultured Trottingham accent helped immensely in identifying what that something was.

“Are you … Doctor Thorntree’s daughter?”

She looked surprised. “Why, yes I am.”

“Huh.” Vinyl studied her some more. The same blue eyes. The same thick eyebrows. Any one of the stylists she had visited in her career would have apoplexy at the sight of those bushy hedgerows on a mare. Stick a white moustache on her and it wouldn’t be exact, but it would be dang close. “He never said he had a daughter.”

“We’re … somewhat estranged. This is the first time I’ve been back to Manehattan to visit him in … well, several years, actually. That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to just wait for him at the restaurant, or wander around sightseeing until it was time to meet him.” She gave Vinyl a once-over of her own. “You know my father?”

“He’s my … my ex’s neurosurgeon.” Vinyl paused momentarily before settling on the term.

“Oh! You’re Vinyl, aren’t you?” Just as Vinyl had suspected, when the other mare smiled it completely changed her face. Features that sat uneasily together were transformed into something that was, if not pretty, then at least handsome in an unconventional, unkempt way. “Daddy told me about you. Well, as much as he could without breaking patient confidentiality, but I was asking whether he’d been affected by those beastly stories in the tabloids, since he works here at Manehattan General, and he told me they were all complete rot and –”

The elevator juddered.

Vinyl stumbled, catching hold of the safety bar with a hoof. Doctor Thorntree’s daughter wasn’t so lucky. She staggered forward, stepped on her floaty scarf and landed on her knees with a choked noise.

“What was that?” she asked hoarsely, unhooking first one hoof and then the other from the unintentional noose.

The elevator juddered again. It emitted a whirring noise above their heads that evened off into a low hum and finally shivered away into silence. The glowing red numbers above the doors flickered and went out.

“I think we’ve jammed,” said Vinyl. She stabbed a hoof at the button for the second floor. Nothing happened. She tried sending them back to the ground floor. Nada. “Yep, we’re stuck.”

“Oh, marvellous.” The other mare got to her hooves and immediately turned to knock her head against the mirrored wall. She closed her eyes and rested her snout against it, making two tiny circles of condensation with her breath. “I told you: bad luck runs in threes.”

“That’s just horseapples,” Vinyl replied, though she had to admit, the timing was uncanny.

“I’ve always been unlucky. Golly, I’ll bet you wish you’d taken the stairs after all. Um … what are you doing?”

Vinyl had flipped open the bottom of the control panel, revealing a large red button. “I saw this in a movie once. There’s supposed to be a separate magically powered emergency alert thingy in every elevator installed in Manehattan buildings in the last twenty years. Way more reliable than the electric ones they used to have, especially if this is because of a power cut. Here’s hoping this elevator is less than two decades old.” She pushed the button and they both waited for something to happen.

A bright flare of iridescence shot out of the control panel and traced the shape of the doors as if checking they really were shut tight. In a few seconds it had circled the elevator, funnelled around both ponies and shot away through the ceiling, leaving them blinking in its wake.

“I guess it is,” said Vinyl.

“Golly!” exclaimed Doctor Thorntree’s daughter. “That was clever of you.”

“Hey, I ain’t just a pretty face.”

She bit her lip and looked around. “So what do we do now?”

Vinyl flipped the control panel closed and sat down. “Wait to be rescued, I guess.” She thought of Octavia’s room upstairs and was surprised when no irrational clutch of fear whipped through her at the idea of being away from Tavi longer than a few minutes. Then she winced, glancing at the peanut butter crackers she was holding. “My friend is gonna be so mad.”

“What? Why?”

Nopony and nothing gets between her and her peanut butter crackers. It just ain’t healthy to get in the way.”

“She can’t possibly blame you for getting stuck in a lift. Uh, I mean elevator,” the other mare corrected hastily, as if using the wrong word would offend Vinyl.

“Blame me? No. Chew off my leg if I don’t hoof them over fast enough once we get outta here? Maybe.”

“That’s … um … wow, that’s … really rather wow. That’s ...”

“That’s Sapphire Shores,” Vinyl finished for her.

She was still surprised at how easy it had been to let Sapphire take up a place in her life. Not that Sapphire would have let her say no had she had tried, of course. Vinyl wasn’t accustomed to having somepony around who not only called herself ‘friend’ but threw herself into acting like one too. Words were cheap and Sapphire preferred currency of a different sort. She never did anything half-heartedly, so Vinyl supposed she should have expected it. Nevertheless, she still hadn’t been ready for the influx of so much big, brash, bodacious pony in her routine here at the hospital. In the last week Sapphire had come to see her three times, on each occasion arriving with something unexpected. Yesterday it had been the next book in the Harry Trotter series. Today it was a tupperware container of her mother’s curried callaloo, plus strict instructions to make sure Vinyl ate it ‘and put some meat on them skinny bones’.

“Trust me, girl, you do not wanna cross my momma. You think I’m an interfering ol’ nag? You ain’t seen nuthin’ ‘till you met her.”

“When did I ever call you a nag? Or say anything about you interfering?”

“You didn’t. I’m sayin’ it for myself. Call a rock a rock and a dog a dog, as my momma used to say. Actually, she still says it. ‘Speak plain, Sapphire, if you know what’s good for you’, she says, and she’ll bust your head from the inside out if you say different. I know when I’m sticking my fine, fine snout into other ponies’ business. I just don’t care much whether you want me to stop, sugar-lips. You been dealin’ with this mess on your own for too dang long, Vinyl. It’s time somepony helped you share some of that weight. And me? I come from ponies with stroooong legs and broooaaad shoulders.”

“I … I don’t know what to say, Sapphire.”

“Don’t say nuthin’, girl. Just eat.”

“Okay. Uh … what exactly is callaloo?”

Vinyl was used to only answering to herself and her agent – not that Indigo had been overexerting himself with visits or phone-calls lately. Allowing Sapphire to insert herself so quickly and so thoroughly was unexpectedly liberating.

And then Sapphire had wanted peanut butter crackers, and Vinyl, in an act of goodwill, had offered to go fetch them. She had been shocked at herself, volunteering to leave Tavi’s side for something so trivial, but the act had made Sapphire beam and pull Vinyl into a perfumed hug so tight her ribs hurt afterwards.

Stupid peanut butter crackers, she thought.

“Sapphire Shores?” Doctor Thorntree’s daughter gaped. “Here? Today?”

“Yep. Why, are you a fan?”

“Oh, goodness, yes! I … I mean, oh dear … my mother always hated her music, you see, but I … that is to say I … my mother and I, we don’t really get on but … no, you didn’t need to know that, did you? I used to listen to Sapphire Shores songs while I was at university and I carried on after I started doing this for a living. She was my inspiration for my final thesis project! I called it ‘Gemstone Melodies’. I’d spend whole evenings in the studio, painting and singing along with her records … and she’s here? And I’m stuck in a bloody lift? A lift!? Oh golly, oh gosh, I … I’m babbling, aren’t I? I’ll stop. Oh my gosh …”

Vinyl laughed. “She’s pretty cool. If you’re meeting your dad, you’ll probably see her. They’re on the same floor.”

“I think I might faint if that happened,” the other mare murmured. “I don’t deal with pressure very well.”

“You seem to be coping okay right now.”

“That’s because in my head I’m listing the pros and cons of whether it would be better to paint you in watercolours or oils. I find thinking about my art helps me relax. I understand art. I … I don’t always understand the rest of life.”

“You … what?” Vinyl stared at her. “Paint me?”

“I think you’d look good in either, to be honest. Watercolours would give you softer edges but, considering some of the more dynamic poses I’ve seen in your photographs, oils would bring out the vibrancy of your mane and eyes. They really are quite striking, aren’t they? Red and blue work as perfect counters, and pairing them with a white background only adds emphasis to the composition as a whole … oh dear, I’m babbling again.”

“Uh … hey, what’s your name?” Vinyl asked, changing the subject in an effort to get herself back on solid ground. “You never said.”

“Oh, me? I’m Willow. Willow Thorntree. Of course, you knew that last part, didn’t you? Although I was Willow Juniper until recently. Daddy … doesn’t know yet that I switched back to his surname.” Her orange cheeks darkened in a blush. “I was going to tell him today.”

Vinyl glanced at the ceiling. “I wonder how long it’ll be before we get out of here.”

“Not too long, I hope.” Willow cast her a sidelong look. “You know, you aren’t exactly what I imagined.”


“You don’t look like your pictures in the magazines. Maybe oils would work for the way you looked in them, but looking at you now … hmm …” She squinted calculatingly and Vinyl got the feeling she was being compared to some unknown yardstick.

“Oh.” Absently, Vinyl pawed at her long, unshaped mane. Apparently she had the quickest growing hair in Equestria, because it swished way past the bottom of her chest now and often brushed her knees as she walked. “I guess not.”

“I half expected you to be wearing sunglasses indoors,” Willow laughed. “But I suppose that’s just silly.”

Not so long ago I would have worn them, Vinyl thought self-consciously.

“Hey, Tavi, how do you like the new shades? Cool, huh?”

“Can you even see out of those? They’re practically opaque.”

“Sure I can. Don’t they look awesome? Ow!”

“That was the coffee table.”

“I just wasn’t looking where I was going – whoa!”

“Mind the umbrella stand!”

“Why do we even have one of those?”

“To keep umbrellas in, of course.”

“Whatever. I still say these shades are totally cool. Indigo took me to a stylist today and she said they really improve my image with my new manecut.”



“Does image come before or after practicality?”

“Image comes before everything.”

“I take it that’s the world according to bloody Indigo again.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing. Look, Vinyl, could you at least take them off inside the apartment? You’re going to do yourself a mischief if you keep crashing into things.”

“I can’t. I gotta get used to wearing them indoors and out. The PR ponies at the record label said it’s better that I wear them whenever possible to cover up my eyes.”

“What? Why?”

“Duh! Because red eyes are too freaky. They’ll put off ponies from buying my records.”

“Freaky? Vinyl, that’s absolute rubbish! How can they say … I mean, just look around at the average crowd of ponies! There are more eye colours than you can shake a stick at!”

“Shaking sticks at eyes? Well that ain’t very safe.”

“Isn’t, not ain’t, and your eyes are lovely.”

“Not that you’re biased or anything.”

“I always thought your eyes were lovely, Vinyl. It was you who had the hang-ups about them.”

“Because I’ve never met another pony with eyes like mine. They are what they are, Tavi: freaky and unnerving.”

“Unnerving? That doesn’t sound like a word you’d use. Did that come from these PR ponies? Or Indigo?”

“That, uh, doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that I get used to wearing these shades as soon as possible.”

“But you shouldn’t have to hide your eyes just because they’re unusual!”

“Thanks, Tavi, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the team on this one. They know what they’re talking about when it comes to the music industry, after all.”

“Hmmf. Well … all right, I suppose. But I want it known that I disagree with this! Wholeheartedly!”

“Duly noted.”

“There’s some pizza left if you want it. I popped it in the oven to keep it warm for you.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I gotta lose a few pounds.”

“What!? Since when?”

“Since the PR team, um, put me on the scales today. I’m at least ten pounds over my optimum according to my height and age.”

“What balderdash! You’re perfect just the way you are.”

“Aw, Tavi, you say the sweetest things.”

“Vinyl … are you sure this is all worth it?”

“What? Sure it is! Indigo says I could go all the way to the top. He says I’ve got the talent – and he should know, right?”

“… Right.”

“Aw, don’t get jealous. C’mere and give me a kiss – ow!”

“Coffee table again.”

A gusty sigh broke Vinyl’s from her thoughts.

Willow cleared her throat and said nervously, “Um … this might sound strange and odd and … vaguely stalkery, actually – but I assure you, it’s not! Um … I mean, you can completely say no if you like … or don’t like, as the case may be, but, um …” She bit her lower lip.

“Go on,” said Vinyl.

“Since we might be stuck here for a while … might you let me sketch you? I have some materials in my saddlebags – I never go anywhere without them. Never know when inspiration will strike, after all, so it’s best to be prepared, right? Um … so … would you mind terribly?”

“You want to draw me?” Vinyl repeated, making sure she had this right.

“Are you offended?”

“What? No. Why would I be?”

“Some ponies can be funny about this sort of thing. Like I’m stealing their soul by committing their image to paper without their permission, or something.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Vinyl looked at herself in the three mirrored walls of the elevator. Each reflected both the real her and the other reflections, resulting in dozens upon dozens of ever decreasing Vinyls stretching off into the fake distance that, if she were to try to reach it, would deliver a sharp smack of reality. An infinity of shrinking white ponies with blue hair, freaky red eyes and no sunglasses. “Image … is a funny thing.”

“So, um, may I?”

“Hm?” Vinyl tore her gaze away from that of the nearest reflection. “What?”

“May I sketch you? It would really help to calm me down, having something concentrate to concentrate on, instead of the fact that we’re trapped in a small meal box suspended between floors in a shaft with lots of empty air below us.” Willow’s breathing quickened as she spoke and her eyes became a little unfocussed. “Lots and lots of very, very empty air –”

“Uh, sure. Sure, you can draw me if you like.” Vinyl looked at the peanut butter crackers. “You want me to stow these someplace first?”

“Oh, I don’t want you to pose or anything. I often sit outside Le Café Équine in Trottingham and do quick sketches of passing ponies at the end of a stressful day at the studio. Just do as you’ve been doing. You have a very sketchable body.” Willow’s horn glowed with a soft pink aura. A large sketchpad of coarse paper, a pencil and a wrapped stick of charcoal floated out of her saddlebag and hovered in front of her.

A very sketchable body? Vinyl silently repeated. What the hay?

Willow spent a few moments glancing between the pad and Vinyl, making a few quick strokes with her pencil before puffing out her cheeks like a hamster. “Your posture has suddenly gone very stiff.”

“Has it?”

“Yes. Your spine is ramrod and it looks like all the joints in your legs have suddenly locked. Are you nervous?” She sounded like she didn’t believe it even as she said it. After all, how could the great DJ-Pon3 be nervous of something as simple as this?

“Uh, no,” Vinyl said automatically. She’d had her photo taken dozens of times, played on stage before audiences of thousands and featured in more club scenes than she could count. She was no stranger to attention. No way could one sketch artist make her nervous. No way!

Except that she was. She really, really was.

“Your entire body has gone rigid,” Willow said in even more surprise. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Vinyl muttered. “Never better.”

“You look tense.” Willow peered over the top of her sketchpad. “You sound tense. I’m bothering you. I should stop.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Vinyl blew out a sigh. “I’ve just … had a lot on my mind lately, that’s all. Sometimes it just hits me all in a big bunch. I’ll be fine in a minute or two.”

“Oh.” Willow’s eyes widened in realisation. “Oh, right. Yes, I can imagine. Well, no, that’s a foolish thing to say. I can’t put myself in your place because you’re you and I’m, uh, me. Not you. Because you’re you. Um, but I can imagine that it’s … not … been … easy … ugh, I’ll just shut up now.” Her head ducked back behind the screen of her sketchpad.

Vinyl’s shoulders sagged. “No. No, you’re right. It hasn’t been easy.”

“I, um, read some things. In the press. I subscribe to some, um, magazines.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Ghastly stuff, most of it.”

“The stuff you read or the press in general?”

“Both?” Willow giggled uncertainly.

“I hear that.” Vinyl’s ears twitched at the sound of pencil against paper. “So what did you read?”

“You want me to repeat it back to you?” Willow asked incredulously.

“Uh, no, I guess not. By any chance, did you read anything by a reporter called Quillpoint?”

“That beastly mare? Certainly not. Daddy told me what a sod she was to you. He was really quite upset by it. I wouldn’t touch her rag of a magazine with a ten foot barge pole!”

“Doctor Thorntree was upset?” Vinyl was shocked. The doc played all his cards pretty close to his chest – in some cases so close he was playing poker with his own heart and lungs. He had never mentioned a daughter and, though his demeanour towards Vinyl had softened since she first came here, he wasn’t exactly king of the warm fuzzies.

“Oh yes,” Willow said absently. The scritch of pencil increased as her glances over the top of the sketchpad became less subtle. Concentration settled over her face, smoothing out the tense lines as she worked. “He wrote Mane Music Monthly a very stern letter. I can’t imagine they did more than throw it in the bin, but he was adamant about sending it. He read it to me over the phone. Daddy isn’t so good with words sometimes – not if they aren’t medical terms. He wanted my advice. I was rather touched that he’d value my opinion, actually; especially since I’m, uh, not so good with words either. You might have noticed.” She chuckled wryly. “I’m better with images than words. You can say a lot with art that you can’t simply by talking. Although I suppose you, of all ponies, already knew that.”

“I’m no artist,” said Vinyl. “The best I can draw is stick figure ponies.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean like that. Your music is your art, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” Vinyl contemplated this. She had been called a ‘music artist’ for so long now the words had lost much of their meaning. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for musicians,” Willow admitted. “I’m about as musical as an orthopaedic shoe. The amount of emotion in some music makes me want to do better at my art – like I want to get the kind of emotional reaction the music inspired in me out of somepony else when they look at what I’ve done. I paint, mostly, but I also do some sculpting and when I listen to music it tends to come out in whatever I’m creating. Sometimes I say ‘sod the planning stage’ and just paint straight onto canvas to see what happens. I can never sell those pieces but I sure as heck feel better after doing them.”

Vinyl nodded. “I used to sing,” she admitted. “Just because I could.”

“You sing?” The pencil stopped. “But I thought you were an electronic musician.”

“Yeah, but that’s not how I started out.”

“You were a singer?”

“It was something I did.”

“You did other things too?”

Vinyl closed her eyes, throwing her mind into memories of cramped music practise rooms at high school and the Academy, a bow drawing out high, aching notes that mixed with the sonorous bass of a cello in harmonies that she missed so much it made her stomach hurt. The counter melodies from those long lost years whirled through her mind and, with a jolt, she realised what she had been missing in her current composition. Like a jigsaw piece slotting into place in her mind, she could suddenly see the whole thing as if sheets of written music were hovering telekinetically before her.

“Wow,” Willow breathed. “That’s a lovely tune.”

Vinyl’s eyes snapped open. “Huh?”

“You were humming.” Willow’s chin was balanced atop her sketchpad. She had been watching, enrapt, and Vinyl hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t noticed that she had started to hum, either, but apparently she had. “Sorry,” Willow hastily apologised. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ve spoiled your concentration.”

“It’s okay.” Vinyl cleared her throat. “You, uh, liked it?”

“What I heard of it, yes.”

Vinyl cleared her throat again. When did this elevator get so hot that her whole mouth dried out? Hesitantly, she hummed the central refrain again. She paused and then hummed the counter melody, wishing she had a tape recorder so she could listen to them together. She hummed one and then the other in quick succession, and then moved into what would be the verse once it had lyrics attached. She had barely thought about lyrics yet; too caught up in first getting the music itself right. Closing her eyes once more, she hummed the first melody all the way through, then circled around and took herself into the newly finished counter melody. She looped back to the start of the first melody, graduating to ‘ah-ing’ partway through the chorus. Her voice grew stronger the more she repeated the notes, chest swelling with increased inhalations for more volume. She imagined what instruments would treat this song best. Dubstep was her baby but it wasn’t right for this one. Strings, maybe? The trill of a flute – no, a piccolo – sounded demandingly in the back of her mind. Maybe even a –

The phosphorescent flash of magic startled her back to reality. She jumped back from the elevator doors. Willow squeaked and fell to her haunches, sketchpad clutched to her chest. A few more chunks of hair struggled loose from her braids as the staticky sensation of heavy-duty magic filled the tiny space. Vinyl felt like her stomach was being pulled through the bottoms of her hooves as they whole elevator jerked upwards.

“We’re moving!” Willow exclaimed.

Seconds later the doors flashed with more brilliance and squeaked open. Through the sparkling green dots it left on her vision, Vinyl could make out pony-shapes on the other side.

“There we go,” growled the closest one. Vinyl recognised the uniform of the janitor.

“They’re okay!” said a voice that sounded like Nurse Merry Heart. “Thank Celestia, they’re okay.”

“They were only stuck between floors.” Nurse Flower Heart’s harsh accent bullwhipped across her friend’s joy. “It ain’t that big a deal.”

“Oh, hush, you big ol’ faker. You were as worried as the rest of us when that there alarm sounded an’ the spell tol’ us who was inside.”

“Well, haven’t I been saying for ages that those elevators are getting too old? Nopony ever listens to me –”

“Willow?” Doctor Thorntree’s voice was unmistakable, as was the surprise infusing it.

“Uh, hello Daddy.” Willow gave a little wave with one hoof. “I came to surprise you. So … surprise,” she finished weakly.

“But … I thought we weren’t meeting until after six?”

Willow dipped her face, hooking her chin over the top of her sketchpad. “I wanted to see you,” she mumbled, almost inaudibly. She looked and sounded so much like foal in the moment.

For a few seconds Doctor Thorntree said nothing. Then he cleared his throat with such a dramatic cough that everypony took a step away as if he had plague. “Well then … um … it’s … good to see you.” He paused ever so briefly, before adding equally softly, “Sweetheart.”

Willow’s face erupted into a blush.

“Would you like to come along to my office?” he asked. “We can have a nice, long chat in there.”

“But don’t you have patients to see? I thought I would just say hello and then go wait in the café or something –”

“My rounds aren’t for another half hour. Besides which, you’ve just been through a trauma. No, I think some hot, sweet tea in my office is the best course of action. Vinyl, would you like to join us?”

Ah, the incessant politeness of Trottingham ponies. Vinyl opened her mouth to say no – she wouldn’t dream of encroaching on this time between father and daughter – when a voice to defeat all others bellowed from the back of the crowd of ponies.

“Move aside, y’all! My girl Vinyl’s finally free of that extremely exasperating evil elevator!”

Sapphire didn’t quite resemble a bowling ball knocking down pins, but it was close. The gigantic blue feather boa she had chosen to wear today trailed behind her like a pair of wings as everypony moved aside to let her march past.

“Hi, Saph,” said Vinyl.

“Don’t you sass me with no Saph, sister!”

Grinning despite herself, Vinyl held out the troublesome little packet of peanut butter crackers. “Would this help?”

The fire in Sapphire’s eyes dimmed a little, though it didn’t die completely. “It might.” She accepted the packet like a queen accepting the gift of an explorer who had been to visit a faraway land. “Hold this for me, will you, sugar?” She gave it to Nurse Merry Heart without waiting for a response, grabbed Vinyl and pulled her into a fierce hug. “Can’t I leave you to do nuthin’ unsupervised, girl?”

Vinyl froze for a moment. However, she did return the hug. It was neither motherly nor romantic, but gave its own kind of fierce, crushing comfort.

“I finished the song,” she whispered into Sapphire’s ear. “Well, I finished composing it. It just needs writing down now.”

Sapphire held her away, studying her face. “You serious? That thing you been workin’ on all week? It’s done?”

Vinyl grinned. “Friggin’ A.”

“Girl, I don’t even know what that means, but you got a date with a pen an’ papeeeer.” She whirled around, holding out a foreleg as she barrelled ahead. “Outta the way, fillies an’ colts. Destiny waits for nopony if she don’t get her skinny white butt in gear!” She plucked the packet from Merry Heart’s startled grasp. “And destiny sure does taste better with peanut butter crackers. Mmm-hmmm!”

Sapphire stared at the sheet music critically.

“Well?” Vinyl resisted the urge to chew on a piece of her mane. She had outgrown that disgusting habit years ago. Why the hay did she want to go back to it now?

Sapphire blew out a harsh sigh, lowered the paper and looked at her with what Vinyl could only call anguish. Her perfectly plucked eyebrows drew together, forming a peak above eyes that did not look happy.

A lump formed in Vinyl’s throat. “It’s crap, isn’t it? I knew I was too out of practise to write anything decent. I was just –”

“This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” Sapphire said hoarsely. Nevertheless, Vinyl did have to struggle to hear her. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s still rough around the edges – but girl, I think you got something special on your hooves here.”

“You think so?” Vinyl was amazed. While putting the melodies to paper she had found several glitches that she had been sure would ruin the whole composition, even after she debugged the thing.

“Sugar-lips, would I lie to you?” Sapphire refocused on the sheet and hummed the first few bars. Despite what her critics said, she could indeed soften her voice for ballads as well as ramp things up for big band numbers. Vinyl listened to the central melody and, though she could still see flaws, in Sapphire’s voice it did sound pretty nice. “And you say I can have this?”

“Sure.” Vinyl shrugged. “Why not? You were the one who gave me the idea, after all.”

“Girl, my record label has paid ponies more moolah than is decent for songs half this much talent.”

“So be sure to name me when ponies ask where you got the awesome track.”

“Vinyl Scratch –” Sapphire began warningly.

“Call it a gift, Saph.” Vinyl raised a hoof as if to ward off whatever Sapphire had been about to say. “A thank you for being there for me when I needed somepony.”

Sapphire’s shrewd eyes softened. “Dang it, girl, that’s what friends do. You don’t need to go givin’ me no gifts – that’d be like payin’ me to be your friend and that ain’t the way I roll.”

“Like I said, be sure to big up my name as a songwriter whenever you get the chance and we’ll call it even.”

“Your nasty-ass agent wouldn’t like this.”

“My ‘nasty-ass agent’ hasn’t spoken to me since the day after the press conference.” With a grim smile Vinyl added, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was avoiding me.” She sighed. “The last time we spoke was when he called to tell me three of my sponsors were pulling out of their deals. He was mad about it, but you know something? I couldn’t actually bring myself to care. How friggin’ dumb is that? Before the press conference I was terrified about losing them and what it would mean, but now?” She shook her head.

“You got different priorities now, girl.” Sapphire glanced at the bed. Octavia was damp from being washed that morning. A single tuft of hair stood out sideways from her head.

Vinyl trotted over, licked her hoof and carefully smoothed it down, avoiding the nutrient drip and heart monitor wires with practised ease. “Yeah, I do.” Shaking herself, she inhaled sharply and spun to face Sapphire. “So, you like the song?”

“Does gold go with everything?” Sapphire shot back. “You got any lyrics to go with?”

“Not yet.”

“How about a title?”

“Not yet either.”

Sapphire shrugged. “You’ll think of something.”

Her faith in Vinyl’s skills was heartening. Sapphire could really make something of this song – something that she, Vinyl, had written. Not a dubstep remix, nor a sampling track, but something she had written entirely by herself. Moreover, something way, way outside her comfort zone. She knew dubstep. She was secure when she wrote dubstep. This felt more like prising her ribs apart and pinning a bull’s-eye on her still-beating heart.

Oh boy …

A hesitant knock at the door made both mares look up.

“Um, h-hello.” Willow trembled, drooping under Sapphire’s stare like the branches of her namesake. “I’m s-sorry if I’m interrupting. V-Vinyl, Daddy and I are going to the restaurant now, b-but I wanted to give you this before I g-go.” She held out a sheet of rough-textured paper, dotted with broken perforations across the top where it had recently been attached to a sketchpad.

Vinyl stepped forward to accept it, coming up short when she realised Willow was studiously avoiding even glancing in Sapphire’s direction. Her brain performed a quick bit of two-plus-two, coming up with exactly four.

“Sapphire, this is Willow Thorntree. She and I got stuck in the elevator earlier. Willow, this is –”

“S-S-Sapphire Sh-Sh-Shores!” Willow squeaked.

“Willow is a big fan of yours.”

Sapphire quirked one elegant eyebrow. “Oh she is, is she? Well then, this girl got impeccable taste.” She thrust out a foreleg. When Willow wasn’t quite fast enough, she grabbed her hoof and pumped it up and down. “Thanks for looking after my girl Vinyl today. She got a knack for getting herself in trouble in all-caps – T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”

“I-I-I-I …” Willow seemed lost for words.

Sapphire leaned in conspiratorially. “Thorntree, huh? You related to that there Doctor Thorntree?”

Willow nodded mutely.

“Celestia’s sweet-ass shoes!” Sapphire shrieked, nearly shattering the lights. “Your daddy is one treeeemendous pony, girl! He done looked after Octavia and Vinyl these last few months. If you or he ever needs a favour, you just remember what my momma always taught me: ‘a tit for a tat, butter for a rat, you lose your dog, you can have my cat’.” She scrubbed at Willow’s messy hair, but paused to pick up a braid. “Wow, girl, you could give Vinyl a run for her money with this hair-don’t.”

“Hey!” Vinyl protested.

“How many time I gotta tell you I just call ‘em as I see ‘em, sugar-lips? Your mane needs workin’ over in a big way.”

“Whatever.” Vinyl waved a hoof, ignoring how a few strands of her own mane had gotten caught on her eyelashes and were making her blink.

“Um … th-thank you,” said Willow, doing her best impression of a baby bird’s first soft peeps.

“Say, is that Vinyl?” Sapphire tilted Willow’s foreleg to get a better look at the paper she was holding. She let out a low whistle. “Wow.”

“Hey, let me see.” Vinyl held out her own hoof.

Willow’s horn ignited with magic as she levitated the sheet over. Vinyl held it away from her to get a better look and had to stop her jaw dropping open. “This ain’t me.”

It couldn’t be her. She knew what she looked like and this? This wasn’t it. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

The pony in the drawing was rendered in a rough, sketchy style, each line feathered from multiple strikes with the pencil, but the ultimate purpose and destination of each was clear nonetheless. The feathering almost gave the impression of fog, as if the subject was being viewed through a pall of morning mist. This etherealness translated through the image itself. The pony seemed almost ghostly; head tilted back, one foreleg raised as though she might be about to spring away and disappear into thin air. In reality there had been a packet of peanut butter crackers balanced on that hoof, but Willow had chosen to leave that out, thus changing the look of the pose from awkwardly practical to almost shy hesitancy.

Yet it was the eyes that stood out most. They were half-lidded, only part of the pony’s distracted gaze visible, and that little bit was fixed in the middle distance. It should have made the pony look dopey or sleepy, but instead made her seem … sad.

“This ain’t me.”

“Isn’t, not ain’t.”

“It isn’t me,” Vinyl repeated with growing agitation.

“What you talkin’ about, girl?” A hint of reproach entered Sapphire’s tone. “That’s you all right. I’m lookin’ at you right now.”

“This. Isn’t. Me!” Vinyl turned the paper over and shook it towards the two mares. Part of her wondered at the anger the drawing inspired, but her growing temper overwhelmed the misgivings before they could take hold. “I’m not so … so …”

“Pretty?” Sapphire offered. “Cute? Artistically rendered?”

“Fragile! This makes me look like I’d break in half if somepony pushed me over!”

Both Sapphire and Willow blinked in surprise at her raised voice.

“Girl –” Sapphire began.

“It’s a beautiful sketch, Willow. You’ve got a lot of talent. But this?” Vinyl shook her head emphatically. “It isn’t me.”

“Vinyl, why in the name of Luna’s luscious lightshows are you gettin’ so wound up over this?” Sapphire demanded. Her eyes slid to Willow’s stricken expression and her brows hooked upwards in disapproval. “It’s a gift. Ungrateful much?”

Vinyl had also seen Willow’s face crumple but her anger refused to be dislodged. The drawing made her look so friggin’ vulnerable. She was Vinyl Scratch, damn it! She wasn’t vulnerable, or fragile, or … or …

Or weak.

Who are you kidding? whispered the little voice, shifting aside glowing embers of ire to be heard. This is who you are now. That is who you are now.

No way. She shook her head. No friggin’ way.

Octavia’s heart monitor continued its beeping, now the only noise in the stuffy room. Suddenly it seemed inordinately loud. Each beep was perfectly spaced, like a metronome tapping out the rhythm for a song she’d be singing for the rest of her life.

“I … I need some air,” Vinyl mumbled, pushing past Sapphire and Willow.

“Hey, Vinyl –” Sapphire tried to say something, but Vinyl’s trot became a canter in defiance of the ‘don’t run’ signs on the walls. “Vinyl, come back!”

Manehattan General’s bathrooms weren’t the ickiest in Equestria. That wasn’t to say they were especially nice, either. You couldn’t eat your dinner off the floor and if you ever did see you face in it, you had probably slipped on a spill from the basins and face-planted on the tiles.

Vinyl was breathing hard when she burst through the doors of these. She glanced around and immediately headed for a stall, shooting the bolt home. She lowered the toilet lid, sat down and drew her hind legs up to her body, looping her forelegs around them and leaning back against the cistern to stop herself toppling off. With the cool ceramic against her back, she closed her eyes and tried to centre herself.

What the heck was that all about?

She couldn’t really explain it. Something about Willow’s picture had made her want to either break things or run away. Given that choice and the ponies she had been with, she thought she had made the better choice.

Except that now she was locked in a toilet stall and had no idea what to do next. She couldn’t go back and face Sapphire and Willow after that stupid outburst. How could she explain to them when she couldn’t understand herself?

Stupid, stupid, stupid …

It was official: she was her own worst enemy. She pressed her face against the curve of her foreleg, only then realising that her horn still tingled with magic. In the manner of a foal in a tantrum, instead of releasing the sketch she had held tighter and – oh, the irony – brought it into the bathroom with her.

She plucked it out of the air, allowing her magic to release its stranglehold. It was a beautiful drawing, no doubt about that, but she simply could not reconcile it with what she knew of herself. It was more than just the lack of DJ-Pon3’s iconic sunglasses and choppy manecut. Willow had added in her cutie mark and shaded her mane and tail so the light and dark streaks were recognisable. No, something else about it felt like a buck to Vinyl’s guts.

She didn’t know how long she looked at the sketch. When the bathroom door burst open she was so surprised she nearly fell off the toilet. She caught herself at the last moment before snout met door. Somepony hurried in, slamming into the stall at the far end. The loud noise of throwing up echoed off the walls.

Vinyl narrowed her eyes. There was something very familiar about the voice that whimpered between the retches. Rolling up the sketch, she tucked it into a fresh smidge of telekinesis and carefully drew back the lock. The other mare had not bothered to shut the door to her stall; or perhaps she hadn’t had time. Vinyl recognised her cutie mark instantly.

Flower Heart?

The nurse curled her body, all but hugging the toilet. Bits of mane had come loose from her bun and now fell into her face, perilously close to her slimy lips. Instinctively, Vinyl reached out with another strand of telekinesis to hold them away so they wouldn’t get covered in puke. Flower Heart looked up in surprise. Her eyes registered Vinyl’s presence right before another violent spasm shook her.

Several minutes later, Flower Heart finally pushed herself to her hooves and depressed the toilet handle. She sniffed, eyes red with tiny broken capillaries.

“Thanks,” she croaked.

“Are you okay?” Vinyl asked.

“Sure.” Flower Heart gave a husky chuckle. “Never better.”

Vinyl winced. “Okay, that one tops the list of Dumbest Questions I’ve Ever Asked.”

“Won’t hear me arguing.” Flower heart advanced on the wash basins and Vinyl released the telekinesis holding back her mane. It flopped forward as the nurse poked her snout sideways beneath a streaming faucet to swill out her mouth.

“Should you be at work if you’re sick?”

“I ain’t sick.”

“Really? ‘Cause that was a friggin’ good impression of a sick pony.”

Flower Heart shook her head. She braced her forelegs on either side of the basin and drew in a shuddering breath. “I ain’t sick.”

“Then what was with the psychedelic spit?”

Flower Heart glanced up at Vinyl. Her gaze was heavy, and not just because of the dark circles around her eyes. Vinyl was immediately reminded of Bruiser’s question in the corridor before the elevator incident. In all the excitement she had forgotten about it until now.

“Has Flower Heart … has she seemed … I dunno, off to you lately?”

Tick. Tick. Tick.


Vinyl’s eyes widened and her mouth formed a small ‘o’ of comprehension.

“Yeah. That.”

Flower Heart looked at herself in the mirror about the wash basins. In it both of them were reflected under the unforgiving halogen strip-lights. The lights did neither of them any favours. Vinyl was shocked when she realised Flower Heart’s hollow eyes were a perfect match for her own – and also a perfect match for those in Willow’s sketch.

“Bruiser doesn’t know, does he?” Vinyl asked needlessly. Why would he have asked her opinion on Flower Heart’s wellbeing if he already knew? She thought back to the hesitant but clear concern in his tone.

“No jokes for a second. Does she seem okay to you?”

“No, I haven’t told him yet.” Flower Heart’s gaze shifted to meet that of Vinyl’s reflection. “I’m … too scared to tell him.”

“What? Why?” Bruiser was an okay guy and clearly adored Flower Heart. During her months at Manehattan General Vinyl had seen them interact plenty of times and she never ceased to be surprised at how gentle and biddable the menacing stallion could be.

“How the hay am I supposed to start something like that? ‘Hey, sweetie, how are you at knitting booties? Because we’re gonna be hearing the pitter-patter of tiny hooves soon!’ ‘Hey, Bruiser, I know I ain’t prime mommy material, since my apartment’s messier than a dumpster and I don’t know how to cook for myself, let alone a foal, but you can pick up the slack, right?’ Or my personal favourite: ‘Bruiser, would you leave me if I told you I was pregnant?’” Flower Heart shook her head. “Oh joy, the choices and possibilities sure do make my heart sing.” Sarcasm sharpened each word into a perfectly enunciated point. She barely sounded like herself.

“Hang on, hang on, hang on.” Vinyl folded her forelegs. “How do you know he wouldn’t be thrilled?”

“Are you kidding?” Flower Heart let out a short, bitter laugh. “I don’t even know how I feel about this. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I’m not ready to be a mother!” She let out a soft curse and leaned heavily against the washbasin. “Ponies like Merry Heart make good mothers, not ponies like me. Mothers are caring and responsible and junk like that.”

“Um, I hate to be the one to point this out, Flower, but you’re a nurse. That kinda indicates a level of caring and responsibility above the norm, otherwise the ponies in charge of this place wouldn’t let you keep working here.”

Flower Heart said nothing but her ears folded back.

Vinyl bit her lip. “Are you … do you want to keep it?”

“I don’t know,” Flower Heart whispered. “I … I honestly don’t know. Part of me wants to but … I never planned for this. I never saw myself as parent material. Like, ever. I barely saw myself as girlfriend material until Bruiser asked me out. I’m thirty-eight. I’m too old to be a mother for the first time but … but when I saw the little line on that stick ... Sweet Celestia, Vinyl, what do I do?”

Vinyl hadn’t a clue. She was usually the one asking that question. “Somepony, please, tell me what to do so if it goes wrong it’s not all my own fault!” This situation was so far outside her comfort zone she had to check to make sure gravity hadn’t reversed and time wasn’t running backwards.

“I don’t know what to do …” Flower murmured, tears in her eyes. “I just don’t know what to do …”

“Do you … do you want me to get Merry Heart?” Vinyl asked hesitantly.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” A tear ran down Flower Heart’s face and off the end of her nose. “Sweet Celestia, I’m blubbering. Sorry, Vinyl. I didn’t mean for you – or anypony, for that matter – to see me like this. I’m just … feeling a little lost right now, y’know? This is … this is big. This is life-changing type big and I … I don’t know if I’m up to make that kind of decision. Not on my own. But if I tell Bruiser and he isn’t … if he doesn’t want …” Her volume dropped so low Vinyl could barely hear her at all. “I wish I knew what to do …”

Without asking permission, Vinyl advanced and wrapped her forelegs around Flower Heart in an awkward sideways hug. Flower Heart was bigger than her, plus the angle made things difficult, but she hoped it was comforting and not just uncomfortable. After a few frozen moments, Flower Heart’s forelegs gave out and she sagged against the washbasin, tears streaming down her face.

“S-Sorry –” she choked out.

“Don’t be sorry,” Vinyl replied. This was a little scary, but she held on as Flower Heart broke down in her embrace.

“S-Sweet Celest-tia … t-talk ab-bout a r-role r-reversal …” Flower Heart’s breath hitched as Vinyl followed her to the floor, still hugging her as her hind legs gave way. “L-Last t-time it was m-me c-comforting y-you.” She sniffed back a river of unpleasant snot and frightened, desperate tears. “I g-guess we’re e-even n-now, huh?”

“It ain’t about payback or being even,” Vinyl replied. She hadn’t, actually, been thinking about when she had woken from her nightmares and Flower Heart had let her cry herself raw on the floor of Octavia’s room. She had just seen that Flower Heart was in pain and wanted to do something – even if only a small thing – to make it stop. “You’re my friend.”

And, bizarrely, it was true. She said it before she really thought about it, but it really was true. She considered Flower Heart her friend. Merry Heart too, now she came to think about it. And Bruiser. Maybe even Doctor Thorntree, in a slightly distant, pokerfaced way.

It had been bizarre enough to realise Sapphire was her friend, but this … this was greedy, surely? She had gone from having no friends to having more than she knew what to do with.

When the friggin’ heck did that happen?

She stayed on the grimy floor of the hospital bathroom until Flower Heart’s shoulders finally stopped juddering. They stayed there a while longer after that, neither saying a word until, finally, Flower Heart leaned her head sideways to rest it against Vinyl’s.

“Thank you,” she croaked. “I didn’t mean to go to pieces like that.”

“I don’t think any of us do, but when it happens, it happens,” Vinyl shrugged. “I’m just glad you weren’t alone when it did. Trust me, that ain’t healthy. Or pretty. Or fun.”

“Definitely not fun,” Flower Heart agreed. She cleared her throat, dragging a foreleg across her face. It came away stained with the heavy mascara and the bright yellow eye-shadow she always wore. “Aw, ponyfeathers. I’m gonna look like an old nag if I go out there bare-faced.”

“I think you should get yourself cleaned up,” said Vinyl. Carefully she released her hold, looked over her shoulder, tore off a wad of toilet paper from the roll of the nearest stall and levitated it over. Flower Heart accepted it gratefully, mopping at her face and blowing her nose in a noisy, unladylike blast.

“I don’t suppose you got on make-up on you, huh?”

“No,” Vinyl admitted. “But I, uh, know a pony who never goes anywhere without it …”

Sapphire was not in Room 219. Neither was Willow. Octavia was alone, still in her bed and unmoving. Vinyl cursed under her breath as she stood in the doorway.

“I think I screwed up again, Tavi.”

“Maybe not as much as you think, sugar-lips.”

She whirled at the familiar voice. “Sapphire!”

Standing beside the nurse’s desk, Sapphire eyed Vinyl with a mixture of wariness and disapproval. One eyebrow was already hoisted high, as if she had been standing there the whole time, just waiting for Vinyl to notice her as she barrelled past.

Aw, horseapples. “Were you there the whole time?”

“Given that I had to comfort an actual weepin’ Willow an’ so missed where the hay you ran off to, pretty much. I knew you couldn’t stay away from your Tavi for long though. I figured I just had to sit tight and you’d eventually reappear.” Sapphire’s aerobic eyebrow lowered. “Mind explainin’ what the hoo-haa that was all about?”

“I, uh, will, sure, but right now … Saph, do you have some mascara?”

Sapphire blinked at her. “Okay, not the answer I was expecting. Since when do you prettify yourself with make-up, girl? Not that it wouldn’t be a welcome thing – I’ve been itchin’ to doll you up some since I first laid eyes on you in that room – but this is real sudden.”

“It’s not for me; it’s for … a friend.”

There went that aerobic eyebrow again. “Oh really?”

Vinyl glanced around. “Yeah, um … well … look, I can’t really tell you much, so you’ll have to trust me that it’s real important she gets some fresh mascara right now. And … would you have any yellow eye-shadow?”

“Vinyl, what the hay is this all about?”

“I told you, it’s for a friend.” She looked around, wishing Merry Heart was there. Where was that mare, anyhow? “She’s hiding in the bathroom because she cried off all her make-up and I said I’d ask you for some so she wouldn’t have to come out bare-faced.”

Sapphire’s expression shifted. “Well why didn’t you say so? Let me just get my purse, sugar-lips. This is a cosmetic emergency!”

“Flower?” Vinyl’s voice echoed off the bathroom walls and ceiling. “Did you leave already?”

The snap of a lock said no. Flower Heart peeped out, eyes widening when she saw Sapphire. “I thought you were just bringing some mascara!”

“Hey, sassafras, where my make-up bag goes, I go,” Sapphire trilled. “Are you the friend-in-need my girl Vinyl here told me about?”

“Um …”

“I can see your eyes from here, sugar, so be careful how you answer.”

Flower Heart sighed and exited the stall.

Sapphire sucked in a breath. “Dang it, girl, you need more than mascara. Here.” She snapped open the purse slung around her neck, rummaging inside and emerging with a tiny plastic phial. “There here are an eye-brightenin’ elixir I use before I go on stage. The effects last a few hours and should cover up those bloodshot peepers of yours.”

“Elixir?” Flower Heart eyed the phial suspiciously.

“Made by the finest unicorns in the cosmetics industry. It’s safe, just not permanent. You want to apply it or you want me to do it?”

“I, uh …”

“My momma had five foals besides me. I grew up thinkin’ I was gonna be a make-up artist before I figured out I’d be doing the music world a disservice if I didn’t become a singer. My brothers and sisters got a lotta makeovers while we all were growing up. I know what I’m doin’, sugar.”

Flower Heart bit her lip but accepted the offer and craned her head back as Sapphire judiciously applied the elixir. Being an earth pony, Sapphire used her hooves, but they were just as steady as any telekinesis. She brought out a tiny pallet of eye-shadows and a brand new, unopened mascara wand that Vinyl recognised as one of the most expensive brands on the market.

“I don’t got any yellow,” Sapphire said apologetically. “But how about this here shade of green? It’s lighter than your coat and I reckon might suit you even more than your regular colour.”

“Um, yeah. Sure.” Flower Heart closed her eyes dutifully. “This was definitely not what I expected when I woke up today.”

“Life’s full of surprises, sugar,” Sapphire muttered, dabbing lightly at Flower Heart’s eyelids with the eye-shadow brush.

“You’re telling me,” Flower Heart mumbled, not quite hiding the emotion in her tone.

Sapphire paused incrementally – just long enough to catch Vinyl’s eye. Vinyl didn’t nod or shake her head, but she got the feeling Sapphire knew more after that single glance than she had known before it. Their mutual gaze fell away as though it had been a physical thing, now unfastened. Vinyl felt it drop like a rope or heavy chain to the floor and half wanted to check whether something was actually there on the tiles.

“Oh,” murmured Sapphire as she put away the eye-shadow and broke open the seal on the mascara. “So that’s how it is.”

Flower Heart stiffened, eyes still closed. “That’s how what is?”

Sapphire went to work on her lashes. “You tell me, sugar.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I reckon you do.”

“Well you reckon wrong,” Flower Heart replied hotly.

“I wouldn’t fight it if I were you, Flower,” Vinyl advised. “She does this. It’s kinda creepy, actually.”

“Like I said, I grew up as one of six little ponies in a house with a momma who could tell you were lyin’ even before you opened your mouth,” said Sapphire. “I learned at the hooves of a master. Ain’t nopony nowhere can lie to me an’ get away with it.”

“I … you … I don’t even know you!”

“Sure you do. I’m Sapphire Shores. You got me to sign an autograph for you just last Wednesday.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Flower Heart’s cheeks darkened as a blush fought its way through her green fur. “You can’t just waltz in here and start saying things like … like that!”

“Girl, this is a public bathroom. I can waltz in here and do a whole lot worse.” The mascara wand paused in Sapphire’s hoof. “Okay, that came out nastier than I intended, but you get the idea.”

“I … I …” Flower Heart fumbled. She opened her eyes, meeting Sapphire’s implacable gaze. Vinyl swore she could hear another heavy thump as that one fell away too. Flower Heart dipped her head and sighed.

Sapphire nodded and patted her shoulder. “Girl, I won’t insult you by pretendin’ I know what you’re goin’ through right now, but you got a good friend in Vinyl here, so whatever you decide to do, you won’t be alone.”

Shock jack-knifed through Vinyl. She had only just figured out she was friends with Flower Heart and Sapphire was already declaring her a good one?

“I know,” Flower Heart replied, sending another bolt of shock through Vinyl. She was confirming Sapphire’s statement? What the – “I don’t suppose you got any advice, do you?”

Sapphire thought about this for a moment. She opened her mouth to dispense her pearls of wisdom. “Vinyl, you wanna field this one?”

“Huh?” Vinyl said intelligently. At Sapphire’s pointed look and Flower Heart’s pleading one, she closed her mouth and swallowed. No pressure. None at all. Nope.


Thanks, Saph. Thanks a lot.

Vinyl glanced from side to side, searching for inspiration. She caught sight of the mirror again, and once again saw her changed reflection in it. She realised with a jar of a dismay that she had let go of Willow’s sketch earlier when she hugged Flower Heart. The piece of paper sat next to the washbasin, slightly water-stained where it had landed in a damp spot. The drawing of her was still visible, however, and juxtaposed with her reflection this way, Vinyl could finally see some of what Willow had seen in the elevator. She did indeed look fragile. There was no other word for it. She looked like she had galloped to Tartarus and back, dragging an ever-increasing load as she went.

Except that she wasn’t dragging that load alone anymore. She had friends, and those friends had chosen to help her share it; not because they had to, not because she had asked them to, but because they cared about her and wanted to help her.

“It ain’t about payback or being even.”

“Honesty,” she said. “I vote for honesty, Flower.”

Flower Heart stared at her for a long, splintered moment. Then she dropped her head in a mixture of defeat and fear. “I … I guess you’re right. I just … I’m scared to tell him.”

“I’ll go with you,” Vinyl said instantly.

“Hey, you two ain’t leavin’ me out,” Sapphire protested. “I’m a part of this thing too now, y’know. This fine piece of pony here is wearin’ my Marebelline. That makes me an interested party.”

Despite herself, Vinyl snorted.

Flower Heart gave a watery smile. “Thanks.”

Of the two porters pushing a gurney, both saw the trio of mares scuttling towards the elevator, but only one cared to look a second time. He paused, watching as they drew up short at the doors and the smallest one shook her head, sending her long variegated blue mane rippling the way water does after somepony has thrown a pebble into it.

The tallest mare said something, but the gurney was too far away for him to make out the words. The smallest one shook her head again. He recognised the last mare as one of the nurses here at the hospital. They had eaten lunch together a few times in the canteen. Sunflower Heart? Petal Heart? Something like that, anyway.

He had no trouble remembering the names of the other two ponies. As they trooped through the double doors into the stairwell, he let out a squawk at a tap on his shoulder.


“Hey, buddy, am I doing this alone or what?”

He whirled to face the other porter. “Dude! Don’t do that!”

“You were off in la-la land again, buddy.”

“I was not! I was just …”

“Watching DJ Pon-3 and Sapphire Shores argue with Nurse Flower Heart over whether to take the elevator or stairs?”

He gaped.

The other porter gave a stern smile. “It’s possible to notice stuff like that and still be able to push a gurney, buddy.”

“What do you suppose they were up to?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “All I can say for sure is that Manehattan General wasn’t exactly a quiet place to work before, but now …” He left the statement hanging. “C’mon, buddy, help me with this guy.”

“Uh, sure.”

Life had, indeed, gotten a whole lot more interesting since those ponies arrived. Yes indeed.

And things were about to get even more interesting, too.

Bruiser looked up from the newspaper he had been pretending to read when somepony knocked on the door of the security station. He was on his break but had chosen to take it by the monitors, since his junior guard was off sick and they were running short-hoofed.

“It’s unlocked.”

The door opened and a pony walked in.

“Flower?” He scrambled to his hooves. “What is it? You never visit me on duty. Is something –” He paused. There was something different about her.

He was still trying to work out what it was when she drew a deep breath and glanced over her shoulder. The two faces peering around the sides of the door vanished guiltily, though Bruiser didn’t hear any hoofsteps walking away.

“Bruiser.” Flower Heart interrupted his thoughts, dragging his gaze back to her. “There’s … there’s something I gotta tell you …”

Vinyl trotted into Room 219 and flopped into her chair. “Well, Tavi, that has gotta be one of the weirdest days of my life. For serious. Maybe not the weirdest day ever, but in the top ten. Maybe even top five.”

Octavia didn’t respond. That, however, did not stop Vinyl’s diatribe.

“First I got outwitted by a vending machine, then I got stuck in the elevator, then I overreacted over a dumb sketch, then I helped Flower Heart make the biggest confession of her life.” She shook her head. “I guess I have some experience in that last one, especially lately. I only wish the reaction at my press conference had been as positive.” She smiled, reaching out to stroke Octavia’s foreleg on top of the bedclothes. “I didn’t even know Bruiser’s voice could get that high. And do you know he giggles when he’s happy? Like, really, really, really, really insanely happy? Saph was laughing all the way to her carriage about how high he got.” Vinyl frowned slightly. “What’s a castrato, anyhow?”

The ceiling fan whirred. The monitor beeped. Octavia breathed evenly.

And Vinyl smiled.

It faltered a little as she thought about what she had to do next. Her day was not over yet.

“I gotta apologise to Willow, Tavi. I was totally rude to her, not to mention insulting and ungrateful and … just plain crappy, actually. Sometimes the truth hurts real bad. You’d think I’d have learned that by now, right?”

Octavia did not reply.

Vinyl sighed. “How many times do you think I’m gonna learn that lesson before it friggin’ sticks?”