• Published 15th Jul 2014
  • 1,535 Views, 106 Comments

Manehattan Madness - Ardashir



It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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The Third Day: Backstage at Dressage Hall

Chapter 6
The Third Day:
Backstage at Dressage Hall

Piece by piece,
Snip by snip,
Croup dock haunch
Shoulder hip,
Bolt by bolt,
Primmed and pressed,
Length by length,
Always stressed –
And that’s the Art of the Dress!
(thud)

“House of Rarity!” Rarity stuck her head out the door of the small dressing room to see today’s attendant standing there. Beyond the earth pony mare, a small herd of mares hurried past, all but their handlers dressed in the casual outfits that were the theme for today. The trotting models tried holding their heads as high as Royal Guards or Canterlot noblemares, but Rarity could see the exhaustion setting in. Thank Celestia I’m doing better than that. The mare before her coughed and when Rarity looked back at her said, “You’re on in… ten minutes!”

“We’ll be there!” She wheeled and all but hurled herself back into the chaos inside the room almost before the words left her mouth. She nearly bumped into Fleur as the elegant mare was finishing her work on Yellow Jacket’s mane and tail. The golden “unicorn” snorted and stomped one forehoof against the floor. The soft yellow and red sun dress she wore, simple by Rarity’s usual standards but still with her usual hoof-done embroidery along the hems, billowed out. Her snort rose into a small pained whinny as the magic-held comb tugged at a knot in her now-crimson mane.

“Hey!” She snorted at Fleur. “That’s attached, and pretty firmly, too! Don’t go yanking any of it out!” Fleur ignored her to make a last few swipes, brushing the mane to perfection. She set the comb down and looked at Rarity.

“With your help?” Rarity nodded and lifted a small mirror with her magic. Both their horns glowed as they swiftly pinned and styled Yellow Jacket’s mane into an elegant bob, short and stylish, capped with a wide-brimmed golden sun hat. Yellow Jacket snatched at the mirror with her own magic, only for Rarity to take it back.

“Ahem! Take my word for it, dear, you look magnificent! Your mane and tail especially so in that color.” Rarity briefly wished that she knew how to shapeshift. Fearsome as Yellow Jacket, no, Queen Vespid, was, it was still amazing to watch back at the room in the Royal as with a flash of golden fire she did in a moment what would have taken a pony hours, turning her mane and tail from night-black to sunset crimson. Pity she can’t do it here. Rarity had spent all morning making alterations to fit that new color scheme, harmonizing reds and yellows for the first look and contrasting blues for the second. That on top of the late-night prepwork with Fluttershy.

Yellow Jacket snorted and shook one foreleg in a rather obvious I-don’t-like-this gesture. Rarity frowned. “Now settle yourself, darling! This is part of modeling too, not just basking in the crowd’s appreciation.”

Yellow Jacket glared. Rarity tried not to flinch when she remembered what hid under those perfect features. Chitin and membranes instead of hair, a jagged hacksaw of a horn, dragon’s eyes and lupine fangs.

Fleur ignored it and gave Yellow Jacket a light swat on the rump. The golden mare, her mane and tail a fiery crimson today, gave a startled whinny and headed for the door. As it opened the noise outside redoubled as Rarity heard somepony yelling at another to watch her fat flank. A shriek followed, mingled with angry snorts and whinnies that bore a striking resemblance to a schoolyard fight. Startled neighs rose from the handlers as they sought to pry the two enraged clothes horses off each other.

“First fight of the day,” Fleur said, completely deadpan. “Most models are thoroughbred mares, and they have thoroughbred tempers.” She shook her head, but a half smile played on her face as she added, “I’m surprised it wasn’t Sky Talon starting it, maybe with you.”

“Really?” Yellow Jacket shot a wicked grin. “She might get a surprise if she did – OW!” She glared at Fleur, who'd just swatted her on the flank with her brush.

“Now go on, get out there!” Fleur said, chivvying her along like a dam with a stubborn foal. “Show that outfit to everypony, and not yourself this time, no matter how fascinating you think you are!” After she left the room, Fleur and Rarity turned to the other two models, horns shimmering. Rarity held her sewing and makeup kits, and Fleur held a new brush and comb.

Applejack wore a pale orange and light brown ensemble that could have worked for light gardening, while Fluttershy wore a green and yellow garden party number that would cover her even if she flew. The pegasus scraped one forehoof nervously against the floor. Applejack just gave the unicorn mares a somewhat strained smile. Rarity flinched to see the bags under her eyes, all too reminiscent of that one time she’d worked herself to exhaustion. Even as she did she set herself to work with the makeup kit, covering them as best she could.

As she did Fleur went to Fluttershy and began speaking soft and low to her in a comforting voice.

“Applejack!” Rarity hissed as she worked on her. She lifted a small glowgem and shined it into Applejack’s eyes as she said, “Did you HAVE to get whinnying drunk last night?” Rarity nodded in satisfaction as the palomino winced from both light and sound. She looked over at Fluttershy, scraping her forehoof a little faster than before. “And Fluttershy! Do stop doing that, dear, it’s so very uncouth. Besides, you’ll chip your hoof!” Fluttershy eeped and held still. Fleur darted an annoyed look at her. Rarity ignored it as she saw to Applejack.

“Aw, Rares,” she began, and then with a sigh, “I mean, my very dear friend, I did not get ‘whinnying drunk’ last night…”

“I found you collapsed over your bed this morning, snoring like a train, and when we left there was a giant hung-over minotaur on the floor of the lobby who made catcalls after you!”

“Oh, that’s just Asterion, he and I shared some cider last night.” Applejack grinned. “Nice enough guy for a minotaur. Used to be a pro wrestler, now he’s an actor. Told me all about what it’s like being a villain on the stage an’ in the ring…” She gulped as Rarity all but yanked her mane into the style she wanted it to be in. “Hey, no need ta go scalping me!” She recoiled from the maddened look on her friend’s face.

“For that last time,” Rarity said, making a last second sweep of her face and mane and tail styles and dress, “SPEAK. PROPERLY!” Everypony in the room flinched from the almost Royal Canterlot Voice bellow. Rarity stepped aside as much as she could. “Now get going!” To her relief Applejack trotted out. She looked fine despite last night’s debauch. Given that I poured a dozen cups of yerba mate-spiked tea down her throat, she ought to be!

“All right… Fluttershy, are you ready?” Rarity turned and looked at her friend. Fluttershy looked magnificent. Her eyes were wide – at least the one visible from under her mane and sun hat. Fleur stood almost protectively beside her. Rarity frowned and shook a strand of her own mane out of her face. “I said, are you ready?”

“I,” Fluttershy swallowed. A shiver passed along her flanks. “I think, I mean, yes, Rarity, I’m ready.”

“Then go, dear, go!” Fluttershy gave a small jump at Rarity’s snapped command and hurried outside. Even as she did the attendant called out again.

“House of Rarity! You’re on now!”

Rarity smiled in satisfaction as her models hurried off, Yellow Jacket with head erect and bearing herself stiffly, Applejack staying upright and with only some flinching from the lights, and Fluttershy acting like she was entering a dragon’s den.

Everything’s perfect, Rarity told herself as she turned to get everything ready for when they came back and needed to be put into new outfits. Everything’s just perfect. She looked at the instructions she’d given all three before heading out, having written them down last night.

Three flawlessly identical copies for her three models.

Her eyes went wide and then narrowed.

Oh, NO!

She bolted from the room, galloping down the corridor with Fleur in pursuit.

“What’s wrong?” The taller unicorn gasped as she caught up.

“THE WORST POSSIBLE THING!”

“Number 23, Yellow Jacket – GO!”

Yellow Jacket dropped the near-snarl on her face and gave a warm smile as she trotted out onto the runway. As yesterday the rush of sound went over her like the early spring storm winds in Canterlot, along with the emotional feed from so many ponies and griffins and more creatures. It almost staggered her. She held on by remembering her instructions. Now remember, down to the end, and up onto the stand to show the dress off. Just like the first walk yesterday.

She reached the end of the runway and stepped up onto the small revolving stand, lifting one foreleg in a pose as she had the day before. She’d been keeping her empathic senses focused on the back, mainly on Rarity. She flicked one ear as she felt the sudden sharp worry from Rarity.

Bah, she thought. What’s the matter with that mare? I’m doing just fine. A scowl flashed over her muzzle like summer lightning. She felt sudden dismay from the crowd, remembered pictures of the princesses and Canterlot nobles and smiled out over the crowd benevolently. The love and awe came washing back. She all but wiggled in enjoyment. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of Fancy Pants, watching her carefully. She tried to show off his mate’s work as well as her own beauty. Don’t want him to wonder why I’m wasting all her, urrgh, hard work. He might start looking closer. To her amused surprise she felt a thrill at that thought.

It’s been so long since I had to work at tricking anypony. I like it. For the first time in centuries, I feel alive!

The crowd whispered its appreciation. The lights of cameras flashed, from below in the hooves of earth ponies, and from the sides and above as pegasus and unicorn photographers took their shots. They felt coolly professional, but under that she could sense some excitement. It seemed she was making a name for herself.

So much love in all its flavors, Yellow Jacket thought with contented amusement. She made sure to show her outfit, but couldn’t resist flirting with her tail, flicking it up daringly high. Some of those faces watching frowned, other looked intrigued. It felt like sweet-smelling smoke was filling her mind. Heh, this is like the old days in Canterlot after the big festivals, when my hive and I almost felt drunk from the love and joy in the air, and I had to rush back into the hive before…

Something began poking inside of her, down in her abdomen.

Oh, NO!

“Number 24, Applejack – GO!”

Applejack somehow kept a warm smile on her face as she strode out into that loud and bright hall, despite the rumble of midsummer thunder inside her aching skull. Ugh, maybe last night wasn’t such a hot idea after all.

AJ made her way down the runway. She just felt thankful that they were modeling casual around the house clothes – or as casual as these sort o’ ponies ever get – so there was no need for her to go strutting down like it was some formal Lipizzaner dressage. She set her hooves down very carefully as she moved. She kept a formal smile on her face, remembering to treat this like one of Aunt and Uncle Orange’s old parties where you could unbend. Rather than like the hoedowns on the farm or last night at that tavern, where they’d really been able to celebrate.

Thinking of last night and the songs shared with Asterion brought a smile to AJ’s face. She looked upwards, displaying her dress.

And gazed right into a photo-pony’s flash as it went off. It felt like Celestia’s sun dropped right down into her face without warning.

Applejack cut short her angry whinny by biting her tongue against the sudden flare of PAIN!

Nothing, however, could stop the thousands of sparks that left her eyes watering.

Ah cain’t even see! She caught sight of something blurry at the end of the runway. At least she hoped it was the end, she didn’t want to go trotting right over the edge. Blinking rapidly, she cleared her vision enough to see the runway. The ponies beyond it were a blur that slowly began to clear. She forced herself not to snort up into the air at the winged blur that flew away. Dang fool photo-pony! Ah wish ah had ma lasso here, Ah’d teach ya to do somethin’ that dang stupid!

Wait, am I down by the end or not, anyway?

Something revolved before her. She remembered the directions her fussy friend gave her to read. When Ah get down ta the end, hop up on the little stand, freeze, and give everypony a look at this here fancy dress.

So she did so, lightly hopping up onto the turntable stand. The still-occupied stand, blocking its current occupant from jumping back down.

“Applejack!” Yellow Jacket hissed at her. “Get out of here! I’m the pony supposed to be up here! And I have to get away, now!”

Applejack suddenly realized something.

Dangit, Rarity, ya gave all three o’ us the same directions! Her vision cleared, she looked out over the crowd. She recognized Fancy Pants. He looked confused, as did many others. As for the rest, a low ripple of amused whickers began to build steam.

And a shadow fell across her and Yellow Jacket alike as with a sound like the wind catching a particularly large bedsheet,
Fluttershy dropped down atop both of them.

Aw, NO!

“Number 25, Fluttershy – GO!”

I don’t want to, but it’s for Rarity, I have to!

Fluttershy walked out. As with yesterday she kept her mind focused by forcing herself to think about her movements, about displaying her friend’s hard work and not about all those hundreds and hundreds of ponies watching and silently judging her…

Eeep!

The heat of the crowd was enough to draw a faint sheen of sweat from her. She hoped the dress would hide it. The noise of the crowd redoubled as once again she heard her name being whispered back and forth. It reminded her of a breeze through the late summer grass. Of course, she never wanted to cringe at some of the things that breeze said, like ‘unprofessional’ and ‘has-been’.

She almost turned and fled, but forced herself to keep going. She held her breath, focused on what lay immediately before her, on everything but how frightened she felt out in front of this gigantic crowd.

It’s just empty noise, it doesn’t matter. Remember this is for your closest friend. For her I can do it. I can do it.

I can’t do it!

Fluttershy wanted to fly for the nearest exit, but froze when she saw she’d somehow, impossibly, reached the end of the runway. She blushed at the rising whickers of laughter. Embarrassment or not, she didn’t think she’d done that badly. Okay, remember what Rarity said, up on the turntable and show off the dress for one rotation.

And then I can go back behind the curtains and breathe easy again!

That happy thought uppermost in her mind, Fluttershy spread her wings and flew up and onto the turntable –

And on to the backs of Applejack and Yellow Jacket, who seemed to be arguing as they stood side by side on the one-pony-sized stand.

They gave her confused looks that turned to ones of horror at the realization she was standing on their backs like a circus act.

Laughter surged through the crowd. Cameras flashed all around like shooting stars.

Eeeep!

Lights! Cameras!
All the time!
Watching what you do!

“No, no, NO! This canNOT be happening!” The marshmallow unicorn pushed through the herd peeking through the curtains at the runway. Some merely whickered amusement. Others didn’t even bother to hide their neighing laughter as Rarity managed to get a peek.

Outside, Fluttershy flared her wings out – thankfully, this dress was made to allow for that – and fought to keep her balance as she stood atop a shocked looking Applejack and Yellow Jacket.

Rarity gaped in horror, threw her foreleg across her face and collapsed backwards. “This is The! Worst! Possible! Thi – OW!” She rubbed her head as she got up from the wooden floor with a groan.

Oh wait, that’s right, I left my chaise lounge back in Ponyville.

And as Rarity felt it couldn’t get worse, it did.

“Hah! Get photos, as many as you can!” Lights flashed as Rarity aimed a furious glare from the floor at Photo Finish, who directed her photographers to get a permanent reminder of this humiliation. The griffin Sky Talon stood beside her, eyes glittering like Nightmare Moon in triumph. Photo clapped her hooves against the floor and chuckled, her accent thickening. “I vill vant to remember this moment for the years to come! Flootershy, never did I, Photo Finish, humiliate you half so vell as your friends haff done!”

Rarity sank back down with a defeated groan.

“Is this the mare my husband told me about?” Fleur looked at her and shook her head. Her horn glowed as she pulled Rarity back to her hooves. “The mare that handled both a Canterlot garden soiree and a birthday party with her friends for hours before being found out?” She turned Rarity around and pointed her horn back at the dressing room. “This is the big time, dear, and you’ll see worse than that before it’s all over. Back to work!”

“No,” Rarity groaned. She stuck her head out between the curtains and looked. “I have to see how this travesty ends.”

Outside, Fluttershy flew up into the air and set down on the runway in what even Rarity saw was a flawlessly graceful landing. As she did, she bowed as graciously to the crowd as a court dancer would before the Princesses themselves. Rarity knew she’d seen it somewhere, but wondered where. She then turned and began trotting lightly back towards the curtains. Applejack hopped down and began following her, a slight sway in her hooves but otherwise looking formal and unruffled.

The whickers of laughter from the crowd began to turn amused but appreciative.

Yellow Jacket dropped down from the stand and shot past them both so fast Rarity wondered if she saw her two friends whirling in place.

Before the mare could say anything else Yellow Jacket raced by her, snatching the unicorn with her magic. Ponies whinnied in shock and flew from their path. Before Rarity could say anything, she heard the door first of the dressing room and then of the bathroom slamming shut behind her. She looked over at the frantic Yellow Jacket.

"Yellow Jacket! Have you lost your mind?"

Golden fire flashed and Yellow Jacket vanished, replaced by Vespid. Rarity tried not to let out a frightened whinny as that face so like and unlike a pony’s shoved into her own.

“We need to talk, NOW!”

You know it’s what you want!
I mean, how could you say no?

Applejack and Fluttershy stared after the vanished unicorns. Fleur got up from where she’d been knocked down. The other models and their attendants hurried to their places in line or started to gossip about what they’d just seen.

Fleur spoke first. “What was that all about?”

“Well,” Applejack said. “When ya gotta go…”

There’s never been a pony
With the guts to go!

“Yellow Jacket, darling,” Rarity said, staring at the Changeling Queen, “just what is the problem? The way you came charging off the runway I thought you were about to run all the way back to Canterlot!”

“I may have to,” the Changeling Queen snapped back. She looked over her shoulder at the door and towards the crowd beyond the curtain. “I, I didn’t think the emotional feed would be like this. I thought I could absorb it without a problem, but added on top of what I and my Hive have consumed since Celestia welcomed Us Topside?” She sighed and indicated her chitin-covered hindquarters. “Well, see for yourself.”

Rarity looked.

And stared.

“I thought you were female?”

“What? I am, you fool mare!” Yellow Jacket gave a chitter-snarl, a soft one. “That’s my ovipositor! I’m going into estrus.” Rarity looked at her in confusion; ponies’ normal time of the year was two months ago. Yellow Jacket rolled her eyes. “I’m going to start laying eggs; in two days at the most.”

“What do you mean, start laying eggs!?!” Rarity somehow was able to lower her voice as she said, horrified, “Right here and now? You can’t, you simply can’t!” Rarity’s horn glowed and blue light warred with a golden glow as she tried to open the door against the power of the Changeling Queen’s magic. “We have a show to put on!” She flinched as Yellow Jacket, Vespid, showed her fangs.

“I know! Just like I know I have to get back out there! But my eggs…”

“Er, can’t you just send them back to Canterlot with a message for your hive to take care of them?” Rarity flinched back at the fierce and yes, protective look Vespid aimed at her. Golden sparks played along her twisted horn as she spoke in a low and fierce hiss.

“I am NOT trusting my unhatched young and the future of my Hive to the mercies of the Royal Equestrian Railways! I’ve seen how they handle luggage!” Rarity had to nod agreement. She fought down a shudder as she did. Whenever she found herself thinking of Yellow Jacket as a pony, something like this happened. The Changeling Queen sighed. “Like I said, I can hold it for a day, maybe two, but no more than that. After that you’ll have to figure out how to smuggle a laying queen and at least a dozen of her eggs back to Canterlot.” She looked back along her body and smiled, fangs gleaming. “Maybe more, two or even three dozen eggs. I haven’t fed so well in years, and the Hive is so weak.”

“Two or three dozen eggs?” Rarity shuddered, as much at the implications as at the sight of those fangs. Yellow Jacket’s chitin-covered flank rubbing against hers didn’t help. “Er, no offense, Your Majesty, but the Princesses may not be happy with this.”

Vespid buzzed her wings for a moment; Rarity remembered her saying once that was like a pony’s shrug.

“Rarity?” Unicorn and Changeling alike froze at that hoof-knock on the door. Fleur said, “Yellow Jacket? Are you both well in there? I have two mares who need to see to themselves and we have to get everything ready for the next trip down the runway.” Rarity heard Fleur’s amused snort as she added, “Maybe this time without unnecessary aerobatics?” She couldn’t see it, but Rarity could imagine Fluttershy’s blush.

“In a moment!” Rarity turned and spoke to the Changeling. “Can you still go on?” At the answering nod, Rarity added, “But what about, er, you know?” She waved her hoof vaguely towards Vespid’s hindquarters. The Changeling Queen just smiled at her and flashed with golden fire right beside her. Rarity closed her mouth against a startled whinny. When it cleared Yellow Jacket looked exactly like what she did when she’d charged off the runway. Rarity dared to glance and saw no ovipositor.

“I can cover it for another day or so.” Yellow Jacket’s horn glowed a soft gold and the door opened. “Now, Miss Rarity, shall we make up for our poor first showing this morning?”

Rarity nodded weakly, her normally elegant mane dangling now, and followed Yellow Jacket out the door. Very well, she thought, now how do I present the “business casual” look I have planned for later?

She looked at Yellow Jacket. The transformed Changeling Queen smiled with great satisfaction.

And, Rarity gulped, and what exactly do I say if one of my models starts dropping eggs all over the runway?

“Number 117, Yellow Jacket – GO!”

To Yellow Jacket’s relief, the next trip down the runway went rather better than the first. This time she went third, after Applejack and Fluttershy. She strutted down to the revolving stand, lightly hopped up on it, and displayed the outfit she wore, a smart saddle with matching saddlebags in Rarity’s colors of blue and white. The crowd seemed pleased and she even heard a few remarks of raise for how well she recovered from the earlier catastrophe. A smile twitched at her muzzle. If they only knew.

She looked across the crowd and saw no sign of Fancy Pants missing him less by his appearance and more by the lack of his distinctive emotional feed, that mixture of endless curiosity and perceptiveness mingled with respect and a businesspony’s awareness of just how well everything was being presented. Yellow Jacket wondered if Rarity knew just how much her work impressed certain ponies here. She couldn’t be sure, but for a moment she thought that Fancy gave her a slight smile as their gazes locked. She bowed her head lightly in response and started for the back as Prim Hemline’s voice rang out over the magically-enhanced megaphone.

“And Number 118 on your schedule, Sky Talon, showing a burnt-gold number with traditional griffin motifs!”

The griffin strode out, head held high and wings flared, trying to look regal but looking more intimidating instead. Yellow Jacket wondered if the crowd felt slightly less impressed with her now than before. Sky Talon’s crest briefly flared in annoyance before she regained control and started down the runway.

The Changeling Queen very carefully kept her smile off of her face.

Yellow Jacket felt the bitterness of Sky Talon’s jealousy on her tongue as they passed each other.

“Nice performance before, dear,” the griffin hissed under her breath as she walked by. The she-griffin cocked an eyebrow at Yellow Jacket in a smirk. “Maybe after you leave modeling you can get a job as a circus clown.”

Yellow Jacket said nothing. What with discovering she was about to start laying eggs after several dry years, finding that destroyed Hive last night, and looking forward to the show tonight, one petty griffin was beneath her concern. She swept past Sky Talon like a unicorn noblemare passing an earth pony maid in the hall. As she did the griffin’s talons flexed and sank into the floor. An angry squawk escaped her beak before she regained control. Yellow Jacket didn’t permit the smile to cross her face until after she went back through the curtains. One of the unicorn attendants toweled the sweat from her as she looked back over her shoulder at the curtains. She’d felt the emotional response out there from the crowd. Sky Talon’s popularity was waning, and she knew it and felt dread.

“Miss Yellow Jacket, ja?” Photo Finish came up to her. Her usual entourage was with her, the makeup artists and mane stylists and all the rest. Yellow Jacket inclined her head in polite recognition and looked around for Rarity and the rest. Must be back in the dressing room. She began heading in that direction, only to stop with an annoyed snort as Photo Finish got between her and it. “Please, my dear we simply MUST talk. Privately.” She didn’t so much as glance at her entourage, but they immediately withdrew as Photo drew Yellow Jacket off to the side, away from the main press.

“Miss Finish,” Yellow Jacket said. Even though her empathic senses gave her a good idea what was going on, she said, “What, exactly, did you want to talk about? I have to get back to my friends and Rarity. We’re done for the day, we’ll be taking in a show tonight and have to get ready…”

“Dot is exactly what I want to talk about,” the white-maned mare said in her affected accent – a blend of old Lippizaner and movie-villain griffin. “About, let us say, your future at your career?”

“My future?” Yellow Jacket dug a little deeper with her empathic senses as she spoke, found a cold ambition there and the same egotism she’d felt all weekend long from almost every pony around her. Not to mention a newfound desire to rid herself of a used-up griffin and get a new superstar. “Why, Miss Finish, how could you be interested in my future? I doubt I may stay in modeling after this.” Beyond Photo she saw Sky Talon returning through the curtains, her long tail lashing and her anger a bitterness on Yellow Jacket’s tongue as she brushed past the attendants. “Besides, don’t you have the greatest model in Equestria working for you right now?”

Photo Finish snorted and lashed her own tail in dismissal. Yellow Jacket wondered what tasted worse to her empathy, Sky Talon’s angry desperation or Photo’s cold scorn.

“Vat? Sky Talon? Once she showed promise, ja, but now?” The mare gave an affected sniff. “She has learned all she can, but not all I can teach. That requires a greater talent, vun which does not depend on,” she waved one hoof as though trying to catch the words she sought, “such frippery as wings and feathers. Her exoticism was all that drew attention, but now that it is played out?” Photo picked up a nearby copy of the Manehattan Times entertainment section, one which showed both Sky Talon’s photo in one column and beside it, a larger one of that crimson-hooded griffin actress Rarity was so excited about seeing at the play tonight. What was her name, Audra? “She has nothing left. Even the simpletons who write criticisms for the paper know that mere appearance is nothing without skill, of which she has none.” Photo gave her a look that Yellow Jacket would have called somewhere between admiring and warmhearted if she didn’t feel the cold calculation and neediness behind it. “Not like you, my dear.” Then, almost imperiously, “Have you any idea of the heights to which you could soar under my patronage, my tutelage?”

Yellow Jacket looked past the self-important mare and caught sight of a furious Sky Talon watching them both. Her beak looked like a butcher cleaver as the light shone along it, and her talons dug chips from the polished wooden floor. The fury coming off her was so hot she shifted, wondering if a fight was about to break out. Instead the griffin turned and stormed off to her dressing room. She looked back down at Photo. The mare’s smile turned a little crooked. Yellow Jacket realized that she’d known the griffin was there all along. Okay, she’s either that brave or that unconcerned what her models think of her. Or that stupid.

“I thank you for your concern, Miss Finish,” Yellow Jacket said to the mare. “But really, I’m quite content with Miss Rarity. And speaking of her, I must be going.” She tried to maneuver around Photo. The mare moved before her, pressing close enough to annoy.

“Vat?” Photo Finish sounded almost comically stunned. “Vy would such a talent as you, a superstar in the making, wish to go with some hayseed mare who is reduced to picking the scraps thrown away by greater Houses such as myself? Who has no staff, no attendants, nothing but herself and one used-up old model to help her?” Yellow Jacket felt a familiar emotional presence show up, and smiled. Photo saw it and leapt to the wrong conclusion. “Ja, ja, you understand? Rarity is nothing, Flootershy a cast-off, and Fleur a broken-down nag reduced to aiding such nonentities simply so she can get a feel of what her life was before she became Fancy Pants’ trophy mare…”

“If she is a trophy,” Photo’s voice choked off as Fancy Pants stepped up beside her, “then she’s one I delight in. And allow me to assure you, my dear Photo Finish,” he said to her in a voice that conveyed nothing but tolerant amusement, “that my dear Fleur would very likely say that I’m her trophy, and not the other way around.” Photo backed away whinnying apologies. Big as she was in the business, Fancy Pants could buy her business several times over and they both knew it. The nattily-dressed stallion simply ignored her to say, “Miss Yellow Jacket, you do remember out offer of seeing tonight’s show? You do? Ah, wonderful! My dear Fleur is with your friends in Miss Rarity’s room. Shall we collect them and proceed to dinner before the theater?” He stepped to the side and indicated the way with a graceful wave of his hoof.

“I would be delighted, sir,” Yellow Jacket said, walking past him.

“Splendid!” Fancy turned to Photo. “Miss Finish. A pleasure to see you and another to be going, as always.” He went alongside Yellow Jacket and they started to leave.

“Miss Yellow Jacket!” The mare snorted and looked over her shoulder at Photo. “Please, remember what you will gain from accepting my offer, ja?”

Yellow Jacket stared, wondered if she should be polite, and then decided.

“Photo Finish,” she said, “first, I doubt my career as a model will last much longer.” Photo showed no reaction, but her annoyance whipped at Yellow Jacket’s empathy. She looked away, feeling the annoyance change to a cold fury as she said, “And furthermore, a mare so wretchedly obvious to recapture the limelight that was once all hers, and so willing as to use her mares to regain it and then toss them away as soon as they falter, is nopony I would ever desire to work with. Good day.” She could hear Photo’s teeth grinding together and hoof scraping the floor as she and Fancy headed for Rarity’s room.

“Rather hard on her, weren’t you?” Fancy said as they walked through the backstage labyrinth. Models and attendants passing by gave them both wide-eyed looks, though Yellow Jacket felt the admiration mingled in with the shock from many of them. “It’s true, Photo was once the pre-eminent model in Canterlot and Manehattan, and it’s rather an open secret that she’s hard on her models – your friend Fluttershy wasn’t the first to leave her – but she’s taken many of them to the very top of their profession.”

“That just makes the crash landing that much harder,” Yellow Jacket said in a dry voice. “I have better things to do with my life than be used by somepony like her.” She thought, smiled and added in a soft voice, “Who knows? Maybe I want to start a family.”

“I’m flattered, but I’m taken,” Fancy responded in such a guileless tone that even Yellow Jacket’s empathic senses were almost fooled by the joke. His next words almost brought her heart into her throat. “Besides, I thought somepony as empathic as yourself, who can read others so well, might have felt a little more pity for Photo and Sky Talon alike, especially when you’ve just discovered you’re with foal.”

Yellow Jacket’s eyes went wide, her ears dropped.

In a somewhat colder tone, the stallion added, “Really, you need to be less obvious in your contempt, or it might affect what ponies think of you.” The cold left his voice. “Oh, and my compliments to you and the father alike. I hope you can catch him before he leaves Canterlot.” He stopped up short as she hurried and set herself between him and the door to Rarity’s small dressing room.
Yellow Jacket stood there amid the backstage traffic.

“How?” She choked. “How did you guess such a thing?”

“My dear, I don’t guess,” Fancy said in the tone of a teacher correcting a student who almost got the answer right. “As always, I observe.” His horn glowed as he removed a cloth from a jacket pocket and began cleaning his monocle. “First and most obviously, your reaction when I mentioned their names. That and when you passed Sky Talon on the runway, I saw a stiffness, a wariness there. To say nothing of your words to Photo. You showed some nervousness, but not aimed at her. Or at Sky Talon beyond her, who looked like she considered violence. You stepped away from them both, but not in a retreat, rather in way that suggested defensiveness. You showed no such fear yesterday.” He replaced the monocle. “That and my dear Fleur told me about your rather loud and quarrelsome conversation with Rarity earlier in the room.” Yellow Jacket felt her ears turn red as Fancy added, “The door muffled most of it, but remarks about ‘children’ and ‘leaving in two days’ were very evident.” He smiled politely at her. “It was all rather obvious after that.”

“Of course,” Yellow Jacket said, stepping aside with a smile that felt only slightly forced. Within she relaxed as they entered the room. Remember how observant he is! He listens and sees and remembers. Of course he’s wrong about my concerns for the “father” but the rest is rather on target. She looked at him with admiration as she remembered that she’d sought a challenge like this, but now that it was here she felt rather uneasy about it. Watch what you wish for. To Fancy she politely bowed her head and said, “My apologies, sir. I suppose I should have been more polite to Photo,” though she couldn’t help adding, “even if I think she deserved to hear that for a long time.”

“Perhaps,” Fancy said, “and perhaps not. In any event, greetings Rarity, Miss Apple and Fluttershy,” he nodded to Rarity and her models. He looked at Fleur, and as their love filled the room Yellow Jacket forced her instinct to feed back down. If she got too much right now she’d probably have to find a nest for her eggs on the way back to the hotel. Fancy didn’t seem to notice. “My dear,” he said, and they shared a nuzzle. He turned to the others. “Now, then, shall we prepare for the show”

“Lead the way, sir, madam,” Yellow Jacket said as she stepped aside from the door.

At least, she thought as the small herd left the room – Rarity and Applejack still dismayed for different reasons and Fluttershy feeling almost panicky; Yellow Jacket stepped alongside her and pressed against her flank in support, for which she got a shyly thankful smile in return – at least, for tonight, nothing can go wrong. Just a fun show and a happy audience to feed on and who knows, maybe I’ll even find a lost ling there after all!

And why do you run away?
It’s everypony’s dream
To be the star in outer space
Where nopony hears you scream!

Sky Talon seethed. Photo Finish’s attendants who saw her hurried from the she-griffin’s path as she stalked into her private dressing room, eyes blazing and feathered crest half risen in anger. They could well remember what had happened in the past to those ponies foolish enough to say anything to Sky Talon when she was in this mood.

With a kick of one powerful hind leg, Sky Talon sent the door crashing shut behind her. The slam reverberated through the small room.

“How dare she,” she half snarled. The griffin went to her dressing/makeup table, poured out some Crystal Empire icewine into a crystal bowl decorated with scenes from Equestrian history and lapped it down. The stuff cost more than most ponies made in a month. Normally the cool drunk calmed her; today it only reminded her of everything she stood to lose if – make that when – Photo Finish cast her aside.

“HOW DARE SHE!” She near shrieked as she tossed the bowl into the corner to shatter and began to pace around the room, like a cat in a cage.

“I was Finest Silk’s best model! The most exotic and magnificent griffin to come down from the Vanhoofer aeries and got famous among these pony dweebs! Sky Talon, Supermodel! I did better here than I ever could have in the aeries! Making the bits talon over claw! Noblestallions would clamor to be seen for just an evening with me at their side!”

She looked at herself in the myriad of mirrors, the finely-groomed golden feathers, the honey-brown fur – and the baleful yellow eyes of a furious griffin.

Then after that little yellow-and-pink butterball runs from the business like a panicking PONY Blue shows up, says she can make me even greater, I break contract and jump to her house, and now? Now I’m about to get tossed because she thinks she’s found somegriff better.

That miserable Yellow Jacket mare. What’s so special about her? Okay, so she knows how to react to the crowd, so what? How many times did Photo tell me “models make ze crowd feel vat they vant zem to feel”?

Next to the table and mirror stood a giant scratching post. She attacked it with her talons, wishing she had something to eat, preferably something bloody or still alive. That always relaxed her. Why did you ever do something this dumb?

The scratching post, as always, did not answer. Sky Talon stalked over to a pile of cushions like a giant cat bed and laid herself on it. It flumped softly under her. Beak propped up on her foretalons, she began to think.

If I go back home, I either end up some noblegriff’s first wife – if I’m lucky – and have to raise half a dozen squalling grifflets. She shuddered, remembering her own brawling family and how glad she’d been to escape them. Or maybe with some noblepony who wants an exotic trophy wife. I can’t go with any real House in the business, not after ditching Finest Silk. That leaves me appearing at Barnyard Bargains Grand Openings to help sell somepony’s junk… She shuddered even harder. Or trying for acting, and that sucks, or…

Desperate, she cast her gaze around the room. Her own private room, something very few models in the business had. Her predatory gaze wandered over everything – the fine clothes on the racks, the shredded scratching post, the shattered remains of the crystal bowl, the vanity piled with the jewelry she’d worn onto the runway, glittering crimson and emerald and saffron and white like frozen stars, a copy of the Manehattan Times…

Her gaze locked on the latter. Getting up off the cushions, she strode over and looked down at the entertainment page. One column bore a picture of her; the other, the picture of a second she-griffin who as attractive and elegant – well, almost – as herself.

A griffin who bore the obvious stamp of the Vanhoofer aeries in the style of her crest, her beak, her poise, everything about her.

Sky Talon picked up the paper in her talons, checked the name and short bio. Audra von Adler… Appearing in that dopey pony play… Yes, she IS from Vanhoofer!

The golden griffin tapped one talon against her beak as she thought of some of her aerie’s customs. Both from Vanhoofer… Same flocks, same territory… She’s just an actress, I’m flock kin to a clan matriarch… Distant kin, but I still outrank a mere actress…

A plan began to come to her.

Appeal of flock against the Other, griff to griff. I can get her to help me chase that one-horned skank off. We’ll fly her up high enough to make the city look like a toy, ask her how badly she wants to walk away in one piece, and… As long as we only scare her and don't cause any permanent harm...

Sky Talon gave a little shriek of griffin amusement. She wants a real Von in her name, I can tell her she’ll get one for helping me. She smirked. And she’ll get it after I marry her off to one of those lame-o cousins of mine. We’re from the same flock, same aeries, same territory. She’s an actress, I’m kin to a clan matriarch. She has to help me if I order her to.

A hesitant tap came from the dressing-room door. Sky Talon hissed. One of the entourage. Blue would have just barged in. She went back to the Times.

Rescue at Midnight Castle, the Hippodrome on Bridleway. Blue’s going to be showing me off at the clubs again tonight, “Ve haff some ting at ze place!” Worst accent I’ve ever heard. I should be able to ditch her and check in with this “Von Adler” or whatever her real name is. Shouldn’t take more than an hour; Blue will be so busy yakking about herself and “Making ze Magics!” she’ll take that long to realize I’m gone.

She set down the paper and spoke to her reflection.

“Isn’t this a brilliant plan? You make me glad I thought of it.” She simpered at the golden griffin in the mirror, batting her eyes. “Yes, I know I’m magnificent. And I am going to stay on. Top!

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