• Published 24th Jun 2018
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The Fishbowl - Shrink Laureate

Vinyl remembers the doll. It's unmistakably hers. Except it's in Octavia's closet. Why do they have the same doll – and the same memory?

  • ...

16. The Grand Gathering Gala

The deep thrum of Vinyl’s car horn told Octavia that it was time to leave.

Would it kill her to have a normal car? Or at least a normal car horn?

“Honeybun, are you off?” called her mother.

“Yes,” replied Octavia as she grabbed the tall garment bag from its hook in the hall, and picked up the smaller bag with make-up and accessories.

Her mother came through from the kitchen. “Come here,” she said softly. “Come give me a kiss. I’d give you a hug, but—” She wiggled her marinade-stained fingers.

Octavia smiled and leaned in and kissed her mother on the cheek, keeping the bags held carefully away to avoid getting them dirty.

“Now remember you’ve got the audition next week. Have fun tonight, but don't stay out too late.”

“I won’t,” Octavia reassured her. “I’ll be back later tonight.”

She pulled the door open and smiled as it closed behind her.

Will I, though? she wondered.

Octavia leaned forward to straighten Vinyl’s cravat, while she stood awkwardly upright. Three reflections of them surrounded them in the full length mirrors of the bridal shop’s generous changing room.

“Is it supposed to be this shiny?” asked Vinyl, picking at her sleeve.

“Yes, it is,” said Octavia.

“And this frilly?”

Vinyl Scratch was wearing an elaborately frilly light cream-coloured men’s shirt with ruffle cuffs, a light blue cravat that matched the lighter shade in her hair, a darker blue velvet waistcoat with damask embroidery and silver buttons, a well-tailored white jacket with long triangular tails, and tight cream trousers with a shiny stripe down each leg. The effect was of an enticing rogue from some centuries ago.

“Precisely this frilly.” She brushed a speck of dust off and stood back to admire Vinyl’s figure. “Quite fetching, if I say so myself. Chrysalis was right. A cravat does suit you.”

Vinyl lifted one leg as she looked awkwardly down at herself. “If you insist. At least I have proper shoes. I don’t know how you can walk in things like that.”

Octavia wore a long, slinky dark grey evening dress of layered lace and chiffon with a tastefully placed diamond keyhole, which left her shoulders and back exposed. A white cashmere shawl around her shoulders was gathered into a purple jewel at her breast. Her purple shoes were thin, delicate and raised in a heel. The look evoked music, culture and sophistication. It was a lot less revealing than her club outfit had been, but Vinyl still found her eyes drawn downwards a little more often than she would admit.

Octavia rolled her eyes. “It’s not that hard. In fact, a little heel makes it easier to dance.”

“Really? How about a lot of heel?”

“Are you two done flirting?” asked Trixie, straightening her hat then unstraightening it again for comparison as she stood in front of another full-length mirror. “Because I think we were supposed to be doing something tonight.”

Octavia turned her smile on Trixie. “And perhaps you’ll find your Prince Charming there tonight, hmm?”

“Oh, please. I’ve yet to meet the man or beast who can keep up with the Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Trixie wore an asymmetrical dress that hung loose off her left shoulder, clung tight to her midriff then blossomed out into a wide skirt around her legs. It faded from indigo at the top into deep blue around the skirt, scattered with a diagonal band of white, gold and blue stars. Her white and cyan hair was styled into a French braid that fell down her left side. She wore a matching indigo witch’s hat, extremely large and floppy.

A pink blur suddenly landed on Trixie, removing the floppy hat and placing it atop her own head instead. “Hey!” called Trixie.

Fluffle Puff wore a dress built to resemble a ballerina’s tutu, ruffled at the breast, pinched tight at the waist and fluffing out at the hips into a short skirt that was so wide as to be nearly horizontal. The translucent surface layer was deep pink, while the various petticoats beneath it were white with a hint of pink. She wore long pink stockings that ended in delicate pink shoes with sharp little heels – unlike real ballet shoes – and matching long pink gloves reaching nearly up to her shoulders, with a small heart-shaped window at the top of each. Her hair was slicked down into a bob, held there with gallons of gel and a fleet of pins. At odds with the rest of the colour scheme was a thin black choker around her neck, broken only by a small pink heart brooch.

“Be careful, Fluffle darling,” said Chrysalis, striding into the room. “You don’t want to damage your dress.”

Trixie took advantage of Fluffle Puff’s moment of distraction to steal her hat back. Fluffle Puff jumped into Chrysalis’ arms.

Chrysalis wore a long flamenco-style dress that stretched nearly to the floor before flaring out into a wide skirt. It was black, a fine diamond argyle pattern of matte and gloss, with narrow elongated diamond slits cut into it vertically revealing a bright green layer underneath. The bottom of the skirt was lifted up by means unseen, revealing a green wave of fabric that brushed the floor. Detached sleeves, narrow until they reached the wrists, were decorated with filigree fractals of green embroidery. Upon her head sat a miniature crown in black with four points that each ended in a teal bauble.

“Are you nearly ready?” she asked.

Fillydelphia Hall stood on the banks of the East River, looking out across the water. To the south was a road tunnel beneath the river, a constant stream of cars driving to and from Griffonstone district on the far bank. The Baltimare Mall divided it from the beach at Horseshoe Bay.

A little further up the bank to the north was the Hoofington Tower jutting out into the river, and beyond that the famous Manehattan Theatre.

A limousine crunched to a stop on the gravel and, amid careful manoeuvring of dresses, five figures stepped out. A few others were walking from their cars nearby, in no particular hurry, up the steps to the main door. The girls followed, with Chrysalis taking the lead, her arm hooked in Fluffle Puff’s.

Inside the door, the scenery became significantly more ostentatious. There was a plush corridor lined with red and gold wallpaper and curtains, and at the far end a pair of doors through which a herald announced each guest arriving.

“Councillors Haakim and Amira,” he called as the previous couple stepped through.

“Have fun, girls,” said Chrysalis as she took her companion's arm and they headed in together.

“Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings!” announced the herald. He was very smartly dressed, stood upright like a toy soldier, and spoke politely but loud enough to reach over the hall. He added more quietly, “Plus one.”

The pink girl grumpily stabbed her heel at his shiny black shoe as she walked past, causing the herald to yelp. “And Miss Fluffle Puff,” he announced more clearly and in a higher pitch.

The three girls waited their turn in the entry hall, slowly sinking into the thick red carpet. Octavia took the moment to brush a bit of dust off the shoulder of Vinyl’s jacket. She leaned in close. “I notice he announced her real name and position,” she said quietly. “Does that mean that everybody here already knows what the deal is?”

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Vinyl. “I mean, Chrysalis did say this was the big shindig for all the out-of-towners.” And it confirms that she was telling us the truth that night.

“Perhaps they assume that any ordinary people in there simply won’t notice,” pointed out Trixie. “Chrysalis had no trouble telling us things she thought we’d forget. She underestimated us.”

“And it sounds like that attitude is normal,” said Vinyl. “So they’re going to talk freely, and assume the harmless little humans aren’t listening? Good. We can work with that.”

“We should listen for future announcements, they may tell us something.” Spotting that the herald was waiting for them, Octavia turned to her friends. “Ready?”

They each nodded, though Vinyl continued to feel uncomfortable in her shiny white suit. They turned to the door and stepped through into a plush hall.

As they passed, the herald called out, “Octavia Melody, D.J. PON-3 and the Great and Powerful Trixie.” He even rolled the Rs in just the way Trixie liked.

How does he know that name? wondered Vinyl. I’ve only been using it for a week. I’m not sure anybody else even knows it except… oh no. Is Blueblood here somewhere?

The three of them stepped onto the balcony and gasped.

The ballroom was large in every way, longer than it was broad, and at least as tall. The far wall was lined with tall windows overlooking the bay. In between the windows stood white pillars that stretched up towards the ceiling, each wrapped with intricate gold branches and leaves that drew the eye up to where they joined a ceiling of broad arched colonnade in white and gold. In the triangles between the spans were painted scenes from myth and legend, impossible creatures, villains and heroes. Hanging from the ceiling were three enormous chandeliers combining hundreds of little lights with a similar number of diamonds.

The entrance opened out onto a balcony spanning three tall arches and overlooking the whole ballroom, allowing them a clear view of the dance floor where hundreds of men and women – and a few who could have been either – spun in a dizzyingly fast display that seemed flawless, couples coming ever closer to colliding but never setting a foot wrong. Each guest wore an outlandish outfit and a similarly exotic mask, myriad colours and designs, often with details picked out in gold. Capes, gauntlets, horned masks and extravagant hairstyles moved swiftly across the floor, making it hard to follow a single one.

“Hey, you know those ‘magic eye’ pictures…?”

Octavia elbowed Vinyl in the ribs, though without any conviction. She was too distracted.

“What are they dancing?” asked Trixie.

“The Viennese Waltz,” replied Octavia as if reading from a book. “It's faster than the normal waltz.” She turned to look at the musicians playing from another balcony. “And quite lovely.”

I’ll say it's faster. How could anybody dance to this? I thought ballroom was supposed to be staid and slow. Vinyl gulped. “The Fall Formal was never like this.”

“Trixie, honey, I’m so glad you could make it.” A woman walked up the stairs and approached them, drawing Trixie into a curt embrace.

“You thought I wouldn’t be here?”

“Sweetie, shall we head down?” Trixie's mother gently took her arm and guided her to a wide marble staircase that curved down to the floor. The other two girls followed, blinking as their eyes were pulled away from the hypnotising show below.

As they reached the bottom of the stairs Chrysalis placed a hand each on Vinyl and Octavia’s shoulders, leaning between them. “Now you two go mingle, enjoy yourselves, meet the other guests.” She leaned in. “Just remember,” she whispered, “be ready when the time comes. I won’t wait for you.”

At one end of the ballroom was a stage, with deep red curtains drawn over it. At the other was a set of archways leading into other rooms, with the smell of food wafting through. As they reached the bottom step Vinyl cast her eyes around for where the music was coming from. Sure enough, there was another balcony in one corner, and on it a cluster of musicians that she presumed must be the Griffonstone Quartet.

From up on the balcony, they heard the herald proclaim the arrival of “The Sisters of Winter.” Three tall, slender women with pale skin stepped through and down the stairs, their long white hair billowing after them.

The song came to a decisive end, and as one the dancers stopped, and variously bowed, curtsied, embraced or said polite goodbyes. Some started walking off the floor, some exchanged partners or sought out others from the crowd gathered at the edges. After a few seconds the quartet began playing the introduction to a much slower song.

One, two, three, one, two, three. Right, thought Vinyl, it's now or never. She took a deep breath, then stepped in front of Octavia with her left hand held out, palm up, offering a dance.

Octavia practically choked, in that refined way of hers. “Vinyl, you… you can't possibly?” She looked to either side as if concerned that somebody might see them.

“I can and I will,” said Vinyl quietly, surprising even herself with her confident tone.

“But what if… you can't even… oh dear,” said Octavia, reluctantly resting her hand in Vinyl's and allowing herself to be pulled forwards.

Casting a glance over her shoulder, Vinyl stepped backwards onto the floor. It was thankfully more clear of dancers now, or she would surely have stepped through several of them. She pulled Octavia towards her, bodies pressed close, and slipped her right hand onto Octavia's shoulder blade to hold her there. The dress Octavia was wearing left her back clear, allowing Vinyl's fingertips to rest on her skin directly, in tiny points that electrified them both.

Angle the right hand down, keep the elbows up.

Octavia rested her left hand on Vinyl's shoulder. “At least you know the proper—ooh!”

She was interrupted as Vinyl launched into a slow waltz. At first they seemed to be fighting, as Octavia sought to lead the dance from the follower’s position, but she soon relaxed, a grin spreading across her face as she realised that Vinyl was leading her properly.

“Vinyl,” she breathed, barely audible above the music, the scraping of shoes across the floor and the background chatter of the room. “When did you learn this?”

“Just a little trick I picked up,” bragged Vinyl. Every morning at dawn for the last four days. I shall have to thank that old Mr Tirek when I see him again.

Part of my job during a waltz is to steer and avoid accidents. The repeated words of her mentor reminded Vinyl that she was meant to keep looking over her partner’s shoulder, yet her gaze was drawn again and again to Octavia's eyes.

The illusion couldn't last forever, of course. On reaching the end of the room, Vinyl tried to lead Octavia in the grand sweeping turn that would take them around the corner, but Octavia misinterpreted the mute sign language of nudging and pulling, and tried to do a completely different grand sweeping turn. They stumbled, grazed a few other couples, and dodged out of the way of a third who were zooming past them. There was an awkward pause as they stood there, holding each other with elbows tucked in, before a suitable gap presented itself and they could get back into the circle.

After two waltzes the music changed to something slow but with a rhythm that Vinyl didn't recognise, and certainly couldn't dance to. She dropped her hands and started to apologise, but instead Octavia pulled her close.

“It's alright. We can just do this,” she said quietly, rocking slowly. Other dancers spiralled around and past them.

That works. Even a dumb DJ like me can do side to side in time.

Dandy Lion pulled her daughter past a cavalcade of brightly dressed guests.

Those blue women with the light blue hair look exotic. Are they prisoners? How about that really short guy with the two… sticky up bits of hair at the front, that kind of look like antennae? Does that tall guy have horns, or is that just a hat? Is that big guy's eye injured, or does he think an eyepatch looks good?

There are clearly plenty of these epic criminal types here.

“Spoiled, darling! How wonderful to see you here.”

“Dandy, how lovely.” The two women exchanged symbolic pecks on either cheek.

“Have you met my daughter Trixie?” She nudged Trixie forward. “Trixie, you must meet Spoiled Rich, her husband’s very big in real estate.”

“Pleased to meet you, Trixie.” Trixie nodded in acknowledgement.

“Doesn’t your daughter go to the same school, Spoiled? Canterlot High?”

“Only the junior division so far. Diamond still has some growing up to do, but she’s already top of her class academically.”

“Oh, that is so important. Tell me, is Filthy around? I don’t see him.”

“No, he got stuck doing a business deal. He’s always working. That’s the life of an entrepreneur, I’m afraid.”

“Even today? Oh, that is unfortunate. He’s making a habit of missing these things.”

Seriously? We come to the monsters’ ball and we’re wasting time on prattle like this? I’m supposed to be meeting important people, getting real answers, not swapping bake stories.

“I did see Raven around, I think.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen her in so long. I wonder how she’s doing.”

“I’m… just going to get a drink,” said Trixie, edging away. “Be right back.”

“Sure thing, sweetie,” called Dandy Lion. She sighed as Trixie’s dark blue dress disappeared among the vibrant crowd. “I hope she gets back soon, I was hoping to introduce her to the Mayor.”

“I didn't know if I'd see you here.”

Cerberus’ deep voice rumbled as he laid a heavy hand on Chrysalis’ shoulder. She turned her head to see a wide, canine grin on his big, flat face as he stood behind her. He was wearing a deep red waistcoat, embroidered with red and gold patterns, and a matching tie.

She smiled innocently in return. “Worried my invitation might have got lost in the post? How sweet of you,” she said.

The tall man didn't flinch. “It did occur to me that you might—”

“—try to escape,” said the man’s twin, wearing a green waistcoat, as he stepped up to the pair through the crowd.

Chrysalis brought her hands to her mouth. “You mean run away? On the night of the Gala?” she exclaimed in mock surprise. “Who would do such a thing?”

The two men chuckled. “I know, I know. That would be—”

“—incredibly rude. And yet, for some reason, practically all—”

“—new arrivals seem to try exactly that,” said a third man, wearing a blue waistcoat, weaving through the crowd to join them. Fluffle Puff dodged nervously out of his way with a quiet gasp.

“Really?” intoned Chrysalis sarcastically. “All of them? What a strange coincidence that is.”

The man in green replied, “It's almost like it's a—”

“—tradition to try to escape on the night of your first Gala. Not that—”

“—you'd ever stoop so low, I'm sure,” completed the man in red, releasing her shoulder.

“Surely not many of them can have succeeded, though,” said Chrysalis, turning to grab gently onto the red tie of the man behind her wrapping the silk around her hand. “Not when there's a big, strong man like you guarding the gates,” she added.

“Not a one,” replied the man confidently.

“Then I'd be a fool to even try,” said Chrysalis with resignation. “And this Queen is no fool.”

“Perhaps not, but I hope you won't be—”

“—too offended if I keep an eye—”

“—on you, just in case,” said the man in blue quietly, leaning in close. “And your—”

“—little friends, of course,” added the man in green, glancing back at Fluffle Puff.

“Look all you want, boys,” said Chrysalis, running two fingers sensuously down her hips. She wrapped the fingers of her other hand around the man’s tie and pulled his face down to hers. “Just don't touch,” she hissed.

The musicians, safely ensconced in a cozy balcony above one corner of the room, chose that moment to start playing a tango with a sharp, stabbing rhythm. Chrysalis slid her hand down the man's tie, pulling it free of the red waistcoat as she let go and danced away, her feet stamping aggressively in time with the music, stabbing the poor dancefloor as if it had offended her.

Up on the other balcony by the entrance, the herald called out, “Principal Abacus Cinch of Crystal Preparatory Academy, Dean Mi Amore Cadenza, and Shining Armor.”

Chrysalis stopped, her eyes narrowing as a hungry grin crossed her face. “Well, isn't that interesting,” she muttered, and turned to stride towards the arrivals.

Fluffle Puff blew a long raspberry at the men before turning and running after her. Cerberus watched them go, scowls on all three of his faces.

The three academics stepped down the wide staircase onto the ballroom.

“Now do remember, Cadance,” said Principal Cinch, adjusting her glasses, “we're here to promote the Academy's respectable image among the prestigious parents and soon-to-be-parents. Not to enjoy ourselves.”

“Can't we do both?” asked the young Dean innocently. “Shiny and I have been looking forward to this—”

She turned to Shining Armor for confirmation, only to find him missing. Quickly scanning the room, she found him rapidly spinning across the floor in the arms of a woman in a slinky black dress, their bodies pressed intimately together in a sultry tango. The woman appeared to be leading, and Shining Armor's face betrayed a mix of shock and excitement.

“Hmmf,” Cadance pouted, crossing her arms.

Principal Cinch had turned her disapproving glare on something else. “What are those children doing here?”

Cadance frowned. “Children?”

“See, three of them, over there by the buffet tables.” She squinted. “One with big orange hair, one purple, and a turquoise one over by the… are those tacos?”

Though they only touched in a few places – the gloved fingers of Octavia’s left hand resting on Vinyl’s shoulder, the warm pressure of Vinyl’s fingers resting on Octavia’s shoulder blade, and Octavia’s right hand resting in the crook of Vinyl’s hand – their bodies felt connected, moving more in time with each other than with the music.

How many times must we have touched, growing up? How many times have we hugged? How many times have we shared a sofa and a blanket and a tub of ice cream? How many times did I squeeze past her without thinking? It's different now. Why does every touch feel special?

Because she kissed me. Because now there's the suggestion of… what? Romance? Love? Sex? Guilt? Comfort? Whatever it is, this new thing, it's in every little touch.

Except that it's not new at all for Tavi, is it? She was aware of it all along. Every time we cuddled or hung out, the thought was in her head, in the background. And I never had a clue.

From up on the entrance balcony, the herald called out, “Mr Blueblood and Ms Harshwhinny.”


Vinyl’s head jerked up. Concerned, Octavia asked, “What's wrong?”

Blueblood? Damn it, what's my boss doing here? I really don't want to deal with him tonight.

Octavia looked around, catching sight of the two entering the dance hall. She yelped as Vinyl pulled her into the nearby doorway leading to the buffet tables. “What’s going on?”

“I’m suddenly incredibly hungry.”

“Cadance! Dean Cadance!”

Principal Cinch called out, but got no reply. The dance floor was big, the people on it varied, and the music surprisingly fast.

She was losing patience, fast. First Shining Armor had disappeared, then Cadance had gone to find him. The guests mostly seemed to be more interested in dancing than talking, and with masks everywhere she was finding it hard to identify any of the important people on her list for tonight.

Worst of all, there were children running around. What were they even doing here?

She decided to abandon the dance floor in favour of the food hall. The people there would surely be more willing to talk. She manoeuvred awkwardly past a large man in a blue suit with an eyepatch, dancing with a much smaller man whose hair resembled a pair of antennae. They wore complementary blue-and-gold masks.

“Where has that girl got herself to?”

Cadance hunched a little lower to keep the head and shoulders of the large man in the blue suit between her and Principal Cinch. This had the side effect of cuddling her closer into the arms of Shining Armor, which was fine. It had taken her ages to find him after that annoying woman had whisked him away, and now she wasn’t going to let him go.

They were both largely ignoring the tempo of the music, moving instead to a slow rhythm that was purely theirs.

“There you are!”

For a moment, Cadance thought that Principal Cinch had found them, until the voice registered. Confused, she looked up from the loving embrace of Shining Armor to see Shining Armor standing next to him.

“Honey?” She started cautiously, her eyes flickering between the two men. “I don't… understand. How…”

The newly arrived Shining Armor wore a deep frown. “Nor do I, pumpkin. Can you explain to me why you're dancing with this strange man?”

The incumbent Shining Armor, the one she'd been dancing with, was guarded and protective, holding Cadance tight. “Who's this guy, Cady? And why does he look like me?”

“It's almost like he's a copy of me,” said the arrival, his voice laced with suspicion. “Some sort of doppelgänger.”

“He's got all my clothes as well,” said the incumbent. “The little blue handkerchief and everything. Is he an impersonator, dressed up as me? Tell me this is a joke, Cady.”

“Why would I impersonate myself?” asked the arrival. “That doesn't make a lot of sense.”

“Here you are, though, looking just like me. Are you trying to trick Cadance?”

“That would be my line,” said the arrival indignantly. “And I can't help noticing you've still got your arms around her.”

“She knows which of us is real,” insisted one of the identical men.

“I'm sure she does,” said the arrival. “Don't you, Cady?”

Cadance blinked. “I… can't tell which of you is the real one…”

They both looked hurt. The incumbent turned back to the arrival and continued looking him up and down. “We do look pretty similar, I have to admit,” he said grudgingly.

“I guess we do,” said the arrival. “So how long are you going to keep dancing with him?” he asked impatiently.

“A little bit longer,” said Cadance from deep in her beau's embrace. Her pink cheek rested against his white shirt. “I like it here.”

The incumbent grinned. “She likes it here.”

The arrival glared daggers for a few seconds, then relented. With an exaggerated sigh, he said, “I suppose I can't really blame you for that. After all, I am rather handsome.”

The incumbent nodded acknowledgement. “It's true, I am.” He released Cadance, stepping away from her and towards the other Shining Armor, leaving her arms grasping nothing.

He reached up to cup his other self's face, leaned in and kissed himself slowly. They remained together for a few seconds, then reluctantly broke the kiss. They remained staring into each other's eyes.

Cadance was briefly put out at having her embrace ended, then shocked and confused at the sight of her love folded in on itself.

“Damn, I'm pretty,” said one of the Shining Armors – she could no longer tell which.

“And a good kisser too,” added the other, leaning forward to repeat the process.

“There you are!” She turned to see Shining Armor struggling through the crowd of dancers to reach her, holding two glasses.

“Shiny? What…”

He took notice of her expression. “Are you all right? Did something happen?”

She turned back. There was no sign of the two Shining Armors at all, just a crowd of other people, dancing, moving and talking.

“I… uh…” She thought about how she could tell him what just happened, and what it would sound like. “Uh… you know, never mind.”

“Aren't you enjoying yourself?”

Trixie had nestled herself in the corner made by one of the big pillars, and stood there nursing a soda as she watched the strange people stream past. She looked up to see a little old man. He was shorter than her, though some of that was from the way he was hunched over his walking stick. He wore a well-worn suit, with a dark red waistcoat that nearly matched his skin tone.

“A party like this only comes around once a year,” he added. “You'll wish you'd taken the time to enjoy it properly.”

She tried to smile. “It's all right, don't mind me. I'm just a little distracted. This is all a little… unfamiliar. The outfits and the music and the dancing.”

“I'm sure you must have danced before, though a ballroom is a little different.”

“No, I can ballroom dance. My mother taught me when I was little.” When we were still a family. “It’s just overwhelming, actually being here.” Trixie fidgeted a little.

“If I were five hundred years younger then I'd ask you for a dance myself, but I suspect you wouldn't want to drag a little old fellow like me around the floor.”

Trixie tried to chuckle at the lame attempt at humour, but couldn't help wondering, Might he really be hundreds of years old? Or even older? Is he one of them? She thought back to Chrysalis telling them that Tartarus housed some of the oldest and most dangerous beings in the world. Some of those people out there on the dance floor are immortals. Things with monstrous power. Things that had to be locked up in here.

She fiddled nervously with her drink.

“And I'm sure you'd rather find a handsome young lad to dance with, somebody with character and a nice smile. Somebody like…” His eyes scanned the crowd.

Trixie looked up, alarmed. “What? No, I don't need—”

“Blueblood!” called the old man.

“No, please don't…” muttered Trixie.

A tall young man in a shining white suit sauntered over, a massive smile on his face. “Mister Tirek, I didn't think you'd be here.”

“I never miss a Gala, you know that, lad. Now listen here, young Mister Blueblood, I've discovered something shocking here tonight. Unforgivable, even.”

Blueblood's expression turned serious, or at least mock-serious. “Oh dear. Do tell me more.”

Turning to the blushing Trixie, Tirek explained, “Apparently, this charming young lady here has absolutely nobody to dance with.”

Blueblood gasped in faux horror. “No! It cannot be!”

“I thought perhaps you might be able to help correct the situation?”

“If the little lady will allow it, then it would be my honour.” He held out a hand to her, and she could think of little to do but accept it, allowing herself to be pulled out onto the floor and into the handsome man's hold.

Wait… did he say Blueblood? Isn't that the name of Vinyl’s boss?

Dandy Lion watched her daughter dancing. She turned to the woman beside her. “You know, Raven, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Really? You don't think you'll be picking pieces of Blueblood out of the shrubbery?”

“Oh, I hope so. My little girl needs to learn to put her foot down.”

Raven nodded sagely. “And Blueblood needs to learn how hard it is to get blood out of a white coat,” she said with a smile.

“I must ask my secretary to send something nice to poor old Ms Harshwhinny,” said Dandy Lion. “I really don't know how she manages to put up with him.”

“You should get some bail money ready for her as well,” added Raven. “You know. Just in case.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you're a little bit scary?”

“Only my closest friends,” replied Raven with an affectionate nudge.

Dandy Lion spared a glance toward the doorway leading to the private rooms. She leaned in conspiratorially and asked, “How is she?”

“You met her earlier, yourself,” said Raven innocently.

“Yes, we met officially, but… how is she really? Just between friends.”

Raven dropped her voice as well. “She doesn't enjoy coming here, never has. She doesn't like the change.”

“It doesn't seem to bother you as much.”

Raven shrugged. “I'm just a unicorn. I don't have as much to lose.”

“And is that the only reason she's in a bad mood?”

“It's the only one she'll admit to. Even to me, she won't talk about the early days.”

Dandy winced as she watched the escalating altercation between Trixie and Blueblood. “I think he's going to be learning that lesson after all.”

“Arrabbiata sauce,” said Raven with the appreciation of experience. “Nasty.”

“Looks like he'll be fishing meatballs out of his pockets as well.”

Raven looked down at her plate. “Oh. Is that what they are?”

Octavia cleared her throat. “Vinyl, honey?” she asked in a near-whisper.

“Yeah?” replied Vinyl in similarly hushed tones.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Tavi.” Vinyl peered through the narrow slit of light between the doors.

Octavia shifted her feet, trying to find a comfortable position. “What exactly are we doing in here?”

Vinyl paused before answering. “I was… hungry?”

Octavia looked down at the silver platter laden with vol-au-vents, with which the two of them were sharing a very small, dark cupboard. “So I can see.” As an afterthought she plucked a morsel from the pile. Through a mouthful of salmon and cream cheese she added, “That said, there is, mmm… one more question I’d like to ask you about our situation.”

Vinyl peered cautiously through the gap in the door as the sound of guests eating and talking filtered in. “Go ahead,” she said quietly.

Octavia leaned in to whisper, “How exactly do you know Mr Blueblood?”

Vinyl stiffened, and nearly dropped the tray. She turned to look at Octavia with a nervous smile, carefully adjusting the hand carrying the platter before any puff pastry could slip to the floor.

“I mean,” added Octavia, licking her fingers, “we're clearly in here to avoid meeting him. Which, from what I know of him, is a perfectly fair reaction. I'm just curious how you two know each other.”

She quietly cleared her throat and said, “Well, he, uh, he owns the club I work at.”

“Oh.” Octavia pushed a vol-au-vent into Vinyl’s mouth. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“Howv vo wou vow im?” she mumbled through a mouthful of pastry.

“He sponsors the Griffonstone Quartet, as well as a number of theatre companies, choirs and orchestras. I’ve seen him at plenty of auditions.”

“Griffonstone Quartet?”

“The ones playing in the balcony above us.”

Vinyl shushed her. “Here he comes.” Her eyes narrowed as she peered out through the narrow sliver. “And he appears to have walked into a tray of food,” she added with a quiet smile. “Some sort of tomato sauce all down his nice white jacket.”

“Who's that shouting?”

“Oh, wow. That's Gustave.”

“Gustave the pastry chef? I haven't seen him in years. What's he doing here?” She plucked another vol-au-vent from the tray. “Apart from these yummy things.”

“Shouting at Blueblood,” Vinyl narrated. “Something about him making a mess and wasting food. Trying to shove Blueblood back out onto the dance floor.” Vinyl gasped. “And receiving a cake to the back of the head.”

“What!” Octavia stood on tip-toe and struggled to look through the narrow gap above Vinyl's head. “Gustave or Blueblood? Which one of them?”

“Blueblood did. Though bits of it are on Gustave’s jacket as well.”

“Somebody threw a cake at him? Who?” Octavia squeezed in try and to see through the gap.

“I didn't see, but it looks like Blueblood is throwing something back. Little bowls of something.”

“Is that pickled vegetables?”

“There's some little sandwiches coming back. Or bits of them.” She winced at the sight of bread landing butter-side-down.

The cupboard door rattled as something squishy struck it, and both girls pulled back. Fear didn't keep them away for long, though, and they both pressed their eyes to the gap.

“I think I can see Pinkie Pie throwing little custard tarts,” said Octavia. “Or is that… two different Pinkie Pies? It's honestly hard to tell.”

“Actually, I think there's a Pinkie on both sides. They seem to be enjoying themselves.” Vinyl gratefully accepted the pastry that Octavia was offering. “Thanffs,” she mumbled around it.

“Oh dear, poor old Mr Gustave isn't enjoying himself.” She looked down at the tray. “And we appear to be out of vol-au-vents.”

“Hang on.” Vinyl judged her moment carefully, then quickly reached out and caught something. She brought it in and pulled the door shut.

“What have you got?” asked Octavia, unable to see it in the dark.

Vinyl held up the bowl, its contents shifted to the side in transit. “Some sort of… nest made out of spaghetti? I think? With a…” She licked her fingers. “Mushroomy sauce in the middle.”

“Well, that's going to be difficult to share, particularly without cutlery.”

“We'll just have to slurp one end each until we meet in the middle,” said Vinyl with a smirk. They both started to laugh.

The door was pulled open abruptly, filling the cupboard with light. “Sacre bleu!” Gustave le Grand stood there, cream caked into his receding hair, pasta sauce dripping down his mustache, his eyes wide in astonishment. “You two!”

Vinyl darted to Gustave's left, still laughing. Octavia dodged to his right with a polite “Excuse me!”

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