In the empty offices of the Manehattan Gazette, Red Top hummed a simple melody to himself as he awaited his lone appointment for the day. He was sitting comfortably behind his desk, which he had cleaned specifically for the occasion. Only a cup full of pencils, a notepad, a quill, an inkwell, and a manila folder rested on the well-worn desk. It wasn't terribly often that anypony was in the offices on a Friday, but today was a special exception.
In truth, he had been expecting this day to arrive sooner or later. It wasn't the first time he had published a story that had ruffled somepony's feathers, nor the first time he had been informed a lawyer was coming. However it was probably the first time in his life that Red Top had known the instant he had approved an article he would catch serious flak for it.
It had been nearly three weeks to the day that the Enquirer had gone to newsstands with Vinyl's face printed on the front page. A little more than ten days after that he had received a letter from a lawyer named Finagle who claimed to represent Vinyl Scratch. Red Top had expected that, as such he had immediately replied with an offer for the attorney to come to his office so they could 'negotiate an amicable settlement'. Some minor schedule aligning later and Red Top now found himself alone in his office, awaiting the inevitable arrival of his guests.
Red titled his head back to inspect the tiles of the ceiling. A small frown pulled at the corners of his lips as he noticed a small spot of water damage on a tile not too far from his desk. Red would have to get that tile replaced on Monday in addition to calling a roofer to inspect the shingles. Some ponies would consider that sort of reaction to be overkill for such a small amount of water damage. Red Top saw the insignificant stain for the malignant cancer that it was. A single particulate of infection just waiting to spread through the rest of his ceiling.
Red Top filed that particular issue to the back of his mind; he had more important things to deal with first. First and foremost on his mind was simply how incredibly bored he was. Red was used to being in the thick of things with dozens of ponies all around him. He wasn't fond of sitting and waiting for things to happen. That was part of the reason why he had become a reporter in the first place.
He sighed and gave a gentle nudge to his pencil cup, inching the vessel ever so slightly to the left. He tapped his hoof on his desk for a moment before he nudged the cup back to the right. Red groaned lightly and leaned forward until the tip of his horn poked the surface of his desk. Wincing, he sat back up and grumbled.
"Note to self," he grumbled, "buy a working radio for the office."
Red Top shifted his attention to the left where he observed the rows of empty writing desks his employees wrote the weekly articles on. He shifted his gaze to the right where he observed the printing presses, currently silent and forgotten. Red allowed a foolish smirk to cross his face.
"Oh I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts," he sang to his empty office, "there they are all standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. Give 'em a twist, a flick of the wrist. That's what the showcolt said!"
Red paused for a breath, the air falling silent as he came to a realization. "I don't know the rest of the lyrics. Well… ponyfeathers."
After a seemingly interminable wait, Red's ears perked as he heard the distinctive clip-clop of hooves on the stairs up to his office. He arched an eyebrow in concern when he realized it was more than one pony's hoofsteps. The shopkeeper he employed downstairs had been directed to simply allow the attorney access to Red's office. She didn't come up the stairs unless there was a specific reason. Did the attorney bring a legal associate or a police pony? If so, did that mean he was under arrest for something?
Red Top dismissed that theory outright. He knew the laws in Manehattan, and while he certainly bent them from time to time, he was always careful to never go too far. The Vinyl Scratch case was perhaps the most risqué thing he'd ever published. Even still, the worst they could do to him was hit him with a pittance of a fine and a slap on the fetlock. The only pony at risk of actual legal trouble was Quick Snap, and Red didn't have any plans to throw away such a useful pony that easily.
He relaxed slightly when both ponies came into view. The pony in the lead was a serious looking unicorn stallion; beside him was an earth pony mare that looked like she had just eaten a quince. The stallion had a slate blue coat with a mane that had gone mostly grey save for patches of dark blue. His cutie mark depicted the golden scales of justice. Despite his aging appearance, the unicorn's brown eyes were sharp and clear. Red Top forced himself to keep an easygoing appearance; this unicorn wasn't one to be taken lightly.
The earth pony mare, on the other hoof, he wasn't so sure about. She had a goldish-grey coat, a long iron-grey mane and tail, and lovely mulberry colored eyes. Around her neck she wore a white collar with a well-kept pink bowtie. Red was able to catch a glimpse of her cutie mark, a treble clef that matched her eyes in color. Her mark gave Red Top pause, mostly from confusion.
'Why would a musician be here?' he wondered for a moment before the realization hit him. Red struggled to prevent a laugh from escaping his lips, 'this just got very interesting.'
Red Top stood up and smiled pleasantly as the pair approached his desk. "Good morning."
"Mr. Red Top," the stallion acknowledged with a civil nod, "I am Mr. Finn, this is Octavia.
The mare, Octavia, said nothing. Her mulberry eyes narrow and full of anger.
"A pleasure to meet you both. Please, take a seat," Red motioned to the space in front of his desk, "May I offer you both something to drink? Coffee, water?"
"Nothing for me, thank you," Finn said.
Octavia simply shook her head.
"Straight to business then," Red noted with another polite smile, "very well then. I know what brings you here, Mr. Finn, but I'm curious what brings you along Ms. Octavia."
Octavia shot a glance to Finn, who gave her a small nod.
"I'm here representing Vinyl." She answered, her tone cold.
"That's what he's here for," Red pointed a hoof to Finn.
"And so am I," Octavia insisted.
"Octavia has every right to be here, Red Top." Finn stated.
"Only if she is a legal assistant or family of Vinyl Scratch. Otherwise I'm not obligated to let her stay for this meeting."
"What makes you think I'm neither?" Octavia hissed. Finn sighed softly; a nearly imperceptible shake of his head didn't go unnoticed by Red Top.
"You're cutie mark is a treble clef," Red pointed a hoof to her flank, "which means you're a musician of some kind. Secondly you're an earth pony, and Vinyl is a unicorn, meaning you can't be a sibling."
"My relationship with Vinyl isn't your concern." Octavia said.
"It is if you want to sit in this meeting, otherwise I'm not obligated to let you stay." Red Top answered.
"Octavia has family rights as Vinyl's fiancé," Finn stated, "and I ask you direct your commentary to me, Red Top. Otherwise I'm sure we could arrange a court date."
Red arched and eyebrow and allowed himself an amused smirk. "Very well, Mr. Finn."
"Now then, we're here to discuss the slanderous article you've published against Vinyl as well as the illicit use of her image." Finn leaned forward, his forelegs resting easily on the desk.
"Yes, about that," Red pressed his hoof down on the manila folder in front of him and slid it towards Finn.
Finn took the folder in his magic and opened it up. To both his and Octavia's surprise, the folder contained the printed photo's of Vinyl Scratch, the negatives, and a sealed envelope. Finn and Octavia shared a surprised glance. Red Top merely smiled as they looked back to him.
"What's this about, Red?" Finn asked warily.
"I have no interest in a prolonged legal battle or a public 'he-said, she-said', so I suppose you could say this is a preemptive peace offering." Red said with a shrug. "I'm willing to give you the photographs we used and the negatives. Furthermore I will also personally pen a letter of apology in our next issue, there's a draft of it at the back of the file. Lastly, to show I'm not such a bad pony, I've written a check for Vinyl Scratch. I'm not sure what her expenses are yet, but it should make a sizeable dent in her medical bills. I think you'll agree that this is a very reasonable offer. Everypony wins."
"And how does this in any way repair the damage you've caused to Vinyl's reputation?" Octavia demanded.
"I caused nothing," Red pressed his hoof to his chest, "I don't even write the articles in the paper."
"You accused Vinyl of drug use!" Octavia growled.
"We speculated possible causes of her injuries. That's what gossip columns do." Red Top explained patiently. "We didn't say anything definitive about anything. Also the statistics we sighted pertaining to the use of drugs by musicians in Vinyl's genre were accurate numbers from a study by the Manehattan Medical College. We sighted the data and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions."
"The presentation of the data did strongly suggest you were accusing Vinyl of illicit drug use," Finn said.
"Correlation is not causation," Red Top countered. "In either case, you are both free to read the draft letter I have provided in the file. The next issue will be go to print next week, and with your permission, I will publish the letter in that issue."
"We also want the name of the photographer you sent to get Vinyl's picture." Finn said.
"That I can't help you with." Red Top said.
"I beg to differ," Octavia said.
"Beg all you like, Miss. Doesn't change the fact that I have no idea who took the photos. They were delivered to this office by an unknown party," Red lied.
"And you expect me to believe that?" Octavia demanded.
"You can believe anything you like, that's the fun part of having free will. Still, it wouldn't make it true." Red Top replied.
"So we are to take you at your word that you have no idea who snuck into the hospital room of an unconscious mare and took multiple photographs?" Finn asked dubiously. "What if I was to subpoena all your records and interview all your employees?"
"You are certainly more than welcome to do so. However, you'd find a whole lot of nothing, and my current offer becomes invalid." Red said as he gave an uninterested shrug.
Finn and Octavia exchanged a glance for a moment before Finn spoke.
"Would you give us a few moments in private?" Finn asked.
Red nodded as he stood up. "Of course, take all the time you need."
'Checkmate.' Red thought with a smirk as he trotted downstairs.
Finn kept his eyes on Red Top until the red unicorn had disappeared down the stairs. He waited a few more moments before he turned to face Octavia. The cellist's eyes contained a torrent of emotions: anger, fear, hope, and more all vying for dominance. He gave her credit for looking as composed as she did under the circumstances.
"How are you holding up?" Finn asked.
Octavia gave him a noncommittal shrug, "I don't know, this isn't what I expected."
Finn chuckled. "Neither did I."
"So, what are the options?" Octavia asked.
"Let's look at this letter and the check first, then we'll go from there." Finn said.
An azure glow enveloped his horn as he channeled his magic. The envelope, wrapped in his ethereal grasp, floated above the table where he opened it and extracted the note and the check. Both Finn and Octavia's eyebrows shot up at the hefty number written out to Vinyl.
"W-what is this?" Octavia sputtered.
"It's a buyout," Finn said, "Red wants to offer you and Vinyl a big shiny carrot right up front. If you refuse the offer then he gets to claim the moral high ground in any court proceedings."
"So, what do we do?" Octavia asked.
"Well, about how much of Vinyl's medical expenses do you think this check will cover?" Finn asked as he began reading the letter.
"It would certainly cut a large chunk of it," she answered after a moment's thought.
Finn nodded slowly, his hoof rubbing his chin as he weighed the options in his mind.
"Octavia, it's my professional opinion that you accept this offer, now. With the stipulation, of course, that we have final approval of the apology letter and we get an agreement he will never mention you or Vinyl ever again."
Octavia tried not to let her disappointment show. "Really? Is there nothing else we can do?"
"Well, we could always pursue a court case," Finn suggested.
Octavia sensed his hesitation on that specific option. "But?" she asked, her voice soft.
Finn allowed himself a light sigh before he spoke. "But if we pursue court action, I highly doubt we would get a better settlement that this. Furthermore, all court proceedings are on the public record. In a jury trial, this meeting would be brought up by his defense. While I could make a case that it's a self-serving maneuver to stave off stronger legal charges the jury would see it as an act of honest recompense by Red Top.
"On the other hoof, we would be perceived as greedy and vindictive, particularly in the face of an offer as generous as this." Finn explained, pointing his hoof to the check sitting between them.
"But given the circumstances, wouldn't a jury see our case as justifiable outrage?" Octavia asked.
"Some might," Finn agreed, "but again: once this offer is laid out for a jury it severely undermines our potential case."
Octavia sighed and pressed her head into her hooves. "What's the best case and worse case scenarios if we reject this offer?"
Finn pursed his lips and folded his forelegs across his chest as he thought the question over. "Well, best case scenario would likely be an offer similar to this. Maybe a bit more money, maybe a bit less, it's impossible to guess that. The worst case scenario would be the jury rules in Red Top's favor and all we get is his legal bill."
Octavia's entire posture seemed to deflate from Finn's words. Her ears folded back, her shoulders sank, and the fire in her eyes faded to despair. Finn frowned and rubbed at her back with a hoof.
"I'm fairly confidant that if you wanted to pursue a court case that we would win something," Finn reassured her. "I doubt it would be as nice as what we've been offered now, but it would in all likelihood be similar."
Octavia bit her bottom lip as she considered Finn's information. She wanted nothing more than to punish Red Top for what he put Vinyl through. She wanted justice for the unicorn's transgressions. Vinyl deserved that satisfaction at the very least. However, to do that Octavia would have to risk what was left of Vinyl's already shattered reputation.
She ran her hoof through her bangs and sighed. It was simply academic. Vinyl's reputation, and consequently her sense of self-worth, was all but gone. What was left could be easily lost in a lengthy court battle, not to mention the media battle that Red Top would no doubt bring along with him. The risk was too great for the prospective reward.
A knot formed in Octavia's throat as she tried to accept the offer in her mind. Bitter medicine would have been like the finest of wines in comparison to this. As far as Octavia was concerned, she was about to accept blood money. In exchange she had a tacit promise that Red Top would leave them alone.
At last, Octavia managed a nod. She didn't like it, but she didn't see a way to get a more favorable result. At least, not without risking far too much for far too little in return. All she could do was hope that Vinyl would understand her reasoning.
'I keep failing you, Vinyl,' Octavia's posture sank further from the thought.
Finn gave her a gentle nudge to rouse Octavia from her thoughts. She blinked in confusion for a moment before she noticed Red Top had returned, a kettle of tea and three cups held in his magic. He casually walked over to the desk where he set the cups down and filled all three.
"I know you said you didn't want anything, but if you change your mind these will be here for you." He explained.
"Thank you," Finn said, his own magic lifting the nearest cup to his lips where he took a polite sip.
Octavia took the second cup in her hooves and took a small sip as well, if for no other reason than to maintain decorum. The warm liquid did little to ease the cold pit that formed in her gut at from the deal. Red Top settled in behind his desk and gave them a moment before he spoke.
"So, have you come to a decision?" he asked.
"Yes," Finn began, setting his cup down. "We will accept your offer with certain provisions."
"Such as?" Red asked.
"Your letter of apology," Finn held the draft in his telekinetic grasp, "we get the final approval of it."
"Agreed, anything else?" Red asked with a polite smile.
"After this business is done, you leave Vinyl and everypony affiliated with her alone. No follow up stories, no interview attempts, interviews, nothing."
"Oh, I think I can live with that arrangement." Red Top said, a smile teasing at the corner of his lips.
"Then we have a deal." Finn said.
"Excellent!" Red exclaimed, his magic snatching the check from the desk. "Just let me sign this and we'll be golden."
Octavia forced a curt nod, unable to stomach words. Red laid the check in front of him before taking a quill in his magic. After dipping it into the inkwell he signed the check with practiced efficiency. He blew gently on the wet ink to speed the drying process, ensuring it was dry as possible before he held it out to Finn.
"And there you have it," Red said, his smile never wavering.
Finn took the check in his own magic and quickly inspected it before passing it to Octavia. The cellist took the check and placed it in her saddlebag.
"Now then, shall we hammer this letter out now?" Red asked.
"Octavia, do you have time for that?" Finn asked.
Octavia glanced to the wall clock. It was nearing noon, and today was an important day for Vinyl. After weeks of bitter work and slow progress Vinyl had finally reached a milestone. Today was the day Soma was planning to start her on assisted walking. Not Celestia, Discord, or Nightmare Moon would have stopped Octavia from being with Vinyl when she tried those first tentative steps.
"Not today I don't." She answered.
"Well then, shall we schedule this for another time or may Mr. Finn and I work this out on our own?" Red Top asked.
'Oh what I would give to hit you right now,' Octavia thought bitterly.
"I will come back first thing tomorrow morning. We'll get this matter finished then." Octavia said.
Red Top nodded, sensing it was in his best interests not to dispute the mare on that particular matter. Octavia and Finn wasted no time in excusing themselves from the meeting. Finn gave the pictures and negatives to Octavia to keep or destroy at her own discretion. As they left Red Top's office Octavia allowed herself a weary sigh.
"Thank you again for agreeing to help Vinyl and I." She said as the trotted down the sidewalk.
"It's nothing, really." Finn responded kindly. "Poultice feels terrible for what happened."
"Your brother is a good stallion." Octavia said.
"He has his moments, I suppose." Finn chuckled. "If you see him, say hi for me."
"I will, thank you again Mr. Finagle." Octavia said.
"I'll see you here tomorrow morning." Finn said as they parted ways.
Octavia hesitated for a few moments while she considered the most efficient way to go about the rest of her day. If she made good time, she could make it to the bank to deposit the check before they closed. Barring any unexpected events, she would be back at the hospital with time to spare.
With a plan decided, Octavia trotted to the bank at a brisk pace. Making it there in fairly good time, she was pleased to see it was fairly empty. Hoofing over the check, Octavia forced herself not to smirk as both of the teller's eyebrows shot up for a moment. The teller mare quickly composed herself and—after getting her supervisor involved—deposited the check with minimal fuss.
From there it was a fairly easy walk back to the hospital. Octavia almost stopped to get some lunch, but decided at the last minute she would rather eat with Vinyl. The hospital's café was by no means the best food in Equestria, but at least it was a place that Poultice would allow Vinyl to be taken in a wheelchair.
As she approached the hospital, she spotted Poultice sitting on one of the benches in the pavilion. The old stallion seemed lost in thought, his eyes staring at nothing in particular. In his lips was an old wooden pipe, thin tendrils of smoke drifting up from the bowl. He snapped out of his reverie as he noticed Octavia approach.
"Hello, Octavia, how did everything go?"
"Well enough I suppose, I have to go back tomorrow morning to finalize a few things. Finagle says hello, by the way. Thank you again for introducing us." She answered.
"It was the least I could do given the circumstances." Poultice said, a kind smile growing on his lips.
"Vinyl hasn't started her new exercises yet, has she?" Octavia asked.
Poultice exhaled a slow puff of smoke before turning his pipe upside down and tapping the ashes into an ashtray. He kept his eyes affixed on his pipe for a moment before he spoke.
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about actually," he began as blew the remaining ash from his pipe. "There's been a small complication."
Octavia's heart skipped a beat. "What happened? Is Vinyl alright?"
"Please, sit." Poultice motioned her to the seat beside him.
Octavia frowned, her mind struggling to manage her urge to run to Vinyl and her need to hear what Poultice had to say. With a sigh she moved up to the bench and sat facing Poultice. The stallion sighed wearily as he tucked his pipe away into the pocket of his white doctor's jacket.
"About two hours ago, Vinyl had a little accident." Poultice began, immediately holding his hooves up in a placating manner. "She's fine, she's fine."
"What happened?" Octavia demanded, her tone harsher than she intended.
"Apparently, Vinyl needed to use the restroom. Rather than call a nurse, she decided she would try to walk herself."
"… Oh no." Octavia gasped.
"She was able to support herself on her front legs for a moment before she fell, I don't know if—"
"Is she okay?" Octavia demanded.
"She split her lip open, which we had to stitch closed, and she jarred her neck a bit. However the brace did its job and we don't think she incurred any serious damage." Poultice explained.
Octavia nodded, feeling faint from the new development.
"What does concern me," Poultice continued, "is that she hasn't spoken to any of us since we found her."
"What?" Octavia balked.
Poultice nodded. "She's been unresponsive to myself and the nurses since we found her. The best we can get her to do is nod or shake her head."
Octavia forced herself to take a deep breath as she put her head in her hooves.
"Octavia," Poultice began hesitantly, "I know things have been extremely hard on the both of you recently, but has Vinyl confided in you about how she's feeling?"
"What do you mean?" Octavia asked.
"Has she talked about her condition or how she's coping with things?" Poultice clarified.
Octavia thought about it for a moment. "Well, no, not really. I mean, we talk of course, but mostly about simple things. She talks about what's on the radio, or books, or music, but that's it really."
Poultice furrowed his brows in concern. "She hasn't discussed her accident or her limitations? Not a word about how she's handling things?"
Octavia shook her head side-to-side. "Nothing, really. She's been upset by it, but Vinyl's always been very private with her feelings."
"I see," Poultice nodded, "Octavia, would Vinyl consent to speaking with a psychologist?"
"I'm concerned about her mental well-being. Given all that she's been through, it wouldn't surprise me for her to be severely depressed."
"Let me talk to her," Octavia said after a moments thought. "I'll see what I can do."
"Alright," Poultice nodded, "but I need you to promise me that if Vinyl starts developing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder you will let me know immediately. It could greatly hinder her recovery if we don't treat it."
Octavia nodded before she hopped off the bench. "I'll let you know, I promise."
"Thank you," Poultice said.
Octavia quickly trotted upstairs to Vinyl's room, her mind a veritable torrent of emotions. Part of her was simply furious with Vinyl for attempting to walk without any help. At the same time she wanted to empathize with her fiancé's situation. Octavia bit her tongue as she made her way into the room.
All of Octavia's anger, all her questions, and all her potential words of encouragement turned to dust as she got a good look at Vinyl. The bed had been propped up so Vinyl could see out of the windows. Her bottom lip was marred by a deep red gash held together by several stiches. Octavia could see the faint tint of blood along Vinyl's chin. More concerning, however, was the quiet sniffles from Vinyl and the trail of tears that ran down her cheeks.
As Octavia came into Vinyl's view, the unicorn's ears folded back. Vinyl's eyes flicked from Octavia to the bed sheets. She couldn't bring herself to look the cellist in the eyes. Octavia's heart sank. She couldn't bring herself to speak. With a sigh, Octavia gingerly climbed into the bed, where she laid beside her lover for the first time in weeks. Vinyl flinched as Octavia carefully wrapped her forelegs around the unicorn's chest.
For a time, the only sounds in the room were Vinyl's quiet sniffles and the gentle ticking of the clock. Octavia didn't mind. She was content to lay there and simply hold Vinyl again. After a long period of silence, Vinyl finally spoke.
"Tavi?" She said, her voice scarcely a whisper.
"I… I wanna go home." Vinyl choked, her voice cracking as she spoke. "I wanna go home and see the movies, I wanna go home and see our friends again. I wanna see the movies with you, or walk in the park. But…but I can't even walk myself to the bathroom."
"I know, love," Octavia whispered, her forelegs strengthening their embrace. "It's going to be all right."
"No… no it's not." Vinyl lamented. "I… I'm nothing but a burden to you."
"You're not a burden, Vinyl." Octavia insisted, her brows furrowing in concern.
"Tavi," Vinyl whimpered, "My gear is gone, my career is over. I don't even have my reputation anymore. I'm…I'm just—"
Octavia's left foreleg gently pressed against Vinyl's lips, silencing the weeping mare.
"Vinyl Scratch, I don't care if I have to carry you around on my back till I'm old and grey. I don't care if we're homeless on the streets without a single bit to our names. As long as it's with you, I have all I need."
"I just—" Vinyl exhaled a trembling breath. "I just don't wanna make you suffer for me, Tavi."
Octavia gave Vinyl a gentle squeeze. "Vinyl, you can be the biggest pain in the flank I've ever met. You can be stubborn, and crazy, and downright peculiar at the drop of a hat. And yes, sometimes it does drive me insane. But I wouldn't trade a second of it for anything. Not all the bits in the world, or the crown jewels, or wings and a horn."
Vinyl let out a choked laugh. "You never did know a good trade when you saw it."
Octavia laid her hoof over Vinyl's heart. The steady rhythm was like music to her soul. A comforting song she couldn't live without.
"I don't know about that Vinyl, but I got this," she gently patted Vinyl's chest, "in exchange for this."
Octavia took Vinyl's hoof in her own and guided it to her chest. Holding the white hoof over her heart, Octavia watched Vinyl's expression. The unicorn desperately tried to blink away her tears, with little success.
"You're what makes me whole, Vinyl." Octavia began, her voice trembling. "You're the pony I want to wake up to every morning. You're the pony I want to hold every night. And you're the pony I want to grow old and grey with one day."
"Tavi, you're already grey." Vinyl noted.
Octavia laughed as she carefully sat up so she could look Vinyl in the eye. She smiled as she leaned forward, her forehead pressing up against Vinyl's, mindful of course of Vinyl's horn.
"I love you Vinyl, and no matter how bad things get or how long it takes we will go home, together." Octavia promised
Vinyl remained silent for a moment before she brought her forelegs up. The atrophied and trembling limbs wrapped around Octavia's waist and held onto her like a life jacket.
"I love you too, Tavi."