To say that Vinyl found the hanging silence left in the wake of Bonbon's words awkward was an understatement. She was more than glad when Bonbon diverted her attention back towards Lyra's performance, leaving Vinyl to her red-cheeked, confused self.
She supposed it would be best to keep a pretense of enjoying the show, even if only to stop Bonbon asking more questions of her. The little, green unicorn stood on her hindlegs, holding the lyre in her forelegs. Strange that a unicorn would want to play by hoof, not by horn. Her piqued curiosity held her attention right up until Octavia poked her in the shoulder.
"Hey! What...why are you here? You're meant to be in the backstage bit."
Octavia idly twiddled her hooves, staring at the floor. "Well, I was just wondering if you wanted to come back there and wait with me." Vinyl's eyebrows disappeared into her mane. "They...they refilled the buffet...if you'd like some more?"
"Sure, I'll just come with you now, then."
Vinyl rose from her seat, and noticed the most fleeting of smiles as Octavia led her along. She glanced back at Bonbon, who was wearing that smile.
"Have fun, you too. Hope I've given you something to think about, Vinyl." She shot off a small wink, before returning her eyes back to Lyra, who was wrapping up her set.
"What did she mean by that, Vinyl? Are you two best friends all of a sudden?" Octavia barely held back the forcefulness in her voice, surprising both herself and Vinyl.
"Hey, what's up with you? I was just talking, can't I talk to another mare?"
Octavia blushed, before turning her face sharply away as she felt the heat rise on her cheeks. "Well, of course you can...no reason you couldn't. Just that...I...oh, let's just..."
Vinyl sped up her pace to overtake Octavia, moving in front of her and craning her head round to see Octavia's. All Octavia saw was her gleeful grin rising from the side like the moon. "You're blushing."
"I am not!" Octavia jerked her head the other way, even turning herself slightly out of Vinyl's view. Vinyl took the opportunity, skirting round to look at her face again, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"You are, Octy. Look, your cheeks." She swirled back around, prompting Vinyl to start giggling. She overtook again, seeing Octavia herself giggling quietly as she turned away once more. Vinyl put an insistent hoof under her chin, gently but forcefully bringing her face into full view.
"Blushing and giggling, like a schoolfilly. So much for a refined aristocrat, Octavia."
Octavia's normally grey face was rivalling her bow-tie. "Oh, and you simply enjoy living life au natural, don't you?"
"Sure, I eat Mexicoltan now and then, what's up with that?"
Octavia burst out laughing, not a condescending chuckle nor a haughty giggle, but a genuine laugh. "Oh Vinyl, you really are a silly filly."
"Only one of me in Equestria."
Octavia calmed herself, turning back to Vinyl from her laughing fit. "So, is it some sort of luck that I found you then?"
Vinyl chuckled, her own cheeks burning like the sun. "I suppose, you're a very lucky filly to have met such a rare and awesome mare like me."
"Oh, I'm the filly? I think you'll find I'm the mare here!" Octavia poked a playful hoof at Vinyl's cheeks, feeling the soft warmth emanating from them. She returned her hoof to the point, lightly stroking it, enjoying the tiny pulsing of Vinyl's heartbeat, miniaturised and multiplied by a thousand. Like a lone trumpeter expanded into a glorious orchestra.
A slight cough interrupted her trance, and the pair turned to see Bonbon smiling, head tilted and eyes sparkling. "Oh, sorry to interrupt...just reminded about when Lyra and I first met...ahh..."
She trotted casually past the pair, exhaling a soft sigh as she disappeared into the doorway. A slightly awkward moment descended, the spell that had hung by the thread between their eyes snapped like spider-silk.
"So, shall we...?"
"Yeh, let's uhh...the buffet. I'm...kinda hungry." The awkward silence persisted, and was only magnified when the pair entered, and saw Lyra and Bonbon sitting in the corner. Both turned to see them enter, offering jovial grins and a hooves-up each.
"Should we go talk to-."
"Not in this life, Vinyl." Octavia wandered off to grab a glass of something to wet her throat. Her breathing had become frantic just now, drying her throat almost completely. Even her heart had yet to slow down. It was nerves from the audition...yes, just nerves. Nothing alcoholic was available, a pity, as it would have dulled her nerves nicely. Orange juice glinted from a glass jug before, it would do nicely.
She noticed Vinyl beside her, carefully pouring herself a glass of cranberry juice. Her heart rate raced ahead once more at the sight. What was this?! She turned back, away from Vinyl, slugging another glass of sharp, citrus goodness. The plump pony - Usher, if she remembered the name correctly - entered. The whole room quietened down, conversations nipped at the bud.
"If you'll please, we will be having the pianists first. With me, sirs and madams." The portly colt exited with a quarter of the room in tow. Some had left friends behind, who nervously tapped their hooves together, awaiting either the joyous or disappointed return.
Next brass were taken away, the room emptied to Octavia and Vinyl, Lyra and Bonbon, and a hoofful of other string instrumentalists. Octavia tried her best to avoid looking at Vinyl, for the sake of her pattering heart, and at Lyra, for sake of her sanity. Inevitably this meant staring down at the tabletop she was leaning on. This persisted for a long moment, but Octavia was oblivious as she fought in understand the processes of her own mind and feelings.
After an indeterminable amount of time, Usher once more entered the room, with the same perfect-cut composure as before. "String instruments next, please. Mr Zimmer is very eager about the candidates."
Octavia turned to leave the room, stopping as she heard Vinyl call after her. "Hey Octy...good luck!"
Octavia turned back, nodding and smiling as she left Vinyl standing by the hors d'oeuvres. She joined the group filing through the narrow corridor, and fate had placed her right beside the glowering Lyra.
"Well, Octavia. I see hypocrisy is still your element. Daring to insult my wife, yet grabbing onto a rag-tag vandal like that filly?"
Anger burnt into Octavia's chest, she bore down on Lyra, who barely flinched. "Don't you dare say anything about her. I am not 'with' her!"
Lyra simply patting Octavia on the head like one would a small filly. "See, it hurts to hear somepony say stuff like that, doesn't it? Now, Octavia, behold as the esteemed Mr Zimmer selects only the true talent from this crop. I'll see you in the audience...or in the dumpsters."
"On the contrary, I believe you'll be spending the night of the Gala busking for bits on the street."
"Oh, those are some strong words, Octavia. We'll see."
They emerged onto the stage, lined up before the judges like a batch of freshly-baked pies awaiting inspection. Hoofz Zimmer stood, moving down the line one-by-one, explaining failings, offering improvements, sadly sending them off one-by-one. Only now did Octavia understand why the previous groups had taken so long. He didn't simply strike a pony off for one failing. What was a reject this year could be a star the next, and he knew it. Ponies left with a hopeful smile on their muzzles. This year might not have been the one, but next year may well be.
Eventually it boiled down to just Octavia and Lyra, as both had been silently fearing. He stood before them both, smiling benevolently.
"Now, both of you displayed exceptional talent beyond expectations. Ms Philharmonica, your deployment of the cello subverts any criticisms I have levied against earth ponies, and you have allowed me to view such musicians with new eyes. Mrs Lyra, your lyre work is a return to previous form, and I am glad you have regained your previous excellence after your...encounter with the media."
He cleared his throat, dusting himself off slightly. "However, this presented us with a most difficult problem. Both of you are talented, and were you pianists or brass instrumentalists, there would have been much more argument between myself and the other judges. Thankfully, in the strings section we have space for two candidates, our problem easily solved. I would like to congratulate you both on achieving these places. We will contact you within the week for your first rehearsal dates."
Both candidates gushed a slew of praise and gratitude, eyes lit up like stage-lights. Zimmer simply waved a hoof, chuckled under his breath, thanking the pair in turn. Octavia's newfound joy was enough to even stop her casual jibes at Lyra, and she could only assume a similar happiness was preventing any insults coming from the unicorn herself.