Rainbow winced. "Sorry!"
Fluttershy rubbed her forehead, looking down at the lunch table to see the still-frozen pea that had been used to get her attention from across the table, which clued her in that she'd missed something. "I-I'm sorry, what happened?"
"Ya done that zonin' out thing a little harder than usual," answered Applejack, looking worried, "you okay, Sugarcube?"
She smiled. "Um... Y-yes, I think so." Truth be told, her mind was a little blank and she didn't remember much of today past watching Adagio walk away. And what came before that. Three times. The first was-
This time she was just tapped on the shoulder. "AH, ubuh, wha?!" Everyone at the table was looking at her.
Applejack tipped her hat while raising an eyebrow. "Sooo, like Ah was sayin'...?"
Fluttershy quickly turned crimson, smiling sheepishly. "Err... Pass?"
Sunset sputtered. "P-pass?! You can't just 'pass' when we're worried about you!" She should have known, they hadn't let it slide when Sunset tried the exact same thing some months ago. In hindsight, she was grateful.
"You have been a little out of sorts lately," Rarity added with an inquisitive look, "you're sure there's nothing out of the ordinary?"
"W-well, umm..." Memory. She smiled. "We're due to get a baby Agouti at the animal shelter early next week! They're like guinea pigs, but with more fur, bigger ears, and-"
She was cut off by a small wave of chuckles and good-natured eye-rolls.
"Welp," surmised Applejack with a grin, "reckon that explains it."
Pinkie was giggling. "Instant Fluttershy distraction: Just add fluffiness!"
In a manner of speaking, that might have been true, but Fluttershy dared not even glance at the fluffiest person in the cafeteria.
"So," began Rarity, looking at Sunset, "back to your story about Flash Sentry?"
"Right, umm..." Sunset scratched her head while trying to remember where she'd left off. "Okay, so, I ran into him in town some time yesterday..."
It was a small world, Canterlot a small part of it, and Canterlot's mall was smaller still. As such, it wasn't entirely surprising when one could see the same faces in the same places from day to day, as occurred when Sunset saw Flash Sentry sitting on a bench in a little resting area in the middle of an intersection. The mall wasn't really busy that day, which was half the reason Sunset had chosen it to pick up a new outfit to replace the one that got ruined in Pinkie's exploding frosting fiasco. Even so, the apology cupcakes had been delicious!
Flash clearly saw her too, because he waved her over. "Hey, Sunset. Got a minute?"
The bag on her arm meant she had finished her task in the mall and thus had time to kill. "Sure." He motioned for her to sit with him, so she did.
His expression wasn't overly serious, but it wasn't the usual, smiling Flash, either. "I'd like to get straight to brass tacks, if that's okay."
Something was off. "What's on your mind?"
"I'm the one who made that painting, the one they hung outside the Art room these last few months."
Sunset stared at him, wide-eyed. "What?" He just stared back at her, his expression unchanged, as though he were waiting for more. "I... W-why?"
"Why did I paint it? To vent. The night of the Fall Formal, I saw everything I ever tried to stop you from becoming, everything I failed miserably to prevent. No matter how much damage control I ran on your rumors and blackmail schemes, I-"
He smiled sheepishly. "Well, I never told you because, y'know... I've been meaning to, but-"
She shook her head. "No, I mean, what are you talking about? 'Damage control'?"
Flash shrugged. "Positive rumors, for lack of better words, 'Bulk Biceps won a junior weight-lifting competition the other day!' 'Rarity's hair is looking shinier than ever!' to balance out your negative ones, getting friends to talk things out whenever you caused a fight. Didn't usually work all that well, but I like to think it made a little difference."
In hindsight, Sunset was a weird kind of grateful someone was technically trying to stop her even back then, but that wasn't what boggled her mind at the moment. "You were undermining me in secret? How? I mean, believe me, I'm okay with it now, but where did you learn to...?"
There was a cheeky little smile. "Well, part of being your boyfriend meant actually talking to you, listening to what you said, and since you mostly talked about your plans at the time...?"
Tinting pink as she recalled the many times she all but gloated to Flash about another destroyed relationship, how easy it was for her to make those people her pawns, Sunset shamefully rubbed one arm. "I, thought you were on my side at the time."
He sighed. "Yea. So did I. Anyway, listening to you, I learned a thing or two about dealing with people, just never used that info the same way. It blew my mind how far a simple sentiment or a distinct word choice could go, but I guess it helped that most people listened to me before we even met." He shook his head. "Detour. Anyway, Fall Formal, big, fiery reminder of how little I was able to stop you from doing what you did, rainbow beam out of nowhere comes and does it all for me somehow. That was nice and all, but it left me kinda..." He shrugged. "I don't know, like I was missing closure with 'the demon,' like I didn't really get to see it fade away from nice girl I knew you were at heart."
Sunset blushed, but tried to keep to the topic at hand. "What does that have to do with the painting?"
"I dunno, but Magnet had been going on about getting feelings out onto canvas at the time, so I just painted the first thing that came to mind. The demon was gone, but when the picture was done, I could look at it and say 'You don't exist anymore.' I did it a few times since they hung it up, too, -I didn't ask them to do that, by the way, but there it was- and every time, it felt a little more true, until I didn't even need to look twice at the thing. Still, I know that picture caused you some grief, so, sorry."
She smiled warmly. "It's okay." Truth be told, Sunset was touched to hear he thought the monster was gone for good that soon.
Flash, however, didn't quite look satisfied, raising an eyebrow. "Really? 'It's okay' that what might have been the darkest moment of your life and a reminder of the thing you were hoping everyone would forgive you for was hung in the hallway for all to see? 'It's okay' that I inadvertently made it harder for you to find acceptance among those who would remember everything you ever did to them whenever they saw that stupid painting? None of that bothered you at all?"
Sunset bit back her first thought, instead forcing a smile. "I, well, i-it's better to forgive and-"
Flash frowned. "Sunset, please. I'm already feeling better about having told you all this, so if you have anything you've been wanting to get out of your system, I can take it."
Again, Sunset restrained herself, feeling a little lump build in her throat. "I... really?"
He smiled at her. "Closure. Let 'er rip."
She did. Sunset stood up and nearly shouted (only nearly, they were still in a mall) at him about every painful feeling that painting gave her, about how she had to specifically ask her friends not to touch it or say anything countless times because she knew it would fall back on her, how she'd cried the night after the first time she saw it, how sometimes, she could almost hear that goddamn painting laughing at her, and that it brought her nothing but misery and grief until just this week; the day it was replaced, how seeing something else in its place was like an elephant off her back.
When she was done, Flash smiled again. "Better?"
Nearly out of breath, Sunset flopped back down on the bench. "I... yea." She giggled. "Feeling pretty good, actually."
Flash nodded. "Good, because I've been thinking about closure a lot lately. I actually came here to think of how I'd talk to you alone for a bit because with the painting finally down, I'd quit being reminded of it, which meant I might forget, which meant we'd probably never get-"
"Closure." Sunset finished with a smile. "I think I see what you mean. Did you draw that picture of Adagio too, or...?"
He snickered. "No, but it's a great replacement. Maybe I should have drawn you all sleepy and harmless?" Blink. "That sounded a lot less creepy in my head..."
Nearly crimson, Sunset gave a half-hearted smile. "Eh, w-well, doesn't matter now, right? I mean, if anybody needs a nicer light shone on them these days, it's those three." She scratched her head. "Actually, I'm a little surprised the Dazzlings, very pretty girls, don't all at least have boyfriends or something, let alone their own circle of friends. Their whole thing used to be making people like them, you know? But as far as I can tell, it's still just the three of them at lunch every day."
"A lot of people I know still talk about them pretty often, mostly because they keep doing crazy stuff. Less so with Aria, but not a lot of kids think to say the lessons are, in her words, "stupid," "ill-conceived," or "freakin' pointless."" He raised an eyebrow. "Actually, I'm kinda surprised your group hasn't-"
Sunset held up a hand, smiling wryly. "Believe me, I've tried to make that happen, but they made it pretty clear they want to figure it out themselves. That said," she winked, "I think they'll come around eventually."
"Let's hope. You know, there are at least a few guys that say they wanna be the first to ask one of them out, but the popular 'joke' is that friends don't let friends date Dazzlings."
"Seriously. Ask anyone if they think magic was the only reason they liked 'Under Our Spell.'" He scratched the back of his head. "They're good-looking girls, sure, but if everyone thinks it's just part of a trap? Heck, the theories I'm hearing about why Adagio is holding open doors now pretty much says it all."
Something clicked in Sunset's head. "Uh-huh... And, what kind of 'damage control' have you been running for them?"
Surprised, Flash gave her a guilty smile. "Got me. I've just been trying to keep anyone from doing anything stupid, -amazing what you can do with a well-timed 'not cool, man'- like harassing those three or deliberately making them feel unwelcome. Everyone should get a second chance, right?"
She beamed. "I like to think so!"
He chuckled, but the grin faded. "It's mostly because of Sonata and Adagio, but people are still reasonably scared of those three, and I think that's making things harder for them than the mind-control shtick. Everyone worries Sonata will snap and do something insane if she so much as misinterprets sarcasm again, Aria goes around looking like she can't wait to rearrange somebody's face, and Adagio manages to look scary just walking around." He shrugged. "It's kind of a bleak situation for the 'magic of friendship.'"
Sunset sighed. "Their behavior really makes a difference, huh? I asked Adagio to tone it down once, but-" Flash was giggling. "...What?"
"Terrifying smiles or not, Adagio might actually be the easiest one to deal with, just don't play her games." Sunset all but gaped at him, so he tried to elaborate. "You kinda taught me this one; don't give people what they're after and they'll turn to get it elsewhere? It didn't take long to see that she loved to mess with people, so I figured if all she really wants is a reaction, all you have to do is give her a 'boring' one. I mean, sure, not responding to some of the stuff she says might not be easy, but if you act like she's being totally normal, treat every innuendo and double-entendre like a friendly joke, she'll lose interest and go play with someone else." He gave a deadpan look. "Weirdly, nobody seems to catch on that she pretty much leaves me alone now because of this."
"I, I kinda knew, just, I wanted to be friendlier with her, you know? And shutting someone out is a lousy way to make friends."
Flash nodded. "Maybe, but I've tried being nice with her -and don't get me wrong, I intend to keep trying- and she just loses interest in minutes. I've tried the same approach with Aria and never even managed small-talk, and she kinda gives the impression that she wants to be left alone anyway. Sonata is bright and approachable, but I've never been able to talk to her for longer than five minutes before either she gets distracted by something or I can't follow what she's saying anymore. Are you sure those three even want friends?"
Sunset's face was less than confident, but thinking back to that first big talk she had with the Dazzlings, she smiled. "Pretty sure, it's the whole reason they're at school at all now."
He shrugged. "If you say so."
"We talked a little bit longer," concluded Sunset, "but those were the important parts."
"So," surmised Applejack, "he toldja he was the one that made that scary painting, you guys made up lickety-split, then he toldja 'bout a trick fer dealin' with Adagio?"
Pinkie looked at Rainbow. "Speaking of tricks, I'm surprised you didn't try your 'Ha, five bucks!' trick while Fluttershy was-"
"Shh," shh'd Rainbow, whispering so only Pinkie could easily hear, "Fluttershy is the reason I came up with that stupid little trick. Don't ask, but I kinda owe her forty bucks." She dared glance at the person she'd borrowed money from a few too many times since they'd known each other, but it looked like she had drifted off again.
Wow, she thought, Flash has been trying to help the sirens in secret? I wonder if Adagio knows about that. Fluttershy would have to sleep on whether or not to tell her that he was deliberately deflecting her teasing, but maybe it didn't matter anymore?
"Hah," chuckled Applejack, "Ah bet Trixie wishes she'd known how to get ridd'a Adagio, come yesterday, but it was kinda too late by then."
"Oooh, I heard about that," Rarity said with a hint of sympathy, "how Trixie wanted to antagonize the sirens only for it to blow up in her face, so to speak?"
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Kinda her own fault. If she didn't want Adagio to do that, she probably shouldn't have called her out in public after boinking her." There were a few spit-takes. "What?"
Shaking her head, Sunset smiled wryly. "I'd take whatever Adagio says with a pinch of salt, Rainbow, it's doubtful they really slept together. Still, you're probably right in that she brought it on herself by giving Adagio an opening, and a pretty big one at that."
"Speaking of," Rarity replied while thoughtfully drumming a finger on her chin, "didn't we do a little more than claim to remove her unmentionables and flaunt them around for all to see? I recall that they said they weren't here for revenge, but who's to say they don't simply change their minds some day, send Adagio to do the same thing to us?"
"Probably not an issue. I talked to her in third period today and nothing out of the ordinary happened."
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "She still givin' ya the cold shoulder?"
"...A little bit, yea." Sunset shrugged. "When dealing with most people, she's kinda like a bee, I guess; leave her alone and she'll leave you alone. Unless she smells nectar, so to speak." Scratching her head, Sunset tried to think of how to compare Adagio to a whole beehive if provoked without mentioning her outrageous hair. Not even her mind was up to such a task on such short notice.
That night, Fluttershy set her diary down with a contented sigh. The stressful, pent-up feelings from just this time yesterday were all but gone now, peaceful warmth in their place. That said, she'd had surprisingly little she wanted to write today, the details of the kisses being the main focus. She'd noted that the cute-new-animal-at-the-shelter excuse probably wasn't going to keep working, that there wasn't going to be an incredibly adorable animal she could pretend to be completely fascinated by every week and that she'd have to watch herself during the day, but her primary thought was that kissing Adagio was a thing now.
I should probably tell her what I learned about Flash trying to make things easier for her group, along with his evasion tactic.
It made her feel like a bit of a tattle-tale, but she couldn't bear the thought of hurting Adagio by keeping a secret from her. Because Adagio is very sneaky, and finds things out whether you want her to or not. That thought reminded Fluttershy that while she wanted to be open and honest, Adagio most likely had things she didn't want to share, like that 'pressing charges' thing Fluttershy heard Principal Celestia mention. She could understand wanting to keep some things private, a secret relationship, for instance, but Fluttershy herself had nothing to hide. From Adagio, anyway.
...At least I don't think so. Do I? By this point, I'm pretty sure I've told her everything. Well, maybe except for saying I love her out loud.
She'd kind of covered that one up impulsively, but the words had come almost on their own. Was it too soon to say 'I love you'? After just three kisses in a very short span of time? Part of her said it almost sounded like 'Let's get married!' if she wasn't careful. Fluttershy giggled to herself.
Another day, another milestone to strive for, huh? At least I know to let the moment come on its own.
The important thing, she was sure, was a simple question: Would Adagio say it back?
Meanwhile, in the Dazzlings' house, Adagio lay on her heart-shaped bed, gazing into the whirl of colors formed by the patterns she'd painted on her ceiling fan.
Spinny, spinny, spinny... All this motion, but you never go anywhere. Silly fan.
Distraction was going great!
Oh, sea spray.
Well, there was really no need to put the thought out of her head any longer; she was given free reign with Fluttershy. The idea was as exhilarating to her as it was terrifying. She was going to miss toying with random people, certainly, but a lot of them gave boring, mediocre reactions anyway, give or take people like Trixie.
Well, we did technically break up from an imaginary relationship and/or friends-with-benefits situation, so it's poetically fitting. I might need to clear up that that was a joke. More importantly; Fluttershy! So many options... Do I take it slow, build up gradually, or just do whatever I feel like, without thinking, every day? A build up has to lead to something and I don't really have anything in mi-... Rolling over on her stomach to bury her face in the covers, she blushed a deep scarlet. Well, maybe one or two things... But, she would never-! I couldn't just-! I know she said she-! Agh!!
She rolled back and forth from one side of the heart-mattress to the other for a few minutes, rapidly alternating between a slow approach with subtle little tastes and teases until Fluttershy was on the verge of madness and not even her friends had the foggiest clue why, or just throwing inhibition and restraint to the depths and acting on impulse, diving into the epitome of life that was the freedom to do whatever one wanted without hesitation or regret. The second option was clearly more dangerous, but how long did she have with-
The rolling stopped.
No, wait, she specifically asked you for this, remember? The risk of her getting tired of you might not even be a factor anymore.
But even if she doesn't mind anything I do, even if she likes it, what's going to stop her friends, or even mine, from shutting it down if I go too far?
Staring at the whirly-blur of color that was her ceiling fan again, Adagio loosed a long breath.
"Suppose I'll play it by ear, see what happens, and back off the second I'm asked to." She closed her eyes.
About an hour later, she opened them again. "I need to get her a safeword..."