• Published 23rd Jan 2019
  • 2,487 Views, 115 Comments

Pressed for Time - Aragon



Vinyl and Octavia need to hug for eight hours – or the building explodes.

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Chapter One – A Sight to Behold

Vinyl Scratch knew a lot about Destiny, which is why she never really stopped hating it.

This is a story about many things. Both Vinyl and Octavia could tell you—but it changes depending on who you ask. See, the way Vinyl tells it, this is a story about sacrifice, and vanity, and how hard it is to know what’s right. The way Octavia tells it, it’s a story about love, and discovery, and just how great she is as a pony, in general.

Neither of them is completely right. But, then again, neither is completely wrong.

Ultimately, when you really get to it, this is a story about being a hero, and the dark side of courage.


Everything started at Pony Joe’s, a wonderful little Canterlot diner, as long as you didn’t mind grease on the walls and a coffee that made it very clear that the owner would rather you bring your own drinks. Just ask for the donuts—those are good. It was a sunny peaceful afternoon, of the kind that comes right before a terrible storm that has nothing to do with the weather.

It was exactly twenty-four hours before the bomb would go off, and Vinyl Scratch already felt like she was going to explode.

“So you’re telling me,” she said, as she leaned over the table and looked at Bon Bon, sitting in front of her. “That the only way I can fulfill my dreams is to commit high treason and do something illegal.”

Bon Bon was sipping on some horrid coffee. “Uh-huh.”

“Like. Extremely illegal.”

“And they know who you are, so if they catch you, you’re going to jail. Probably for life.” Bon Bon arched an eyebrow. “You think you might survive that?”

Vinyl blinked. You couldn’t see it, she was wearing her shades, but she blinked anyway. “Survive what? Jail?”

“Yeah.”

“Hahah. No. Celestia, I would super die in there, are you kidding me?” Vinyl took a deep breath, and then looked down at the table, ears flat against her head. “Okay, so. Chase my dream, and in exchange I run the risk of ruining my life forever. What an offer.”

“There’s more though, so don’t rush to make a decision yet.” Bon Bon sipped some more coffee. “There’s a catch.”

Pause.

Vinyl took her shades off, so her eyes were out for everypony to see. They were nothing special. “There’s a—there’s a catch,” she said.

“Yes.”

“What do you mean, a catch. Is the fact that I’m probably going to ruin my life counted as a plus or…?”

Bon Bon smirked.

Now, Bon had a hell of a smirk. The kind of that made you think, this mare knows how to rock a tuxedo. This mare enjoys martinis. This mare knows how to make pretty girls cling to her hooves.

But more importantly, it was a smirk that meant danger, and many monsters threatening Equestria had learned this the hard way in the past. It was a smirk that meant, things are getting interesting.

It was a smirk that gave Vinyl chills on sight. And that was absolutely the right reaction.

“Listen to me, Scratch.” Bon Bon put the coffee cup down, and gave her friend a good look. She was dressed as a civilian during this meetup, but she still managed to sound like a government official when she talked like this. “I wouldn’t bring anything like this up if this weren’t a real chance for you. This can be your big shot. If all goes well, you might score yourself a meeting with Record Label.

Vinyl nodded. “You’re absolutely counting me ruining my life as a plus, aren’t you.”

Record Label, Scratch. Record Label.

Record Label. What to say, really.

Record Label was one of those wealthy, important, cohesive ponies. Their name alone could tell you what they did, why they were so rich, and why they were so important. Record Label was the reason why the word ‘monopoly’ had become trendy in Canterlot twenty years ago.

He wasn’t just the best at his job. He was the only one at his job. If you were a musician, getting to Record Label’s good side was like winning the lottery, only the lottery can also break the kneecaps of those who don’t buy a ticket.

Which is why Vinyl hesitated. “…It is kind of a big deal. Gotta give you that,” she said.

“Oh, you gotta give me that and more, Scratch,” Bon said. “Record Label never attends public events, precisely because desperate musicians like you would make his life impossible if he did. This is a one-in-a-million chance that I’m offering you.” She shot Vinyl a wink. “And that is why I’m counting you risking your future as a plus!”

Pause.

“That makes absolutely no sense whatsoev—”

“However,” Bon said, raising a hoof to interrupt Vinyl, “keep in mind that this is ridiculously confidential. Matter of national security, and all that, right? Nopony else knows who’s invited to tomorrow’s party. I think we’re officially expecting some kind of attack or something.”

“Right, right. Of course.” Vinyl nodded. “Of course.” And then she frowned, and took off her shades. “Wait, but you’re allowed to tell me of all ponies?”

“What?” Bon blinked, legitimately surprised. In that moment, she looked like any other mare, rather than like a government worker. “Allowed? Oh, wow, no. Not at all. This is, like, a huge crime I’m committing right now.” She nodded to herself and took a sip off her coffee. “Just being here with you while on duty is, I mean. High treason.” Another sip. “At least.”

“Ah. Well.” Vinyl put her shades on again. They made her face rather hard to read. “Bon, you’re a terrible secret agent, did you know that.”

“Nah, I’m the best.” Bon waved a hoof and winked at Vinyl, and she was brimming with so much confidence she almost made it work. Almost. “That’s why it’s high treason, instead of regular treason, right?”

“Of course.”

“Yeah I’m even talking about it in public? Like...” Bon looked around, waved at some of the regulars that were sitting at neighboring tables, and never lost her smile. “Hoo boy. Equestria is in so much danger right now. We’re really bad at national security, have you ever noticed that?”

“Somehow it always slipped my mind.”

“Fancy that, really.” Bon stopped waving and took some more coffee, then winked at Vinyl again. “So that’s the good part. Now, here’s the catch.”

Vinyl nodded. “Shoot.”

“There’s gonna be a lot of dragons attending that party, too.”

Vinyl had to blink twice before the words made it to her brain. “Wh—” She choked. “What?”

“Dragons,” Bon said. “Like, pretty much all of them? All the ones that fit in the city at least. So, yeah, a lot of dragons.”

“All the ones that fit the—okay. Okay. I mean.” Vinyl had to cough to clear her throat, then flashed her horn and floated Bon Bon’s cup of coffee towards her mouth. She only managed to speak after a long gulp. “Dragons. You mean, the lizards. The ones that breathe fire.” She looked at the cup. “Also, this is terrible.”

“Isn’t it?” Bon said, smiling. “It’s a guilty pleasure.”

“It tastes like dish soap.”

“Tastes like adventure. I like the sense of danger it gives me.” Bon shrugged. “Anyway, yes, I mean those dragons. Big things, scaley, full of murder? The ones that sorta go…?” Bon Bon waved a hoof in the air, put on a scary face. “Raaargh? And then they murder you?”

“Right.”

“Those ones. That kind of dragon.”

Pause.

“Bon.”

“Scratch?”

“What the flying horsef—why would you have dragons there?” Vinyl stared at Bon Bon. She took another gulp of coffee. It made her cringe, but she swallowed. “Why in Equestria would anypony bring dragons to a fancy party? Those things eat ponies for breakfast!”

“Actually, they don’t?” Bon perked up her ears, and swapped the cup of coffee from Vinyl’s grasp. “Eat us for breakfast, I mean. They can survive off gems and fear alone.”

“Right. Right.” Vinyl nodded. “But they still eat ponies.”

“Oh, yeah, definitely. But they don’t do it for the nourishment. It’s purely for the entertainment value.”

“Well! That’s just perfect, then!” Vinyl actually had to stop herself from grabbing the cup of coffee again. It was terrible, she was not lying, but some very unpleasant memories were coming back to her. Drinking dish soap was, if anything, a pretty good distraction, and she needed anything she could get at the moment. “They don’t even need the nutrients, they just do it for the cruelty of it all. Much more understandable.”

“Actually, yeah. You laugh, but that’s good news for us.”

Vinyl flared her nostrils. “Oh, I’m not laughing.” Then she got up and waved at the counter. “Joe! Two more coffees, please!” A glance at Bon. “This is where you explain yourself, by the way.”

Bon Bon gave Vinyl another of her signature smirks. “Knew it. Can’t resist the call, after all, eh?”

“I can resist it any time I want. But I know you wouldn’t talk like this unless you actually had a big thing going. I know you, Bon.” Joe came to the table, carrying two cups of steaming brown water with him, and set them on the table. Vinyl smiled at him. “Thanks.”

Joe didn’t smile back. “You could ask for some donuts, y’know? They’re actually pretty good.”

“Nah, we’re good.”

Joe left grumbling under his breath.

The moment he was out of earshot, Bon Bon grabbed the new cup of coffee, and nodded at Vinyl. “If they ate us because they need to, that would be a sticky situation, sure. But they don’t. They just do it because they seem to genuinely think murder is funny. And that’s great!”

“Every word that comes out of your mouth makes you sound more and more like a sociopath.” She took a sip of the coffee, cringed again. “By all means, go on.”

“If they just do it for the thrill, it means that they can stop doing it if we convince them to. There’s nothing forcing them to eat ponies, see?” Bon Bon took a sip, too, but her face remained perfectly neutral as she swallowed. “Dragons have never really been very into, uh. Friendship? Peace? Really, anything remotely civilized. But it’s hard to blame them—I’m not saying that murdering ponies is good by any means, but friendship has traditionally been the most effective dragonslaying weapon in History.”

“So they’re biased against it, is what you mean?” Vinyl asked.

“Yeah. They’re also genetically predisposed to try to eat any princess they stumble upon, so that’s another nasty habit. Blue blood’s tasty, turns out. But.” Bon Bon put the cup down. “They’re not stupid. They can learn, you can reason with them if they’re willing to listen—and Princess Celestia thinks there’s a chance there, because she’s too powerful to be eaten anyway, right?”

“Seems to me Princess Celestia is being really optimistic here.”

“She’s been in a very good mood ever since Princess Luna returned, leave her be,” Bon said, shrugging. “She thinks we can get them to stop being, you know. Heartless monsters. Maybe we can get them to go ‘Raaaargh’, and then not murder you. That’s what this party is all about.”

Vinyl arched an eyebrow. She was still wearing those shades, mind you, and they covered most of her face—but she arched her eyebrow so much, it became visible behind the glasses. “And you’re telling me the dragons agreed to do this? The same dragons you just told me like to eat ponies to have a giggle?”

“Actually, I don’t think they giggle. They cackle. They’re really good at it too.” Bon Bon shrugged. “And they did, actually. You have to admit, Princess Celestia does have a point.”

“Oh, do they.” Vinyl’s voice was harsh. “Does she. Really now.

“Come on, Scratch. You’re from Ponyville too. You know what I’m talking about.”

This made Vinyl pout, and drink some more coffee in protest. Because, much as it pained her, she knew what Bon was talking about.

Because Bon Bon and Vinyl weren’t just friends, they were neighbors, and they didn’t live in Canterlot. They both came from Ponyville, a little town near the Everfree, a town that Twilight Sparkle had been calling her home for the last few years.

And with Princess Twilight Sparkle came…

“Spike the Dragon,” Vinyl grumbled, taking off her shades so she could rub the space between her eyes. “Right. There’s a precedent of dragons not being monsters, I guess.”

“It’s not just Spike. I mean, sure. He’s the best example we’ve got—but there are more.” Bon drank some more coffee. “There’s a new Dragonlord. Name’s Ember. Good guy. She’s never killed anyone.” Pause. “That we know of.”

“You’re really bad at your job, Bon.”

“I might not be good, but I’m still the best.” Bon gave Vinyl another of her tuxedo winks, the ones that made you realize this mare could sweettalk your mother into burning your house down if she wanted to. “I don’t know how good you are at math, Scratch, but that’s two dragons who understand the concept of not-murder, and counting. We might be onto something here.”

Vinyl liked to think of herself as a civilian nowadays, but she still remembered a couple things from her previous work. So she had to nod here. “They go ‘Raaargh’ but they don’t murder you. That’s our current goal.”

“Yeah. See what I mean? This is not as baseless as it sounds.” Bon tapped the table. “There are high chances of a dragon-pony alliance in the future, and that would be huge for Equestria. We would have a lot to gain.”

“Why. What do we have to gain. What could we possibly get from something like a dragon-pony alli—

“They would stop killing every pony they find, Scratch.”

Pause.

“Shoot.” Vinyl slouched on her seat. “That’s a good point, actually.”

“The only ones I make, girl.”

“But—just. Dragons!” Vinyl rubbed the space between her eyes again. “Dragons at the party. Celestia forbid my life be easy for once. Why is Record Label going to the murder party, again?”

“Because rich ponies are insane?”

“Right, sure, yes. But, like.” Vinyl joined her hooves behind her chin. “Aside from that?”

“Oh? Well, you know. He’s nobility. The party will be a social gathering of sorts. And to be fair?” Bon Bon shrugged. “Greedy, giant figures of power and death—I can see them getting along.”

“Wonderful.”

For a moment, Bon looked at Vinyl, and she didn’t look like a secret agent anymore. The smirk went away, her ears went flat against her head, and she just looked like a good friend, worried for somepony she cared about.

Then she talked, and her voice came out surprisingly sweet. “…Scratch,” she said. “Jokes aside, don’t feel forced to do go there and risk, well. Anything, I guess. You said you didn’t like the idea of going to jail either, right?”

“Bit against it.”

“Right. So that’s also bad.” Bon Bon swallowed. “As rare as it is for Record Label to get out, you don’t… have to do anything. Sneaking into the party is—”

“Oh, please.” Vinyl put her shades on again. They covered most of her face, so it was hard to read her expression. “I’m not an idiot. You’re risking your job right now, all for my sake. The least I can do is return in kind, don’t you think?”

Bon Bon nodded, said nothing.

And then Vinyl lifted her shades with her magic. Just a little, just enough to show off her eyes.

They were shining.

“Trust me,” she said, “I’ll make it out.”

Then the smirk was back, and Bon Bon looked like a sexy secret agent once again, ready to save the world and look dapper in the meantime. “Atta girl,” she said. “Listen, the backdoor to the Castle Garden will be open for ten minutes after eleven. The Royal Guards won’t appear till three minutes past that because there’s been a—” Bon winked “—scheduling error.”

“Wait.” Vinyl’s ears perked up. “Did you actually weaken the Castle’s security when you’re waiting for an attack just so I could get in? Bon, I don’t think that’s—”

“Hey.” Bon frowned. “Don’t insult me. I would never do such a thing.” She waved a hoof in the air. “This is literally just Princess Celestia being terrible at national security, is all.”

“…Ah.”

“Like, that wasn’t an euphemism. There is a scheduling error in the guarding of that backdoor gate. I keep telling you, we as a species are really bad at this whole thing.”

“Right.” Vinyl’s ears perked down. “Well. That’s only slightly more concerning.”

“Also, uh. A bit awkward but…” Bon Bon bit her lower lip. “Daring Do will be at the party. She’s investigating something related to the dragons, and—”

Vinyl shook her head. “Whatever. I’ll avoid her.”

“...Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’ll do that. Thought you would like to know beforehand just in case.”

“I do. Thanks for the warning; I appreciate it.”

“Right.” Bon Bon nodded. “So anyway: backdoor. There will be no Royal Guards. There will be birds around, but they owe me one, so they won’t blow your cover. You’ll see a small brown pathway that the gardeners use—follow it and you’ll make it to the main gazebo. The party will be right there, so just blend in.”

Vinyl nodded, smiling, too. “Right.”

“Place will be full of dragons, sure, but it should be easy enough. You got it all?”

“Uh-huh.” Vinyl nodded again. “Sneak in, bushes, path, gazebo, no birds. Then I just blend in, impress Record Label, and carve myself a future.” Vinyl’s voice was full of bite. She had butterflies in her stomach. The good kind. “Sounds easy enough.”

“So you think you can manage?”

“Oh, definitely. What could possibly go wrong?”


The next day, Vinyl didn’t make it two steps past the backdoor.

“Good morning, mysterious stranger who sneaked into the party without an invite!” Princess Luna said, as she jumped from behind one of the bushes to look at Vinyl with a bright smile on her face. “I am here to tell you that you just committed a crime, and you are probably going to jail!”

There was a tiny pause. Luna’s words echoed across the Garden.

Vinyl stared.

And then Luna offered Vinyl a hoof. “Also, hi! I am Princess Luna. How are you doing. My sister is terrible at security but I am also a Princess here now. We work well as a team. I am charmed to meet you!”

Then her horn flashed, and the backdoor behind Vinyl closed with a loud CLACK!

Vinyl looked at her only escape route, now closed off, and then at Princess Luna. She put on her best smile, and took Luna’s hoof. She gave it a fair shake. “Uh, hi,” she said. “I’m, uh, I’m Vinyl Scratch. Charmed to meet you too.” She swallowed. “So. ‘Probably’ going to jail, you said?”

“Yes! I did say that! And since I know who you are, Vinyl Scratch, it is almost guaranteed that you are going to die in there! It is a very nasty place.”

“Of course. Of course.”


And that’s why, ten minutes before the bomb entered her life, Vinyl Scratch met Octavia Pianissimo.

She did not like what she saw.

Octavia was, from the very beginning, a sight to behold. A show-stopper. She was gray, groomed, and gorgeous. She was sitting like a true lady—pony knees don’t bend that way; Octavia was apparently too elegant to care—and she was sipping tea from a teacup that was just tacky enough to be expensive.

She was, in other words, a purebreed Canterlot elite. That’s why Vinyl didn’t like it: Octavia wasn’t just a noblepony. She was someone whose blood had more gold than iron.

And then Octavia smiled, a huge, cheery smile that didn’t seem to fit such an elegant frame, and chirped: “Thank you! That’s not true? But I’m taking it as a compliment!” She had an exquisite accent, a voice of cinnamon and rosewater. “Plus, it’s true that I am ridiculously aristocratic.”

Vinyl blinked. “Uh,” she said. “Wait, shoot. Did I say all that out—”

“You did say all that out loud, yes!”

The place was Luna’s study. Octavia was sitting by the northernmost corner, on an expensive-looking sofa, by the table. She was sipping tea, of course, and looking right at home amidst the wealth.

Not like it was hard, though. Luna’s study was a room on top of the Castle’s second-highest tower.

There was enough space in that room to house a crowd and still feel empty—but the carpet was soft and fluffy, and the chairs were of old wood. The fire was cracking, the windows were wide open. The walls were cream-colored. There were sofas, there were bookshelves, there were portraits hung around.

There was a dragon standing in the middle of the room.

MU-HAH. HAH. HAH.”

Cackling.

It wasn’t a big dragon. It was rather tiny, in fact—barely taller than a pony—and young to boot. His scales were red, his teeth were sharp, and he was wearing a white, oversized lab coat.

By his side stood Princess Luna.

“WAH, HAH, HAH!”

Also cackling.

This had been going on for several minutes.

“…Hey.” Vinyl sat down on the sofa, too, by Octavia’s side. “Out of curiosity, have you ever looked at something, and thought ‘wow, I’m going to get murdered today’?” She pointed at Princess Luna and the dragon. “Because I look at that, and, you know. Wow, I’m going to get murdered today.”

“Hm.” Octavia glanced at the dragon and princess, still sipping from her cup, frowning slightly. “I don’t think I’m familiar with that feeling” she said. “But thank you for opening the door to your mind like that. It’s a very fascinating outlook!”

“Trust me, the pleasure is mine.” Vinyl let out a frustrated grunt that was probably intended to sound like a sigh, but in practice just sounded like she had just punched herself in the stomach. “Also, I’m assuming here that you would get murdered too. Hence the comment. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh, I don’t! By all means, keep hoping. I didn’t know commoners were so keen on murder, but in a twisted way, it does sound pretty fun!” A smile, the hint of a wink, and Octavia put the cup down and offered Vinyl a hoof. “I’m Oct—”

“Octavia Pianissimo, yeah,” Vinyl interrupted. “Princess Luna mentioned you.” Then, she reached for Octavia’s hoof…

And then she stopped.

There was something peculiar in the way Octavia was holding out her hoof—and it took a moment for Vinyl to see why. It was because Octavia wasn’t expecting Vinyl to shake it. She was expecting her to kiss it.

It was then that Vinyl noticed for the first time—definitely not the last—that she had absolutely no idea how old Octavia was. She didn’t look young, or old, or anything in between. Between her grinning eyes, and the gray coat, and the bowtie, she had a strange air of timelessness. She was something you’d see in an old postcard.

So Vinyl shook her hoof anyway, because sometimes you just need to make a statement. “Whatever,” she said. “Vinyl Scratch.”

Octavia blinked, at looked at their hooves. Squinting a little, she moved her leg up and down in slow motion before letting Vinyl go. “Aaah-hah! I see. Miss Scratch!” And then she smiled. It looked genuine. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Yeah. Say, Miss Pianissimo?”

And then Octavia chuckled, and this time, for sure, it was genuine. “Oh, please,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just ‘Octavia’ is good! ‘Pianissimo’ is the name of—”

“The name of your mother, neat, original. Octavia. Any idea when we can get out of here?” Vinyl shifted in her seat, looking around, trying to get all of the room at once. In the background, Luna and the dragon stopped laughing for a moment, took a deep breath, and continued. “I sort of have plans, and I’m not digging this whole murder thing, to be honest?”

“Well!” Octavia closed her eyes and went for the teacup again. She took a long sip before answering. “I hate to give you bad news, Miss Scratch, but—” She paused and tilted her head to the side slightly. “Say,” she said. “Do you mind if I just call you ‘Vinyl’? It’s is bit tacky to ask that, but I just hate formalities.”

“Octavia.”

“Miss Scratch?”

“Do I look like I care about tacky.” Vinyl’s voice was a monotone. “Like. In the slightest.”

“Hmmm.” Octavia took a sip to buy some time. “Well. I don’t know! Is that how you usually style your mane? Willingly?”

“Yes.”

“Vinyl it is, then!” Octavia said, face lighting up like a starry night. “And you said you had other plans?”

“Uh-huh.”

And Octavia made a face. It was a pretty face—this was Octavia doing it—but not in a good way. “Well, that is… unfortunate?” She looked at Luna and the dragon. Still cackling. “I do not think we’ll be able to leave any time soon. Princess Luna is lovely! I really like her. But, she only dances to her own beat? You know how us aristocrats are.”

Vinyl’s frown furrowed on its own, pretty much. “Ugh. A massive pain.”

“In a way! We do routinely oppress you in all social matters to establish our dominance. It’s a pride thing!” Octavia said. “So I don’t think she is going to respect your schedule. I know I wouldn’t!” Another sip of tea, and then Octavia blinked, and gave Vinyl a little smile. “Um. No offense.”

“No, no, none taken. Nobleponies are evil, I get it.” Vinyl jumped off the sofa with surprising grace, and took off her glasses to give Luna a good look before turning to face Octavia again. “Do you think they’ll mind if I just leave?

Octavia blinked. Her eyelashes fluttered quite beautifully. “I don’t think they’ll let you!”

“Sneaking out, then?”

Octavia cocked her head to the side. She had such an easy smile that you could see it in her even when she was serious. “I wouldn’t recommend that either” she said.

“What. You gonna snitch on me?”

“Oh, Vinyl, I would never! I wouldn’t need to, mind you. But I would never!” Then Octavia pointed at Luna and the dragon. “Apex predator! You don’t make it to the top of the food chain letting ponies sneak by. It is a really big faux pas, I’ve been told!”

“Uh.” Vinyl frowned. She looked at the two cackling figures, and then at Octavia, and then she frowned a bit more. “Um.”

“Yes?”

“Are you pointing at the Princess or at the dragon?”

“At both!”

Pause.

Vinyl let out another grunt and sat down again. “Wow, we’re going to get murdered today.”

And Octavia let out a springwater laugh, and then rested her back on the sofa, scooting slightly closer to Vinyl.

There wasn’t much to talk about after this, and neither mare really tried to strike up any conversation. They mostly just looked at each other and waited, Vinyl significantly more uncomfortable than Octavia, who was honestly having a lot of fun.

Because Vinyl was also a sight to behold, in her own way. She wasn’t the prettiest mare around, but she moved in a strange way to Octavia, Canterlot born and raised, used to nothing but the most graceful of gestures, courtesy of years and years of formal education. In comparison, most commoners moved like absolute brutes—which was great for the nobles; more fuel for the fire—but Vinyl wasn’t like that either.

She didn’t really have grace, but she didn’t seem clumsy either. Vinyl Scratch moved as if she were careful to make no unnecessary sounds at all times, as if she were stronger than she looked.

This alone was interesting enough—but that mane, too! Those glasses on her face! It was definitely a change from the usual Canterlot fashion, and while Octavia didn’t like it, well. It was fun to look at.

So she sat there, and had the time of her life. Three minutes passed in silence.

Luna and the dragon didn’t join them.

“Boy,” Vinyl eventually said, looking at Octavia. “These two are happy to be here.”

“Aren’t they? It’s so cute! I am slightly troubled that Mister Labcoat the dragon might eat me, though, but I’m sure he’ll ask for permission first.” Then Octavia shot Vinyl a side glance. “Say, Vinyl? Why are you here? You don’t really look like you belong in this little gathering. I wouldn’t want you to feel unwelcome, but—”

Vinyl waved a hoof in the air, dismissive. “Trust me, I already feel unwelcome. I feel unwelcome everywhere.” She pointed at her mane. “Natural color, remember?”

“I do! I do remember. That is a horrible color.”

“Thank you, you too. And,” Vinyl added, arching an eyebrow, “I didn’t want to be at this little gathering, actually. Princess Luna kinda dragged me here against my will.”

“Oooh. Oooh, yeah. She does that a lot, doesn’t she?” nodded sagely. “It is always very unfortunate when she does that. Still, it is a surprise to hear that about you!”

“Yeah, I know,” Vinyl said, opening her eyes wide, pressing a hoof against her chest. “I didn’t actually consent to a meeting with two psycho killers! Shocking.”

“It is! It is shocking. I do not think they are psycho killers, though?” Octavia shook her head and frowned at Vinyl—but it wasn’t an angry frown. If anything, it was just cutesy. “In fact, I find them to be very pleasant!”

Vinyl arched an eyebrow at this, and looked at Princess Luna.

Cackling.

Then, she looked at the dragon.

Cackling.

Then at Octavia. “Very pleasant,” Vinyl said. “Do you have any idea why they’re laughing, exactly?”

“Oh, they’re just happy to be here, is all. That’s how those two show their glee.”

Pause.

Vinyl took off her shades again. “They’re just,” she said, “happy to be here. They cackle maniacally whenever they meet. That’s how they show their happiness.”

“That is actually a very accurate description of them, yes!” Octavia said, nodding again, this time with more enthusiasm. “They are terribly maladjusted to modern society. Most ponies think they’re psychopaths. Just like you!”

“…You mean that I believe that, or that I myself am one?”

“I don’t know! I really don’t like your mane, so it’s hard to judge. But you sound very nice, too! So anything goes.”

“Right.” Vinyl sighed. “Thank you, I guess. Were some of your ancestors cousins, by any chance?”

“Chances are! That is how nobility tends to work.” Octavia cocked her head to the side. “How did you know?”

“Something in the way you speak just screams ‘inbreeding’ to me.”

“Hahah. I’m going to take that as a compliment.” And Octavia said this with such cheerful glee that Vinyl couldn’t help but think she was being sarcastic, even if literally nothing in her face or attitude indicated anything of the sorts. “Well, I’m sorry you were dragged here against your will, Vinyl. I did come here because I wanted to, though. So at least that’s that!”

“Sorta figured that last one out by myself, yeah,” Vinyl said. “Odd way to spend the morning.”

“Oh, well. Princess Luna asked me personally, and I couldn’t just say no.” Octavia looked at Vinyl. “She’s an old family friend, you understand.”

Problem with taking your shades to react to something is—you can only do it once. Vinyl just looked at Octavia after this, maybe squinting a little, to give the gesture more of a bite. “Princess Luna,” she said. “Old family friend.”

Octavia showed Vinyl the most brilliant of smiles, a twenty carat grin. Positively wonderful, in the most obnoxious of ways. “Why, yes!”

That Princess Luna.”

“I don’t think there’s any other!”

“I don’t—I thought she was banished for a thousand years?” Vinyl squinted. “She came back, like, three years ago. And she’s an old family friend?”

“Mmm.” A nod. “I think I had already said that I’m… how was it?” Octavia tapped her chin. “Ridiculously aristocratic?”

“Ah.” Vinyl blinked. Her ears went down. “Right. Old blood.”

“The oldest!” Octavia said. “It is very convenient overall.” And she put down her cup, and got off from the sofa. “If you’re in such a hurry, I believe there’s only one sensible thing to do!”

Vinyl thought about it for a second or two.

“Jump off the window?”

“Speak with the dragon!”

“Okay, but what if I just jump off the window. Like.” Vinyl squinted. “What if we try that first.”

“Hahah. We are not going to do that. And Mister Labcoat is perfectly safe!” Octavia shook her head and let out a laugh, and as she trotted towards the dragon, she shot Vinyl a funny look. “I assure you nothing bad is going to happen. Trust me!”

“…You know, due to recent events, I’m pretty sure that’s, like, the worst thing you can ever say in a situation like this? So what if we calm down and consider the window thing a bit harder first—”

Octavia Pianissimo was already walking towards Luna and the dragon.

Princess Luna and the dragon—who looked bigger now, that’s for sure, although the labcoat he was wearing still looked oversized—kept on cackling through it all, seemingly unaware of anypony approaching them.

Octavia got to them, and greeted them with a perfectly symmetrical smile. “Excuse me!” she said. Then, again: “Excuse me! Princess Luna, Mister Labcoat? I am very sorry to interrupt your cackles, but I have a question! What is going on? Also, can we move on with whatever it is that is going on?”

Then, she had the audacity—the audacity—to point at Vinyl.

“That mare is named Vinyl Scratch! She sounds really nice, and also thinks you are…” Octavia frowned, tapped her muzzle with her hoof, lost in thought, and then looked at Vinyl. “What was it again? Psycho killers?”

Vinyl’s eyes were so wide open you could see them behind the shades. “I—”

“Psycho killers, yes! That’s what she said. I’m so good at remembering.” Then Octavia looked at Princess Luna and the dragon again, huge smile on. “So! This would be a great chance to prove her wrong! You can cackle more later if you want to. I might even join!”

Both Luna and the dragon stopped cackling, and glared. At Octavia, at Vinyl, at everything. They both just glared. It was terrifying.

Octavia turned to face Vinyl again, winked at her, and mouthed the words: “You’re welcome.”

Vinyl froze.

Dragons are apex predators. They’re murder made flesh, they’re bloodshed incarnate, they’re what happens when Mother Nature rolls up her sleeves and thinks, okay, now it’s time to get funky.

They’re big without being clumsy, they’re sharp without being brittle, and the only sure way to slay one of them is to make sure you’re poisonous when they eat you. Some say pride is their main flaw, perhaps the only one they have. But, then again—when you’re a dragon, you have a lot to be proud of.

All this to say that, look, when the red dragon moved, Vinyl Scratch kind of saw it coming. She’d been there before. But, she only saw it in the same sense that you can see lightning coming: it’s like a hunch, as if the air felt strange somehow and you could feel it before it even happens.

But even though you know it’s going to come, this doesn’t mean you can react to it. And, most importantly, this doesn’t mean lightning is a thing you can get away from.

So the red dragon moved, and Vinyl saw him coming, and it didn’t matter because he just picked her up off the ground like one picks up a stray toy, and then left her dangling from one of his claws.

Then he spoke. “My apologies,” he said, in a baritone that burned hotter than fire. He was wearing a labcoat and spoke with the intonation of a university professor. “I was just happy to be here. I will cackle no more.

He shot Vinyl a dashing smile.

Pause.

Vinyl immediately started screaming.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—She tried to struggle away from the dragon. No use. She flashed her horn to try to pry his claw open. No use. She went on screaming. “—AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—” Mixed results.

Octavia reacted to all this in the way you’d expect a normal pony to react—shock, surprise, a bit of an empathic whimper—but Princess Luna was honestly too busy being herself to notice anything.

“So was I!” she said, and she was as chipper as a chocolate cookie. “Happy to be here, that is. It is a joyous occasion! But my apologies anyway, Octavia Pianissimo. I have still not mastered cackling, it seems. The timing is complicated.”

It is said that thirty seconds to one minute of pure laughter seem to indicate peak levels of…” The dragon produced a notebook from his breast pocket. “Non-murderous glee. That is why we cackled.”

“—AAAAAAAAAAAA—”

No, no. There is no need to scream. Look.” He showed Vinyl his notebook. “Non-murderous is underlined.

“—AAAAAAAAAAAA—”

“Ah, um. Uh.” Octavia looked around, visibly puzzled—and she had to straighten out her bowtie for luck before she could dare to face the dragon. “Mist—Mister Labcoat?”

The dragon looked at her, still holding Vinyl up. “Yes?

“—AAAAAAAAAAAA—”

“May I ask why are you… doing that?” Octavia pointed at Vinyl. “Because it looks rather ominous. Right, Princess Luna?”

Princess Luna looked, frowning. “Hmmm. Slightly.”

“Right, yes. See? She said it too! I don’t think grabbing Vinyl against her will is an appropriate gesture at all, Mister Labcoat.”

The dragon blinked, and looked at Octavia. Then, at Vinyl—who was desperately pawing at the air. The grip was too strong for her to wiggle properly.

I do believe she’ll escape if I let her go,” the dragon said then. “I prefer to hold her now. Chasing her would be a bother.” Again, looking at the notebook: “There is a seventy-five percent chance that she will try to run away after I have shown my might. Ninety-eight if I intend to devour her.

Pause.

The dragon looked at Luna. “Do I intend to devour her?”

Luna shook her head. “No, that is murder.”

Even if I eat her alive?

“—AAAAAA—WHAT. WHAT WAS THAT. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, EATING ME ALIVE.”

“Yes! Because that is actually worse. They do not enjoy getting chewed. Or…” Here Luna frowned, and cast a side glance at Octavia. “Um. You do not enjoy getting chewed, right?”

Octavia blinked. “Well,” she said, scratching the back of her neck. “I can’t speak for Vinyl, obviously…”

“YES. YES YOU CAN. I DO NOT, IN FACT, LIKE THE IDEA OF BEING CHEWED TO DEATH. THAT IS THE ABSOLUTE OPPOSITE OF HOW I INTENDED TO SPEND MY MORNING.”

“But I do have an inkling.” Octavia didn’t even look at Vinyl, she just kept doing her thing. “A faint intuition. And it tells me that she may not like it? So, just to be sure…”

“Right.” Luna nodded. “Thank you.” She turned to the dragon. “Mister Labcoat?”

“WHY ARE YOU ALL IGNORING ME.”

“They do not like getting eaten alive. It still counts as murder.”

I see. That is good to know.

“WAIT A MINUTE. ARE YOU ALL DOING THIS ON PURPOSE.”

“So there is only a seventy-five percent chance then.” The dragon put the notebook in his breast pocket again, and regarded Octavia and the hysterical Vinyl. “I apologize,” he said. “We dragons aren’t good at this whole peaceful civilization thing. Princess Luna is aiding me in my studies on the art of not killing ponies. Or mawing ponies.

Another pause.

The dragon squinted, and looked at Luna again. “…Or devouring ponies?

“Yes! You are a fast learner.”

“MY THROAT HURTS FROM SCREAMING.”

Yes. Good.” The dragon nodded and lifted Vinyl to eye level. “I do not devour ponies also. There is no need to keep screaming.

“OH.” Vinyl stopped wiggling, and flashed her horn to take off her shades and reveal her eyes. She looked manic, as if her eyes were going to pop out any moment. “OH, NOW YOU’RE TALKING TO ME?”

I am, yes.

AND WHY ON EQUESTRIA WEREN’T YOU TALKING TO ME EARLIER?!

You kept screaming. It was uncomfortable.

“It was kind of annoying,” Princess Luna added, nodding.

“And a little bit rude!” Octavia said. “But I’m sure you meant well. You’re a nice pony!”

Silence.

Vinyl gave up and stopped struggling. She put her shades on again. “I hate you all so much,” she said. “So much.”

Luna cocked her head to the side. “Oh?”

“I believe it’s a commonner thing, Princess,” Octavia said. “She’s being sarcastic!”

“Ooooh.”

And then Octavia winked at Vinyl and mouthed the words “you’re welcome.” Again.

“I am helping Mister Labcoat!” Luna remained completely unaware of any whisper or secret communication between the two mares in front of her. “That is what is happening, Octavia Pianissimo. You see, dragons are not good at the art of not killing, but the new Dragon Lord is fond of peaceful societies, and wants to give friendship a shot. My sister believes it possible, too.” She nodded to herself. “So I am teaching them how it goes. I once, too, felt the urge to murder everypony in Equestria. I relate to their struggle.”

Yes, she relates. She relates very well.” The dragon nodded. “Us dragons solve everything with murder and wanton violence. But there are other ways. There are better ways. And we would like for friendship to stop being so good at slaying us.

“Ah-hah. I see.” Octavia looked around, and found that there was no seat in sight—they were all standing in front of the fireplace—so she just sat on the carpet. She still made it look gracious. “Helping the dragons learn the meaning of friendship! That is a noble task. Probably.” She made herself comfortable. “Don’t you think, Vinyl?”

Vinyl was still being held by the dragon in midair, although her limbs were all limp now, hanging in the wind. “Octavia.”

“Yes?”

“We’re totally getting murdered.”

“Right. Yes.” Octavia looked at Luna. “That’s a bit of a concern, actually! Are we going to get murdered? Because it certainly feels that way.” She pointed. “Especially for Vinyl.”

“Yeah, especially for me.”

“No murder!” Luna said. “That much I can promise at least.”

No murder,” the dragon added. “It is not your destiny to die today.

“Good! Good. That is a relief. Did you hear that, Vinyl?” Octavia looked at her friend, who was still meekly pawing at the air, and still held by a dragon against her will. “We’re just taking part in Mister Labcoat’s lesson of friendship! No murder at all.” She nodded. “Also, Mister Labcoat, her name is Vinyl Scratch. Vinyl, this is Mister Labcoat!”

Charmed.”

But Vinyl didn’t reply.

Something very interesting happened here, and it was perhaps the very first time that Octavia really saw Vinyl Scratch. Saw her for real, at a level that went beyond the mere surface.

And it was a very interesting surface! Vinyl was fit, and she moved in strange ways, and she wore those glasses, and she had that mane! One could get lost in those mannerisms. Octavia certainly had.

But there was much more to Vinyl Scratch, there was a level of complexity cleverly hidden behind those sunglasses. Character is not just in the things that we are, and it’s not the things that we look like. Character is, and has always been, the sum of all the things we do.

And in that moment, after Octavia had brilliantly introduced the dragon and solved every conflict in the room with her insane social skills, Vinyl Scratch just got very, very quiet, and very, very still.

She spoke with fear.

“What did you say?”

Mister Labcoat picked this up, too. “There are better ways to solve conflict?” he said.

“No. Not that. You said it was my destiny not to die today?” Vinyl swallowed, and then cleared her throat with a cough, and then she spoke more normally. “I need to get out of here. I need to get out now!”

But I just promised that I will not do that.”

“Look, no offense, but I’m like seventy-five percent sure that you’re going to burn me alive at some point, and you’ll have no idea why that’s a bad thing.”

Labcoat heard this, frowned, and looked at his notebook. He paged through it a little.

Then he answered: “Seventy-three, actually.”

“Right. Octavia, when you tell my loved ones how I died, tell them that I called it? Because I called it so hard.”

“Will do!”

“No, no, no.” Luna took a step forward here, and something in her made everyone stop and stare. It was something about her presence; it always seemed to fill the room, no matter how empty. She was smiling, and it looked sweet, and motherly, and non-threatening. “I do not think you are going to die yet, Vinyl Scratch. At least not at the hands of Mister Labcoat. We have plans for you!”

“…What?”

“Yes! My sister has been planning this for weeks. And!” Luna pressed a hoof against her chest. “I helped! Which is why I also intend to teach Mister Labcoat that any conflict can be solved in a peaceful manner! No bloodshed. Just dialogue, politeness—”

And,” Labcoat said, “a lot of hugs. Hugs are good for empathy.”

Then he moved again, and he reached for Octavia.

Octavia saw it coming, too, but she couldn’t react either. She was sitting on the carpet, right next to Mister Labcoat—already hard enough to dodge, and this was, lest we forget, a dragon.

Something you might not know unless you’ve encountered a monster yourself is that, unless you go through some severe training, there is no real survival instinct kicking when a dragon reaches for you. Because your instincts are wiser than you, and knows there is no chance for survival.

So you just turn off. Go limp. You paw the air a little bit, meekly, trying to look at least a little bit poisonous. You grab whatever non-lethal surface that comes by, in the hopes of the dragon leaving you there. You go on total autopilot.

Which means that, when Mister Labcoat stood there, one pony in each paw, and then pressed them together, well. They grabbed each other. They hugged each other, because that was the natural thing to do.

Princess Luna knew they were going to do this, so she flashed her horn and slid something between them. A thin, metallic rectangle, made of solid gold.

There was a

Click!

And that’s how Vinyl and Octavia found out about the bomb that would change their lives forever.

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