• 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 Four – Fun to Be Around

It’d been three hours since the bomb had entered their lives, and Vinyl and Octavia were having fun.

“Look,” Vinyl was saying, eyes hidden behind her shades. “I’m not defending the buying and selling of souls to the afterlife, okay? I get your complains. I’m just saying, it isn’t technically evil, when you get to it.”

Octavia was making that face of hers that was pretty but also annoying. “Vinyl.”

“Like, at worst it’s neutral. Completely out of the moral spectrum.”

“That sounds like an interesting argument!” Octavia said. She was still making the face. “It also sounds like you’re trying to fool me. Or maybe fool yourself. But that is an interesting argument!”

Vinyl pouted. “Oh, come on.”

“I am! I am coming on.” Octavia frowned. “And you’re talking about selling souls. To Hell! To literal Hell, Vinyl!”

“Semantics.”

“A place whose only purpose is to torture pony souls for all eternity!”

“Spiritual semantics.”

They were rolling down a massive corridor by the west wing of the Castle, slowly but surely getting closer to the Ballroom, as Twilight Sparkle had asked them to do.

A massive corridor, and this wasn’t an understatement—the thing was wider than Vinyl Scratch’s apartment and at least two or three stories high, a completely useless waste of space that served no other purpose than just being an extremely impressive corridor.

The floor was covered in a red fluffy carpet that made it easy to roll around, however, so that was nice. What wasn’t nice were the giant stained glass windows on the right wall, which didn’t depict any particular scene of the past because, as far as Vinyl was aware, the past wasn’t cubist in nature. They were just odd ugly geometric shapes that tinted sunlight with strange colors and made everything look terrible and gave you a headache.

They rattled loudly every time the Castle shook or something exploded outside. The sounds of war could be heard clearly through them.

Vinyl Scratch didn’t like that corridor at all.

“Really?” They were still rolling around—Octavia was driving, she was the one who knew the Castle by heart—but Octavia still managed to take a look around anyway. “I think it’s quite nice myself! Very modern.”

“Oh, did I say all that out—“

“You did! You did say it out loud.” Octavia then looked at Vinyl again with a frown. “But we were talking about selling souls.”

“Yes, right. Where were we?”

“I was calling you immoral! I make very good points.”

Vinyl nodded. It made hear head hurt even more, but she did it anyway. “Right, look—when you get to it, it’s just purchasing stuff, right? It’s a transaction, not that big a deal. Or, what?” And here Vinyl flashed her horn and lifted her glasses so she could give Octavia both a smirk and a smug look. “Is the literal billionaire going to complain about the ethical connotations of the free market, now?”

“Well!” Octavia lifted her chin in a dignified way. “First of all! That was a good smug look.”

Vinyl wagged her eyebrows. “Thanks.”

“I appreciate the craftsmanship of it. Second of all!” She lifted her chin even more and closed her eyes. “I am ridiculously wealthy indeed, Vinyl, yes—but I am also ridiculously aristocratic! And that one is much more indicative of my personality. I don’t know if I’ve brought it up before?”

“You might have hinted at it,” Vinyl said, putting her glasses on again. “I don’t get why you bring it up now, though. Like, what does that mean in this context?”

“Many things!” Octavia opened her eyes and smiled at Vinyl. “Like how I believe inheritances should never be taxed, and that any rich bourgeoise with no noble blood is a personal offense.” Pause. “It also means I care about my legacy a lot!”

“Ah. Right, and this bothers you because ponies are selling souls to—”

“Selling souls to Hell! Yes!” Octavia pouted. “That’s why it bothers me indeed! Why are you even defending this? I don’t get it.”

Vinyl thought about how to answer this. Eventually, she settled for the truth. “The Secret Service sells souls to Hell a lot as part of their job, to be honest. A friend of mine works in there, so…”

“Oh. Oh!” Octavia blinked. “A friend of yours? Well, that explains it all! You’re personally involved in the situation!” And here, even though they were rolling down that corridor, Octavia took a moment to stop and poke Vinyl’s forehead with her own. How she avoided the horn, Vinyl never knew. “I’m sorry for implying your friend was immoral. I didn’t mean to!”

“No, no, don’t worry, I get it. I didn’t take offense to that at all.”

Octavia beamed. “Good! Because to be honest what you just said just makes this whole thing even more concerning.”

Vinyl nodded. “That the Secret Service does it?”

“Indeed!”

“Yeah, I see your point. That’s a lot of responsibility for a government worker. It’s just really useful, though?” Vinyl shrugged. “You sell a couple souls and things get done for you. Sometimes it’s the only way they can finish a job. You can’t really blame them for that.”

Octavia frowned. “I can’t?”

“…I mean, you can, but—“

“Good! I’m so glad to hear that. I was blaming them already!” Octavia shook her head and then made Vinyl tilt to the side so they could roll around a corner. “But, I don’t get it. If they keep selling souls, then are they really working for the greater good? I don’t think good ponies work with Hell.”

“Yes, but damnation only gets you once you die. And hey, you can always sell souls to a slightly stronger demon so he frees the ones you sold to the old one, right? As long as you make sure everypony’s got their soul back before they die, you can keep the ball rolling. Especially if you’re good at haggling.”

“Interesting!” Octavia said. “Every single thing you said just made this even more disturbing! I didn’t know the souls were sold to demons.”

“They are.”

“How quaint! I’m absolutely terrified. How do you even sell a soul in the first place?”

“Well, if I remember it right, first you drink the blood of an innocent—”

“Ah!”

And they stopped rolling.

“What?” It took Vinyl a couple moments to get her thoughts back in track, because she’d kind of gotten into the conversation. Now that they had stopped, the weird lights caused by those stupid stained windows—there was a particularly ugly one by their right now—she noticed that her headache was really bad, actually. So she blinked hard and looked around. “What is going on? Why did we sto—ah.”

And she saw it.

“Stairs?” Vinyl asked.

“Stairs,” Octavia answered.

Stairs.

Around a hundred steps, give or take. Really steep, really stony, and covered with the same red cushy carpet that covered the floor. It failed to make the steps look less sharp and dangerous, though—especially when you were laying right next to them, instead of looking at them from standing height.

This wasn’t as weird as it sounds. One must always remember that Canterlot Castle is a place with extremely high ceilings, to give it that regal decadent air that makes it such a work of art. Stairs were, then, both a necessity and stupidly dangerous if you were to fall down them.

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Vinyl said, letting out a low whistle as she checked the stairs. “This is, what, three stories worth of stairs all in one go?”

“Yes!” Octavia said. “Three stories exactly, in fact. They go all the way up!”

“How does that make any sense whatsoever though.”

“It’s faster this way! You can always climb down if you want to go to the second floor anyway.” Octavia then flattened her ears and looked at Vinyl, biting her lip. “That said, these stairs are rather steep, and we’re laying down. I am so sorry, Vinyl. I completely forgot about it! I was too distracted by almost dying.”

Vinyl was already opening her mouth to make a remark—and then she closed. “Ah,” she said instead. “True. Today’s been your first time almost dying, hasn’t it?”

“It has!”

“Yeah okay no reason to be ashamed then. Happens to everypony. By the fourth time you think you’re going to get murdered it gets easier, so look up to that.”

“I will!”

“Neat.” Vinyl nodded, took off her glasses, and looked at the stairs again. The headache was killing her. “From your reaction I’m taking this is the way to go?”

“It is! I am so sorry. If we want to go to the Ballroom, we need to climb these stairs.” Octavia nodded at them, and then at the corridor they had just rolled down from. “We could always turn left at the intersection! But then we’d end up at the West Library. And we would probably die!” Octavia pursed her lips. “And I’m not at my fourth time yet.”

“At this rate you will be before the sun goes down,” Vinyl mused. Then she looked where Octavia was glancing. “Why are we going to die if we go to the West Library, again?”

“Books are highly flammable!”

In the distance, something exploded. They could hear a monster screeching so hard the stained windows cracked slightly.

And Vinyl nodded. “Good point.”

“Thank you! It is a good point.”

Boy, we’re gonna get murdered today. Maybe this is Destiny trying to get back to me.” Vinyl sighed. Octavia was on top of her at the moment, so Vinyl rolled around until their positions were reversed and she could look at the stairs again. “Say,” she said, “how come the Ballroom is on the second floor? Shouldn’t it be down here?”

“Um. Not really!” Octavia said. She was looking at Vinyl with a bit of a strange face—call it concern, but maybe a bit less intense—which is why it had taken her a bit to reply. “The first floor has the Throne Room! And you can only have one massively oversized room per floor. Otherwise there’s no balance to the building!”

“Ah.” Vinyl clicked her tongue. “The Ballroom is immense too, of course.”

“Massively oversized, yes.”

“Any reason for that?”

“Practical? None! It even makes dancing more difficult, actually.”

“Charming.” Vinyl sighed again, and then flinched when her head throbbed. She grunted, took off her glasses, and rubbed one eye with a hoof while hugging Octavia with the other. “Ugh, this light is killing me. Doesn’t your head hurt?”

“Not really!” Octavia said. “Yours?”

“A lot.”

“All that brain damage from earlier?”

“Probably.”

“I see,” Octavia said. “You should probably go see a doctor!”

Which was an absolutely reasonable thing to say, so Vinyl immediately grinned and said: “Naaah. No need to.” Then she swallowed, frowned, and focused on her horn. It started to glow. “We unicorns have this old party trick, see? I just build up some magic, and then I shake my head real hard…”

Vinyl was on top. Octavia was at the bottom.

Octavia had a really long mane. Elegant when standing up, sure, but this also meant that at any given moment during the hug, there was hair everywhere. Which to this point had never been a concern, but then Vinyl shook her head. She shook it really hard.

And she accidentally whipped some of Octavia’s hair away with her muzzle as she did so.

What she felt when doing that, she wouldn’t forget it soon. Octavia’s mane smelled like olive oil, like dirt and sweat, but also like cinnamon, and rosewater, and old wood. It smelled like Octavia.

It also smelled really, really strongly, of pepper.

And it went straight into Vinyl’s nose, who then did the one thing no unicorn should ever do when focusing a lot of magic in her horn:

She sneezed.

FLASH!


Explosions are a bit like music. You can read about them, you can study them, you can understand everything about them—but you need to experience it to get it.

The shockwave that sent Vinyl and Octavia flying—at speeds that until then only Rainbow Dash had achieved, since Rainbow Dash lacked the mental capacity to understand the abstract concept of death—came after a burst of flames and a booming sound so loud that they didn’t hear it as much as they felt it rattle inside their ear canal and make their brains dance the mamba.

And when the smoke cleared and the dust set, they found themselves hugging each other, trembling, and hanging from the banister by their literal teeth, halfway up the stairs that led to the Ballroom.

Vinyl’s head hurt too much to speak at first, so Octavia was the one who talked.

“Um.” She didn’t stop biting the banister while she said this, but her words came out perfectly clear—showing the skill of a race that’s been forced to manipulate stuff and talk at the same time for millennia, and yet still has not evolved thumbs. “Vinyl?”

Vinyl’s sunglasses had flown away during the explosion, so it was perfectly visible just how wide her eyes were when she looked at Octavia. “Yes?”

“What just happened?”

“Uh. I think I sneezed. I might have released all the magic at once by accid—”

“We almost died, didn’t we?”

“We super just almost died. Shock not settling in you yet?”

“Not really!”

“Yeah, that’s the fourth time almost dying for ya.” Vinyl gulped, and looked down. They were hanging from the banister—it was rather high—but their back legs almost touched the stairs under then. “Okay. On three, we let go of the banister, and for the love of Celestia try not to roll down the stairs after that?”

“That sounds both difficult and painful. I’m in!” Octavia smiled around the bannister. “One, two, three?”

They let go.

The stairs that led to the Ballroom were, again, extremely steep, and three stories high. Rolling down looked like a recipe for disaster—the kind where breaking every bone is your best case scenario—and just landing on them from a height of like three feet was enough to hurt Vinyl’s back pretty badly.

Which actually meant that the only reason they had survived the explosion had been because they had bitten the banister on instinct and stopped their fall. If they had actually landed on the stairs directly, that would have been it.

“And the bomb didn’t explode either!” Octavia tried to look between her chest and Vinyl’s, to check the metallic rectangle held between them, but she was unable to do so because that is not how anatomy works. Vinyl was on top, Octavia was underneath, so she had to look up. “How quaint.”

Vinyl made a face and looked around. They were laying on one of the steps now, a hundred-and-something steps up from the first floor, ninety-something down from the second floor. She groaned. “Bit too much for dumb luck if you ask me.”

“Even more quaint, then!”

“No.” Vinyl frowned. As she had no shades on whatsoever, Octavia could see that she looked both angry and kind of scared—her left eye winced shut, and despite the frown, her eyes were wide, showing a lot of white. “This more than quaint. This is terrible.” She gulped, and her breathing quickened. “Destiny is—HNNNG.”

Octavia stopped nuzzling her. “What? Sorry, I was distracted. You were saying?”

“Would you stop doing that already?!”

“Probably not!” Octavia did that thing where she smiled and closed her eyes at the same time and looked like an angel. “But don’t let me interrupt you! I believe you were saying everything is terrible and we’re going to die?”

“No.” Vinyl tried to spit the word, but to be completely honest she couldn’t quite pull it off. As annoying it was, the nuzzling—which had made her go stiff, because what is life without absolutely exaggerated reactions to mundane gestures, really—had calmed her down a little. Hard to have a panic attack when you’re busy getting the smell of cinnamon and rosewater away from your nose. “I fear we’re not going to die.”

Octavia beamed. “I see!”

Pause.

“Also, it just registered you said you fear that we’re not dying! Which somehow only makes this situation even more terrifying.” Octavia couldn’t quite look around because she was under Vinyl, but she still tried. She looked downstairs, and let out a low whistle. “Oooh, we can’t roll down these. Not enough brain damage to think that’s a good idea.”

This made Vinyl raise both eyebrows. “Oh, you too, now?”

“I just survived an explosion! I have a horrible concussion.” Octavia tapped her forehead against Vinyl’s shoulder. “Knock knock! I have no idea how I’m still conscious.”

“Welcome to the authentic Vinyl Scratch experience, then! And I am so sorry.”

“Me too!”

Vinyl had to smile. “If we make it through this, tomorrow is going to be the worst day of our lives.”

“I absolutely believe you. We should be roommates at the hospital! It will be fun!” Octavia smiled back. “So what are you afraid of?”

And immediately, Vinyl’s expression clouded. Not too much; she had almost had a small crisis just thirty seconds ago or so, and she rather not do that again. So, she made a point to stay detached and avoid thinking too hard about it. “Well,” she said. “Just, think about it. The bomb not going off? Okay, we hugged tighter when I sneezed—”

“You exploded.”

“Let’s compromise and say I did both.” Vinyl rubbed Octavia’s back. “So we’re hugging and didn’t let go, okay. That makes sense. But, biting the banister? As we fall? Miraculously surviving by an inch of our lives? Do I even need to tell you what’s going on?”

Octavia thought about this. She looked at the banister, and the teeth marks they had left on it.

Funny thing, though—the banister was old wood, grey oak. Hard as a rock. Slapping it too hard could very well break your hoof, if Octavia remembered correctly, and it was still full of bite marks.

And their teeth didn’t hurt at all.

“Ah-hah.” Octavia looked at the banister, then at Vinyl, then at the banister. “Ah-hah-hah.” Back at Vinyl. “I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking at! Do you mind if I just say it’s quaint and then you tell me what’s going on?”

Vinyl nodded. “Sure.”

“But act as if you thought I knew what we’re talking about? I am very prideful about this kind of thing.”

“I’ve noticed! Is it, like, a noblepony thing or…?”

“Kind of!” Octavia beamed, showing all her teeth. It was quite nice. “Mostly it’s a me thing. Just, assume at all times that I already know everything you want me to know? But also tell me because I probably won’t.”

“Okay! Okay, we’re doing honesty now, I can live with that.” Vinyl looked at Octavia’s forehead and felt a smile tug at her mouth. “Concussion not treating you well?”

Octavia winked at her. “It is not! I am in terrible pain right now.”

“Yeah, happens to the best of us, nothing to be ashamed of.” Vinyl nodded, and looked at the banister. “So, anyway, yeah. That banister. We bit it just in time to avoid hitting the staircase, and also somehow the whiplash didn’t immediately break our spines.”

And Octavia looked at the banister again and put on a shocked, yet elegant expression. The face of a mare who knows what’s going on, but still lets her companion tell her in detail, probably for the companion’s sake. “My,” she said, voice rich with Canterlot accent. “How quaint.”

“Which should not be possible, right? Physically.” And Vinyl’s expression clouded, but only a little. She was resting her head on Octavia’s shoulder still, and she was not looking at the banister anymore. “But I guess Destiny doesn’t really play by the rules most of the time. You don’t have to, when you’re the one who made the game.”

Octavia paid close attention to Vinyl here, but her breath didn’t quicken and she didn’t seem to tremble at all. Octavia relaxed.

And then nuzzled Vinyl anyway, twisting her neck a little so she could reach her cheek.

“HNNG!”

“So!” Octavia went back to a normal position. “Destiny!”

Why do you keep doing that!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Octavia kept on hugging Vinyl with one hoof and used the other to pat her on the head. “Knock knock,” she said as she did it. “So! This is related to Destiny?”

“…Yes. It wanted us to be here, and so here we are. Who knows what’s going to happen now?” Vinyl snorted. “We’re the Chosen Ones again; I guess meeting with Twilight did get us involved in the whole ‘saving the world’ thing after all. Might as well just call her so she can get us out of here and go straight for Princess Celestia, because—”

“Hmm. Hmm!” Octavia hummed at such volume she managed to cut Vinyl’s words in half. When she saw that Vinyl was looking at her, then, Octavia made a small pout. “My back hurts a lot.”

Vinyl blinked. “Uh. Sorry, what?”

“My back!” Octavia said, looking down at her. “My head is agony at the moment, so I didn’t notice it at first. But I think I might have dislocated something! Probably.”

“I hope not.” Vinyl frowned. “Dislocated somethings aren’t a joke.” Then she looked at herself—she was, after all, on top—and then squinted at Octavia. “…That was the fall that hurt your back, right?”

“Sure!”

“Because, like, I’m not that heavy myself.”

And Octavia smiled at Vinyl. “You’re not! You’re, in fact, quite light. I am just very sensitive down there at the moment!”

“Uh.”

“You’ve been very rough, see.”

“Right. You’re talking about your back, right.”

“Of course! Absolutely.” Octavia nodded. “But you’re not heavy at all! Just like me! We’re both very slender, how wonderful.” She patted Vinyl’s back, rubbed it a little to check it out. “You’re not particularly soft, either! As I said, very toned.”

“I work out.”

“It shows! Good for you.”

“Right.”

Pause.

“You know, you can stop rubbing, like. Whenever. Feel free to.”

“I will! I will feel free to. Eventually. Anyway!” Octavia looked at Vinyl while her front hooves kept checking Vinyl’s back, because—and it’s interesting how she hadn’t really paid attention to this earlier, but then again, they had been rather busy—it was a muscular back. “Vinyl?”

Vinyl endured the rubbing with a rather stony expression. “Octavia.”

“How come Destiny got us if we’ve been refusing the call all this time?”

The rubbing never stopped at any moment whatsoever. Vinyl kept making sure not to make any weird face while talking, though it was hard to concentrate like this. “Uh.” She swallowed, took a small breath. “I mean—Destiny’s kind of sneaky like that. Just because you refuse the call doesn’t mean the call won’t find you. I told you, meeting with Twilight probably… She did say she couldn’t stay with us because we’d get involved, remember?”

“Hmm.” Then Octavia blinked. “Wait. Is the rubbing making you uncomfortable?”

Uuuuuuh—”

“Because if it is, I can go back to nuzzling!”

“—Yeah, okay you know what just keep with the…” Pause. Blink. Vinyl felt a little bit of warmth around her overall face. “Octavia. Are. Are you lowering your hooves right now?”

“If you want me to!” Octavia said. “Do you want me to?”

Boy does that feel like a loaded question.”

“Well.” Octavia shrugged, and her face was still that of a mare who knows exactly what’s going on. “I suppose your gentle rubbing of my lower back really helped me relax earlier! So I’m just returning the favour.” Octavia reached. “Now let me gently lift your tail and—”

“Go back to nuzzling.”

“—And I’m back to nuzzling!” Octavia gave Vinyl another wink and stopped moving her hooves. “I just wanted to make you comfortable!”

“What an interesting way of doing that,” Vinyl muttered, trying to swallow down her blush. It didn’t really work. “I appreciate it, mind you, but… Why are you doing all this, again?”

“Because I think you need to be comfortable!”

“Uh-huh.” Vinyl nodded. “That explains nothing.”

“I want to ask you a question! And I think you need to be relaxed when I ask it, just in case. You’re pretty sensitive today, too.” Octavia said this with the kind of voice one uses to announce they’re going to the supermarket, do you want something. “And this one is loaded!”

Vinyl nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“The one about me lowering my hooves was also loaded, by the way.”

“I know.”

“I was trying to do a thing!

“I’m aware.” Vinyl arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to ask your question now, or…?”

“I am! I absolutely am.” Octavia patted Vinyl’s head again. “Say. You do know a lot about explosives! And Destiny. And saving the world. Which is a bit strange?”

Vinyl felt her pulse quicken. Octavia felt it, too—such is the power of a hug sometimes. “Uh. Well—”

“And you said it was because you live in Ponyville, and you’re used to saving the world. That makes sense!” Octavia nodded to herself. “But I have also noticed you react in a very particular way when talking about Destiny? And I just realized, I don’t really know anything about you!”

“We’ve known each other for like, not even four hours. We get along, but it’s not like—”

“Vinyl Scratch.” Octavia was absolutely ignoring everything Vinyl said. She even spoke louder than necessary to drown her words. “Who are you?”

Pause.

Vinyl bit her lip. “Uh—”

“Or what are you, rather. Aside from a pony! And a musician.” Octavia looked at Vinyl’s mane. “And tacky. Say, how come the olive oil did not heal your mane in the slightest? It’s usually wonderful for taking care of hair that’s been damaged by dye.”

Vinyl blinked. “Uh.” She looked up at her own mane, and moved her tail side to side. “I… don’t dye it?”

“What? What.”

“This is my natural color, Octavia.”

In the distance, something exploded. War went on outside the Castle.

The staircase shook slightly.

Then suddenly Octavia squeezed Vinyl so hard that Vinyl felt her ribs make a very particular noise, and lost the ability to breathe. “Dear Celestia,” Octavia whispered, and the passion in those two words would have set an entire forest on fire. “I am so sorry to hear this, Vinyl.

“You know.” Vinyl was having trouble breathing. She quickly patted Octavia’s back, but Octavia didn’t let go. “That is actually really insulting.

“I know, and I am so sorry you have to be this way. Nopony deserves that.” Octavia stopped squeezing and then looked straight into Vinyl’s eyes. And Vinyl wasn’t wearing any shades anymore—so she received the full Octavia beam without any protection. “But seriously, what are you? I know nothing of you! And I don’t believe my parents would approve.”

Vinyl could breathe now, and she celebrated this by coughing a lot and feeling terrible. “Agh. Your what now?” She grimaced. “Your parents? Why do your parents need to approve of me, again?”

“Well, we have been hugging for the last four hours. I despise formalities, but even I like to show some decorum!”

Vinyl looked away, still short of breath. “I—”

“Ah, and remember.” Octavia was chipper, but her words had a little more weight than usual now. “We’re being honest now! You said that yourself, they’re your words, they’re legally binding.”

“They super are not.”

“They are! I’m an aristocrat, I know all about unfair contracts, social or not.” Octavia arched an eyebrow and stared at Vinyl. “So?”

So.

Many things went through Vinyl’s mind at the moment. Her first instinct was to either lie or tell a half-truth—it was the easy way out and it would probably suffice.

But, and she discovered this without much surprise, she didn’t really want to do that. She had already revealed enough State secrets to Octavia already, so this was somewhat justified—but there was more to it.

All in all, the truth was: when Vinyl had seen Octavia for the first time, she had not liked what she’d seen. But once they’d started talking, Vinyl had discovered she kind of liked this mare. She was fun to be around. She was cool to talk to.

They had been hugging each other for three hours and a half. Not holding each other. Hugging each other.

And hugs are not to be taken lightly.

So Vinyl Scratch said the truth.

“So,” she said. “I kind of lied to you earlier, sorry.” She did not look at Octavia when saying this. She just rested her head on Octavia’s shoulder. “You were right.”

Octavia blinked. “Beg your pardon?”

“Then beg. Remember when I lost my shades in the dungeons? And you called them sunglasses?” Vinyl nodded. “Yeah. They are sunglasses. They aren’t shades actually.”

Pause.

Octavia squinted. “Is… Is that supposed to be ominous?”

“It super is.”

“I have no idea why that’s supposed to be ominous.”

Vinyl nodded. Then she arched an eyebrow. “Want me to just pretend that you know while I tell you anyway?”

Octavia smiled with relief. “Thank you very much!”

“Right.” Vinyl kept on talking with the same tone, the one that’s used to say, I am your father, or the like. “Okay so, as you already know, I made, like, a big deal out of it? The whole calling them ‘shades’ and not ‘sunglasses’?”

“I do! I do remember it.” Octavia nodded. “You were being silly and calling me an inbred. But in a good way!”

“You know what, we’ve talked so much about my mane that I think you’ve earned that. So, yeah, I was calling you an inbred. But!” Vinyl shot Octavia a glance, finally. “Remember why I made a big deal out of it?”

“I do! I think it was because you said sunglasses are only for members of the—”

Octavia gasped.

An explosion in the distance.

Vinyl snuggled against her shoulder a bit harder.

“Oh.” Octavia said, her voice soft. “Right. I suppose that explains some things.”

“Yeah.” Vinyl peeked up, just for a moment, just to make eye contact as she spoke before going back to snuggling again. “Up until two years ago, I was a member of the Equestrian Secret Service.”


“Okay!” Several minutes had passed, but Vinyl and Octavia hadn’t moved much, out of fear of breaking every bone in their bodies if they rolled down the stairs. However, Vinyl had relaxed considerably; now she wasn’t hugging Octavia as much as she was just laying on top of her, head snuggled against Octavia’s shoulder. “Okay. So you’re a secret agent.”

“Ex-secret agent. I dropped off the Service.”

“Right!”

“Also, I can call Twilight any time. Like, we don’t have to stay here.” Vinyl didn’t bother unsnuggling from Octavia, but she did move her head a little to poke her shoulder with her horn. “Just, shoot some fireworks with her cutie mark or something and I’m sure she’ll come here.”

“Any moment now! Any moment now.” Octavia nodded, looking up rather than at Vinyl, but patting her head nonetheless as she talked. “I need a little bit of time to process this, right? Concussion and all.”

“Oh, yeah, true.”

“It is true! And I am so glad you understand this point. I knew your brain damage would prove itself useful someday.” Octavia too a deep breath, and patted Vinyl’s head again. “So, you were a Secret Agent!”

“I was.”

“And that’s why you know about explosives and Destiny. I see!” Octavia squinted, still looking up. “Also why you know about selling souls, I’m guessing? Because you’ve sold some yourself?”

Vinyl was at such a state of giving up that she just shrugged and snuggled harder. “You got it, girl,” she said. “All cards on the table, who cares anyway. I’ve sold so many souls to Hell, Octavia.”

“Wonderful!” Octavia’s voice was sweet like a cherry and fresh like peppermint ice-cream. “Wonderful. That is absolutely horrifying!”

“Hey, we’re technically not damning anypony unless we mess up, so—”

“I’m an aristocrat and you’re an ex-government worker, Vinyl. Take it as a compliment.”

“Right, yes. Right.” Vinyl nodded, frowning a little. “Good point. So anyway, yeah! Full disclosure here. Please don’t tell the princesses I’ve told you any of this, because I will not survive jail.”

“You will not!” Octavia chirped. “I’ve heard it’s a really nasty place.”

“Although when you get to it, I mean.” Vinyl was still frowning, and her voice got a little bit more confident. “It’s kind of their fault? They’re the ones who forgot the memory-wiping protocols.”

Octavia nodded. “Exactly! They’re the on—the memory-what?”

“So like, if they let an ex-secret agent out with tons of sensitive information, it’s kind of their fault? How am I not going to share this. I’ve already demonstrated I’m not cut out to be a secret agent, why would I be cut to protect the safety of—”

“Vinyl? Vinyl.” Octavia stopped looking at the ceiling and then looked down at Vinyl, snuggled against her shoulder. “Did you just talk about memory wiping?”

Vinyl arched an eyebrow and looked at Octavia, too. This meant she wasn't snuggling against anything anymore, but she still looked rather relaxed. “Yeah.”

“I see!”

“Horrifying also, huh.”

“Absolutely! I’m so glad you catch up to my train of thought this fast, it’s really reassuring. So! The government is able to wipe memories out. That sounds morally reprehensible!”

Vinyl shrugged. “Octavia, why do you think it’s called Secret.”

“I was under the impression they tried to avoid being seen!”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean. You’ve seen how good we are on average at trying to protect our homeland.” Vinyl made a broad gesture with her hoof. “Like, as a species.”

Just as Vinyl said that, a monster roared in the background, and the stained windows by their right rattled.

“I see! I suppose that is an explanation.” Octavia stopped hugging Vinyl for a moment to wipe the sweat from her forehead. “For a moment, I thought we were actually dealing with a scary situation! But ineptitude? I can live with that!” She gave Vinyl a reassuring squeeze. “How do you even wipe the memories anyway?”

Vinyl bit her lip. “You’re not gonna like it.”

Octavia cocked her head to the side. “Oh? How come?”

Pause.

“Well, see.” Vinyl put on a professional tone, like that of a schoolteacher explaining the birds and the bees. “First, you drink the blood of an innocent, and then—”

No!

“Yeah.”

“You sell the soul of a pony to wipe their memories out? That’s almost as bad as literally everything else that’s been said in this conversation so far!” Octavia’s eyes went wide. “And that’s a bold claim to make!”

“Hey, if it helps, you don’t have to sell the soul of the pony whose memory you’re wiping.”

“Oh! That does help—”

“Usually you sell the soul of a completely unrelated, yet perfectly innocent pony instead.”

“—Never mind! Never mind. That does not help, and I am probably going to have nightmares now. At least you dropped out! That’s good. That’s really good!”

“If it helps? You probably won’t have any nightmares!” Vinyl snuggled against Octavia’s shoulder again. She was so relaxed even her ears went flat against her head, and her tail was waggling slightly. “I don’t think you’ll have enough energy left to dream by the time you hit the bed. Concussion at all.” Vinyl gently tapped Octavia’s shoulder with the side of her head. “Knock, knock.”

“Oh, true! I’ve got a debilitating injury. I forgot about that!” Octavia snuggled Vinyl back, curling up as much as she could without letting the bomb go off. “Honestly, at this point that’s almost good news. I can probably rationalize this as me hallucinating the whole thing!”

“And that’s your better option here?”

“It’s either that or acknowledging that I live in a dystopia and I’ve never noticed!” Octavia said. “Admittedly, I’m from the higher social strata, so it probably won’t affect me? But I like to pretend I have morals!”

Vinyl blinked, and her ears perked up. “You do?”

“Sometimes!”

“That’s a new one.”

“I know! I like to avoid being overly predictable. So!” And here she patted Vinyl’s head again, until Vinyl gave up and looked at her in the air. “Why did you drop out of the Secret Service? Please say it was moral qualms.”

“Kinda more like self-preservation.”

“Ooh. How quaint.”

“It was… It’s a bit of a silly story.” Vinyl took a deep breath, and wiggled until she was face to face with Octavia, rather than face-to-shoulder. “I was good at being a secret agent. I did save the world a couple times, I was—not the best? That’s Bon Bon. But I was good.”

“I see!” Octavia smiled. “That’s good to hear. I’m so proud of you! Of course, given the context, I also think that is literally terrible and kind of monstrous.”

“Gotcha.”

“But at a personal level? I’m really happy for you!”

“You’re such a great acquaintance.” Vinyl backed up the sass with some eyebrow-arching of the finest quality, but to be honest, a bit of a smile made it to her face. So she kinda looked like an idiot, when saying all this. “But, yeah, I was… miserable.” She closed her eyes. “Let’s leave it at that.”

Octavia’s ears perked up, and she watched Vinyl carefully. “Right.”

“So I… well, it was actually Pinkie Pie who made me realize I had to get out of there. I didn’t even know that was an option before that. Like, I like music,” she nodded towards her flank and rose her back leg a little, so Octavia could see her cutie mark, “but Destiny wants me to be a secret agent. Just like how Rarity is a world hero but also a fashionista?”

“I’m a Pianissimo! I get how that works.”

“Hmm-hm. Anyway.” Vinyl lowered her leg. “I think Pinkie Pie didn’t even know I was a secret agent? But, well, you know her already I guess. You can never know what she’s aware of, because she knows everything, but also she’s kind of an idiot?”

“She is! She is absolutely that.” Octavia took a moment, and then her ears perked up. “But we love her anyway!”

“Oh, totally.”

“Wonderful mare. So, what did she say?”

“That I didn’t have to be unhappy. That was it.” Vinyl sighed. “That was literally it. I guess it showed in my face? I—I don’t know, it sounds silly.”

“It does! But that doesn’t mean it is silly.” Octavia kept squeezing Vinyl. “So don’t worry.”

“Ah… Well. I guess there’s more to the story.” She swallowed, and then thought for a little, and then her breath started quickening. Not a lot, but definitely a bit. “I—look, saving the world is not exactly a laughing matter. You’re only adjacent to Destiny trying to catch me, and you’re already, what? Strapped to a bomb, chased by monsters, brain damaged, horrified by the bleakness of the reality you inhabit and of which you were unaware until today?”

“And I also know Hell exists!” Octavia said. “It’s been quite the existential morning!”

Yeah. I told you that I’ve saved the world enough times to get tired of it, but that’s not really it.” Vinyl’s eyes were pressed shut. Her ears were flat against her head. Her breath quickened even harder. “I’ve—I’ve seen a lot of things, Octavia. Ponies like Twilight, or Daring Do, they thrive on that, but I can’t. I—HNNNG.”

“See? I’m back to nuzzling!” Octavia stopped nuzzling Vinyl and gave her a cheery grin. “I am not rubbing anything inappropriate! I’m so considerate.”

Vinyl was still from the nuzzle, but she was glaring at Octavia. “You’re doing it on purpose, aren’t you?!” Her eyes looked normal, though, and panic-free. “Like, this is conscious on your part!”

“It is! It absolutely is.” Octavia squinted. “It is honestly slightly worrying that it’s taken you four hours to notice? I’ve been doing this for a while.”

“But why?!

“You look like you need it! It’s also fun.” Octavia nuzzled Vinyl again, and Vinyl stiffened a second time. Octavia laughed, a springwater laugh that smelled like rose petals. Maybe more like a giggle, kinda. “See? It is so predictable!”

“HNNG.”

“And it also means you stop talking, which means I get to talk more! It is literally an improvement over any possible situation we find ourselves in. I’m very resourceful!” Octavia then stopped squeezing Vinyl so tightly and just patted her back a little. “Do you really need to tell me what you went through?”

Vinyl winced a little and tried to get her mind back in track. “Ah-huh.” She blinked, shook her head. “What?”

“Details about your harrowing, obviously traumatic past, Vinyl. Do I ever need them?”

“…I guess not? It’s not like there was a big, uh, a big thing that went on.” Vinyl spoke without really thinking, not focusing on the memories, not really. “It’s more like a lot of tiny things together. I don’t like saving the world. Doing it time and time again—HNNG.”

“Hah, ahahah. It’s funny because you’re awkward! I love it.” Then Octavia stopped nuzzling Vinyl and have her a reassuring look. “I am very sorry you had to go through that. It sounds horrible! And you don’t have to go through it again just to tell me; I trust your word. Plus, you’re fine now, right?”

Vinyl blinked. “I kind of have a bomb strapped to my chest, Octavia.”

“So do I! How quaint.”

“Like, I’d be okay if I had managed to escape Destiny. It keeps chasing me, is the thing. I guess I’m still supposed to do one last quest for the sake of the world. The big one, maybe? The Universe doesn’t like Chosen Ones retiring, so sometimes it sends them into one last stupid mission so they can sacrifice themselves to—” Vinyl’s eyes went wide. “Wait! Hold on! No nuzzling!”

Octavia frowned, frozen half-nuzzle. “No?”

“No.”

“No need for it?”

“I’m just talking, not having a panic attack. Like, thanks? But I’m trying to focus here.”

“Well, you seem awfully focused in talking about Destiny.”

“Because it’s got us! I’m not panicking, but look at the banister again, Octavia.” Vinyl nodded at it. “This situation we’re in is statistically impossible, which means Destiny has gotten us in its claws. It’s stupid not to think about it when it’s the reality we’re living.”

“You sure?” Octavia asked. “Because I’ve been not thinking about reality for a long time. And it’s worked pretty well for me!”

“Octavia, you were born with more riches than I’ll ever see in my life.”

“And it’s worked pretty well for me!”

“Right, but nepotism aside,” Vinyl wished she had her shades with her again sos she could put them on and then take them off in a smarmy way. As she didn’t all she could do was waggle her eyebrows and hope for the best. “We’re already clearly going on a quest, and if I’m going to go back through all that, I rather be rational about it and try to do it on my own terms.”

This made Octavia frown. An actual frown, almost as if she was angry. “Which means?” she asked.

“Which means that I’m calling Twilight,” Vinyl said, focusing on her horn already, making it glow with magic, “and I’m asking her to help us find Princess Celestia, and we’re going to save the stupid world.”

“No!”

And Octavia slapped Vinyl’s horn shut.

“Octavia!” Vinyl recoiled a little from the pain, and then glared at her friend. “What the—do you want to blow up again? Because this is how you blow up again!”

“I thought that other thing had been just a sneeze?”

“Rhetorics!”

“I don’t want you to call Twilight!” Octavia pouted. “It feels dreadfully stupid! And not even in a lovely Pinkie Pie sort of way. I would allow that. But, this?”

“Okay, I’m glad we’re both on the same page regarding messing with Pinkie for no adequate reason? But—”

“She kind of threw pepper at us and made us explode, Vinyl.”

“—I don’t—okay, good point, we have an adequate reason then—but what are you talking about?” Vinyl looked around. “What, do you want to stay in this staircase until Destiny comes to get us?” Pause. Blink. “Even though it’s technically already gotten us. Sorry, it’s a bit complicated a metaph—what are you doing.

“Twilight clearly wanted to help you!” Octavia chastised, frown still on, pout still pouty. “You said she’s saved the world in your place many times already. You probably didn’t force her to do it, either!”

“Kinda held the world hostage, if we’re being technical.”

“Right,” Octavia said. “But we’re not being technical, are we? We’re being honest.”

Pause.

Vinyl looked down. “Twilight was the one who suggested I drop out of the Secret Service, yeah. She’s the one who discovered the Elements would answer the call if I refused it.”

“Ah-hah!” Octavia’s triumphant smile could have brought a puppy back to life. “I am so glad that’s the case, because I have no idea what I would have done otherwise. But that was the case! So.” And here she got serious again. “Don’t call her if that’s going to make things worse! There is no reason to give up just yet.”

“Octavia, we’re already—”

“Maybe!” Octavia said. “But we’re also hugging the bomb, and we didn’t let that stop us! I have been dodging social responsibilities all my life, Vinyl Scratch, and I’m not going to stop doing that because of a staircase!” Octavia pressed her forehead against Vinyl’s. “Especially if that means my casual acquaintance is going to have a terrible time in the meantime!”

And Vinyl’s eyes went wide.

In the distance, the sounds of war kept on.

“Casual acquaintances,” Vinyl whispered, pressing her forehead against Octavia’s, too. She managed not to poke her with her horn. She had no idea how. “We’re… Are we casual acquaintances?”

Octavia blinked. “Well, I definitely feel that we’re close, so—”

“No, no, I don’t mean that. It’s more like…” Vinyl took a deep breath. Her brain was going into overdrive. “There’s this thing Princess Celestia says sometimes—we’re not the things we say, or the things we look like, but rather…”

“Ah!” Octavia smiled. “Yes! I know the saying. Character is not the things we say or look like, but rather, what we do?”

“That one!”

“I knew it! I am so smart.”

“You are, you’re brilliant. Right.” Vinyl looked at Octavia again. “A rose by other name, I guess—and we’ve been calling each other a casual acquaintance? But I don’t think that’s what we are.”

Octavia blinked again, although this time she made sure to flutter her eyelashes too. “My,” she said. “How suggestive.”

“Shut up. Octavia, come on, I’ve been spilling my guts at you for the last forty minutes. We’re not casual acquaintances.” And Vinyl sneaked a smirk into her speech. “We’re friends.

Confusion. Surprise. Shock. “Vinyl!” Octavia said, all flutter gone from her lashes. “You can’t say that! That’s what Destiny wants us to be! Oooh.” She looked to the side, hurt in her eyes. “Yet another life ruined due to my relentless, hypnotic charisma. Such is my curse!”

“No! No, listen.” Vinyl shone her horn and forced Octavia to look back at her. “Listen, remember what Twilight said? Destiny want us to rediscover the true meaning of friendship. That’s why Princess Luna forced us to hug each other, right? To teach that to Mister Labcoat?”

Now only confusion, in Octavia’s face. “I… think?”

“Yeah!” Vinyl was full-on grinning now. “But that’s not what’s happening! I mean, think about it—have you rediscovered anything at all?”

“Uh.” Octavia frowned. “Well, I have certainly found out that I live in an authoritarian dystopia where memory is just a commodity, I suppose?”

“Oh, come on, it’s not a commodity. We always tried to wipe as few memories as possible.”

“But the rest is accurate?”

Vinyl thought about it. “Well,” she said. “I mean, Princess Celestia is benevolent? But she is also kind of a supreme leader that only governs because she’s stronger than any of us? And also immortal. I certainly didn’t vote for her.”

“Aaah.” Octavia nodded. “So she’s a tyrant?”

“No, no. She’s benevolent. If we’re being pedantic, she’s just an autocrat.” Vinyl arched an eyebrow. “Are we being pedantic?”

“I don’t know! We’re being honest.”

“Autocrat it is, then.”

“Ah.” Octavia smiled. “But we love her, right? She’s a wonderful pony.”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Great motherly figure too, now that we’re at it. I’m so glad she’s not crazy, else we’d all be dead.” And then Vinyl blinked. “Wait. See? She what we just did here? This is what I meant!”

Octavia was taken aback. “What?”

“This thing right here! We’re not talking like casual acquaintances, we’re talking like friends. But we’ve been talking like this from the beginning! Don’t you see?” Vinyl let out a small laugh. “We’ve been friends from the beginning! We got along immediately! We’re not discovering anything!”

“Oh. Oh!” It took a moment, but soon enough, Octavia was smiling from ear to ear, too. “I see! So we’re refusing the call still?”

“We’ve already done it! Destiny wants us to get close to each other, but we already did it! Don’t you see it?” Vinyl squeezed Octavia tight; tight enough to almost hurt a little. “We don’t have to do anything! The true dodging of our responsibilities was the friends we made along the way!

“Wow!” Octavia squeezed Vinyl back. “That sounds incredible! So you’re not giving up, then?”

“Why should I? I can’t believe I haven’t seen this.” Vinyl laughed again, and looked at Octavia. “You can’t befriend the same pony twice. I guess we could get in a fight, like Applejack and Rainbow Dash? But come on, we get along way too well to do that anyway.”

“Okay! That sounds like a reasonable assumption.”

“So Destiny can’t grab us anymore!” Vinyl looked at the banister, and blinked. “Uh. And I guess us surviving the explosion was…? I have no idea what it was.”

“That sounds reassuring!” No hint of irony in Octavia’s voice as she looked at Vinyl. “And I am so happy we’re best friends! And also that we’re not saving the world.” She nuzzled Vinyl. “Yet another life saved thanks to my relentless, hypnotic charisma! It’s such a blessing.”

“Hahah.” Vinyl patted Octavia’s back. “Glad you’re cool with it, too.”

“Of course I am! Oooh, I’ve never had a best friend before. Us aristocrats, we only do casual acquaintanceship, right? And I am ridiculously aristocratic.”

“Somehow, that rings a bell.”

“It does! It definitely does. Ooh, best friend!” Octavia squeezed Vinyl again. “We’re going to be roommates at the hospital tomorrow, I can just see it! I am going to be so clingy to you from now on. It’s going to be amazing!”

“…Well, at least you’re self-aware, I guess.”

“So what are going to do next?” Octavia’s smile wavered for a moment as she looked at the horn. “You’re not calling Twilight Sparkle, are you?”

“Nah, not risking it. And honestly, I have no idea what to do next. We’re still trapped. But I don’t care!” And Vinyl grinned, and her voice was brimming with confidence, with trust-worthiness. “Because I am absolutely, one-hundred-percent sure that we’re out of Destiny’s reach. So no more brain damage, no more bombs strapped to us, and no more monsters chasing us! Whatever happens from now on, I’m sure we’ll be just fine!”

And then a giant four-headed figure busted through the wall at the top of the stairs.

RAAAAAARGH!

It was the hydragon, stained with dragonfire and covered in ashes. It stood there as the wall crumbled around it, a rain of dust and pebbles falling down, Vinyl trying to cover Octavia and protect her under her body.

The echo of the explosion that had broken the wall faded. And then, the hydragon spoke:

YOU… GET YOU TWO… EAT…

And its voice made the earth tremble.

Octavia and Vinyl stared at it, perfectly still. The hydragon stared at them, hunger in its eyes.

Then Vinyl frowned. “On the other hoof, you know,” she said. “I guess this is also a possibility.”

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