• Published 23rd Jan 2019
  • 2,494 Views, 116 Comments

Pressed for Time - Aragon



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

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Chapter Five – They Always Do This

The hydragon roared like this:

RAAAAAARGH!

But a million times louder.

The way the stairs were built, Vinyl and Octavia were laying on a step roughly halfway up to the third floor. To the right there was a banister made of old wood, full of teeth marks; to the left, a stone wall. Downstairs, the kind of fall that you only take if you really hate your internal organs. All illuminated by a horrible, ugly, cubist stained window. Upstairs, well.

RAAAAAARGH!

That.

So Octavia looked at Vinyl. “Best friend!” And she nodded towards the hydragon, although she never directly looked at it. “I’m a little bit lost here. Is that Destiny, too?”

Vinyl squinted. “Probably?” she said. “Probably.”

“So us becoming friends was a mistake?”

“Call it a happy accident? But, yeah. Kinda.” Vinyl swallowed. “We’re back on the quest now.”

“Ah-hah. So we're in danger?”

“We’re super in danger.”

“Good!” Octavia gave Vinyl a winning smile. “Good. How quaint. I can’t wait to see wh

The hydragon charged.

RAAAAAARGH!

And Octavia shut up.

If they survived—and they barely survived—it was because of the stairs. Because while they were wide, they weren’t wide enough for the hydragon to fit its massive body and reach the two mares. The monster itself noticed this soon enough—and had to spare a moment to break down the banister to the right to make way.

Which means only one of its four heads managed to reach the ponies, and barely at that.

But that’s the thing about the hydragon…

“OCTAVIA!” Vinyl still made sure to cover Octavia’s body with hers, laying on top and forcing the mare to press her head against Vinyl’s chest. “BE CARE—”

Crunch.

One time is all it needed.

A wet sound came from Vinyl’s mouth and ate up her words. Wasn’t a pretty one.

Octavia felt the impact too. Worse: she felt something inside Vinyl moving, something that felt like bone, something that shouldn't move at all. The hydragon had been reaching as far as possible with one of its freakishly long necks, and even though it couldn’t quite reach them with its mouth, it could do with its chin.

And it had slammed down.

Straight on Vinyl’s back.

Something red and hot started to drip down the side.

“VINYL!"

RAAAAAARGH!

The hydragon wasn’t stupid. It knew its prey couldn’t move, and it wasn’t going to risk hurting itself by slamming its face repeatedly against a staircase. Instead, it kept blowing the banister to pieces, the wall to the side, the entire corridor. It made way and tried to move down the stairs to reach them better.

“VINYL!” Octavia’s was completely gone now; her voice was nothing but ragged panic. “VINYL! ARE YOU OKAY?”

Vinyl’s voice was little more than a squeak. Her heart was racing, she was struggling to breathe, but she still talked. “Shoulder’s messed up. I don’t think it’s broken but it kinda feels like it. Come here.”

YOU’RE BLEEDING!

The hydragon went for them, four heads racing each other to see which one would chew the ponies to pieces first—but before they could do anything like that, Vinyl held Octavia tighter than ever and placed a hoof on the back of her neck, forcing Octavia to look up into Vinyl’s naked eyes.

“I said come here.” And she buried her face in Octavia’s hair.

The hydragon bit.

Octavia cringed.

Vinyl took a deep breath. Octavia smelled like cinnamon, and rosewater, and old wood, and—

Pepper.

Vinyl felt her nose itch.

BOOM!

Once the smoke cleared, the hyragon noticed that its four heads had bitten into nothing. Among the fire and the dust, it missed the dark blur that Vinyl and Octavia had become, flying away against the wall on the right, as far away from the stairs and the hydragon as possible.

Perhaps it was chance, perhaps it was Destiny, or perhaps it was Vinyl’s calculated nod right before she sneezed. Octavia would never know, and Vinyl would never tell. All that matters is, they didn’t go in a completely random direction. They flew away, shaken and hurt by the explosion, towards one very particular point.

The ugly, stained window that Vinyl hated. The one that led outside.

CRASH!

And through it.

It all became a blur to Octavia. The explosion still rang in her ears, and then the cold sting of glass breaking against her skin and Vinyl yelling something she could not understand. They were outside now, fresh air and the loud sounds of war coming from all directions, and then they were going down one, two, three stores, faster, faster, faster.

Vinyl twisting her head to the side, yelling again. Purple light coming from her horn, and then her grip loosening.

Octavia yelled.

The ground came to meet them.

Darkness.


Light.

“Vinyl Scratch,” said Daring Do.

Okay, on second thought, you know what? Darkness is nice. Let’s do darkness and don’t come out until Daring Do is gone for good—

“Scratch, I can see you frowning. You’re not fooling anyone. Open your eyes.

Ah, dang it. Vinyl grumbled under her breath, and listened to Daring Do.

Light.

There are things the pony brain is not wired to do, and regaining consciousness more than once a day is definitely one of them. Waking up from a nap is already unpleasant when you’ve slept too much; now picture that the nap was caused by severe brain trauma. It’s the sensory equivalent of realizing you actually paid for that Liberal Arts degree.

So Vinyl grumbled, and mumbled, and groaned, and whined, and it was all entirely earned and perfectly understandable. Octavia said something but Vinyl ignored it because, quite honestly, she was too busy complaining.

Then she looked around, and had to arch an eyebrow.

They weren’t outside. That was a surprise, as she clearly remembered that they had smashed through a window and ended somewhere between the Castle and the outer ramparts. Also, there was no hydragon in sight as far as she could see, which was a hell of an improvement. They were in a completely new room. With white walls and a nice wooden ceiling. A giant window with normal glass.

A lot of beds.

White curtains.

It smelled like latex and sanitizer.

“What the—are we in a hospital?” A genuine smile made it to Vinyl’s face, and she felt a huge weight leave her shoulders as she looked at Daring Do with newfound affection. “You carried us to a hospital! This is the first nice thing you—!”

Of course you’re not in a hospital,” Daring Do replied, dryly. “This is the Castle’s infirmary. You wish I were that responsible.”

Daring Do, sitting by the bed. The real deal, just like in her books. Hat and everything, whip hanging from her saddlebag.

Vinyl shot the pegasus a burning glare, and Daring Do glared right back. Outside, a hydra screamed, and through the window on the wall a sudden flare could be seen, and then black smoke rising.

“Vinyl!” Octavia, still clinging to Vinyl’s chest, looking up with those bright beautiful annoying eyes of hers. “Best friend! Vinyl, we survived!”

Vinyl couldn’t help but give Octavia a smile, and a reassuring squeeze. “We did, yeah.”

“And I barely feel anything! I’m completely emotionally numb at the moment. Just like you said!” Octavia let out a little giggle and then snuggled up against Vinyl’s chest—although, gently. “The thought of living is scarier than the thought of dying! Is this how you commoners feel all the time?”

Vinyl was still too groggy to even entertain this. “Uh, sure? Great that you’re okay.”

“It is! It is great!” Then Octavia blinked, and her smile went away to be replaced by a frown. “The monster did get to you, however. Your shoulder, right? How are you feeling? Are you okay? Am I hurting you?”

This honestly took Vinyl by surprise. She remembered her right shoulder hurting—although now that she looked at it it looked a bit weird—but her head felt so light she couldn’t really care. “Actually, I don’t feel any pain,” she muttered. Then: “Wait.” She squinted and looked at her right side. “Bandages?”

“You were bleeding! The hydragon cut you on the side. It’s very shallow though, so don’t worry! It will barely leave a scar.” Octavia then looked at Daring Do. “Is it normal that she’s not hurt? Because I felt her bones move around when the hydragon hit us. That is not something bones should do.”

Daring Do shook her head. “She’s so in pain she doesn’t even feel it anymore. Tell her to move her neck.”

“Okay!” Back to Vinyl. “Vinyl?”

“Octavia.”

“Move your neck!”

Pause.

“Screw it, sure, why not.”

CRACK.

“ARGH. OKAY. THAT’S WHY. THAT’S WHY NOT.”

Daring Do snorted by the side. “Idiot.”

“Oh, that looks horribly painful.” Octavia frowned and tried to hold Vinyl as she squirmed around. “Quick! Move your neck again!”

“WHAT?”

“It’ll probably make the pain disappear! Right? That sounds reasonable.”

Pause.

Through the pain, Vinyl squinted. “You know, that does sound reasonable, actua—”

CRACK.

“ARGH. OKAY, NO. IT JUST MADE IT WORSE.”

“Ah, hahah.” Octavia looked at Daring Do. “We’ve both got so many concussions.”

“MAYBE IF I MOVE IT A THIRD TIME.”

“I’ve honestly lost count of how many times we’ve gotten brain damaged today! Which sounds kind of worrying now that I say it out loud.” Octavia nudged Vinyl. “Isn’t that right, best friend?”

“I’M IN AGONY!”

“Yes! You are!”

Another explosion, and the Castle shook some more. The bed creaked under their weight, and Daring Do sighed. “I get that right now you two are the perfect mixture of dumb and stupid, but, please. Don’t move your neck a third time. That’s not how necks work.”

Vinyl found it in herself to stop squirming, and shot Daring Do the most venomous of glares. “And why,” she said through her teeth, “are we even here?!

“Because there is a war out there, Scratch,” Daring Do said, tapping her hat and giving Vinyl a wild glare, one that spoke of fire in the savanna and blood pumping in your ears in that way only veterans truly know. “And I’m not going to abandon Canterlot when it needs me the most.”

“I’m injured, Daring Do!” Vinyl said.

“Me too!” Octavia said. “It’s terrible.”

“And I’m responsible, Scratch,” Daring Do replied.

“Me too!” Octavia said. “That’s also terrible.”

Neither mare looked at her when she said this, though. Both Daring Do and Vinyl Scratch were too busy growling at each other, like a dumb dog staring at his reflection in the mirror.

And then Octavia noticed—as one does when hugs happen—that Vinyl was kind of having trouble breathing. Not as much as when the hydragon had appeared, not in the least, but still. She was doing shallow breaths.

So she immediately went for the nuzzle. To add insult to injury, she added, in the softest voice she could make: “Vinyl? Best friend?”

Vinyl, what else, stiffened at the nuzzle. Her ears perked up rather suddenly, and her growl went from furious to annoyed. But, her eyes immediately snapped from Daring Do to Octavia, and all the tension went away from her face.

So, as far as Octavia was concerned, hey. That was a win. That’s the best thing about dumb dogs: you give them a treat, and they’re yours for life.

But instead of saying that, she just said: “May I ask you a question?” and then she cocked her head to the side because Octavia was just cute like that.

“Uh.” Vinyl squinted. Their faces were pretty close, so it was easy for Octavia to see that Vinyl was making a conscious effort not to look away, and she was doing a poor job of it. “I mean, I guess? What are you going to do if I say no.”

Octavia thought about it for a moment. “Ask anyway! Maybe I’ll nuzzle you a little first to soften you up.”

“Ask away.”

“I can nuzzle you anyway, though! Don’t worry, that gesture’s not really going anywhere.”

“Blegh.”

Octavia shot Vinyl a cute smile, and then she looked at Daring Do. “So. You know Daring Do?”

Daring Do grumbled. “Sadly. What’s this about the nuzzles, though.”

Vinyl was still looking at Octavia. “Yeah, I know her. We go back a long way, actually.”

“Like, is this a couple thing? Are you making out in front of me to assert dominance or something?”

Octavia nodded. “Right, charming, you have such a rich personal history—why do you know Daring Do, though?” Pause. “And since when is Daring Do real, come to think of it?” She glanced at Daring. “No offense.”

Daring Do tipped her hat, and smirked. “None taken,” she said. “Happens all the time.”

“Right. So.” Octavia looked back at Vinyl. “First Hell, then the Secret Service, mind-wiping, and now pulp characters are real, too? What’s next? Do I need to think twice about Santa Hooves?”

Pause.

Vinyl looked at Octavia.

Daring Do looked at Octavia.

Octavia blinked. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“…We are.” Vinyl looked at Daring Do. “Are we?”

“We definitely are. No, uh, no secrets here.”

A second pause, longer still. Octavia glared at the two mares, her face completely unreadable. A dragon screamed outside, and a mare’s fierce yell matched it, and then the sound of stone splitting and something going splat.

Then Octavia let out a brilliant smile. “Okay! That sounds convincing. You two are so interesting!” Then, to Vinyl: “No, seriously, Vinyl. I need you to understand that I am having an existential crisis here.”

“Right.”

“I am in great distress! Today has been such a tasking morning, emotionally speaking.”

“Saving the world does that to you, yeah.” Vinyl shrugged. “Daring Do’s always been real, by the way, it’s just that—”

“Scratch? Agent Scratch.” Daring Done spoke slightly louder than necessary, and both Vinyl and Octavia looked at her after it. Daring rested her front legs on the bed and leaned forward, strained smile on her face. “Little question. Did this civilian just nonchalantly spew out like, five State secrets in a row for no reason?”

“I did!”

“Yeah, she super did.”

“Agent Scratch.” There was an inherent sigh-like quality in the way Daring Do said Vinyl’s name. She didn’t sound angry or disappointed, inasmuch as she sounded like a third unheard-of emotion that combined the two and added chilli pepper on top. “I knew you were an idiot, don’t get me wrong, but this is a new low even for you, and I do not say that lightly!

Vinyl nodded at Daring Do, and then turned back to Octavia. She hugged her a bit harder, too, as if seeking comfort. “Yeah, that’s Daring Do, and she’s real. The books are just her novelizing her real adventures—not many ponies know about it. Haven’t you… like, asked her?”

“Oh, I thought it would be rude, you know.” Octavia shrugged. “The existence of the self is a sore point for some ponies, yes?”

“Hey!” Daring Do leaned harder on the bed, and she took off her hat to give her frown more emphasis. “Are you two ignoring me?”

“We are!”

“We super are.”

“So.” Octavia looked at Vinyl again. “Daring Do saved us from the hydragon! She came and swooped in right before we could hit the ground!” She was gripping Vinyl harder now, and her eyes were shining. “It was incredible!”

Vinyl smirked. She made a point of only moving her eyes when she glanced at Daring Do, because she could feel sharp needles running through her back and it was not exactly pleasant. “I thought I was calling for Twilight Sparkle?”

Daring Do waved a hand in the air. “So sue me. I saw the flare, I heard the explosion, and I ran as fast as I could. Didn’t really have the time to analyze the hue of the light; I’ll apologize for taking her spotlight as soon as I see her.”

“Right.” Vinyl made a face. “I honestly would rather you didn’t—”

“Vinyl.” Octavia spoke softly again, almost a whisper in Vinyl’s ears—because she could feel Vinyl was tense again. She did not go for the nuzzle, though, since she understood all good things must come in moderation. Then she looked at Daring Do. “Thank you for saving our lives, Daring Do! It was very kind on your part.”

Vinyl groaned, but looking at Octavia had seemed to calm her down. “Right.” She took a deep breath. “Thanks. I guess.”

This got Daring Do to react. She looked at Vinyl, ears perked up. “You guess?! You ungrateful little idiot—

“Excuse me!” Octavia turned her head around and looked at Daring Do with a rather flaring frown. “I understand you are under a lot of pressure! And we are so grateful for not letting us die like that, Daring Do. But—I would rather you don’t go insulting Vinyl that way?” And she clinged to Vinyl some more, which was a feat, seeing how they had been hugging each other for five hours by now. “You see.” Pause for emphasis, striking smile. “She’s my best friend. Aren’t you, Vinyl?”

“I super am,” Vinyl said, smiling. “Eat dirt, Daring Do.”

Something exploded outside, and the Castle shook.

Daring Do arched an eyebrow at Octavia, and then looked at Vinyl. “Okay. Who’s this, again?”

Vinyl patted Octavia’s back. “Octavia Pianissimo,” she said. “Friend of mine, city-slicker noblepony, ridiculously aristocratic but in a good way. Also, kind of terrible?”

“But in a good way, too!” Octavia added, still clinging to Vinyl.

“But in a cool way, yeah.” Vinyl chuckled. “We met this morning.”

“This morning.”

“Yes.”

“She got attached fast, didn’t she.”

“It’s been a long day.” Then Vinyl patted Octavia’s back again as she looked at Daring Do. “Did she tell you about the bomb and how we have to hug and all that?”

“She did.” Daring Do nodded, and put on her business face. Suddenly she looked serious, non-nonsense-like. “Labcoat, right? Small dragon, red scales, wears one?”

“You got it.”

“Yeah. Familiar with his work. Don’t stop hugging her any time soon.” Then Daring looked at Octavia. “Octavia Pianissimo. from the Canterlot Pianissimos? You built this place, right? Blueprints all over your manor?”

Octavia lit up. “We did! We absolutely did! It’s so nice to finally find a cultured mare in this Castle that’s not of royal blood. I quite like that!” Pause. Cling to Vinyl. “Insults to my friend notwithstanding.”

“I’ve been in your manor a couple times, great library—but, listen, kid.” Daring Do lowered her head a little, so that she could look at Octavia eye-to-eye, and she put on her hat again. “I don’t know what Scratch’s been telling you, but she’s not a mare you should—”

“Did you just call her kid?” Vinyl asked, making a face. “What, are you, like, a grandpa now? A corrupt cop. Gruff detective?”

Daring Do closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “Scratch.”

“How old are you anyway? Because I’m sure you’re at most, like, a couple years older than—wait.” Vinyl looked at Octavia. Beautiful, perfect, timeless Octavia. “How old are you again?”

Octavia fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh, a lady never tells.”

“Right.” Vinyl went back to Daring Do. “Yeah she’s, like, significantly older than you. ‘Kid’ is out.”

Octavia stopped the coy act immediately. “Vinyl!” she yelled. “You take that back!”

“Is it wrong, though.”

That is not what we are currently discussing!

“You’re such a slender, conventionally attractive old mare.”

“I—! That’s—!” Octavia blinked. Frowned. Fumed. “You’re on thin ice.”

“Aren’t I always.”

Daring Do looked at Octavia. “Yeah, see this? See what I mean, kid?” This last part she only added after a little spiteful look at Vinyl. “Agent Scratch’s bad news.” A Frown. “And I’m still waiting for an explanation on the whole State secrets thing. There are things civilians should never know about.”

“What, like the business of souls?” Octavia asked. “She told me all about that, too! It was quite terrifying.”

“Also, I’m a civilian too,” Vinyl said. “Just saying. Stop with the ‘Agent’ thing, it’s getting old.”

Agent Scratch.

“Look,” Vinyl said after taking a really deep breath, “they forgot the memory wiping protocols, it’s not my fault—but I’m not part of the Service. I have no official reason to keep State secrets, so if anything, this is their fault, not mine.”

Daring Do could have melted steel with here eyes. “Those things are a secret for a reason, Scra—Agent Scratch. And I wouldn’t trust a Pianissimo of all ponies with all this. You know how nobleponies are, there’s a reason the Princess won’t let them hold any real political power.” She tipped her hat to Octavia. “No offense, kid.”

Octavia giggled. “None taken! I am going to be terrible at keeping all this to myself anyway.”

“Oh hey, look.” Daring Do had a weird smile on her face, and she looked at Vinyl like a father looks at his kid after catching him with a cigarette. “She’s self-aware! Isn’t she cute?”

“I am! I am very cute.”

Please, Daring Do.” Vinyl rolled her eyes and squeezed Octavia a little bit. “I know it’s hard for you not to be an idiot, but can you at least try? I mean…” She nodded towards Octavia. “You hug this mare for more than three hours and then try not to spill the beans. I mean, look at her! Octavia, give her a smile.”

“Sure!”

“Scratch,” Daring Do said, “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but thi—oh. Oh, huh.” She blinked, and after giving Octavia a glance, she looked at Vinyl. “Okay, yeah, I see what you mean. Does she smile like that all the time?”

“Yes.”

“Creepy.”

“I’m taking that as a compliment!” Octavia chirped. “Thank Celestia I’ve got such old blood. Keeping your self-esteem high is so easy when you’re genetically perfect.” Then she fluttered her eyelashes. “By the way! Is your existence a State secret too, Daring Do? You seem to be oddly familiar with everything related to the Secret Service.”

Daring Do was fuming, but she still answered. “It’s not—”

“It’s not a State secret technically,” Vinyl interrupted. “She just likes to hide under her civilian identity, and Princess Celestia likes her, so we let her. She used to work with me a lot back in my days, which is why we know each other.”

“But she’s not part of the Secret Service?”

“Nah, she’s too good for that, are you kidding me? The Secret Service is a mess!” Vinyl shook her head. “Daring Do’s like Princess Twilight, she does her own hero thing and only appears when something big enough comes around” Vinyl flinched when the Castle shook a third time and made the bed tremble enough to send shivers down her spine. Celestia, her shoulder hurt now. “Like, say, hydras attacking Canterlot, I guess. How’s that going, Daring?”

“Everything is going terribly, and we’re all gonna die. Also you’re not helping.”

“Wow, crazy.” Vinyl patted Octavia’s shoulder. “So yeah, she gets access to secret intel because, let’s be honest, she’s the one who came up with half of it in the first place. I’m sure she even knows why the hydras are attacking. If only we cared.”

Daring’s ears perked up. “I believe the hydras are after—”

If only we cared.

“I hate you so much, Scratch.”

“I know you do.”

Octavia blinked twice, and frowned at Vinyl,pawing at her chest to get her attention. “Well! You certainly don’t look like you get along.”

Daring Do snorted, and she took off her hat for a moment. “You’re a bright one—”

“I am! I am bright. Thank you!”

“—but I’ll let you know, we haven’t always—okay.” Daring Do frowned and looked at Vinyl. “Is she always like this?”

“I am!”

“She super is.”

“This is going to be such a long day. Okay.” Daring Do rubbed the space between her eyes before talking again. “Okay. We haven’t always hated each other, kid.” Then she did a double take, and Vinyl could see it in Daring’s eyes—she was remembering Octavia’s smile. “Kid…” she repeated, playing with the word as if it tasted funny. “Miss? Madam? How do I refer to you?”

“Just Octavia is fine! I hate formalities.”

“Ah. Okay. So. We didn’t always hate each other, kid.”

Vinyl squinted. “Don’t.”

“Do.” Daring Do shot back. “It’s literally my name, Scratch. You go eat dirt.” Then, at Octavia: “We were friends, once. Really good friends. Emphasis on the once.”

Vinyl looked to the side.

In that moment, she wished she had her shades with her to hide her face, too.

And Octavia caught this up, because she was quick at stuff like this. She talked with a small voice when she asked: “Did something happen?”

“We had a fallout,” Vinyl said, simply, still squeezing Octavia. “The less we talk about it, the better.”

“Was it because saving the world made you misera—?”

And suddenly Vinyl’s eyes were wide as plates, and she looked at Octavia with an almost pleading expression. “No!” she whispered. “Don’t tell her anything about that!”

Octavia frowned, and whispered back: “What?”

“I agree, kid,” Daring Do said, speaking with a normal voice. If she had noticed the whispers, she didn’t let it show. “Some things are better left in the past.”

“I don’t want her to know! I told her I left the Service for different reasons. Just, go along with it?”

And Octavia looked into Vinyl’s eyes. “..Why?” she said.

“Just, trust me.”

Two seconds passed.

Three.

Four.

Daring Do threw her hat at the floor. “DANG IT, SCRATCH! STOP NOT SAVING THE WORLD ALREADY!”

YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER!

Octavia cringed. “Oh, dear.”

I WANT TO BE A MUSICIAN! YOU CAN’T SAVE THE WORLD AND BE AN ARTIST AT THE SAME TIME! IT’S TOO MUCH!

“I SAVE THE WORLD EVERY DAY, AND I’M A WRITER!

“YES, BUT YOU DON’T COUNT! YOU’RE TOO SUCCESSFUL!

“WHY IN EQUESTRIA WOULDN’T I COUNT FOR BEING TOO SUCCESSFUL?!

Octavia cleared her throat. “Ahem!” she said immediately afterwards, since she didn’t really understand redundancy. “Daring Do! May I interrupt you for a second?”

Daring glared. “YOU MAY NOT!”

“Good thing I was going to interrupt you anyway, then!” Octavia nuzzled Vinyl and blew a little bit of air in her ear, because she sensed she was also going to talk. And then Vinyl got all stiff, and that was that for that. “Life is so easy when you simply don’t listen to others. Wouldn’t you agree, Vinyl?”

Vinyl was still in Dreamland, stiff as a stone, dealing with the nuzzle.

“Vinyl, I asked you a question.”

“Hnng.” Vinyl blinked. “What?”

Octavia bumped her with her forehead, lightly. “Just say yes!”

“Ah. Um. Yes?”

“Exactly!” Octavia smiled at Daring Do. “See? Flawless argumentation. I’m so good at this. Anyway! I’m sure you’re indeed successful, and quite good at saving the world, seeing how we’re still here. But!” And she clinged to Vinyl again. “My best friend can’t keep saving the world, and that is final! Haven’t you seen what it’s doing to her?”

“What is doing to… what?” Daring Do blinked, and relaxed a little—now instead of anger there was confusion written all over her. She looked at Vinyl. “What, the shoulder? That’s barely a scratch!”

“Octavia, don’t.” Vinyl spoke weakly. “She won’t get it.”

“I think she will! You were friends before. Right?” Octavia looked at Daring Do. “Right? Just say yes.”

Daring Do squinted. “Uuuuuuh—”

And Vinyl sighed. “Just say yes, Daring Do. Let’s get this over with.”

“—uuuh, yes?”

“Ah-hah! Yes indeed. I am the best at friendship, and I have literally just started! So talented.” She pawed at Vinyl’s chest as she looked at Daring Do next. “Vinyl Scratch was miserable during her time at the Secret Service, Daring Do! I don’t know what she saw, but it deeply affected her.” She shot Vinyl a glance. “She had to get out! Haven’t you see how she winces whenever she even thinks about Fate?”

Vinyl winced, but only slightly, and she pushed Octavia’s pawy hoof away. “Octavia, seriously. I’m glad you’re trying, really, but there’s no use.”

“Wait, no, you don’t get to say that.” Daring Do leaned on the bed to get closer to them. “What’s this about wincing? You had to get out? What?” She looked at Octavia before glaring back at Vinyl. “Didn’t you leave because you wanted to focus on your music?”

“She did not!” Octavia said. “She’s deeply traumatized. But not in a cute way, like my concussion! More like in a harrowing way. Music had nothing to do with anything!” Then Octavia paused to think. “Probably? I have no idea. Vinyl, I don’t mind putting words in your mouth, but in this case, I would love hearing what you have to say about it!”

“What I have to say about it,” Vinyl said sighing again, and patting Octavia on the back, “is that I’m trying to make it as a musician nowadays, which is all that matters.”

“Is this kid saying the truth?” Daring Do was still laying on the bed, looking at Vinyl with strange eyes. “Was it that bad? All the time?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Silence.

Daring Do looked down. “You were good, Scratch. You were really good. I loved working with you.”

“Hey, you said it yourself. Some things are better left in the past.” Vinyl made an effort here; Octavia could tell because her body tensed. She looked at Daring Do. No glare, no frown, just an honest face-to-face. Octavia gave her a little pat on the back as a prize. “Besides, it’s not like you need me—last time I checked you were more competent than the entire Secret Service combined. How did you deal with the hydragon down there? Punched it till it dropped?”

“I didn’t deal with it. I just ran away.”

It took Vinyl Scratch a moment. Then, her eyes went wide. “You ran away?” she asked. “You?

Daring Do snorted. “What, did you think I was being flippant earlier? That I was joking?” She leaned away from the bed, picked up her hat from the ground, and put it on again. “You can’t take a hydragon lightly. That thing—look. We have dragons on our side. Three different princesses are actively fighting in this fight. We’re destroying the hydras. And yet?” Daring Do squinted. “Everything is going terribly, and we’re all going to die.”

The weight in those words got Vinyl to close her mouth and not say another word. She just hugged Octavia—she didn’t hold her, she hugged her—and let herself be hugged back.

Octavia managed to speak, once she was sure Vinyl was okay. “Well,” she said. “That sounds serious! And terrifying. Mostly terrifying!”

Daring Do nodded. “Yes. To all those things.”

“Good! I just wanted to be sure. That sounds horrible, and I am absolutely panicking now!” Octavia looked at Vinyl. “You?”

“Honestly? I could do a nuzzle right now.”

“Okay!” Octavia complied. Vinyl stiffened. All was good in the world. Then Octavia looked at Daring Do. “You don’t look scared at all, though! How quaint.”

“I don’t really panic.”

“Even more quaint!”

“Yeah.” Daring Do smirked. “Also...”

She reached inside her shirt, grabbed a necklace, and placed it on top of Vinyl and Octavia’s bed, far enough so that they could see it but not touch it.

It was made of gold, and it looked half-done. Like a puzzle with missing pieces.

“This is the left half of the Can of Wyrms,” Daring Do said. “It’s a tool for dragonslaying. It’s the reason we’re at war.” The smirk in her face looked too big for her face, now. “And it’s our one and only hope.”


They moved slowly, sure, but it was still faster than rolling around. Much to Vinyl Scratch’s displeasure.

“This is so fun!” Octavia was saying. “It reminds me—ah, to the left, go for the stairs, thank you—it reminds me of when I was a little filly!”

Vinyl nodded. “Octavia. I am in excruciating pain.”

“I used to ride on my father’s back through the manor quite often, you see. So this is very nostalgic!”

“I don’t know, I just feel like my injury might be a more pressing matter than—wait, you rode on your dad’s back?”

“I did!”

“That’s… actually surprising?” Vinyl arched an eyebrow, and for once Octavia could observe the expression at its fullest, since Vinyl had never found her shades after all. “Like, no offense, but knowing you I would have expected you having a designated riding servant or something.”

“Oh, no, not at all!” Octavia shook her head. “I’ve always been really close to my father. He always found time to play with me when I was a filly!”

Vinyl smiled. “That’s pretty cute, actually. You were Daddy’s little girl?”

“I was! I only ever rode his back, there was no need to play with the servants.” Octavia frowned a little frown, deep in thought. “I also went through a phase of not touching any commoners back then, if I remember correctly? I was a very spoiled child.”

“Right. Slightly less cute detail, that.”

“It is! It is less cute. But I turned out wonderful anyway!”

“Okay.” Then, suddenly, Daring Do spoke, glaring at them over her shoulder. “For real. Are you two ever going to shut up.”

“We’re not!”

“We’re super not.”

“I hate you two so much.”

The place was the Art Galleries—a series of rooms and corridors that weaved into each other like an architectural knot in the third floor of the Castle, far away from the clinic. Statues waiting for you around every corner, the kind that are so old you see them as art rather than pornography, even though they’re clearly both. Paintings every seven feet or so, portraying boring ponies with dead fish eyes. The light that came through the windows was tinted golden, and bathed everything in the dusty glow museums are known for.

And Vinyl and Octavia were riding Daring Do.

“I am literally breaking my back for you two,” Daring Do was saying at the moment. She stopped walking to give her words more weight. “Quite literally.”

Vinyl and Octavia were hugging each other on top of Daring Do’s back. They’d been secured with a spare blanket to make sure they wouldn't slip out whenever Daring had to turn around sharply or climb any set of stairs.

Octavia, who was the one lying directly on Daring’s back—with Vinyl laying on top of Octavia herself—batted her eyebrows at the adventurer. “We know! And we are so grateful. This is fun! Isn’t it, Vinyl?”

“Octavia, I am fairly sure I have mentioned my excruciating pain already.”

“You have!” Octavia gleamed. “But this is still fun. Daring Do, go faster!”

Pause.

“Okay, you know what? You’re right, this is fun. Daring Do, rear up!”

“Prance a little!”

“Fly around! I want to see how that feels when you’re not about to die.”

“Oooh!” Octavia’s eyes light up. “Yes! That does sound exciting. You should fly around, Daring Do!”

“I should kick you two off the window, is what I should do.” Daring do sighed, grunted, and kept on walking again. She did it with confidence, as if she knew the way by heart, but she was sweating quite a lot from all the weight. “You know, I’m glad that you’re having fun up there, but I didn’t drag you out of the clinic just so you could have a chat about literally nothing. We have important things to disc—”

“Oh! Vinyl!” Octavia suddenly perked up, which made Daring Do flinch, and Vinyl grunt with pain. “Look! That painting!”

“What? What are you—Oh. That one?” Vinyl blinked, squinted. She couldn’t really turn around fully because of the shoulders and the bandages on her right side, but she just barely managed to see what Octavia was pointing at anyway. “Wow. Is that you?”

“It’s a painting of my great-great-grandmother!”

“She looks exactly like you! It’s amazing!”

Daring took a deep breath. “For real, now?”

“Hey, if you looked, you’d think the same,” Vinyl said. “Seriously, they’re like twins, it’s eerie.”

“Scratch, I don’t care if they’re like—” Daring blinked. “Oh, wow. Okay, yeah, its eerie.”

Octavia was pretty much glowing with pride. “I am a purebreed Pianissimo! Very inbred!”

“And wow you just said that. You just said that?” Daring Do, eyes wide, glanced at Vinyl. “She just said that.”

“Yeah, it’s a whole thing.”

“It is! I am very inbred, we’ve decided.” Octavia said, still sticking her chest out. “It means that I’m better than you!” Then she gave Vinyl a quick wink. “No offense.”

“Uh.” Daring Do arched an eyebrow. “Actually, it just means your family tree’s messed up? And that you’re genetically predisposed towards idiocy.”

“I know!” Octavia said. “And I’m still better than you! It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“The power of genetics. Amazing.” Then Daring turned her neck as much as she could to look at them, and added: “But seriously, we need to talk about you two saving Equestria.”

Immediately, Vinyl frowned. She felt the cut under her bandages itch. “No deal.”

“I side with my best friend!” Octavia gripped Vinyl a bit tighter and pushed their cheeks together to show Daring how serious she was. “We said we are not doing the harrowing quest, and we stand by that decision. It’s why we do chit-chat! Oh, look at that statue!”

“I’m not looking at that statue,” Daring Do said, and she turned a corner to make sure Vinyl couldn’t do it either. “And I think that’s not your decision anymore.” She reached under her shirt to get the half-complete golden necklace. “Scratch, look at this. The Can of Wyrms is—”

“That was a great statue, Octavia.”

“It is!”

“You know what? I’m just going to keep talking,” Daring Do said. “You’ll have to listen at some point, Scratch, and I don’t care if you don’t want to.” Daring shot a glance at the two mares before looking forward once again as she walked. “Also, kid, I’m probably going to ignore you from now on.”

“Okay!”

“Hope you don’t mind it.”

“I won’t! I respect your boundaries.”

“Right. So, the Can of Wyrms.” Daring pawed at it, and it jingle-jangled, still hanging from her neck. “An ancient coltpixie legend, right? They say it can kill anything, even a dragon, if used well. And it was split in three pieces so that nobody could misuse its power.”

“I don’t care about—”

Daring kicked back a little, made Vinyl jump in place. A satisfying clack came from her shoulder, and Vinyl shut up, too busy trying not to scream to say anything.

Daring had to hide a petty smirk after that, so she just kept going. “That’s what the legend says, at least. Three pieces—the dragons guarded one, the ponies guarded another. The third was for the coltpixies, but the hydras stole it.” Daring pawed at the necklace again. “This is the piece that the dragons guarded. Dragon Lord Ember gave it to me after we had a talk.”

“That is so entertainingly quaint!” Octavia said, trying to give the Can of Wyrms a look, and utterly failing because it was as far as possible from her line of sight. “I also have no idea why you’re telling us any of this. But it is so entertainingly quaint!”

“Because the hydras are looking for this. Ponies and dragons reuniting for the first time in centuries? It’s a perfect opportunity to snatch all the pieces of the Can of Wyrms and lay some waste to the land.” Daring Do let out a low whistle. “Hydras are dumb, kid, but they’re also cunning, and I can assure you—nobody likes being second-best.”

Vinyl had regained her voice, but it still sounded wary. “I don’t want to get involved in that,” she said. “If you want to, I don’t know, gather all the pieces of the necklace and stuff it where the sun don’t shine, be my guest? But I’m not going to help you.”

“Yeah!” Octavia said, putting on a fierce smile. “You tell her!”

“I literally just did, Octavia.”

“And you were great at it!”

“Oh, but that’s the thing, Scratch,” Daring said. They turned a corner again. “You’re already involved. Think about it—something that can kill a dragon? That’s a lot of magical energy to store in a physical object.” She put the Can of Wyrms under her shirt again. “Made by the coltpixies? Ancient? That sounds like—”

“—Like coltpixie gold,” Vinyl finished. Her ears went flat against her head a second time. Her eyes went wide. She swallowed. “Oh, no. Oh, please tell me that’s a coincidence.”

“Please, Scratch. When has anything in this line of work ever been a coincidence?”

Octavia, however, did not have that extreme a reaction. “What?” she asked. “What? What are you talking about?” She looked at Vinyl. “What is coltpixie gold? That’s… I’ve heard that name somewhere. What is it?”

Daring cleared her throat with a cough. “It’s—”

“The hug bomb that the dragon made,” Vinyl whispered. She looked at Octavia, and hugged her against her chest, rather than simply holding her—and in that moment, she became keenly aware of the cold rectangle of metal that stood between them. “That’s what it’s made of. It was golden, remember? He stored dragonfire inside, he said, and the only thing that can hold dragonfire like this is—”

“Coltpixie gold. Which is an extremely rare material, mind you,” Daring Do mused. “How did Labcoat describe the bomb again, kid? What did he say about the explosion?”

Octavia frowned. “…That it was strong enough to kill even him? But I don’t recall the bomb being golden, I think. Was it?”

“It was,” Vinyl said.

“Does it matter? It’s strong enough to kill a dragon, that’s all we need.” Daring Do stopped dead in her tracks, and then frowned while looking ahead. “Uh. Where are we?”

Octavia’s ears perked up, and she looked around. Vinyl did the same—the place looked identical to the room they left a couple minutes ago. She could even see Octavia the Second’s portrait over there by the wall.

“That is not the portrait of—why would she be Octavia the Second if she’s my ancestor? Vinyl, I know we’ve talked a lot about incest, but that is really not how families work.”

Vinyl blinked. “Ah. Did I say that out l—”

“You did say that out loud, yes.” Octavia tapped Vinyl’s back before looking at the painting. “Also, if you would be so kind to look at the portrait with just a tad more attention, you would notice that her eyes are a shade or two lighter than my great-great-grandmother’s?”

“Yeah I’m just gonna take your word for that.”

“And you would do right in doing so! It’s ridiculously hard to notice.” Octavia smiled so much her eyes closed. “That is actually my great-great-grandaunt.”

Daring Do was looking at the painting, too. “She looks exactly like your great-great-grandmother. Were they twins?”

“No, we all just look like this. My sister is also strikingly similar to me—or rather I look like her, yes? Since she’s the older one.” Octavia nodded. “Aside from the eyes and the fact that she is willing to continue the bloodline? We might as well be the same pony!”

Vinyl blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Now, going back to my point, if that painting is there it means that if we pass that door,” Octavia pointed, “and go to the right, we’ll make it to the—”

Daring Do’s ears perked up. “West wing?”

“Yes! Exactly. Right above the Ballroom, in fact.”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!”

“Wait, no, what was that?” Vinyl was squirming now, nudging at Octavia so she would look at her. “Octavia, did you just imply you won’t have any children?”

Octavia fluttered her eyelashes at Vinyl. “I did! I suppose adoption is always a possibility, but that’s about it. I’m certainly not getting pregnant any time soon!”

“…Why?”

“A lot of reasons! Now if you excuse me, I’m distracted.” Octavia looked at Daring Do again. “Why are we here, actually? There’s nothing important in this spot aside from the portraits of my family. Which are pretty great! But not very useful when we’re at war.” Then Octavia frowned and looked at one of the windows. “…Are we at war? I haven’t heard anything in—”

Something exploded in the distance.

“Ah-hah! Yes, we are still at war and everything is terrible. Phew!” Octavia swept the sweat off her brow. “I got hopeful for a moment, how embarrassing.”

Daring Do, true to her word, ignored like eighty percent of everything that came out of Octavia’s mouth. “This is our destination,” she said simply. “Jump off.”

“…How?”

“Hold on a minute.”

Getting off Daring Do’s back turned out to be much easier than getting on—she simply laid on her side until Vinyl and Octavia were laying on the floor, and then she untied the blanket and got up again.

“There,” she said once that was done. “Perfect. You comfortable there? Scratch, you okay?”

The question immediately made Vinyl squint. “Why are you asking.”

“Oh, no reason. You know me. I just care a lot.” Daring Do looked at Octavia. “Mind getting under her for a moment? I need Scratch to be on top. I need to… help her.

“Okay! That only sounded slightly ominous, I like those chances.” Octavia rolled around quite happily, until Vinyl was on top, making sure not to touch her bandages or scratch them against the ground. “Like this?”

“Sure, yeah. Good job.” Vinyl seemed like she was going to say something, so Daring Do waved a hoof to keep her quiet and kept on talking. “Right, so—you’re carrying coltpixie gold, Scratch. You are already involved with all this mess, even if you don’t want to be.”

Vinyl squinted even harder. “…We’re not sure of that.”

“No, I’m not. And, sure, if I expected someone to get a hold of a bunch of coltpixie gold somehow, and to build a completely stupid bomb out of it—Labcoat and Princess Luna would be my best guess?” Daring Do shook her head. “But, well. I think it’s safer to assume the worst here. You’re carrying the pony share of the Can of Wyrms with you.”

“I don’t—”

“Maybe not!” Octavia said, and her voice was so loud that both Daring Do and Vinyl flinched. “I have a perfectly functional memory, and I do not remember the bomb being golden.” She looked at Vinyl. “Coltpixie gold is golden, right?”

“Yeah. So’s the bomb.”

“We don’t know that!”

“We totally do.”

“Nonsense!” Octavia shook her head so hard they both moved a little. “This is the kind of thing we ought to investigate, let me just—” she looked down, and tried to peek at the bomb. Completely useless, since that is not how bodies or perspective or physics work, but she still tried. “Gaagh. I can’t see it!”

“Right, but—”

“Wait! I know what to do!” Octavia fluttered her eyelashes again. “Daring Do? Would you be so kind as to lift Vinyl’s tail and take a peek?”

Pause.

Vinyl was completely wide-eyed. Octavia’s face was completely serious.

Daring Do, though. Daring Do just looked confused.

“Beg your pardon?” She asked, lifting her hat so she could look better at Octavia. “You want me to what?”

“Gently lift Vinyl’s tail and take a peek under it!” Octavia said. Then, she blinked. “Ah, but please tell me everything you see? Spare no detail! I’m very curious as to what’s down there. Under Vinyl’s tail.”

“You—”

“Just.” Vinyl’s voice rose, and she was talking to Daring Do. “Just ignore her. She does this sometimes, don’t think too hard about it, she just—.”

“…She just what? Gently lifts your tail now and then?” Daring Do cocked her head to the side, looking at Vinyl. “Is this like a thing you two have got going or something?”

“No!”

“Actually, it was Vinyl who lifted my tail earlier!” Octavia chirped, glancing at Vinyl. “After massaging my lower backside.”

Vinyl closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Octavia.”

“She was very gentle though! Very pleasant.”

“Octavia, please shut up.”

“Why? I’m just trying to help!” Octavia looked at Daring Do. “You can surely see the bomb if you lift Vinyl’s tail, yes? Is it golden?”

Pause.

Daring Do looked at Vinyl. “Say, Scratch, do you mind if I—”

“You touch me and I blow everything up.”

“Figured.” To Octavia: “Just take her word, kid. Scratch’s got a good memory—if she says the bomb is golden, it’s golden.” She sighed, and walked closer to the two mares. “Honestly, the real question here is if the Can of Wyrms is really a bomb that will go off if you stop hugging? But again, if I were to guess at anybody crazy enough to turn an ancient weapon into a modern friendship-empowering explosive? Labcoat and Princess Luna are still the answer. So, play it safe.”

Vinyl’s eyes got shifty. “Why are you stepping closer.”

“Mm. So.” Daring Do had a strange look in her eyes. “Good news and bad news. Which one do you want first.”

“None,” Vinyl said.

“The good ones!” Octavia said.

“Gotcha. Congrats, kid, I’m listening to you now.” Daring Do kneeled right by Vinyl and Octavia and gave them a happy look. “Your shoulder isn’t actually broken! You got a nasty cut, yes, and I’m sure it hurts a lot—but if it were broken you wouldn’t be able to move your neck like that. I can tell from here that you just dislocated it.”

“My!” Octavia’s grin widened, her eyes started shining. She looked at Vinyl. “That is wonderful news! You heard that? Your shoulder is going to be okay!”

“I—”

“Which brings me to the bad news. Octavia, hold her.”

“Okay!” Octavia held on to Vinyl even more tightly. “That sounds like a perfectly normal thing to ask. Why, though?”

“You’ll see.”

“Wait. Hold on.” Vinyl’s pitch rose, and when Daring Do grabbed her front leg—the one that hurt the most—and pulled from it, her voice kept going up until it became a screech. “Hold on. Hold on! What are you going to—?!”

“I’d tell you this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you?” Daring Do mused, firmly gripping on Vinyl’s leg, “but I’d be lying.”

“WAIT!”

Daring Do did not wait.

She pulled.

Clack.


By the time Vinyl was done screaming in pain, her throat was more sore than her shoulder.

It still stung, mind you—it would sting for a while after this—but she could move it. She did not have as much strength as earlier, but she would get it back. And most importantly, her shoulder wasn’t actually broken.

“And that is probably the best thing that has happened to you today,” Daring Do was saying as she kept checking Vinyl’s shoulder. Octavia was still holding her, patting her mane and muttering soft words to calm her down—Vinyl, on his part, was too groggy to really do anything. “Broken shoulders are not something you just laugh off.”

“There, there, you’re fine now, you’re fine. Daring Do? Is she actually fine”

“Hmm-hmm. As fine as she’s ever gonna be.” Daring Do stepped away from the two mares. “Don’t see anything else. Shoulder’s okay now. Careful with the cut, however.”

“Good! Good.” Octavia gently patted Vinyl’s back—as far away from the shoulder as possible. “See? You’re fine. I’m great at this.”

“Ggggh.” Vinyl raised her eyes slightly and looked at Daring Do. “And why didn’t you do this earlier?”

“You kind of had a minor concussion. Wanted to make sure you were okay first. Or maybe I’m a petty mare! Who knows.” Daring Do frowned. “Are you okay now?”

“I hate you so much.”

“Taking that as a yes.”

“As you should!” Octavia chirped. “Thank you for healing her! I am so happy for you, Vinyl. Your shoulder is okay!” She nuzzled Vinyl on the cheek, eyes closed with happiness. “Oh, I felt so guilty about your injury after what happened at the stairs. But now you’re fine, and everything is okay!”

“HNNG—” It took a moment for Vinyl to unstiffen, and then: “Octavia, I can’t even begin to describe the pain.”

“Yes! But everything is okay!

“You’ve got a hell of a double act going on, don’t you,” Daring Do said. She turned around and walked to the nearest wall. There was a window there, one that clearly had not been designed to be open. Daring Do looked for a latch anyway. “Please send me an invite for the wedding, I can’t wait to throw it in the trash.”

Vinyl was too tired to glare, but she still managed to look wrong at Daring Do. “You know, Bon Bon would have probably found a way to heal me without putting me through Hell first.”

“Go gently lift a tail, Scratch, I’m working.” No latch. Daring Do sighed, and looked at Octavia. “Kid.”

“Daring Do?”

Vinyl grumbled. “Stop calling her kid already.”

“Mademoiselle. Lady Octavia. You.” Daring Do pointed at the window. “Is there any way to open this?”

“Not really!”

“Wonderful.” Daring Do started pacing around the room, looking at the paintings, at the statues, at the lamps on the roof. “Absolutely wonderful. So—Scratch. That was the hydragon, I got told? Hit you with one of its heads?”

Vinyl was making a conscious effort to breathe slowly, to slow her heartbeat down. “Yes.” It still hurt, but it was a different kind of hurt—the one that burns hard and goes away, rather than the lingering needles under your skin. “Came out of nowhere.”

“You got really lucky, then. The hydragon is not exactly keen on leaving survivors.” Daring Do stopped in front of an extremely stuffy painting of an old grey pony with an oversized coat. “Which is what annoys me the most, really. What do you know about that thing?”

This made Vinyl glare up. “Why are you asking?”

“Because, and I don’t know how many times I need to tell you this, coincidences don’t exist in our line of work, Scratch.” Daring Do turned away from the painting and kept on pacing around the room. Next, she stopped right by a statue of a pony doing something uncouth with a dolphin. “If you are here, there’s a reason for it. The hydragon’s after you. Why?”

“It is after us?” Octavia’s voice rose half a pitch. “My! That is extremely distressing. Are you sure?”

“Why else would you find it twice in a row? Don’t say it’s a coincidence.” Daring Do tapped the statue and pushed it, just enough not to topple it. Then she turned around to face Octavia and Vinyl. “You’re carrying a piece of the Can of Wyrms. I’m guessing that’s why it’s after you. But why are you carrying it? That’s the real question.” She tipped her hat. “So, I’m asking you. What do you know about the hydragon?”

Vinyl made a face. “Nothing. It appeared and tried to kill Princess Luna and that dragon.”

“Labcoat,” Daring Do said. “You sure it tried to kill them?

“I mean, I guess? It just sorta roared at us, and then the tower went down. It didn’t exactly lay down its plans in a dramatic monologue.”

“It said its name, though!”

“Oh yeah, it yelled ‘hydragon’ at us for no reason. Then the tower went down.”

Daring Do frowned. “Shame. I love the monologues, they’re really useful.” She looked around, and made a beeline towards the next statue: bigger, better, and this time there were two ponies doing uncouth things to a dolphin. “To be honest, it would make sense for the hydragon to go after Princess Luna, too. I don’t want to assume too much.” She touched this statue, too. “Okay, let’s try a different approach—why are you here?”

“Me?” Vinyl asked.

“Both of you. She’s also carrying the Can of Wyrms.”

“You mean here in the Castle?” Octavia asked. “Why! I am—”

“She’s ridiculously aristocratic and happy to tell you,” Vinyl interrupted. Octavia looked at her, annoyed, and slapped the back of her neck. Vinyl took a moment to blow a raspberry at her before continuing. “She got invited to the party and Princess Luna picked her from the crowd.” Pause. Blink. Vinyl looked at Octavia. “Right?”

“Indeed!”

“Hm. So Princess Luna knew you’d be here.” Daring Do pushed the statue once more, and this time it didn’t move at all. This seemed to satisfy her, as she immediately turned around with a big smile on her face. “So chances are, you were supposed to end up strapped to that bomb from the very start. Why did Princess Luna pick you to do this, did she tell you?”

Octavia took a moment to think about it. It had happened a mere six hours ago, but it felt like an eternity had passed. “She… said I had a bright future? And that I was a purebreed! And that it had to be us.”

“She told me I’d die in jail, and then blackmailed me into helping her, in my case,” Vinyl added. “What a charmer, Princess Luna is.”

“She is!” Octavia said, giggling a little. Then, she noticed Vinyl’s expression. “Oh, please. There’s no reason to still be annoyed. The Princess is a wonderful pony, and that was probably merely a slip of the tongue! She meant no—”

“Called you plump, too, didn’t she?”

“—On second thought, she does need to work on her manners. Urgently.”

“Blackmailed you, Scratch?” Daring Do asked, giving them a quick glance as she knelt down. She reached for the blanket on the floor, the one that had been tying Octavia and Vinyl to her back minutes ago. “What did you do?”

“That is also news to me!” Octavia chirped, pawing at Vinyl with a hoof. “Did she catch on you committing a lot of high treasons or something? Because that’s actually very likely. You talk a lot.”

“Eh. Not really.” Vinyl would have loved to shrug here, but her shoulder didn’t agree with her body language, so she just looked at Octavia. “I snuck in to talk to Record Label, he’s a—”

“Oh, I know him! Good little Label.” Octavia nodded. “I could probably get you a meeting with him if you want to?”

“You could? Wow. That would actually be pretty neat.”

“You snuck in and she caught you?” Daring took the blanket and tied one corner to the statue, frowning all the while—not as much in anger as like somepony who’s deep in thought. “Awfully convenient. Why this party, of all things?”

“I—”

“Because Record Label makes almost no public appearances!” Octavia said. She then stuck out her tongue to Vinyl before continuing. “Record Label is a darling as long as you’re rich or famous, but he is not exactly social. It’s hard to catch him in public.” Octavia rose her chin up with pride. “Why, not even I knew he was attending this event until I saw him at the hall!”

“Ah, see. That’s interesting.” Daring Do stopped fiddling with the blanket to look at them. “That is very interesting. How did you learn that Record Label was here, Scratch?”

Vinyl didn’t immediately reply. She simply frowned at Daring Do. “I don’t like what you’re implying.”

“Tell me how you learned that information, Scratch.”

“That’s not—”

“The mademoiselle,” Daring Do pointed at Octavia, “just said that Record Label is a recluse. But I’m guessing the Princesses could ask him to attend this event as a personal favor. Who told you that he was coming? Was it Bon Bon?” The smile in Daring Do’s face was more cutting than steel. She was carrying the blanket with her, the extreme that wasn’t tied to the statue. “It was Bon Bon, wasn't she?”

Vinyl flinched. “…It was,” she said.

“Right. So the Princesses knew both of you were here. Princess Luna didn’t pick you at random—this was planned. It had to be you two, for some reason.”

“They did say that!” Octavia said. “Princess Luna said it had to be us two, yes. We have no idea why!”

“Exactly,” Daring Do said. “Why you two of all ponies, to carry the Can of Wyrms?” Pause. Squint. “And why turn it into a bomb?”

“Hey!” Vinyl snapped so fast she made Octavia yelp, and she hurt her own shoulder—but in all honesty, she did not care at all. “Bon Bon told me about the party as a personal favor! There’s nothing to read into it!”

“Oh, yeah. The government worker just shared some secret intel with her friend, and it just happened to cause this entire mess,” Daring Do said, rolling her eyes. “What a coincidence, huh?”

“We’re colleagues! Bon would never betray me like that!”

“I thought you were a civilian now? Get a grip, Scratch. Princess Luna herself said it had to be you two, this was planned.” Then Daring Do looked at Octavia, and offered her the corner of the blanket. “Mademoiselle, hold this.”

Octavia frowned at her, and did not reach for the blanket with her mouth. “I do not like how you talk to Vinyl.”

“Oh?”

“She is my friend, and you are being particularly hurtful.” Octavia nudged Vinyl. “You okay?”

“Bon knows how—she’s the one who told me I had to leave the Service. She knows how much this matters to me.” Vinyl nuzzled Octavia back, almost without looking, just to get her confidence back a little. “So, like. Go jump out a window, Daring Do.”

“Sure, just give me a moment,” Daring Do said, still holding the blanket. “And take this, it’s important.”

“I do not see you apologizing for—”

“Look.” Daring Do’s voice rose just enough to get Octavia to shut up immediately. Her face was really close now, and Octavia could see the bags under her eyes, and the way she twisted her mouth with something that seemed a little bit like anger. “I’m under a lot of pressure right now, okay? There are ponies in danger. You want to play house and avoid your responsibilities? Be my guest! You want to deny the obvious! Good!

Octavia blinked, and looked at Vinyl. Vinyl said nothing.

So Octavia said: “Um.”

“But.” Daring Do got up, still carrying the blanket, and started pacing around the room again. She approached the window and tried to open it again, to no avail. “In the meantime, you two, there are ponies in danger. There’s a war going on!”

As on cue, the sound of rock breaking in the distance. Screams followed—very far away, absolutely, but they were there.

“Do you think this is a joke? There’s a hydragon on the loose. A hydragon.” Daring Do sighed, her shoulders slouched, and then she looked at Vinyl and Octavia, resting her shoulder on the window. “My assistant is out there, helping the dragons against the hydras. I didn’t want her entering the Castle when that monster is here, I—I need her to be safe.”

That got to Vinyl. “…Sugar Song is here?” she asked.

“Yes. She’s fighting the hydras.”

“You wanted her to be safe and you left her with the hydras?

Daring Do smiled a little at this. “She works for me. For her, that’s a cakewalk.”

Octavia tugged at Vinyl’s mane ever-so-slightly, to get her attention. “Who is Sugar Song?” she whispered.

“Daring Do’s secretary. She’s like a librarian, but without the inevitable emotional baggage.”

“Ooh.”

“She’s also able to fight hydras, apparently. I’ve met her a couple times. Daring and her are…” Vinyl wiggled her eyebrows. “You know.”

And Octavia’s eyes went wide, and her ears perked up. “Oh!” she said. “Oh! My!

“I can hear you, you know.” Daring Do was arching at eyebrow at them. “Song is just an employee. But she’s a good employee, and I don’t want to lose her. Have you seen the hydragon in action?”

“We have!”

“We super ha—wait didn’t you literally pop my shoulder back into place yourself? The shoulder the hydragon messed up?”

“You absolutely have seen the monster. Right.” Daring Do sighed again. “Want me to be honest? I don’t think you have. I think you’ve been really lucky, and you haven’t seen what a hydragon is able to do. That thing is more dangerous than an actual dragon.”

Octavia blinked. “Beg your pardon?”

Vinyl frowned. “That thing is what now.”

“Dragons are apex predators.” The bags under Daring Do’s eyes were darker than ever. “They’re the top of the food chain. They can afford being complacent.” She got up, then, and her shoulders hardened. “But the hydragon is part hydra. It knows what it is to be preyed upon, and it knows what it is to fight hard. It’s slightly weaker than an adult dragon, and that is precisely why it’s the most dangerous thing in Equestria right now.”

Then Daring Do took off her hat and threw it to the side, and approached the two mares with a steely face, and never breaking eye contact with Octavia.

“So,” she said once she was, again, kneeling by their side. “Take the bloody blanket, Mademoiselle, or I’m going to nail it to your forehead.”

Octavia took the blanket.

“Good.” Daring Do got up. “So Princess Luna got you two in the same place and strapped a bomb that also just happens to be an ancient magical artefact to your chests. And made you hug it out.” She nodded to herself. “Sounds dumb enough to be a brilliant plan that we don’t understand yet. Something that involves me—but I can’t see what role I’m playing yet.”

“Or,” Vinyl said, as Octavia was too busy holding the blanket with her mouth, “maybe it’s just all, you know. Just. Really dumb? And that’s it?”

“No. I know the Princesses. They always do this, it looks dumb up until it doesn’t, and then it all wraps up nicely, and it always involves me.” Daring Do went back to the small statue and, with a grunt and some effort, gave it a big hug—and then lifted it. “Hnnng. There must be something going on I’m not—hnnng. I’m not seeing. Why else would they call the dragons here? Why else make sure I get a piece of the Can of Wyrms?”

“Uh.” Vinyl frowned. “Well, Bon Bon said something about an alliance between dragons and ponies? Spike the dragon and all that. So, I guess they—okay, what are you doing?”

“Hnnng.” Daring Do took a couple unsteady steps towards the window, then put the statue down and looked at Vinyl. “Dragons are biologically inclined to eat princesses. Do you really think they would invite them here and risk a conflict just to chat about hypotheticals?”

“Well, it’s not like they’re going to eat Princess Celestia, right? That’s crazy.”

“No, they’re not, but you’ll notice how neither Princess Cadance nor Princess Flurry Heart attended. You know, since they have a crippling lack of omnipotence?” Daring Do took a deep breath, and lifted the statue again. “Hnnnnng. I guess Twilight is here, but she doesn’t count, she’s really hardcore—hnnng what is this thing made of.

“I think it’s stone.” Vinyl looked at Octavia. “Is it stone?”

Octavia nodded with enthusiasm, still holding the blanket with her mouth.

“Right.” Back at Daring Do. “It’s made out of stone.”

Hnnng. You’re so helpful aren’t you. Hnnnnnnng.

“Seriously, what are you doing?”

Ooof.” Daring Do placed the statue down again—this time, right next to the window. “Okay. So they have a plan, and Princess Luna asked you to go looking for Princess Celestia. Do you have any clue where she might be?”

Vinyl made a face. “I’ve kinda been avoiding figuring that out, to be honest.”

“Right. Of course. We wouldn’t want you being useful for once in your life.” Daring Do swept the sweat from her forehead, and then rested her back against the statue and looked at the two mares. “Okay. Do you know where Record Label is?”

And Vinyl looked at Octavia. “Well, I have a suspicion, but to be honest, it’s just that. Octavia knows more about the Castle than me—and I guess she’s seen the guy today, too? So she’s more likely to know…”

Octavia still had the blanket in her mouth, so she couldn’t really talk. She did, however, nudge Vinyl with her forehead.

“Right.” Vinyl nodded. “I see. I guess that makes sense.”

Daring Do arched an eyebrow. “You understood what that means?”

“I have absolutely no idea. I think she’s just trying to be cute.”

Octavia gave them both a huge grin.

Daring Do unarched her eyebrow. “Right.”

“However,” Vinyl continued, this time looking away from Octavia and around the place, “Twilight Sparkle did say that the Ballroom was the safest place in the whole Castle, so I guess he could be there? It’s just an idea, though. I haven’t really been asking around.”

Octavia pawed at Vinyl’s face.

“I’m guessing she means my assumption is correct.”

“I can see that happening,” Daring said, nodding. “The Ballroom is on the second floor, so the hydras can’t reach it, because they’re too dumb for stairs. It’s also probably big enough to host every noblepony at the party…?” She looked at Octavia, and when she saw the mare nodding, Daring smirked. “Good. So the chances of him being there are high. Typical.”

This made Vinyl look at her. “Typical?”

“We were going there already. I knew it was the safest place in the whole Castle.”

“And you’re dropping us there while you fight the monsters?”

“Hah. Hah, hah.” Daring Do shook her head. “Oh, Celestia. No.” Then she turned round, pawed took a deep breath to hyper herself up, and grabbed the statue a third time. “Hnnnnnng!

“Okay.” Vinyl rose her voice a little, and it had an annoyed ring to it. “For real! What on Equestria are you doing?!

This!

Daring Do let out a scream, lifted the statue all the way above her head, and hurled it towards the window.

CRASH!

The sound of broken glass filled the room. The statue was solid stone, and exactly as heavy as it looked—the window, fancy as it was, never stood a chance.

Then the sound of the stone breaking against the ground below—eerily similar to the sounds of war that could be heard in the distance, whenever they paid any attention.

Then Daring swept the sweat of her brow, picked up her hat, and put it on. “I’m listening to your advice, Scratch.”

“…What?”

“I’m throwing myself out a window.” Daring shot them her most wonderful smile. “Mademoiselle?”

Octavia raised her head. “Mmmmf?”

“Hold that blanket tightly.”


CRASH!

It was the second time that Vinyl and Octavia had seen themselves crashing through a window, although this time it hurt significantly less. The lack of an explosion behind them helped—so did the fact that Daring Do was using her body to shield them both from the broken glass.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

“MMMMMMMMMFFFFF!”

Didn’t stop them from screaming, though.

The Ballroom was enormous. It easily took over a fourth of the West wing of Canterlot Castle, and it had enough room for five hundred ponies. There was a huge chandelier hanging from above, red curtains around every window, and intricate filigree across the dance floor. To the right, a marble stage for the musicians; to the left, long tables to accommodate only the best of foods.

The stage was empty, and the tables were all upside down. Three hundred ponies were huddled up around the dance floor, sleeping soundly. Some of them were snoring.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

“MMMMMMMMMFFFFF!”

And Octavia, Vinyl, and Daring Do landed right in front of them.

“Okay, you two can stop screaming now.” Daring Do flapped her wings, and they landed quite gracefully on the ground. This was the first time she had flapped her wings in a while—they hadn’t flown out of the Art Gallery, they had thrown themselves out of the window.

“MMMMMMMMMFFFFF!”

And Octavia had been holding one corner of the blanket, while the other was tied to the window above—so they had swung downwards and towards the Castle, straight through the Ballroom window.

Daring Do let the two mares go and then looked at Octavia. “You can spit the blanket now, Mademoiselle.”

“MMMF—ptoo.” Octavia did so, and then she grinned from ear to ear. “Daring Do!” she said. “That was terrifying!

“You absolute psychopath!” Vinyl yelled, not as much gripping Octavia as clinging to her. “You have wings! What was the point of—”

“It was also really fun!” Octavia continued. “In a sort of, suicidal kind of way? We should do it again later!”

“—Octavia. Octavia, no.”

“Octavia, yes!”

“The point of it, Scratch, is that I don’t really have the strength to carry two mares and fly hard enough to break through a window. This was faster.” Then Daring Do straightened her back, and looked to the sleeping crowd.

They were all nobleponies—easy to tell; they were all clothed and looked dumb. Lots of monocles, lots of hats, that pink mare over there who was never seen without her saddle.

And they were all still sleeping. The ruckus hadn’t woken up a single one.

“And please,” Daring Do said, glancing at Vinyl for a moment, “act like an adult for once in your life. We’ve got company.”

Vinyl didn’t even bother looking at the crowd, she was too busy glaring at Daring Do. “What, the nobleponies? Who cares about them!”

“Ahem.”

“You don’t count, Octavia.”

“Good! Good. I have more noble blood than all of them combined, though?”

“Which is why you don’t count.”

“You don’t have more noble blood than every single one of them,” Daring Do said, not looking at them but rather facing the crowd. “Come on, Scratch, use your head. Why do you think we’re even here? The Ballroom is the safest part of the Castle, but there’s a war out there. She’s the protector of her people. She’s not going to leave something like the nobleponies’ safety up to chance.”

Octavia blinked, and her ears pointed up. “She?” she asked. “Who’s she?

But Vinyl Scratch didn’t have to ask. She felt a familiar presence behind her, and she heard what Daring Do had said, and she immediately knew what was going on.

So she turned around to face the crowd.

And her worst fear became a reality.

“I told you,” Daring Do said by her side. “They always do this. They love to wrap everything up nicely. Hi, Princess.”

And Princess Celestia, standing in front of the crowd, tall and beautiful and ominous, replied with the sweetest smile any pony ever smiled.

“Good afternoon, Daring Do. And good afternoon to you too, Octavia Pianissimo and Vinyl Scratch. I’ve been waiting for you.”

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