• Published 9th May 2021
  • 167 Views, 11 Comments

A Constant State of Atrophy - mushroompone



Flash Sentry and Octavia have a lot in common. One of those things is failed relationships. Another is the hotel hallway they're currently trapped in.

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Room 488

Let’s not leap to interpretations just yet,” Octavia said, holding up a hoof to shield herself from Flash’s unwanted opinions. “I’m still not keen on taking life advice from a hotel room.”

Flash glared at her. “I literally didn’t even say anything.”

Octavia crinkled her snout. “You were about to.”

The hallway was quite the same. At least that had remained. At least there was one small comforting thing to cling to in all of this.

It still smelled like cleaner and fair food, and it still had an uncomfortable and overwhelming carpet. It was still lit by sconces which looked like glass and yet very much were not. It had the same non-paintings hanging on the walls, a welcome change from the crowd of portraits in the previous room.

One thing was different, though: it felt smaller.

Octavia chalked that up to the frankly inconceivable size and height of the gallery. Of course this windowless hall felt small afterwards. Although, even she had to admit that she was feeling a bit rattled. Perhaps even slightly wired-- she wasn’t feeling quite so bone-tired anymore, after all.

Wasting no time, Flash once again produced his keycard and turned to swipe the door behind him.

Bzzt.

“Ugh.” He hung his head. “Great. This again.”

“You know, I’m not sure trying to get into more rooms is the best course of action,” Octavia said, almost timidly. Then, feeling vulnerable, she added, “I mean-- not that I don’t love this symbolic hell.”

“Ha, ha,” Flash mocked. He wandered down the hall to swipe his card again. “Your sarcasm is killing me.”

Bzzt.

Octavia watched quietly as Flash continued down the hallway. He didn’t bother to look back at Octavia, or even to call out to her as he went. He just plodded along, door after door, swipe after swipe.

Bzzt.

Bzzt.

Bzzt.

“Um, Flash?” Octavia called down the hall.

It echoed. The echo was back.

Flash appeared to sigh, though it was so soft that Octavia couldn’t make it out. “Yeah?” he replied.

“I was just thinking--”

“What?” Flash cupped a hoof around his ear. “Can’t hear you!”

Bzzt.

Octavia cleared her throat, stretched her neck out, and tried again. “I was just wondering if you--”

“Huh?”

Octavia growled, then set off down the hall towards Flash at a trot.

Flash watched and waited patiently as the tiny mare stomped towards him, hoofsteps muffled on the gaudy carpet.

“Can you hear me now?” Octavia asked mockingly.

“Uh-huh,” Flash replied bitterly. “What is it?”

Octavia sighed. “Well, it’s just--” She stopped herself as Flash turned and began to walk away from her again. After a moment’s hesitation, she started after him. “You don’t think this is dangerous, do you?”

Bzzt.

Flash furrowed his brow. “What, the hotel?”

“The hotel, the rooms-- it’s like you said, we don’t have any magic at our disposal,” Octavia continued.

Flash smirked to himself. “Oh, it’s like I said, huh?”

“Don’t let it go to your head, Flash,” Octavia muttered, unamused. “You know what they say about stopped clocks.”

Flash rolled his eyes.

“Do you really think we should go sticking our noses in all of this?” Octavia pressed.

“Honestly? Probably not,” Flash said with a half-hearted shrug. “But, also honestly, I’m really sick of talking about it.”

Bzzt.

Maybe that was fair. Octavia wanted to agree--quite desperately, in fact--but agreeing would mean two things: one, it would mean allowing her mind to wander on to other subjects, none of which were good; and, two, it would mean agreeing with Flash Sentry.

“So you’re just going to--”

“Yep.”

Bzzt.

Octavia’s face hardened. “I don’t like being interrupted.”

“Yeah, we get it,” Flash muttered. “You’re super controlling. Fun."

Octavia blinked. "Excuse me?" was all she could think to say.

Bzzt.

"Look, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out your whole deal," Flash said. So casually, too, like it really meant nothing to him. "All those other ponies had you under their hooves for so long. Now things are out of your control, and you're acting like your brain is melting."

Bzzt.

Bzzt.

Octavia scuttled down the hallway and kept pace with Flash in tiny, hurried steps. "I am not controlling."

"It's okay!" Flash cast her an easy-going grin. "It's like the room said: we're good enough. It's okay to have issues."

"The room didn't say anything-- you said that," Octavia corrected, her teeth clenched. "And I never agreed with you!"

"Maybe not out loud."

Bzzt.

"What are you insinuating?" Octavia pressed, doing everything in her power to get in Flash's personal space.

Flash sighed. "No offense or anything, but there's a million mares like you at the academy," he said, genuine exhaustion seeping into his voice. "I know anal retentive when I see it."

It froze Octavia right to the spot.

It was as if somepony had jammed a screwdriver right into the gears of her mind, and all of her bodily functions had ceased entirely. She didn’t even breathe. Her heart fluttered in her chest, yet didn’t truly seem to beat.

And yet Flash Sentry sauntered on down the hall, unbothered.

Flash Sentry, who wore charm like a costume.

Flash Sentry, who worshipped his grade school friend like a god.

Flash Sentry, who--despite it all--thought there was nothing wrong with him at all.

Flash Sentry, who definitely sucked more than she did.

Definitely.

Without thinking, without even hesitating, Octavia stalked down the hallway towards Flash and stood beside him, waiting as he lifted his card and swiped it.

Bzzt.

Octavia shoved him.

It wasn't a powerful thing. In fact, considering the size difference between the two ponies, she likely wouldn't have been able to cause Flash harm if she tried.

This was just to annoy.

She tried not to think of it as just a way to control.

Flash really only looked at Octavia, his brows arched in confusion and surprise. "What," he said, aiming for a question but landing solidly on a statement.

"You really haven't earned the right to have an opinion on me," Octavia said.

"It's not an opinion!" Flash defended himself, taking a few more easy steps down the hall with Octavia right on his tail. "I didn't even say it was a bad thing-- I just stated a fact."

"Not true!" Octavia argued. "You said it was an issue!"

Bzzt.

Flash cleared his throat. "Th-there can be good issues!"

Octavia pounded her hoof on the floor. "Of course there can't!"

Bzzt.

Flash sighed. "Fine. I only said that because you implied that it was an issue."

"Quit rewriting history!" Octavia scolded. "You just feel like you've unlocked the secrets of the universe because some lights went out in a hotel room, and now you feel like you can tell me my business. As if you somehow know enough about me to start tossing around labels. Hmph!"

Octavia shoved Flash again. This time, in frustration, he flared his wings slightly.

“Back off,” he muttered.

You back off,” Octavia retorted.

Flash did not reply. He walked a few more steps and silently swiped his card again.

Bzzt.

Octavia, lips compressed into a nearly invisible line, watched as Flash studied the card. He was doing exactly what she had done just hours ago: looking for warps or nicks in the metal strip.

He didn't seem to find any.

"You're doing it wrong," Octavia blurted, though there wasn't a single thing demonstrably wrong with the way Flash held the key card.

Flash furrowed his brows. "What?"

"The card!" Octavia reached over and yanked the card out of Flash's hoof. "You're doing it wrong. Let me show you."

Octavia stretched around Flash and tried to swipe the card at the door, but Flash batted her hoof away.

"I'm doing it fine!" Flash argued, ripping the card away from Octavia. "I was the one who got us in the first room, remember?"

"Oh, yes. And all was right with that place," Octavia muttered, still reaching for the card.

Flash held the card high above his head in one hoof. "Seriously? You're gonna blame me for the art gallery, now?"

Octavia, not the least but shy, wasted no time in trying to climb Flash like a tree. All the while, her hoof reached for the card.

Flash tossed the key to his other front hoof and held Octavia out on his foreleg like a troublesome cat. He tried shaking to get her off, but Octavia's grip was frighteningly powerful--a pure terror response, not a show of strength--and she held firm.

"Let go!" Flash commanded.

"Not until you give me the key!"

Octavia reached further, swiping at the air in a vain attempt to grab the card. Flash leaned backwards at a precarious angle, trying to keep his forelimbs as far apart as possible.

"You have your own!"

"But you're using that one wrong!"

Octavia made one last grab for the card, and Flash yanked his own foreleg far out of his comfortable range of motion. Regret filled his eyes as he flapped his wings, trying in vain to regain his balance. Octavia, of course, let go of Flash, and he instantly tumbled backwards against the nearest hotel room door.

He landed with a thud. Judging by the howl of paint he made, the sound was likely had been the back of his skull hitting the raised metal numbers in the upper half of the door.

Octavia winced and drew in a sharp breath.

For a moment, the door seemed to hold Flash’s weight. He closed his eyes and began to slide towards the floor, pain contorting his face, when his wing caught the handle and gave it a partial turn.

To Flash’s perpetual surprise, the door opened, and he fell backwards.

He fell backwards and… utterly vanished.

It took Octavia a moment to register what had happened, though Flash’s panicked sounds snapped her out of it a moment later.

“Octavia!” he called, as if from quite far away. “Help!”

Octavia rushed forward and stood right on the threshold, staring into a blue-black darkness and searching for any sign of her companion.

“Flash?” she shouted. “Flash!”

She thought she could hear a light rustling sound, almost like hooves galloping through grass. In fact, as she leaned over the threshold and scanned her inky surroundings for any sign of Flash Sentry, she could have sworn she smelled grass. Dew-laden, early-morning, summertime grass, carried on a gentle breeze.

“Flash, where are you?” Octavia yelled. The sound did not echo at all-- in fact, only the sounds of crickets came back to her.

“Eugh…” Flash groaned. “Down here…”

And Octavia turned her gaze downward.

It was-- well, it was outside.

Flash, poor thing, was laying sprawled in the grass at the bottom of a steep ravine. He was holding his face with one hoof, the other draped across his stomach. His wings were spread almost to their full span, which curiously made him look like a snow pegasus down there in the dark.

“A-are you alright?” Octavia asked.

Flash was still and silent for a long moment. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Super.”

Octavia stared down at Flash a while longer. He showed no signs of movement.

Somewhere in the distance, Octavia could hear an owl. She pulled her head out of the room and looked up and down the hall, as if the owl were somehow an illusion-- a speaker placed cleverly nearby.

But the hallway was still a hallway.

She plunged her head back in. It felt lovely to get a lungful of fresh air after only breathing the ice-cold air conditioning. Her eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness, too, and she found herself gazing out at a night sky filled with stars.

She blinked a few times, hard, and could start to make out the trees on the opposite side of the ravine. While the ground fell quickly away under the door, it continued on a gentle slope past Flash’s resting place and into a sparsely wooded area.

Octavia pulled her head back out.

It was like pulling her head out of a soap bubble.

Out here, hotel hallway. Cleaner smell. Ugly carpet.

In room 488, a summer night. Crickets. Fresh air.

“Flash?” Octavia called.

Flash only moaned softly in response.

“Erm... why don’t you come back up?” Octavia suggested. “This doesn’t seem… particularly restful.”

Flash moaned again, still not moving.

Octavia chewed her lip. Though Flash still did not move, the wind did blow through his mane and feathers. His tail hairs twisted over one another like a rope, dragging through the mud before flipping messily over the top.

“I’d really rather stay up here, if at all possible,” Occtavia announced.

Flash opened one eye. “That makes two of us, ‘cause I’d really like to stay down here.”

Despite his protests, Flash dropped his foreleg to his side and tried to push himself up, only to wince and snap one wing in towards his side.

Octavia, nervously chewing on the split edge of her hoof, leaned a little further over the threshold. She craned her neck this way and that, no idea what she was looking for as Flash struggled in the dirt. From the way he held his wing, it may have been broken.

Using one hoof as an anchor against the door frame, Octavia pitched precariously forwards.

Of course, this being a hotel room with a magical mind of its own, her anchoring hoof was useless against the sudden gust of wind which sucked her inside.

Octavia yelped once--quite shrill--and found herself tumbling head-over-hooves down towards Flash. It felt simultaneously like an eternity of dirt, and an all-too-soon conclusion at the bottom of a pit.

Flash chuckled to himself as Octavia landed flat on her back beside him, sliding some distance in the soft earth. It knocked the wind right out of her, but she still found enough air to wheeze a gentle “shut it!” in Flash’s general direction.

Up above them, the pair of ponies could only watch as the hotel door swung shut and vanished completely into the night sky.

Octavia sighed deeply and dropped her head into the dirt.

"What?" Flash asked.

"Hm?" Octavia rolled her head. "What do you mean? What… what?"

Flash shrugged, though even this small motion made him grunt in pain. "I dunno. Seemed accusatory."

"What is it they say about a guilty conscience?" Octavia mused.

"Uh…" Flash shifted against the dirt, searching for a comfortable position. "If the shoe fits?"

Octavia rolled her eyes. "Close enough, I suppose."

They were still.

The woods around them, however, were not. That gentle summer's breeze--the sort which Octavia was meant to be enjoying from the Canterlot Gardens about this time--shook every leaf on every branch in the place, swelling into a great wave that then crashed down upon Flash and Octavia. With their eyes adjusting to the darkness, they could see that the incline was, in fact, natural. In most places, it was littered with rotted-out logs and hardy shrubs and soil shelves which implied a more sudden than average erosion.

Octavia shivered. The grass was a little damp, and that tiny bit of fluid on her skin was enough for the breeze to suck the warmth right out of her.

It felt very real.

She looked up at the sky, searching the constellations for anything familiar, but found that the sky here was clearer than she was accustomed to in Canterlot. Not one recognizable shape amongst the sea of stars.

"Hey," Flash groaned, trying to push himself up. "You don't think we're really outside, do you?"

"Of course not," Octavia replied.

"Say we were, thought--"

A sound in the distance interrupted the likely inane thought.

The snap of a branch.

Octavia shot up, despite the protestations of her joints, and twisted herself around to look at the woods behind them.

Flash tried to do the same, but was unsuccessful.

"Did you hear that?" Octavia hissed.

Flash nodded. "Mhm."

Only the worst possibilities flashed through her mind. A bear. A cockatrice. A dragon. She wished silently that, whatever it was, it would be big enough so that she could be justified in galloping away.

As she rifled through some possible escape plans in her head, the sound came again-- this time with a burble of something else under it.

Laughter.

Octavia cocked her head in confusion.

There were more snapping sounds, sure, but they seemed to be accompanied by the giddy laughter of a few overly-friendly ponies, and… glass? Glass clinking?

Octavia craned her neck and, lo and behold, spotted a gaggle or silhouettes in the trees. She squinted, trying to make out the shapes and their direction, but was unable to parse their motion against the trees.

"What is it?" Flash asked, still straining to sit up.

"Sh!" Octavia shushed him.

"But--"

"Shush!"

The pair listened.

"...a hole in my favorite sweater," a voice was saying-- deep, but unmistakably feminine. "I mean, I know it's not cool or whatever to be upset about something like that, but--"

"No-no-no," another voice cut in, this one much more high-pitched and… for lack of a better word, girly. "If he doesn't respect your clothes, he doesn't respect you."

Octavia wrinkled her snout partly in confusion and partly in disgust.

"Are those other ponies?" Flash asked.

Octavia didn't say anything, just waved dismissively in his direction.

Flash, frustrated by his exclusion from the discussion, hauled himself to his hooves with a series of grunts and pops and cracks. Standing at last, he shook himself off and sprinkled Octavia with a fine shower of dirt.

"Eugh!" Octavia shot upwards, too, and began to delicately brush the dirt out of her coat.

"Hey." Flash, unperturbed by Octavia's behavior, gave her a nudge. "Look at that."

Octavia managed to pull her focus away from the dirt on her chest and looked up.

Flash was pointing further into the woods with one orange hoof. There, practically on the horizon, was the soft glow of a campfire. No, no-- a bonfire. Something large and lively, dancing in the darkness. Figures passed in front of it every now and then, and it threw warped shadows across the trees.

Flash squinted, one hoof shielding his eyes from… well, from the light of the moon, Octavia supposed. "What do you think's going on?" he asked.

"With shrill, inane chatter like that?" Octavia rolled her eyes. "One guess."

As if to prove Octavia's unspoken point, a pair of ponies stumbled out from a particularly thick patch of brush. They didn't seem to notice Flash and Octavia. One of them held a six-pack of cider in her yellow magic.

“Ooh! Do you think Millie will be there?” one mare squeaked. She did a funny little half-gallop to catch up to her friend, very nearly a skip. "I haven't seen her in ages."

"You saw her at the last tailgate…" the other mare corrected.

Flash's ears pricked up. "A party?"

Octavia gave her companion a disapproving look. "of course you'd be excited about that."

"Pft. Who ever said I was excited?" Flash muttered.

The pair stared into the woods for a long moment, watching as the partygoers made their slow way towards the fire in the distance. They were mere silhouettes against the powerful yellow light. Details forgotten. Colors washed away.

"Well." Flash fluffed his wings, and another little shower of dirt rained down onto the earth. "Let's get going."

He took about two steps before Octavia skittered out in front of him. "Oh, no. No, no, no."

Flash halted. "What now, Tavi?"

"It is Octavia," Octavia corrected, her jaw set. "And what makes you think we'll be attending some party in the woods?"

Flash gestured towards the fire in utter exasperation. "They're gonna know where in Equestria we are. So we can leave."

This gave Octavia pause.

Sensible.

Straightforward.

Challenging to argue.

"Do what you want, but I'm going to go get some directions," Flash said, taking great care to sound utterly impartial. "And some cider."

He didn't wait to hear what Octavia had to say about that. He merely started walking.

Octavia watched as he walked away, noting the bit of a limp he seemed to be fighting through. In fact, now that she really looked, he seemed to have taken the fall in a few bad spots: most noticeably his rear left leg and his right wing, which hung at an odd angle to his militaristically perfect left wing.

Maybe it was an instance--however brief--of some compassion for the stallion. Grinning through the pain. Fighting through the discomfort. It was familiar after all.

Maybe it was morbid curiosity.

Maybe it was the fear of being left behind.

Maybe it was a little bit of everything.

Whatever it was, Octavia set off at a brisk trot. She closed the distance between herself and Flash in no time, as Flash's measured steps were anything but quick.

“Of all things… another stupid party,” Octavia muttered. “I’ve had enough booze and crowds for a lifetime.”

Flash looked sidelong at Octavia, as if shocked she was beside him at all. “You’ve never been to a tailgate before, have you?”

“That’s when a bunch of rednecks pull their wagons up to a major sporting event and serve disgusting food out of the backs, yes?” Octavia guessed.

Flash laughed. A strained, half-serious sound that made Octavia's brows knit down even tighter. "Yeah, but this is like…” He struggled to think of the right words. “This is a tailgate in the woods. It’s different.”

“In that it takes place in a forest?” Octavia laughed, too, a wry little cackle. “Good observation, Flash. I’ll be sure to write the dictionaries over this one.”

“Y’know what? Fine. You wanna be a little prick about this, that’s your choice,” Flash said.

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Oh, spare the name-calling, Flash,” she said with a flick of her tail. “I think I know how to handle myself around a hillbilly hoedown.”

“Do you, now?” Flash’s mouth curled into a snide and condescending grin. “And what exactly makes you qualified, Dr. Yokel?”

“Oh, Vinyl Scratch was very fond of these little wooded moonshine parties,” Octavia grumbled. “Always dragging me off to some clearing in the middle of absolutely nowhere, all because some local DJ-slash-mixer was going to be playing music out of the back of his carriage. I hated every second.”

Flash just looked at her for a long moment. He seemed to be picturing it-- Octavia Melody, one of the more stuck-up ponies he’d ever had the displeasure of spending time with, leaning against a wagon in the middle of the woods. Probably with a little red cup in her hoof.

No, no. What was he thinking? Octavia was straight-edge, surely.

Little red cup filled with water, probably. Or BYOB club soda.

No wonder she hated every second.

“Eventually I put my hoof down,” Octavia continued. “I was miserable, after all.”

Flash nodded. “What, you told her you hated going?”

“Oh, pfft.” Octavia waved off the silly comment. “I told her I hated it, period. It was a poor career choice-- getting wasted in the woods for the sake of hearing some new terrible music… or playing music, to be frank.”

“You made her stop going to parties?”

The question was so accusatory, so bitter, that Octavia stopped short.

“N-now, hold on,” she said, holding up a hoof defensively. “You don’t have all the facts. She used to make such a mess of herself, after all; drunk, swearing up a storm, mane bedraggled, losing things--”

“That’s what ponies do, though,” Flash said. “They go out, get sloppy drunk, and do dumb stuff. It’s fun.”

“It was for her own good, Flash,” Octavia argued. “She was trying to make it as a musician. She wasn’t going to make it as anything acting like that.”

Flash looked at Octavia for a long moment.

As the crickets chirped and the breeze blew over them, Octavia swore she could see the gears of Flash’s mind spinning. He looked at her like he was rearranging the puzzle pieces of her mind, trying to come up with a complete picture of the mare before him.

Most disturbingly, he was starting to smile.

“Oh, okay,” he said, nodding. “I’m starting to connect the dots here. You were raised little miss perfectionist, Vinyl was the wild child--”

“Don't you dare psychoanalyze me, Flash.”

“You make it so easy, though,” Flash said.

Octavia painted on a smile. “How would you like to be tossed into your second ditch of the evening?” she offered.

Before Flash could snark back at her, Octavia flipped her mane over her shoulder and continued down the narrow dirt path towards the bonfire. Flash, still grimacing through his bumps and bruises, followed as quickly as he could.

Thanks to his long strides and Octavia’s short legs, Flash quickly closed the distance between them.

“I know you’re not gonna take my advice, so I really don’t see the point in saying this at all, but--”

“Then don’t,” Octavia suggested harshly.

Flash sighed. “I just really think this could be a good opportunity for you to let loose a little bit,” he said. “Y’know. Nopony here to impress, no reputation to uphold… no mom.”

Octavia grit her teeth.

“Could be fun!” Flash said. “Who knows? You might even become a bit more bearable. Anything’s possible.”

“Clearly…” Octavia muttered. "This is what fun ponies do, after all."

"Exactly." Flash nodded.

"Exactly," Octavia agreed.

Their conversation halted there, each party feeling like the winner.

There was a tension in the air, though, as the ponies considered their next move. Despite only knowing one another for a few hours, there was a quantifiable need to win attached to their every interaction. Each wanted to be right, to be the wittiest, the quickest to the punch, the expert.

Just as some new insult was rolling to the front of Flash's tongue, the pair penetrated the outer edge of the party atmosphere.

Octavia could sense campfire smoke and cider in the air, and Flash’s ears pricked at the sound of somepony playing guitar. The chatter from the party was reaching the level of a full roar, and both ponies were reminded of the excitement before a concert began. That wound up, electric feeling before a momentous shared experience.

It was a stone cold reminder of how far they had been thrown from their plans for the weekend.

The fire crackled at the center of it all, large enough and strong enough to serve as the bassline for every other chirp and drone and clatter present.

It sounded… big.

Really big.

Just as Octavia was beginning to question her presence at such an event, the narrow path between the muddy incline and the woods widened, and the ponies were deposited in a clearing surrounded by carriages with almost no warning. And, as much as Octavia hated to admit it, Flash was right: this was not the sort of tailgate she had been picturing.

Octavia had been to parties in the woods. Most of those parties had been… controlled. That may be too nice a word for what they really were--niche, without many interested attendees, and generally a flop--but that is certainly how it seemed in comparison to the scene before her.

This, on the other hoof, was completely out of control.

Just about the only organized element of this little shindig was the carriages--about two dozen in total--which had been pulled up in a wide and nearly perfect circle. If somepony had shouted to Octavia from the other side of the circle, she doubted she'd have been able to make it out.

At the center of it all was a massive bonfire, one that must have taken some legitimate know-how to construct. It was as high as it was wide. Its heat was almost oppressive.

Everything else was pure chaos.

There were ponies everywhere. Some of them dancing, some of them carrying on conversations by shouting over the din, some of them playing drinking games-- the rules unclear. Though there were paths through the many separate gaggles of ponies, they were constantly shifting size and position. It was as if the party were a massive living organism, moving and breathing and… well, if smell were any indicator, vomiting.

Though Octavia could not locate the source of the music she heard, she could feel it in her very hooves. In her bones even.

In fact, she could feel it all in her bones.

Flash whistled. "Wow. That's some hillbilly hoedown."

Octavia was stunned to silence and rooted to the spot. She watched, horrified, as a pegasus leapt off the ground, funnel clutched in his front hooves. The battle cry of chug, chug, chug! rang out against the rest of the shouting. A stallion on the ground struggled to gulp down booze at a frankly inequine rate.

"Wouldn't you agree?" Flash said, smiling down at Octavia. "That it's an impressive little thing? This hillbilly hoedown?"

Octavia held up a hoof to silence Flash. "I stand by what I said."

Flash only grinned down at her. A winner's grin.

“Let’s find somepony and ask for directions to the nearest city," Octavia ordered, already surveying the crowd for possible targets. "We’ll be out of here in no time.”

"Well…" Flash looked out into the crowd, as well. "Maybe."

Octavia looked up at him, her face collapsing in on itself with the effort of scowling. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Flash shrugged. "Y'know. We're not in the hotel anymore."

“No, really? I hadn't noticed."

Flash set his jaw. “I just mean we don’t have to burn rubber getting back to Canterlot,” he explained. “Why don’t we hang around, have a few drinks? Meet some locals, y’know?”

Octavia’s lip curled. She looked back into the crowd in just enough time to see a rather… unhygienic stallion spit brown liquid into a soda can.

“How silly of me,” she said. “Who knows? My new best friend could be just around the corner, hm?”

Flash glared at her, though he was really losing energy with every nasty look. “I still stand by what I said, Tavi. You should try to loosen up a little,” he said. “ Y’know, get sloppy with the rest of us and sing an embarrassing song? It’s good for you.”

“No,” Octavia said, “it’s good for you. Or, rather, you think it’s good for you.”

“It is good for--”

“And, by the way, who are you to start preaching to me about getting sloppy and making mistakes?” Octavia pressed. “You only had this epiphany about perfection, what, under an hour ago? Don’t you think it’s a little soon to start haranguing me?”

Flash said nothing.

He stared at Octavia, shadows from the bonfire dancing wildly over his stony face, making no move to respond.

Octavia, to her credit, stared back.

After one moment too many of the impromptu staring contest, Flash broke eye contact to flag down a passing unicorn mare carrying a six pack.

“Hey-- think my friend, here, could get one of those?” Flash asked sweetly.

The mare shrugged. “Sure.” She pulled a bottle out of the cardboard and popped the cap off with her magic.

“Thanks,” Flash said with a smile.

“Anytime,” the mare said with a wink.

Octavia had to hold back the myriad of comments piling up in her frontal lobe.

When the mare had gone, Flash pressed the bottle of cider into Octavia’s hoof. “Do yourself a favor and have a drink, okay?” he said. “Go talk to somepony, and try to back the stick out of your ass. Even an inch or two would be a big improvement.”

“Didn’t your parents ever teach you that drinking doesn’t make you cool?”

“Yep. And you’re living proof that they were wrong,” Flash said with a smirk. “You’re literally so uncool that there’s nowhere to go but up. I bet allergy meds would make you cooler than you are right now.”

“I bet allergy meds taste better than whatever they put in this thing,” Octavia said, her face crumpling into a grimace as she sniffed at the bottle. “Eugh.”

“You mean… alcohol?” Flash asked.

Octavia stuck her tongue out at him and took a sip from the bottle. It tasted like an overripe apple somepony had forgotten in the back of their medicine cabinet, but Octavia managed not to spit it all over Flash’s chest, which she considered a win.

Flash put a hoof to his chest and smiled. “Wow. So proud.”

“Great!” Octavia smiled falsely, then turned to a scowl, her ears pinned to her head. “We’re leaving.”

And, as she said it, Octavia saw the sky change.

In Canterlot, it would have been subtle. All the light pollution, all the distraction, all the magnificence on the ground-- who would have noticed if the stars went out? Who could have seen the sky’s deep blues and purples run over by a cloak of pitch black?

Here in the country, though, it was all too clear. The sky went completely and utterly dark in moments, as if the whole foolish woodland party took place in a snowglobe that was suddenly covered by a black cloth. The stars vanished, as did all the subtleties of color and form there in the dark of night.

Just like that, the campgrounds were lit only as far as the bonfire could spread its warm glow. Only a dark fog lay beyond its wide dome, swallowing up trees and the front ends of wagons.

Flash seemed only half-surprised. He sighed lightly, clearly unbothered by this development. “You think they noticed?”

Octavia looked out at the crowd.

If they had noticed, they sure didn't seem to care. They kept on shouting and thrashing and drinking and shouting some more.

Flash chuckled and lifted one hoof to the sky. “Okay. That’s creative. I’ll give it that.”

“Don’t be stupid, Flash,” Octavia scolded. “It’s-- it isn’t--”

“Hey!” Flash cut her off with a hard clap on the shoulder. A good mouthful of cider splashed out of her bottle and into the grass as she lurched forward. “Now you have to stick around and enjoy the tailgate!”

Octavia could feel the frustration spinning up in her chest.

It felt like a pinwheel caught in a wild wind-- the normally calm and beautiful thing now whipped and buffeted about, out of control, nearly tearing itself apart. She could feel the thin edges bending and creasing and ripping as she tried not to leap on Flash like a wild animal.

Flash only smiled. “How about that?” he said. “Looks like somepony thinks I’m right: you need to party.”


The side of this wagon was quite comfortable, Octavia thought.

Not because it was true, but because she really needed to convince herself it was true. The side of this wagon was hard and splintery, the paint was cheap and tacky, and the whole structure creaked under her weight, which made her feel kind of bloated.

The cider wasn’t helping, either-- despite what Flash would have her believe.

Octavia swirled the amber liquid around in her bottle (nearly empty, which she was quite proud of), and stared out at the bonfire.

The crowd had started to partition itself, it seemed. The chaos was sorting itself out as ponies departed to other plans and events, and tighter groups were beginning to form closer to the bonfire. The music continued, but it was less manic than it had been earlier in the evening.

The cadence of the forest had changed. The screaming and chanting had turned to excited conversation and occasional laughter, all building upon the symphony of forest ambience and crackling fire. There, in their little groups, they all seemed to be holding cider and chatting so easily.

It was so anonymous, she thought. So many ponies, most of them only meeting for this night, never to see each other again.

It was the perfect place to be unabashedly you, she thought. At least if they hated you for it, you could run away and hide it forever.

It made her think of her sister.

Fiddlesticks was just the sort of pony to whip out her viola and start something. One of those moments that turns into a story at another party. No shame, no embarrassment, no pause. No cringing through mistakes. Just a joyful melody and laughter on her lips.

Octavia sipped her cider.

It did kind of get better the more you drank it. That rotten taste separated itself from the apple, allowing the fruitiness to stand alone until it burned in your throat. And it wasn’t even that much of a burn. More of a sizzle. A tingle, even. The suggestion of heat, gone before you could get a hold of it.

Even so, Octavia was far from tipsy.

She took another sip.

Once upon a time, Octavia had tried. To be popular, that is. Or maybe not even popular-- just to be likeable. Easygoing, unconcerned, the sort who could walk right up to a gaggle of ponies at a party and join a conversation without any trouble.

She had gone to parties.

What they don’t tell you about parties is that they’re terrifying.

Well. Perhaps only for Octavia.

But, despite her terror, she had gone. She had spent hours beforehoof psyching herself up, checking her mane in the mirror, fretting over her outfit choice, constructing lies to tell her parents-- and, inevitably, all of that effort would be for nothing. She’d arrive at the party and become instantly paralyzed by the thought of doing something socially awkward or unacceptable. She would find herself frozen at the entrance, miserable, for hours on end while her friends had a great night.

And then, no matter how great the night was, it would be lost in a hazy blur of a thousand other great nights.

But Octavia remembered every second of being paralyzed at the punch bowl.

Just watching from the sidelines. Always a little bit uncomfortable. Clutching something, anything, which might bring her stability or courage or even just get her nervous brain to shut up for once.

She was the same, wasn't she? Frozen by the punch bowl. Stuck on the outer edge of everything.

Strangely enough, those early parties always had a dark dome closing in on her, too. Though perhaps not one that was quite so literal.

Octavia looked behind her. The edge of the darkness was maybe two lengths back, just hanging there ominously. It sort of swirled in the air like it was powered by an evil fog machine.

That would have been nice. But it wasn’t a fog machine.

Octavia didn’t know exactly what it was, but she knew better than to mess around and risk finding out. Looking at it made her chest squeeze and her heart pound. Even though it was entirely stationary, she had the strange feeling that it was closing in on her. Or that whatever was on the outside was spilling ever inward.

She sighed and turned back to the bonfire.

Flash seemed so relaxed.

He was talking in a little group of his own. Perfect strangers. Laughing, tossing his mane, flaring his wings in a show of strength not unlike a circus strongpony-- or maybe a peacock was a better comparison.

It made Octavia seethe.

Why was it that Flash could do things so easily?

How could he take everything in stride like this? How could he see a painting on the wall and suddenly change his whole worldview? How could he do it with a smile, with swagger, and universal adoration?

How was he better at being imperfect?

As she watched, Flash took a long swig from his bottle of cider, and the light from the fire sparkled through it like liquid sunshine. He looked like a model in an ad for summer fun. The dancing shadows from the fire didn't even look ominous on him-- merely active. Energized. Like he was simply bubbling with enthusiasm, even unconsciously.

And Octavia was stuck.

Stuck at the edge. Looking in. Dome catching up.

Stuck where the light of the fire didn't quite reach her.

Stuck before the mistake, but stuck before any of the good stuff, too.

And that was probably the moment that Octavia decided to have fun.

Out of spite.

Because, if she was being honest, being spiteful was how she got anything done at all.

She took a deep breath and raised her bottle of cider to her mouth. After a momentary near-gag, she managed to tip the bottle back and guzzle down the rest of it, all before tossing it into the grass beside her with a dull thunk. She did it because it was the sort of thing she thought a more popular pony might do. Then, after a moment's consideration, she bent down to retrieve the bottle from under a nearby carriage and drop it into the garbage bin on her other side.

The alcohol did not feel right in her throat. Ponies always talked about a burn, and she had imagined it like some sort of hot sauce-- but this was downright uncomfortable. Like acid reflux.

Octavia pushed down the thoughts of an antacid--and the bile--and marched towards the bonfire, head held high, brow furrowed low.

"You ever seen Iron Broodmare in concert?" Flash asked of a young mare, gesturing coolly with his half-empty bottle of cider. "Whole different thing. Top ten shows to see before you--"

Octavia scooted right up to him.

Flash paused his story, as did the other ponies in his small conversational circle. "Uh… hi."

Octavia blinked. Slowly. She didn't look in Flash's direction--in anypony's direction, really--instead opting to glare into the fire.

"You okay?" Flash asked, giving his companion a gentle nudge.

"Hm?" Octavia looked up at him. "Oh-- fine. Brilliant, even."

Flash gave her an awkward half-smile. "Uh-huh."

"What are you lot up to?" Octavia asked.

The other ponies--ones Octavia decidedly did not recognize--gave her blank looks.

"Having a conversation?" Flash said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.

Hm.

Then again, maybe it was the most obvious thing in the world.

The qualifier on that--the 'without you' on the end of 'having a conversation'--may have technically been implicit, but it certainly didn't feel that way. From the way the other mares stared at Octavia, you would have thought she'd blundered into some grand meeting of the minds. Some top-secret club of which she would never be a member.

Sensing impending social suicide, Octavia backtracked. "Well, don't stop on my account," she said with a scoff. "Carry on."

Flash gave her an odd look. "Sure," he said. His gaze lingered on her for a moment, before her finally tore it off her face and back to the mares in front of her. "So, as I was saying…"

Octavia stood there a moment longer. She tried to latch onto anything that Flash was yammering about, but the full roar of the bonfire seemed infinitely more interesting than whatever mainstream death metal band he was bowing down to.

With a soft huff, Octavia rolled her eyes and turned away.

Fine. False start. Try again.

She began to wander around the bonfire, ears swiveling every which-way to catch whatever snippets of conversation might float her way. It was all mumbled, thought-- private conversations spoken softly, as if they all hoped it would vanish under the crackling fire and the humming insects and the stallions plucking their guitars.

There was a small table covered with alcohol-- mostly of the keg-supplied variety. Octavia wondered how one might organize something like that, but figured it was a stupid thing to wonder about. After all, everypony here seemed to know everypony else. It must have been the entire young-adult population of whatever podunk town they happened to be near.

She paused briefly, looking over the options. Nothing but beer and cider-- rotten drinks.

Octavia closed her eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and let it out in a snort. It smelled like campfire smoke and cigarette smoke and something else she couldn't quite identify-- whatever it was, it choked her, and she had to hold back a cough. When the feeling passed, though, she swallowed hard.

Before she could change her mind, Octavia snatched a red cup off the table and began to fill it with beer.

In that moment, she felt not unlike a viking preparing for battle. This red cup was her stein, this beer her mead, this bonfire the grave of her valiant brethren.

That almost made it heroic.

Almost.

She lifted the cup to her mouth, ignoring how much its contents looked like urine, and tried to take a sip.

It didn't quite make it into her mouth.

"Oh, ew…" she murmured, grimacing at the smell alone.

That was fine! She could just… hold it.

She'd get around to drinking it eventually.

Yeah. That was the ticket: just hold it, and wander about in the crowd. That's all anypony did at these things, right?

There had to be somepony here worth talking to. Even as she wandered about like a lost foal, eyes to the blackened sky, she tried to remain optimistic about that one thing. That this wouldn't be a waste of time. That she would feel good about it soon. And forever. And maybe somepony would even like her.

It couldn’t possibly be all the trouble she was making it out to be. Small town ponies have great stories, after all-- they know so much history. Surely somepony here would--

"Back again?"

Octavia blinked.

She was, in fact, back again. Standing in the same little circle of insipid mares slobbering over Flash Sentry.

For a moment, all she could feel was the sudden heat of the fire on her cheek. She didn’t remember stopping. She didn’t remember coming over here at all. She was just… here now.

Flash was staring at her with a strange sort of concern; his brows were knit, his lips pursed into a funny little grimace. But, worse than that, he was looking down at her with condescension in his eyes. As if he thought Octavia couldn't handle herself at a party, and was being magically, magnetically drawn back to his side in her obvious helplessness.

"Um." Octavia shivered as she tried not to shuffle her hooves.

Flash tilted his head to one side. "You okay?"

And she stared at him.

And the fire warmed her face.

And the alcohol warmed her gullet.

As she stood there, staring at Flash, she swore she could feel the warmth spreading. It didn’t feel quite so much like a burn anymore, which was a relief. No, this was sort of feverish. An inside-out heat that feels unnatural, and yet comforting.

It was creeping outwards. Very slowly. Very deliberately. It seeped out from her stomach and into her lungs, and Octavia could feel herself breathing easier.

Just like that. No more hurried panting, no more gasping for fresh air above all the awful closeness. She was just… breathing.

How about that?

Octavia looked over the other mares in the circle, all of them holding a bottle of their own, and she could see how the warmth of their drinks had reached their eyes.

"Just… needed a drink," Octavia said softly.

"Uh… okay." Flash appeared to be barely holding back laughter.

Octavia nodded--more to herself than to Flash--and looked down into her cup.

It was certainly… yellow.

She wrinkled up her snout and tried to resist holding the cup away from her face. Much like the cider, the beer had a distinct 'gone bad' smell which triggered Octavia's gag reflex before she could even take a sip.

That said, the much stronger influence on her at this moment was elsewhere.

She looked up, and the eyes of a dozen other ponies stared back. Waiting for her to take a sip. Waiting for her to gag and grimace and make an idiot out of herself.

Or-- no. They weren't looking at her at all. They were looking at Flash.

Octavia brought the cup to her lips and, before she could react, gulped down a mouthful of beer.

It tasted like it had gone bad. And it had a burn that similarly suggested she had ingested something widely considered inedible. Besides that, the taste sort of reminded her of… biscuits, she supposed.

"Eugh…" she moaned in disgust, once again squinting back down into the cup as if some unknown horror would reveal itself to her.

No such ingredient could be seen.

She took another sip.

Moldy bread, all the way. But also sort of spiced-- like gingerbread or fruit cake something. She couldn't pin down any one flavor, as the alcohol washed all subtleties away, but she determined there may be some merit to this after all.

She took a mouthful, this time forcing herself not to make a face. The beer rolled down and settled comfortably in her stomach with only the slightest twitching of her lips.

Satisfied with her performance, she looked up from her drink and forced a look of satisfaction.

“So…” Flash looked down at her, then at the beer in her hoof, and then back at her. “How are we doing on the fun-having part of the experience?” he murmured, just loud enough for Octavia to hear.

We aren’t doing anything,” Octavia corrected in a hiss. “I am socializing, thank you very much.”

“Oh, yeah? Who’ve you socialized with, then?”

Octavia set her jaw. “I am socializing at my own pace.”

Flash chuckled in disbelief, but said nothing. It was the sort of chuckle one makes when a child has just said something truly and remarkably stupid-- or perhaps, when an adult has said something truly and remarkably childish.

He lifted his bottle and took a sip.

Octavia, trying to keep pace, did the same.

Flash gave her a look out of the corner of his eye. A squinty, suspicious one.

Octavia quickly sucked down another mouthful and held her face stony-still as she swallowed the vile stuff. This seemed satisfactory to Flash, and his focus returned to the conversation.

Which… may have been a loose definition.

“They totally hooked up last time we had one of these,” a mare across the circle was saying, shaking her head in apparent disgust. “I bet they do it again.”

“Tsk, no way!” The pegasus behind her laughed as if that were the most ridiculous thing in the world. “Who told you?”

The first mare rolled her eyes. “Nopony told me, I just know. I always know.”

Flash actually laughed at that. Octavia had to hold back from rolling her eyes or scoffing. “What are you, the friends with benefits whisperer?”

“Pft. You don’t need any special powers to see that,” the mare insisted. “They’re, like, attached at the hip. Always making eyes at each other and sneaking off-- it’s disgusting.”

Octavia, despite her disinterest in the subject, tried to perk up a bit. “Who?”

Every eye in the circle was on her. Like magnets. Like glue.

Octavia shrank into herself a bit. To fill the gap, she had another sip of beer. It was starting to taste less foul.

“Uh… you’re new here, right?” somepony asked her.

Octavia swallowed quickly. “Why does that matter?”

“If you’re new, then why do you care who we’re talking about?” another mare asked. “It’s not like you know them.”

“I was simply trying to be an active part of the conversation,” Octavia explained through clenched teeth. “I don’t see how it’s unreasonable to--”

“They’re talking about Desert Wind and Hermes,” Flash muttered down to her. He likely meant to be discreet, but this halted Octavia’s train of thought entirely.

Her mouth hung open for a moment.

The other ponies in the circle seemed somewhat embarrassed, which Octavia had to admit she was happy about. The eyes that had been judging her just moments ago now seemed to sweep down to the ground in unison.

Octavia, ever the socialite, did not say any of the things she wanted to say.

Instead of saying 'you don't have to help me, Flash, I'm not a foal', she took a long, deep breath through her snout. She did it as loudly as she could without making it obvious.

And, rather than saying 'I don't see the big deal. Who cares?' she lifted her bottle to her lips and took a sip of her drink.

After a moment, the rest of the party rolled right along. Crickets, crackling fire, polite conversation, plucking guitars. Bottles clinking in small toasts and cheers. Bubbling laughter. All the sounds of a cocktail party mixed with all the sounds of a camping trip. Such a strange combination.

"I just wish they'd own up to it already," one mare murmured down into her drink. "We shouldn't all have to pretend not to notice. I mean, come on."

"I know, right?!"

Octavia ground her teeth and tried not to think about how outrageously stupid this conversation was.

Flash, to his credit, also seemed more than a little uncomfortable. He bent down a little, leaning towards Octavia, and said, “I was just here for the beginning of the conversation. They weren’t trying to--”

Octavia held up a hoof. "I don't need a party translator."

"I never said you needed a--"

"Contrary to popular belief, I know how to handle myself at one of these things."

Flash scowled. "I never said you couldn't."

"Well, you're certainly acting like it."

"I'm just trying to help!" Flash hissed.

"I never asked for help!" Octavia shot back, giving her companion a shove away from her.

In the process, she carelessly tipped the last of her beer down Flash's chest. It made a wet sound as it landed in the grass that reminded Octavia of her swiftly-filling bladder.

Flash looked down at his chest. Rather than say something, he instead glowered at Octavia. Perhaps he was waiting for an apology, or maybe a napkin, but he said nothing at all-- only stared as the beer dripped down from the fur on his chest and into the puddle at his hooves.

“Great,” Octavia spat, spiking her empty cup into the dirt. “Now I need another drink. Thank you, Flash.”

“Yeah, and grab a hose while you're at it," Flash barked.

Octavia, of course, didn’t bother to respond. She turned right on her heel and trotted back to the booze table.

The warmth was creeping out a little further, she noticed. Not much. Only a bit. But even now, as miffed as she was, her lungs were breathing steadily and easily. Her heart seemed to be a bit warm, too, as it wasn’t hammering against her chest like usual.

That was good, she thought.

A party without the anxiety. Social niceties without the sweating and the panting. She could see why other ponies liked this stuff so much.

She grabbed another cup and held it up to the tapped keg. As the liquid pooled in her cup--slowly, as the beer seemed to be getting low--she resisted the urge to fade into it like some sort of social chameleon. Blending in at the edges of parties was one of her talents, and an almost unconscious one by now. She planted one rear hoof away from the table as far as she could bear, telling herself that the other ponies wouldn’t care either way. That this was a party, that ponies behaved as if they were all the protagonist of their own sad little story, that ponies would just walk around her.

Small as it seemed, it felt sort of good. Taking up space, that is. Being in the way. Unabashedly impacting the lives of those around her.

A bit of beer spilled over her hoof.

It took her a moment to respond. She had started to slump off to one side, and the cup in her hoof was getting sort of heavy, and so it had dipped towards the ground.

“Ew. Sticky,” Octavia commented. She dropped the keg’s hose and passed her cup over to her free hoof, shaking the beer out of her fur as best she could.

She did this for a while. Then she realized she wasn’t really getting anywhere.

She dropped her hoof down into the grass and tried to wipe it off, but quickly found her fur to be filled with all manner of other disgusting substances: dirt for one, a mystery liquid that seemed a bit like urine for another.

Octavia whimpered to herself and quietly gave up.

In an effort to get her mind off things, she lifted her cup to her face and sniffed cautiously. It still smelled like a compost bin, but that was fine. She probably wouldn’t even drink it, really-- just hold it. Talking was easier with something in your hoof, after all.

She sort of remembered her mother telling her that.

Octavia stared down into her cup a while. The foamy surface of the warm beer was not friendly to studying one’s reflection, byt Octavia could have sworn the bubbles swirled into something like an eye. But, then again, it was probably nothing.

It looked the way it felt. Fuzzy.

She took a sip.

Then she remembered that she really wasn't going to drink this one. She was just going to hold it.

She could do that.

For a moment, Octavia considered pouring the drink out in the grass and merely holding an empty cup. It would, perhaps, be best not to leave everything up to chance. Plus, she doubted anypony would notice.

But the warmth was starting to feel quite nice, now that she thought about it. Welcome, even. Safe.

She could have another.

This is what ponies did, right? Ponies drank at parties. And she was a pony at a party. So she was going to drink.

She took another sip. As the liquid rushed down her throat and pooled in her stomach, Octavia surveyed the crowd. Sure, she could return to Flash's little gaggle of groupies, but there had to be--

"Are you okay?"

Octavia bristled at the sudden hoof on her shoulder and whirled to face the stallion who had snuck up on her.

Flash, still dripping with beer, was standing beside her. He seemed concerned, in his own strange way.

Octavia scoffed and shook Flash off with a quick jerk of her shoulder. "Why do you keep asking me that?" she spat.

"Because," Flash said pointedly. "You're acting like a robot. Plus, you've been staring into your little red cup for a few minutes, now."

"How many times do we have to go over this?" Octavia pushed the lip of her cup into the fur on Flash's chest with accusatory pressure. It buckled like a piece of looseleaf. "You don't know me. You don't know what I'm like. Maybe this is how I always am, hm? Might that be possible?"

Flash snorted and batted the cup off of his chest. "Doesn't really matter whether it's the usual or not," he said.

"Oh?" Octavia arched an eyebrow. "And how do you figure that?"

Flash fanned his wings in a broad gesture, rather like a peacock. "This is a party. Parties aren't for staring blankly into a bonfire, they're for having fun! Meeting new ponies!" He insisted this whilst painting a falsely bright smile over his face. "Y'know, socializing? Ever heard of it? Or tried it?"

Octavia allowed the questions to hang in the air for a moment or two. Only the pop of a bit of tinder inside the bonfire disrupted the distant drone of the crowds.

"You're not funny," Octavia said simply.

"I don't have to be funny. I just have to be right," Flash said. "And I am."

There was a strange feeling in the pit of Octavia's stomach. It was similar to the warmth of the alcohol, but it was starting to boil, now. A few slow bubbles creeping up to the surface. A sort of churning sensation. A heat that threatened to spread.

The phrase ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ was developing a deeper meaning. She could have sworn she felt a sizzle.

Octavia grit her teeth. "You aren’t."

Flash made a face of faux surprise. “My, my-- was that a contraction I heard? How casual.”

Octavia opened her mouth to respond, but was suddenly thrown forward as some stranger slammed into her from behind. Once again, her beer flew in a great arc out of her cup and in Flash’s direction.

“Oh, sorry!” the dope chuckled, utterly unapologetic.

Flash managed to lift his wing in a makeshift shield, and the beer splattered down his primaries this time.

Octavia dropped the cup in the grass and put her hoof to her mouth, choking back laughter.

“Don’t say a word,” Flash warned, watching as the beer rolled off his feathers and into the grass.

“But I--”

Flash gave his wing a flick, and a quick spray of beer flew off it and right into Octavia’s face.

He expected her to shout. To start stomping her little grey hooves in the mud, scolding him, carrying on about nothing much in particular.

Octavia only stood still. Her eyes and mouth were closed. Little golden rivulets cut tracks through the fur on her cheeks before gathering on her chin and hanging there like a little beard.

Flash found himself stiffening in anticipation.

Octavia reached up with one hoof to wipe the beer off her chin.

“If you’re gonna yell at me, just--”

In one swift motion, Octavia scrambled backwards, grabbed the keg’s hose, pointed it at Flash, and let loose.

Flash made some sort of yelp and threw his wings up in defense.

After a moment of blind terror gave way to quiet confusion--why wasn’t Flash feeling soaked? Why couldn’t Octavia feel the kick of the hose’s spray?--the pair of ponies snuck a simultaneous peek at their situation. To their disappointment, the beer only trickled down into the dirt and pooled at Octavia’s hooves.

Flash smirked, regaining his air of superiority mighty quickly. “Ha. I knew you weren’t a party mare.”

Octavia scoffed. “You got scared, too!”

“You had the element of surprise!”

“Oh, I’ll show you the element of surprise!”

Octavia pounded both of her front hooves down into the dirt and the beer. The resulting wave of alcoholic mud exploded upwards and splattered over Flash’s chest and legs.

Flash said nothing, merely retaliated as quickly and powerfully as he could-- he swiped his hoof along the ground and sent a sticky dirt clod flying towards Octavia’s head. She only managed to dodge it partially, in that it smacked against her cheek rather than lodging itself in her mane.

The smell of the mud, the feeling of it on her face-- a memory came back to her. Water pistols in the summertime. Vinyl’s distinct magical advantage. Pump-action pressure.

She looked over at the keg, spotted the pump on top, and lunged for it.

“Hey, hey, whoa!” Flash rushed in to pull her off, only to place himself directly in the line of fire.

Octavia slammed down on the pump, aiming for center mass. To her surprise and glee, the spray was much wider than she had pictured, and Flash disappeared behind its umbrella-like spread. The light from the fire shone through the beer mist and sent a brief but dazzling array of colors sprawling over the grass as Flash Sentry was instantaneously soaked.

Octavia laughed, a wild and chattering sound that very few ponies had ever been privy to.

As she laughed, though, Flash put his hooves on her shoulders and pulled her off the keg and into the mud.

Octavia landed with a wet thwap. For a moment, she was stunned-- the wind knocked right out of her, her eyes seeing double, her ears dripping with muddy sludge.

She blinked, shook her head, and looked up.

All could see was the small crowd of ponies circled around her-- just like the carriages circled around the bonfire, the frat colts circled around their new pledge, the mares circled around their gossiping murmurs. They stared at her in a haze of their own drunken excitement, sloppy grins plaster over their faces, dying to find out what happened next.

For that moment, Octavia was scared again. She felt the dome closing in. That breath that had been knocked out of her didn’t want to come back.

The dome squeezed her tight.

She felt like she was drowning, and all she could think was what a fool she’d made of herself. How closely this matched the horrible things she imagined while frozen beside the punch bowl. How she had made a mistake.

And she wanted to cry. But she couldn’t breathe.

She wanted to scream at the ponies to go away, to leave her alone, to just look away and give her a route to escape.

But… then it came to her.

They weren’t dying to see what had happened.

They were dying to see what happened next.

And her breath came back.

The mistake was made. She was covered in mud and beer, having a brawl at a party. She had been chucked aside like a doll by a stallion who thought he held the secrets of the universe in his gigantic, empty skull. She was a little bit drunk and a lot confused, and she had officially made that everypony else’s problem.

What was she going to do next?

She rolled out her stomach, curled her rear legs under her, and let loose with a kick that could have rivaled a professional buckball player.

The crowd roared in approval as the dirt and the beer and the grass and the piss came flying out from under her and connected with Flash. Octavia couldn’t be sure what it was she managed to hit, but the sound from the crowd made her think she was a fairly good mark.

She tried to maintain her footing, but she slipped in the mud and fell back to the ground with a shriek.

Flash shook like a dog, more to make a mess of things than to get the muck off his own hide, and the crowd made another collective sound of surprise as they were put in the splash zone.

Octavia got to her hooves and shook herself off, too.

They stared at one another for a moment, chests heaving, fur dripping.

“Get him!” somepony shouted.

“You go, girl!” another voice agreed.

Octavia’s eyes glittered in the light of the fire.

Flash held up a hoof defensively. “C’mon, Tavi--”

“I told you, it’s Octavia!”

Another arc of mud.

The crowd whooped.

Flash reached up to wipe away the mud from under his eyes. “Fine! Whatever!” he spat back. “You just wanna be right!”

Octavia scoffed. “Speak for yourself! All you’ve done tonight is brag about being right!”

“Y’know what? Yeah!” Flash bellowed. “And I am!”

“Oh, please…” Octavia rolled her eyes. “About what?”

"About you," Flash said, stomping his hoof in the mud. "About you giving up on things before you've even tried them! Because you're so scared of failure, you'd rather quit than risk screwing it up!"

Octavia stiffened.

There was a moment--a flash, one might say--of something like regret on his face. One fleeting glimpse of something empathetic in his eyes. But it flickered and faded as quickly as it had flared up.

“Is that what you think of me?”

Flash blinked. “Uh. I mean, I…”

Octavia stared at him, slowly gnashing her teeth and daring him to push further.

The crowd was starting to disperse-- not so much out of disinterest, but out of the sense that they were about to witness something very real, which isn’t proper party entertainment.

Even Octavia knew that.

The fire seemed to roar and glow ever brighter, hot on their faces, spreading over their cheeks. In fact, now that she thought about it, Octavia's very mind was beginning to feel toasty and warm, just like her lungs and her heart. It also sort of wavered and sloshed from side to side. Like gelatin. Like her joints. Like her whole body, swaying gently this way and that.

There was really only one way to challenge Flash. One way to win the argument.

And winning arguments really seemed to be Octavia's only purpose lately.

She turned away from Flash, flicking her tail in his direction. This sent up another small shower of mud, though Flash didn’t seem to notice this time.

Octavia put her front hooves on the booze table and swept the array of cups out of her way with a magnificent plastic clattering sound.

"Whoa, hey!" Flash lunged forward. "Octavia? What are you doing?"

Octavia did not respond, only hoisted herself--slowly but surely--up onto the table. Her rear hooves pedaled clumsily as they tried to find some sure footing. She had to kick a few more cups out of her way as she did so.

More ponies were starting to look. Octavia could hear conversations trailing off, chanting quickly silenced, hushed exclamations of confusion accompanied by secretive giggles.

Flash reached up and hooked his foreleg around Octavia's, giving her a firm tug. "Get down!" he hissed.

Octavia shook him off.

"Octavia, seriously--"

"Attention tailgate!" she bellowed, plowing right over Flash's desperate pleas to be heard.

The rest of the party--that is, those who hadn't already been cheering on the brawl--went silent at that. Only the sound of crickets and the crackling of the fire could be heard. Amd, far under that, the sound of liquid dripping onto the plastic table beneath Octavia as the muck trickled down to her stomach and dribbled off the sticky ends of her fur.

Flash cringed into himself a little, shrinking away from the table.

Octavia cleared her throat and let her eyelids slip closed. "My name is Octavia Melody," she announced, perhaps louder than she had ever dared to speak in public before. "And I might be… just a tiny bit drunk."

Somepony whooped from deep in the crowd.

Flash made a small moan of embarrassment and buried his face in his hooves.

Octavia nodded solemnly. "I have never had so much to drink before, because I was afraid it would make me do something stupid," she explained, beginning to stumble through a few of the longer words. "But, guess what? Doesn't matter!”

Dead silence.

"Mm-hm." Octavia kept nodding to herself, if only to feel the way her brain pinged about inside her skull. "Doesn't matter. Not a bit. I just fought this stallion--this one, here--in the mud. At a party.”

She looked down at herself, as if to confirm this fact.

Flash collapsed into himself even more.

Nopony whooped for that.

“Because-- well, nopony cares if you screw up, right?” Octavia said, laughter sneaking into her tone. “Why would you? You’re all far too self-centered for that. Unless it’s entertaining, of course.”

Flash was doing his best to disguise his identity using nothing but the shadows from the bonfire and one mucky hoof.

“Also, in case anypony was wondering,” Octavia added, her voice becoming less comprehensible by the second. “I am single."

More silence.

A little murmur ran through the crowd, as everypony seemed to turn to their neighbors and ask something along the lines of 'who the hay is that?' or 'what in the wide, wide world of Equestria is going on?'

Octavia surveyed the crowd, as if waiting for somepony to respond.

Nopony said a word.

"Well!" Octavia exclaimed, tossing her head back. "If there aren't any questions, I suppose I'll… get down."

Only crickets in response.

"Thank you very much, everypony," Octavia said.

She took a step forward, miscalculated, and slipped in her own muddy puddle. Her hooves scrambled to recover, but she rocked back and landed on her bum.

Hard.

Hard enough, in fact, that the already overloaded table buckled and collapsed.

The crowd winced in unison as Octavia pitched forward and landed chin-first in the mud. Behind her, a veritable waterfall of plastic cups poured down onto the ground.

Vinyl used to call that sound “undergrad windchimes”.

It was almost funny.

Octavia laid here a moment, as if taking in the bouquet of the soil. When it seemed that she would not be able to get into her hooves of her own accord, the crowd broke their shocked silence to begin murmuring once again.

Flash, who had been paralyzed a moment ago, rushed forward and dropped to the ground.

"Hey!" He put his front hooves on Octavia and rolled her over into her back. "What the hay was that about?! Are you insane?!”

Octavia made an indecipherable face. “See? I can screw up. I can screw up bigtime.”

“For the love of Celestia, how much did you have to drink?” Flash muttered, trying to get a whiff of Octavia’s breath.

Octavia waved Flash off her. "Um. Two? No, no. Three." She considered a moment longer. "I'm not sure. Somewhere in the middle, maybe."

"That's too much," Flash said simply.

Octavia scoffed. Rather than the usual short, clipped sound, it drug on like a deflating balloon. "Is not."

"Is, too," Flash insisted. "You're tiny. And a lightweight, apparently."

"Am not!"

"Are, too."

Octavia nickered to herself. Some of the muck flew off her top lip.

Now that she was less of a spectacle, the crowds were beginning to disperse. A few spare glances over the shoulder were all that remained.

The show was over, it seemed.

"You were the one who told me to drink in the first place," Octavia reminded her companion. "You… oaf."

Flash rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well. I guess you can’t trust everything you hear."

"I don't trust you."

"Thanks."

"I was just trying to be cool at the party."

"Well, you were certainly something at the party," Flash said, poorly disguising a chuckle. "Come on. Let's get you some water."

Octavia groaned softly. "I don’t want to."

"You can't lay in the dirt, Tavi."

"Can, too."

"Hey. That's my thing." Flash stood up and offered a hoof to Octavia.

Octavia curled her front hooves in toward her chest. "Oh, can't you just bring me the water?”

“No way in Tartarus am I leaving you unsupervised again,” Flash said.

Strangely enough, the dome seemed to close in on the two of them. As Octavia looked up at Flash, his hoof outstretched, promising never to leave her… the darkness closed in, encasing just the two of them. It should have been oppressive--claustrophobic, even--but it felt safe. Cozy. Private.

Octavia reached up to take Flash’s hoof.

He smiled a bit and gave her leg a tug.

Octavia stood, wobbled slightly, then turned her head to the right and vomited.

Flash seemed only moderately taken aback by the sound of bile splattering into the mud. “Wow. You may actually be the lightest weight I have ever seen,” he said flatly. “How many beers did you have, again? Two?”

“I’ll take that water, plase…” Octavia wheezed.

Flash sort of cackled--a coltish sound, not malicious in the least--and hooked Octavia’s foreleg around his neck. The motion was enough to make Octavia cough up another mouthful of alcohol.

"How about a toilet, life of the party?" Flash suggested.

Octavia moaned wearily and hung her head, submitting to wherever Flash cared to drag her off to.

Flash took that as a yes and knelt down in the mud beside Octavia. Using mainly his wings, he guided Octavia up onto his back, until she was slumped over his shoulders like an unattractive and smelly scarf. With his cargo situated, Flash got slowly back to his hooves.

Octavia's head felt as if it were a few seconds behind the rest of her.

"If you gotta boot again, just try to do it, uh… out," Flash said, gesturing with one wing.

Octavia nodded, a motion she instantly regretted.

"Right-o. Let's find you a port-a-pot."

The pair of ponies wove through the crowd slowly but earnestly. They seemed to part before Flash, as if news of the crazy mare’s exploits was rippling out from the epicenter of disaster. Octavia did her best not to look into the eyes of those who looked at her, though she did catch a pitying gaze or two.

She was struck by the softness of the fur and the feathers up here on Flash’s withers. It was so fine--like silk, or velvet, or a silken, velvety cloud--that it was hardly there at all. She held onto that feeling. It was the only thing preventing her from vomiting.

But, just as she thought about it, her stomach rose in her throat again.

“Flash…” she moaned.

“Uh oh.” Flash wasted no time in dipping down to the ground and allowing Octavia’s hooves to scrape the grass.

Octavia similarly wasted no time in dismounting her companion--giving him one or two solid kicks to the neck in the process--and darting into the bushes to yak up another bit of bile and alcohol. The tiny little branches scraped her cheeks, but she found it to be a welcome distraction.

Flash chuckled. “You ran right past the port-a-pot,” he said, gesturing to the pink plastic booth beside him.

“I am not putting my face in a portable toilet!” Octavia howled.

Flash didn’t say anything, only shook his head and smiled to himself.

True to his word, he didn’t leave Octavia’s side. He paced dutifully to and fro as she heaved into the bushes with all the grace of a troll.

Eventually, the sounds of stomach evacuation faded, and were replaced by the ragged breaths of a spent mare. Flash watched as Octavia’s rear fell to the ground in exhaustion. She pulled her face from the bushes and looked up, searching for stars and finding none.

Disappointed, she turned her head and looked at Flash.

She didn’t say ‘thank you’. She didn’t say she was done, or that she was feeling better, or even that she was feeling much, much worse-- she only stared at Flash for a long moment, then slowly wiped her mouth on the back of one hoof.

Here, once again at the edge of the event, they could hear the crickets again. And the wind in the leaves, despite the way they vanished into the dark mist surrounding the party. And the bonfire, still, roaring peacefully above all the babbling and the guitar plucking and the chanting and the laughing.

Flash, beginning to feel a little bit awkward, averted his eyes.

Octavia, only now realizing how long she had been staring, did the same.

"Why are you being nice to me?" Octavia asked softly. She said it right into the bushes, and the sound was swallowed up by them.

“Hm?” Flash lifted his head. “What was that?”

Octavia sighed. “I asked why you’ve been so nice to me.”

Flash cocked his head. "Uh… because I'm in the royal guard?"

Octavia grumbled something nasty under her breath. "And?"

"Well, this may surprise you, but I'm actually pretty good at my job," Flash said. He flared his wings out a bit, as if somehow showing off his prowess as a guard. "I don't like everypony I'm assigned to protect, but that doesn't mean I'm not gonna protect 'em."

"Ugh." Octavia shifted slightly, testing her weight on her rear hooves. "You don't have to protect me, if that's what you're implying."

Flash shrugged. "I mean, you didn't ask. But that doesn't mean you don't need it."

"I don't."

"Like I said: I'm pretty good at my job. I know who needs protecting and who doesn't."

"Oh, please. You do not."

Flash arched an eyebrow at Octavia. "Sure I don't."

Octavia tried to argue, but her legs wobbled under her and she collapsed onto the ground again.

Flash rushed to her side and offered a hoof, which Octavia batted away.

“I’m fine.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not a foal.”

“I know that.”

Octavia grunted.

The sounds of the party seemed to be receding. It was hardly noticeable, but it was there. They couldn’t hear any of the partygoers, now. Not a note of the music. Just a the distant growl of the fire

Flash sniffed lightly, and sat down beside Octavia. The grass beneath him felt oddly short and tufted, but it was too dark to get a good look. Perhaps it was a bed of clover he was sitting on. Or just a bit of freshly-tilled soil.

Octavia sighed. “Thank you.”

A whisper of a breeze blew down on them, as if spilling out of the trees themselves. Colder than either would have thought possible.

“Um. What for?”

Octavia shrugged. “I don’t know. Cleaning up my mess, I suppose.”

“Those ponies don’t know you,” Flash said. “You probably won’t ever see them again. And, even if you did, they’re all pretty wasted themselves.”

“I guess that’s the point, hm?” Octavia chuckled, though it was weak. “That everypony is far too busy to notice your mistakes. Too caught up in their own anxieties.”

The breeze rolled down stronger. Colder.

Octavia shivered slightly. “That’s sort of comforting, I suppose. Thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve ever really caught somepony making the mistakes I’m always so afraid of. And… well, if I have, I must have forgotten them.” She wiped her mouth again, then smacked her lips and grimaced in disgust at the taste that lingered there. “Not so permanent as it feels, is it?”

“Guess not,” Flash agreed.

“Mm.” Octavia nodded to herself. “Even so. You’ll have to be the one to ask for directions out of here. Deal?”

Flash chuckled. “Deal.”

But, as they turned to look back down at the party, they only found the endless hallway.

Octavia looked back down at her hooves, and only found a potted plant-- one which was distinctly not filled with her own vomit.

Flash glanced upwards, and saw the air conditioning vent humming along, dumping a freezing cold breeze down onto the pair of them.

Octavia scoffed lightly. “That just figures, doesn’t it?”

“Guess you’ll have to wait a while longer on that drink of water,” Flash grumbled.