A Constant State of Atrophy

by mushroompone

First published

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.

Octavia and Flash Sentry have a lot in common.

One of those things is failed relationships.

Another is the hotel hallway they're currently trapped in.


This fic is a midquel to Hearts Beat, taking place entirely within the chapter "Vulnerable". It is highly recommended that you read Hearts Beat up through "Vulnerable" before starting this fiction - it will contain spoilers for Hearts Beat. That said, this is technically a stand-alone story, so feel free to check it out if spoilers don't scare you away

The Lobby

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Once upon a time, there were two ponies who were very wrong for each other.

It wasn't their fault. Ponies love to say that relationships take work, but forget to clue you in on the caveat: if a relationship is only work, it's probably time to eject.

These two ponies spent years working. They felt like they were doing the right thing, that they were meant to be, that this was normal. They split their house--their whole lives, in fact-- right smack down the middle, trying to keep the peace.

Then, like a miracle, they realized they were wrong.

One of them fell in love. For real this time.

But her story has been told.

This is the story of the other pony.


Octavia Melody had been through a dreadful few months.

First, her parents had gotten divorced. She felt sort of stupid for even being upset over it, honestly; it's not like she was a little filly anymore. It's not like she lived with them. Hell, they didn't even dislike each other! They were just... done being married.

Octavia spent the long train ride home wondering how one could just be done doing anything, really. All her life, she'd been on one track, and she'd never complained. She'd never considered swerving, or taking a different train, or even peering covertly into the train on the next track over. You know, just to see what they were up to over there.

Nope. There was one train, and she was on it.

For Octavia, it wasn't too bad being a one-track kid. She did what she did and she did it well. When an opportunity came along that was sensible, that fit the mold, she swept it along with her.

Vinyl Scratch had been one such opportunity, and had thusly been swept up into Octavia's train.

The problem was... well, you couldn't exactly get a passenger off the train once they were on. Octavia didn't have time to slow her train down to let a passenger off gently, and she wasn't keen on chucking her marefriend of many years out the window. She may not have wanted to date her anymore, but she also didn't want Vinyl to be sucked under the tracks.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.

Octavia kicked Vinyl off the train, right out the side, and saw barely a blur as she rolled through the grass.

She had intended to slow down, even just a little, but the that sudden rush of adrenaline that came with the break-up--that came with admitting she had been wrong, that she had made a mistake that needed fixing--overwhelmed her at the last second.

She had tried to stop the train, only to find out she'd cut the brakes herself.

On the one hoof, she had regretted it.

On the other, it was over. And it was over quickly. That was something of a blessing.

The lightness only lasted about an hour, though. After that, the guilt hit her square in the chest, and Octavia started what was likely the most miserable period of her life thus far.

Not much to tell about that era. Not yet, anyway.

As she was coming out of the malaise, clawing her way back to normalcy and happiness, she caught a big break! A music festival in Canterlot wanted her, wanted to feature her, wanted to love and appreciate and adore her!

And... somepony else.

Somehow, her train had looped back around and found Vinyl again. And Vinyl was waiting to leap on board once more, to have the struggle they should have had before she was tossed off the side like sandbags from a hot air balloon.

So they did.

They had the fight they'd never had. They aired grievances, they took cheap shots, they even said a nice thing or two just to mix things up.

And, while Octavia had her back to the controls, her train pulled into the station.

She let Vinyl off at the platform. She watched her passenger of years and years and years disembark in a lovely little town, the kind with friendly neighbors and beautiful lawns and bright, sunny days. She watched her get off the train, knowing full well that the train would start up again and send her careening down the tracks once more.

She wanted to be happy.

But she couldn't possibly be.

Not yet.

Room 421

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The door to room 421 clicked softly behind the happy couple.

Octavia couldn’t help but see this as heavy-hooved cosmic symbolism. The door was closed. That door was closed. That door was closed, and Octavia didn’t have the key.

She grit her teeth and cast her gaze down to her hooves. The gaudily over-patterned carpet tugged her eyes over its surface in intricate swirls and loops, always a glimpse of some unexpected shape in the corner of her eye. Her head was swimming in moments.

Octavia closed her eyes and allowed her body to slump sideways into the wall. It was a sharp stucco that hooked into her fur, and somehow seemed to have no temperature at all. In fact, that's rather a perfect way to describe the whole experience: sharp, and yet lacking in feeling at all.

Then again, to say that Octavia felt nothing would have been a misrepresentation of her true state. She felt as if she had been grabbed by the throat, flipped upside down, and smacked on the back of the head until every last ounce of identifiable emotion had oozed out of her. Like she was nothing more than a particularly stubborn bottle of ketchup.

Strangely, the thing that bothered her the most in this moment was the hotel hall. It looked like an interior design experiment gone wrong, it smelled like unbranded cleaner and fair food, and every surface had a more maddening texture than the last. She wanted to fold into herself entirely, escaping all semblance of sensation until her body regenerated its emotional reserves.

She also wanted to be alone.

Unfortunately for Octavia, she was not alone-- though, by all rights, she should have been.

She opened her eyes lazily, still feeling like a deflated windsock, and allowed her gaze to dance across the carpeting once more. As her eyes leapt after the constantly-shifting designs, they eventually encountered the orange hooves of an unfamiliar stallion.

She was honestly surprised there was somepony else there. He’d somehow managed to disappear into the periphery of the situation entirely. Had he even spoken?

Octavia hurriedly pushed herself off the wall, embarrassed at having been observed during her moment of meditative slumping. The stallion seemed equally embarrassed at having been caught, and looked up at the ceiling with obvious guilt.

He was tall. Stocky, yet not in a way that was at all imposing. His mane was a shocking blue, one that clashed so horrifically with his coat that Octavia nearly recommended a permanent dye job right then and there. With the obvious work that went into crafting his ridiculous spiky, windswept style, a little bit of color upkeep couldn't have been a bother.

In short, he was exactly the type of stallion Octavia couldn't stand.

Octavia's face hardened to a practiced scowl. “I’m sorry, who are you?” she asked, desperately trying to regain control of the interaction. Her apology was as insincere as it was vitriolic, as if she had ownership over this stretch of hallway, and he was but an intruder.

Casually, nonchalantly, the stallion drew his eyes away from the ceiling. He focused on Octavia and did a small, yet clearly theatrical, double-take.

He held a hoof to his chest, eyebrows arched in scripted surprise. “Hm? Me?” He cleared his throat. “Flash Sentry. Uh, ma’am.”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Don’t you have something better to be doing?”

He blinked. “Like… what?”

“I don’t know, sleeping?” Octavia suggested, bitterness in every syllable. “What are you, some kind of degenerate pervert? Watching other folks’ drama for your own entertainment?”

“Whoa, whoa!” Flash held up a hoof and chuckled. The sound had a rehearsed quality to it that made Octavia prickle. “I wasn’t-- I mean, I was just hanging out with Twilight while-- y’know, while you and…”

Octavia cocked her head, a faux curiosity barely masking her aggressive suspicion.

Flash froze for a moment, then sighed in defeat. “I dunno. I’m still confused, to be honest.”

“Well, go home,” Octavia ordered. “The show’s over. Stay confused.”

Octavia didn’t wait for a response. She turned, tossing her frizzy mane with as much grace as she could muster, and trotted off towards the elevator.

She would be lying if she said that scolding a stranger hadn’t made her feel better. In fact, she was already starting to feel the first few drops of emotion fill her up again. It may have all been various shades and degrees of anger, but anything was better than nothing, right? And, of course, the inevitable post-scolding adrenaline was giving her a bit of a boost.

Things could have been worse. But, as much as she wanted to believe that, she couldn’t exactly conjure up a worse experience than this one.

The elevator’s gentle tone was just about the only pleasing thing in this damned hallway, Octavia thought. Even the hum of the air conditioning seemed to strike a tone and pitch that set her teeth on edge-- and that’s not even to mention the overly-artificial chill it poured down on her as she waited for the elevator to arrive.

Octavia rubbed her foreleg in a vain attempt to warm up, knowing full well it wouldn’t make any difference. It simply wouldn’t be a hotel hallway if you weren’t chilled right down to the bone.

The elevator pinged softly, and the doors slid open. Octavia cast a quick and casual glance back down towards Vinyl and Twilight’s room before climbing aboard. Flash Sentry had evidently elected to abandon his post; the hallway now stood empty.

She nodded to herself, proud of her work, and entered the elevator.

Octavia was staying two floors above Twilight and Vinyl, in room 684. She pressed the button for the sixth floor, which lit up a warm yellow, and felt her stomach drop as the elevator begin to slide upwards.

The dial above the door rolled slowly over towards five. Octavia sniffled listlessly as it continued on to six.

The doors opened.

It’s funny: Octavia actually recognized that horrid piece of non-art artwork that hung outside the elevator. They were designed to be utterly forgettable, but she remembered this one very specifically because it looked quite like the tree in the backyard of her foalhood home. It had a peculiar shape to it, a certain sort of kink which made it look rather like a hind leg poised to kick. It was a funny subject for a painting, simply because it was so lopsided. Shouldn't a painting feature a better-looking tree than this?

More to the point, Octavia was certain that this painting had been on Vinyl’s floor, not hers.

Chalking it up to fatigue, the haggard mare exited the elevator and turned to her left, making her way down the long hallway towards her room.

The creeping sense of deja vu ran its way up Octavia’s spine, but she shook it off. It’s a hotel. Of course all the hallways look the same. Especially empty. Especially at night.

It wasn’t until she ran her keycard through the slot on her room, not until the light blinked red and buzzed angrily at her, that Octavia considered she may have taken a wrong turn.

She swiped the card again, a little faster.

Bzzt.

She tried again, this time slower.

Bzzt.

“What in the…” Octavia whispered to herself, pulling the card away from the slot and examining the strip carefully. It was pristine.

She ran it through once more, this time the other way round-- just in case.

Bzzt.

Octavia stamped her hoof on the carpet.

Perfect. A perfect end to a no less than stellar day.

She ran the card through three, five, ten more times, each attempt earning her another scolding from the machine.

“Ugh! Really, now!” Octavia complained, rattling the doorknob viciously.

Nothing.

She let the handle go, and it settled back to neutral with a metallic rattle.

A sinking feeling came over her. The same painting, and now her keycard wasn’t working… Fearing the worst, she tried not to look at the number on the door, but she found herself drawn to it anyway.

484.

Octavia jumped away from the door with a small yelp, then clapped a hoof over her mouth.

Had she forgotten to press the button for her floor?

No… she had ridden the elevator up, she’d felt it.

Octavia slowly lowered her hoof from her mouth. After a moment, that burst of fear truly kicked in, and she powered away from the room at the fastest speed she could manage quietly. Her hooves made an odd, muffled sound against that dreadfully ugly carpet.

The more distance she put between herself and the mistaken hotel room, the more Octavia found herself able to calm down. She was quite lucky the pony inside hadn’t been woken up by her frenzied attempts to open the door.

As Octavia squeezed back onto the elevator, she let out a sigh of relief. She pushed the button for the sixth floor so carefully and deliberately that an observer may have pegged her as drunk, high, or both.

The little circle lit up yellow, and the elevator once again began to rise.

The dial over the door crawled from four to five, five to six…

The doors opened, and sung their success to the exhausted mare within.

Octavia made to step over the threshold, but balked at the sight of that painting once more.

She stepped back and looked at the dial.

The needle rested on four.

Octavia stood there for a moment, her jaw set, staring up at the dial over the elevator doors. She rubbed her eyes feverishly and blinked up at the numbers once more, hopeful that she was merely overtired, but the dial remained the same.

Fourth floor.

A panic was bubbling up, sour and metallic in Octavia’s throat.

The elevator doors, having sensed that nopony stood in their way, slid shut once more.

The inside of the elevator was so quiet and sterile that it seemed to have wiped Octavia's mind of all rational thought. Or… well, of any thought at all. Anything--rational, irrational, or utter unrelated nonsense--would have been better than the blank nothing which faced Octavia.

What else could she do? She pressed the button for the sixth floor once more and watched, detached, as the cycle repeated itself.

Still, the same painting. The same floor.

She tried floor two, but to no avail. Then eight. Then five.

She tried to go down to the lobby, only to find the same hallway.

Every time, every trial, the same result: fourth floor, with that painting of the tree leaning dangerously to the right.

Octavia, now wondering if she may have fallen asleep in the elevator and was experiencing an elevator-themed nightmare, wandered out into the hallway. That painting held her gaze and carried her forward, over the threshold and back onto the sort-of-sticky-but-not-really carpet.

The doors closed behind her as she stared at the painting. She didn’t really see the apinting, though. It was just there, in front of her eyes, and they had to look at something.

“H-hey!”

Octavia pricked up an ear.

“Hey, you!” a voice called, uncertain. “Uh… I don’t know your name! You!”

Octavia drew in a long, slow breath, and turned her head to the right. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes once again at Flash Sentry, now trotting down the hallway towards her. His stupid mane bounced like gelatin shaken out of its mould.

He was panting. Heavily. As if he’d just galloped here from the other side of the city. “This might sound stupid, but… do you know how to get to the second floor?”

Octavia’s eyes narrowed. She said nothing.

“I think the stairs are, uh…” He trailed off, swallowed, and shook his head clear of his own confusion. “Broken. I think they’re broken. I dunno, I ran up and down and, like… well, they don't go anywhere?"

Flash continued his confused, disjointed ramblings about the broken staircase, breathing heavily all the while. His mane jiggled in time to his impassioned insanity.

Octavia closed her eyes. Flash's breath washed over her like hot wind dredging up the smell of low tide.

I'm going to be seeing quite a bit of this fellow, she thought. Wouldn't want to get sick of his face so soon.

Room 433

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"I need to sleep," Octavia said.

And that was probably fair. She was still feeling like emotional sludge, after all; not to mention the physical exhaustion that was beginning to overwhelm her.

Flash paused in his babbling, and seemed to look Octavia up and down. True to her word, she looked like she could use a good night’s sleep; her eyes were both red-rimmed from crying and supported by raccoon-esque dark circles, her mane was a bedraggled mess, and she looked as if she were having trouble even remaining in a standing position.

“Uh… right.” Flash cleared his throat, standing up a little straighter. “Allow me to escort you to your room, then. Ma’am.”

“Eugh…” Octavia could hardly manage an eye-roll as she turned and began her slow trek back to the elevator.

After a moment of catch-up, Flash loped after her.

"Is your room on this floor?" Flash asked. His mane seemed to have trouble staying still at all, waving slowly from one side to the other even as he kept pace with Octavia’s trudge. "Because-- I mean, I literally can't get to any other floor."

“I understand that.”

“You do?” Flash’s ears perked up. “Are you--”

"I'm on the sixth floor," Octavia replied. "Taking the elevator. Come on."

Flash scowled. "You don't think it's weird?"

Octavia didn't reply, just kept staring straight ahead.

"All the doors lead to the fourth floor," Flash repeated. "That's weird."

"Yes. I understand."

Flash scoffed. He seemed to search for a response, his head moving to and fro like a distressed songbird, but ultimately he came up empty.

Octavia called the elevator with a precise jab to the up arrow, and the doors slid open quietly.

Flash balked at the miracle of the working elevator. He seemed to examine the doors for any signs of foul play or malfunction, yet unsurprisingly found nothing. He followed Octavia on board with careful steps.

The doors closed.

Octavia pressed the button for the sixth floor. She hardly had it in her to hope for a different outcome, and this may have been obvious from the way she stared listlessly at the closed doors before her.

The elevator began to glide upward, and Octavia watched the dial crawl clockwise over the carefully-printed numbers.

Some sense of relief came over Flash, and he looked down at his traveling companion. "Sorry, what is your name?"

Octavia sighed. "Octavia."

"Octavia…" Flash considered the name, then nodded. "I'm Flash."

"So you said."

The elevator dinged and the doors opened.

Same painting. Same tree. Same floor.

Flash bravely took the lead. He poked his head out into the hallway, surveying the area as if it were a battleground. Though he saw nothing obvious, his gaze seemed to catch on one of the room numbers, and he whipped his head around to look at the exhausted mare behind him.

"These are all 400 numbers," he informed Octavia.

"Mm-hm." Octavia blinked slowly.

"But we went to the sixth floor, right?" He asked, genuine concern contorting his face. "We moved! The elevator moved!"

He drew his head back in, examining the dial (which, of course, was pointing to four). He made another small sound of distress and pointed at it. Words escaped him.

Octavia made a vague gesture of uncertainty, and an accompanying meaningless expression. "You said it yourself: all doors lead to the fourth floor."

"But--"

"I'm tired," Octavia said. "I need to sleep."

"But!" Flash couldn't be arsed to finish his thought, instead watching Octavia squeeze around him and put into the hallway. "What-- how are you so calm?"

Octavia heaved a great sigh, hanging her head low as she continued her directionless trek. "I've had a bit of a night, Flash."

“Where are you going?” Flash asked, once again falling into step beside Octavia.

“To find a some wall to sleep on.”

“You’re not worried about us being trapped on the fourth floor?” Flash asked.

Octavia shot the stallion a cold glare. “Are you actually going to listen to me, or just keep firing away with the pointless questions?” She waited for a retort, but Flash wisely kept his mouth shut. “We’re sharing a hotel with Princess Twilight, who has also had a very emotional night.”

Flash blinked. “And?”

“And… things happen,” Octavia said with a half-hearted shrug. “She’s a massively powerful alicorn with no idea how to control it."

"You, uh…” Flash coughed. “You talk like you know her."

Octavia stiffened, and her stride hitched. "Maybe I do."

Flash opened his mouth, then closed it before he could make a sound. Octavia had to hand it to the stallion-- at least he seemed to be a quick learner.

They continued down the hallway together, hooves plodding softly along the carpet. Eventually, Octavia reasoned, they would reach the end of the hall, and she could nestle herself into a corner. It seemed a fitting end to the night: sleeping in the space a potted plant would typically occupy.

"Did you try asking?" Flash asked.

Octavia's face crinkled. "Asking what? Of whom?"

"Twilight," Flash replied. "About the whole… thing. Do you know her room number?"

Octavia grimaced.

It was stupid.

Octavia was well-aware that it was stupid. This seemed to be something of an emergency, after all-- the sort which could be affecting dozens of ponies on the fourth floor. Or hundreds in the building. Or thousands across Canterlot.

But… well, quite frankly, the thought of interrupting Twilight and Vinyl's 'first I love you' sex made Octavia feel physically ill.

"I don't remember it," Octavia lied.

"Damn." Flash nickered softly to himself. "Me neither."

They kept hiking along.

The hallway had a curve to it, Octavia noticed. It was subtle, but it was definitely there; she couldn’t see straight through to the end, though she could have sworn she’d been able to earlier that day.

Just as Octavia took a breath in, intending to send Flash off in the opposite direction with a scathing remark, as sound rang out through the hall:

Bzzt.

Octavia turned to look behind her, and saw Flash holding his keycard against a door, frowning slightly. He rattled the handle a little, but to no avail.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He held up his card. “Figured I’d give it a shot,” he said.

Octavia scoffed. "What good will that do?"

Flash shrugged. "What good is this doing?"

Octavia hesitated momentarily, and Flash took this as a begrudging acquiescence. He trotted to the next door and swiped his key again.

Bzzt.

Red light.

Still locked.

Octavia arched an eyebrow at Flash.

Flash arched his back.

“Why would our keycards suddenly work in one of these doors?” Octavia's annoyance was becoming more obvious by the minute.

“Why would a hotel suddenly trap us on the fourth floor?”

Octavia set her jaw.

“I’m just sayin’!” Flash argued, a little hint of a chuckle in his voice. “C’mon. You really wanna fall asleep leaning up against a wall? In a public hallway?”

“Of course not!” Octavia stamped her hoof. “I just…”

Flash waited patiently for a good reason.

Octavia spluttered something, searching for an appropriate response, but the distant humming of the air conditioning seemed to wash away any critical thinking she had left. Or perhaps the workings of her mind had been frozen solid in the overly cool air from the vents above her. After a moment, she shut her mouth, declining any further discussion.

“Has anypony ever told you that you’re, uh…” Flash rubbed his chin thoughtfully, looking for the right word. “Difficult?”

Octavia scoffed. “I’m going to the end of the hall, and I’m going to sleep this off,” she said firmly. “By morning, everything will be back to normal. You'll see.”

"But--"

Octavia didn't wait to listen to Flash, just continued her trek down the long hallway, this time at a brisk trot.

Flash grimaced and flicked his tail. He took another few steps down the hall, paused at the next room, and swiped his keycard through the slot.

Bzzt.

“You’re wasting your time,” Octavia called back to him.

Flash grumbled something rude under his breath as he moved to the next door and swiped again.

Bzzt.

“But why would you listen to me…” Octavia muttered, more to herself than to her uninvited companion.

Bzzt.

The distance between the two ponies widened as they continued towards their uncertain destination. Octavia managed to keep her pace quick and light for a while, but her stamina wore thin, and she found she could keep ahead of Flash at a mere stroll. Flash, on the other hoof, continued to dutifully swipe his card on each and every door. Though he steadily picked up speed, there was no hope of catching up to Octavia.

Bzzt.

Bzzt.

Flash wondered what time it was. It was hard to tell without any windows or clocks.

Bzzt.

Octavia tried to follow the pattern on the carpet, but it never seemed to repeat itself.

Bzzt.

The hallway went on.

Bzzt.

Its curve was so gentle, so subtle, that it couldn’t be felt in the walls. But there was no mistaking the way it vanished into the distance.

Bzzt.

The further they trekked on, the more it seemed that this hallway couldn’t possibly have been contained in the hotel. In fact, it seemed unlikely that this place was entirely within Canterlot’s borders.

Bzzt.

Not that it mattered.

Bzzt.

Not that any of it really mattered.

Bzzt.

Octavia stopped. It wasn’t a quick thing, more just a natural conclusion to her gradually slowing pace. Ahead of her, the hallway stretched on and on and on, curling ever so slightly to the right before the end could be seen.

If there was an end to be seen.

Flash’s swipes were slowing, as well. Whether that was from exhaustion or from the sight of Octavia on the horizon is a mystery.

Bzzt.

“Octavia?” Flash said the name carefully, as if he weren’t allowed to.

Octavia sighed, a drained and lonely sound.

Bzzt.

“You okay?” Flash asked.

Octavia turned to look over her shoulder at the unfamiliar stallion. “How long have we been walking?”

Bzzt.

“Uh… I dunno, exactly.” Flash cleared his throat. “Can you see the end?”

Octavia wearily turned her eyes up from the carpet, gazing down the hallway and squinting ever so slightly at its premature conclusion.

To her chagrin, nothing had changed.

“No…” she groaned.

Bzzt.

“Oh.”

Flash fumbled with his keycard.

For a moment, the pair looked ahead at the hallway as one might gaze out at the open ocean. Only the hallway did not swell with the tides, did not offer fresh air or sea spray, did not present any signs of life or the natural world at all-- unless you count the paintings of scenic and nonexistent locations, of course.

Octavia took a steadying breath and straightened up. “If one of these doors is open,” she said, that particular brand of Bittish superiority sneaking back into her tone, "you'll share the bed with me?"

Flash furrowed his brows. Though her tone was inquisitive, Octavia had carefully managed to chop off anything remotely vulnerable. "Uh… yes, ma'am. I will."

Octavia sniffed haughtily. "Fine. In that case, I'll help you check,” she spat. “It might be my only chance at a comfortable place to sleep tonight, it seems."

"Lucky me," Flash muttered.

He trudged to the next door and lazily swiped his keycard.

Bi-deep!

Like magic, the pinprick light lit up green.

Flash was caught off-guard and merely stared at the green light. The light stared back at him, before eventually blinking off. Octavia, however, didn't waste a moment in diving towards the handle and shoving the door open with one shoulder.

"Hey!" Flash yelped as Octavia barrelled past him.

Octavia didn't say anything, just shoved her way into the darkened hotel room with an astounding level of desperation.

Flash darted in after her. "Hey, this is somepony's room!" he reminded her with a hiss.

The door clicked shut behind them.

"Are the other rooms tiled?" Octavia asked, sliding her hoof along the floor.

Flash stuttered. "What?" he managed to ask. "What are you talking about?"

Octavia tapped her hoof against the floor, and it made a hard, sharp sound. "These floors. They're tiled." She looked up, searching for any familiar shape in the dark. "Where's the light switch?"

"Don't turn on the lights!" Flash scolded, though he was also struggling to find his way in the dark. "There could be somepony staying in this room!"

Octavia didn't listen. Or maybe she just didn't want to hear it.

She waved one hoof around until it connected with a wall in the darkness. Leaning heavily on this hoof, she traced her way back to the door.

"Octavia, come on…" Flash was whispering, his own limbs reaching out for any sign of the mare in the dark.

At last, Octavia found the switchplate. Her hooves ran over it, counting one, two, three… easily eight separate switches. How could one hotel room have so many?

"Oh, well," she muttered to herself.

In one motion, Octavia flipped every light switch.

The room lit up in stages, front to back. The lights were heavy-duty; not the sort you'd find in any hotel, but rather a grocery store. Or perhaps a warehouse. The long, thin kind which hummed like cicadas and swung perilously from thin wires at each end.

Flash winced audibly at the strength of the lights and shielded his face with one wing.

Octavia looked up at the lights with awe. They weren't nearly as industrial as she'd imagined. In fact, they looked rather high-end, expensive-- perfect rectangular prisms fit to burst with warm, yellow light, which reflected powerfully off the well-polished floors.

"What the…" Flash lowered his wing slowly, taking in the scene before him. "Is this… a gallery?"

Octavia blinked forcefully and at last pulled her attention away from the lights.

In the simplest of terms, yes: it was a gallery. To be specific, it was an art gallery; the kind with sterile white walls, long corridors, and uncomfortable backless benches made to keep tourists moving. From the looks of it, the place was primarily populated by portraits, each of which had its own display light and sported a magnificently shiny plaque.

As strange as that was, Octavia could only be disappointed. These benches were no better than a bit of wall, really.

She sighed and hung her head. No place to sleep here.

Flash was already wandering away from the door, craning his neck forward for a good look at the portraits.

Not only did Octavia feel as if she might collapse right where she stood, she also had a creeping sensation of… wrongness? As if she were trespassing not just on someone else’s property, but on property she was never meant to see at all.

"Flash?" she called, and the sound echoed down the hall powerfully despite her meekness. "I… I think we should go. We need to find a place to sleep.”

Flash made a dismissive sound and waved his wing in Octavia’s direction.

Octavia harrumphed to herself. “We both need sleep, don't you think?" Less a question, more a thinly disguised order.

The stallion didn't reply. He was scowling, head cocked, at the wall before him.

"Flash," Octavia repeated with a bit more bite.

Flash merely raised a hoof and gestured to the painting on the wall, his hoof frog-up, his voice strained by confusion. “That’s Trusty.”

He looked as if he might bust out laughing. A smile quivered on his lips, even as he tried to hold onto his confused grimace. He actually looked sort of happy; as if he were seeing an old friend for the first time in many years.

Only, this was the sort of old friend only stallions had. The kind that is abrasive and loud and likely makes very inappropriate jokes. The incredulous laughter which bubbled up from Flash’s hoarse throat made that clear.

Happy as he was, a part of him seemed relieved that it was only a painting.

Octavia scoffed and rolled eyes. “Who?” she called down the hall, still refusing to come away from the spot she was rooted to.

Flash looked at her, a dopey grin spreading over his face. “Trusty Funds, my buddy from grade school,” he explained, pointing once more at the painting. “I haven’t seen this guy in years!”

He just kept staring, that funny sort of disbelief rising up to his eyes as he laughed softly and shook his head.

Octavia sighed. “It can’t really be your friend,” she argued, leaning forward precariously and hoping her voice might carry a little further. “It must be some stallion that just looks like him!”

Flash didn’t listen, though. He took another step towards the painting and lifted his hoof, shielding the plaque beneath it with his foreleg. The golden rectangle which had once sprayed over his chest vanished as he did so. He bent down and squinted at the engraving.

“It is!” he shouted back, laughing a little more. “It says it right here: Trusty Funds, told on--”

He stopped.

Octavia stretched forward the tiniest bit more, shimmying one hoof along the bright white tile. She tilted her head to one side and tried desperately to get a glimpse of Flash’s face. The intricacies of his expression, however, were a mystery at this distance.

“Um…” Octavia cleared her throat. “Flash? What does it say?”

Flash balked at the plaque and dropped his hoof back down to the tile. "It says he--" he yelled, but cut himself off, shaking his head. "No, that can't be right…"

He stared at the plaque, eventually managing to pull his gaze back up to the portrait.

As Octavia watched, she wore she could see Flash's expression change. While disbelief still clouded around him, the colthood joy faded, and it was replaced by disappointment. Frustration, even. A scowl, a backwards tilt that made him look like a poorly-constructed stack of blocks.

He murmured something else, but Octavia couldn't make it out.

Octavia made a small whimper and shuffled her hooves.

Flash showed no signs of movement.

Though she knew she would regret it, Octavia tore herself away from her post and went to join Flash by the portrait. She moved as if through molasses.

The pony in the portrait looked… well, in a word, snotty. Not the type of pony Octavia would normally wish to spend time with, and yet the sort of pony Octavia always found herself spending time with.

Octavia eyed the portrait warily. The first thing she noticed about Trusty Funds was his incredibly weak snout, which curved downward at an angle precarious enough to preclude ever wearing glasses of any type. His eyes had a mischievous glint in them, emphasized by the subtle sloping angles of his delicate brows. His mane was slick and blond. His lips curled in a lop-sided sneer.

He looked like a douchebag, to be frank.

Beneath the portrait was a plaque. It, too, was gaudy and overly-polished. The little spotlight over the display was glinting off the plaque with such magnificent strength that Octavia could hardly make out what it said. She cocked her head to the right, leaning further and further until the words finally made themselves clear:

TRUSTY FUNDS

TOLD ON BUCK TROTSWORTH

Octavia knit her brows. “Who is… Buck Trotsworth?”

Flash just kept staring, looking into the holier-than-thou eyes of his foalhood friend.

“Flash?”

“Hm?” Flash closed his eyes. His face contorted in concentration, as if he could still feel the strong gaze of the painting. “Uh-- he was a friend of ours. All of us. In grade school.”

Octavia nodded slightly. “Mm-hm…” She looked back at the plaque. “And… do you know what this is referring to?”

Flash’s eyes were still closed. He shook his head slightly, but not to say no; it was as if he were trying to clear away the fog of confusion. “Well, he… about a year before we graduated, we had to take an exam,” he explained, straining past the cloud of memories which swirled through him. “Standardized. To get into the royal guard training program. Buck, uh… Buck cheated.”

“Sounds like an upstanding citizen…” Octavia muttered.

“Well, he was under a lot of pressure, alright?” Flash snapped.

Octavia leaned away from Flash, glancing up at his scrunched face.

Flash huffed, shook his head again, and looked back into the eyes of Trusty Funds. “I mean… if he didn’t pass…”

He didn’t finish his thought.

The possibilities hung in the air.

“But-- well, he would have gotten away with it,” Flash said. “He worked the whole thing out, right? It was foolproof."

Octavia clucked her tongue. "Apparently not, hm?"

Flash scowled at her.

Octavia waved her hoof dismissively, but said nothing.

"Somepony ratted him out," Flash said matter-of-factly. "And it got him expelled."

"Trusty did?" Octavia asked, though it came out more as a statement.

Flash shook his head vehemently. "No. No way!" He laughed again, this one more nervous than anything. "Trusty always told us that there was no place for rats in our group. If anypony ever got in trouble, we were supposed to deny everything."

Octavia opened her mouth to make some manner of snarky comment, but thought better of it.

The pair looked at the painting.

Maybe Trusty did tell. Maybe he didn't. But, having read the plaque, his expression took on a different meaning. It wasn't a colthood mischievousness that twinkled in his eyes, but a conniving shrewdness. Not a grin, but a sneer.

He almost seemed proud of himself.

But that couldn't be. It was a painting, after all.

And yet…

"We should go," Flash announced. "This is… weird."

He turned to go. His hoofsteps were hurried, almost skittering.

Octavia hesitated. "You can't seriously believe that," she said.

Flash didn't even slow down. "Doesn't matter. I don't like how much this place knows about me."

Which was a fair point, Octavia supposed.

She elected not to argue, and turned to follow Flash back towards the door.

As she turned, however, another glint of gold caught her eye. Like the flash of a camera bulb, it seemed to wipe all other color from the world, utterly consuming her vision-- if only for an instant.

Octavia blinked hard and looked in the direction of the glint.

The portrait on the opposite wall was much like the one she had just turned her back to; it was near the same size, had the same no-nonsense frame, and was accompanied by a plaque of the same over-polished gold.

This one, however, was instantly recognizable to Octavia.

It was a face she had spent many hours with, all told. Perhaps more than her own father's face. It had a familiar roundness, broken by the pointed swoops of a perfectly-kept mustache. The eyes were dwarfed by the magnificent spectacles which rested on the short snout. The ears were overly hairy. The mane was combed over to hide obvious baldness.

Octavia, without thinking, trotted right up to the painting.

WALTZ REFRAIN

LOVER OF JAZZ

Octavia scoffed.

That was just… utterly stupid.

"Octavia, let's move," Flash called from his place near the door. His militaristic demeanor had returned, but with a certain force that seemed utterly unnatural-- even to him.

Of course, Octavia wasn't a military mare, and Flash's tone did little to pull her away from the portrait.

Flash waited patiently for Octavia to move along. He flicked his tail, and even the soft rushing of his hair was enough to echo down the hall.

"Uh… what are you looking at?" he asked. He didn't dare to move, as if the black hole of his friend's likeness would pull him back in.

Octavia closed her eyes. "It's my…" The thought stuck in her craw. "Erm. My music teacher."

"What?" Flash shouted, one hoof cupped near his ear. "What'd you say?"

"My music teacher!" Octavia snapped back.

Flash seemed taken aback. "They're here, too?" He was still rooted to the spot.

Octavia could only nod.

Mr. Refrain--or Walt, as he preferred to be known--was not looking at the painter. How like him, Octavia thought; he had always been the one lecturing her about her attention to the audience. The fourth wall, Octavia, he would say, is a blackout curtain. Do not look beyond it.

He looked off into the distance with a precise focus. It was the sort of focus Octavia had only seen right before he interrupted her performance to correct her. An incredibly familiar look.

Octavia didn't notice right away when Flash sidled up next to her.

"Wow," he remarked. "That's some 'stache."

That nearly snapped Octavia out of her confusion.

Flash nodded to himself. "He looks like a music teacher," he said. Then he cast a glance down at the plaque. "Not so much like the kind of music teacher who likes jazz, though."

"He doesn't like jazz," Octavia corrected.

Flash pointed at the plaque. "But it says--"

"It's wrong," Octavia cut him off. "Walt hated jazz. Anything modern at all, really. He never let me play anything of the sort."

"What?" Flash snorted. "Why?"

Octavia sighed wistfully. "Oh, loads of reasons. Elitism, most certainly," she said, looking up into his squinting eyes. "He was obsessed with form. Accuracy. Anything requiring the least bit of improvisation or style was dismissed out of hoof."

Flash scoffed. "Sounds like a real barrel of laughs."

"Don't you see, though?" Octavia pointed to the plaque. "It's a lie. An outright lie. Walt would have sooner taught me to play the singing glasses than jazz."

"Well…" Flash rubbed the back of his head with one hoof. "I mean, it says 'lover of jazz', not 'teacher of jazz'."

Octavia arched a brow in Flash's direction. "Your point?"

Flash shrugged. "I'm just saying. Maybe he liked jazz, but didn't wanna teach it."

"That's idiotic," Octavia said.

"Look. I dunno anything about music--"

"No surprises there."

"--but you did say he avoided stuff with improvisation. Maybe he just wasn't any good at teaching that sort of thing," Flash pointed out."That's possible, right?"

Octavia shook her head. "No. Absolutely not."

"Maybe he sucked at it!" Flash suggested. "Y'know, I once knew a pegasus at the academy who was so terrible at rescue maneuvers that he refused to--"

"Nopony cares, Flash," Octavia muttered.

Flash opened his mouth to reply, but as his gaze slipped momentarily off of Octavia's face he caught sight of something which stopped him in his tracks.

Once again, the color seemed to drain from Flash's face, and he did a double-take.

"What now?" Octavia asked, her exhaustion obvious.

Flash took a few steps forward, pushing Octavia out of the way like a sliding door. "That's my Sergeant!"

Octavia shoved him away from her with all of her might, but the brutishly large pegasus seemed not to notice.

Indeed, the hallway continued away from the hotel room door, eventually taking a sharp turn left. There, on the wall directly adjacent the door, was another painting-- this one of a female pony who looked more than a little work-hardened.

Flash broke into a light canter towards the new portrait, then slid to a halt in front of it.

Octavia tried to stay put, but her curiosity got the better of her in just moments, and she followed Flash deeper into this… whatever it was.

The pony in the portrait was small--the sort of small you can tell from a bust--with almost foalishly large eyes and a notch in one ear. Her stony gray mane was cut short and uniform. She had some sort of sash on, likely loaded with ribbons and badges, but it dipped out of the frame.

SERGEANT KICKSTART

ALCOHOLIC

"Th-that can't be true," Flash said, shaking his head. "No way."

Octavia gave him a look of discontent. "Oh? And why can't it?" she mocked.

Flash's face hardened. "She was brutal about that stuff. Like, infamously brutal. Alcohol, gambling… Celestia help you if she caught you with drugs," he explained. He looked hurt, his eyes scanning over the portrait in a shivering, fearful manner. "How could she… and then…?"

Though the question was incomplete, its implications hung in the gently rushing air.

"Maybe that's why?" Octavia suggested softly. "She knew how badly it had ruined her, and she was trying to protect you?"

Flash was still staring up at the portrait in a sort of awestruck reverence. "I dunno… you think so?"

Octavia shrugged. "Anything's possible."

Flash grimaced. He didn't say anything, just held gaze with the painting.

Octavia waited patiently for Flash to shake himself free, but she could see the gears of his mind stuttering and hitching. His eyes leapt from plaque to portrait and back again. He showed no signs of motion.

The longer they stood silently, the more the buzzing of the lights seemed to grow in Octavia's ears. She took a step away from the painting, craning her neck back to look at the light which hung above them. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, exactly, but there was nothing obviously wrong with it; its light was steady and warm, and it swung minutely back and forth on its wires.

Octavia tucked her ears back against her head, hoping to drown out some of the noise, and moved to pull Flash back to reality.

As she turned, however, she saw the rest of the hallway.

She gasped softly and raised a hoof to her mouth. Though she couldn't quite find the words to tell Flash what she saw, the pegasus looked down at Octavia with thoughtful confusion.

"What is it?" Flash asked.

Octavia could only gesture weakly in the direction of her weary stare.

Endless.

That was the only way to describe it.

It curved, just like the hallway outside, as it traveled into the distance. Only this place curved downward with the earth. Like the ocean.

In fact, as Octavia looked down that artificially-lit, windowless hall, she swore she felt the floor swell under her hooves.

Octavia's knees knocked.

Flash seemed frozen completely.

"Uh." Flash looked down at Octavia. "That's not possible, right?"

His voice had the characteristic strain of thinly-veiled panic, though he dutifully kept his hooves rooted to the tiled floor.

Octavia was… tired.

She closed her eyes and tried to imagine something else. Anything else.

She remembered the advice of her mother-- her mother the saboteur, if certain plaques were to be believed. The surest way to beat stage fright is to make the audience disappear. To ignore them entirely. To isolate yourself on the stage.

Surely that could apply to situations like this, yes?

"Tavi?"

"No nicknames," Octavia muttered, purely on instinct.

Flash stomped a good on the tile. "Fine. Octavia," he said firmly. "Let's go. I've had enough of this."

Octavia opened her eyes.

The hallway pitched forward, and her stomach roiled. No horizon to spot in a hallway. No way to fight the seasickness off.

She swallowed hard. "You were the one who wanted a look in the first place," she reminded him carefully.

"Yeah, well, you were the one who bum-rushed a stranger's room!" Flash was quick to reply. "Now let's go."

He didn't wait for an answer, just turned and trotted back towards the entrance.

Octavia’s stomach sank down into her hooves. She couldn’t bring herself to follow Flash.

Flash's hoofsteps retreated behind her, quick and tight, before coming to a sudden halt. Octavia waited patiently through a long pause, then hung her head as the hoofsteps returned-- scattered, hurried, and unsure of themselves.

"I-I think we got turned around," Flash said hopefully. "We came in and… took a right?"

"We took one left, Flash," Octavia reminded him, exhausted and spiteful. "We couldn’t have gotten turned around in one--"

“Octavia.” Flash held his head high, and flared his wings slightly. The sort of thing meant to startle a small animal away. “The door’s gone.”

There was a long pause.

Octavia leaned around Flash, peering over his wings and around the corner.

Another hallway, stretching into infinity.

A predictable outcome, all said.

Octavia returned to center and found herself face-to-face with Flash Sentry. His expression had a practiced stoniness, not unlike that of Sergeant Kickstart who was glowering behind him. A militaristic glare, she supposed.

“Well,” she said, projecting as much confidence as she could muster. “No use going back the way we came.”

Flash only scoffed.

Octavia rolled her eyes. “I'm going this way," she announced. "Come with me or don’t. I don't particularly care."

She pointed down the hall--the first hall, the original hall--and hardly waited a full second before starting off at a slow walk.

Flash waited long enough for the idea to be his own, and began to trot along in the same direction.

Their hoofsteps were asynchronous. It was the sort of thing which drove Octavia mad; her mind desperately tried to latch onto the polyphonic chaos, to find the moment when everything would click together and the pattern would be made clear, but it never would.

Flash slowed to look at each portrait. Octavia wasn’t watching him, of course, but she could hear it in the way his hooves drug along the tile for a random period of contemplation, then sped up to cover the lost ground.

Octavia didn’t want to look. She only looked straight ahead, her head tipped forward, her mane cascading into artificial blinders.

Each step echoed up to the ceiling, an impossible distance if the sound was an indicator. Octavia tilted her head up, right past the portraits, and stared up at the ceiling. Past the lights, it was an infinite white abyss.

There may not have been a ceiling at all.

Octavia sighed.

She kept walking.

The feeling was difficult to describe. She was so tired that she was practically hypnotized, and yet there was a panic buzzing at the back of her skull, telling her to run as fast as she could away from all of this. Somewhere in-between, her mind searched for memories of Mr. Refrain and his supposed love of jazz.

Flash similarly plodded along, his mind caught between fear and a rather light-hearted interest in the mystery of it all. Each portrait dredged up memories of a ghost of the past--friends, family, neighbors, teachers, bosses, celebrities--and each one came with some new proclamation of secrets and mistakes.

And they weren't just alcoholics and tattle-tales. Some of them seemed so innocent: an old family friend who hadn't been fond of Flash's dog, a comic book author that had always wanted to kill off their lead character… even a friend who was apparently a fan of Countess Coloratura.

Some of them even made Flash smile. A crush who had liked him back, yet never admitted it. A barista who gave him whipped cream for free. An instructor at the academy who had recommended him for scholarship.

At the same time, though… each one gave him an odd pang of guilt.

Not guilt. Betrayal, almost.

He couldn't quite explain it, but it made his chest feel tight. He picked up the pace, and began to avert his eyes.

Flash's dutiful trotting eventually caught him up to Octavia. The pair fell into step beside one another, though separated by the benches placed along the center of the hall.

It was like a little dotted line, Octavia thought. A way to mark your pace.

Flash cleared his throat. "So…"

Octavia glanced his way, just barely catching a glimpse of her Filly Guide Troop Leader. She said nothing.

"Uh." Flash looked down at the floor. "I was just wondering… y'know. What you were doing in the hall."

"I don't see how that's any of your business," Octavia muttered.

"It's… it's not, I guess," Flash admitted. "Just curious."

Octavia scoffed. "If you're so curious, why don't you tell me what you were doing in the hall?" she asked, offering an accusatory glare from behind her mane. "Besides snooping, that is."

"I wasn't snooping!" Flash argued. His wings flared out from his sides a bit, though it was nearly imperceptible. "Twilight was… I dunno, she was sitting all by herself. I just figured I should talk to her."

"And you talk to princesses often, do you?" Octavia sneered in Flash's direction.

Flash's face went stony again. "We used to date," he said simply. "Long time ago. Pre-princess."

Octavia clucked her tongue. "Well, lucky you."

"It was a long time ago, and it wasn't a big deal," he shot back. "It was only a few dates. It didn't work out."

The words floated up to the ceiling and beyond.

Flash was walking slower now. Though his pace didn't match Octavia's, and his stride was much greater, he was steadier. More even. Easier to track.

"So you spoke with her," Octavia repeated, her voice uncharacteristically high.

Flash hesitated, then nodded. "A little."

Octavia chuckled humorlessly. "Then I'm sure you know why I was there."

"Um…" Flash scrunched up his face. "You're Twilight's marefriend?"

Octavia grit her teeth. "Not exactly."

"You're… also Twilight's ex?"

"No."

"Twilight's… cousin?"

"For goodness's sake, it's not a guessing game!" Octavia halted here to stomp her hoof. She glowered at Flash for a moment, before breaking and casting her eyes back down at the floor. "I'm… Twilight's marefriend's ex."

Flash made a face of obvious discomfort. "Oh."

"Vinyl Scratch," Octavia continued, even though Flash hadn't asked. "I'm Vinyl Scratch's ex."

Flash's face was still frozen in a grimace, though he managed an awkward nod, entirely devoid of eye contact. "Right."

"I don't like it any more than you do."

"I… didn't think you did."

"Well, then stop making that face!" Octavia accused.

"I'm not making a face!" Flash retorted, genuine frustration creeping onto his face. "What the hay am I supposed to say, huh? Gee, that sucks?"

Octavia scoffed, though couldn't offer an answer.

A long silence stretched between them. Flash held his ground, looking down at Octavia with accusatory frustration. Octavia stared back at him, her own anger clear in the tightness of her lips.

After enough time had passed for Octavia to become wildly uncomfortable, she scoffed again. "Well. You asked, so there."

Flash rolled his eyes.

In unison, the pair turned and continued to walk down the long hallway.

Octavia tried to force Flash's hoofsteps out of her mind, but they seemed to fit with hers in some sort of looping mathematical beat. Transcribing it would have been a challenge, but it was there.

She didn't want it to be.

There was something about the sound of hoofsteps that made the place seem empty. Even more empty than if there had been no sound at all.

Another thing that Octavia couldn't transcribe if she tried.

"Some of these are yours, I think," Flash said.

"Oh, I'm quite sure that they are," Octavia replied, venom thick on her tongue.

Flash waited a moment, anticipating more of an explanation. "Aren't you curious?" he asked.

"No," Octavia lied.

Another long pause.

Hooves almost in sync.

"Brass Horn, I bet that's yours," Flash announced. "Says she can't read sheet music."

Octavia pounded her hoof on the tile floor. "You know, there's a reason I'm not looking at the portraits, Flash!" She shouted. Then, much lower, "I'm beginning to see why a relationship with you might not work out…"

"Y'know what? Glass houses, Octavia!" Flash remarked, jabbing a hoof in Octavia's direction. “You’re not giving me a lot, here!”

“Who said you deserve it?!”

Flash straightened up. “I never said I deserve anything!”

“Well, you certainly act like it,” Octavia spat. She tossed her mane over her shoulder and turned her snout pointedly towards the ceiling. “This is a partnership of convenience, Flash. We are looking for a place to sleep, not… whatever this is.”

“Ugh.” Flash snorted softly. “I was just trying to be nice.”

Octavia wanted nothing more than to continue to berate Flash Sentry--particularly when it came to his definition of “being nice”--but something stopped her. Perhaps it was argument exhaustion. Perhaps it was the simple fact that, if she could sum up the night’s lessons in one sentence, that sentence would be “arguing doesn’t solve anything”.

That, or it was what Flash said next:

“Wow. I didn’t know you had a twin.”

Octavia nearly asked how he knew such a thing, but followed his gaze over her shoulder and to the portrait which hung behind her.

It wasn’t like the others. For a lot of reasons, of course, but a few key ones:

Firstly, the subject of the painting was smiling. Not the way you smile for a picture, though-- more the way you smile to yourself when you turn out to be right. A private thing, a smirk down into one’s own collar, and yet one that you wished the world would see. One that you hoped somepony would notice.

Secondly, the painting itself was smaller than the others. While the other paintings were larger-than-life, their subject easily three times their true size, this painting was a one-to-one match. As Octavia looked at it, she found herself taking the same three-quarter tilt to her jaw, the same relaxed set of the ears, even the same grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. It was as if she were looking into a mirror, albeit one that warped the colors of reality into some sort of candy-colored parody.

Lastly, the plaque.

THE BLACK SHEEP:

FIDDLESTICKS

Octavia could hardly speak.

She looked up into her sister’s icy blue eyes, and they almost seemed to sparkle.

“That is your twin, isn’t it?” Flash asked. “I mean-- well, she looks just like you.”

“Um--” Octavia coughed a bit, surprised by the dryness of her throat. “Yes. She’s my twin sister.”

Flash nodded. “How come her portrait is so much smaller?”

“How should I know? I didn’t paint it,” Octavia snapped back. She turned back to the painting, considering the question more thoughtfully. “She’s not the type for fanfare, of course. Wouldn’t have wanted anything so magnificent as the others.”

“Did she, um…” Flash swallowed. “Did she… die?”

Octavia whirled about. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Oh! I just--”

“What in Equestria gave you the idea she was dead?” Octavia demanded. “How old do you think I am?”

Flash looked utterly bewildered. “I never said she died of old age!” He scoffed lightly. “You were talking about her in the past tense.”

“Yes, well.” Octavia turned back to the painting. “We haven’t spoken in a while.”

She said it like an apology, even though she was speaking to a painting. In all fairness, the painting looked quite real.

“The black sheep,” Flash read off the plaque. He was walking slowly towards Octavia, perhaps hoping she wouldn’t notice. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard that expression before.”

Flash frowned. “I have, too,” he said. “Just… in this context.”

Octavia heaved a sigh. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”

“Well… yeah, but I don’t exactly like the way you said that.” Flash admitted.

“Of course,” Octavia muttered. She closed her eyes. “When you have a sibling, especially a twin, it’s very easy to turn everything into a competition.”

“Right…” Flash looked up at the painting. “What, and Fiddlesticks lost?”

Octavia chuckled dryly. “Not hardly. She refused to compete at all,” she explained, a fond smile sneaking onto her face. “I was always so… well. She didn’t see the point in vying for anyone’s attention, I suppose. That made her something of an outsider.”

Flash nodded slowly. “Huh.”

Fiddlesticks held her coy pose with ease, despite looking so alive. She looked so tranquil… at peace with herself and her label and in her place in the museum of fallen heroes. Octavia wanted to smile along with her-- to forget all the pain and exhaustion and emotional sludge that was pooled up in her stomach. To relax. To smile to herself and be okay.

Even so, as Octavia looked up at Fiddle’s visage, she couldn’t help but feel a pang of betrayal.

“You’ll just know,” she had said. “When it’s right, it’s right. It feels right. Y’know?”

“Like you and Lightning Dust?” Octavia had asked.

Fiddle had smirked easily. “Yeah. I mean, you know us: two black sheep, looking for somepony to help them feel normal.” She laughed, then. “It sounds kinda messed up when I say it like that, I guess.”

Octavia shook her head. “No, no-- not at all.”

“Right,” Fiddle agreed, laughing to herself. “I mean, is that what it’s like with you and Vinyl?”

And Octavia didn’t have an answer.

“So…” Flash sucked on his lower lip. “You… did compete?”

“Tsk, it doesn’t matter,” Octavia said, even though it did. “That’s not the point,” she added, even though it was.

Flash nickered softly. “Well, at least she’s proud of herself, right?” he said, nodding towards Fiddle’s painting.

Octavia furrowed her brows. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I just-- well, the plaque…” Flash couldn’t seem to put it into words. He gestured to the painting, emphatic that it was different. “Y’know. She seems pretty happy about being the outsider. She put it before her own name.”

Octavia scoffed. “She didn’t do anything,” she reminded him, mimicking her gesture. “She has nothing to do with this. Somepony else put all of this together.”

“Yeah, whatever. Same thing.”

“No, not the same thing!” Octavia stomped her hoof on the floor. “Not at all the same thing!”

“It doesn’t matter, Tavi!”

“Maybe it does! And don’t call me--”

There was a quick, sharp sound--like a fly whizzing past their heads--and Octavia and Flash were drawn out of their argument.

Neither of them asked what had made the sound, because doing that would mean admitting that they didn’t know something, and so they made not a sound. The energy of their frustration with one another still prickled between them.

They waited.

After a moment or two--far too long to be standing in an unfamiliar place and waiting for an unfamiliar noise--there was a mechanical thud in the distance.

Flash and Octavia looked down the hall, back in the direction they had come from, and saw that there was now a black speck at the end of it.

Octavia leaned forward, squinting slightly. “What is…” she murmured.

Another thud.

The speck came closer.

Another thud.

Flash jumped.

Thud.

Thud.

“Uh…”

“Are those the lights?” Octavia asked, looking down the hallway with one hoof to her brow, as if she were trying to spot land from the crow’s nest of a pirate ship. “Are they… are they going out?”

Thud.

Thud.

With each concussive sound, another one of the industrial lights flickered and died.

Thud.

Thud.

Each one came quicker than the last.

Thud.

Thud.

Each one swallowing another biet of the hallway, inching ever closer to Flash and Octavia, leaving nothing but utter darkness in its wake.

Thud.

“What happens if we’re…” Flash murmured, not daring to finish the thought.

Thud.

“I don’t know.”

Thud.

“Should we--”

“Run?” Octavia suggested.

Thud.

Neither pony waited for confirmation. They turned tail and galloped away from the darkness with everything they had, hooves slipping on the polished tile floor, the monstrous darkness hot on their heels.

Thud.

Thud.

With each stride, Flash pumped his wings, and he almost appeared to float over the tile like a phantom.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Octavia could hardly keep track of her own limbs, scrabbling like crab of glass. It felt like one long descent, as if she were falling, falling, falling--

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Their chests were heaving.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

They were nearly crying, yet didn’t have the strength or the breath for it.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

They were going to be caught.

Thud!

All the lights in front of them went down. All the way down the hallway, like a line of dominoes.

Flash pumped his wings, hooves scrambling against the tile, desperately trying to come to a stop before he found himself sailing past the veil and into the darkness. e he sailed past the veil and into that black unknown beyond it.

Octavia slammed her rump down onto the ground and came to a quick--if undignified--halt after squealing along the floor for a moment or two.

Flash just barely managed to stop, but quickly tipped backwards and landed sprawled across the floor.

The pair stared silently up at the single light above them. Though it swung slightly to and fro, it showed no signs of going out. Outside of its reach, outside that little cone of warm light, the rest of the hallway had vanished completely. It was as if it had crumbled away into whatever abyss made up the foundation for this place.

Flash pushed himself up off the floor and shook himself off. "Where's a unicorn when you need 'em, right?" He laughed lightly, nodding into the darkness.

"Ugh." Octavia stood up, her backside aching, and rolled her eyes.

"Are you okay?" Flash asked.

"I'm fine," Octavia muttered through clenched teeth.

Flash didn't seem bothered by her prickliness. "Hey, do you know her?"

Words could not describe how little Octavia wanted to see Flash pointing over her shoulder and at the wall behind her.

Who would it be this time? A childhood best friend who had secretly hated her all along? A coworker who thought she was rude and stuck-up? A former lover who--

Oh, dear Celestia, she hoped it wasn't that.

She only had one of those, after all.

She didn't want to look. She wouldn't, she would refuse!

And yet… it was inevitable.

Octavia turned to look at the portrait which loomed behind her.

And loom it did. The painting was so tall, so wide and magnificent, that it nearly vanished into the dark fog above the cone of light.

Even so, the portrait was instantly recognizable. The soft, round line of the jaw--one that Octavia herself had unfortunately inherited--led up to pearl stud earrings, the hue and sheen of which perfectly matched the well-kept bangs. The fur, a delicate grey, formed intricate swirls and swoops around her glittering eyes, each of which were shaped with purpose by a variety of expensive cosmetic products.

PIANISSIMO CODA

SABOTAGED A RIVAL MUSICIAN

"That's your mom, isn't it?" Flash asked.

And it was. But Octavia could even bring herself to nod, let alone squeak out a confirmation.

Flash took Octavia's stunned silence as a yes. "You… you look so much like her," he murmured.

And she did.

And she hated it.

Flash seemed to notice the bench at the center of the hall for the first time. He maneuvered around it and plopped down onto the seat, staring up at the painting before him without much thought in his eyes at all.

The painting didn't mean a thing to him. He didn't know this mare. He certainly didn't feel the hot, dry, asphyxiating lump rising in his throat which Octavia was fighting down.

"So… she's a musician, too?" Flash asked.

And she was.

But it wasn't that simple.

"It-- It's none of your business!" Octavia shrieked.

Flash's wings clamped down at his sides, and he leaned away as Octavia whirled to face him.

"For pony's sake! None of this concerns you, not even remotely!" she howled, gesticulating wildly and choking on her own anger. "Just-- just stop asking!"

The sound did not echo.

It stopped dead at the edge of the cone of light, as if the blackness on either side of the pair of ponies was a thick, oozing liquid, soaking up anything which flew its way.

Suddenly, the endless hallway felt very small.

Flash held his tongue. He looked into Octavia's eyes, though only for a moment.

It became too much. He looked down at his lap.

Octavia could feel her mother's eyes boring into the back of her head, but she dared not turn to face her again. For a while, she stared daggers into the top of Flash's head, waiting for him to look up.

But a glint of gold caught her eye, and she looked up at the opposite wall.

This painting, too, was utterly enormous. Perhaps even larger than her mother's portrait.

The stallion in the portrait was… stately. He wasn't large or hulking, but he did have a strong jaw and rather small eyes, both of which had a certain stability. His jaw was set. His eyes were focused ahead, squinting almost imperceptibly. He had the hints of what was likely some impressive golden facial hair peeking through his rough, gray coat.

A plaque was affixed beneath the portrait. As if there was any doubt over who the stallion was, it read:

STOIC SENTRY

CHEATED ON HIS WIFE (MULTIPLE OCCASIONS)

Perhaps Octavia should have been sympathetic, but she certainly wasn't in that moment.

She jabbed an accusatory hoof at the portrait. "There," she said emphatically. "That one is for you."

Flash looked up at Octavia, searching for any hint of emotion. Finding none, he swung his hind legs over the bench and turned to face the portrait. He seemed to recognize it instantly, and he sort of cringed into himself a bit-- not in fear, merely in shock.

He was quiet for a long time.

Octavia didn't quite know what to do. Asking a question--any question, really--would make her a hypocrite, so she merely watched and waited.

Flash sighed. "He was having an affair?" he whispered.

He wasn't asking Octavia. Not exactly. Yet the question hung unanswered, and there was hardly a breath of wind to fill the silence.

Octavia scoffed. "Oh, come now," she said, waving away the thought. She couldn't think of a true argument, though, and so the sentiment was forced to dangle alongside the unanswered question.

Flash just kept looking up at the portrait, his neck craned backwards at an uncomfortable angle as he tried to look his father in the eye.

Octavia opened her mouth to continue, but quickly gave up before the words would come. She made a small sound of frustration and plopped down on the bench beside Flash.

It was exactly as uncomfortable as she had guessed it would be.

She looked up at the portrait.

It hadn't changed, of course. It was exactly the same, down to each magically-generated brush stroke. But… well, if the plaque was to be believed, this stallion had been carrying on an affair for Celestia knows how long. Either that, or he'd been calling up fillies of the night whenever he had the chance.

Both were awful. Both made his squinty eyes look a little less stoic, and a little more shifty.

Octavia cocked her head, as if seeing it from another angle might bring back that focused, militaristic strength she had seen before.

But… no. He looked like a snivelly coward, now. No matter how she turned her head and squinted.

Flash let out a long breath. "I mean… it makes sense," he admitted, scratching absently at the back of his head. "He spent a lot of nights away from home. And he and my mom…"

He didn't finish his thought. The possibilities hung in the air.

Octavia looked up at Flash.

She didn't know what to say. For a lot of reasons. She only hoped that those reasons were as apparent to Flash as they were to her.

There was no way to know for sure.

Flash shook his head, as if to clear it. He even laughed a little, though it seemed breathless and thoughtless. "That's so-- I mean, he was always the one who was on me about upholding the family name," he said. Then, much softer, "and respecting mares…"

Octavia tried very hard not to comment on that.

"All that time… he was cheating on my mom," Flash said. He wrinkled up his snout, as if smelling something awful. "Ugh. He was cheating on my mom, and he was harsh on me."

Octavia nodded. "He sounds like a real nob," she said with a scoff.

She hadn't intended to, and she quickly snapped her mouth shut.

Flash, however, pricked his ears, and he turned his head to look down at Octavia. "Well…" He paused, then let out a little snort. "Yeah. Pretty much."

Octavia held her tongue. She tried not to nod, but it's possible that she did. She only kept her eyes trained straight ahead, tracing over a little cowlick of fur on Stoic's shoulder. It was hard to tell what was intentional and what was luck of the brush stroke.

Flash chewed the inside of his cheek. He tried not to look up into his father's eyes, and yet found himself continually drawn back. Every time he met the steely gaze, his eyes would leap away again.

"Sounds like my mum," Octavia said suddenly.

She hadn’t meant to--in fact, she rather wished she could stuff the words back into her mouth--but they were out there, now.

“Yeah?” Flash asked.

Octavia wasn’t supposed to complain. Not about anything, but certainly not about her mother, and certainly not to a stranger.

And yet there was something familiar in Flash’s eyes as he waited for Octavia to continue. Something that said ‘we’re not so different, you and I’.

"She absolutely loved to lecture me about how relationships take work, and how I couldn't just quit on somepony because it was hard,” Octavia recited. “Real, permanent relationships take work. End of.”

Flash cocked his head. "But…?" he prompted.

"But then she divorced my dad!" Octavia exclaimed, throwing both hooves out in front of her. "Why didn't she just work a little harder, hm?" she mocked, curling her lips into a haughty sneer.

She stuck her tongue out. Not at anything. Just in general distaste.

Flash laughed at that. It was a stupid-sounding laugh, far too nasally and snorty, but it somehow seemed to suit him. The big galoot.

It felt… good. To laugh about it. To have somepony else laugh about it.

"Sounds like she went a little Tonya Gelding, too, huh?" Flash said, nodding at the portrait behind them.

Images of shattered wings flashed through Octavia's mind. Her mother wasn't capable of violence like that, she was quite certain-- but it was vivid nonetheless.

"Ugh." Octavia folded her forelegs over her chest and clamped them down tight. "Always the practical mare, my mum. Sure, my special talent was in composing, but being a studio musician--better yet, joining a quartet!--now that's a stable career. That's something to be proud of."

Flash wasn't sure how to respond, and so only nodded slightly.

Octavia looked back over her shoulder, up into the eyes of her mother. "It just figures she'd go and do something like that," she muttered. "Always carrying on about practicality and nobility, when she got where she was all… nefariously."

"What did she do?" Flash asked. "For work. Not for sabotage."

"Oh, she wrote jingles for radio commercials," Octavia muttered dismissively. “Still does. She's the exception to the rule, of course. Composition was impractical for everyone but her.”

Flash shifted on the bench. One long primary feather brushed along Octavia’s ribcage, and she stiffened at the touch.

"Yeah," Flash said, so low it was practically a growl. "My dad was always kinda… phony, I guess. Like he was always calculating his reputation in his head. Plus, I was part of that reputation to him. Y’know?”

Octavia's brow furrowed. "Hm."

Phony. Come to think of it, that was a brilliant way of describing Flash, wasn't it?

“You think that’s why we’re like this?” Flash asked.

Octavia made a face. “Speak for yourself, Flash,” she muttered. Then, after a moment’s thought, “like what?”

Flash shook his head slowly, and gestured widely to the room. “Y’know. This.”

“You want to blame our parents for being trapped in…” Octavia trailed off. She tilted her head back, looking up into the inky blackness beyond the light. “Wherever we are?”

“No, I meant like…” He trailed off. Octavia could see the gears of his mind grind to a halt as he tried to find a nice way to say whatever it was he really thought. “I dunno.”

Octavia sighed and hung her head.

Flash sighed, too. "I mean… I think I’m fine,” he announced. “My dad was always the one pushing for perfect, picking apart every little thing. Don't you think that's what the room is trying to tell us?"

Octavia snorted in laughter. "What makes you think the room is trying to tell us anything?"

Flash shrugged. "Feels pretty purposeful to me. Why wouldn't it be trying to tell us something?"

"It's a room," Octavia said firmly. "A hotel room. A very strange hotel room, but a hotel room nonetheless."

Flash threw his head back in exasperation. "You were the one who said this was probably Twilight's nonsense!" he reminded Octavia. He leaned backwards on the bench, front hooves clutching the front edge. "Isn't that her thing? Lessons?"

Octavia clucked her tongue. "You give her far too much credit."

"I'm just saying!" Flash rocked forward once more, planting his hooves on the floor with a loud clap. "It feels like somepony's trying to convince us that our parents sucked. Are you not getting that feeling?"

Octavia looked up at the massive painting before them.

It did feel quite like the sort of thing one might find in a haunted house, now that Flash mentioned it.

"Our parents and, by extension, nearly every other pony we've ever known," Octavia said, gesturing to the darkness beyond the cone of light. "What's the point of that?"

Flash folded his front legs across his chest. "Fine, then. What's your theory?"

Octavia sniffed lightly. "I don't have one."

"How can you not have one?"

"I simply don't think this is a conspiracy!" Octavia explained. "It's an unfortunate magical mishap. Looking for meaning is just… foolish."

"So I'm a fool now?" Flash asked.

"I didn't mean--" Octavia paused, took a deep breath, and steadied herself. "Fine. I think the portraits are showing us that everypony has flaws, and we shouldn't feel badly about ours."

Flash stuck his tongue out. "That's so boring."

"Well, maybe it's a very boring magical mishap!" Octavia spat back.

Flash went silent.

He didn't look hurt, and so Octavia didn't feel badly about scolding him. He just looked sort of… bored. Or frustrated. Or both.

Octavia sighed and slumped down on the bench. It was a difficult thing to do without a back to slump against, and so she merely deflated slightly, coming to a rest just as her body began to look more like a pile of dirty laundry than a living creature.

"What about Fiddlesticks?" Flash asked.

Octavia growled. "What about Fiddlesticks?"

"Well, her thing came first," Flash reminded Octavia. "Remember?"

"Yes, I remember. It was a few minutes ago, for goodness's sake," Octavia muttered. She straightened up a bit, lifting her chin from her chest by an inch or two. "I told you, she was proud of herself. That's probably why."

Flash nodded slowly, mulling that over. "So then… maybe the point isn't that everypony has flaws, but that everypony is ashamed of them?" he guessed. "Except Fiddlesticks."

Octavia didn't bother to respond. Mostly because that made a lot of sense, and she hated to give Flash the satisfaction of being right.

"I don't think guessing wins us any points," Octavia said.

"Maybe it opens a door, though," Flash replied.

"This isn’t an escape room.”

“Mm-hm.” Flash nodded. “How sure are you, though?”

“Quite,” Octavia said through clenched teeth.

“Right, right.” Flash looked up at the portrait of his father. “I can see it now: Octavia What’s-Her-Face, Insufferable Know-It-All.”

“Oh?” Octavia’s face went stony, despite the heat rising in her cheeks. “Well, while they’re at it, they should add one for you, too! Flash Sentry, Two-Faced Sham!”

Flash got to his hooves, towering over Octavia with militaristic vigor. “You don’t even know me!”

Octavia followed suit. “You don’t know me, either!” she shouted back.

“You wanna blame somepony for me being two-faced?” Flash jabbed a hoof at the painting. “Blame my dad!”

Octavia scoffed. “I think it’s clear my mother was the original pedant!”

“What the-- who says that?!” Flash exclaimed. “Just say she’s a tool like everypony else!”

“There’s nothing wrong with me or the way I speak!” Octavia pounded a hoof on the floor.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with me, either!”

The sound did not echo.

It didn’t come back to bite them.

Their parents did not disagree, even though it felt like they would.

They couldn’t, of course. But that’s besides the point.

Flash blinked. His face scrunched into a look of concentration. “Hey… yeah.” He nodded to himself. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Octavia turned to look at the portrait of her mother, and she saw the way the plaque far outshone even the shrewd glint in her mother’s eyes.

A hall of heroes, and not a single one without fault.

And yet, somehow, that didn’t make any of them unheroic.

Oh, it was certainly a blow to their character. To say that it didn’t diminish them in the least would have been an outright lie. But there were still good things about them.

Maybe that’s all you can really ask.

There was a terrific metallic sound, that of a thousands switches being thrown at once, and every light in the place came back on.

Flash and Octavia both winced. Octavia threw her foreleg over her eyes, and Flash shielded himself with his wings. As they stood here, immobilized by the power of the harsh lights, they appeared to dim. Their color shifted from a glaring white to a warm yellow.

Eventually, the two ponies lowered their protective appendages.

Back in the hotel hallway.

Still on the fourth floor.

“Hm,” Flash said.

Octavia closed her eyes. “Indeed.”

Room 488

View Online

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.

Room 466 - Part I

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“Flash, are you limping?”

The stallion made a small, unconvincing grunt of dismissal. “No. I mean… well, yeah,” he said. “But it’s no big deal. I dunno how you came away from all that without a few bumps and bruises yourself.”

“I’m not all peachy, if that’s what you’re implying,” Octavia muttered. “I feel like I coughed up a whole barbeque’s worth of hot coals.”

Flash snorted softly. “Yeah. Drinking will do that to you.”

Octavia’s face crumpled into an aggravated sneer. “You were the one who--”

“I know, I know.” Flash sighed. He was moving slower and slower as time went on, hesitating to take even one step on his clearly sprained foreleg. “In my defense, if I knew you were gonna go all teen-drama on me, I wouldn’t have given you anything stronger than mineral water.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny.”

“It’s definitely a little funny.”

Octavia paused here. She watched as Flash continued on, his weight shifting and hitching with each shuffling step, his wings partly unfurled to aid in balancing. She couldn’t help but feel a little responsible for that.

Okay, a lot responsible. Not that she would admit to it.

“Why don’t we take a break?” Octavia blurted out.

Flash stopped short and looked over his shoulder at Octavia. “Uh… a break from what?”

“From… walking,” she said. “I know I’m still not feeling very well. We should take a break. We’ve hardly stopped for hours now.”

Flash blinked slowly. “I’m all good. Really.”

“Well, I’m not!” Octavia stomped her hoof on the carpet. “My breath tastes like vomit and alcohol, I’m covered in mud, I’m exhausted-- let’s just sit. For a moment or two.”

Flash sighed. Octavia could swear she saw the shadows of gears whirring behind his eyes, as he tried to do the math on Octavia’s request. Octavia was getting to know him quite well, after all-- manipulation wasn’t out of the question.

Octavia rolled her eyes. “For goodness’s sake, I’m not trying to trick you!” she said. “I know you’re all Mr. Royal Guard, but I genuinely just want to take a rest. If you really must go on without me, then I suppose you’re free to do so.”

She said it. She meant it, even. But it wasn’t true.

“Don’t be stupid,” Flash muttered. He turned around and walked back to Octavia’s side, then lowered himself against the bit of wall there until his rear hit the carpet.

Octavia waited a moment. She hadn’t expected to get this far.

Flash sort of squirmed against the wall. “Ugh. What did they put in this paint, huh? Gravel?”

That snapped Octavia out of her blank-eyed stare. She positioned herself beside Flash and shimmied down to a seated position beside him, cramming herself between the stallion and a nearby potted plant.

Flash did his best to make space, but his wing seemed to be too stiff to curl up properly. It rested on Octavia’s shoulder, ever so gently hovering there. Only tips of hairs and frills of feathers for contact. All the same, it made Octavia bristle.

“So,” Flash said, giving Octavia a look out of the corner of his eye, “you still think Twilight’s behind this?”

Octavia returned the sideways glance. “You don’t?”

Flash grimaced. “Seems a little extravagant for one pony. Even an alicorn.” He paused. “Not to mention… a little sadistic?”

Octavia faked a smile. “Aw, was the party in the woods a little too intense?” she mocked. She even put on a fake pout and batted her lashes at him. “Did it give you fraternity flashbacks?”

Flash only arched an eyebrow in response. He allowed Octavia to have a good, long look at his battered and mud-soaked face. Then, he said, “I was actually referring to the whole… you aspect of this.”

“Very funny. So funny, in fact, I forgot to laugh,” Octavia snarked back.

Flash was equally unamused.

They were quiet. The air conditioning hummed in the distance, thankfully a good few paces away and therefore not freezing the both of them solid.

That made sense. You wouldn’t put an air conditioning vent right above a potted plant. And this one, judging by the earthy scent, was quite real.

Octavia nestled her muzzle in the plant’s and took a long, deep breath. It reminded her of… of something. Only she couldn’t for the life of her remember what it was.

“Seriously,” Flash said.

Octavia blinked and pulled her face out of the plant. “Seriously… what?”

“What do you think’s going on, here?” Flash asked. “I mean… we can do this all day. All week, more likely. Just keep opening doors and doing whatever the hotel wants us to do. But, so far, we’re two rooms deep and I don’t think we’ve made any progress.”

Octavia scoffed. “There’s no progress to be made!” she said, throwing her hooves in the air in exasperation. “This is just a-- just a random, senseless magical anomaly. You can’t ‘do what it wants’, it doesn’t ‘want’ anything. It just is.”

Flash gave Octavia a condescending grin. “Well. That’s one theory, I guess.”

Octavia only growled in response and folded her forelegs across her chest.

“You wanna know what I’ve been thinking?”

“Somehow I feel like my answer won’t have any bearing on--”

“I’ve been thinking about the times we’ve opened the doors, and the times we’ve left the rooms,” Flash said, proving Octavia right by plowing right over her. This, somehow, did not bring her the least bit of vindication. “Every time we’ve opened a door, it’s been because you agreed to try.”

Octavia wrinkled her snout.

“And every time we’ve been sent back to the hallway, it’s been because I had some… I dunno, epiphany, I guess.” Flash tapped his forehooves arrythmically on the carpet as he mulled that over. “Yeah. What do you think about that?”

Octavia clenched and unclenched her teeth. “Well. First of all, I think it’s more like we opened the doors when we agreed to work together,” she said. “And we get sent to the hallway when one of us has an epiphany. Not necessarily you.”

“Mm.” Flash shrugged. “Sure, sure.”

“Second of all, I think the implication that the hotel is trying to force us to get along is…” She paused, trying to think of the right word. “Erm. Moronic?”

“Ugh, of course you--”

“Fine, not moronic. Just impossible,” Octavia interrupted. “I certainly love the idea of a magical, space-and-time-bending hotel that truly believes in the magic of friendship. Sounds not the least bit trite, of course,” she muttered, dripping with sarcasm.

Flash rolled his eyes, complete with a motion of the head and a slack jaw.

“I just think we should be a little more realistic. Don’t you?” Octavia said sweetly, looking up at Flash with a half-lidded glare of utter condescension.

Flash glared at Octavia. Then, without warning, he reached over and ruffled Octavia’s bangs, allowing the now-dry mud to crumble down into her face.

Octavia spluttered something and swiped at Flash’s hoof. He came away easily, smirking all the while.

“Cute,” Octavia all but growled.

Flash shrugged. “Fine. You don’t wanna have any epiphanies, that’s on you. Guess it’ll just be me learning the meaning of life and becoming a better pony. Works for me.”

Octavia clucked her tongue. “Suddenly you’re not seeming quite so weary.”

“I thought we were sitting here for your sake,” Flash reminded her.

“Well, I think that’s quite enough sitting!” Octavia announced, shooting up to her hooves. She regretted it instantly, as her vision quickly went black, and she had to focus unbelievably hard to remain standing.

If Flash noticed, he didn’t say a word about it. In fact, he didn’t move at all.

Octavia snorted aggressively and shook her head clear of her wooziness. “Come on, now. Let’s get a move on.” She gave Flash a small, gentle kick on the bottom of one hoof. “You want to have epiphanies so badly, let’s see a little hustle.”

“You look like you’re about to take a header,” Flash said.

So… maybe he had noticed.

“I’m quite alright, Flash,” Octavia said, blinking away the stars in her vision. “Don’t be silly. Let’s go find out what’s behind door number three.”

Flash made a long, low grunting sound as he pushed himself up onto his hooves. “Fine, fine. Let’s go check it out,” he said, giving Octavia a clap on the shoulder. “Who knows? Maybe there’ll be a shower in this one.”

“One can dream,” Octavia agreed.

The pair took a few slow steps down the hall, Octavia trying to account for Flash’s limp, and Flash desperately trying to overcome his own injury.

But, before they could get very far, a strange feeling rumbled up through the carpet. It was a bit like standing on the platform as a train passed by; a sound more felt than heard. A great, low growl that grew and grew and grew… only to ebb once more, retreating lake a wave from the shore.

Octavia looked up at Flash. “What was that?”

Flash opened his mouth to respond when another sound cut him off. This one was of the same variety, but much quicker. A clap. A strike.

“Thunder?” Octavia asked, more to herself than to Flash. She cocked her head and trotted a ways down the hall.

Flash made a face. “It’s raining? In Canterlot?” He followed behind Octavia at a slow pace. “I thought they had clear weather scheduled for the festival.”

But Octavia wasn’t listening. Her quick steps slowed as she waited for another lightning strike to send the rumbling barreling down the hall. Just as she was beginning to lose hope, another did; she went chasing after it at a quick trot, her head low, her eyes scanning the carpet for signs of water.

“Octavia!” Flash called, though to no response.

He waited a moment, then followed Octavia at a slow and encumbered pace.

Another clap of thunder. Getting closer.

Octavia picked up to a canter, then a gallop. Maybe this was it. Maybe somepony had left their window open, and it had broken the bubble of the spell. Maybe she and Flash had slept for days and days, and the festival was over, and it was raining again in Canterlot.

Another great booming sound. This one right beside Octavia.

She came to a screeching halt in front of room 466.

The air felt very strange, here. Electrified. Energized. Wild. Cold and wet, too-- as if she were standing in the screened-in porch of her childhood home during a particularly powerful storm.

Another strike. The light of it flashed under the door, illuminating the carpet in a sharp, blue-white haze.

“You think it’s safe to go in there?” Flash asked.

Octavia produced her key card. “Only one way to find out.”

She swiped the card against the lock.

Bi-deep!

Octavia and Flash exchanged a look of surprise, and reached out as one to open the door.

No sooner had they touched the handle than the door was ripped away from them and into the room beyond, sucked out of their grasp by the magnificently cold, wet winds of a thunderstorm.

Octavia shrieked and shielded her face. Flash instinctively stretched out his wing to protect her, as well.

Though the wind was cold and damp, it was not actually wet; in other words, no true rainwater was carried in this wind. Flash peeked over his wing and into the room filled with wind and fluttering papers and not a single light.

“Hey,” he said, nudging Octavia gently. “Hey, it’s a house!”

Octavia lowered her hooves.

It was, indeed, a house. A house that somepony had neglected to shutter properly before a storm, but a house nonetheless. And, as an added bonus, it seemed to be decorated in a series of nautical gimmicks-- Octavia could spot a ship’s wheel and a rather large conch shell from here, even in the darkness.

A beach house. A summertime, vacation beach house. In fact, now that Octavia had identified the decor, she could smell it on the air: salt, sand, and surf underneath the petrichor and the ozone.

Flash stepped over the threshold, using his wings to keep himself grounded there. “Hello?” he called into the house, and the words were stolen right from his mouth by the wind. He cupped a hoof around his mouth and tried again: “Hello? Anypony home? Hello!

He waited patiently for a response, but there was none.

Flash looked back at Octavia.

“Well… they must at least have a bathroom," Octavia said.

Flash nodded. "And a bed… right?"

“We can close a few windows,” Octavia added.

“Or barricade ‘em, if we have to.”

Octavia shrugged.

Flash shrugged back.

It was quite possibly the closest they had been to agreeing on anything.

The moment they were out of the door's swing--in fact, probably a moment sooner--the wind sucked it closed once again. Octavia couldn't quite puzzle out how that was possible, but it did nearly catch her tail as it slammed shut.

Flash jumped at the suddenness of the sound and whirled to face the door. Cautiously, curiously, he pulled it opened once again… revealing only an ordinary linen closet.

He may have commented on that, but it was quite hard.ro hear over the wind.

Flash closed the door and looked around. "Wow," he bellowed. "Did they really just… not close their windows?"

"It seems like!" Octavia agreed, battling her mane as it was whipped wildly about in the wind. "Let's split up-- get everything closed!"

"Roger that." Flash gave Octavia a half-hearted salute with one wing, then turned on his heel and headed deeper into the house.

Octavia watched as he went, still hitching ever so slightly, then turned to trot up the stairs to the second floor.

It was a surreal feeling. First of all, she was in somepony else’s home-- an entirely unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar smells and sights and sounds and patterns. Even so, it was a vacation home. A home that was hardly lived in, and kept in pristine condition. There were no rushed patch jobs, no attempts to fix things on their own, no mismatched decorations filled with sentimental value. Everything was… well, ship-shape and in theme.

Secondly, though Octavia had been in bad storms, she had never been so exposed in a storm before.

Sure, she was safe--the thunder was rather far off, and there would be no getting struck by lightning as long as she was indoors--but the wind tore through her with unprecedented power. The smell of it was assaultive and overwhelming. The damp air on her skin only made her feel that much dirtier. Every now and then, a lock of her mane would go on the offensive, twirling around her snout or flicking into her mouth or skating over her eyes.

But, with every window she closed and latched, the winds lost that much of their power.

And then, before they knew it, they were standing in a house. A closed-up house, with them on the inside and the storm on the outside. As it should be.

Octavia's ears rotated this way and that, searching for any more wailing or whistling or flapping of loose papers and bedding. To her relief, she found none.

"Flash?" she called out through the house.

"I'm in the kitchen!" he replied.

Octavia wasn't exactly sure where the kitchen was, but she figured it was likely on the ground floor, and so came trotting down the stairs.

Flash kicked the fridge closed as Octavia came around the corner.

"So," he said, leaning back against the granite counter. "The power's out."

"Brilliant observation, as always," Octavia remarked, gesturing into the dark hall behind her.

"But," Flash said, his annoyance crystal clear, "they have a gas stove and a pantry filled with canned goods. You like soup?"

"I like anything that isn't fermented," Octavia said, trotting to Flash's side.

Flash laughed at that. A real, genuine laugh.

That was rather nice, Octavia thought.

She began to paw through the cans on the shelf beside the stove, searching through the many generic soup flavors until she came up with something rather noodle-y. Without light, she couldn't read the label-- she was going on shape alone, and she could have sworn she saw noodles.

"Here," she said, sliding the can across the counter towards Flash.

He caught the can easily. "Cool. Now comes the hard part: find the silverware drawer so I can pry this thing open."

Octavi clucked her tongue. "Why can't you find the silverware?"

"Because I'm trying to find a saucepan," Flash said. As if to prove his point, he rattled the contents of the drawer before him, producing an overwhelming clattering sound. "Eh?"

Octavia didn't say anything. She wasn't sure why, exactly.

Eventually, she happened upon the right drawer, and she tossed Flash a fork.

The metal crunched under Flash's hoof--a familiar sound, a sick-day sound--and he poured its contents out into the saucepan he'd place on the stove.

"Looks like… tofu noodle?" he guessed, giving the concoction a stir with the fork. "Can't be sure, though."

"I'd eat just about anything right now," Octavia said. She hoisted herself up onto the counter beside Flash and peered down into the soup. "I won't be picky."

Flash chuckled. "Bet that's the first time you've said that, huh?"

Octavia punched him on the shoulder.

He chuckled again. A mischievous little sound.

And so they waited, in relative silence, for the soup to warm up. It felt like a very odd thing to do in the dark-- Octavia was no stranger to midnight snacks, but turning on the stove was far too much effort for a sudden case of the nibbles.

She swung her legs off the side of the counter.

Flash stirred, slowly and deliberately, and swayed in time to the occasional scrapes and pings as he did so.

Octavia hummed to herself as Flash served the soup into little blue bowls. He passed one up to his companion, dropping a spoon into it along the way.

"Thank you," Octavia said.

Flash smiled his little lop-sided smile. "You're welcome."

The wind tore at the shutters, but the shutters did not give.

Flash slurped up a spoonful of soul, and made a frankly carnal sound of delight.

Octavia grimaced in a sort of disgust, but had trouble not unleashing her own moans of satisfaction as she had her first bite. Warm, salty, soft-- it filled her mouth and hugged her from the inside out.

"Mm," Flash mumbled, placing his bowl on the counter. "Let's eat on the sofa.”

Octavia shook her head and lifted the bowl to her face. “It won’t last that long.”

Flash laughed. “Fair enough.”

They ate.

They mourned the end of their can.

They heated another, and ate that, too.

The storm headed out to sea, slowly but earnestly. As the night wore on, the thunder faded away entirely, and only the sound of driving rain could be heard against the roof. Powerful as the rain was, it had a certain sameness to it that the pair found comforting.

Every now and then, the wind would howl through the porch. It made the kitchen feel that much warmer and safer.

Octavia slurped down the last swallow of soup in her bowl and placed it on the counter.

“Probably safe to shower, now,” Flash said through a mouthful of soft noodles. “Haven’t heard thunder in a while.”

Octavia reached up to her face, as if she might be able to feel the dried patches of mud there. “Hm.”

Flash nodded back into the hall. “Go on. I’m not going anywhere. Might make some tea if I can find it.”

“You’re sure?” Octavia asked, sliding down off the counter and onto the tile floor. “I wouldn’t want to--”

“It’s just a house,” Flash said.

Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But Octavia didn’t have it in her to argue the point.

She nodded, a shadow of a smile creeping over her face, and squeezed past Flash. She gave him a little pat on the shoulder as she went.

Flash made a little sound, something like a scoff or a laugh. Something that brushed off her relative kindness as an anomaly.

If merely existing in another’s home was surreal, then showering in another’s bathroom felt like stepping into a different world entirely. Octavia recognized exactly none of what she scrubbed into her mane-- partly because she was showering in the dark, and partly because they seemed entirely foreign to her. Even the shapes of the bottles were unfamiliar. Even the scents were strange.

But she didn’t care. She scrubbed and rinsed and watched as all of her dirtiness ran down the drain, in amongst the trails of floral soap suds. She stood still under the water and allowed it to beat upon her back and her face and her neck. She tried to melt the anxiety from her bones.

It sort of worked. The first shower after a long day at a music festival, and a long day at a museum, and a long day at a party in the woods.

The first shower after the longest day she’d had her whole life.

And, when she stepped out of the shower to find that there were no towels on the towel rack, she shook herself dry like a dog. It felt good not to care about where the water might end up.

She left the bathroom feeling different. The difference was hard to explain, but it felt rather large and important. The sort of different you feel when you’ve finished something big, when a magnificent part of your life has come to a close-- only it was the delayed difference. The kind you feel when a few weeks have gone by, and it hits you out of nowhere that things are different now. And they won’t be the same again.

And you’re different now. And you won’t be the same again.

Flash Sentry was sitting on the sofa. He was holding a cup of tea in his forehooves and staring out the front window. He turned to look over his shoulder as he heard the floorboards creak under Octavia’s hooves.

“Hey,” he said. “You’re looking less grody.”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “How kind of you to notice.”

He pointed to the low coffee table in front of him. “I made you some tea. I didn’t know what you liked in it.”

“Oh.” Octavia started to walk towards Flash. “I normally take it white, but… well, if there is milk in this house, I certainly won’t be drinking it.”

Flash clucked his tongue. “Shoulda known you’d drink it wrong.”

Octavia flopped down onto the couch beside Flash. “It’s you big-city ponies who drink it wrong,” she said, lifting her mug allowing the steam to warm her face. “Coffee as well. Hardly even coffee anymore, the way these places fill it up with sugar and flavored syrups.”

“I thought you guys had chain coffee places over in Great Bittain,” Flash said.

“We do,” Octavai replied with a disgusted sneer.

Flash only chuckled politely and sipped his tea.

It was quite dark out. Though Octavia could not see the sky from her place on the sofa, nearly everything else was in view; the tall grasses just outside the window stood in little uniform clumps, bowing for each gust of wind yet always returning to attention. Beyond that, she could see the gentle rolling dunes which lead down to the water. Because it was a small, private place, it was somewhat overgrown. Shrubs of all shades of green littered the sand, all but for a small winding path which led from the porch out to sea.

The ocean itself seemed almost unbothered by the rain. Bits of foam and spray were torn up from the surf every now and again, but the waves themselves rolled and crashed and receded as if all were the same.

Octavia sighed and settled deeper into the sofa. “I suppose heading out in a storm is out of the question, isn’t it?”

Flash swallowed his mouthful of tea. “Hm? Why?”

“You’re hurt,” she said, gesturing to Flash’s leg. “And we have absolutely no idea how out-of-the-way this house is. It could be miles to anypony willing to help us out.”

“I could make it,” Flash mumbled. Something about his tone put Octavia in mind of a very young foal trying to prove his strength to his father.

“Not in one piece.” Octavia took a sip of her tea, but found she wasn’t fond of the bitter flavor and placed her mug back on the table. “And I’m not carrying you.”

“You wouldn’t have to carry me…”

“Well, you carried me,” Octavia reminded him. “It’s only fair. And I can’t do it.”

Flash didn’t reply.

The wind shook the siding of the house, and for a moment it felt like they were on a ship afloat in a vast hurricane, instead of in a house during a little rainstorm.

“Okay,” Flash said at last. “What are we gonna do, then?”

Octavia smirked at him. “Well. They do have beds, don’t they? I wouldn’t mind finally turning in for the night.”

“They have a bed,” Flash pointed out. “One.”

Octavia sighed thoughtfully. “You did tell me you would share.”

What she didn’t say was “I’m not sure I’d want to be alone right now.” Or perhaps “I’d like to know where you are, know that you’re okay.” Or even just “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

She may have meant them. But she didn’t say them.

Even so, Flash made a face that was almost a smile. “I did say that,” he said. “I promise not to snore.”

“You’d better shower first,” Octavia said, standing up getting to her hooves. “I’m sure whoever rents this house won’t be too happy to find all that dirt in their bedding.”

Flash looked down at himself. He ran a hoof through the fur on his chest, as if it were entirely foreign to him, and watched as the dirt crumbled off and dropped down onto the carpet. “That’s a good point,” he said softly.

Octavia stood still a moment, waiting for Flash to get up. He only stared down at his chest.

“Well,” she said. “I’m going to bed, then.”

Flash looked up at Octavia. “Alright.”

Octavia nodded once, hesitated, then turned and trotted off to find the bedroom.

It was a big bed. Wide and long, plenty of space for two ponies to sleep comfortably without being near each other in the least. It was encased in a well-tucked comforter and cool linen sheets.

Octavia hardly even noticed the way the paint seemed to be peeling in here. The way the walls were hardly decorated, and the furniture was sparse. The way it didn’t seem to match the rest of the house at all.

She slipped down into the sheets, and she was asleep before her head hit the pillow.


When Octavia woke up, the first thing she noticed was that Flash was not in bed.

She scrambled through the sheets, feeling her way along the mattress for him as if he may have just been swallowed up by the comforter overnight. Flash was not there, but a lingering warmth told Octavia that he wasn’t far.

She breathed a sigh of relief, one hoof to her forehead to chase away the looming headache.

It was only then that she saw that this was not the room she had fallen asleep in.

None of it was the same. Not the wallpaper, not the bedding, not the windows or the chest of drawers or--

Octavia sat upright and tugged the unfamiliar blankets up to her chin.

This was a young colt’s room.

The nautical theme had vanished. No more off-whites and blues, no more ship’s wheels or seashells or nets or knotted rope. No fish. No dolphins. All of it had been replaced with--

“The power ponies?” Octavia murmured to herself.

She had dim memories of them from when she was very young. Fiddlesticks had been somewhat invested, and had tried to drag her twin along with. The characters plastered over the walls and spilling out of drawers and covering every fabric surface held a sort of nostalgic familiarity for her.

She couldn’t quite remember all of their names. She knew Fid’s favorite--Mistress Marevolous--but the others were much less defined in her memory.

One in particular seemed to be the star of the show, at least in this colt’s mind; a pegasus, one with a blue suit and quite a lot of lightning bolt accents. Far and away, she was the one most represented here. A clear favorite.

Zapp! That was her name.

“I told you: I’m through being lenient!” came a shrill, utterly furious female voice. “I want you home! I want you here!”

Octavia cringed at the sound. It reminded her of her mother, in a way. Not so much the voice itself, but the things it said, and the way it said them.

Another voice replied. Much deeper. Muttered and dismissive.

“That’s not an excuse!” the shiller voice shot back.

Octavia dropped the sheets she had been clutching--ones printed over and over with images of the Power Ponies’s logo--and shimmied out of bed. It was much smaller than it had been last night, probably smaller even than when she’d woken up. She could have sworn it.

She circled the bed and stood by the door, face-to-face with a lifesize printout of Zapp. She reached out to grab the doorknob, but hesitated.

On the other side of the door, there was an impact. It sounded like somepony slamming down a newspaper with far more force than such a thing should have required.

“Sunny, dear, I’m not going to have this conversation again.” The words were gentle, but they were spoken with such outright vitriol that the speaker couldn’t have meant them. “Especially not in front of him.”

There was a long pause.

“Flash, honey?” the first voice murmured.

Another pause.

“Why don’t you go to your room?”

“Flash?” Octavia repeated to herself in disbelief.

She twisted the knob on the door and it swung open, revealing an entirely different house. A different building, in fact-- nothing about this floorplan matched that of the beach house she’d fallen asleep in.

The bedroom was down a very short hallway. At the end of it, Octavia could see what seemed to be a family kitchen: one with a little breakfast nook that overlooked a well-kept front lawn and a single pink lawn flamingo.

Sitting at the table, coffee in hoof, was Stoic Sentry.

He looked just like his portrait. Strong jaw. Small, squinting eyes. Not so huge as one might expect, but certainly disguising a strength that made you wary.

The mare in the room, the one with the shrill voice, did not look familiar. Octavia knew her to be Flash’s mother, though. She was lithe and pale, with the energy of a fragile songbird on the alert. Something told Octavia that she was the mouse to Stoic’s cat.

And, of course, Flash Sentry stood at the counter. He had a glass of orange juice sat in front of him. He was staring right at Octavia.

Octavia froze.

Flash opened his mouth ever so slightly, trying to figure whether he should chase Octavia away and yet not able to get the words out.

“Flash?” his mother repeated. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.”

Flash blinked. He barely managed to tear his eyes away from Octavia. “Uh… yes?”

“Your room,” she repeated. It was firm, but also sort of fearful. “Now.”

Octavia didn’t know what to do. Why hadn’t Flash’s parents noticed her standing here? Where had they even come from? Or… where had she come from?

She felt strange. Sick, almost. Perhaps it was a hangover. Whatever it was, she felt as if she had to run away from it, and yet it kept her rooted firmly to the spot.

Flash shook his head.

Stoic took in a sharp breath. “Are you disobeying your mother?” he roared.

He closed his eyes at the harshness of his father’s voice, but his expression quickly changed from that of fear to something else entirely. The way his chest rose and fell so steadily, the way his brows tightened and knit together… he seemed to be concentrating very hard on something. To the point of discomfort, almost.

He’s thinking about Zapp, Octavia thought.

She wasn’t sure what put the thought into her mind, but it seemed very clear to her: this was a memory. Something that had happened many years ago, and was playing itself out once again with Flash all wrapped up in it.

And, as a colt, he had thought about Zapp.

Octavia remembered the way her sister had clung to Mistress Marevolous. How, when her mother challenged her, she would scrunch up her face and bow her head low, like she was trying to summon that infernal lasso. As if enough anger and rebellion would make it appear.

“Answer me, Flash!” Stoic barked, pounding his hoof on the table.

“I’m not going anywhere!” Flash replied, just as loud and half as confident.

His mother put a hoof to her mouth in shock, though she did not gasp.

Octavia nearly bolted right then.

His father set his jaw. He glared at Flash, who, in turn, stared at the wall in a mix of fear and pure adrenaline. After a moment too long of this, Stoic sniffed once, and turned his gaze on his wife.

“Well,” he growled. “You heard the boy. He’s not going anywhere.”

Sunny was frozen now, too. Unable to speak or move.

“So go ahead,” Stoic continued, getting to his hooves. “Accuse me. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Quit beating around the bush. Be a mare and tell me what you think.”

Flash was trembling.

Octavia could see the youth in his eyes.

Stoic, growing impatient, began to stalk towards his wife. “I’m not hearing anything,” he said.

“I know what you’re doing,” Sunny whispered.

“Then say it.”

“I shouldn’t have to!” she shot back.

There was silence.

Stoic and Sunny were only a few steps apart. The stallion seemed primed, coiled like a snake about to strike. Sunny, on the other hoof, did her best to stand tall and strong, though Octavia could see the tiniest shiver.

Somewhere in the kitchen, the toaster pinged.

It was enough. Stoic took one huge step forward, his exact intentions unclear beyond the anger that was fueling them. Sunny leaned back, her rear hooves slipping on the tile floor, her wings flaring to keep her balance.

And Flash leapt between them.

It all happened so fast, Octavia hardly had the opportunity to gasp. To react at all.

All she saw was Flash--somehow tiny, a mere foal floating at the center of the ghost that was his modern self--dive out of the kitchen and in-between his feuding parents. Then there was a flash of light. The smallest thing. A spark. A blink.

His father saw it first. His face went beet red in seconds, and he took two long steps away from his wife and son.

Flash stood up, quite slowly. He seemed more than a little confused and disoriented. Then, all of a sudden, the conclusion of the memory dawned on him, and he whipped his head around to look at his flank.

A shield.

Within it, a lightning bolt.

His mother gasped. His father spluttered something incomprehensible, then shouted “room!”, and Flash was off like a shot.

He galloped past Octavia, his head bowed in shame, and skidded around the corner into his bedroom. His parents watched him flee down the hallway. For a moment, they seemed to make eye contact with Octavia.

Her breath caught in her throat.

Before they could say anything, though, they began to fade away. Like a mirage.

Soon, all Octavia could hear was Flash’s ragged breathing as he tried to recover on the floor of his bedroom.

Octavia turned and followed Flash back into his room. He was crumpled on the carpet, wings limp at his sides, right on the verge of tears without really giving in. It was quite the picture: Flash Sentry, brave and bold, crying in his superhero-themed foalhood bedroom. Under different circumstances, it may have made Octavia laugh.

She closed the door behind her, and Flash looked up.

“Are you alright?” she asked softly.

Flash squeezed his eyes shut, trying to chase away the tears. He tried to laugh, but it came out strangled and weak. “Sorry you had to see that. There’s a reason I don’t really introduce ponies to my parents.”

Octavia sighed lightly and put a hoof on Flash’s shoulder. “I had no idea that--”

“You had some idea.”

She couldn’t really argue that.

“Just… we don’t have to talk about it,” Flash said. He clamped his wings to his sides and stood up, albeit slowly. “I’d really like it if we didn’t, actually.”

Octavia nodded. “Alright.”

The bedroom was silent.

It looked different, Octavia noticed. Still a little more Power Pony-oriented than the average bedroom, but it seemed a little more mature. The bed was certainly large enough for a teenager, and there seemed to be a desk in here that she didn’t remember being there before.

“So…” Octavia said slowly, in an effort to break the silence. “Power Ponies, hm?”

“Shut up,” Flash muttered, though it did squeeze one light chuckle out of him.

“This doesn’t look like studying,” said a familiar deep voice.

Octavia nearly leapt out of her skin, and Flash all but snapped to militaristic attention.

The door was open, and Stoic Sentry was standing in it. As if nothing had happened. As if all the verbal abuse he had just rained down on his wife was somehow already in the past.

“S-sorry, sir,” Flash said, more out of habit than understanding.

“Mm.” Stoic forced his way into the room, and Octavia had to scramble out of his way.

Now that she looked at his face, he seemed to be a little different, too. The hints of a wiry beard were poking through the softer fur on his face, and his eyes were ringed with more wrinkles-- all of them from squinting. In fact, his eyes seemed to fall naturally into that trademark frustrated glare as he glanced around Flash’s room.

Once or twice, his eyes skated right past Octavia. She sucked in a terrified breath and froze both times, as if holding still would somehow keep her from being seen. To her surprise, Stoic seemed to look right through her.

Flash’s father stalked through the room with purpose. The way he paused every now and then, glaring at the covers on the bed or the books on the shelf, put Octavia in mind of a sergeant inspecting the bunks of a private.

He came to a stop in front of a poster of Zapp, looking up at her without outright contempt. “Still keeping this comic book shit around, hm?”

Flash blinked. “Um--”

“When you do join the royal guard, they won’t let you bring all this foal junk with you.” He looked back at Flash, ears tugged back in a show of aggression.

He had an odd way of speaking, Octavia thought. Never making an outright threat, or even really doing any more than stating facts. Yet the meaning shown through; accusatory. Disappointed. Vitriolic.

“I-I know,” Flash said.

Stoic made a low sound of disgust, and turned away from the poster. He wandered another few steps, Flash still stood at attention by the door, and came to a stop at Flash’s desk.

There was a rather thick workbook laying open in the center of it, a pencil in its fold. Stoic lifted the pencil and quickly pursued the page’s contents. Then, apparently not happy with what he saw, he dropped the pencil back in the book and made another grunt of displeasure.

“You’re hardly a quarter of the way through this book,” he said.

Flash’s wings sort of shuddered against him. “Well, I--”

“What are your mother and I supposed to do with you if you don’t pass?” His tone was very nearly sympathetic, but the anger that remained negated any kindness he may have intended. “What sort of work do you think you can get with a cutie mark like that?”

Stoic pointed at Flash’s flank.

Flash instinctively covered it with one wing, averting his eyes.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” Stoic said.

He snapped back to attention. “Yessir.”

Stoic sighed deeply, looking into his son’s eyes with a grimace bordering on pity. “Law school’s out of the question. You’re not exactly athletic, either.” He gestured broadly to Flash’s body, and he cringed into himself all the more. “You don’t get into the Royal Guard Academy, you’re stuck as a mall security guard for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?”

Flash didn’t say anything. His eyes slipped back down to the carpet, and his father didn’t bother to correct him.

“Defense.” Stoic scoffed and shook his head. “Useless.”

He stood still another moment, looking upon his son with a sort of distant sorrow. As if he had watched his own dreams die, and not the halfway-true dreams of Flash Sentry.

Finished with his anti-pep talk, Stoic sniffed, then strode past Flash without another word. He closed the door on his way out.

There was a very long silence.

Octavia, too scared to breathe, remained frozen as she waited for Flash to say something--anything--to break the neverending quietude. He only stared straight ahead at the poster on his wall, trembling ever so slightly.

Zapp looked down at him from nearly the same height as his father. Only, where Stoic had truly asserted that difference in height, leveraged it for the purpose of intimidation and power… Zapp seemed to be drifting downwards. She looked down at Flash as if her height meant nothing. As if she would gladly land before and speak face-to-face, muzzle-to-muzzle, as perfect equals.

Flash swallowed hard and shook his head slightly. He pulled his lower lip into his mouth and chewed on it vacantly. Still, he said not a word.

“Um…” Octavia cleared her throat. It felt wrong when she did it, but it seemed to make no difference to Flash. “I’m sure he… he only wanted what was best for you.”

Flash closed his eyes and heaved a great sigh. “Yeah? You sure about that?” he muttered.

Octavia looked down at the floor in shame. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter.” Flash sniffed and wiped a hoof under his nostrils. “In the end, he was right, I guess. The Royal Guard really was the right place for me.”

Octavia scoffed. “Maybe so, but he didn’t have to be such a…” she struggled to find the right word, but came up empty. “He didn’t have to talk to you that way.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Flash, at long last, turned to look at Octavia. She could see how hard he was trying to remain impassive, as if he were straining against some powerful, invisible force. “I wasn’t exactly going places as a colt. If he hadn’t talked like that to me, I might not have--”

“Cool room.”

Octavia shot to her hooves at the sound of this new visitor. At the sight of her, she nearly collapsed back in on herself entirely.

She stood in the doorway of Flash’s bedroom with a sort of… apprehension. As if she had never done anything like this before, and it was all so new and strange to her that she could hardly bring herself to step over the threshold. From the look of her ratty mane and frizzy bangs, she certainly didn’t have a traditional interest in colts.

Or mares.

Or social relationships of any kind, for that matter.

Had it not been for the cutie mark, Octavia may not have recognized her at all. Or, at the very least, may not have believed that she was the same pony.

But she was.

Twilight Sparkle. A simple, awkward, teenage unicorn with a tremor in her voice and a worried look in her eye.

“Uh… thanks,” Flash said, rubbing the back of his head with one hoof. “Y-you can come in! If you want.”

Twilight nodded and stepped inside.

She had a different way of looking around Flash’s room. It had evolved even further, now-- no visible (or, at the very least, recognizable) Power Ponies merchandise, a more mature color scheme, a larger library. Twilight examined it all with the wide-eyed wonder of a foal meeting their first giraffe.

Flash followed around after her as if he were desperately trying to corral a lost puppy. Everytime Twilight leaned in to examine something more closely, he seemed to dart in, preventing her from touching or otherwise poking around in his stuff.

“So…” Twilight mused, tapping her chin as she surveyed Flash’s bookshelf. “You’re really into… adventure stories.” She said it slowly, as if she wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that.

Flash scoffed. “I wouldn’t say I’m… really into them,” he said, chuckled awkwardly. “More of a… y’know, a passing interest.”

“Mm-hm…” Twilight hummed.

She reached out to pull down a particular volume, but Flash all but smacked it out of her hooves.

“Uh-- that’s an older one,” Flash spluttered. “I haven’t even read it! I mean, I have. Long time ago. It’s-- it’s more sentimental than--”

“The Power Ponies?” Twilight’s tone had fallen all the way over into judgement, now. She let the book fall open in her magic and examined the first page. “This is signed,” she said simply.

“Pft-- is it? I hadn’t, uh… n-noticed…” Flash seemed to realize his lie was disintegrating as he spoke.

Octavia couldn’t help but wince internally as Twilight closed the book and slipped it back onto the shelf.

“I’m sure it’s, um… good,” Twilight said. “Just not really my cup of tea.”

She looked at Flash as she said this. Not at the book-- at Flash.

Flash didn’t seem heartbroken, exactly. More embarrassed than anything. He made a face that was trying to be a smile, but fell flat at an uncomfortable grimace.

Twilight continued to pace around the room, looking more and more lost as time went on. Similarly, Flash’s own almost-grin deflated.

Octavia walked slowly out from her position beside Flash’s bed and began to wander around as well. Rather than examine the decor, however, Octavia kept her sights laser-focused on Twilight.

If she was honest--really, truly honest--she had never spent that much time with the mare. And she most certainly hadn’t spent any time with this, the most genuine version of Twilight Sparkle there likely was. She had met the princess; both the one who seemed to be utterly clueless about romance, and the one who had managed to carry on a romance in secret. Right under her snout.

But… in looking at this mare, it was hard to believe that could be true.

In fact, in looking at this mare, Octavia felt a strange sort of sympathy. Or perhaps vulnerability. Whatever it was, it made her feel more scrutinously seen than she had in a very long time. It was like looking into a funhouse mirror that magnifies every keystone trait Octavia had-- including ineptitude at love.

“Why don’t we sit and, uh… talk for a while?” Flash suddenly suggested, swooping in towards the bed and taking a seat on the edge.

Twilight looked curiously at Flash. “Sure. I guess.” Cheerful enough, but certainly not eager.

She took a seat beside Flash. It was not as close as Flash had evidently hoped, and so he allowed his wings to relax slightly, filling the gap between the two ponies.

Though it was feather-to-fur touch, it made Twilight bristle.

Octavia looked away. She wasn’t quite sure why.

“So, uh…” Flash’s hooves pounded arrhythmically on the side of the mattress. “I heard Celestia’s school as a dance coming up. Were you thinking about going?”

Twilight reached up to tuck a frizzy lock of mane behind her ear. “Not really. I have a lot of studying to do. Finals are coming up.”

“Oh.”

Flash didn’t ask why Twilight’s school would have a dance so close to finals. Or why she thought she needed to study for finals at all. Or why it was, really, that she didn’t want to go to the dance. He just pulled his wings back in towards his barrel, and allowed the distance to yawn between them.

“I had a nice time today,” Twilight said. She smiled an odd sort of lopsided smile. Not exactly forced, just… not smiling for the reason she should have been.

Flash straightened up. “Yeah! Me too,” he said, genuine and eager. “Maybe you and I can go to another dance sometime.”

Twilight nodded slightly. “Maybe.”

Octavia snuck a glance at the two of them. Flash--the teenage version, a scrawnier one that flickered inside the ghost of his current self--seemed hopeful. The glimmer in his eyes said that he really did think that dance would happen one day.

Twilight was less so. She was looking at the carpet, as if tracing an escape route out of this situation.

“Um… I gotta get back to my dorm,” Twilight said at last, getting to her hooves. “It’s getting late.”

Flash jumped up, too. “Sure, Twilight. I can walk you back, if--”

“That’s okay,” Twilight said quickly. She was already side-stepping towards the door. “I’ll be alright.”

Flash, wasting not a second, squirmed around Twilight and grabbed the doorknob before she could get to it. “Let me at least get the door for you!”

Twilight sighed wearily. She let Flash motion her through the open door.

Octavia followed a few paces behind, never closer than the length their shadows stretched over the floor. She hovered in the doorway of Flash’s bedroom and watched, distantly, as Flash gave Twilight a chaste peck on the cheek and waved goodbye.

Stoic was on the couch.

He twisted to look over his shoulder and watch as Twilight walked down the sidewalk and around the corner. Then, he turned his gaze on Flash.

“She’s too good for you,” he said simply, turning a page of his book.

Flash visibly deflated. “Dad, I--”

“Too smart,” his father interrupted. “That filly’s going places. You said she goes to Celestia’s school, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but--”

“Then she’s too smart for you,” his father repeated. “There’s no way you’d be in a school like that, even if you were a unicorn. And do you know why?”

Flash nickered softly to himself, but did not reply.

Stoic closed his book and set it down on the table in front of him. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.”

“Yessir.”

“Do you know why?”

Flash set his jaw. “Because I… don’t apply myself.”

Stoic nodded. “Mm. Maybe if you put in a little effort now and then, you’d be able to keep a mare like her.”

“Dad, she’s just my friend’s little sister,” Flash said.

Stoic laughed. One loud, harsh, booming sound. “Then maybe your friends are too good for you, too.”

Flash didn’t seem hurt by this. Not anymore. He seemed bitter, almost. There was a deep and powerful anger in his eyes, smoldering like a hot coal, yet never allowed to catch fire the way it wanted to. Needed to.

Stoic seemed to notice his misstep. “You know I’m only looking out for you.”

Flash heaved a great sigh. “Yeah. I know.”

“Don’t want you making the same mistakes I did.”

“I know. I remember.”

“I nearly dragged our family name through the mud, and you wanna know why?” Stoic asked. Then, before Flash had a chance to answer, he said, “because my father didn’t give me enough discipline. He didn’t care what I did-- and it cost me a chance at--”

“--at the Royal Guard Academy,” Flash finished for him.

“Don’t interrupt me.”

“Sorry, sir.”

Stoic grumbled something to himself, then picked up his book once more. “One day, you’ll thank me,” he muttered as a final thought, before once again burying himself in his novel.

Flash turned away from his father, chancing an eye-roll as he did. “Yeah. Right.”

He trotted past Octavia, hooves pounding a little too powerfully as he did so. Octavia lingered a moment longer and watched as Flash’s father slowly faded away into the furniture. She had never really thought about it, but it did very much feel the way a memory felt-- perfect clarity in all the worst places, and fuzzy around the edges.

When even the barest traces of Flash’s father had disappeared, Octavia turned around and closed the door behind her.

Flash was standing in front of his desk, his back turned to Octavia, looking out the window.

Octavia snuck up a little closer to him. “Thinking about running away from home?” she asked, risking a little playfulness in her voice.

Flash startled a bit. “Uh. I dunno,” he said blankly.

“That was meant to be a joke,” Octavia said.

“Oh.” Flash looked over his shoulder at his companion. “Sorry.”

Octavia opened her mouth to continue, but the words seemed to stick in her throat. Or, rather, they seemed to pile up in her brain, trampling one another for a chance at the conversation. None of them were any good. She swallowed them down.

She took a few steps away from Flash, head bowed in embarrassment, and began to slink back to the bed.

There were a few other things that were different about Flash’s room, she saw. She wasn’t sure how she had missed them before, truth be told: the tight corners on bedding, the duffel bag on the floor, the strange sparseness of the room altogether. It wasn’t the room of a stallion his age-- or, the age he had been. It was the room of a stallion his father’s age, all hints of youthful joy carefully tucked away in hidden places.

Octavia looked back at Flash.

No, the room was different. It was shaped different, it had different furniture, and most of the books had vanished.

This was what it looked like now, in his own home.

“He was right, y’know,” Flash said.

Octavia knit her brows. “Your father?” she asked, incredulous. “Of course not.”

Flash laughed, a dry and humorless sound. “No, he was.” He turned to face Octavia.

And, in his face, Octavia could see his father’s strong jaw. The shadows of wrinkles around his eyes. The hints of a dark blue beard poking through the fur on his face.

“No!” Octavia rushed in towards him. She stretched up as tall as she could, inspecting these new changes in her companion’s face. “No, no. Of course not.”

Flash sighed, long and exasperated. “If he hadn’t done all this for me, i would--”

“He didn’t do this for you, he did it to you,” Octavia corrected. “Parents are meant to help their child fix their mistakes, not restrict them in the hopes they’ll never make one.”

Flash scoffed. “And you would know, right?”

“I would, actually.”

Flash opened his mouth, intending to snark back at the mare before him, but paused. His eyes slowly narrowed. His mouth fell into a confused gape.

Octavia turned to look at whatever it is he was gawking at.

And, in the doorway--the now familiar doorway--she saw an unwelcome face.

“Well, would you look at that?” Flash said. “Guess you get to prove it to me.”