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Octavia Melody’s hoof danced down the neck of her cello with practiced ease. In her other hoof, the bow glided across the strings like a thing alive, pulling a stream of happy, jumping notes out of them. They flooded the air with mirthful melodies, then died back down to take their place next to the other, lighter notes coming from Octavia’s fellow musicians.

Final bar . . . Octavia reminded herself, keeping her eyes shut tight. Rise. Let it rise . . .

A year ago, Octavia would have been horrified at her own terminology. “Let it rise” was hardly an exact phrase, but it certainly felt right, and that’s what really mattered. After all, if she couldn’t feel passion her own music, how could Octavia ever hope her audience would? A small smile played on her lips as she floated to the top of her scale and hovered there. Vinyl’s words, vague though they were, had been utterly life-changing. Octavia hadn’t been a musician all those years; she’d been a glorified record player.

And fall . . .

As the rest of the players faded out, Octavia was left alone to slide back down the scale and end the piece on a final, drawn-out note. It echoed around the hall, deep and calm and content. The sound reminded her of the end of a long, but enjoyable day—the kind where she’d roll into her blankets with a smile, hug her pillow and drift off in mere moments.

On the count of four, she lifted her bow off the strings and allowed herself a blissful sigh. It was immediately drowned out by the cacophonous stomping of the ponies in the audience. When Octavia looked up, she saw them all with teary eyes and beaming faces.

Well, all but one.

In the empty front-row seat.

Octavia’s heart lurched as she stared at the red velvet. She wasn’t sure exactly why she’d hoped it would be occupied when she opened her eyes—a filly’s whim, she supposed. It wasn’t as if the pony who owned that particular ticket had performed less grandiose entries than showing up while Octavia wasn’t looking. Once, she’d even turned up with a rose to throw on stage. A most unbecoming snort forced its way out of her nose at the thought. That particular evening had ended much more pleasantly than it had started. She even remembered Vinyl’s stupid grin.

It wasn’t as if Vinyl had lied to her, either. She’d made no secret about how hard the studio was pushing her for a new album. Most mornings, Octavia found her slumped over her deck with a record in one hoof and a half-finished bottle of Dr. Pony clutched in the other. In fact, Vinyl had even apologized for not being able to attend this performance well in advance—with a hug and everything!

But none of that kept Octavia’s hooves from shaking. She swayed a little on her hind legs, gasping as she was forced to brace herself against her cello or fall off the stage. She scrunched her eyes shut and gripped her bow tightly. Amatuer! she hissed at herself. The last time she’d lost her balance while playing, she’d been worried about bullies on the playground!

There was an echo of laughter somewhere in the crowd, then the unmistakable hum of the curtain motor reached Octavia’s ears. She opened her eyes and took in the audience one final time as the red sheet between them slowly lowered. Against her better judgment, she stole another look at the empty seat. Next to it, her good friends Lyra and Bon Bon were stomping and cheering with aplomb. The sight of them should have lifted her spirits, but it only made her heart sink deeper into her gut.

Somepony next to her coughed—a pale yellow earth pony with a deep blue mane. Fiddlesticks was practically doubled over with her violin pressed tight against her chest. The brim of her spotless white cowpony hat hid her eyes from the audience, but they were sending a definite signal to Octavia.

Of course! Octavia felt like slamming her face on the floor. She’d forgotten to bow! How in Equestria could Vinyl manage to make a fool out of her without even being present?

Quickly swinging the neck of her cello before her, Octavia rested it against her knee and set her other hoof on the body. She let her weight carry her over her instrument and glued her eyes to the floor. A perfect cellist’s bow.

For an earth pony, at any rate.

When the curtain finished dropping, Fiddlesticks dropped down to her hooves and let out a breath. “Hoo-ee! What a show that was!”

“Too right you are!” Viola agreed as she floated the instrument of her namesake into its case and latched it shut with her magic. “I’ve not seen an audience that large in weeks.”

“Must be the season,” Silver Strings chimed in. Still on her back hooves, she leaned against the wall of the stage and let her violin hang at her side. “Hearts and Hooves Day is just about the only time of year when ponies remember that classical music is a thing.”

Fiddlesticks snorted and shook her head. “I still reckon we should have played some good ol’ Bridlebama. We got two fiddles in this here group. It’s a darn waste.”

“Surely you mean violins, dear,” Viola said, grimacing. “And I shudder to think of us playing mountain music at a Hearts and Hooves Day concert.”

“Aw, relax, Vee!” Silver rolled her eyes. “I’m the other violin player on this team, and I’m totally down with the whole “fiddle” thing.” Her wings fluttered at her sides as she gave Fiddlesticks a look of admiration. “Have you ever tried playing a Buttercoat Bluie ballad? That crap’s crazy hard!”

“As if I would ever be caught dead playing one of those twangling Barley Denyells songs!”

Octavia shook her head and let herself drop the rest of the way to her hooves. It had been a small miracle when she’d found enough musicians in Ponyville to form an ensemble—let alone string musicians—but how they managed to become friends was utterly beyond even her own powers of speculation. Deep down, she suspected that her own ability to deal with their vast differences stemmed from the practice she’d inadvertently received from living with such a raving lunatic er . . .  raver.

Who was probably, even now, hovering over her deck and spinning disks like a thing possessed.

And, who was probably not even the least bit concerned with the fact that one of Octavia’s own compositions had debuted tonight.

And, who clearly didn’t understand the subtleties of a name like “Shades of Love.”

“Hey! Hey, Tavi!”

A pink hoof landed on her shoulder, and Octavia’s vision was suddenly flooded with the mercury locks of Silver Strings’s mane. The mare’s touch froze her instantly and jerked her back into reality. Silver was smirking at her, and she could see Viola and Fiddlesticks giving her the same look from the other side of the stage.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

Octavia swallowed thickly. When, exactly, had she put her cello away? And when had she made it to the door? “I . . .” she started, raising a hoof. Why, she even had her travel hat on! “Er . . . Home?”

Silver Strings just chuckled. “That eager to get back to the marefriend, huh?” Behind her, Fiddlesticks and Viola giggled into their hooves.

Heat broke out on Octavia’s cheeks. “It’s not like that.” She pushed Silver’s hoof off of her shoulder and cleared her throat. For some reason, her voice had suddenly decided to become rather squeaky. “V-Vinyl’s just my roommate.”

“Uh-huh.” Silver rolled her eyes and leaned back against the wall. “But you are eager to get back to her.”

“Well, I . . .”

She hadn’t been in any particular hurry to get home. At least, Octavia hadn’t planned on immediately rushing off to her house. What was she expecting the rest of her night to consist of, anyway? Grilled asparagus and cheesy romance movies constantly interrupted by violent bursts of dubtrot from the next room?

“Don’t you wanna come down to Mixers with us for a couple rounds?” Silver’s eyes narrowed, but the smile on her face stayed playful.

Octavia’s ears flattened. “O-oh. Well, I suppose—”

“Oh, stop teasing the poor girl, Silver!” Viola trotted around Fiddlesticks and crossed her forelegs. “Honestly! It’s Hearts and Hooves Day. Let her go home if she wants to!”

“Ladies, that’s not exactly what I was planning,” Octavia said, chuckling sheepishly. Naturally, her bandmates didn’t so much as glance her way.

Silver’s wings fluttered. “What? I was just asking if she wanted to hang with us.”

“No, you were sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong!” Viola sniffed. “Again.”

“You want me to stick it somewhere else?”

Fifteen years of classical training was the only thing that kept a snort from jumping out of Octavia’s mouth as Viola’s pupils shrank. Fiddlesticks, though, was nowhere near as restrained—and her peals of laughter only grew louder as a loud smack! reverberated through the room.

“Why, I never!” Viola’s normally blue complexion was rapidly flooding with the same pink of the pegasus she’d just floored. “Silver Strings, you complete boor!”

Blinking wearily, Silver rubbed her cheek with a hoof. “Worth it . . .” she murmured into the floorboards.

“Woah! Did you see that, Bonnie? She could go pro!”

“Which one? I think Silver took that hit pretty well.”

Octavia looked up from the downed mare and saw a mint green unicorn and a palomino earth pony hovering in the doorway behind her. Bon Bon was wearing a rather fetching red dress and had even done up her blue and pink mane for the night. Lyra, whose leg was casually draped over her marefriend’s shoulders, had opted for far simpler attire: sheer nudity.

“Ugh.” Lyra rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Bonnie, you can’t win a prizefight if you’re the only pony getting hit!”

“And you can’t fight a bugbear without taking at least one hit, Ly-Ly,” Bon Bon said, lidding her eyes and patting Lyra’s head. “Victory goes to whoever can take the most punishment.”

Lyra raised an eyebrow. “Punishment, huh? I can get behind that.”

“Hah!” came a laugh from the floor.

“Quiet, you!” Viola huffed.

Octavia sighed and shook her head. Sometimes, she missed the old days—when ponies backstage would pass each other in silence. The dignity and sophistication had often carried with it an air of peaceful harmony. Those ponies wouldn’t possibly behave anything like this!

Of course, that was precisely why she wouldn’t go back for all the tea in Canterlot.

“Hello, you two,” Octavia said with a smile. “Did you enjoy the show?”

“Duh!” Lyra smirked. “That last piece? Total gold, Tavi! Did you write that yourself?”

Octavia nodded with a flick of her tail. “It’s my first composition since moving to Ponyville.”

“Ain’ she a genius!” Fiddlesticks declared, sliding up to Octavia’s side and slapping her on the back. The shock of white heat made her jump a little, but Fiddlesticks just pulled her into a side hug and laughed. “This pony’s goin’ places!”

“This pony’s already been places,” Octavia chuckled, straightening out her hat. “And she didn’t much like them when she was there.”

“I’m just surprised Vinyl missed it,” Lyra said.

“Lyra!” Bon Bon shot the unicorn a reproachful look.

“What? I am!”

Octavia flinched and cleared her throat. “Vinyl’s rather busy at the moment, Lyra,” she said as Bon Bon grimaced. “You know how it is with dubtrot: hit tracks become old fast.”

Lyra’s brow furrowed. “Well yeah, but she could at least take a couple hours off to—”

“Okay, I’m thirsty!” Bon Bon suddenly declared as she stuffed her hoof into Lyra’s mouth. It definitely didn’t taste very good, if the expression on Lyra’s face was anything to go by. “Is anyone else thirsty? How about we go get some drinks and celebrate!”

“Buck yeah!” Silver cheered. A dark bruise was beginning to form on her cheek, but her smile was as wide as ever. “Mixers, here we come!”

Viola rolled her eyes. “I could certainly go for a glass of Nosotros. If a certain somepony behaves herself.”

“Aww, don’t be like that, Vee.”

“Shoot,” Fiddlesticks said with a wry grin. “I’m always down for a pint of cider! You comin’ Tavi?”

Octavia bit her lip. “Oh . . .” Out the open door, she could see the clashing blues and browns of home calling to her in the light of the setting sun. For once, the windows weren’t pulsating with sharp neon colors—though Octavia was sure that wouldn’t be the case for long. She could already imagine her poor friend, pen in hoof, beating her head against her workstation. She had a duty to be there for her, did she not? “I—”

“‘Course not!” Silver scoffed, waving her hoof dismissively. “She’s gonna go home and cuddle up with Vinyl!”

Even Viola giggled at that, and it made Octavia grit her teeth. “I’ve already said it’s not like that.”

“Sure it’s not,” Silver snickered.

“Big misunderstandin’,” Fiddlesticks agreed.

“You ponies are crazy!” Lyra rolled her eyes. “Octavia totally has the hots for Vinyl! It’s written all over her face!”

Bon Bon sighed and gave Lyra a patient—if strained—smile. “Lyra, honey,,” she said lightly. “We’ve talked about this. They’re using sarcasm.”

“It is not!” Octavia stamped her hoof onto the floor before catching her words. “I-I mean I do not! Ugh! Horseapples.” She closed her eyes and focused on slowing her heartbeat down. “Listen, all of you,” she said after a moment. “For the hundredth time, Vinyl and I are just roommates.”

“Just?” Viola’s eyes held a mischievous glint.

Only!” Octavia amended with a sharp glare.

“Ha-ha! Look at her turn red!” Silver laughed, leaning against Viola and earning yet another indignant huff from the unicorn.

“I am not turning red!”

“It’s kinda cute, actually . . .” Silver added. “I don’t know how Vinyl manages to keep her hooves off of you. I’d totally bend you over a barrel and—”

“—Silver Strings,” Viola’s voice was dripping with acid, and her blazing eyes forced the pegasus at her side to stutter to a stop. “I think we ought to have a talk in the dressing room.”

Silver swallowed thickly. If she hadn’t been—how would Vinyl put it?—”riding her so hard,” Octavia might have felt some pity for the violinist. As it was, she busied herself with rubbing away the blush from her friend’s not-so-subtle implication while Silver shifted her hooves and stared at a poster on the wall.

“Uh . . . I’ll have to give you a raincheck on that, Vee.”

“Oh-ho-ho,” Viola tittered. Her horn flashed, and Silver yipped as a burst of violet magic wrapped itself around her ear and started pulling her toward the back room door. Viola followed behind, glowering. “It wasn’t a suggestion, dear.” The resounding slam of the door behind them made everypony flinch.

Lyra bit her lip. “Ouch. Somepony’s in the doghouse.”

Octavia sighed and shook her head. She couldn’t help but chuckle. “Some things never change.”

“Darn tootin’!” Fiddlesticks laughed. “What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on that there wall. Why, those two are almost as fun to watch as you ‘n Vinyl!”

And here we go again . . . Octavia groaned. “It’s not like that.”

The words came out automatically. Even before she’d had time to process what Fiddlesticks had actually said. Luna above, was the teasing really so bad that she already had a conditioned response? She’d only known Vinyl for a year! This group even less so!

This wouldn’t do. This wouldn’t do at all. At this rate, she was sure to go on autopilot at some point and say more than she’d mean to. Perhaps she could allay their beliefs by simply explaining the situation further. What was she thinking? Of course she could!

“Besides,” she found herself blurting as she caught sight of her home in the distance. “Even if it were like that, Vinyl’s too blasted oblivious to take a hint that’s staring her straight in the face!”

. . . Oh.

Oh dear . . .

Octavia bit her lip as silence filled the room. Her bowtie felt uncomfortably tight, but her hooves were glued to the floor and refusing to help her loosen it. “Er . . . Hypothetically speaking, of course,” she managed to choke out.

“. . .Right,” Bon Bon said, shifting her gaze away. “Well, maybe, hypothetically, you should talk to her about it?”

“Brilliant. I never thought of that,” Octavia deadpanned. She rubbed her forehead with a hoof and sat down hard on the floor.

Lyra cocked her head. “You didn’t?”

“Ly, hon, not now.” Bon Bon gave her marefriend a pat on the shoulders, then sat down next to Octavia. She smelled sweet—like the candies she’d no doubt spent all day selling to lovesick ponies. It was a far cry from Vinyl’s night sweat and soda breath, but it was still comforting. “Look, Octavia, we were just having some fun. If it’s bothering you . . .”

But it wasn’t. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. Octavia had certainly done her fair share of teasing in high school. Sometimes, she even joined in with the occasional jab at Silver and Viola. If she could dish it out, she should certainly be able to take it. Especially after all she’d gone through to overcome her father’s overbearing formality. Learning to care—to feel the music as much as play it—had opened up so many doors to her. Doors she’d never even considered opening before. Doors she’d never even noticed.

And, of course, therein laid the problem.

“. . .Bon Bon?”

“Yeah?”

The words caught in Octavia’s throat. They felt so much harsher—so much colder and coarse than they did in her head. They were unfair, too, but she forced them out anyway. “If Lyra wrote you a song, would you skip out on its debut to make candy for your store?”

Bon Bon’s ear flicked as Lyra cocked her head again. “Of course she wouldn’t!” the unicorn declared proudly. “Besides, if she was that behind in work, I’d just delay the show and help her.”

A faint smile grew on Bon Bon’s face. “You’re too sweet, Lyra. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Octavia’s stomach twisted itself into a knot. “I . . . I really didn’t think of that . . .”

“Oh, I get it!” Lyra said suddenly, leaping to Octavia’s side and plopping down next to her. Her golden eyes were shining bright with discovery. “You’re mad ‘cause Vinyl blew you off!”

“I’m not mad,” Octavia said quickly as Lyra wrapped her in a one-armed hug. “And she didn’t blow me off. She’s just . . . busy . . .” He head felt heavy, so she let it fall. The floor was easier to stare at than her home anyway. “Again.”

“So you get it, then,” Bon Bon said, frowning. “I don’t see the problem.”

Octavia scrunched her eyes shut and sighed. No matter what she told herself, she still felt like she was being selfish. Probably because she was, but . . . “One hour,” she said quietly.

“Sorry?”

One hour,” Octavia repeated as a hint of venom seeped into her voice. “She’s been working on this album for weeks, and she can’t even give me one hour on a Saturday evening!”

Lyra blinked and shot a look at Bon Bon, who started biting her lip. “I don’t get it. You said you understand why—”

“Oh, I understand!” Octavia growled. “I understand that my so-called best friend couldn’t be bothered to come to a weekend show on a holiday because she chose to work instead!”

“Yeesh,” Fiddlesticks grimaced, pawing at her hat. “Don’t you think you’re bein’ just a tad harsh, Tavi?”

“I know I am!” Octavia groaned. Her forehooves gave up the battle against gravity, and she let the rest of her body fall to the floor. The cold wood actually felt rather soothing against her cheek. “But I can’t help but feel that . . . that maybe she just doesn’t value our friendship . . .” She hesitated, then—in for a penny, in for a pound—continued despite the knot in her stomach. “At least, not like I do.”

Silence filled the room. Octavia knew she was hardly following a rational line of logic. Missing one concert wasn’t exactly cause to question an entire friendship, but it was simply the latest in a long line of issues. When she wanted to cuddle up and watch a movie on the couch, Vinyl would suddenly remember a string she wanted to put in her song. When she invited Vinyl to dinner, suddenly she “already had plans.” When she just wanted to talk, Vinyl would remain distant and aloof.

Eye contact? Forget it.

Physical contact? Ha. Vinyl hadn’t pounced on her in weeks.

Pranks? Octavia couldn’t believe she was actually starting to miss salt in her coffee.

And trying to get a straight answer out of Vinyl? That was probably the most frustrating thing of all. It seemed that the closer Octavia tried to get to her friend, the further she pulled away. Forget a romantic relationship, Octavia just wanted to keep her friendly relationship together!

“Come on, now.” Fiddlesticks shuffled her hooves. “This is Vinyl we’re talkin’ about. That unicorn wears her heart on her sleeve, and I ain’t never met a more loyal pony. You two’re thick as thieves, so I’m sure—”

Were thick as thieves,” Octavia corrected. “Lately, I don’t know. Something’s going on and I just . . . I don’t know.”

Lyra chewed on her lip. She looked at Octavia for a long moment, then off into the darkness at the odd, two-colored house. After a moment, she looked back at Octavia and shrugged. “Well, only one way to find out.”

Octavia sighed and gave her a fixed look.

“Hey, don’t even pretend like you were actually going to get drinks with us.”

Chapter Text

“Crap. Crap. Double-crap.” Vinyl sighed as she tossed record after record into the growing pile. Several slid off the top and clattered to the floor by the couch, but she paid them no mind. There wasn’t enough time to get all worked up over the little things. She turned to the next record on the shelf and gagged at the cover. “Seriously, Tavi? Since when do you like the accordion?”

With great care, Vinyl reached out with her magic, lifted the offending record off of the shelf and gave it a quick flick across the room. She shuddered. And her roommate gave her crap over dubtrot? “Geeze. The things I put up with . . .”

Okay, back to finding something decent. Except “decent” wasn’t exactly something Vinyl usually thought when she looked through Octavia’s records. Usually, “boring” or “snorefest” were the words that came to mind. It wasn’t good music if you couldn’t even party to it, after all.

Well, Tavi played some pretty good tunes, but she was more the exception than the rule. Something about the way she played—especially recently—was just downright captivating. Vinyl could listen to it all night.

Sometimes she did.

Doo-do-doo.

Vinyl’s ear’s perked up as the grandfather clock Octavia had dragged home from that one yard sale chimed quarter-til. Usually, the darned thing’s fifteen-minute chimes drove Vinyl crazy. The ones that weren’t on-the-hour didn’t even have the squawking bird which she considered to be the thing’s only redeeming quality. Tonight, however, she gave it a silent “thank you!” and returned her focus to the records, hopping anxiously on her hooves.

“Okay, okay,” she whispered to herself. “No big deal, Vinyl. It’s just fancy music. Pick something and get back to work.”

Easier said than done. Buch, Beethooven, Chloppin, Marezart . . . Ugh! Why do there have to be so many choices! What’s the difference? As far as Vinyl could tell, every record depicting an old stallion in a powdered wig might as well have been the exact same thing. Whatever! There was always her tried-and-true surefire method for picking the very best music.

Eenie-meenie-miney-moe, catch a dragon by the toe . . .

Another half-dozen records splashed to the floor as Vinyl rifled through them. She’d have to remember to pick those up later—Octavia probably wouldn’t be too happy to see all her precious symphonies laying on the carpet. Less so if she accidentally stepped on one. Heck, she could already hear the nagging.

Out goes Y-O . . . YOU!

Vinyl grinned and thrust the lucky record into the air. Some old bearded stallion looked back at her. He looked pretty stern—Vinyl wondered if being a snooty elitist was part of composer school—but something about him was different. Instead of looking pompous, this dude actually looked, well, pretty badass. Like he’d write his music if he had to, but he’d really rather ride a wolf into battle against a dragon.

“Trotkovsky: 812 Overture,” she read aloud. Well, that sounded promising. 812 was a long time ago, and old music was supposed to be all romantic and junk, right? She shrugged. Tavi didn’t seem to have anything more interesting in her collection, so this would have to do. There wasn’t really any more time to choose anything else, anyway.

“Okay, old guy,” Vinyl said, trotting around her recording deck to the record player. She slid the record out of its sleeve and tossed it onto the plate with a practiced motion. A few flicks of her hoof later, and the needle was gliding smoothly over the disk. “Let’s see what’cha got.”

At first, nothing but cracks and pops flew out of the speakers. Then, after a few moments, several long, somber notes slid softly into the air and flooded the room. A crapload of strings. Figures. Vinyl chuckled to herself and shook her head. She’d obviously chosen correctly: this was just the kind of soft romantical cra—stuff that Tavi liked. Now to get back to—

Is that smoke?!

Vinyl sniffed the air and caught the acrid scent of burning vegetables. Her eyes bugged as she scrambled around her deck—nearly tripping over a throw rug in the process—and bolted for the kitchen. “No, no, no, no, no!” she whined, rounding the corner into the kitchen. The oven was spitting clouds of thick, brown smoke. “Crap!”

Not good! Not Good!

Vinyl rushed over to the oven and ripped the door open hard enough to make the hinges creak in protest. The air hissed as a burst of heat blew past her face and dried her eyes out. Smoke billowed out of the oven, making her cough and revealing a blackened foil sheet. Without a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed ahold of it and pulled it out of the oven.

Don’t be too burned! Don’t be too burned! Don’t be too—

”Gah!” Vinyl shrieked. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” Pain shot through her hooves, bringing tears to her eyes. She had to put it down, but where? Octavia had freaked last time she’d put a hot pan on the countertop and melted the laminate.

The stovetop!

Vinyl reached out with her magic and shoved everything off the stove. Something crashed to the ground with a splash, and Vinyl dove forward and dropped the tin. After it slammed onto the metal, she retracted her poor hooves and blew on them furiously. Then, her back hooves were burning.

“Yow!”

Hopping in place, Vinyl turned her attention to the floor and found an ocean of boiling soup lapping at her hooves. Bits of steaming carrots and chopped onions floated around in yellow broth, shifting course with every ripple her jumping created. And it was hot!

So hot!

“Get it off!” she yelped, leaping over the mess and back into the living room. The world was a blur now. Between the tears in her eyes and the searing pain in her hooves, Vinyl wasn’t even sure where she was. Her hooves eventually found purchase on the carpet, and she rubbed them into it, desperately trying to rid them of the liquid fire. “Get it off! Get it off!”

The carpet felt like sandpaper against her hooves, so Vinyl gave up after she was sure her hooves were dry. She dropped to her belly and pressed her forehooves into her armpits. It didn’t help much, but she could feel her skin soaking in some of the heat. Enough to help her think, at least. And for hindsight to kick in.

Why the buck didn’t I just use my magic?!

Vinyl groaned in frustration and slammed her hoof into her face—which just made her the pain in her hoof flare right back up. “Ow!”

Water. Water would help. She needed to get to the sink. The one in the kitchen was obviously off the table, so where else could she get water?

The bathroom!

Vinyl dragged herself back onto her hooves, whimpering as they scraped against the carpet. Every fiber felt like razor wire. Ground glass would have been a better option. At least the carpet was only on her side of the house. As she limped down the hall, she silently praised Octavia for her decision to install hardwood flooring on her own side. Sure, it was wicked expensive, but it was deliciously cool to walk on.

When Vinyl got to the bathroom, she threw herself into the tub without ceremony and twisted the tap with her magic.

“OW! Hot!”

Wrong knob. Why did she have to only use the hot water for her showers?

She reconsidered her life habits as she sucked on her hoof and twisted the other knob. Wonderful, life-giving, soothing water began pouring into the tub. Vinyl didn’t hesitate to shove her hooves into it, shuddering with relief as it washed away her pain. It still prickled in the tips of her hooves, but more as an annoyance than anything else.

“Phew. Much better.”

Who would have thought that cooking would be such a pain in the flank? Or hooves. Vinyl flipped her hooves over under the water and winced when she saw how pink the skin under her fur was. At least they weren’t blackened. Or blistered. Yet.

The water was up to her waist now, so she twisted the knob off and laid back against the tile wall. Just a couple of minutes and she’d go finish dinner. What was left of it, at least. Just a few, relaxing, minutes in the water to let her hooves recover, and then she’d be able to—

Bang!

“What the—Vinyl? Why is the door locked?”

Vinyl’s blood snap-froze. She’s home already? But the show’s not supposed to be over until six o’clock!

“Vinyl? Hello?”

Crap, crap, craaaaap!

Vinyl dragged her hooves down her face as she looked around desperately. What was she going to do? Nothing was ready yet! She still had to get the wine from the basement, set up the table, and—

“Vinyl?” Octavia’s voice, even across the house, was now tinged with worry.

Right. First things first.

Pulling herself up onto her hooves was no easy task. They shook and protested with sharp pains. Water dripped from her fur, and cold air sucked the heat from her body. “C-coming!” Vinyl shouted, stepping out of the tub as quickly as she could. “Just gimme a sec!”

Naturally, she immediately tripped over the wall of the tub. The world spun around her, then pain exploded in her muzzle as her face met the floor. Vinyl grit her teeth and rubbed her nose—then another shock of white-hot pain in her hoof made her immediately regret that choice.

Luna’s furry, fat flank! What else could go wrong today?

Muttering a few choice curses under her breath, Vinyl hoisted herself back up and made her way down the hall. Every step felt like hot needles digging into her hooves. By the time she reached the living room, she swore trumpets were playing for her. In fact, there were. The record player seemed to have utterly forgone the gentle strings in favor of something Vinyl thought a cavalry might charge to.

Great. The perfect mood music.

No time to change it, though. She’d just have to see if she could switch it later without anypony noticing.

Vinyl took a careful step around Octavia’s records and rested her head on the door. She took a deep breath, forced a smile onto her face, then slid the lock to the side and twisted the knob. On the other side, Octavia’s face wore a worried frown.

“Uh, hey, Tavi!” Vinyl said, stretching her smile extra wide. “You’re home early!”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. “We had the hall rented until six o’clock. The show ended nearly twenty minutes ago.”

“. . .Oh.”

Well, crap. It certainly would have been nice to know that! That was a pretty important detail! How was a pony supposed to get any kind of surprise ready if she didn’t have access to the proper sched—

“Are you going to let me in, Vinyl?” Octavia’s eyes flicked around.

“Oh! Uh, right!” Vinyl nearly jumped out of her fur as she scrambled to the side and held the door open for her friend. “Come in! Come in!”

Octavia giggled as she trotted inside. “Thank you ever so much. I do enjoy being invited into my own home.” She yawned and trotted over to her side of the living room, cello neck bouncing up and down on her back. “It was a tiring performance, and I—”

“Tavi, wait! Watch out for your—”

Crunch!

Vinyl’s heart sank into her belly. “Records,” she finished, letting her head drop.

At first, Octavia’s muzzle crinkled up in puzzlement. She pulled her hoof away and stared at the shattered bits of plastic under her. Slowly, her eyes flicked from the floor to the record shelf, then back again as even the record player watched in silent horror. A perfectly combed, pitch black tail flicked through the air. Then, Octavia’s nostrils flared.

“. . .Vinyl?” Her voice was quiet, but powerful. It was thunder rumbling in the distance, and Vinyl knew it was only a matter of time before the storm broke.

Vinyl swallowed thickly and let the door swing shut. Of all the ponies to accidentally shatter one of Octavia’s records, Vinyl had never considered its very owner. She tried to force an innocent smile onto her face, but her ears might as well have been wired to her skull. “Yes, Tavi?”

“Why are all of my most expensive records on the floor?”

“Uh . . .”

Vinyl worked her jaw in the vain hope that an explanation would somehow leap from her mouth of its own accord. She’d never been very strong with words, and they seemed to be failing her a lot more than usual, lately. Feelings were feelings, after all. How could one possibly hope to capture their true meaning with mere sounds?

Then again, this was a house of musicians.

The right sounds—the right movements and melodies could always be counted on to pull at a pony’s emotional center. Music was Vinyl’s language, and she’d never had any problems speaking through it. Feelings in audioform. Action given language. Raw pony soul, bared for all to hear, that was more Vinyl’s speed.

Words? Not so much.

So, mentally floundering like a schoolfilly who had just landed herself in the principal’s office, Vinyl continued to bob her chin. The words would come. Perhaps now, perhaps a week from now, but they’d come eventually. Usually, she’d simply avoid conversation until they did come, but something told her Octavia wasn’t going to give her a week to think up her defense. Then again, she already knew what she had to say.

Vinyl closed her eyes and sighed. “I was—”

“Oh—by the moon!” Octavia barked suddenly, jerking her head up and looking around. She covered her nose with a hoof and gagged. “What in equestria is that smell?”

If Vinyl thought her ears could sink no lower, they managed to surpass her expectations. She hadn’t noticed through all the commotion, but the air was still hazy with smoke. It trailed around the living room from the kitchen, and looking at it made Vinyl’s stomach twist into a knot. If Octavia saw the state the kitchen was in, the whole night would be ruined for sure.

Well, more ruined than it already was. Which was pretty darned ruined, she had to admit.

As Octavia made her way around the couch, brow furrowed and one hoof still plugging her nose, Vinyl raced around the other side to try to head her off. Every scraping step against the rug sent a shock of pain through Vinyl’s hooves, but she beat her friend to the threshold and blocked the view as best she could. “You just finished your show, Tavi!” she said quickly. “Don’t you wanna go take a nice, long, relaxing bath to, uh . . . relax?”

Octavia’s eyes narrowed instantly. “Vinyl Scratch,” she said. “What are you hiding?”

“Me?” Vinyl brought a hoof to her chest and laughed sheepishly. “I’m—ow!—I’m not hiding any—”

BOOM!

It was the end of the world. It was the bass drop to end all bass drops. It was the mother of all explosions, and it happened without warning. It was a concussive shockwave of pure, unadulterated sound that hit Vinyl so suddenly that she nearly jumped through the roof. As it was, she managed to get quite a respectable distance before landing on Octavia’s back and wrapping her hooves around the gray mare’s neck.

BOOM!

A shriek leaped out of Vinyl’s mouth as she buried her face in Octavia’s coat. Was that a cannon?! Was Ponyville under attack or something?! Who the heck still fought with cannons? Pirates? What were they doing so far inland?

BOOM!

BOOM!

BOOM!

The fifth shot faded out, and music, manic and desperate, filled the void. It echoed around the room like the battle cry of a charging army. Vinyl could practically hear the screams until they were suddenly and violently cut off with a harsh click.

Vinyl chanced a look up from her perch and found herself face to face with the record player. The black Trotkovsky album was winding down from its spin, and the needle had already been pulled from it. The room was completely silent now, except for the sound of Octavia sighing.

“You weren’t expecting the cannons, were you?” Octavia sounded tired, but there was an edge of humor in her tone. “And here I thought they were the reason you were listening to this piece. You do love your loud noises.”

Piece? It was the record? Warmth rushed into Vinyl’s cheeks, and she buried her face deeper into the nape of Octavia’s neck. Cannons in a classical piece? What the heck kind of composer was this Trotkovsky colt?

Probably the most epic musician ever. The thought left a bitter taste in Vinyl’s mouth. She would’ve loved the idea of using cannons as an instrument any other time. Just the thought was badass. Unfortunately, the fallout was still sending shivers down her spine.

And not the fun kind, either.

“Are you planning on climbing down any time soon?”

Right, she was still on top of Octavia. Her mane smelled particularly nice tonight. Lavender, with just a hint of the wood polish she so lovingly rubbed her cello with. The smell was comforting, like a smooth trance track that made Vinyl want to close her eyes, lean back and just forget the about the world. “Not really,” she answered truthfully. “I forgot how comfy you are.”

Octavia’s sigh was a hurricane of wind mere inches from Vinyl’s ear, but she could practically hear the smirk on the cellist’s face. “Vinyl. . .” she began, but then cut her sigh short as her whole body gave a sudden jerk. “Vinyl! What happened to your hooves!”

Vinyl grit her teeth. “It’s nothing,” she said quickly, pulling her hooves out of Octavia’s line of sight and burying them in her soft gray fur. “I just got a little carried away with my deck, that’s all.”

“They’re blistered!”

Vinyl groaned into Octavia’s fur. “Alright, fine. I had a tiny setback with the oven. No biggie.”

“Mmm,” Octavia nodded with an exasperated snort. “And I suppose that’s why the whole house smells like charred produce?”

Vinyl simply groaned into the nape of Octavia’s neck. “Don’t remind me.”

The world swayed around Vinyl as Octavia shuffled over to the couch. Vinyl took the hint and silently slid off her back with her ears slicked back. No doubt her friend was depositing her there for a stern talking to. The cool fabric engulfed her form as she settled into the cushions, and Octavia took her hoof up for examination. She tutted and shook her head.

“Honestly, what am I going to do with you?”

It wasn’t a scream. It wasn’t even a scolding. Octavia’s voice was far gentler than Vinyl had been expecting. In fact, she almost sounded amused. Vinyl’s ears relaxed, and she dared to meet her friend’s eyes. “Heh, I guess that’s the last time I try to cook,” she chuckled sheepishly.

“It was also the first, if memory serves,” Octavia chuckled back, rotating Vinyl’s hoof. “Be a dear, and bring me the first aid kit. These burns need to be treated.”

Vinyl nodded and reached out with her magical grasp. Next to the door, a white bag with a red cross became enshrouded in a deep blue aura. It floated a few feet into the air, then sailed across the carpet, over the broken shards of Octavia’s record, and planted itself beside the couch.

“Now tell me,” Octavia said, reaching her hoof into the bag and shuffling through the contents. “What in the world possessed you to start cooking? You can’t have been so hungry you couldn’t wait until I made dinner.”

A thick knot formed in Vinyl’s belly. Suddenly, making eye contact with her friend felt like an impossible task, so she focused instead on the picture of the two of them mounted on the wall behind Octavia. “It was nothing,” she said softly. “I just wanted to . . . I was trying to, I dunno . . .”

“Just wanted to what?” Octavia mused. “Ah! Here we are.” Her hoof retracted from the first aid kit with a spray bottle, several sterile dressings, and a roll of gauze. She set the items on the couch between them and set about spraying down Vinyl’s hoof with cool, refreshing water.

Vinyl shuddered as the mist hit her hoof, gently dulling the sharp, burning pain that had been prickling it ever since she got out of the tub. If Octavia hadn’t asked her a direct question, she would have been happy to flop back onto the cushions and enjoy the soft sensations of her friend pressing the dressing against her hoof and gently wrapping it with the gauze. But she had, and instead of relaxing, Vinyl felt the knot in her stomach grow ever tighter.

This wasn’t a sensation that was entirely new to Vinyl. Over the past few weeks, she’d noticed its presence more and more whenever she was around Octavia. It was a twisty, squirrely kind of feeling that filled her with warm tingling as much as it did awkward dread. It tied her tongue and turned her legs into jello without warning, and it all led up to a revelation that left her as jumpy as a rabbit in an aviary.

“I just wanted to make you dinner for a change,” Vinyl managed, wishing she’d had the foresight to grab her sunglasses before answering the door. As it was, she’d just about managed to memorize every detail of the picture over Octavia’s shoulder. “Because . . . Well, because I need to talk to you about some stuff.”

“Mmm?” Octavia’s eyes never strayed from meticulously wrapping Vinyl’s hoof. When the roll was finished, she bit off a piece of tape and carefully fastened it to the bandage. That done, she set Vinyl’s hoof down and motioned for the other one. “Talk about what?”

“Well,” Vinyl began, pulling her hoof back and examining Octavia’s work. It looked like a fat mitten had attached itself to the end of her leg, but it felt immeasurably better. “Do you know what today is?”

Octavia nodded. “Of course I do. It’s Hearts and Hooves Day.”

Vinyl’s ears, grateful for having just recovered from their previous pinning, found themselves dropping again. “Oh . . . Right.” She chewed on her lip. “. . .Just Hearts and Hooves Day?” she added tentatively.

“I’m sorry?” Octavia looked up, gauze still held firmly in her hoof. “Am I missing something?”

Only one of the most important days of the year, Vinyl grumbled internally. How could she have forgotten? Did Octavia simply not realize what today was? Does she even care? A cold sensation settled itself in Vinyl’s chest.

“I-it’s nothing. Nevermind.”

“Vinyl.” Octavia gave her a flat stare.

“Fine.” Vinyl took a deep breath and fixed her gaze back on the photo. It was an exceptionally good one—especially by Pinkie Pie’s standards. In it, Vinyl and Octavia were dancing between tables at Berry Punch’s bar on the night they met. Exactly a year ago. “You really have no idea?”

Octavia’s face fell, and she went back to wrapping Vinyl’s hoof with a sigh. “How should I know?” she droned. “Some dubtrot artist’s birthday?”

Vinyl’s jaw dropped. “You really did forget!” she snapped. “Tavi, what the heck!” Ripping her hoof back from Octavia’s grasp, she readjusted herself on the couch until she faced the doorway. She crossed her forelegs and huffed. “Hearts and Hooves Day? Y’know, the day we first met?”

There was a long pause, and Vinyl could have sworn she could actually hear Octavia’s gears turning. She fixed her gaze on the door and tried not to let the sting in her eyes bother her too much. Vinyl had never had much of a head for dates, true, but even she remembered the day she’d met a pompous musician from Trottingham and convinced her to cut loose. Even she remembered the badass duet they’d performed at Berry Punch’s bar, which made every pony present stand up and dance like mad.

How could Octavia have forgotten?

“Vinyl,” Octavia said carefully. “We met on the thirteenth.”

“Exactly.” Vinyl’s voice was a bit stiffer than she’d intended it to be. Then again, it would have been incredibly difficult to make it any cheerier; she felt like somepony was trying to squeeze the air out of her. “Hearts and Hooves Day.”

“No, no,” Octavia answered. There was a tinge of amusement in her voice now. “Hearts and Hooves day is the second Saturday of Spring, Vinyl. Today’s the twelfth.

Vinyl blinked. Wait, what? Then, this entire day she’d been planning for weeks . . . The dinner, and the wine, and the fancy music . . . Oh, horseapples. I hate calendars!

“I . . . I knew that,” Vinyl said, her voice somehow even stiffer. She noticed the gauze on her left hoof hadn’t been secured yet, and she began to play with the free end. “I was, uh, just testing you.”

Octavia covered her mouth and giggled. “Of course you were. Now give me that hoof back before you pull the entire bandage apart.”

Fighting the heat building up in her cheeks, Vinyl relented and settled her hoof back in front of Octavia. It was quickly scooped up, and Vinyl felt the gauze begin to coil around it once more. Well, Scratch, anyother ways you can think of to mess tonight up?

“I do have to say that I’m, well . . . I’m rather pleased that you remembered,” Octavia said quietly. The sheepishness in her tone caught Vinyl’s attention immediately, and she turned to see a light blush decorating Octavia’s cheeks as she worked. “To be honest, I’ve been wondering if you’ve grown tired of me.”

What?” Vinyl straightened out instantly. “What in Equestria would make you think a bone-headed thing like that?”

Octavia’s blush darkened significantly. “It’s just . . . I feel as though you’ve been avoiding me is all.” She cleared her throat, and her voice dropped back into its normal octave, but the steady thumping of her tail against the foot of the couch belied her nervousness. “You don’t talk much, and you haven’t been nearly as, er, boisterous. And you missed my show.” The sheepishness in Octavia’s face melted away as spoke, replaced with downcast eyes that remained firmly locked onto the task of affixing Vinyl’s bandaging with a strip of tape. By the time she finished, she sounded almost depressed. “I don’t like getting the cold shoulder from you.”

Vinyl cringed. She poked her hoof into the fabric of the couch and watched as the cushioning tried to even itself out. “Aw, jeez, Tavi,” she mumbled. This was why Vinyl preferred making music over speaking. Most of the time, she tried to avoid talking at all; it just made things simpler. Now she’d gone and hurt her best friend over it. “I suck.” And with that declaration, she flopped her side against the backrest of the couch.

“Look,” Vinyl began, “I’m just . . . I’m not so good with the whole—” she struggled, rolling her hoof “—words thing. I didn’t mean to make you feel unwanted; I’m just going through some stuff right now. Stuff that I was maybe hoping to talk about tonight.”

It would have been perfect, too: A candle-lit dinner with all of Octavia’s favorite foods, hoof-made to perfection. Gentle, gooey, romantic gunk playing from the record player. Vinyl had even saved her bits up to rent a suit for the night. And while the shadows fickered on the wall, she’d planned to pour Octavia a glass of wine, and then pour out her feelings.

Except tonight turned out to be the wrong night.

Octavia gave her a small smile. She’d finished wrapping Vinyl’s hoof, but still hadn’t let go. Instead, she gave it a gentle squeeze that woke up a storm of butterflies in Vinyl’s belly. “I was actually hoping we could talk, too.”

Vinyl cocked her head, taking in Octavia’s twitching tail and flittering eyes. “What about?”

“It’s a bit silly, really,” Octavia chuckled, drawing small circles on the couch with her free hoof. “The girls were—well, their exact words don’t entirely matter at the moment. It’s just that they seem to have caught on to a few things that they won’t let go. Particularly after tonight.”

The concert. I knew I shouldn’t have skipped it. Now they’ll all think I’m a louse. “I know, I know,” Vinyl answered with a sigh. “I should’ve gone. I just—”

“Not at all!” Octavia blurted, waving her hoof emphatically. “I know you have a record due soon. I mean,” her voice wavered, “I would have much rather had you there, but . . . But I understand you have to keep your priorities straight.”

A knife to the heart would have felt better. Octavia’s voice was laced with pain and doubt, and hearing it made Vinyl feel dirty, but nowhere near as much as the words themselves did. She couldn’t even refute them without telling Octavia that she’d outright lied to her.

But she had to. The guilt was weighing on Vinyl’s shoulders like an enormous boulder now that she found herself having to look into Octavia’s eyes.

“There is no record deal,” Vinyl whispered. She shifted her gaze to the floor, where she wouldn’t have to see the devastation echoing through her friend. As it was, the way Octavia’s hoof tightened around her own was painful enough—both physically and emotionally. “I lied. I was trying to get time alone to figure some stuff out.”

Silence filled the room. It seemed to last for hours—until it was broken by a short, covered sniffle. “I see.” Octavia’s voice was stiff and tinny. “And the reason you had to miss my concert?”

“I was setting up—” Vinyl caught herself, and her ears dropped “—trying to set up our anniversary dinner.” She shifted her weight and groaned. “It . . . didn’t work out.”

“Well, then, I supposed I can’t fault you on your sweetness,” Octavia said thickly. “I wish you had mentioned it, though, considering I had already bought everything to make your favorite pasta tomorrow night.”

Vinyl felt like punching herself. She’d known she’d be taking a chance in skipping out on Octavia’s show, but she thought the surprise dinner would more than make up for it. Sure, Octavia had been planning on unveiling a new song, but her room was flooded with a crapload of half-finished sheet music; it would only be a matter of weeks before Octavia had another one ready and waiting. Missing one couldn’t have hurt that badly.

Or so she’d thought.

“I suck,” Vinyl reiterated.

“You do not,” Octavia snapped. “And I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop speaking so negatively about yourself. You’re not obligated to attend each and every one of my performances.”

Small as she felt, Vinyl wrestled her courage together and looked back up into Octavia’s eyes. “But I want to.”

“You—” Octavia began before blinking several times. “You do?”

“Duh! You’re my best friend.” Vinyl squirmed in her seat. She as if she were adrift in a sea of emotions on a paper ship. “I just . . . Ugh! Why do words have to be so hard?”

Vinyl sighed and closed her eyes. “I’d been living alone for years before you came along. After my folks died, I didn’t really get out all that much. And even though I’m popular in town, I don’t really have all that many friends. When you moved in here, I felt . . . whole again. And I started to realize that, when it comes to you, I don’t think I wanna settle for just friends.”

There. It was out. All of it. Now she just had to wait to see how Octavia took the news.

She wouldn’t run away, right?

Nah.

. . .Right?

Biting her lip, Vinyl chanced a look at Octavia from the corner of her eye, and was shocked to see that the mare was actually giggling. It made her feel sick.

I knew I should have just written a song.

“You know what?” Vinyl said quickly. “Just forget I said any—”

“No, no,” Octavia said, waving her hoof. “I just . . . I can’t believe this. Honestly, the amount of trouble we could have saved ourselves.” She scooted closer to Vinyl, trapping a column of warm air between them. “I’ve been meaning to say the same thing, Vinyl. You’ve reminded me of what it’s like to feel alive. To see the beauty in the world behind the pomp and circumstance. I . . . feel whole around you as well.”

Huh?

Vinyl had just enough time to register Octavia’s words before she felt a hoof settle on her cheek and guide her toward her friend’s lips. It felt like something out of a dream, but Vinyl prayed to Luna that she’d never wake up. Their lips met, and Vinyl stopped thinking altogether.

When the morning came, Vinyl would find herself unable to describe what exactly her first kiss felt like. Warm was a good word. Wet wasn’t a bad one, either. But neither really captured the essence of what she was feeling internally. It was like a million bass drops compounded onto each other, accompanied by a brass band and a crazed piano melody. Like weeks of confusing emotions untagling in an instant.

Like a kiss from Octavia Melody.

Vinyl ran her hoof around the curve of Octavia’s jaw. She could hardly feel it through the thick gauze—and what she did feel only caused flecks of pain—but she cherished each and every moment. When she reached the underside of Octavia’s chin, Vinyl scooped her hoof around it and pulled her deeper into the kiss, savoring the tender softness of her friend’s lips against her own.

They pressed into each other hungrily, and Vinyl desperately hoped that she could manage to impress upon Octavia what she couldn’t put into words any other time. Perhaps she did, because the pair of them suddenly lurched forward as Octavia’s hooves settled around the back of Vinyl’s neck. They toppled onto the couch, gripping each other so tight it hurt. Somepony must have let a tear or two loose at some point, too, because Vinyl could feel the warm wetness dampening the fur on her cheeks.

But it wasn’t certainly Vinyl’s.

Seriously.

A shiver ran down Vinyl’s spine as Octavia ran a hoof down her side. Sparks of energy seemed to come alive all over her body; suddenly, Vinyl felt every strand of fur on her body stand on end. Her heart was beating in double time now, and Vinyl returned the favor by nipping at Octavia’s lip, drawing out a long, gentle moan from her friend.

They broke apart for a moment, panting lightly, and Vinyl opened her eyes to the full view of Octavia’s own lavender irises. Beautiful. Before either of them had caught their breath, Vinyl leaned in and buried her nose in the scruff of a giggling Octavia’s neck.

At first, she only planted one kiss. But then, Octavia shuddered, so she placed another. And another, until she reached the corner of Octavia’s jaw, and made her gasp. Vinyl pulled back, took in the dash of pink on her lover’s cheeks, and found herself giggling in a way she hadn’t for years.

But then, Octavia’s nose crinkled. “Vinyl, wait,” she said flatly. “I smell smoke.”

Worry wart. Vinyl smirked and leaned back in to silence her. “It’s just the asparagus.”

A gray hoof settled on Vinyl’s chest, firmly holding her in place. “No, seriously. It’s getting worse.” Octavia pushed against her, and Vinyl groaned in protest as she climbed back onto her old spot on the couch.

That is, until she caught a whiff of smoke as well. Together, they looked over their shoulders and into the kitchen, which roiling clouds of thick, brown smoke was pouring out of. Bright orange light danced against the walls beyond and Vinyl felt a very deep sense of foreboding take hold in her gut.

“Crap,” she groaned. “I knew I forgot something.”

Octavia glanced at her, wide-eyed. “You mean you didn’t turn the oven off?”

The back of Vinyl’s neck suddenly became incredibly itchy. “Heh. Uh, no,” she confirmed. “O-or the stove.”