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The Darkest Hour · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Music After Midnight
There was no moon over Ponyville tonight. The stars shone in the sky, the bright pinpricks of light still the barest imitation of the moon’s brilliance. Not that it mattered. Even a thousand years later, most ponies still slept through the night, leaving the hours of deep darkness to other creatures.

Still, not every pony found it easy to sleep at night. One home in Ponyville still had a light shining through its downstairs windows, signalling that Luna’s hours did not go completely unobserved.

Vinyl Scratch sat at her turntable in the dim light of her shared living room, staring at the various controls in front of her, drowning in the silence of the night.

She sighed. No. Not silence. Worse. Way worse. The ticking of the antique clock that Tavi had stuck in the corner of their living room pierced her headphones and pounded in her ears, the mechanical noise calling out each and every second she spent not producing anything worth anything.

She was stuck literally listening to the sound of her dreams dying in real time.

Staring at her hooves, she started to fiddle with the controls again, if for no other reason than to make a bit of noise and silence the stupid clock. She’d have it out with Tavi tomorrow. If she had to get rid of that awesome neon sign she found in Manehattan because it distracted the snobby mare during cello practice, Tavi could get rid of that super noisy piece of junk.

All she needed was some sort of idea to start with. A theme. A concept. Even just a sound.

Or she could just give up and go get a job at the Hayburger because she was a total hack who couldn’t put together a single new song – let alone a full album. She hadn’t had a legit gig in months.

She shook her head and shoved her mane out of her face, forcing herself to take a deep breath before she looked back down at the blinking lights in front of her. All she needed to do was focus. She just needed to produce a new track. Just one.

Her eyes drifted down towards the table’s doors, where she’d stuffed a crumpled page from the Manehattan Times.

If she did that, she’d at least have something she could put on the next album that absolutely nopony bought or liked.

She took another deep breath, forcing her eyes back to the board and refusing to let them drift. If she could just get started on something she was happy with, she promised herself she’d go hit the town and have some fun tomorrow.

Maybe Tavi would want to come and they could unwind together.

Thinking of her roommate gave her an idea. Maybe she could sample one of Tavi’s songs.

Building on the work of a talented musician would probably work well enough. Why not just make her next album feature Tavi, while she just kept herself as an uncredited collaborator. That’d probably work great. Ponies’d lap it up.

She shut her eyes and slid off her headphones, throwing them on the table. The idea had merit. Really. It did. The improv piece they’d done for Cranky and Matilda’s wedding had been pretty great. Maybe all she really needed was to try a bit of collab work to get the creative juices flowing again. She’d been in this rut for like, two months at this point. Getting out of her own head might be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Of course, she wouldn’t need to get out of her own head if she could just put together a decent track.

So what could she do with Tavi’s sound? Just start with something her friend had already done? Ask her for a custom piece? Probably not, since she’d need to give the cellist something to work with first.

She tapped her hooves on the board, letting her mind wander as she thought back over all the times she’d heard Tavi play, trying to feel out the right sound and right beat to go with it. Maybe something dark? Everything she’d done lately had been upbeat and light dance tracks, so perhaps heavier—

Vinyl nearly jumped out of her fur as the clock rang, twelve metallic gongs shattering her concentration, obliterating whatever idea she’d had going, and declaring to all of Ponyville that she had wasted another day achieving absolutely nothing.

Something in her head clicked. She wrapped her magic around the turntable and flipped it off her sound system, wires tearing free as it tore off the table and crashed to the floor.

Her chest heaved as she stared in slack-jawed horror at the device laying on the ground, pieces of the case having scattered across the floor. A few residual sparks flew off the wiring that, months ago, she had painstakingly worked on to get the absolute best sound she could on her limited budget. All the garbage tracks that hadn’t been worth anything, but still represented all her recent work, were probably gone.

Just paying rent had been eating away at her savings. There was no way she could afford to fix it without getting a gig, and she couldn’t get a gig without it. Not that she could get a gig with it, anyway.

She jammed her muzzle into her forelegs and screamed before just going limp.

She’d go get a job at the Hayburger tomorrow and quit music forever. To Tartarus with her “special talent.”

Her ears twitched at the sound of hooves pounding on the stairs.

Tavi rounded the corner, descending stairs two at a time. “Scratch, are you…!” she started, but trailed off as her hoofsteps slowed. After a moment of hesitation she continued, “What happened?”

Trying to hold back the tears she could feel welling in her eyes, Vinyl made an off-hoof gesture, indicating that her turntable and mixer had fallen off the table.

“I can see that much,” she said, annoyance creeping into her voice.

The ticking of the clock filled the room as Tavi lapsed into expectant silence.

Vinyl failed to restrain a muffled sob as she slid off the table and sat back onto her haunches, her eyes filled with tears. She tried to wipe the tears as she looked away, struggling to hide her face from her roommate.

Tavi’s voice softened as she repeated her question. “Scratch, what happened?”

Another muffled sob escaped Vinyl as she struggled to come up with some way to tell Tavi she was fine and that she could go away. Shame swelled inside her as she caught the concerned look on her friend’s face, as well as her sleep-bleared eyes and bed ruffled mane.

Everything had gone to Tartarus all at once, and now it’d just keep getting worse and worse.

“Vinyl. Come on.”

She tried to turn further away as the embarrassed heat in her cheeks threatened to pull even more tears out of her. At this point Celestia might as well just strike her dead and save her the trouble.

“Vinyl,” Tavi repeated again, her voice firm and commanding.

“Knocked it over on accident,” Vinyl squeaked out, her faint voice even more strained than usual.

Snorting, Tavi shook her head and sat beside Vinyl. “I am not going anywhere until you actually bloody well tell me what happened. You’ve been acting like even more of a pain in the flank than usual lately, you know, right? Waking me up in the middle of the night like this is just about my limit for putting up with it.”

Still unable to meet her roommate’s eye, she gestured at the table’s door and kicked it open, revealing the neat – if now ruined – wiring inside and the sheet from the Times that she’d stuck in there a while back.

Tavi rolled her eyes and stuck her head in, pulling the paper out and spreading it out on the the table where she could get just enough to light to read the dark and wrinkled print.

Not needing to see what it said, Vinyl shrank even further back. She’d read that stupid rag dozens of times already, committing it to memory. If she’d wanted, she could have recited the entire thing, word for word, off the top of her head.

Tavi glanced back at her, clearing her throat. “Coming from the star of some Canterlot’s hottest events, DJ-P0N3’s first album, When the Bass Drops, feels disappointing. Despite the promise shown in her shown in her appearances at some of Canterlot’s hottest events, this lukewarm release—”

Using her telekinesis to take the paper back before she heard it anymore, Vinyl crushed it and jammed it back under her table. She finally locked her tear filled eyes with Tavi, cursing the pony for reading it out like that. Shouldn’t have shown her.

“That review was from months ago, Scratch,” she said.

Vinyl shrugged.

Tavi was the one to break eye contact this time, searching the ceiling for something. Instead of continuing the conversation, she walked around the table and prodded the turntable and mixers with her hoof. “Come on, Scratch. Help me get this off the floor. I remember helping you install this thing. It is obnoxiously heavy.” Without waiting for a response, she hooked one end of it and waited for the assumed help.

Not having room to protest, Vinyl used telekinesis to lift the other end, straining while Tavi did not even look bothered.

It only took a second for the two of them to get it back on the table, a fresh wave of anguish washing over Vinyl as she got a good look at the damage she’d caused. One of the platters had actually cracked and bent the spindle, while several of the mixer’s elements had sheared off. It really might have been totaled.

Tavi sighed as she picked up a few of the loose pieces and tossed them onto device. “You really did a number on that thing. I’m no expert, but it looks quite broken.”

Frustrated tears squeezed out of Vinyl’s eyes again.

“I notice that you haven’t been running off to many jobs as of late,” Octavia said.

Vinyl stayed silent.

“You also haven’t asked me to listen to any of your mixes in a while,” she continued.

Vinyl didn’t move.

“And, thinking about it, you also haven’t tried to drag me out on cider runs or the like in weeks,” she added as an afterthought.

Vinyl looked at the floor.

“I really do think your machine is broken,” she concluded, returning to her original point.

“Don’t care, ‘m done,” Vinyl managed without a hic or sob.

“Bollocks, Scratch. While I’m quite sure you think you’re serious, I know you aren’t.” The glare Vinyl levelled at her could have torched obnoxious ponies in the club, but Tavi ignored it. “I’ve watched you work, and I know you love it. You would shrivel up die if you stopped making your,” she took a deep breath, making her distaste for the word clear, “Wubs.”

Vinyl shot a glance at her turntables and mixer. Not that them being broken made that much of a difference in the end.

“Are you broke?”

Without any real escape from Tavi’s inquisition, Vinyl took the easiest way out and just shrugged again.

Vinyl rocked back as Tavi spoke up again, her voice sharp as a razor, “Why haven’t you let me know about any of this? Am I your friend, Scratch? Have I not come to you with my share of troubles?”

The nod Vinyl answered with was almost impossible to see.

“Then why will you not do the same for me, you stupid git?”

Because she didn’t want to admit that she was having trouble. Because she was ashamed of the review. Because she thought she was an utter failure. Because she felt like a hack. Because she was jealous of Tavi’s success. Reasons raced through her mind, each and every one of them shameful and embarrassing.

Worse, she knew that none of them made a good excuse for shutting out her best friend.

Tavi wrapped her forelegs around Vinyl and squeezed, the pressure and warmth cutting through her thoughts. “You really are an idiot, letting that chew you up like this.”

“I…” she started, but failed to finish as whatever walls she’d managed to build broke, letting loose a torrent of tears as she buried her face into Tavi’s coat, her body shaking with unrestrained sobs.

She’d completely and utterly lost control.

Tavi didn’t speak as she sat and held her friend, waiting for the sobs to die down.

“Bad review,” Vinyl choked out, “Barely sold, no jobs lately, can’t produce nothing...” After a few moments of silence, she felt a hoof press firmly against her muzzle.

“I really wouldn’t have figured DJ-P0N3 would go to pieces over little things like that,” Tavi said with a smile. “Who’d have thought that the sickest DJ in all of Ponyville had such a sensitive side.”

Vinyl sniffled and laughed at the same time, almost choking.

“Except for me, I suppose. It’s a big part of why I like her.” The muzzle pressure increased as Tavi pushed her back and broke the hug, taking a good look at her tear-stained eyes. “Bad reviews happen, Vinyl. I’ve certainly had my fair share of them. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes they were written by right twats who wouldn’t know good music if I hit them with my cello. Still, I’ve learned a lot from my critics.”

Vinyl nodded without believing it.

“Wait here a minute,” Tavi said, before turning and trotting up the stairs and back to her room. A moment later she returned, holding a record sleeve in her mouth.

Vinyl gaped as she looked at a copy of her own album.

Tavi set it on the edge of one of the speakers before continuing, “Personally, I liked it enough to buy my own copy. I would have asked you to sign it, had I not suspected you’d tease me about it forever.” She offered a lopsided smile before she continued, “Though I suppose that would have been a preferable alternative to all this.”

Another sniffling laugh escaped from Vinyl. She really would have. The idea of Tavi headed down to the record shop to buy that stuck in her brain in a weird way. Did she wear a disguise so other ponies wouldn’t see her do it?

“And I am rather sure that I can’t be the only pony. Which, if you ask me, is the important thing. I doubt I will ever have my name in flashing lights in Manehattan.”

Vinyl shook her head. “Why? You played for the princess.”

“Scratch. While I consider it one of the greatest honors I have ever received, I was, essentially, a glorified background element who only received attention because Pinkie Pie did her best to completely derail my performance. I love what I do, but I do not expect fame and fortune to come with it. Just knowing that there are ponies out there who appreciate what I do is all I want. Besides, it is not as if I am the only pony in this room who has played for a princess.”

“Yeah,” she forced herself to admit, holding her hooves out in a helpless gesture to signify that it didn’t make her feel any better.

“I have also been through my share of dry spells and music blocks, which is why I am thankful that I have had understanding friends who were willing to lend me a helping hoof when I needed it.” After a moment, she looked straight into Vinyl’s eyes and added, “If I asked them.”

Even now, Vinyl knew that failing such an obvious invitation might, more than anything else tonight, really and truly ruin her life beyond repair. A job at the Hayburger would be the least of her worries. “Please help, Tavi. I really need it.”

“Of course, Scratch. I would be happy to.” She set a hoof on her friend’s shoulder and nodded her head towards the stairs. “I believe the first thing we should do is get a bit of sleep. Tomorrow we can talk about you doing a few more chores around here in exchange for me loaning of some Bits, and maybe I’ll show you a few tricks I learned to help with music block, okay?”

Vinyl smiled and wiped her eyes on last time. “Okay.”
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#1 · 2
· · >>AndrewRogue
I think it's safe to say that everyone here has struggled with creator's block at one time or another. So if you were attempting to play to your audience, writing about that is a good start.

I'm also a musician, so that's another level on which this could appeal to me right from the start.

So what do I actually think of it?

The first part does a wonderful job getting us into Vinyl's head. The moment where the clock chime breaks what little concentration she'd managed to build up is one that's easy to identify with; I feel like without other issues in play, that wouldn't have been as disruptive to her workflow as it was, but you did a decent job of showing beforehand that there were some of those other issues. The destruction of the turntable is another spot that shows there's more going on than just creator's block; Vinyl's reaction immediately afterwards reminds me of what I've heard about people who attempt suicide by jumping off buildings ("wait, shit, no, this was a terrible idea and I want to take it back").

The second part, the discussion with Octavia, appeals to me a little less, and I'm not sure how much of that is systemic bias on my part. I guess Vinyl never really learned how to deal with negative critics, but I'd have thought that would have been a skill that came up some time before this. I did appreciate that there was an offer of help made, and more importantly, accepted.

From a technical standpoint, there are a couple of typos and a few odd phrasing choices (including some that I wouldn't generally expect to see from a native anglophone), but not necessarily any that really pulled me out of the fic.

Overall, it could probably do with a bit more polish, but there's some good stuff here.
#2 · 2
· · >>AndrewRogue
Sentence advise thingy:
for me loaning of some Bits
-> I think you mean 'For me to loan some bits' or something like that. The word choice here is clunky.

I think this one has potential. There's no one area that feels particularly weak, and certainly Vinyl's aggravation and mistake are both easy to empathize with. I suppose, mm - I suppose it just feels like it's one hoofstep away from really hitting its stride. Like there's just that one note off.

I wish I knew exactly what note it was; I suppose it feels to me in some areas like the emotion from Vinyl is a little too..whiplashy?

On the other hoof, I thought Octavia had some splendid dialogue, good show wot wot

Tier : Solid-ish
#3 · 2
· · >>horizon >>AndrewRogue
Huh. More Vinyl. Not as surprising to see her crop up as it is Zephyr Breeze, but still not a pony I expected to see multiple times.

Ah, creative blocks. We’ve all been there. I kind of hope this ends with Vinyl remixing the clock.

In all, an excellently executed bit of all-too-relatable despair, coupled with some fantastic friendshipping. You’re definitely playing to the right audience with this one.
#4 · 1
· · >>AndrewRogue
Ah, yeah. The rushing feelings of dread and crippling self-doubt that comes with artist's block, nothing quite like them.

This was a nice character piece and you did a goog job showing the aforementioned feelings. I do wish we could have spent a bit more time inside of Vinyl's head, sharing that fear of not knowing if you should be doing what you're doing, or if you'll ever be good enough.

I'd hate to repeat what has already been said, so I'll just echo the general sentiment that a better resolution--be it Octavia offering help, talking about how to take criticism, etc.--would have elevated this story to higher heights, and a higher spot on my ranking.
#5 · 2
I kind of hope this ends with Vinyl remixing the clock.

#6 · 1
· · >>AndrewRogue
Snorting, Tavi shook her head and sat beside Vinyl. “I am not going anywhere until you actually bloody well tell me what happened. You’ve been acting like even more of a pain in the flank than usual lately, you know, right? Waking me up in the middle of the night like this is just about my limit for putting up with it.”

Is this tough love, or just Octavia's idea of how to comfort someone?

There've been a lot more cute slice-of-life character pieces for this prompt than I thought there'd be. That's good; by no means am I complaining. I was worried that we'd get six hundred million entries about Nightmare Moon.

This one feels good, and real. This isn't the character I thought would, or could, be used in a story like this, so it feels a little novel to me. You sell it very well.
#7 · 1
· · >>Posh
The Rough

For being a copy writer, I'm a terrible first pass writer. I tend to be sloppy, drop sentences, and have weird phrasing because I bounce around, get distracted, and the like. >>Morning Sun caught a pretty good example of that. That sentence was a last minute change, and it shows. It was just supposed to be: "Tomorrow we can talk about you doing a few more chores around here in exchange for me loaning you some Bits." But I mashed two sentences together in my head and split the difference instead of actually, you know, writing a competent sentence.

There are two major story flaws, one that I was aware of, and one that one of my dear beta readers pointed out, but I lacked the time to fix either.

Mistake 1: The one I knew about. Basically, Vinyl's acceptance and turn is a little too fast and easy. Tavi and Vinyl both need to work a little bit more to sell the conclusion, particularly because this conclusion is intended as one of those awkward middle of the road, "realistic" answers: even if Vinyl never becomes the superstar she wants to be (a realistic potential), she has ponies who care and she has ponies who love and appreciate her music.

Mistake 2: The one my reader brought to my attention. The presence of the review really muddied the conflict, because it shifts the issue from a purely internally motivated question (am I good enough?) to a more external question for the reader (is Vinyl good enough?). The reader shouldn't be doubting that Vinyl is skilled, the reader should be asking the same question as Vinyl: is that skill enough? >>TrumpetofDoom kinda picked up that dissonance: it -is- weird that Vinyl could get this far without ever learning how to deal with negative criticism. It is absolutely the wrong question to focus on. It'd be much better for Vinyl to have amassed sales charts or something with her album being absolute middle of the road sales or something like that.

That said, thank you all for the super kind words and advice! Hopefully a revision or two and I'll have something a little more worthy. :p

Anyhow. Individual answers!

>>TrumpetofDoom Nailed the big issue that detracts from the story, I think.

>>Morning Sun Yep and agreed. Didn't quite get a smooth enough emotional arc going.

>>FanOfMostEverything *bows* Thank you. And yes, you are absolutely right that a clock mix is the

>>Zaid Val'Roa Reinforces my belief that I didn't quite get the conflict correct.

>>Posh Tough love. It is intended to be a sort of transition to kinda dull Octavia's perfect BFFness - she starts in a position of being both irritated and kinda tired of (implied) bullshit over the past few months, but softens once she realizes that yeah, Vinyl is seriously hurting and does need help.
#8 · 1
Tough love. It is intended to be a sort of transition to kinda dull Octavia's perfect BFFness - she starts in a position of being both irritated and kinda tired of (implied) bullshit over the past few months, but softens once she realizes that yeah, Vinyl is seriously hurting and does need help.

Tavi's pretty empathetic toward Vinyl through most of the story. Someone with that sense of empathy probably would have figured out a while ago that this wasn't just a case of Vinyl being mopey for no good reason, and that the time for tough love would have passed a while ago.

You might consider toning it down, or at least giving a more playful bent to Octavia's early dialogue.