Ode to Friendship
a MLP Fanfic
by Cloudy Skies
Please read the version on FimFiction.net here: http://www.fimfiction.net/story/12258/Ode-to-Friendship
Octavia let the last note hang alone in the air. The pull of her bow across the strings of her cello suddenly became a terribly fragile thing. Autumn Glory’s Waltz for the Sun offered her the final say in the quartet’s performance, and she clutched it with a death-grip. Still, it was finite. The clatter of hooves on hooves had already started, drowning the song. The spell was broken.
Practiced and polite applause from Canterlot’s Royal Operahouse regulars filled her ears. An impeccably polite show of appreciation from ponies who knew when their closing piece was over just as surely as Octavia did herself. She let her bow drop to her side and sighed, closing her eyes. Mere seconds later, Fréderic coughed and nudged her flank with a rear hoof, prompting her to bow along with the rest of the quartet. First left, then right. Two bows, as well rehearsed and routine as the performance itself.
She opened her eyes again just as the she heard the dull thump of the curtains closing. Walls of red that dictated the pace; velvet that spoke. Play. Stop. Fréderic, Harpo and Beauty Brass obeyed. All of the other little puppets of the quartet let go of their instruments, exchanging smiles and congratulations as the staff helped them pack and move. Octavia found she was unwilling to let go just yet, and looked away as her quartet-members sought her eyes. She wasn’t feeling up to participating in the small talk this day either. Not this week.
The light clop of hoofsteps on wood heralded the approach of a younger unicorn colt, no doubt ready to help her with her instrument. He hadn’t taken more than four steps in Octavia’s direction before a more experienced porter tapped him on his withers and shook his head no.
The price of being allowed to carry her own instrument was that everypony thought her a little unhinged, if not crazy.
“Are you all right, Octavia?” Beauty Brass’ melodious voice queried as she sidled up to her. The blue mare wore a warm smile of genuine concern.
“Of course,” Octavia replied, her eyes half-lidded and her tone bored as her mind wandered. Six days until the next show. “I am the very image of ‘all right’, a veritable bastion of normalcy and completely okay.”
“Ah. Well,” Brass muttered, pulling back half a step with folded ears as she cleared her throat. “I shall leave you to that. I’ll just assume this means you don’t want to go grab a cup of tea tonight.”
Octavia was almost disappointed by her retreat; usually the other mare in the quartet would insist once or even twice more before relenting. While they had never been particularly close, Octavia knew she had been very rude to Beauty Brass. It was the particular brand of rudeness all too often taken for granted in high society, which hardly helped matters. She’d gotten very good at telling ponies to go away while being perfectly polite about it, but it wasn’t exactly a skill to write home about.
When Octavia next looked up, surfacing from her reverie, she was alone on the stage. With practiced ease, she hoisted her cello onto her back and started towards the exit.
She’d barely begun her journey through the labyrinthine maze that was the backstage area of the opera house when she heard voices around the next corner. This was rare enough in itself, but she recognized neither of the two speakers as theater-workers. She’d always been able to remember ponies by voice alone, and the opera had neither hired nor fired a single pony since she had started playing here. Besides, one of the two, both decidedly mares, had an almost painfully high-pitched voice that she would certainly have remembered.
“I bet she’s super nice! And don’t you worry your little head even a teensy-weensy bit. I’m sure we’ll make the train!” the voice chirped, accompanied by rhythmic thuds of hooves on carpeted floor.
“Yes, well,” another voice replied, far more refined. “I am less convinced this is a good idea. I still don’t understand how you got us past the usher.”
“Everypony loves peanuts!” the first speaker said with a giggle just as Octavia rounded the corner, never having broken stride. She came face to face with a jarringly pink earth pony who seemed to vibrate with untamed energy even at a standstill. She was accompanied by an elegant white unicorn who would have reminded her a little bit of the opera house manager if not for the color of her eyes.
“Oh! Hi! We’re fans!” the pink pony called, waving at her though they were no more than two strides apart. The unicorn rolled her eyes and sighed, and Octavia hazarded a glance behind herself as far as the berth of her cello would allow, just to see if this was some sort of prank.
“Fans,” she repeated, quirking a brow.
“Yuh-huh! Rarity thought you were really good, so when I started bothering her and poking her to ask if we could go backstage and see you after the show she only protested a little, and for Rarity, that’s almost the same as shouting ‘yes!’ really loud because she’s really snooty!”
“Cellists don’t have fans,” Octavia retorted with a little snort. “And this is only ‘backstage’ in the most literal sense of the word.” She turned to the unicorn and raised a brow. “Your friend is aware of the opera house’s stance on cider during performances, yes?”
“She’s not drunk. Usually, she’s... lucid,” the white unicorn named Rarity commented. She cast her companion a sour glance. “But not today, it seems. Pinkie Pie here wanted to express her admiration for your most excellent performance, that’s all. They were touching pieces, each and every one. Now, we’ve taken up enough of your time-”
“Oh, I wasn’t here to say I liked her music, you silly pony,” Pinkie Pie commented with another giggle. It was apparently impossible for her to say something without laughing or grinning. “I was going to ask why she was so sad! Why are you sad?”
Rarity opened her mouth, but remained mute, jaws yawing. Octavia merely stared. She had known when she decided to move to Canterlot that the capital would house some more unsavory types, including mad-ponies. It was almost amusing to see that she had attracted one such pony. She’d always assumed most of them latched on to the Wonderbolts, instead.
“You are clearly touched,” Octavia said with a stiff smile. “Unfortunately, while I’d love nothing more than to walk past you and leave you behind, my cello won’t allow that.”
“It is really big!” Pinkie agreed with a chortle. Rarity looked very discomfited.
“This leaves two options. Please get out of my way, or cover your ears while I call for security,” Octavia said, tapping a hoof on the plush floor. To her relief, the unicorn began tugging the unhinged pink earth pony away by her tail. Clearly she was the sane one of the pair.
“Aww, but Rarity!” the suddenly less cheery mop of a pony whined. “She’s not smiling! Ponies are supposed to smile!”
Octavia waited until the two ponies were a small distance away before she resumed her march for the exit. As they were heading in the same direction for a little while yet, she had to endure the pitiful complaining and arguing for a moment longer.
“Ponies who know even the slightest bit about decorum are aware that you don’t have to smile every moment of every day,” the sensible unicorn near-growled around a mouthful of curly pink tail. “Nopony in the audience smiled, but clearly they all enjoyed the performance. I swear, Pinkie Pie, you’re just being impossible.”
“This is different.” Pinkie’s eyes latched onto Octavia’s even as her unicorn friend dragged her along the carpet. Completely at odds with her frizzy and unkempt body, those big blue eyes were completely tranquil,insistent and determined.
It was only pure mechanical repetition that kept Octavia’s legs moving until the pair rounded a corner and their eye contact was broken. She suppressed a shudder and shook her head. For a second, she had felt as transparent as glass, a silly and irrational notion that proved hard to shake.
“Let me guess, there’s a Pinkie Sense for this?” the unicorn asked with an unladylike grunt as she tugged at her still-supine friend. Their voices grew fainter as they disappeared down the corridor that led to the seating area.
“No!” the other retorted, the indignant tone a little odd with her squeaky pitch. “I just know it! You’ve got your super nice dresses, and Twilight is really smart when it comes to books and, um you know, more books, but-”
Octavia halted for a spell once their voices faded, working her mouth soundlessly. There was something familiar about the two ponies now that she thought about it. She just wasn’t entirely convinced she wanted to know why they brought to mind a Hearth’s Warming Eve song and a silly tune about shaking your hooves. With a shrug, she left her curiosity behind in the quiet halls of the opera house, setting course for her apartment.
It was a blessedly short walk. Those few times she left the stage with her quartet, the others would always opt for a carriage, and the Sun knew that their pay made such luxuries almost expected. Still, there was something liberating about walking home on her own four hooves. Life, Octavia had come to realize, was a rigid and predictable affair. Seizing a hold of a small thing such as this gave her pleasure. Sometimes, she’d take the longer route via the central market, even if it closed far earlier in the day.
Why are you sad?
The ridiculous words reverberated unbidden inside her head just as she turned off Silver Avenue to join up with Blue Feather Road. She stripped the sentence of any meaning until she was left only with the disturbingly perky voice whose mere memory hurt her ears. Suddenly, she was the crazy pony, rolling her eyes at inconsequentia. That annoyed her twice as much as the encounter itself ever could. Octavia drew breath and looked up at the moon that hung high in the sky, trying to find something else to think about.
Think about what? Six days, twenty-one hours, give or take.
The flawless marble facade of the four-story apartment complex suddenly loomed before her. Its edifice pierced the static that her brain offered as an alternative to obsessing about a crazed pink mare. She was halfway across the street when the usher whose name she had never bothered to learn politely opened the door with a glimmer of magic. She slipped inside and headed for the stairs without looking up.
Navigating the narrow staircase with her cello had taken some getting used to, but the door-pony had eventually stopped suggesting the elevator altogether. She couldn’t remember exactly what she’d told him, but it was probably said with more anger than he deserved. Still, the end result was that the stairs were hers, just like her walk home. In thirty years’ time, would she have started wearing grooves into the beautiful white-painted wooden boards, all by herself? It was an almost beautiful thought.
Just like that, the journey was over. She stood in front of her apartment door, and delaying due to some misplaced sentimentality would be a new high point of insanity. With a nudge of her head, she admitted herself, placing the cello on the floor by the door in its own spot. That little spot belonged to her cello, and that was that. “Six days,” she muttered as she leaned the bow on the wall next to her instrument. “Six days and I can play again.”
Six days until she could again play Waltz for the Sun, Flight of the Pegasi, Six Shards of Mystery and all the other pieces that were part of the performance her quartet put on these days. The amazing Equestria-renowned earth pony quartet, Quattrot Divino. Truly, she was privileged.
Octavia tore her cravat off with her teeth, shook her mane and kicked her door shut. No doubt Bronze Bowl and his family would lodge a complaint about the noise in the morning, but she couldn’t make herself care as she sought her bed. Six days.
The curtains parted. Twenty, maybe thirty performances ago, Octavia would be nervous at this point. Even with bow in hoof and cello safely cradled against her, the rows upon rows of ponies could be terrifying. The entire opera house was packed for yet another ‘exclusive’ performance that was anything but. The crowd was very quiet now that the applause had faded, but it was hard to take the well-dressed elite seriously when she recognized well over half of the first row from last performance. And the performance before last. And the one before that one.
It was during times like these, the seconds before the opening, where Octavia wanted to leap off stage and clout them on the head while screaming for answers.
Why are you here? Why do you keep coming back? Is this high culture? Do you care? Do you even like the music, or are you just here because you want to say you were here?
Last of all, who am I to judge when I am the one playing these pieces time and again?
Seven weeks, six days. Nearly eight weeks until they would put on a different performance. Two months until they would stage another show, wherein there might be a song or two that she had not already played to death.
At some point she had played the leading note of Six Shards of Mystery without even paying attention. Her hooves were doing all the work while her eyes roamed the audience. Beauty Brass had once commented that Octavia’s bored countenance had become something of a topic among the elite for a short while. She had no idea what to think of this, content to let her eyes wander across the assembled audience. When she met ponies’ eyes, they politely looked away.
What did other ponies look at while they listened to music, anyway? If she didn’t look back, would they be staring at her closed eyes? Octavia had never really listened to music. It was about being a part of it, about making the music. Sight had never played into that.
The thrum of her cello was a comforting backdrop to her little game. She’d send her half-lidded gaze questing across the countless rows of quiet observers. When she found some overdressed stallion or mare watching her back, she locked eyes with them, counting the swings of her subconscious metronome until they inevitably averted their eyes. Stuffy unicorn stallion with haughty, languid grin? Four beats. Young pegasus mare with silver tiara, wedged between her parents? Not even a single beat. Pink earth pony with insufferably messy mane-
Octavia missed a note for the first time in over half a year. She could feel Harpo shifting uncomfortably at her side even as she caught herself, and covert glances were exchanged in the audience. She swallowed and tried to concentrate as the familiar overture ceased to be a thing of obvious repetition, instead becoming a mess of notes. Sounds. The pink pony lurked in the corner of her eye, watching with rapt attention, but Octavia refused to look at her again.
The disturbance sparked a memory of the Grand Galloping Gala last year. A vague memory of that terrible, terrible disaster of her quartet’s first performance. She knew that pony. She’d been the one to ponyhandle her and coerce them into playing silly foal’s songs just because Fréderic was unwilling to say “no” for some reason she never asked about.
She should be outraged at the memory, but it was harder than she had thought, mustering up any anger. Though she was annoyed at the time, she would pay good bits for such a diversion now. Even a jaunty tune better fit for a foals’ creche would be a pleasant change of pace. When had they started on Flight of the Pegasi anyway? She was apparently performing her part to perfection, but she barely heard it.
At least she was a good judge of character; the pink mare was a mad-pony. Octavia shrugged mentally and continued her little game, preying on the other half of the audience while carefully avoiding that one pony as her hooves took care of the performance.
An indeterminable amount of time passed, and just like that, the music stopped. The audience set to clopping their hooves politely whilst getting ready to leave, and the curtains blessedly shut them out before long. As much as she would love to feel satisfied with a job well done, it was only the sweet ache of her hooves that offered Octavia any pleasure. That, and the jarring blob of pink disappearing from the edge of her vision.
“Are you quite all right, Octavia?” Fréderic asked, slipping off his pianist’s chair. “You, ah, I assume we all have our days, but...”
But what? Octavia never had “her days”? She wasn’t allowed to slip up even once? Octavia bit back her planned reply before she said something she’d regret, instead opting for a wan smile and a shrug. “Something along those lines,” she muttered.
“Well, we should be off if we are to make it to Jet Set’s garden party,” Fréderic added, adjusting his tie. The brown stallion raised a brow in query. “Are you absolutely certain you do not wish to join us?”
“Oh, do say yes this once, Octavia,” Beauty Brass added with a faint smile, dropping her eyes a tad. “You do need to see and be seen, and we’d love to have you along.”
“I’m occupied,” Octavia murmured, busying herself with inspecting her cello for flaws that didn’t exist.
“Leave her be, please,” Harpo commented, his dulcet voice not unkind. He was busy overseeing the stagehooves’ efforts to stow his harp away, but still spared her a smile. “She won’t relent, and we all know it.”
“Indeed,” Octavia muttered needlessly as the ponies left the stage, one by one. First her quartet filed out, Harpo with a surreptitious backwards glance that Octavia didn’t understand. Shortly thereafter, the stagehooves vacated the premises, leaving only the slightly-discomfited janitor who apparently decided it would be better to simply leave her there than to ask if she would relocate while he cleaned the stage.
The stage that was her world.
Octavia had no idea how long she stood like that, cradling her cello with her bow quiet and resting at her side. She had once stayed behind after hours to play, but apparently the late-night acting groups that occupied some of the rooms had found it ‘disruptive’, and it wasn’t worth starting a quarrel about. It was the same old song that kept her from playing in her apartment.
She stood at rest inside the velvet-and-wood prison, wondering when it had all gone so terribly wrong. “Why are you sad” indeed. She gave a private little snort and leaned her cello against Fréderic’s piano, walking over to part the curtains. She half imagined that the crazy pink pony would be sitting there in the audience still, staring at her.
Peering out from between the heavy cloth drapes, she saw that very same pony waving at her from the front row. Octavia’s entire body went rigid for a second before she had the presence of mind to pull back, heart hammering in her chest. This was not how crazy, half-baked little notions were supposed to work!
She almost wanted to take another peek, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to confirm that she had finally gone crazy. Perhaps it was better to wonder forever? It mattered none at any rate. She’d stared at that tiny gap in the curtains for less than half a minute when somepony spoke up behind her.
“Hi again!” the impossibly cheery voice chirped. Had Octavia been holding her cello, it might have gone terribly wrong. She nearly fell over herself in her hurry to back away and turn around all at once.
“You!” Octavia sputtered. How had she gotten back here? Why was she back here?
“Me! Twilight said she thought it was a pretty bad idea for me to go, but I thought, hey, silly Twilight, the train is super fun anyways and it’s not like I can sleep while there is stuff to do, and then this super nice pony recognized me and said I should totally have a ticket to the show, and I was all, ‘that’s totally what I was thinking!’”
Octavia stared, aware that her mouth was hanging open. She should probably shut it, be that because of her grandmother’s admonitions that a wasp would sting her tongue, or because of the demands of decorum. Neither her grandmother nor the societal elite was here to see, though. Just her and an utterly mad pony.
“-and you were so super good at playing that cello! It is a cello, right? Rarity said she thought it was a doghouse bass, but come on, you’re a pony, not a dog!” the pink creature continued, giggling. “Anyway, hiya, you’re off work now, right? So am I! Okay, so the Cakes let me have the week off because my apple-pear-cinnamon swirl surprises were a little too surprising, actually, but I’m still free! Wanna hang out? Maybe you just need a friend! That’ll put a bounce in your trot for sure!”
“Security?” Octavia asked, doing her best to keep her voice calm as she glanced around. “Wait. Hang- what? How did you even get in here? Security?”
Pinkie Pie tilted her head and laughed. “I just told you, I took the train, you silly filly!”
Octavia closed her eyes, saving at least one of her senses from the chaos while she took stock of the situation. Fact was, there was no security to speak of in an after-hours opera house, and she had nothing left to do here anyway. She didn’t have to deal with this inanity. Resolved, she walked over to hoist her cello onto her back before making for the exit.
“Yay! This is going to be super-duper-fantastic fun! Where are we going?” the crazed mare blurted, following her. She didn’t even walk properly on all fours. She bounced. Octavia did not even bother replying, following the depressingly familiar route to the staff exit. Left turn, forwards, forwards-
“You’re very quiet, you know that?”
-open the double doors, step out onto the street. The pink menace was of course still following her, but she had expected no less. Going straight home would just show her where she lived, and that was a truly horrifying thought. Octavia turned left down Chalice Road. It was still fairly early in the evening, and she didn’t feel like eating yet another pre-packaged daffodil sandwich anyway.
“I mean, like, super quiet! Even quieter than Fluttershy! She usually at least says something, even if it’s only to apologize for being so quiet. She’s so silly sometimes. I don’t think you’re silly, or, not just silly! Well, everypony is a little silly, sometimes, I think. You just frown a lot. Do you ever smile? You really should try smiling more.”
Octavia lay her ears flat and tried her best to ignore her assailant as she wound her way through the narrow streets of Canterlot’s oldest districts. Unicorns were magically lighting the lamps that dotted the crammed townscape, stalling the night’s advance. The streets were packed with ponies going about their business, and the entourage of an instrument-laden pony followed by a bouncing pink mare got more than a few looks.
“OoOoo, a restaurant? This looks super fancy! I’ve never seen this place before, what’s it called? The sign is kind of silly, is that a stack of waffles or pancakes? It looks like-”
Waiting for the usher to open the door for her, Octavia awkwardly stepped inside, barely avoiding hitching her cello on the door-frame. She ignored the sour look the doorpony gave her, instead jerking her head back at Pinkie.
“She’s not with me. Table for one, please,” Octavia said. “And could you please find room for my cello? I’m with the Quattrot Divino, I’m sure you understand.”
That got his attention. The dour brown unicorn stallion’s face lit up a little, as she knew it would. It was disgusting how well namedropping worked in high society. Thus given a name and relevance, he was her willing servant.
“But of course,” he said with a curt smile, lifting the cello off her back with a soft telekinetic glow and depositing it in the nearby cloakroom. “I shall see to it immediately.”
“Hi!” Pinkie chirped, slipping inside before the door had time to close. The usher gave the newcomer a quick glance, and his smile disappeared in an instant, replaced with practiced disdain.
“Ma’am, I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave. We do have a dress code.”
Tilting her head, Pinkie furrowed her brow. “But, I’m here with her,” she said, pointing at Octavia. “Oh, and I don’t actually have any bits with me, but I’m sure-”
“I don’t know her,” Octavia interjected with a shrug, trying to affect complete disinterest and boredom. She tapped a forehoof on the floor. “About that table?”
“But-” was all that Pinkie managed before she was ushered out. She stared forlornly at Octavia until the door closed right in front of her snout.
The stallion was back with her in less than a second, guiding her through the posh restaurant and depositing her at a small table by the window with a promise of quick service. Octavia nodded and shrugged, sitting down on the plush pillows. Finally alone, she deflated a bit, poking at the bread sticks with a hoof.
It wasn’t her first visit to the Eight Plates. She would come her once in a great while, but she was equally disappointed every time. The white-and-gold décor, the spacious, exclusive locales and the five-star food and service was excellent, of course. Just as exquisite as it had been on the day her family had taken her here to celebrate her acceptance into the quartet. Perhaps they were the missing element. Perhaps the place had just gone flat.
What would her mother say to her if she saw the way she treated this poor, touched mare, though? She’d probably clout her on the ear, and she’d be right to do so. When had she become this despicable, rude person? Had she just become a snob, just like all the other ponies in the elite? If so, why didn’t she actually mingle with them? Why didn’t they register as friends to her on any level?
Octavia leaned forward to grab one of the breadsticks and chomp it down in one fell go. It was terribly bad form, not to grasp it properly in her hooves. Delicate bites, my flank, she sourly mused, her gaze drifting out the window.
Pinkie Pie was staring back at her, seated outside the window with her face blank. Octavia toppled over on her side with a little shriek, nearly taking the table with her and causing quite a ruckus. That was the second time today the crazy mare had nearly given her a heart attack! Within seconds, a waitress was with her, and the surrounding tables’ ponies’ eyes were all trained on her.
“Madame? Are you quite all right?” the impeccably groomed mare asked as Octavia sat back up. When she got no reply, the waitress followed her eyes to the pink pony sat outside. “Ah. That’s... unfortunate. I will go ask her to leave,” she muttered, heading for the door.
Octavia watched her go. She raised a hoof in protest, wanted to speak up, but ultimately she didn’t. She sat mute, looking back at the quiet pony on the other side of the glass. Pinkie smiled brightly when she saw her watching, but it wasn’t long before the shadow of the waitress fell over her.
Whatever it was that the waitress said, she had Pinkie’s ears flat to her head in less than a second. The now-less-chipper pink pony smiled nervously and pointed at Octavia, but the only response she got was a shake of the waitress’ head and a hoof pointing down the street. Octavia couldn’t even bear to watch, pretending to busy herself with another breadstick. She imagined Pinkie casting her a final, forlorn glance, and let the guilt grow in her gut until she wanted to scream.
“What?” Octavia snapped, looking up to find the very same waitress returned and hovering over her. The older unicorn mare took a step back.
“I, ah, my sincerest apologies. Can I take your order?” she asked.
Octavia sighed and ran a hoof through her mane. “Right. Food, yes. Soup. Carrot soup. I’ll have the carrot soup, thanks. That, and whatever salad you think goes with it,” she muttered, shaking her head at her own behaviour. The waitress nodded and hurried away, no doubt grateful to get away from her.
Another breadstick, another thought. That was always how it went, was it not? Those who did not shy away, or those forced to associate with her, she turned away herself. She couldn’t help but wonder how the garden party her quartet was attending was going. They had been less insistent than usual that they join her tonight. Were they finally giving up?
Her dad would be proud of her efficiency. And then clout her on the head, too. She reached for another of the light grain treats, but found to her dismay that the basket was empty. A minor social faux pas. She snorted and crossed her forelegs, resting her head on the table until the salad arrived.
Apparently, overpriced black bean corn salad went with the carrot soup. The perfect accompaniment to equally overpriced carrot soup - and the perfect end to a day of sending off well-meaning ponies, too. Octavia rolled her eyes and leaned forward for another bite, pausing with her tongue extended when she realized she was no longer alone at her table. She was really too tired for another bout of surprise.
“How,” Octavia said, taking care to enunciate herself very clearly as she peered over the rim of the salad bowl, “did you get in?”
The perky pink pony sat opposite of her and was smiling as brightly as ever. Absurdly, this gave Octavia a small measure of relief. Her mind was still trying to figure out how this pony would even look when sad, and she had decided she didn’t want to know.
“Oh, well,” Pinkie giggled, leaning a little closer as she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “The pony at the door was being a total grump, and he wouldn’t let me in, so I had to cheat!”
Octavia puffed out her cheeks and drew back to create some distance. They’d be along shortly to throw her out again, probably. “Cheating,” she repeated, flatly. “Meaning you snuck in.”
“Oh, well, it’s not really a game so it wasn’t bad cheating, just fun cheating! I didn’t sneak in, of course, you silly pony,” she said, shaking her head violently, sending her mane bouncing. “That would make the grumpy doorpony sad when he hadn’t done his job properly!”
Octavia noticed two ponies approaching out of the corner of her eye, expecting her carrot soup and somepony to throw out her insane company. Instead, her waitress levitated over her carrot soup, while another waiter put down a tray of donuts for Pinkie. The waiter-stallion gave a derisive little sniff and looked faintly disgusted at the chocolate-covered common treats.
“No, I just asked Princess Celestia if she could tell them to let me in, of course!” Pinkie Pie chirped before going to work on her meal. Whatever effort the chefs had put into making the donuts look like they belonged in a high-class restaurant was ruined by the gluttonous pony’s attentions in a second, savaged in a cacophony of glomps and snarfs.
“Pr- the princess-” Octavia sputtered. “That’s-” she stammered, but even as she tried to find relevant words, she remembered a ceremony that Fréderic had convinced her to attend. A hazy memory of a party a few months hence, where boredom had driven her to dip a little deeper into the cider than she usually did. She remembered Princess Celestia standing on ceremony, and a half-dozen ponies who had saved Equestria from a very, very weird day of which she remembered even less. One of those ponies had been pink.
“You talked to Princess Celestia herself,” Octavia began anew. “Because you are one of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.” She spoke slowly, trying to absorb the words as truth even as she uttered them. It was hard to reconcile the image of one of the saviours of Equestria with the chocolate-covered mess across the table. Pinkie tilted her head and licked her lips.
“Oh wow, you are as smart as you look!” the pink pony said with a giggle. The utter lack of sarcasm in her voice was a little off-putting. “But yeah, that, and I’m a pastry chef, too! Oh, and I love parties. I mean, I guess everypony loves parties, but what I learned is that not everypony likes the same type of parties. It’s not as easy as you’d think! What kind of parties do you like? Maybe a party would make you less sad?”
Octavia could feel a headache coming on. She put a hoof to her forehead and traced little circles in her coat. “What’s my name?”
Pinkie grinned and held up a hoof, looking as if she was going to answer, but she held the pose for a good few seconds before frowning. “What is your name? Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie! I think I told you that already though.”
“You don’t know my name,” Octavia said, matter-of-factly, pushing the carrot soup towards the center of the table. It was impossible to think of food, now.
“Well, duh,” Pinkie said with an awkward giggle-snort. “Why would I ask you what your name was if I already knew it?”
“You have absolutely no idea who I am, yet you keep following- no, stalking me, and you keep insisting I’m sad for whatever reason. Why?”
“You gonna eat that?” Pinkie asked, motioning to the bowl of steaming carrot soup.
“Yes! No, I mean, you can’t have it.” Octavia groaned. “Just answer the question!”
“I guess it is kind of weird, huh?” Pinkie mused in a rare moment of silence. The blessed peace was gone in a heartbeat with a shrug. “Anyway, when was the last time you smiled?”
“That’s not an answer!” Octavia cried.
“Is too!” Pinkie countered.
“Is not,” Octavia growled.
“Yuh-huh,” Pinkie maintained.
“Is- no, we are not doing this. I am not a foal, you are insane, and I am leaving,” Octavia snapped.
“You haven’t answered my question either,” the pink thing commented, a little more quiet now. She was looking up at Octavia with those bright blue eyes, and all traces of mirth were gone. Her muzzle was covered in chocolate still and she looked absolutely silly, but her face was devoid of expression. It looked wrong. It was a face made to smile.
“My name is Octavia,” Octavia said, getting up on all fours and making for the exit. “Good day.”
“I meant the other question!” Pinkie complained.
“I know what you meant,” Octavia muttered, collecting her cello and heading for home. For once, the pink pony did not follow.
Octavia’s eyes cracked open, rewarding her with the sight of the very same bedroom she’d woken up to every night for the past year. Streams of sunlight snuck in through the gaps in the curtains, and dust hung lazily in the air. Time itself seemed frozen in the impeccably neat bedroom. The never-used alarm clock showed the same time it had for months. Ten past eleven. She’d never seen the need to fix it, considering she always woke up at six anyway. Not that she had any real need to get up early. Five days until the next concert.
She idly played with the idea of grabbing her cello and heading to the concert hall. She could insist, lie that she needed to practice, but it was hardly an inspiring thought. She toyed with the idea every single morning, always deciding against it.
Her stomach rumbled in protest of yesterday’s missed dinner. The dull ache was almost welcome; it got her out of bed. Very few things had that power any more. It was a relief to skip the part where she stared at the ceiling for an hour or two. She slipped out from under the covers and headed for the door.
Being arguably the worst cook in Equestria, she’d get precious little done in her kitchen, and bringing her cello would accomplish nothing. She didn’t even bother putting her cravat and bow-tie on as she headed out into the sunny morning.
It was another of the routes that she could walk in her sleep. From her apartment to the lower northern market for a cucumber roll. Tip the cheery salesmare whose name she didn’t know despite having frequented the stall for months. Take the narrow alley between the ink store and the outfitter’s to set her on a narrow and little known path.
Beauty Brass had shown her the place when they met, during those first weeks where Octavia felt she almost belonged. Pleasant as though the memory was, it stung a little. She’d walked the winding mountain path with Beauty after their first concert. It’s too easy to forget that Canterlot is built on a mountain if you never leave the central districts, she had said. I think that’s why nopony ever comes here.
Nopony indeed. Beauty herself didn’t come here anymore, either. Probably because Octavia, the eternal grump, frequented it now. It was a thought worthy of a sigh as Octavia dragged herself along the slope that opened up to a small, walled garden. It was such a picturesque scene, it surely belonged in the tales and not on mount Canterlot. The white steel arc that admitted her was covered in ivy, and a tall hedge shut out what little noise the altitude did not. The lush, green grass was dotted with colorful flowerbeds, small ponds, and a bench in the corner where Octavia spent hours on a daily basis, doing nothing.
Rounding a tall oak, Octavia found that the bench was occupied for the first time in months, seating a certain pink pony. Surprise was right out, as was exasperation. Her every muscle slowly tensed, and she couldn’t tell if it was anger or fear. No doubt, Pinkie brought with her the same damnable question. Why are you so sad? Pinkie opened her mouth to say something, as chipper and cheerful as ever.
She never got a chance to say anything. A year’s worth of frustrations came to a head in a single moment. Everything up and until the chaos of this last week culminated in a single word.
“No!” Octavia shouted, spittle flying from her mouth. The cucumber roll fell to the ground, and the pink pony’s smile was extinguished in an instant.
“But-” Pinkie tried, but Octavia held up a hoof, warding off any reply.
“No, you will cease following me, you will stop this- this stalking, and leave!” she growled, learning forwards until their snouts nearly touched, her face scrunched up in a grimace. “Leave me alone!”
“I just-” Pinkie squeaked, her ears flat against her head and her very mane drooping a bit.
“You just nothing,” Octavia spat. “I did not ask for you to come into my life and, I don’t know, care! Go!”
She could have stopped there. She’d said her piece, but she found no release in the words. There was no comfort to be had in having told this strange pony off, so she kept going even as Pinkie made to get up and off the bench.
“Do you even realize how crazy you are?” Octavia asked breathlessly. “Just because you are the chosen of the Princess, you believe you can wander into some stranger’s life, somepony you know nothing about, and just- what? Do you even know what you are doing? You are patently ludicrous, and I can’t imagine why anypony would willingly choose to associate with you!”
Octavia stood very still, and all was silent. She could feel, almost hear her chest moving with her breath. She was all spent, but still relief eluded her. A slow, creeping dread was growing in its stead as Pinkie slipped wordlessly from the bench, and that terrible feeling ignited when she heard a sniffle. Tears were leaking from Pinkie’s eyes as she walked past her, and for once, it looked as if the indefatigable creature wouldn’t protest or even turn around. I win, Octavia thought, giving herself a mental pat on the back. Octavia, you are a star.
She’d turned away hundreds of ponies. She’d insulted dozens, and probably made enemies of a few. Octavia was well aware that she was considered impeccably polite and terminally unapproachable, but making a grown mare cry was a new experience entirely. One she hoped to never repeat. She reached out with a foreleg to halt Pinkie.
Pinkie Pie simply hopped the extended foreleg and kept walking for the gap in the hedges, pausing only to wipe her eyes. Octavia bit her lower lip. Should she give chase? It was none of her business, anyway. Everything she had said was completely sensible. She would probably be justified in visiting the constabulary and telling them she was being stalked. At best, Pinkie was being rude. She should just let her go home and let everything return to normal.
Normal. Now there was a word. “Wait!” Octavia called. Pinkie halted at the edge of the garden, peering back at her over her shoulder. It seemed as if her poofy mane had lost some of its lustre, and the sparkle in her eye seemed dangerously dim. While it was no doubt just her mind playing tricks on her, it seemed oddly appropriate. “Wait, please,” Octavia repeated, a little more quietly.
Pinkie did not move, leaving Octavia to close the gap. She sat down on her rump a few strides away from the sullen pink pony. Pinkie didn’t sneer or even look apprehensive. She just looked thoroughly sad. Octavia knew well the words that were expected in these situations.
“I’m sorry,” she offered, waving a hoof. “That was entirely uncalled for. I don’t- I didn’t mean it. I don’t even know where the words came from.” She found she couldn’t quite look up at Pinkie any more. At least shame was a very real and ponylike feeling. Was it wrong to consider this a victory? Proof that she was alive?
The silence was short lived. “I just wanted to help,” the pouting pony muttered. “I still do, you just won’t let me. You’re just being mean.”
“I said I was-”
“Mean meaniepants,” Pinkie shot.
“Yes-” Octavia tried anew.
“Mean Meaniepants McMeanington the third.”
“Yes! I was being unreasonable and thoroughly uncouth! I get it,” Octavia cried, throwing up her hooves. “And I’m sorry! I wish I could take it back, but this doesn’t change the fact that you’re trying to ‘help’ without even knowing what the problem is! That is, if there even is a problem,” she hastily added.
“Sure I do, and sure there is,” Pinkie protested with a faint grin. “You’re not smiling.”
“That’s not a problem,” Octavia said, trying her very best to sound reasonable. If the pink pony was indeed a few cellos short of a symphony, then she would do this note by note. “That’s- that’s a personality trait. Just because most everypony smiles a lot doesn’t mean I should have to.”
Pinkie said nothing, simply tilting her head a little bit. Of course Octavia could have left it at that, but she didn’t. She felt compelled to go on. Pinkie’s big eyes and gentle smile was a wordless invitation.
“Of course I’d smile if I was happy, but that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy just because I’m not smiling-” Octavia said. The words were coming a little faster now, crowding her tongue. “In fact, I have every reason to be happy. I have a well-paid position in a successful quartet that plays for the créme of the societal elite here in Canterlot!”
Pinkie remained quiet.
“I have practically reached the peak of what any musically inclined pony could hope to aspire to! Short of being hoof-picked by one of the Princesses to play for them personally, I’m on top of the world. I-” Octavia sighed and deflated as she repeated herself. “I have every reason to be happy. I’ve achieved everything I should ever want.”
“You should be happy, but you’re not,” Pinkie said, taking a few steps towards her. The pink mare’s face mirrored well how Octavia felt, almost sedated in its sadness. She was suddenly a lot less threatening, now that she seemed to function on a tempo that Octavia could relate to.
“I should be,” Octavia agreed. It was as close to an admission as she could voice. The lie was so fragile, she was afraid what would happen if she broke it all at once. She had poked a hole in it, and that would have to suffice.
Pinkie Pie hugged her. Octavia went rigid and tried to back away at first, but she was enveloped in pink, fluffy warmth. It was impossible not to relax a little and lean into it. Her eyes closed, and she wrapped her forelegs around Pinkie’s neck. For once, propriety could take a hike to the moon.
Time paused then and there. How long they stood - and sat - like that, Octavia had no way to tell. When she finally drew back, Pinkie’s mane was as curly, poofy, and incorrigibly messy as ever. Pinkie Pie was smiling brightly, and the world itself seemed to follow suit. Despite herself, Octavia smiled.
It was a tiny thing, a fragile, small smile that existed simply because it was futile to fight the urge to share in the joy. It was pointless to do anything but surrender to hope when faced with the beacon of happiness that was Pinkie, and it felt every bit as warm as the hug they had shared.
“So what’s wrong?” Pinkie asked.
It was such a ridiculously simple question when Pinkie put it like that. She had no idea what had changed, but these were words Octavia could work with, even if it was unpleasant. She let her gaze drift over the trimmed hedges and into the clear blue sky.
“Music, of course,” she said.
“But you’re super good at music!” Pinkie pointed out. “Even Rarity said she loved the way you rubbed that weird little pointy thingy on your cello, and she doesn’t like everything like I do! I mean, she’s not really grumpy or anything, you know, like this-” Pinkie said, making a weird face that was apparently how she envisioned grumpy ponies looked. “She’s just, uh, oh the word she used! ‘Particular’, you know? And if Rarity likes something, it has to be good!”
Octavia snorted and shook her head. “Not like that. I play music, and that’s what I want to do, certainly.”
“Uh-huh?” Pinkie asked.
“But it’s not my music,” Octavia said, swallowing bile. “Great pieces. Classics. I love them. Or, I used to love them. I just wonder when I stopped playing music for the music’s sake.”
Pinkie Pie pursed her lips for a few seconds before her face lit up in apparent understanding. “So it’s like baking at Twilight’s place!”
Octavia stared, blinked, and went right back to staring. “Excuse me?”
“It’s like, I love Twilight, she’s the super-smartest most fantastic pony ever, and sometimes, when I’m over, like at the sleepover last week, I bake cupcakes or muffins or cakes or rolls in her kitchen!”
“That’s very nice,” Octavia admitted. “And also, incredibly irrelevant.”
“No!” Pinkie complained, grabbing a hold of her shoulders and learning towards her until their snouts met with a little bump. As uncomfortable as it was, being so close, the intensity of Pinkie’s gaze was twice again as unsettling.
“See, even if I do love her, her kitchen isn’t my own! Sometimes you have to bake cupcakes even if the flour is on the wrong shelf, and even if it’s a little silly that Twilight’s always hovering over you looking like she wants to cry because she doesn’t understand that sometimes you have to get really messy to bake something really tasty? Everything’s a little wrong anyways, and you don’t have to hate Twilight Sparkle even if you don’t like her kitchen, Octy!”
“‘Octy!?’” Octavia protested.
“You’re in the wrong kitchen!” Pinkie yelled, making Octavia cringe.
“I’m in the wrong kitchen,” Octavia repeated quietly, trying to bring the volume down to a manageable level. “I, ah. Fine. It’s a workable analogy, if a bit confusing.”
Pinkie seemed very satisfied with this, taking a little pause to bounce in small circles around Octavia, leaving the latter of the two very discomfited. What were you supposed to say in these situations? Picking the right fork for the third dessert was easy. Figuring out how to react to a sugar-crazed mare bouncing around was not in any books on etiquette. The problem resolved itself when Pinkie stopped, mid-bounce, no less.
“Wait, but why can’t you go back to your own kitchen then? Did you promise Twilight you’d stay for the sleepover for forever?” Pinkie was aghast. “Forever is a super long time!”
“No,” Octavia said, puffing out her cheeks. “No, there simply aren’t a lot of options here in Canterlot for a cellist. It was very hard to get where I am at the moment. It’s this, or trawling bars and such for spots on open nights,” she said, adding a dark chuckle. “At that point, I may as well go back home to Hoofsford and play at the inn.”
She had to swallow another little lump at that. For a second, she almost felt tempted, but it was gone in an instant. She shook her head resolutely. “I won’t return home a failure.”
“So you’re going to be a mopey-pony all your life instead?” Pinkie asked with a mighty frown.
“No, yes, maybe, and I don’t rightly know,” Octavia said, sighing. “Enough of this for a moment. I’ve told you my situation. I want something in return.”
“Oh, sure! What do you want? A train set? An abacus? A book? Another hug?” Pinkie asked.
“The truth. Why did you single me out thus? How did you know whatever it was that you knew? Why bother with me?” Octavia shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
Pinkie looked a little taken aback by the question. She sat down and thought about it for a full minute, peering at her hooves as if they held the answer, and at one point tasting her own tail. At length, she broke into a huge grin. “Oh, that? It’s what I do! Or, try to do, anyway.”
“Stalk strange ponies?” Octavia asked, idly wondering if she could outrun her if it came to that.
“No, silly!” Pinkie giggled. “You know, try to make ponies smile! You looked so sad when you were playing. All the other ponies were either watching or playing music and concentrating, but you were just staring, all sad and stuff, and then I told myself, ‘Pinkie, that pony needs a hug!’”
Octavia rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry, but that’s utterly ludicrous, improbable and practically impossible. You couldn’t-”
“And it worked! Yay!” Pinkie interrupted, beaming. “Oh, but hey, you should totally meet me outside the royal castle tonight!”
“Why? To what end?” Octavia said, furrowing her brow.
“I have no idea, but I’ll think of something and fix this!” Pinkie chirped, getting up and bouncing towards the garden’s exit path.
“‘Fix’?” Octavia repeated. “You can’t simply fix this, what are you-”
“Don’t be such a scaredypony! And bring your cello!” Pinkie shouted before hopping out of sight, leaving an annoyed Octavia to fume at the implication.
“Scaredypony? She’s the one behaving like a foal,” Octavia growled. “And I am not scared,” she added in a quiet mutter.
Octavia nearly didn’t go. It was entirely irrational, letting herself be goaded into meeting a near-stranger in such an odd location, but she couldn’t so easily forget the tears that had rolled down Pinkie’s cheeks. It felt like she had woken up from a long slumber. When had empathy become a thing one could forget?
She wore her best cravat and the prettiest bow-tie she could find. The pink one given to her by her mother had always been special, but she had not worn it for over half a year. It was for special circumstances, and whatever Pinkie had planned for tonight, it was obvious that “special” would fit into it somewhere. It was a private little joke from Octavia to herself, but it brought forth another rare and private smile. Cello hoisted on her back, she took the stairs down and stepped into the warm summer-night’s air.
Hardly a stranger to Canterlot night life, Octavia had no problems navigating the throngs that were out and about this evening. Myriads of ponies were heading home from work or heading out to cafés, donut shops or other popular hot-spots. Her instrument was almost a blessing in how it made ponies give her a wide berth, but even so, she was grateful when the crowd thinned as she approached the castle walls. Multi-colored lights lit up the majestic building, and with the day court over, there was little traffic near the white-walled grounds.
Quality trumped quantity, though. Living proof of this, Pinkie Pie stood out against the pristine white stone like a flat note in a C major scale. The riotously loud mare was bouncing on the spot when she saw Octavia approaching, heedless of Equestrian etiquette and public propriety. She earned more than a couple of glances from those few passers-by who weren’t stone-faced guardsponies.
“You came! You totally came! I knew you would, of course,” Pinkie said when Octavia drew near. “But I mean, that’s no excuse for not celebrating!”
“I’m sure,” Octavia replied, muttering under her breath. There was no way to disassociate herself from Pinkie if she was actually going to talk with her. It was hard to be inconspicuous when one stood next to the royal castle gates. She could swear the closest gate guard was watching them, though he might also just be looking at the large, walled stall somepony had raised next to where Pinkie Pie stood.
“So, are you ready?” Pinkie asked.
“For what?” Octavia asked, already beginning to regret coming here. Conversing with Pinkie Pie was a challenge. “You’ve done little except bully me into coming here, with no explanation of why. Why here? Where are we going?”
A tiny nugget of fear spawned somewhere inside Octavia’s head. Pinkie Pie knew the princesses. She was sure of this. Did she have a plan that involved them? Just what had she gotten herself info? A chill went down her spine.
“Oh, we’re not going anywhere. We’re gonna play right here!” Pinkie chirped. “Let’s play a song?”
That, or she’d underestimated exactly how crazy this mare was. Octavia sighed in relief and shook her head. “Ah. Yes, about that? No.”
“No?” The pink menace drew back, seeming confused and almost offended. “You can’t say no! That’s- that’s not how this works. I mean, I have a plan.”
Octavia lowered her voice a tad and leaned closer. They were still getting odd looks, as was natural considering Pinkie’s choice of meeting spot. “I have a reputation. Classical quartet members are not street performers. Even being seen playing at an open event would be a scandal.”
Pinkie Pie frowned and glanced past her. When she looked back at Octavia a moment later, she rubbed her hooves together and grinned hugely. “Oh, you’ll play.”
With a sigh, Octavia rolled her eyes at the obviously fake theatrics. “I most certainly will not-”
A hoof snaked around Octavia’s withers, under her cello, and hugged her tight. Octavia gave an involuntary squeak, held fast by Pinkie Pie who now stood up on her hind-legs. The violently crazy mare smirked and opened her mouth. She was starting to sing.
You crawl out of your bed wearing nothing but a frown,
Your bow-tie and your collar all in a bunch,
Every little thing you see just gets you down,
I see the problem here - this is not a Pinkie-hunch!
Octavia wriggled and tried to get loose, but Pinkie’s grip was steel. Besides, she feared she might drop her cello if she moved too much. “Stop it,” she hissed. “And it’s a cravat, not a ‘collar’!”
You stare out into the crowd thinking you are alone,
Sit on your little rump - you mope and you don’t play,
Watch the world go by but friendship is not gone,
When you first have said hello, that bond is there to stay!
They weren’t getting glances any more. They were getting open-mouthed stares. Octavia made another effort to free herself, but it was no use. She gave Pinkie a pleading look. “If I play, will you shut up?”
Pinkie smiled. “Maybe! No Pinkie-Pie promise, though.”
Octavia narrowed her eyes. Pinkie shrugged in response and opened her mouth, no doubt for a third verse. A panicked Octavia jammed a hoof in her mouth. “Fine!” she groaned. “I’ll play! Just stop.”
Released, she reached behind her for her instrument. With practiced ease, she slid the cello from her back and steadied it against the ground. In what was no doubt considered an awkward maneuver for most other ponies, she reared up on her hind-legs and supported herself on the cello, bow at the ready. Already, this week’s symphonies were flooding her mind. These were pieces meant to be played with a full quartet or orchestra, though. Surely she could play her part and make it sound good if she was a little creative?
Octavia froze. Once she had thought that thought, she couldn’t un-think it. She would have to go off-script. Improvise. Never mind the dozens of judging, skeptical eyes that were trained on them after Pinkie’s little number; this what was she had always wanted. To simply play. Part of her wondered if she still had what it took to simply lose herself in the music.
Yet playing without Harpo’s gentle notes? To put bow to strings without Beauty Brass? To swim in the sound without Fréderic’s piano? It wasn’t that she couldn’t play without them. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to. The realization was staggering.
“I can’t do it,” Octavia said, dropping her bow to her side and hanging her head. “I just- I can’t.” She looked over at Pinkie Pie, expecting to be punished with another snippet of song, but the other mare was simply smiling back at her, strangely serene as she edged closer.
“Sure you can, Octy,” Pinkie said, grabbing a hold of her hoof and guiding her bow back to her cello. “We know you can.”
Octavia closed her eyes and tried again. It had been so long since she’d gotten to actually play something she wanted to play. Since she’d been allowed to display a little creativity. She started with a single low and somber note.
Just like that, the crowd disappeared and melted into nothingness along with Canterlot as a whole. She had thought to start with the opening of Strings for the Moon, but the plans fell away, forgotten in an instant. Her discarded intent merged with all that was not the sound of her cello, sandwiched between her rationale and her sight, and was swept away.
She set out to play her grief, and the music obeyed. She poured into her beloved cello her sorrow, her fear of being lost and her worries of- what? Her own music spoke to her. Her fear of settling in place was a gruelling and deep string of notes. Her forelegs started to ache as she forced out every ounce of regret over ever leaving her home. Slow and deep as the night she played, remembering the day she traded one world for another.
It was just her and the old cello Alto Clef had given to her upon his retirement. Together, pony and instrument waited at the train station that would take her another step along her path. She was going to Canterlot to take a well-dressed pony up on his offer. This was what she was born to do. Her parents’ grief over their eldest leaving home was natural. The pull that told Octavia to go was not. That was what she thought she had felt, at least. Had she been wrong? Was this all a mistake?
I must be going mad, Octavia thought. She was snapped out of her memory to a different place in her mind, and she could swear she heard Harpo’s sweet plucks accompanying her. Back in the present, she was faced with a frightening realization; she already missed them. How could she miss ponies she had seen less than a day ago?
She remembered well when she had first met the other three members of the newly formed Quattrot Divino, and Harpo had been the first to greet her. He seemed as clever as he was bright and able, and his tune lifted her up now. The trickle of notes that her mind conjured up sounded just like his, and sped up her song.
After the rousing success of their first performance, Harpo had suggested that they all go out for dinner, starting the tradition of the after-concert meet-ups. She had attended for a while, enjoying their company, but something had happened. At some point, she’d found the word “no”. Every time, it became easier to turn their offer down, and eventually, she stopped even trying to make excuses. They had never stopped asking her to come, though. Never once did they forget.
She dragged the ghostly harp down. She tried to force the song deeper, pouring out her misery. Not even she could tell how it had all happened, but it all came back to her. To this day they tried, and she missed them. She missed what she’d never really had.
Before she could bury herself and bring the song to a standstill, another instrument bored its way into her mind. Beauty Brass’ sousaphone opened up, joining the harp that she already imagined. The spirited notes refused to let the song die.
Beauty Brass. She had shown Octavia around Canterlot. The city-born pony was genuinely friendly, and they had shared a few café dates before Octavia had started to turn her down more often than not. Beauty made her feel at ease, and she had even toyed with the idea of asking if she didn’t feel the same - if playing the very same songs over and over didn’t grate? Orderly, organized concerts and nothing but monotony?
Nothing had come of it. It just didn’t feel right to bother her with it, and the window of opportunity closed. Soon enough, she had her tea alone in her apartment. Beauty had stopped asking as often, but she would still suggest tea every Friday. Like clockwork. Saying no had become an easy habit, now.
Octavia upped the pace, clenching her eyes shut as she ravaged the strings with her bow. It was pointless anger that had melody only by pure chance, but the chaos did not reign for long. When the piano joined in, Octavia wasn’t surprised at anything except her mind’s ability to direct three unreal instruments at once.
It was Fréderic’s piano, of course, and it stole the momentum. Octavia was no longer in the lead, taking cues from an instrument that didn’t exist. The piano lent the song purpose. Exhausted, Octavia gave up and followed.
Fréderic had become the face of the quartet thanks to his calm and cool demeanour, but it hadn’t taken Octavia very long to see that the quiet exterior hid a playful pony. The only thing he never joked about was the name and the progress of the quartet, and he always presented the others in the best possible light. Even after Octavia had become a recluse, he had nothing but praise for her.
A recluse. A hermit.That was what she had become. Octavia chuckled inwardly. She wanted to label this piece Ode to the Eternal Recluse, but it didn’t fit what she heard in her mind. With her entire quartet playing, it was a promising, almost hauntingly beautiful piece.
Except she was starting to suspect the extra instruments weren’t just in her head. Octavia opened her eyes and segued into the last moments of Waltz for the Sun, and the other instruments followed suit, brought into line by the familiar ending. The song concluded, and Octavia faced a sea of ponies who stood mute in the light of the royal castle. At some point, Pinkie must have run off, leaving her alone.
“Isn’t that one of the members of the Quattrot Divino?” somepony asked aloud. A general mutter sprung forth from nowhere and grew to a buzz, but Octavia ignored them. The ‘important’ noble ponies could think what they wanted, and knowing them, they’d think nothing at all until told.
She turned to the anonymous, ramshackle stall not ten strides to her side. One of the ugly, unpainted plywood walls opened, showing that the hollow interior held a piano, a discarded sousaphone and a harp leaning against a wall. Fréderic, Beauty and Harpo stepped outside, the first wearing a sardonic grin, the others with cautious smiles.
Before they could say anything, the delicate sound of a dainty set of hooves pierced the susurrus. Looking up, Octavia saw a beautiful, important-looking white mare applauding them from the front of the crowd. At her sides stood Pinkie Pie and a posh unicorn stallion whose monocle alone was no doubt worth more than the opera house. At the mare’s hoof-clops, the crowd fell quiet more quickly and surely than had the royal sisters themselves pranced by naked.
“You know my dear, I quite agree,” the stallion said, a warm smile across his face. “That was, ah, I dare say quite excellent. Bravo. Superb initiative!”
When the stallion joined in the applause, there was a brief pause; half a moment of contemplative silence preceded a mad rush to join the two. The castle plaza erupted in a thunderous roar of hoof on cobblestone. Octavia sat back on her rump and shook her head mutely whilst staring at Pinkie Pie. The pink pony had somehow procured equally pink pom-poms that she waved about enthusiastically.
“I don’t understand,” Octavia muttered. The other members of the quartet came close and stood next to her, bowing for the crowd. She barely had the presence of mind to get up and join them for the customary second bow, but the question hung in the air until the applause faded. When it became apparent that there was no second number forthcoming, the assembled ponies reluctantly dispersed, excepting a large contingent that crowded the two white nobleponies and Pinkie Pie.
“Don’t understand what?” Fréderic finally asked, raising a brow.
“Please don’t play dumb,” Octavia sighed. “Why did you do this? How did you do this? And to the moon with that, actually,” she said, anger suddenly tinting her voice. “Why did you risk your reputation just for me?”
“Oh, it wasn’t much of a risk,” Harpo commented. “Or, well, you can’t be sure of anything, but Pinkie assured us she had something of a plan. Besides, it’s our reputation. You’re part of that.”
“You planned this with Pinkie?” Octavia spat. Of course, it was obvious now, but it was a lot to take in all at once.
“Who do you think told her where to find you in the garden?” Beauty Brass asked with a faint smile.
“And who got her tickets to yesterday’s second show on such short notice?” Fréderic queried. “Come now, you are smarter than this, Octavia.”
“If you know this- this creature,” Octavia groaned with a hoof-wave in Pinkie’s general direction. “Then I assume you also know that to trust her with anything like a plan is surely madness! ‘Not much of a risk’ my flank!”
“She’s the element of laughter,” Harpo chuckled. “Besides, my cousin Lyra knows her. When I met Pinkie Pie and her friend outside the opera that evening last week, she said she wanted to help. Of course, she’s slightly, ah, eccentric, but an unconventional approach was exactly what we needed.”
Beauty Brass put a hoof on Octavia’s withers and made a soothing noise. “And hey, even if it did go straight to the moon, you know what? We’d do it again.”
“In a heartbeat,” Fréderic agreed.
“Naturally,” Harpo chimed.
“Just because we play together?” Octavia asked, feeling hollowed out.
“Because we’re friends,” Beauty said, removing her hoof and putting on a fragile smile. “Or, trying to be, if you’ll just let us.”
“I’ve spat in your faces at every turn,” Octavia replied, swallowing.
“You’ve been frustrated, as much is clear,” Fréderic suggested. “But that doesn’t make you a bad pony. Even if you try your best to shut yourself in, to hide your frustrations, you’re still a part of the quartet.”
“What he’s saying is that we care. So give us a chance. What’s up?” Beauty asked, shrugging.
Octavia took a deep breath and rubbed her forehead. The part of her that wanted to shut up and go home was a very distant and weak cry compared to the warmth shared by the eager and smiling faces that surrounded her. “Very well. This, our performance? Absolutely amazing.”
“This hardly seems like a complaint,” Harpo commented, but he was promptly shut up by a hoof thrust in his general direction by Fréderic.
“No,” Octavia said, sighing and shaking her head. For the first time she realized how little she actually knew about these ponies she’d played with for so long. “Beauty. Where did you learn how to play? Where do you come from? Canterlot University?”
“Um, yes,” Beauty said. “I played there since I was born, really-”
“Fréderic?” Octavia asked.
“Manehatten Music Conservatorium,” he replied, promptly.
“Clopenhagen Centre for Music and Arts,” Harpo responded. “I assume this is a lead-up to a key difference or some such?”
“I was raised in Hoofsford. Lived there all my life before Canterlot”, Octavia chuckled, plucking at her cravat. “I learned how to play by myself.”
Fréderic raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite remarkable. I couldn’t ever have told, listening to you. Still, I wonder where you are going with this.”
Octavia nodded, getting up and stretching her legs. “I learned the classics because I had to, because they were what was being played here in concerts. I loved them, and I still do, but only playing the same old pieces over and over again?”
“I’m going crazy here. I need to play, but I feel like the world is conspiring against me. I need more than this. There’s more to music than Waltz for the Sun and all that!” Octavia said, waving a forehoof. “Have you never felt this? And don’t even start about playing in the practice room. Without an audience, it’s pointless!”
The others shifted and shuffled a little. Harpo was the first to break the silence.
“I do see your point, but while we may’ve gotten lucky here, this is tantamount to a publicity stunt. There aren’t a lot of venues for this. We could of course dissolve the quartet, give up the Quattrot Divino and make a band,” he suggested, frowning with distaste.
“Uh, not that I disagree,” Beauty said. “I mean, sure, I don’t dislike the idea of doing ‘more’, as you say, but the quartet is sort of a big thing.”
“The name is worth a lot, and I don’t mean solely with regards to bits,” Fréderic agreed, shaking his head. “But if it’s truly that big a deal to you, we should at least research opportunities. Perhaps-”
“Ah, if I may interrupt, yes?” a voice called. Turning around, Octavia and the others could see the two white ponies from before approaching, headed by Pinkie Pie.
“Sir Fancypants! Madam Fleur!” Fréderic breathed, sketching a low bow. The stallion waved a hoof before the others could follow suit.
“Ah, no, come now, none of that. I would just like to congratulate you on an excellent performance. I quite enjoyed that! I’m very glad Pinkie Pie here alerted me to it, quite glad, quite glad,” he said, glancing over at the beaming pink pony. “I swear, outdoors concerts? These Ponyvillians are quite ingenuous.”
Octavia stared. She’d heard of Fancypants, arguably the most important pony in the créme of the elite. Pinkie Pie knew him, too? How well connected was this crazy pony? When she met Pinkie’s eyes, she merely tilted her head and giggled. Octavia would almost have preferred a conspiratorial wink to the bubbly happiness.
“Thank you,” Beauty said, taking the verbal reins while Fréderic tried to steady himself. “If you two hadn’t come to our rescue in the wake of the stunt, I think we may have had to wait a long time for our next contract.”
“Us? Rescue? Oh no, we simply showed our appreciation for a lovely piece of music,” Fancypants said. Unlike Pinkie, he had the courtesy to wink. “That said, I must ask, I’ve never heard this particular piece before. What is its name?”
The quartet’s members all looked to Octavia, who bit her lower lip. “Uh, I’m afraid I don’t know,” she admitted.
“You don’t know it’s name?” Fancypants asked with a little chuckle and a glance at Fleur at his side, who tittered. “I dare say it must be quite a feat to remember the notes and forget the name, ha!”
“No, it doesn’t have a name because we created it on the spot,” Octavia explained sheepishly.
Pinkie giggled. “I told you they were super good! Sometimes, the best parties are surprise parties, and I bet that goes for music, too!”
“You don’t say, you don’t say,” Fancypants hummed. “You know, as I recall, you did play at a garden party hosted by some of my acquaintances last year, no?”
Octavia nodded quickly. She remembered it well. She remembered every single event that was not one of the weekly concerts.
“Well now, here’s a thought, and do hear me out”, Fancypants said, smiling brightly. “I host quite a few parties myself, and I’ve been thinking about expanding the entertainment with some more varied, ah, ambiance. What say you to perhaps attending some of my events and playing some of these, hm, surprise tunes?”
Octavia glanced nervously over at her fellow quartet members. Her friends. They all looked back at her, and nods were exchanged. The joy that had been building in her reached a crescendo that sent her heart soaring.
“I think we would like that very much,” Octavia replied. It was useless to hold back; she smiled, and it felt good. A full smile from ear to ear that was mirrored on the faces of all those who were present. Pinkie Pie especially was beaming brightly, hopping over to hug Octavia around the neck.
“Jolly good!” Fancypants exclaimed, offering a quirky grin at the display of affection as he turned to leave. “I shall have one of my associates contact you in the morning. Thank you again for the delightful performance.”
“Ah, one more thing,” Octavia called over Pinkie’s shoulder before Fancypants had gone too far. The unicorn stallion raised a brow as she spoke. “I am afraid I have served you a little lie, Fancypants.”
All eyes turned on her once again, Fréderic visibly nervous. Octavia let him sweat for a little while longer, grinning. “The song does have a name. It’s called ‘Ode to Friendship’.”
“I hope you come back soon,” Pinkie Pie said as she happily hopped alongside Octavia. They were running a little late on account of missing the alarm clock. The cider had flowed a little too freely last night.
“Oh, and Applejack’s having a hoedown next month,” she added, a little too loud. Octavia clutched her head with a hoof and winced. “Think you can get the others to come along then? We’ll have tons of cider and snacks, and more music would be nice!”
“With a little more advance warning, I’m sure at least Harpo and Beauty will make it then,” Octavia said, pursing her lips as she thought. “Fréderic, I’m not sure about. I’ll ask. At any rate, the jam was a lot of fun, so thank you for the invitation.”
“Hey, you’re welcome here any time!” Pinkie chirped. “Next time, perhaps you’ll even beat Scratch!” Her enthusiastic smile gave way to a consternated frown. “I was sure I’d get the trophy this time with my accordion rap routine, shoot.”
Octavia felt her face heat up a little. She waved a hoof dismissively. “It was hardly a formalized competition, just a little thing tacked on at the end of the jam. Besides, I couldn’t care less if some non-musician turntable filly with a ton of fancy effects got more votes than I.”
Truthfully, she was happy to have a challenge, even if it had come at the cost of a small stab to her ego. The world of music was a lot larger than the Canterlot performances, that much was obvious - and some of that world had access to an entirely disproportionate amount of sugar and cider.
When the silence stretched on, Octavia hazarded a glance over at Pinkie Pie. The exuberant pony was grinning widely, as if she knew something Octavia did not.
“What?” Octavia demanded.
“Nothing! I’m just glad you had fun,” Pinkie giggled. She looked up as they approached the platform where the colorful train was getting ready to leave. Ponies were already filing in, and the sun was slowly setting in the horizon. “Hey, maybe next time you visit, you can write a friendship report?”
“A what?” Octavia asked, but her question was drowned out by a hiss of steam from the train. A faint cry of all aboard was raised in the distance.
“You should better get moving! Come back again soon!” Pinkie said, prodding Octavia’s flank so hard she nearly lost her balance and her cello both.
“Hey! Careful,” Octavia protested before breaking into a trot. “I’ll be in touch!”
“Okie-dokie! Send me a letter! I love letters! Ooh, but not love letters. I mean, you’re neat and all, but-” Pinkie said, her mouth still working even as her voice was cut off by the closing of the train’s doors. Octavia chuckled and shook her head at the silly pony she was proud to call a friend. Cello safely deposited, she slumped onto a free seat and closed her eyes.
It was a short ride to the capital, but for once, she found that she was eager to get back now that she knew what awaited her in Canterlot. How long was it until her- their next concert again? Four days, she thought, this time with a smile.
I have no idea whether or not anypony reads these notes, but hey and hi - and thanks for reading! This one was a lot of fun to write, and while I didn’t exactly plan it, I loved the idea of getting to show that Pinkie can be awesome without being serious. She can be herself whilst being the coolest heroine ever; she’s not a pony that should be perpetually relegated to comic relief and 4th-wall zaniness.
Also, getting to describe the wackiest of the mane 6 from the perspective of a more normal/mopey pony’s perspective was a real treat. Bonus!
That out of the way, I would like to thank a whole bunch of people/ponies. Kits, Cormacolindor, Mister Morden, Ocean Breeze and CouchCrusader have all helped make this fic the best it can be, and I owe them my all. I can’t count the amount of evenings I’ve spent whining to Kits about this fic, yet here we are, done and stuff. Drop me a mail if you’ve got a comment - I always reply!
Oh, and also, a huge thanks to Volmise for the super-nice cover art! This gal is ridiculously nice and wonderful to work with, and you should go look at her shiny-awesome artstuffs.
Onwards! To the next fic!