by Pascoite

Chapter 1: Canon

Octavia undid the latch on the window and flung it open to get a bit of breeze going. Her second-story practice room got warm at any time of year, but the still mid-summer air was stifling. She’d broken a sweat already, and she hadn’t even begun playing.

From its spot in the corner, she carried her cello closer to the window, where she might catch some of the draft. It shouldn’t be a problem—the neighbor on one side always left for work at first light, and the foal on the other side didn’t take a nap until after lunch, so his mother wouldn’t mind. Maybe Octavia would even play some Horseshoepin, or “horse-shoppin’,” as the old mare from up the road pronounced it whenever she shouted up a request. She’d been doing that for how long? Since Octavia was a filly, anyway. Like any beginner, it’d been tough to let others hear all the inevitable mistakes, but now... she wouldn’t call it ego—just a quiet confidence that came with being a professional.

Octavia had to smile, but... it was the same thing yesterday, and it’d be the same thing tomorrow. She grabbed one of the stacks of sheet music off the table and set it on her stand, then put a fresh swipe of rosin on her bow. Time to warm up.

That was certainly a word she didn’t want to think about right now. Not warm. Time to... get into the flow of things.

Octavia quickly ran through all of the major and minor scales, then a few modes, even indulging in a couple of blues scales as a smile crept onto her face. She hoped her childhood teacher from a few doors down hadn’t heard that...

She craned her neck to see if old Pitch Pipe might be scowling up from the sidewalk as her hooves mechanically played through some scales by thirds—just another automated routine. Out of the corner of her eye, a bit of motion caught her attention: a gray pegasus mare had settled onto a bench across the street.

Wasn’t that one of the mailmares? She had a route to one of the smaller towns nearby, if Octavia remembered correctly. No telling where.

Anyway, she was sitting there bobbing her head like a fool. To a scale exercise.

Octavia stopped abruptly, and the mare kept patting a hoof against her knee for a few seconds before the smile faded from her face and she slumped lower in her seat. Seriously? A little giggle popped up from Octavia’s throat. How long would she wait there? Her mouth curling into a grin, Octavia watched the mare stick around for a minute, then shrug and get up from her bench.

No, don’t leave! Octavia hastily bowed a single note, and the mailmare plopped right back down and smiled. One sigh later, Octavia’s attention came back to the instrument in her hooves. Plenty of ponies would walk by and hum along or smile for a few seconds, but their business always carried them on somewhere else. Somepony... wanted to stay.

Octavia shuffled through her pile of music and found a light waltz, then flipped to the second page to get past the introduction. She played, slowly at first, but gaining a bit of tempo once the melody had repeated. A simple dance form, but popular. It shouldn’t be hard to follow. As much as she wanted to watch the mare across the road, Octavia couldn’t fight the urge to close her eyes anymore. This was one of her oldest pieces; she could play it in her sleep—and probably had. Visions of stallions in fine suits and mares in flowing dresses danced in her head, all stepping, bobbing, twirling over parquet floors beneath brassy, crystal-flecked chandeliers.

When Octavia opened her eyes again, the mailmare had her wings unfolded and was swishing them this way and that, in time with each downbeat. Twisting and swaying, wearing an immense grin, and attracting looks from more than a few bystanders. She reached her wingtips toward the sky as Octavia bowed the final note, then inclined her head toward some imaginary dance partner. What a sweet gesture! But did she even see the other ponies watching her? She must not even care.

Octavia hadn’t noticed the darkening skies. She’d picked out a fun little shepherd’s dance to play next, but a crack of thunder almost made her drop her bow. She rushed to the window to shut it just as the downpour began, and the mare outside bolted for shelter.

Shame. That had been kind of fun. An audience was an audience, after all.

With raindrops drumming on the roof, Octavia continued her practice. But every few minutes, she caught herself peeking out the window to see if a glint of sunshine had returned and if the bench was still empty. No luck.

Back to work, then.

Tossing back her last slug of coffee, Octavia opened her window again and leaned out to draw a deep breath—the air still had that musty scent to it from the overnight storm. Water continued to drip from the tiled roof, and she could hear it trickling through the downspouts. Each little breeze brought a fresh miniature shower of diamond droplets from the trees, glinting in the morning sun.

She headed back toward her music cabinet, but glanced over her shoulder at the street once more. The bench on the far sidewalk sat there, unoccupied. Maybe if she stared at it long enough... Ah, she had a job to do, even if the attention had been nice.

Tendrils of steam were already curling up from the roadway—it’d be best if she got her practicing done before it grew too hot. Octavia took up her bow and cello and started her normal warm-up—no, preparation exercises.

As she did every day, she meandered through her major scales—all twelve of them—then the minors, a chromatic, and a whole-tone. And a few blues scales. She glanced down at the sidewalk again, but no Pitch Pipe and his “that’s not real music!” glare.

Orchestra rehearsal was that night. Octavia opened her folder from work and pulled out a couple of the more difficult pieces. She might as well take care of those first.

After a good hour, Octavia was satisfied that she was familiar enough with them, especially since the earliest performance date was still two months off.

And her eyes strayed back to that bench again. Octavia was sure she knew that mailmare from somewhere. But when was it? This year? Last? She rubbed her eyes and sighed.

Of course! The dress she’d ordered last autumn from Rarity in Something-Or-Other-Ville! That mailmare had delivered it. She remembered seeing the name when she’d signed for the package. What was her name again? D-something. Der—Derpy? Yeah, that sounded right.

Octavia shook her head and flipped through her pages until she found a spirited rigaudon that was a personal favorite. She rocked back and forth while playing, practically dancing with her instrument as a wide smile stretched across her face. When the closing note sounded, Octavia looked outside again, and her heart leapt.

Derpy was coming to a landing on the bench, with a paper bag dangling from her mouth. She settled into her seat and pulled a muffin out of the sack. Taking her first bite, she closed her eyes, slumped her shoulders, and whispered something to herself.

Bouncing on her hooves, Octavia beamed and leafed through her sheaf of papers until she found a nice sonata—something with a lovely melody, but not too complex. From the first stroke of her bow, Octavia found herself grinning just as broadly as Derpy. The mailmare chewed her muffin in tempo and tapped a hoof with the beat. It sounded a bit empty to Octavia without a piano accompaniment, but no matter—it wasn’t like Derpy would know the difference.

How long had she even been coming here? Octavia hadn’t noticed her before yesterday, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t there. Even with the window shut, ponies could probably hear her outside if they listened hard enough.

Octavia reached the end of her piece and watched Derpy ball up her paper bag and throw it in the trash can. Derpy took a deep breath, bowed her head down, and closed her eyes, just waiting.

Octavia rubbed her chin. What to play next? Everything so far had been pretty mainstream—nothing objectionable, but not particularly exciting, either. Something modern, maybe. Derpy might even like it.

It began with a single drawn-out note, and Derpy perked her ears to the renewed sounds of music. Soon, Octavia was bowing two strings at once, double-stopping dissonant intervals. Odd progressions in no discernable pattern, bending strings to force off-key intonations, absolutely no sense of rhythm... She glanced outside again, and Derpy was scratching her head and had one eye halfway closed. She was even wobbling around a little, like she’d lost her balance.

Yeah. It sounded kind of like a colicky muskrat to Octavia, too. Maybe traditional styles bored some ponies, but there was an elegance to them, an intrinsic beauty. In fact, the older, the better—she preferred ancient polyphonic to almost anyth—

Octavia caught herself before her mind wandered too far. She did have an audience to entertain. An old madrigal might be nice.

She’d just located her dog-eared copy when Derpy looked up at the clock tower that loomed over the neighborhood. Derpy gasped and launched skyward.

Octavia’s face fell, and her shoulders slumped. After staring at that empty bench for a few minutes, she put her bow on the table. She pursed her lips and flopped into a chair. No—her sinking feeling didn’t make any sense. But still...

She imagined Derpy’s smiling face, saw it in her thoughts. Eyes squeezed shut, ears pricked. Head bobbing along, and that goofy smile on her face. Smiling like—like a—

That was it! Like a child!

How many times had somepony approached Octavia after a performance and spouted a bunch of jargon at her as if that were the measure of enjoyment? She knew what technique she’d used. She didn’t need a random stranger telling her that yes, in fact, she’d made a valid interpretation of the piece. She didn’t need somepony praising her for what, truth be told, the composer or the conductor had done. She didn’t need somepony shaking her hoof at the post-concert reception, intending only to impress the others in line with how cultured and educated he was.

What she wanted was somepony who would simply say she liked what she heard. That Octavia had made a difference, brought a bit of pleasure into somepony’s life. In the end, wasn’t that music’s purpose? To connect with somepony, make her feel what the artist feels? Sure, appreciation in all its forms brought satisfaction, but the simplest ones were its purest, most honest expression.

Derpy’s face, body, demeanor radiated undiluted joy: the smile that said she’d chosen this place over any other at the moment, the unabashed... dancing, for lack of a better word, that said she’d enjoy the music on her own terms.

Like a child.

Octavia propped her cello in the corner and sighed. She closed the window and went downstairs to get some lunch.

A good night’s sleep had made Octavia feel much better. Maybe Derpy would show up today and maybe not. But Octavia never tensed up, never felt the barrier she normally had to push through to draw that first note from her instrument. Instead, she leaned forward toward her music stand and smiled, ears twitching to catch the rich, resonant tone that would soon hang in the air. No taking it easy today. She’d play hard, and if Derpy—

She’d be here. Derpy could expect a good show today.

Octavia’s right hoof pulled her bow smoothly across the cello’s strings while the left worked a mellow vibrato from them. A nice, slow movement that invited thought and danced on the air in some sun-dappled meadow she must have seen once as a filly. The melody strolled through the grass, reached for the sky, and answered the birdcalls in the treetops, finally bending down to contemplate itself in the stream. The sustained ending note tapered perfectly into silence, but Octavia left no room for a pause after the reverie, launching immediately into the caprice. As the bow flashed back and forth ever faster, the hoof on the cello’s neck applied delicate pressure, angling perfectly so that Octavia could double stop in harmony.

Let those arrogant unicorns try that without magic.

Her piece reaching its fervent climax, she executed a broad glissando and struck the bow hard behind her instrument’s bridge, piercing the air with an impossibly high, clear tone. Taking a minute to let her panting abate, she slid her bow over a block of rosin and wiped the sweat from her brow. She’d looked over to give the D-string’s peg a slight turn when her eye caught a bit of movement. Out the open window, Derpy had settled onto her usual bench and wore her usual goofy smile. She’d shown up! Well... of course she had. But Octavia still found that goofy smile mirrored on her own face.

It must be a nice little distraction from her life. Octavia chuckled to herself. Derpy didn’t understand. And yet she got it.

Octavia picked through her stack and selected an elegy. From the first stroke, a sonorous melody of longing sorrow poured from the second-story room. Love won and lost, a brilliant life shining, dimming, gone, a proclamation to those left behind—they all sang out, borne on the faint summer wind.

This piece was by no means new to her. Octavia could play it without a second thought. She peered out the window. What would Derpy think?

Derpy closed her eyes and knit her brow, rocking with the slow tempo. A wing unfurled and drooped, then the other, and she took an unsteady breath. And when the music had ended, she sniffled and folded her wings back before the feathered tips could drag through the dust. Within moments, the ubiquitous smile had returned.

Octavia reached toward her table again, but hesitated a moment. Derpy didn’t just listen—she felt, experienced... immersed herself. Octavia couldn’t leave her sad—something to cheer her up.

Next, Octavia moved into a polka, weaving a playful tune initially, then switching to a light pizzicato, plucking her strings with the edge of a hoof. She soon found herself bouncing along with the music and sharing her audience’s infectious grin.

Derpy’s head bobbed as she stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth. Her forelock flapped a bit behind the beat and continued for a few measures after the piece had ended. Giggling, Derpy sat up straighter and let her right eye wander up toward the sky.

Sad, happy... How about intense? Derpy wouldn’t soon forget what Octavia had in store. She started into a passacaglia, a long-time favorite from one of the first concerts she’d ever attended. Derpy would get a kick out of it! Just wait!

In her hurry, Octavia almost dropped her bundle of pages, but she spread them across her music stand and let out an inadvertent laugh. Derpy’d love it!

The opening strains established a simple melody, but Octavia soon became embroiled in increasingly complex ornamentations. A rather demanding composition—she didn’t know it from memory well enough. She’d have to read the sheet music on this one. Her eyes flicked from one line to the next, then over to the other side, top to bottom, the tip of her bow whipping across to turn the page during a brief rest. No time to soak up images—this one exuded power and speed. Linger a fraction of a second on the high note, watch that key change, bow this part toward the hoofboard.

She’d played through a dozen interpretations on the theme when she chanced a look outside and saw an empty bench.


A tingle running through her chest, Octavia let her hooves drop limply to her sides in the silence. She forced a grim smile and dropped her gaze to the floor.

Must not have been to her taste...

Octavia propped her cello, leaned onto the windowsill, and looked both ways down the street. A few ponies scurried to wherever they needed to be that morning, but she couldn’t find Derpy among them. She wasn’t in the sky, either—just a couple of the weather service regulars. No sign of Derpy anywhere.

Why didn’t she like that? No, no, that wasn’t the point. Octavia couldn’t predict Derpy’s reaction to every piece, of course, but... to get up and leave?

Octavia heard a knock from downstairs. She trudged out to the hallway and down to the foyer. Answering the front door, she was met with Derpy’s beaming face. Octavia had time to smile halfway before—

“I hope I’m not intruding, but that was wonderful! I heard Wynton Maresalis play that last year with the Canterlot Brass Ensemble. It’s a Sam-Mule Scheidt composition, right?” Derpy gushed, running a hoof through her mane.

“Yes...” What?

“Do you mind if I come in?” Derpy asked, stepping through the doorway once Octavia had nodded. “It’s interesting hearing it transcribed for cello. The string sound just brings something different to it.”

“How... how long have you been listening?”

Derpy shrugged. “A few months, maybe.”

Months!? “I... didn’t notice you there until a couple days ago,” Octavia said. A shame, that. She’d had... fun. For the first time in a while, she’d really had fun. And it could have been going on for months.

“I can’t play anything myself—believe it or not, I’m a bit uncoordinated,” Derpy said, her left eye heading down toward the front stoop. Even one day before, Octavia might have had to stifle a giggle. But today she smiled warmly. “My name’s Derpy, by the way. I’ve always loved music, and my parents took me to concerts a lot when I was little. You really do pick up a lot by being around it all the time.”

“My name’s Octavia,” she said, extending a hoof.

“Oh, I know who you are!” Derpy exclaimed, grabbing the proffered hoof with both of her own and giving it a thorough jostle before releasing it.

Octavia looked away and rubbed one forehoof over the other. “So... what did you think?” Where was that quiet confidence now?

“I loved it!” Derpy said, nodding vigorously.


“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Derpy answered, flicking a hoof. “No but.”

“What then?” Ponies get used to hearing things a certain way on the radio. Derpy probably just wanted it to sound more standard, without the little flourishes Octavia liked to add. She cocked her head and nodded. “You can tell me.”

“The little bits you include to personalize it”—surprise, surprise—“are great!” Octavia caught herself nodding even harder before the words registered. And then came the avalanche, Derpy rocking on her hooftips all the while. “You know the part where it modulates into a minuet? If you slow it down a bit, it’ll sound more stately. And on the opening pavane—you’re already over on the G at the beginning of each phrase. I know it’s not written that way, but if you double stop with the C-string, it’d really make that note sing! Stuff like that—you should do even more of those touches that you already use. Make the music your own, y’know? That’s why I keep coming here. I’d just listen to the radio if I wanted same old, same old.”

Like a child, huh?

Octavia stood open-mouthed for a moment before grinning and gesturing toward the couch. She couldn’t help but chuckle. An exuberance to her passion that was still... well, childlike. Octavia stopped by the kitchen to put on some tea before joining her guest in the den.

Sonatas, etudes, rhapsodies... she’d played them each for Derpy. But through it all, Octavia had really been playing a canon: a theme carried by one voice, then passed along to the next. Time for Derpy’s voice to take up the theme. Octavia sat on the couch and bowed the first few notes of her accompaniment: “Go on...”

This was going to be interesting.

Author's Notes:

This was a fun little thing for two ponies that you rarely see interact, and an attempt to handle jargon in an effective way. Here's the guest column I wrote for Chris's blog about how to manage the task, for those writers out there that might find it interesting.

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