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

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

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

And fall . . .

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

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

Well, all but one.

In the empty front-row seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For an earth pony, at any rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Hey, Tavi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want me to stick it somewhere else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hah!” came a laugh from the floor.

“Quiet, you!” Viola huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? I am!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Aww, don’t be like that, Vee.”

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

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

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

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

“Sure it’s not,” Silver snickered.

“Big misunderstandin’,” Fiddlesticks agreed.

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

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

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

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

Only!” Octavia amended with a sharp glare.

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

“I am not turning red!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . Oh.

Oh dear . . .

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

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

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

Lyra cocked her head. “You didn’t?”

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

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

And, of course, therein laid the problem.

“. . .Bon Bon?”

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eye contact? Forget it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Octavia sighed and gave her a fixed look.

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