"Maestro Allegretto, it is an honour."
It was high afternoon when Allegretto stepped down from his carriage in the fine dress befitting a pony of his stature. A velvet navy jacket covered a white silk shirt and burgundy cravat. His greying black mane was slicked back with oils and his coat perfumed with the most expensive cologne in Canterlot. His hooves clopped lightly off of the cobblestones below as he looked to his welcoming party.
Concerto, the friendly faced pony who had lauded him, stood beside four other stallions and two mares. Aside from Concerto he recognised the academy professor Nocturne with her ash grey coat and silver mane, and the old Gala soloist Harpsichord whose bland white mane and coat had grown somewhat yellowed over the years since Allegretto had last seen him.
"Good afternoon, sirs," he acknowledged, "I would spend more time on pleasantries but I am quite anxious to meet with my daughter. Have you notion of when we might leave for the academy?"
Concerto spoke up, "There is a train leaving come tomorrow morning. It was supposed to leave this afternoon but I'm afraid there have been troubles along the route."
"Indeed," Allegretto grunted. He had hoped to see Octavia before the day's end. He was eager to see how much she had progressed at the academy, although more importantly whether the academy was still up to the standards of the Allegretto name. The school had become noticeably more lax since the time when he had attended himself. Octavia's first audition had shown him that much and, while the academy was still the most respected in Equestria, he had begun to wonder whether or not it would have been better for him to have simply homeschooled Octavia himself.
"I have promised the academy that I would provide a lecture tomorrow afternoon," he informed Concerto, "I cannot arrive any later than that."
Concerto's warm smile wavered a tad. "Forgive me Maestro, the academy had not informed me though they rightfully should have. I shall ensure that the train reaches its destination ahead of time if possible. I am sure they will make an exception for somepony as esteemed as yourself."
Allegretto nodded. "Then we'd best make way to our hotel. No use trading pleasantries in the cold like this."
Everypony sounded their agreement and Concerto began to lead the way. As the others followed Harpsichord fell in beside Allegretto.
"Well, you certainly haven't lost any of that haughty air" he joked.
"I am eager to see my daughter," replied Allegretto, "It's been several months since I have seen her."
"Why, Maestro, be careful. I almost felt an emotion there."
Despite himself Allegretto could not help but smile. "It's been quite some time, friend. How have you been keeping yourself?"
"Oh, well enough," Harpsichord said with a mischievous look, "As well as anyone who has played the Gala can. Mind you, I don't think the other musicians approve of my antics. I'm far too wild and handsome for their tastes. They'd much prefer me old and boring. I suppose that's why they hold you in such high regard."
Allegretto was about to respond when he noticed Nocturne turning towards him. "Maestro Allegretto, I had been hoping to speak with you."
Allegretto nodded. "Do speak."
"Your daughter's progress at the academy has been nothing short of prodigious. In fact we reckon she has already surpassed musicians four years her senior in terms of skill. I was meant to speak to you about the possibility of moving her forward a year."
Allegretto chuckled. Only a few months in and already his daughter had proven herself to be one of the best. Not that it was any surprise of course.
"I shall talk with Professor Sonata when we arrive," he promised, "How has she been fitting in with her fellow students?"
Nocturne smiled weakly. "Yes... Well, she has made a friend."
"Friend? Singular? One friend?"
"A good friend though."
Allegretto sighed. "Well, it is for the better. Friends only distract from real study and progress. I don't doubt the others are merely intimidated by her talent and stature."
Nocturne did not respond.
"This friend of hers," started Allegretto after a few seconds of silence, "Are they close?"
"Oh, simply inseparable," said Nocturne with a reassuring smile.
Octavia gritted her teeth together and focused on the sheet music that lay on the desk in front of her. Mr. Jazz had given them the assignment of trying to fill in the gaps of some unfinished music with pieces of their own. If she was to be completely honest, Octavia would have preferred to have rewritten the entire thing from scratch. The music as it was read droll and uninspiring and it was awkward to fit her preferred style into it without overpowering the entire work. It was harder work to dumb down art than make it, she figured.
And of course, Vinyl wasn't making things any easier. Her constant fidgeting and noisemaking only served to distract Octavia from her already tedious work. Octavia had forced herself to put up with her, had even begun to like her, but the blue-maned filly seemed to exist only to prey on her peeves.
From across the room, Vinyl lay on her back sprawled across her bed. The sheets of music Mr. Jazz had assigned her lay forgotten on the floor and her hoof thumped repeatedly against the bedroom wall as she kicked it back and forth while staring emptily at the ceiling. Lazily, she turned to look at Octavia with that ever-innocent what did I do? look on her face. Octavia didn't know what was more irritating, Vinyl's antics or her sheer obliviousness to them.
"Could you stop that please," managed Octavia, straining a smile, "I'm trying to work on our assignment."
She stressed our in the hopes of jogging the girl's memory of the forgotten homework that lay strewn beneath the bed. As expected, the hint flew completely over Vinyl's head.
"Stop what?" she asked.
"That banging," replied Octavia, "You keep hitting the wall with your hoof. It's really quite distracting."
Vinyl looked at her hoof resting against the wall as if noticing it for the first time. She smiled guiltily and looked back to Octavia.
"Oh. Sorry, Tavi."
Octavia cringed. That nickname. Vinyl had taken to calling her by it after they had taken to hanging around each other more. In usual Vinyl Scratch fashion, Octavia's protests fell on deaf ears and the name had stuck. As sweet as the girl was, Octavia was convinced she just enjoyed annoying her half the time.
She turned back to her sheet music and tried to focus. Next to them sat a small mountain of crumpled paper and failed attempts. She scoffed as she read over a particularly horrible segment from the first sheet and tried to figure a way to lead it into something a little more subtle. Mr. Jazz couldn't possibly believe this was up to her standards. He normally had such good taste in music too. Not to mention that he was a snappy dresser. He must have simply been testing her versatility when he assigned the work to her. Why else would he? She imagined the end of class that would come the following day. He would hold her back after class to praise her and discuss which parts he had particularly enjoyed. He always praised her on her work, but not like the others. Instead of simply fawning over her he was a lot more critical which was something she had respect for. His observations were a far cry from Father's scathing analyses but that was nice for a change. Decent advice that did not make her feel so bad at the same time. Needless to say, Vinyl detested him. Octavia did feel that he had a tendency to go a little hard on her in particular but he was still an amazing teacher after all.
Vinyl's voice woke Octavia from her daydream. She silently reprimanded herself for her absent mindedness during work before turning to the little white unicorn again.
Vinyl was sat upright now, her little hooves clutching the bow of her cello. Her bright red eyes had that open look of wonder which could only mean whatever she said next would probably be pointless, irrelevant and yet another distraction from her work.
"Do you think the Mare Witch ever failed a recital?" she asked. Octavia had to force herself not to raise a hoof to her face.
"Vinyl," she started, "Even if the Mare Witch was real, do you really think she would have had to go to music recitals? Being a witch and whatnot?"
Vinyl blinked, "I guess not. But do you think other famous musicians have. You know, before going on to become really successful because they just hadn't found their... their..."
"Niche?" Octavia suggested flatly.
"Yeah! Their niche," Vinyl piped cheerfully.
Octavia sighed. "I imagine there must have been a few. Why are you so concerned? We haven't even had our first recital yet."
"We have one next at the end of the next term though," said Vinyl.
"And if you stop procrastinating and practise like I've showed you, you will be fine."
Vinyl frowned, "I do practise!"
"Not nearly enough, though. Now let me get back to work. I have enough to worry about without thinking about the recital as well."
In truth, Octavia had not thought on the recital in some time. It seemed largely irrelevant as the performance was beginner's work anyway. She had learned off everything needed to and only practised occasionally to keep it fresh in her mind.
"Tavi?" came Vinyl's voice from across the room.
Octavia groaned. "What now?"
Vinyl read her expression and for once seemed to take note of it.
"Nothing," she replied.
Octavia nodded and turned back to her work again. Right, she thought to herself, let's give this everything we've got. Even the best musicians in Equestria have to work within limitations sometimes. Just focus, clear your head and-
Vinyl walked out into the warm, breezy air on the academy gardens. Tavi had gotten mad for no good reason again and asked her to leave, but that was just Tavi being Tavi. The summer had finally started to die into autumn since they had arrived and the leaves on the trees were beginning to wilt into a dry yellow. They curled and folded at the ends of the great branches that overhung the walkway to the fountain.
Usually the fountain was relatively crowded but it had emptied now as it was drawing late past the afternoon. She sat at one of the surrounding benches and gazed up at the blue sky. Above her the sun hung, shining brightly perturbed only by lazily passing clouds. The pegasi had begun letting them hang in the air as the month had gone on. Thankfully, they were all puffy and white and gave no warnings of rain. As far as autumn afternoons went it was fairly cheerful outside. Vinyl didn't feel much too cheerful however. Mr. Jazz was going to be furious if she didn't hand in her assignment but she couldn't think of anything to write and now Tavi was mad at her as well.
Octavia was good with writing music and, personally, Vinyl thought she was better than some of the musicians they were learning about. Vinyl had improved greatly at playing over the last couple weeks thanks to her help but still had no talent for putting music together herself. Jazz had called her last work "beastly and primitive" and had suggested she take up percussion. Vinyl was ready to quit there and then had Tavi not convinced her otherwise.
She could tell it annoyed Tavi. She didn't want her to think she constantly needed babysitting but at the same time it was hard being here all on her own. At home her Dad had always encouraged her, cheered for her whenever she played for him, he always told her to try again when she messed up. Here, it seemed, everypony wanted her to just give up, everypony but Tavi.
Vinyl sighed, lay back and closed her eyes. She imagined she was back at home lying on her little feather bed in her cosy blue room. "You're not a little filly anymore," she murmured before falling asleep.
When she awoke it had gotten dark. She brushed some of the dried leaves that had fallen from her body and sat up. She had no idea what time it was. It was completely silent save for the pattering of the water from the fountain. The gardens seemed a lot less friendly at night. At least it felt that way now. She had often gazed over them from her room's balcony to see how beautifully the moon reflected in the fountain and small streams throughout the grounds. It was cold too. She wrapped her hooves around herself before making to leave.
"It would seem to me that my students are rather partial to night time excursions."
Vinyl jumped where she sat and turned quickly to see Mr. Sonata standing at the entrance to the walkway.
"I'm sorry," he said kindly, "I didn't mean to catch you off guard. It's just that I don't often come across students on my nightly strolls, although this is the second time in this month. I must not be the only one who enjoys the midnight air."
Midnight? Vinyl gasped.
"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to. I just fell asleep on the bench and- I know I should be in bed but-"
Sonata merely smiled sagely and walked towards the fountain. He looked even smaller than usual in the heavy grey overcoat he was wearing. He looked at the statue of the Mare Witch for a moment before turning back.
"It's quite alright, Miss Scratch," he said at last, "I'm not going to hang you just for napping a little too long. I must say, however, the fountain benches would not be my ideal place to rest. Was something bothering you?"
Vinyl promptly shook her head. Mr. Sonata had always been kind to her but she didn't want him to think she was having problems at the academy. Mr. Jazz had already voiced his opinions on her ability to grasp the responsibilities that came with attending such a prestigious school
"Oh n-no," she stammered, "I just wanted to give... I just wanted to go outside for a while."
Sonata peered at her from over his horn-rimmed glasses and smiled again.
"I see. Miss Allegretto had a similar excuse if I recall correctly."
Vinyl blinked. Tavi didn't strike her as somepony to wander the gardens at night.
Sonata nodded calmly. "You know, Miss Scratch, when your mother attended this academy she was a regular fish out of water. I had only just taken over as headmaster and the way things worked back then were a little more... strict. Your mother made a big difference here, an unknown pony with no family history of music, no wealthy or influential background of which to speak yet she outshined many who would have looked down on her for it." He smiled fondly.
"How did that make a big difference?" asked Vinyl.
Sonata laughed. "Because she showed that a true musician can come from anywhere, even from the places we least suspect. Nopony expected your mother to last the first term let alone go on to do all the great things she did. In fact, if I hadn't had convinced her entrance examiners otherwise they probably would have turned away a great talent from our halls. It was a good thing that they saw sense in the end, thankfully. It allowed us to broaden our horizons and start excepting talented students regardless of who they were. The older teachers didn't care too much for it and some of our patrons stopped funding us under the claim that we were killing the art. The registration fees are still nothing to be sniffed at, of course. They've kept the academy affluent and just elitist enough to keep our more traditionalist members at bay, too."
Sonata sighed heavily to himself before looking to Vinyl again.
"You'll make something of yourself here, Miss Scratch. There's something about you that tells me so. Your mother was the same. Don't lose heart, and don't take Miss Allegretto for granted either. There was method to my madness when I paired you two together. Alas, it's far too late for such talk, or too early, rather. You'd best get what little sleep you can before classes start. I doubt sleeping on a bench leaves you particularly well rested."
Vinyl didn't fully understand why he was telling her this so she merely nodded at the old headmaster before getting up and saying goodnight. Sonata wished her the same before continuing on his way through the gardens.
"I'm sorry, Miss Allegretto, I haven't seen her anywhere."
Professor Harp smiled apologetically from behind her massive glass bottle spectacles. Octavia groaned and turned away from her making her way towards the great hall. Surely someone must have seen her. It had been hours since Vinyl left and, absent minded as she could be, she never took this long to come back. Octavia had tried the library, the canteen, the practice rooms, the great hall twice and even the grand auditorium. She had asked Mr Jazz, Mrs Flute, Professor Harp, Professor Riffs and even some of the staff she had never met before. Jazz had told her he would gather some of the other teachers to go look for her and Flute had taken her back to her room to rest telling her Vinyl would be back by morning but Octavia had been too worried and snuck out again. Not only that but it was her responsibility as much as anypony else's. She had made a promise after all.
She entered the great hall for the third time and called out Vinyl's name. The hallway was dark at this time of night and the only light was from the moon shining through the windows. The Mare Witch lights her candles to practise after dark. That's what Mr Sonata had said jokingly once. Frankly Octavia would have preferred a real candle in her hooves right now. She could hardly see past the end of her nose. What light did shine from the moon was only all the more obscured by the tall, arched, stained glass windows that flanked the walls of the hall, each with its own piece of history, reflected onto the large tables arrayed at the centre of the room with shimmering yellows and purples. Octavia looked up at an image depicting a bizarre creature made up of a mismatch of pony and different types of animal. It's strange and mocking smile made her shiver. It also made her all the more determined to find Vinyl. The little filly had talked about running away from the academy a time back but Octavia had thought that all behind her. She had never guessed that Vinyl may have been staying quiet about it because she actually planned to go through with it.
"Oh, Vinyl," moaned Octavia.
It was dangerous to be alone outside the academy at night. They were several miles outside of Cantorlot's city and who knew what would happen in the dark. The academy building was situated on a hilltop. She could trip and fall, injure herself or worse....
Her name echoed off of the walls of the hallway causing her to jump in surprise. Turning quickly she saw Mr Sonata standing at the far end of the hall.
"My, my," he chuckled, "I seem to have developed quite a penchant for terrifying my students recently. I'm sorry about that, Miss Allegretto. Mr Jazz has told me you've raised every living pony in the academy on a search for young Miss Scratch, and even then you wouldn't stay fit to keep to your room. Well, you'll be happy to know she is quite safe and in good company."
Octavia breathed a sigh of relief.
"Oh, Mr Sonata, thank you! I was so worried. Where is she any...?"
Octavia's voice cut off and she stared open mouthed as Vinyl poked her head out from behind Sonata.
"I was out in the garden," she said with a roguish smile. It disappeared quickly as she darted back outside the hall as a screaming Octavia charged angrily after her.
"I'm sorry, Tavi."
Back in their bedroom Octavia's back was turned to her. Vinyl shifted uneasily on her bed.
"Aren't you going to get some sleep?"
From her desk Octavia grunted and opened a book although Vinyl doubted she was even reading it.
"I said I was sorry."
"I didn't mean to make you so worried."
Octavia grunted again. "I wasn't worried. I was fulfilling my duty as a responsible roommate. Not that you would know anything about that."
"I fell asleep on the bench. I didn't mean to-"
Octavia finally turned to face her. Her expression alone was enough to make Vinyl flinch.
"Vinyl, I know you are having trouble settling in here. I know it is not easy for you. But it is not exactly easy for me either when I have to play day care for you every hour of the week. Had I pulled the same stunt you did... well, I wouldn't, but that's the point. I-"
"Mr Sonata said you did pull the same... stunt..." Vinyl trailed off as Octavia's jaw clenched heavily.
"That's not the point." She said between gritted teeth.
"But you just said that it was," replied Vinyl meekly.
"Oh, for Celestia's sake! The point is I have enough to do without worrying about you all the time. It's bad enough that Mr Sonata keeps on about it."
"Mr Sonata does what?"
"Nothing," Octavia pouted. She turned in her bed again without another word. Vinyl closed her eyes and tried to sleep but could not. Was she really just a burden? Octavia was right. She needed to start taking care of herself rather than relying on others around her. After a few hours she finally began to drift to sleep. Before she nodded off she murmured her father's words to herself one last time.
Octavia awoke in a foul mood. She had gotten hardly any sleep again thanks to Vinyl. Not that that was anything new. As much as she liked the little filly it was starting to affect her work. In spite of that she still could not bring herself to ask Sonata for a room change. She made her way sleepily to her desk and pulled out her notes. From outside in the gardens she could hear the sound of somepony practising on a cello, and badly from the sound of it. She shook her head to wake herself up a bit. The room seemed oddly quiet despite the racket from outside but she couldn't quite place a hoof on why exactly. Not that it mattered. She drowsily sifted through her notes and gathered her pieces on Clopin's Nocturnes for piano. She had been given permission by Mr Ivory to use his piano room in the mornings for early practise. She didn't have any exams on piano at the end of the year but Father had insisted on practising any and all instruments she could.
"You have been given an opportunity here, Octavia," he had said, "Do not squander it. Qualification is only half the reward to a musical education. Aptitude is measured in talent, not paper. A true Allegretto should not be limited to a handful of instruments."
She would not let Father down. She would prove herself to be a 'true Allegretto' at the recital. She had already been made a Solo ahead of students senior to her by Mr Jazz, and Sonata himself had asked her to close the event with a piano piece when he had heard her in the practise rooms a few weeks back. She had accepted, of course. Her father had always said pressure brings out the best in real musicians, although some mornings she did not feel like a real musician at all. This was going one to be one of those mornings. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and stood in front of a mirror to comb her hair. Father had sent her a silken mitten with bristles that fit snugly around one hoof. He had also sent her a new bow tie, pink with a white collar to go with it.
As soon as she was ready she made her way from the room to the hallways. The Academy was always deserted this early in the morning and she liked the silence as her hoofsteps echoed against the paved stone walls. Vast arched windows let in shafts of light that illuminated the way to the main staircase which was carved out of black marble. The old stories said that the Mare Witch had crafted the steps from layers of the night sky itself. She was unsure whether she had heard that from Vinyl or Sonata. Both seemed equally fascinated by old ponytales.
She followed the staircase down to the main hall and trotted across to the entrance, two massive oaken doors with twin alicorns circling each other on either one. Pushing them open she heard the sound of whistling birds and the awkward playing of the practising cellist. A colt's laugh carried in the air as well. Octavia wondered who it could be. The only two colts who played the cello in their class were Nightingale and Waltz. Neither of them seemed like particularly early risers. As she entered the open gardens she caught a glimpse of the colt in question by the fountain, Firewind, the pony who had introduced himself near the start of the year. He was talking with another pony and laughing at whatever they were saying. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of her and waved.
"Hey!" he called out, "Octavia, right? Remember me? I'm Firewind. Come on over, your roommate was just talking about you."
Octavia froze. Vinyl? Up this early? She thought back to the quietness in their room when she had woken up. Vinyl's snoring was usually loud enough to hear from the hallway outside. But talking, about what? What had Vinyl said about her to make Firewind laugh so much? Had they been gossiping all morning?
She began to blush as she noticed Firewind was staring at her with an odd puzzled expression on his face. What was he thinking? Was he imagining her in some embarrassing situation that Vinyl had told him about? Was her hair unkempt? She was sure she had brushed it thoroughly. Was it the bow tie? It had to be! The stupid, dorky bow tie her father had sent her. What had she been thinking when she put it on?
"Umm... Aren't you going to say something?" asked Firewind with an awkward smile.
"N-no," replied Octavia, "I mean, yes. I mean, I just have, haven't I?"
Firewind looked even more confused than before. Octavia suddenly began to feel very chilly. Maybe it would be warmer back inside.
"Aren't you going to come over?" persisted Firewind.
Vinyl popped her head around the hedgerow. Her eyes were baggy with tiredness and her hair was an unbrushed mess. "Tavi! Come on over!"
Octavia swallowed and walked slowly towards them. Vinyl was grinning widely and Firewind looked somewhat amused, probably by her general awkwardness. Octavia had never been good when it came to social gatherings, at least not without Father to guide her through them.
She neared the fountain and stood still. The pair of them looked at her unblinking.
"I- I am here," she finally announced to break the silence.
Firewind laughed his deep laugh again. "So you are."
"Yes," said Octavia returning a smile weakly, "Yes, it would seem that I most certainly am."
Vinyl was propped atop a bench with her cello laid across her lap. "I was telling Firewind how good you are on the cello." She turned to Firewind. "She's much better than I am."
"No small feat," said Firewind, "But then, what should I expect from the great daughter of Minister Allegriffith, right?"
"Maestro Allegretto," corrected Octavia instinctively, "Third of his name, adjunct professor of music here at the academy and former composer for the Royal Gala Orchestra."
Firewind smiled, "Okay, okay! I've got a lousy memory, that's all. It's not every day I have to remember really long names like that."
"It is not long," said Octavia, "Allegretto is actually of average length. It is four syllables. Your own name is three syllables. As such my father's name is in fact of similar length to your own."
"Umm... Yeah." Firewind looked over to Vinyl uneasily who merely shrugged in return. Octavia knew she had said something wrong.
"B-but, names are not important," she managed, "Well, they are but not in regards of brief colloquial conversation. I mean, at least not for ponies who are not themselves present, right?"
Firewind laughed, "You're adorable, do you know that? I haven't a clue what you just said."
"And how is that adorable?" Octavia asked wounded, "Do I appear babyish for lack of proper communicative skills?"
She had no sooner said it when she realised how ridiculous she sounded. Firewind laughed again, louder than ever before and even Vinyl began to giggle. Octavia wanted the ground to swallow her up there and then.
"Perhaps I should go."
"No," said Vinyl, "I wanted you to show Firewind some of your music."
"Yeah," added Firewind, "Vinyl's been telling me all about it."
Vinyl nodded enthusiastically.
"I couldn't," replied Octavia bashfully, "Which is to say I can't. I'm late for an appointment with Mr. Jazz."
"At this hour of the morning?" asked Vinyl.
"No. I-I mean, yes." Octavia panicked. She did not like informal conversation, particularly with ponies she did not know very well."
Firewind's face softened. "Hang around for a bit, okay? We hardly got to know each other last time."
"Firewind is really nice," piped Vinyl, "You two could be friends."
"Friends?" Octavia had never been good at making friends. At the same time she did not feel particularly compelled to make any. She supposed she counted Vinyl as a friend. Was not one friend enough?
"Why don't I introduce you to a few ponies after classes," offered Firewind.
"Yes. That would be... great." Great, thought Octavia, more ponies and more awkward conversations to worry about. At this rate ponies would be stopping her in corridors to talk about... clothes or something.
"Great!" cheered Vinyl, "Now maybe you'll be a little less grumpy too!"
Allegretto arrived at the gates of the academy with Concerto and the others. He could not wait to see the look on his daughter's face. No doubt they had been far too soft on her in the Academy. Sonata always was too lax when it came to students. He looked forward to hearing her play, listening to what her lecturers had to say and giving Octavia a few private lessons to whip back to the standard of a real Allegretto if the school did not make up to standard. The sound of an awfully played trumpet made him cringe as the gates opened. It sounded like they were letting just about anyone into the academy these days. In any case, all would be set right soon. He had a few choice words to share with Sonata about standards and everypony knew that the Allegretto name stay held plenty of influence in Canterlot. Perhaps Sonata would appreciate retirement? He was getting somewhat old for the job anyway.
The Maestro strode through the gardens with his entourage and memories of his youth flooded back to him as he gazed upon the fountain and the various statues.
"It's like stepping into a time machine, huh?" jested Harpsichord.
"Very much so," replied Allegretto, "Now where is my daughter?"