It felt so long since the Grand Galloping Gala, but it hadn’t even been a month yet. So much had happened since then. Still, going to Randall’s house for her first band practice felt like returning to a familiar routine.
As Nathan pulled his car up in front of the house, Lyra saw the garage door open and Randall standing there with another musician, who was tuning his own guitar. There was an unoccupied drum set behind them. He noticed her and waved. She grinned, and ran up to meet him. Nathan stayed behind to get the amp out of the storage compartment in the back.
“Hey, I was hoping you’d show up.” Randall turned to the other human standing next to him. “Mike, this is Lyra. She’s our new lead guitarist.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” She held out her hand, expecting a handshake.
The human he’d referred to as Mike looked her up and down, not saying anything for a while. “She seems a little young.”
“Yeah, she’s…” Randall thought for a moment. “My mind just went blank. How old are you again?”
Lyra slowly lowered her hand when Mike didn’t accept it. “Sixteen.”
“Right, right…” He nodded. “I figure we just won’t mention her age at any gigs and it shouldn’t be a problem. And as long as she doesn’t take drinks from anyone, we’ll probably get away with it.”
Mike just shrugged. “Alright.”
“Me and Mike started this band. Then we met Casey from one of the posters we put up – same way you found us, right? Mike’s our bassist, Casey’s on drums. We couldn’t really hope to get an actual gig until we got our lead guitarist, though.”
“Where is he, anyways? We were supposed to start by now. You’d think a drummer would have better timing.” Mike laughed at his own joke.
“That’s just it, though. He is the drummer.” Randall turned back to Lyra. “Don’t mind him,” he said. “Anyways, we’ve been working on a few songs. Covers, mostly. Stuff from the eighties, maybe early nineties. Old favorites, maybe you’ve heard them before.” Lyra could almost guarantee she hadn’t. “You’ll have to put in some extra work to catch up, but you sounded good last time.”
“I’m a very fast learner,” Lyra said.
“Good to hear it.”
She got another glance at Randall’s cutie mark, still wondering why the other humans she’d met didn’t have theirs. And shouldn’t she have one herself, if she’d earned it as a filly? The placement made some sense – the forearm instead of the back hip, which you couldn’t usually see on humans because of clothing. She wondered what Randall’s talent was that got him a dragon mark like that.
Nathan came up behind her, the amp hanging from one hand. He set it down for her. “Hey, uh, Randall…” He gave a small nod, his eyes darting towards Mike, then towards the door. “Mind if I wait inside? How long is practice going to take?”
“Should be a couple hours. You can watch some TV if you want to. Don’t touch the fridge.” He pointed at Nathan as he said that for emphasis.
Nathan shrugged. “Fine with me. I’ll see you later.” He headed inside, glancing back at her one last time before he closed the door.
He’d told Lyra earlier that he didn’t want to drop her off there and abandon her. Why he was so nervous, she couldn’t understand. But it would be convenient, and she appreciated it.
Lyra slid the guitar case off her back and set up. There was a tangle of wires on the ground, and she stepped over them as she plugged her own guitar in. She played a few notes to try it out.
“So we’ve got our guitarist… I guess,” Mike said. “When do we get a manager? We don’t have a band until we’ve got a gig.”
“I’m working on that. For now I’ve got a few contacts waiting and we might be able to perform soon,” Randall said.
Satisfied with her guitar’s sound, Lyra stood there wondering when they’d start. And what songs they'd do. That was a problem.
“Hey, Randall?” she said. “Do you have any, you know, sheet music? I’m not sure what you guys play…”
“You mean tabs? Oh, sure. Pretty sure I’ve got some in there somewhere. Let me go look for 'em.” He headed into the house.
While she waited in the garage, Mike didn’t say anything to her. He pretended to take an interest in his bass, even though it was obviously ready and in tune. It was quiet except for the low notes coming from his own amplifier. She wasn’t sure whether to offer friendly conversation or not.
Randall returned a few minutes later. “Here it is. We’re working on a few things right now. You might have to practice on your own time to catch up.”
She looked over it. Guitar tabs – that’s what they called these - weren’t quite like regular sheet music, but a lot of the notation was exactly the same as it was in Equestria. That couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, any more than the countries and language being the same as what she’d read about in Equestrian history. But for now, it was just convenient.
Outside, a dirty car that was probably blue once pulled up, making all kinds of weird rumbling noises. It made Nathan’s car look fancy by comparison, even though he tended to joke about what a mess it was. Another human got out from the front seat, a blond male with some scraggly facial hair. He jogged up to the garage to join them.
“Casey! Finally made it, did you?” Randall said.
The newcomer stared at Lyra. “Who’s she? Your kid sister? Crazy hair, by the way.” He grinned when he said it, though Lyra wasn’t sure how to take it.
“Our new guitarist,” Randall said.
“You serious? No, who is she really?”
“I’m Lyra. I can’t wait to perform with you guys!” She stuck out her hand, and Casey reluctantly took it.
“Look, I know we were getting desperate, but she’s a kid,” he said.
“I do have professional experience,” Lyra offered.
“So you've told me,” Randall said. “You'll understand once you hear her, Casey. Now let’s get started already. I’ve been dying to get back to practice ever since I got off work.”
“Sure. Whatever. Let’s just get going.” Casey took the seat behind the drum set.
Other than Randall, this band almost seemed as standoffish as the other musicians at the Gala had been. Lyra was getting a bad case of déjà vu. That is, until they started into the first song. She’d just seen the guitar tabs, but she could understand how it sounded. The riffs were simple enough, with the same few chords repeated through the whole song.
Once they finished, all the humans were silent. The final note seemed to reverberate in the garage for a long time. Maybe that was just the echo.
“That was your first time with that one?” Mike said slowly.
Lyra nodded. “Yeah, I think I got lost somewhere around the second verse. Can we try it again?”
“Where did you find this one?” Casey said.
Randall gave a glance to the other two musicians, as if to say “I told you so.” Then he counted them off to start again.
Practice lasted for a few hours. It hardly felt like any time at all. Rock music was pretty short, catchy, and high-energy. It was nothing like the droning classical pieces that Lyra had always performed in Canterlot – complex, but often forgettable.
She was back in Nathan’s car, heading back. It was still hard to get used to this fast motion in a vehicle that was propelling itself somehow. Lyra was doing better than her first time, though. Like all human things, it just took some getting used to. She reminded herself that she'd never seen one of these go spiraling out of control like the apple cart had, but it was all too easy to imagine.
“I texted Audrey back there, asked if we could do something out for dinner,” Nathan said. “To celebrate, I guess, but to be honest I'm just bored. And my parents don’t really care what time I’m home.”
“That sounds fun,” Lyra said. But she realized it would probably mean more driving.
They stopped in front of Audrey’s house just long enough for Nathan to go to the door and pick her up, and then they headed to what the humans had called “the mall.” Lyra had told them she’d never been to one before, but they were used to hearing that from her by now.
They pulled into an open space filled with other humans’ cars. Lyra was the first one out of the cramped vehicle, as relieved to be out of the cramped seat as she was interested in where they were now.
The building was huge – it rivaled Canterlot Castle; it even made the humans’ own capitol building seem tiny. And once they’d entered, the sights took Lyra’s breath away. This one structure had tons of small shops, more than all of Ponyville. It was enough to impress a Canterlot pony – well, a Canterlot girl – with all of the selection.
Nathan was just amused at Lyra’s wide-eyed stare. He and Audrey both acted like they were used to this place, as unaffected by the sights and sounds as they were by all the other amazing things in their world.
“Chinese good with you?” Nathan asked.
“I’m feeling more like sushi. The Chinese place here isn’t that good,” Audrey said. She grimaced. “I actually might’ve gotten food poisoning the one time I tried it.”
“Yeesh. Well, looks like we’re being fancy today,” Nathan said.
“I’m fine with anything… pretty much,” Lyra said. She’d lost track of how many new foods she had tried, especially all the desserts. “But there’s no… um…”
Audrey caught on to what she meant. “They’ve got a few vegetarian options,” she said. “Unless you eat fish. I know some vegetarians make an exception for that.”
Lyra shuddered. “No, I’ll… I’ll just stick to the vegetables.”
They passed a florist and a salon on the way there. This place really did have everything. It kind of reminded her of the flower stand that Roseluck worked at on market days, or Aloe and Lotus’ beauty shop that she’d been to a few times with Bon-Bon…
The restaurant was on the second floor, in front of a balcony. There were more levels of stores above and below them, all packed with humans. Lyra leaned over the rail to look down at the tiled mosaic floor, with the sun from the skylight above their heads shining down on it.
“You coming?” Audrey called out to her. Lyra turned around and headed up to where they were waiting in front of the restaurant. The menu was posted on the wall. Audrey gestured towards it. “Good news for you. Their vegetarian options are actually cheaper than the regular ones. I might even go for that.”
“Regular…” Lyra muttered. It was normal for humans. Would she ever get used to that?
It was still hard to accept that most humans did choose to eat meat. They even knew exactly where it came from. But… there were plenty of animals that ate meat. They had to sustain themselves. Just like other animals might eat plants, or gemstones.
They placed their orders at the counter. Lyra was getting really good at talking to humans – not too long ago, even being near one would make her mouth go dry. Now it was just an everyday thing. She was feeling like she fit in here.
They sat down at one of the tables. Even though the mall was crowded, this restaurant’s seating was all available.
“So how’re things going with that band?” Audrey asked. “You seem to be in a good mood.”
“It’s great! Randall said we’d be doing covers. That means we’re doing songs that other bands wrote,” Lyra said. “I didn’t realize bands wrote their own music. Do most of them do that?”
“The good ones do,” Nathan said. “The ones that get famous.”
“He said that his original stuff wasn’t any good, though,” Lyra said. “I just think it sounds hard. Writing music and playing it? You’d really… have your hands full with that, don’t you think?”
“I guess so. I thought I heard Guns ‘n Roses back there,” Nathan said.
“You know that one? Everything we're working on is completely different from the songs I practiced before. A lot louder. But I don’t really mind,” Lyra said. “I think the other band members have been practicing them longer than I have, but I’ll just work extra hard back home.”
“Yeah, about those band members…” Nathan said. He hadn’t gotten a chance to really meet them. He had waited inside until they stopped playing.
“Everyone in the band is really nice. But I am the youngest one there,” Lyra said. “I was kind of surprised, actually.”
“Most kids our age would be focused on school,” Audrey said.
“Right…” Lyra nodded. She’d forgotten that.
“They were all in their twenties, it looked like,” Nathan said. “I’m amazed Randall even let you join in the first place.”
“I guess I’m usually younger than the other po – than the other musicians I play with. It’s always been that way.” The musicians at the Gala had all been older than her by a few years, plus they had seemed like regulars to the event. Still, these humans were, what? Six or seven years older than her? It hadn’t seemed like that much of a difference.
“Right. The young musical prodigy with a mysterious past,” Nathan said.
Audrey gave a sigh, though she didn’t say any more on the topic. She opened up a thin paper wrapper and taken two long wooden sticks out of it. Lyra nearly forgot how hungry she’d been as she watched Audrey move her fingers expertly and pick up pieces of food with them.
“What are those?” Lyra pointed at them.
Audrey paused for a moment and looked at her. “I think this one’s an avocado roll…”
“No, I mean the things you’re using to pick them up.”
“I’ve never been able to get the hang of them, myself,” Nathan said. “Too much of a hassle. And they give us forks anyway.” He stabbed at his own food with one.
Lyra didn’t hear him. She was concentrating on the complicated movement of Audrey’s hands. This was a challenge. And it looked like so much fun.
She glanced down at her plate, searching around the edges. There! She had one of those paper wrappers too, so she tore it open and took them out. She snapped them apart at the top, and held them up to her face, examining them intently.
“Have you ever used them before?” Audrey said. “Actually, that’s a stupid question, isn’t it? I’m guessing not.”
“I’ve never even seen anything like this,” Lyra said without looking up. She tried to figure out how to hold them – Audrey made it seem so easy. There was no secret in their design, it seemed. They were just smooth wooden sticks. Humans had designed them as a test of skill or something, a way to show off their dexterity. It was the only explanation Lyra could think of.
“Getting a little intense, there, Lyra.” Nathan had stopped eating and was watching her.
She said nothing. Her entire concentration was on these little wooden sticks, trying to figure out how to fit them into her fingers without dropping them, and then trying to pick things up with them. It was almost impossible.
“You… do have a fork,” Nathan said. “You know that, right?”
“I’ve been using forks all my life. This is something new.” She fumbled with the sticks some more, and they fell out again. She picked them up off of her food and tried again.
Audrey reached across the table. “Here. Put the first one like this…” She put one stick in between Lyra’s thumb and forefinger. “Then only move the second one.”
Singling out one of the pieces of sushi, Lyra attempted to pick it up. It fell out. A few more times, without any better results. Then, leaning her face in, she was able to lift it up into her mouth.
Nathan clapped his hands together. “Nice work.”
Lyra was beaming. “Got it.” Then she made a face. “What exactly is this?” The taste was odd. Not unpleasant, but unexpected.
“I think it’s just avocado and cucumber. Oh, and seaweed,” Audrey said. “Those… aren’t a problem, right?”
“No. I’ve never eaten seaweed before, though. Where do they get it? Is there an ocean near here?”
“I wish. Iowa’s about as landlocked as you can get,” Nathan said.
“And that’s… where we are,” Lyra said slowly, watching him. “Obviously.”
“Of course,” Audrey replied. She frowned. “Lyra, you do know where we – “
“I was just kidding.” Lyra smiled awkwardly, and waved a hand. “Of course I know where we are. I’m not that clueless.” She gave a nervous laugh, but they didn’t look convinced.
Iowa, though? She thought the word sounded familiar, maybe humans had mentioned it a few times. It must be a smaller region in France. She hadn’t looked at a map in a while, but she thought she remembered France having some ocean coasts. Des Moines must be somewhere inland, then. It wasn’t easy to just go up and ask for a map without a good reason, though. They already noticed she wasn’t like them.
She went back to trying to use her chopsticks, picking up a piece, lifting it almost all the way up to her mouth before it slipped and dropped back on the plate. “Horseapples…” she swore under her breath.
Audrey stifled a laugh. “What was that?”
“Oh, uh… Nothing!” Lyra said. "It was nothing." She made another attempt at picking up the sushi, and was successful this time.
“What do your parents think of Lyra staying for so long?” Nathan asked. “I mean, she’s been there for, what? Over a week now?”
“They seem okay with it…” Lyra said. She glanced over at Audrey. “They like me, don’t they?”
“Well, yeah. They’ve definitely gotten used to you,” Audrey said. “I’m sure it helps that you’re always offering to help around the house. Helping out in the garden now and then seems to make up for all the loud guitar music.”
“I do like to work with my hands.” Lyra gave a slight smile. Chores hardly felt like work – they were just another opportunity to see how humans got by without magic. And it turned out that they did pretty well. It was all of their tools – some of which were recognizable from Equestria, though it was obviously a lot easier to use a garden trowel when you could grip the handle properly.
“Sweet. Are they paying you?” Nathan asked.
“Well, yes…” Lyra said. But the money wasn’t why she did it. Honestly, she’d been surprised when they’d offered to pay her for her help, but she had accepted it.
“It’s practically like she’s always lived here at this point.” Audrey smiled.
Lyra had to admit, she did have a point. She’d been here so long it was starting to feel less like some strange other world and more like, well… home. And yet she still felt like she needed to find out who she was and where she’d come from. If that was even possible. Audrey had found Nathan’s house on that computer somehow, why couldn’t they find her parents?
Returning to her food, and these fascinating wooden sticks, she worked on picking up another piece. Glancing at the others’ plates, she realized they were already done.
“Looks like we’ll be here for a while,” Nathan said, glancing up at the skylight. "By all means, take all the time you need, Lyra."
She'd get the hang of these sticks eventually.
Practice went on as usual, every Monday, Thursday, and Friday. Those were the days when the other band members’ work schedules didn’t conflict, according to Randall. On each of those days, Nathan would show up, Lyra would gather everything into her bag, and head out with her guitar on her back.
Her journal was still inside – if Audrey or her parents happened to find it lying around, there would be too much explaining to do. Better to just keep it close. And she was still taking notes in there. She'd just filled up an entire page on how to use chopsticks.
On this particular day, she was the last one at practice. Mike and Casey were already in the garage setting up, but Randall was nowhere to be seen.
Lyra checked the tuning on her guitar, plugged it in, and played a few chords to test it out. Setting up in Randall’s garage for practice had already started to feel natural. Sure, it didn’t compare to a fancy stage, especially not the one at Canterlot Castle, or even a normal practice room, but she was surrounded by humans here. That more than made up for it.
She took one of the songs Randall had given her out of her bag to read it over. They were working on several different pieces at once.
“Well, everyone, I just got off the phone.” Randall swung the door to the house open and stepped out. He was in a good mood. “We’re set to play at a music festival in two weeks. Told ‘em we’d just play what we’ve been working on, and that was that.”
“Seriously?” Casey said. “That’s cutting it close.”
“Lyra, I’ll really need you to double-time it.” Randall pointed a finger towards her. “This thing’s coming up fast, but you’ve got talent. Mike and Casey, good work so far, but we could be better. We can always get better.”
Mike nodded. “Sure. Guess so.”
“Now, same songs we worked on last time. Let’s get them perfect. We might actually get paid for this, so no slacking off.”
A paid performance? Lyra knew that Randall had been trying to get them in somewhere, but hadn’t been expecting it so soon. The idea of being back on stage again – in front of an audience of humans, no less – was incredible, even if she’d been expecting it to happen at some point.
“Starting off with Highway to Hell, then.” Randall counted them off, and Lyra started.