• Published 28th Sep 2014
  • 4,004 Views, 190 Comments

Duet in the Folk Style - Pascoite

Big McIntosh's unique way of experiencing music fascinates Octavia, and he'd love nothing better than to satisfy her desire to get in touch with her earth pony roots. They could learn so much from each other.

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Chapter 2: Crescendo

Big McIntosh took an early break from his morning chores and headed into the house to wash up a bit. Couldn’t show up for lunch all dusty and sweaty, after all. A quick rinse, then he combed his mane and looked at himself in the mirror. Not too bad, but… He held a hoof in front of his mouth, huffed a breath into it and sniffed.

He grabbed the mouthwash and swished it around for a minute, then glanced in the mirror again, and… yeah, about as good as it was going to get.

Out the door and down the road he went, at a swift trot for his lunchtime meeting. “Meeting.” That didn’t have a very nice ring to it, but he couldn’t presume to call it anything else. He’d actually left a bit early—he had a stop planned, if he had time, but…

One errand in town, that is, but he’d make time for another pause, right now. He couldn’t help himself. He stood motionless in the roadway and looked back at his home. Wind rustled through the golden grain stalks in waves, flocks softly bleated in the pasture, the stream gurgled its way past the creaky old mill wheel, and the chickens scratched around the yard for morsels of corn. Then, a quiet padding through the grass by the roadside.

“Winona, get on home,” Big Mac said with a shake of his head. “You gotta help AJ keep them cows together. Go on now.” She whimpered, but when he raised an eyebrow, she wagged her tail and darted off to her task.

As always, the miles blended together, and he didn’t know how much longer he’d trotted, but he could tell exactly how far to town from the feel of the dirt under his hooves and way the breeze echoed through the forest. He stopped again, watching the sun-dappled patterns on the ground. Overhead, a pair of squirrels chattered an argument as they scrabbled for footholds on the rough bark. Songbirds announced their territory to anypony who’d listen.

These were greater symphonies than a pony could create. But that mare had done it. She’d made him feel almost like this, right here.

At some point, he must have continued walking, because he soon found himself in the middle of town with a wide grin on his face. He checked the angle of the sun—not too much lost time on the way, so he could still run his errand before lunch.

He caught sight of Derpy winging away on her route and waved, but she didn’t notice. Shame. The one pony who got up earlier than he did. The last few years, that is, since she’d gotten married, had Dinky, and needed her afternoons free for time with her family. He’d known her since… really? That long already? She might as well have been another sister, but he rarely got to see her anymore. Always busy at home now, which he’d never in a million years begrudge her, but if only he could get more than five minutes to talk when she swung by with the mail. He’d love to tell her about meeting Octavia, for instance.

Octavia. Yeah, he needed to keep his mind on things. Schedule to keep and all.

Big Mac pushed open the door of the new library. He didn’t like that smell. He wanted old paper, a musty basement—things that brought to mind experience. A lot of town was like that. This smelled… just new.

He might never get used to the sight of a castle looming over a small place like Ponyville, but leave it to Twilight to make sure there was a library in town. Whether that meant a new tree, having one in the castle, or whatever didn’t matter. And of course she still found time to staff the desk once in a while. Good for her.

Her eyes shot wide open, but she managed to keep from gaping. “Big McIntosh! It’s… good to see you here. But we won’t get the new almanac in for a few months.”

“I wanted to look up something.” Big Mac pursed his lips and leaned in closer. “You ever assume a thing was normal, or leastways not unusual? ’Cause it’s always been that way for you? Only to find it ain’t so normal?”

Twilight shrugged and cocked her head. “Sure. I guess magic’s like that. I’ve had it most of my life, and sometimes I have to stop and think about how most ponies can’t do more than a few things with it. It—” she flicked her eyes down to the desktop “—makes me feel a little guilty sometimes.”

Guilty? He never would have figured on that. “Sorry, Twilight, but you’re just too nice for anypony to feel jealous. Anyhow.” He leaned even closer and whispered, “You got a book on head stuff? Y’know, mental issues and the like?”

“Yes, several. Did you want a specific subject or a general overview?” Thank goodness she kept her voice low. He didn’t need anypony else hearing.

“Well, you see, when I hear sound, I… kinda see it, too. Always have.” He gave a half-smile and shrugged. “Didn’t realize till last night that it must not happen for many ponies. Made me curious.”

Twilight gasped and held a hoof to her cheek. “Oh, so you’re the one—” She clamped her mouth shut. He didn’t like the way she stared at him. Or that faint smile.

“Let’s just say it’s been a popular topic this morning. Rarity stopped by earlier and asked the same thing.”

“Oh?” Big Mac raised an eyebrow. He had mentioned it to her, he supposed. “Did she say what she found? You could just tell me and save me the time.”

“I… have a feeling you’d enjoy it much more if you discovered it for yourself. I do have just the book you need, but yet another pony wanted to know as well. She’s still using it, but I don’t think she’d mind sharing.” With a smirk, she pointed toward one of the study desks at the back of the room.

Octavia sat there, poring over the page in front of her. Octavia. Here. About… that?

He shook his head and crept toward her, little by little. What would he say? “Hey, do you like stallions with weird brains?” Yeah, that’d go over real well. If only that weird brain could invent some reasonable conversation. Okay. He should just start with the basics.

“Howdy, Octavia, ma’am.”

She jerked her head up, tried to cover the page with her hooves, and finally blushed.

“I tried to come in early and look somethin’ up, but Twilight tells me you got dibs.” Well, if she was just as embarrassed, then he didn’t have much to lose.

“Oh… yes.” Her blush deepened, and she shoved the book closer to him. “I didn’t mean to pry—I only found it interesting.”

Big Mac shrugged. “I don’t mind. What’d you learn?”

She traced a hoof along the lines of text. “It’s called synesthesia. It’s not a problem—just the way some ponies are. They process a stimulus to one sense as other ones as well. In your case, you perceive sound with an additional visual interpretation. The most common kind is actually associating colors with numbers or words.” Her smile finally looked more genuine and less like a face cramp.

“Hm,” he said through his frown. “Well, don’t that beat all!”

Octavia shoved herself back from the table and shot to her hooves. “I think it’s wonderful! I-I…” She sputtered for what to say, but… she looked so cute being the one at a loss for a change. “In my line of work,” she finally gushed, “I’d love it if more ponies were like you. I try to provoke an emotional response with sound, and that makes it even more effective. In fact, I envy you.”

Big Mac took a step back and pricked his ears forward. “Envy me? Why?”

Another pony reading at a nearby table cleared her throat. Loudly.

“Oh!” Octavia said. “We should probably take this conversation outside.” She closed her book and carried it back to the shelf behind her, then glanced at the clock hanging from the ceiling. “It’s nearly eleven anyway. Let’s continue this over lunch.”

Halfway through his sandwich, Big Mac couldn’t remember tasting any of it. Too much to keep track of at once: look Octavia in the eye when she talked, sit up straight, don’t talk with his mouth full, don’t rest his forelegs on the table, don’t say anything dumb. Now, how was he supposed to know what was dumb?

He stilled his fidgeting leg when her eyes flicked toward the horseshoe clanging against his chair. He simply liked hearing her talk, but he’d gotten her started on something that obviously meant a lot to her, and the wildly gesturing hooves, the rapid speech… He hid his grin behind a napkin.

“Music is my passion,” she said. “I naturally experience it as fully as possible, but you feel it in ways that I can only imagine. I wish I could see what you see.” She shook her head and fixed her gaze somewhere past the horizon.

“Oh. Yeah, I guess it is kinda wasted on me.” He wished she could see it, too, for her sake. Shame it didn’t go like cutie marks—ponies got what fit them best.

“No, don’t ever think that! You have a wonderful gift, a way for you to enjoy life more,” she said, shoving her empty salad bowl aside. “You should never regret it.”

Big Mac couldn’t help smiling. When she had that spark in her eye, got so animated… What was he doing, thinking like he’d known her forever? He’d seen that spark at the reception, at the library… and nothing more. He’d known her for less than a day. No, he’d known who she was for less than a day—he didn’t know her at all, except as a musician who made black and gray exciting, and who’d shown him a bigger world of music than he’d suspected could exist, but no need to play make-believe.

“Well, Octavia, ma’am, it just seems you’d get a lot more out of it than I do.” No use in beating around the bush.

“Who knows why some ponies get it and some don’t? The point is: half the reason I love playing music so much is because of what I can do for others. And if you get that much more an intense experience out of it, then it makes me that much happier.” No deceit in her smile. An Apple could tell.

Most ponies ended up in their careers because of talent. But some really deserved them, counted themselves lucky to do a job they’d have gladly done for free. Something else they had in common, it seemed. “You could see it like that, I s’pose. But what I wanted to say was… Well, it’s tough to explain. You did somethin’ that nopony’s done before.”

“Take your time,” she said between sips of her iced tea. “I don’t have a schedule to keep today.”

“Um… We have ponies around town who can play an instrument or sing. And like I said, I sing in a quintet, too. But we mostly do more… I dunno, upbeat stuff.” He shrugged and took a deep breath. How to describe it? It just… happened.

“Okay,” Big Mac said. “If I had my druthers, I’d listen to country music, ’cause it speaks to me. My home, my lifestyle. So I can take the colors from it—” he twisted his hooves together as if packing a snowball “—and mash ’em into a scene. But just whatever the words say.”

Octavia nodded and propped her chin on a hoof. The spark hadn’t left. “Those songs might take me to a field or a pasture, but not my pasture. That concert took me there, though. No words. I just closed my eyes, and I might as well have been standin’ right on my farm. The music itself made me hear the wind, the animals, a barn dance. And then you started.”

Her grin broadened, and she idly poked a hoof at her placemat. “And what then?” she said.

“You took me places. A fancy palace or some far-off land, but then always right back home, the one place in Equestria I love the best. Nature all around and workin’ the earth. I wanted you to know what that meant to me.”

“We chose the program on purpose,” she replied. “So much of Equestria is rural that we wanted to put together a concert that had that flavor, so I’m glad it worked.”

She opened her mouth to say something more, but her bottom lip wavered, and her eyes teared up. “But nopony’s ever paid me a compliment like that.”

Oh, no. What now? He’d seen mares cry about enough odd things that guessing why would be a shot in the dark at best. And if he guessed wrong, it could haunt him for far longer than he cared to consider.

Big Mac raised his eyebrows but stayed silent.

Octavia cleared her throat and finally found her voice again. “Connecting with somepony like that is the whole reason I became a musician in the first place. Most times, ponies tell me I played well or that they admire my technique, but those are just mechanical things. Even when they say it sounds beautiful, it’s still pretty generic. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate their enjoyment. But this is the first time I felt like I’ve accomplished something beyond credentials, awards, or some other kind of trinket—the first time I did something that actually mattered.” She returned her gaze to him, and her eyes glistened.

If he could give back even a small part of what she’d given him… He smiled and cocked his head. Not a clear enough path forward yet to commit to saying anything, but she didn’t look like she expected an answer.

“Big Mac!” she said, reaching a hoof across the table to tap him on the foreleg. He almost flinched back. “I hope you don’t think this too forward, but… like I said, our program lately consists of a lot of music evocative of country life. It seems odd to say this, but I’m an earth pony who’s never visited a farm. I assume that’s not exactly rare, but it just feels like I’m missing something. Especially since my music is supposed to create that image. And you make your farm sound so beautiful. Would you mind showing me around? I’d like to experience for myself what my music is supposed to say. That can only make me better at playing it, right?”

His grin broadening, Big Mac left a stack of bits on the table and shooed her hoof away when she reached for her bill. “I’d love to show you.”

“I’d like to stretch my legs anyway—take my mind off our stringent rehearsal schedule.” She stood and slung her saddlebag on. “I’m free until after dinner.”

“One condition,” Big Mac said. She perked her ears forward, and he gave her a sharp nod. “You gotta do it my way.”

Octavia hopped up and down. Seeing her get all excited like that—it was actually kind of… adorable. “Of course!” she said. “I wouldn’t ask for any less.”

After dropping off her dress at Carousel Boutique, Octavia followed Big Mac down a dirt road that led into the forest—not a very dense one, but certainly away from civilization. And so quiet. She’d never heard so much of nothing, distant from the hubbub of the city.

She’d tried to strike up a conversation a couple of times, but only got monosyllabic responses. He smiled the whole time, so she must not have made him angry or anything. He’d seemed so eager to agree at first, but he trudged along now as if it were a chore. On her third try, he stopped and held up a hoof.

“Octavia, ma’am, don’t take this the wrong way, but just sit still a minute.” He took a deep sniff and let his breath out in a sigh. “Close your eyes and tell me what you sense.”

He wore a little smirk, so… not a chore, then. “Just quiet,” she replied immediately, but he shook his head, so she did as he asked. Eyes closed, breathing stilled. No voices, but… not exactly quiet either, now that she really listened. She swiveled her ears this way and that. “I hear a creek trickling in the distance.”

“Good. You notice anything about it?”

“No, just that it sounds not too far off, but… it changes.” She wrinkled her brow. “It’s rougher back in the direction of town. Rapids? Or a waterfall?”

“Close. Keep goin’. And not only with your ears.”

Octavia drew a slow breath through her nose. “I smell wood. Fresh, like at the unfinished furniture shop. But I didn’t see any logging trails or hear any saws.” Big Mac didn’t guide her anymore; she must be on the right track. But what did those two things have in common?

She gasped. “A dam? A-a beaver dam?”

“There you go!”

She cast about again, the thrill of her new vision running up her spine. “Lots of birdsong, something small nibbling on an acorn, hoofsteps in the dead leaves somewhere—maybe a deer?”

Big Mac chuckled in the pronounced non-silence. “Now look.”

She opened her eyes. Birds perched on nearby branches. A chipmunk finished its meal of a hickory nut and scampered away, then scolded her for her scrutiny from the safety of its burrow. Far off through the trees, a white tail bobbed as its owner browsed the foliage, and even further away, gnawed, sharpened ends of crisscrossed logs poked up from behind a low knoll.

She stared open-mouthed at Big Mac. “You’re right.” If only she could come up with some pithy, eloquent way to sum it all up, but she’d never had to use words to describe any of this. “You’re right.”

“Symphony’s all around you, if’n you care to listen,” he said, sweeping a hoof past the scenery. “But not just the sound. You gotta take it all in. C’mon. There’s more to see.”

He resumed trotting down the road, and while she hated to leave this spot, she didn’t take long to fall in step behind him. But no more watching the dirt and rocks go by—she noticed the different textures of bark, the shapes of leaves, the sound of the wind rustling through the boughs. And around her, the forest thickened, hemmed them in from overhead, darkened, until it seemed rather like a tunnel, with a bright light at the end obscuring what lay beyond.

When they’d emerged from the woods and Octavia’s eyes had readjusted to the full sunlight, she saw for the first time the fertile emerald fields of Big Mac’s home. Hired hooves worked at tilling, watering, planting. Behind a split-rail fence, a group of cows quietly cropped a pasture full of tender grass, and down the road, an old mill on the stream’s edge emitted a low, rumbling noise.

“This is so peaceful! I love it!” Octavia gushed.

Big Mac let out a hearty laugh. “Peaceful? Ha! Not sure I’d call it that, what with all the trouble that goes on ’round here. But it’s my home all the same.”

She followed him up to the house, and his gait changed again—he’d started out rather stiff-legged in town, but gradually eased up on the way, and now he practically bounced. Through the front door, and… exposed ceiling beams, the smell of ashes in the hearth, worn quilts on a rack by the couch. All so charming! She’d bet there wasn’t a warmer place to spend a cold winter evening.

“Den in here, kitchen over there. We prefer the old cast-iron, wood-burning stoves, as you can tell.” Big Mac shook a hoof toward the window. “Bunkhouse is out yonder, for the seasonal help we take on. I’d show you, but a few o’ the field hooves might still be resting after the mornin’ shift.”

To the stairs next, and on the way up, she peered at all the photographs plastered across the wall. She’d be lucky if she could name half a dozen of her own extended family, but he could probably recall every single pony in those pictures, along with how to trace the family tree between them.

Big Mac pointed out the doors in turn. “Granny Smith’s down there, then Apple Bloom. Applejack over here, and the guest room at the end o’ the hall. This here one’s mine,” he said nodding toward the room beside him.

Octavia peeked around the door jamb—rather spartan. Just a straw-filled mattress, a lamp, a rack with a large work collar hanging on it, and a dresser with yet another batch of family photographs. And something else sitting behind them…

“Why do you have a doll there?” Octavia asked. Maybe he blushed, but his coat hid it well.

“Oh, uh… that’s just Miss Smarty Pants. That’s… a long story—say, why don’t I show you around outside?” He herded her back toward the stairs, and did she catch him rolling his eyes at her giggling?

This time, the back door, and a freckled mare with an obvious family resemblance and a big hat met them coming the other way. “Well,” she said, stretching the word out like taffy. “Who’s your friend, Big Mac?” She wore way too big a grin for an innocent question, but she had a warmth behind her eyes as well.

“This is Octavia,” he said, maybe a tad brusquely. “Octavia, ma’am, this is my sister, Applejack. Octavia wanted to see the farm, since she’s never visited one.”

“I see.” Applejack tipped her hat. “Well, don’t put her to work or nothin’. Good to meet you, Octavia.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Octavia replied. “This is a beautiful farm. I can see why it means so much to Big McIntosh.”

Applejack snapped a nod. “Thank you, ma’am. Not to be short, but I got more work to do, so I won’t keep you. Y’all have fun.” At his sister’s smirk, Big Mac rolled his eyes even more than he had about Miss Smarty Pants.

She really hated for the day to turn into a roast at Big Mac’s expense, though he was rather adorable when he got embarrassed. At least he was leading her past the barn and toward an empty orchard where nopony could make fun of him. Thank goodness.

Behind the barn, the hilltop looked out over acre after acre of green and gold and… She gasped. All the colors! Was this how it felt for him, even a little?

“Grain fields to the south there,” he said, jutting his chin in their direction. “Vegetable patches out west, and apple orchards to the north and northeast.” A glimmer returned to his eye. “Say, you ever taste an apple fresh off the tree?”

“No,” she answered, shaking her head, “in the city, they’re usually a couple of days old before they get to the markets.”

“Then you’re in for a treat. C’mon.” He waved her along. “This is my favorite spot in all of Equestria.” They wandered down the slope and through the edge of the grove. When they emerged in a clearing at the base of the hill, he kicked one of the trees, which dropped exactly two apples into the grass. She guessed she couldn’t have expected any less from somepony who’d worked these trees all his life, but she still caught herself snickering at the unlikelihood of it all.

Only a narrow strip of grass separated the bottom of the hill from a pond. With a brief grunt, he settled himself to the ground and reclined against the hillside. “Have a seat,” he said.

Mowing around all these trees probably was difficult, but… She cast a wary eye over the weeds sprouting up. Who knew what those things might do to her coat?

Right. An earth pony afraid of some dirt and plants. She chuckled despite herself and knelt, then rolled onto her back. And an apple appeared in front of her face.

“Here. Try it,” Big Mac said as he bit into his own.

And so she did. Crisp, tart, sweet… No taste of cardboard boxes, wagon wood, or road dust. Just… apple. Pure and simple. “This was good,” she said as she set the core down in the grass next to her. He unceremoniously heaved his across the pond, so with a shrug, she followed suit, but a small splash told her she hadn’t quite got the distance. “This is part of it too, huh? Part of the color and smell and taste that make this place special?”

“O’ course. You’re startin’ to get the big picture.” Some of the taller stalks of grass had gone to seed and looked rather wheat-like—he plucked one and left it dangling from his mouth, then folded his forelegs behind his head and shut his eyes. Octavia watched him for a minute and waited for him to say something, but… he had, in a way.

She lay back as well and stared up at the endless blue depth of sky. What to watch, though? “Take it all in,” he’d said. So she did.

High, wispy clouds drifted to the east while the puffier ones down low sailed lazily northeast. Different wind directions at those heights… Some manner of scavenging bird circled in the distance, and red and gold apples dotted the branches all about her.

She closed her eyes. A couple of hills away, wind-bent oats whispered dryly, and the breeze rustled the leaves overhead, sending a play of shadow and light through her eyelids. She could count at least ten different bird calls, some of them from multiple directions, and they ranged from sweet melodic lines to insistent chattering to raucous croaking. A low, guttural sound preceded the splash of a bullfrog as it abandoned its watch along the shore. From both sides, crickets argued back and forth in an alternating cadence, while cicadas chanted from the branches.

In her mouth, the sharp taste of that apple still lingered, and it contrasted wonderfully with the slightly bitter scent of wood smoke wafting over from the house, where they’d probably started preparing dinner already. Blades of grass pressed into her back, burrs in her mane, the soft zephyr tickling individual hairs of her coat…

She’d never experienced this before, the full richness of her senses. The music! She needed to add the music! She’d played it so often that she could recall every strain of it, even in her sleep. She brought it back now, hearing the flute solo from the birds, the oboe bleating from the pasture, a torrent of violins rushing with the stream. Her grin buckled as she wiped a few tears off her cheeks.

Next to her, slow, steady breathing—she looked to see if Big Mac had fallen asleep. “Big Mac?” she asked quietly.

He opened one eye and resumed chewing his stalk of grass. “Eeyup?”

“Thank you for this. I’ve had an amazing afternoon.” She rolled onto her side to face him. “I almost feel like I’ve had the opposite experience as you—while I’ve focused on all the sights, sounds, and smells, I brought in the music. I know it’s not the same, but you helped me make that connection. I hate that it has to end, but I do have rehearsal this evening.”

“After dinner, right?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, but I’ll just pick up something in town, like I usually do.”

“Nope. A home-cooked meal is part of the deal.” Big Mac stood and shook the loose grass off. “I saw how you wolfed that apple down. Always eating on the run, ain’t you?”

True enough. Grabbing something before the train pulls away, doing without before a concert, even visiting the take-out restaurant near home several times a week during the off season. She gave a guilty smile.

“Stay for dinner. Always plenty of extra seats. I can get you back in time,” he said. And that little crease to his forehead… Was he actually scared she’d turn him down?

“I’d like that.”

It took his whole face to hold his grin. “Good. We’d best head back now. Grub’s almost ready.” He gave his mane a tousle and picked out the last few brambles.

Octavia rose gingerly to join him and brushed a hoof over her own coat. No telling what state her mane was in—she pulled it around as best she could and swiped at the debris caught up in it. “I wish I’d brought my brush,” she said.

“I got it,” Big Mac replied. And before she knew it, he was nibbling softly at her mane, down at the roots, and working his way up her neck.

She nearly went weak in the knees, but then… “Um, do you normally do this?”

“Eeyup. We got no wings or horns to do it for us, so might as well help a friend out.” A lopsided smile crept across his face. “Not to mention it feels pretty dang good.”

“Mm. Yeah,” Octavia said, stretching her neck out. “Feels like a massage. I didn’t know anypony did it this way. I’ve always just gone to a salon or used a comb. Sorry to see what I’ve been missing.”

Big Mac picked out the last of the thistles and twigs, inspected his work, and gave a sharp nod. “That should do it. Just another one o’ those earth pony things that gets lost in the big city. C’mon, let’s get to dinner. We’ll have fresh roasted vegetables tonight from today’s pickin’. Everypony’ll love havin’ a guest. We don’t get too many, ’cept family.”

Her spine still tingling, Octavia followed the tempting aroma and the very interesting stallion back up the hill.

“Thanks again for a wonderful day, Big Mac,” Octavia said as she stood on the front porch, her mane catching the setting sun’s orange.

Applejack must have been busy; they hadn’t seen her at dinner. He could probably do without her teasing right now—no, it wasn’t fair to form that impression of her already. At least Big Mac had seemed more relaxed. And Octavia had put away seconds and even thirds of nearly everything. Absolutely delicious, and actually something healthy for a change. The workers hadn’t known quite what to make of the city mare, but they peppered her with questions anyway, and it turned out she’d visited many of their hometowns on previous tours.

His green eyes gathered up the evening’s peace and shone it back at her. “I’ve never had a better time in my life!” she said. “But I need to get back for rehearsal—I only have half an hour.”

“I got you covered. Come with me.” Big Mac galloped off, leaving her staring after him. Did he really—? “I promised I’d get you back on time,” he shouted over his shoulder.

She chuckled to herself, gritted her teeth, and took up pursuit. This she could do. Well, used to do—she’d run cross-country three years in high school. But she didn’t get much time to run anymore.

Before long, she’d caught up to him. He didn’t exactly have a racer’s body, but he wasn’t going all out, either. This wasn’t a race. She watched him dig his hooves into the dirt and kick up a lot more than he really needed to.

Why? Everything he’d done today had a purpose to it. She squinted at him and gave it a try herself. She flicked her hooves back with each step, scooping soil up behind her horseshoes. The temperature, the texture… the smell. Warm mud, with a sharp acidity to it, then back into the forest, with the cool, pleasing smoosh of loam just off the path. A few stretches with a soft cushion of sand or the crunch of gravel. Her mane streamed back, and her nostrils filled with the evening’s musty aromas.

Somehow, she’d known this before, but forgotten. Only generic road dust and pavement for so long had made her lose touch, but this feeling of blending in with the ground, becoming part of it… She found a second wind and surged ahead, her neck straining forward with each hoofbeat. “Another earth pony thing?” she panted as she passed Big Mac. He nodded back—and now it was a race.

It didn’t matter that she made it to her hotel first. He’d won. He’d already won. And when he cantered up a few seconds later, she plopped onto the cool stone of the sidewalk outside the lobby and matched his grin. Sweat ran down her sides, but no matter—she still had plenty of time for a shower before rehearsal.

“Thanks for the extra lesson,” Octavia wheezed.

“Seems you taught me somethin’, too.”

“I used to do something like that, but with a different focus. For the track team.” She swallowed against the dryness in her throat.

“I remember my first real run, when I wasn’t just playin’, and what it meant,” Big Mac said. “I wanted to make sure you knew.”

She stood again and touched his shoulder. “I’d better go inside, but… can I see you again? We leave first thing in the morning, but I’ll be back in Canterlot in a couple of weeks. It’s a short ride from there.”

“Yeah, Octavia, ma’am. I’d like that.” He ran a hoof down the back of his neck.

“Me too. And Big Mac?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Eeyup?”

“My name isn’t ‘Octavia, ma’am.’ Just Octavia.” She laughed quietly, but he probably didn’t hear her over his hoof scuffing against the ground.

“Yes’m, uh… Yes, Octavia.”

Bits of fog still clung to the rooftops as Big McIntosh made his way to Ponyville’s train station. Porters scurried about on the platform to help commuters on their way to work. A lot of yawning faces and coffee cups among the crowd—he had to laugh. He’d already been up for three hours.

And then he spotted her: Octavia, staring intently at a baggage handler while tapping a hoof on her cello case, her head bobbing with each sentence. He could imagine what that conversation involved.

She hadn’t seen him approach, and she jumped when he cleared his throat behind her. “Oh!” she said, holding a hoof to her chest. “It’s you!” And then she saw the bag draped over his back.

“My dress! Thank you, Big Mac. I completely forgot about it.” She slid it off him and added it to her pile of suitcases before the porters could take them all.

“You’re welcome, Octavia. I’d forgotten, too, and it was my fault, so I got Rarity to open her shop early today so I could get it.” He sidled a little closer to her. Never before had black and gray seemed so exciting. And with the amethyst eyes and burgundy voice… “I also wanted to see you off.”

“That’s awful sweet of you, and it wasn’t your fault at all.” She jerked her head around at a short blast of the train’s whistle. “Oh, they’re about to leave. I’d better get on board.”

Trotting toward the nearest car, she called back, “Two weeks, and I’ll come for a visit!” And then she stopped, rushed up to him, gave him a peck on the cheek, and dashed for her seat. Seconds later, she hung out the window and waved, a huge grin plastered across her face.

Big Mac waved back and stayed rooted to the spot until well after the train had gone out of sight. He took a deep breath, shook the jitters out of his nerves, and started for home. But after only a dozen paces, he took a detour toward Carousel Boutique so he could deliver some well-earned thanks to its proprietor.

Author's Note:

Another fairly obvious chapter title—"crescendo" means building in volume and intensity. It refers not only to the growing relationship between the two, but also how Big Mac has taught Octavia to hear beyond the silence, and what was previously undetectable to her has moved to the forefront.

Coming October 12, Chapter 3: Divertimento