by ArgonMatrix

Chapter I – Vinegar

Rain scheduled for 4:30. BE HOME BY 3:30. Bring vinegar just in case.

Serenade flipped her day planner shut and slid it into her saddlebag. She leaned back against the cold bench and looked past the autumn trees across the street. A clock tower loomed over the houses just a few blocks away—three twenty-five. And as though on cue, a pair of pegasi flew through her vision pushing dark, ominous clouds skyward.

Part of her wanted to yell out to the pegasi—beg them to delay the rain. That would never work, though. Trying to postpone the weather was like telling the sun not to rise; you could only do it with power, influence, or a really good reason.

Listening carefully, Serenade heard her foal still sound asleep in the carriage next to her. With a light sigh, she levitated her saddlebags onto her lap. She unclasped one and peeked inside. Amid the fabric-tinted purple light she saw a bottle of milk, a small vial of vinegar, a pack of cotton swabs, the pair of pearl earrings she hadn’t been willing to sell, and precisely twenty-one bits. Some patches of designer makeup still stained the bag’s fabric. Frowning, she grabbed the vinegar and a cotton swab in her magic and shut the bag.

Crisp, earthy air filled her nose as she inhaled one last time, savouring the brisk, autumnal smell for all it was worth. She then uncorked the vial, and the swab slid in with all the practice and precision of a seamstress threading her needle. Once the cotton was thoroughly soaked, Serenade pulled the swab out and dabbed the hair around her nostrils. Pungent acidity instantly overwhelmed her senses, and she cringed hard. Better than the alternative, she reminded herself.

A school bell rang, and Serenade snapped to her hooves. She pulled the baby carriage with her as she stepped over to a gap in the chain-link fence. Her heartbeat quickened when she turned to face the elementary school. With her breath caught between her teeth, she waited.

A tidal wave of colour poured from the front doors as fillies and colts flooded into the field. Serenade scanned the sea of tiny manes, her focus never lingering for very long. She’d know the filly when she saw her.

The crowd finally dispersed, and Serenade found the hazel braid she’d been hunting. The cream-coloured filly was waving goodbye to two young unicorns, a big smile on her face. Serenade felt her eyes getting hot and her throat clenching. Her hoof shot skyward and whipped about violently, making some semblance of a wave. “Melody!” she cried.

Melody turned to face her, and the filly’s eyes grew nearly as wide as her head. “Serenade?!”

Hearing that voice for the first time in so many months… It had been far too long since she’d stood at the end of this path.

Seri!” Melody’s voice cracked. She broke into a full gallop, her eyes drowning in tears. Serenade half-ducked, half-collapsed to meet her. She opened her arms wide and braced herself as Melody plowed into her, throwing her tiny hooves around Serenade’s neck. Serenade clutched her as though she might vanish at any instant. Everything about Melody came rushing back in a flurry. Her weight, her feel, her warmth, her breath—everything was so familiar that it hurt.

Everything except the smell. She smelled like vinegar.

Melody buried her face deep into Serenade’s shoulder and muffle-said, “I missed you so much, Seri…”

“I missed you too, Melody. I’m sorry I left for so long. I’m so, so sorry.” She squeezed Melody tighter. The simple act of hugging her made all of her problems blur into great nothings. And when the hug did eventually end, Serenade remembered herself and smiled wider. “There’s someone else here who wants to see you too, Melody,” she whispered.

Melody gasped and threw her head around, her braid whooshing through the air. “Windy?! Is Windy here?!”

Serenade’s smile faltered as reality hammered through her. A storm was coming, everything smelled like vinegar, and she needed to get home. But not yet, she thought. I need this.

She set Melody down and shook her head. “No, not Windy. Somepony even more special.” She stood up and levitated Melody onto her back. “Melody,” she whispered, stepping closer to the baby carriage, “meet your niece.”

Together they looked inside and saw a tiny foal at rest. Her body was huddled in a cocoon of blankets, but her smiling, pink face stood out. A puff of mane swirled around the side of her head in three colours—purple, pink, and yellow. The blankets rose and fell in rhythm with her small breaths. For a moment, Serenade lost herself as she watched the filly sleep, and everything was right in the world.

A quiet intake of air pulled her attention away. Melody’s face poked over Serenade’s shoulder, and she beheld the foal in sheer wonder. “What’s her name?”

Serenade reached into the carriage and swept a stray hair from the foal’s face. “Cadenza,” she said. “You can call her Cadance.”

“Why were you gone so long, Seri?” Melody asked, trotting beside Serenade as they rounded a corner. “Mom and Dad never walk me home, and walking by myself is sooo boring.” She frowned at her hooves. “You and Windy always made it better, but then you stopped coming. Why?”

Serenade split her focus between watching Cadance and the cloud cover darkening overhead. “It’s complicated,” she sighed. “Well, not really, I guess. But it’s still something you don’t need to worry about. All you need to know is that something… happened. Six months ago, on my seventeenth birthday. You remember that, right?”

Melody beamed and gained a little bounce in her step. “Yup! I made you that special birthday card at school. I got Madame Presto to enchant it and everything!”

“And it’s still sitting on my bedside table.” Serenade chuckled—something she had deeply missed doing, she realized. “But even though that was a wonderful day, something not-so-wonderful happened that night.” She stared distantly ahead. “I had to get away for a while.”

“What happened?”

Serenade shook her head. “You don’t need to know.”


“Melody.” Serenade came to a stop, careful not to jostle the baby carriage. “Listen, sweetie. There are some things you just aren’t ready to hear about, and this is one of them. Someday, when you’re older, I’ll tell you. Promise.”

Melody shrank and looked up at Serenade through warbly eyes. “Big Sister Promise?”

Despite everything, Serenade smirked. She stooped down and nuzzled the side of Melody’s head. “The biggest Big Sister Promise that a big sister can promise!” Using her magic, Serenade moved the tip of her ponytail to Melody’s nose and flicked it gently. Melody giggled.

“Stop it!” she said between laughs. “That tickles!”

“You did always love that when your were younger.” Serenade pulled away, wrapped the baby carriage in her magic again, and continued down the street. “So are you still doing well in school?”

“Yuh-huh!” Melody chirped, bobbing her head like a paint-shaker. “Madame Presto says I’m doing a lot better with my magic than last year, and I got the highest score on our magic terminology test last week!”

“That’s awesome!” Serenade said, leading Melody across the street. “I loved those little quizzes when I was in school. What kind of terms did you have to define? Semi-permeable thaumic node? Primordial leyline? Essentia Hypoxia?

“Seri, your geek is showing.”

After a quick analysis of the conversation, Serenade realized that her inner geek had, in fact, been showing. She rolled her eyes. “Sorry. You know how I get about magical theory.” Instead of crossing the next street, Serenade guided herself and Cadance around the corner toward the market district.

“Uh, Seri?” Melody said, her hoof dangling over the street. “Home is this way.”

Serenade grinned over her shoulder. “But the ice cream stand is this way. Unless of course, you don’t want any ice cream.” She shrugged and kept walking. “More for me.”

Melody was by her side in a flash. “I thought ice cream was only for special occasions!”

“I’d say this counts,” Serenade said, smiling softly at Cadance. “Anything else new lately? School, friends, Mom and Dad? I’m all ears.”

“Lemme think.” Melody tapped one hoof on her chin as her bottom lip jutted out—clearly very deep in thought. “Oh!” she blurted. “Maps!”

Serenade raised an eyebrow. “Maps?”

“Maps!” Melody hopped. “Dad got me this real big map book for my birthday last month. He was all like, ‘Make sure you study the map of the city, Melodious. You don’t wanna get lost on your way home from school like a big dumb idiot, Melodious. Stop playing with my moustache, Melodious!’” Serenade stifled a giggle at the impersonation. “At first I thought it was dumb, but maps are actually really cool! All the neat places with all the silly names and all the different ways to get to the neat places. Geography class is the best now!”

“That’s… very you,” Serenade said. “Still, cool! I’m glad you found something to be passionate about.”

Melody started skipping, her braid bouncing to her own personal rhythm. “I’m super good at it, too. I memorized the whole map of Elmshire, then the one for the whole entire country! Next I’m gonna try to memorize someplace far away, like Equestria. That place sounds neat.”

“Memorized the whole city, huh?” Serenade peered up at a street sign: Mustang Avenue. “Okay then, smarty pants. What’s the fastest way from here to the Elmshire Contemporary Art Gallery?”

“Well…” Melody pulled in a mighty breath, sucking in air until she seemed fit to explode. Then she said, “You gotta go west down Mustang Avenue for six blocks so that you’ll be on the Fillibuster Thoroughfare that leads all the way across town and you follow it north towards the entertainment district for seventeen blocks exactly and on the corner there you’ll see this big flashy building called the Bridlehorn Theater which is right across the street from Swan Song’s Amphitheater but you don’t cross the street to the amphitheater instead you follow Clopton Boulevard west for two blocks then cross the street and you’ll be at the corner of this big field called Cantering Queens Park and if you cut across the field to the northwest you’ll be just across the street from the Elmshire Contemporary Art Gallery just like you wanted!” She came to a stop, smiling wide and panting hard. “Gimme a challenge next time, Seri!” she wheezed.

Serenade blinked, and blinked again. “Wow. You weren’t exaggerating when you said you memorized the whole map, huh?”

Melody beamed. “Everything from Augur’s Aisle to the Zircon District!”

“Impressive.” The sisters rounded another corner and found their destination—a colourful little wagon sat halfway down the sidewalk, a portly stallion standing next to it. “What kind of ice cream do you want, Melody?”

“The usual.” Melody’s eyes suddenly lit up. “But can I get a double scoop?!”

A pang of regret washed through her, but still Serenade said, “Of course!” She did some quick mental math, recalling that she only had twenty-one bits on her. Twenty-one bits, period, she lamented. She shook the thought and approached the ice cream vendor with a light smile. “Good afternoon!”

“What can I do ya for?” the stallion grumbled, not even looking their way.

“A double scoop of strawberry swirl and a single of vanilla, please.” She magicked open her saddlebag and levitated out nine dull bits.

“Eighteen bits.”

Half of the bits fell back into her bag as Serenade’s magic flickered. She gawked at the stallion. “What? Last time we came it was only three bits per scoop!”

The stallion jerked his head to a sign on the cart. 6 bits = 1 scoop. “Times change, lady. Gotta make a living somehow. Eighteen bits.”

Serenade sighed through her nose and frowned. She looked to her side. Melody wasn’t paying attention—the filly was standing on her hind hooves and peeking into Cadance’s carriage. “Fine,” Serenade mumbled, her gaze frozen on her sister. “Just the double scoop of strawberry, then.”

The stallion shrugged. “Twelve bits.”

Serenade hovered the money over and turned away as the stallion prepared the treat. She stepped over to Cadance’s carriage and knelt down next to Melody. They both looked at Cadance. The foal’s blanket had drooped a little, so Serenade readjusted it. Cadance wiggled in her sleep and settled back into the blanket. “Isn’t she the sweetest?” Serenade whispered.

“Where’s her horn?” Melody asked.

Giggling, Serenade said, “She doesn’t have a horn, silly. She’s not a unicorn like us. She’s a pegasus.”

Melody gasped. “Like Windy!”

The name punched her in the gut, and Serenade bit her cheek. “Yeah. Just like Windy.”

“Oh, I bet her wings are just so tiny and pink and cute!” Melody stared up at Serenade with big, hopeful eyes. “Can I see them?”

“Maybe when she’s awake, okay? Right now she needs some sleep, so let’s just try to be quiet and leave her—”

“Strawberry swirl!” the vendor bellowed, although they were the only ponies remotely within earshot. “Double scoop!”

Serenade took the ice cream cone in her magic. “Thank you,” she said. She hovered the frozen treat down to Melody and smirked. “A double scoop of strawberry swirl as per your request, milady.” She bowed.

Melody laughed. She offered her own dignified bow in return. “Why thank you, kind miss.” Serenade chuckled. These were the moments she had missed.

Melody suddenly shot up and let out a squeal of excitement. “I bet I can even carry the ice cream all by myself this time, Seri! I’ve been practicing lots. Watch!” The filly widened her stance and glared at the ice cream. She squeezed her eyes shut, and her horn came alight with a pale green aura. The same aura illuminated around the ice cream cone, and it hovered in place.

The magic winked out not a moment later, and the ice cream went plummeting. A yellowish aura caught the treat just before it impacted the ground. Allowing herself to release the breath she’d apparently been holding, Serenade said, “You’ve definitely improved, but why don’t I hold it for you this time?”

Melody shrugged. “’Kay.” The two of them started back down the sidewalk toward the residential district. Serenade hovered Melody’s ice cream and pushed Cadance’s carriage in her magic simultaneously.

A glance up at the sky quickened Serenade’s pace just a little. The clouds had grown thick and dark. “Let’s hurry, Melody. We should get you home before the rain hits.”

“But I love the rain!” Melody inhaled a big whiff and smiled. “It’s so much fun to play puddle jump! And the rainy smell reminds me of Windy.”

Serenade inhaled, absorbing the still-powerful scent of vinegar. “Yeah,” she said. “Me too.”

They stopped beside a thick, well-trimmed hedge. Serenade quickly looked about, making sure they were truly alone. “Okay,” she said, looking down at Melody. “You remember what to tell Mom and Dad?”

Melody chomped the last bit of waffle cone from the air and nodded. “Yeah, but do I have to, Seri? Lying always feels so bad.”

“Lies aren’t always bad, Melody. Sometimes it’s easier for ponies to be happy if not everypony knows the truth, and this is one of those times. Now, what do you say to Mom and Dad?” Melody sighed and hung her head. A few seconds of dismal silence passed, like the moment before a horrible truth is told. Serenade knelt down in front of Melody and settled her hooves on the filly’s shoulders. “This is important, Melody.”

“I’m late coming home because I stayed after school to finish some homework,” Melody recited in a flat voice. “Don’t mention you. Don’t mention Windy. Don’t even mention the walk home.”

Serenade smiled and wrapped Melody in a soft hug. “That’s my girl.”

“Can I tell them about Cadance?”

Ice shot up Serenade’s limbs. She held Melody at arm’s length and firmly shook her head. “No. You can’t. You can’t say anything about her. You remember how bad things got when I told them I was having a foal in the first place, right?”

Melody kept her head down. “Yeah…”

Pursing her lips, Serenade moved a hoof and tried to tilt Melody’s chin up, but the filly jerked her head sideways. Serenade sighed. “I know this must be so hard for you, Melody. Trust me, I hate it too. But this is how things have to be, at least for now, okay? I made some mistakes, and now—”

“It’s not a mistake!” Melody cried. She whipped her head up and glared at Serenade through firm, wet eyes. “It can’t be a mistake! Don’t you dare say it is! You love Cadance, and now I love her too! How can anypony say that’s wrong?! Mom and Dad are the wrong ones! They… They…” Melody hiccupped into a sob.

Serenade pulled her sister in close. She stroked Melody’s mane and worked her mouth silently, trying to say anything, but words failed her. The filly sobbed into her shoulder, and Serenade felt heat building around her own eyes. She squeezed Melody tighter and simply whispered, “I’m sorry.” The sisters clung to one another for minutes. A cool autumn wind rolled over them.

“Take me with you,” Melody croaked. “I don’t wanna stay with Mom and Dad. I wanna come live with you and Windy and Cadance.”

The hug finally ended as Serenade pulled back and smiled down at Melody, wiping a hoof across her eyes as she steadied her breathing. “You know how much I would love that. But I can’t. Mom and Dad, they love you—I love you too much to do that.”

Melody shook her head. “If they really loved me, they’d let you come back home. They don’t care about me at all.”

Serenade grabbed Melody’s chin and forced her to meet her stare. “Don’t you ever say that, Melodious. Our parents love you more than anything. They only want what’s best for you, and no matter what you or I say, this is what they think is best, and they know better than either of us. Never doubt their love for a second, you hear me?”

Melody sniffled. “Okay…”

“I mean it, Melody. That love is more valuable than you realize.” Serenade peered past the bush at their side and saw the edge of her parents’ house. Her heart twisted. “Don’t lose it, Melody. Promise me.”

“I won’t,” Melody said, shaking her head. “Promise.”

At last, Serenade cracked a smile. “Good. Now let’s dry those tears before you head inside.” She levitated the tip of her ponytail up to Melody’s eyes and wiped away the moisture. Melody brought her own hoof up and rubbed at her eyes. “Feeling better?” Serenade asked.

“Just a little.”

“Alright.” Again, Serenade leaned forward and took Melody in her embrace. “I’ll walk you home again tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay. I can bring my map book to school tomorrow too and show you if you want.”

“I’d love that.”

The sisters held their embrace, and eventually Serenade had to force herself to let go. Melody propped herself up to look into Cadance’s carriage and whispered, “Bye, Cadance.” She turned to Serenade and smiled lightly. “Bye, Seri. See you tomorrow! Love you.”

Serenade returned the smile. “Love you too, Sis.”

With that, Melody trotted around the hedge and into her parents’ front yard. She took one last look over her shoulder at Serenade, then she cantered out of sight.

All the tension in Serenade’s body flooded away, and she collapsed to her haunches with a frown. She gazed past the hedge again and released a slow, rattled breath. She closed her eyes and listened as the breeze whistled through the leaves. She tried to inhale the scent of the freshly manicured lawns surrounding her, hoping to trigger some nostalgic memory, but all she got was vinegar.

She opened her eyes and looked sideways at Cadance. The foal still slept soundly beneath her blankets, an innocent smile defining her face. Serenade smiled. She stood, took the carriage in her magic, and walked off.

Serenade navigated mindlessly to the Topaz District. The line between the district and the rest of Elmshire could nearly be drawn straight on the ground. It began where the houses went crooked and the sidewalk turned to gravel. A distinct aroma of filth permeated the place, and although Serenade couldn’t smell it herself, just the memory of the scent was enough to make her nose crinkle.

Her gait slowed as she entered the district so as to keep Cadance’s carriage from jostling on the uneven ground. Serenade kept her head low and her eyes on Cadance, doing her very best to ignore the surroundings. Someone coughed from across the street, and another pony shouted something in the distance—just a few of the ambient noises she’d long become accustomed to.

Weaving through the narrow streets as quickly as she dared, Serenade rounded her usual corners on her way back home. Her gaze flicked ahead—a building that ran most of the street’s length stood ahead of her, a dozen brown doors marking its front. She kept her pace towards the condominiums.

“Afternoon, Miss Serenade,” said a voice like sandpaper. Serenade stopped and looked to the side at a sturdy old stallion who smiled her way. His coat was storm cloud grey, and his white tail was tangled and frayed like an old broom. A patchy black bowler sat over his mane.

Serenade spared him a smile. “Good afternoon, Mister Diamond.”

“I told ya a thousand times. You call me Dutch.”

“Only once you stop calling me ‘Miss.’ Just Serenade’s fine.”

Dutch Diamond shook his head. “Ain’t proper to a lady.” He smiled over at the baby carriage. He gestured and asked, “An’ how’s li’l Miss Cadance doing?”

“She’s fine. Enjoying her nap as always.” Serenade shot a look up at the black clouds looming overhead. “But she’ll be decidedly less happy if we don’t get home before the storm.”

Dutch gave a quick, curt nod. “Course. I just wanted to ask ya quick if y’can spare any bits today.”

Serenade’s heart took a nosedive. Nine bits, she reminded herself. That’s all you have. Don’t be an idiot. “Sorry, Mister Diamond, but—”

“Please, Miss Serenade.” He reached into a large bag at his side and pulled out a thick stack of papers. He held it close to his chest. “The novel’s nearly done. Just one more inkpot’ll do it, but I ain’t got enough. Four bits is all I’m asking.”

Serenade bit her lip. She looked from the manuscript to the stallion and back again. Finally she sighed and opened her saddlebag. “Only if you promise me that I’ll get the first copy of that novel when it’s finished.” She slowly levitated the bits out one by one.

Dutch flipped his hat off, revealing a wiry, white mane. He gave a slanted grin as the bits landed in his cap. “I’ll dedicate the whole damn thing to ya.”

A chuckle managed to escape Serenade’s lips. Muffled thunder clapped in the distance, and her smile instantly fell away. “I really do have to get going,” she said, mostly to herself. She grabbed Cadance’s carriage and trotted off. “Nice talking to you, Mister Diamond!” she called. If he made a reply, she didn’t hear it.

The condo doors were all shut tight, some of them not having been opened in years or longer. They were identical, and none of them had number markings anymore, but Serenade still located hers without issue. She glanced up at the door as she arrived, and what she saw there froze her dead.

A piece of paper was nailed to the door.

Serenade stood mid-step, paralyzed by the sight of the note. She closed her eyes and breathed a trembling breath. “Please,” she whispered. “Not today.” Leaving Cadance at the base of the stairs, Serenade made a slow march up to the door, her gaze locked to the ground. Each step felt heavier than the last, and it took a small eternity to finally reach the door. She lifted her head and read the note.



There was more to the notice, but those words were all she could focus on. She ripped the paper from her door and hovered it closer to her face. No matter how deeply she stared into them, the bold, black letters still said the same thing.

Serenade collapsed. She squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head. The ambient hum of her magic and gentle whispers of the wind were all she could hear.

Thunder rolled in the distance. She gritted her teeth, and the magic holding the eviction notice burned a bright gold. The paper exploded into flame. Its ashes fell to her hooves, and she launched them from the landing with a primal scream. She dropped, cradling her head in her hooves, and wept in harsh, anguished waves.

A different shriek split the air, and Serenade was on her hooves in a heartbeat. She leapt down the stairs and ducked her head into the carriage, shushing Cadance even as tears leaked from her own eyes. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she cooed, forcing a smile. “It’s… I…” Cadance’s cries only grew louder.

Serenade bit her lip. She looked away, and a single sob wrenched from her chest. She reached into the carriage with her hooves and lifted Cadance out, holding the wailing foal close to her heart. She caressed Cadance in one arm and trotted up to her condo, magicking the door open. With a thought, she levitated the baby carriage in behind her and slammed the door, just as the storm’s first raindrops fell.