Serenade rubbed her temples and pinched her eyes, trying and failing to shunt the bleariness. She blinked rapidly a few times before glancing back down at the newspaper strewn across her table. Black and grey swam together and muddled her brain into a deep headache, her only relief in the little splashes of red that highlighted a few job listings. She levitated her marker and circled another one—a tutoring job—before collapsing against the back of her chair.
Her condo was dim at the best of times. It had only one window in the hall behind her, and even that tinted the light through a golden brown film on the glass that had come with age and neglect. Not that there was much light to begin with, as the storm churned through the night and blotted out all but the most resolute beams of moonlight. Beyond that, a single candle cast the kitchen in a feeble orange glow, fighting a losing battle against the darkness. The only other source of ambience was the rain perpetually hammering against the walls and roof outside like thousands of tiny drums. Loudest were the drops that hit the window, relentlessly pounding at the glass as the night wore on.
Her gaze lingered on the candle. It resembled an amorphous wax rose after how many times it had melted and cooled. I wonder if I should take that with us when we leave, she pondered. I don’t know how long it’ll be until we find a place to stay with proper lights. She shook her head. All evening her thoughts had been wandering to what she wanted to pack when they left. She hadn’t the slightest idea of where she even planned to go, let alone what she’d need when they got there. How was she meant to prepare for an unknowable destination?
Again, her eyes flickered shut. The cold, ruthless letters of the eviction notice still burned behind her eyelids.
Food. Her eyes slid open. I should definitely bring all the food I can. What do I even have left? Legs protesting, Serenade stood from the chair. She took a moment to stretch the wooden feeling from her bones before going to open the cabinet. Three cans of strained peaches littered the shelf, and a single can of creamed peas stood out among them. Beyond those were only stale crumbs and a single slab of bread, likely near the point of molding. Serenade sighed internally.
A little whimper tore her attention away. She absently grabbed the can of peas, extinguished the candle, and made for the hallway. Her magic slowly heated the can as she walked. A door stood open halfway down the corridor, just opposite the window, and Serenade turned inside.
Cadance squirmed in her crib, making the unhappy noises only foals can make. “Shhh,” Serenade cooed. She lifted Cadance in her arms, holding her close, and the filly quieted a bit. She rocked her gently back and forth. “Don’t worry, sweetie. Mommy’s here with yum-yums.” She sat on her own bed that lay a small distance away. The springs groaned beneath the weight.
With but a thought, Serenade popped the can of peas open. Steam poured out in a smokestack, and an odour like mortar with the afterburn of peas filled the room. Serenade lifted a baby spoon from the nightstand and scooped out a morsel of the green paste. “Nummy, nummy.” She smiled hopefully. The spoon floated near Cadance’s mouth. “Open wide!”
Giving the peas a little sniff, Cadance scrunched her face. She turned to Serenade with a frown and a tiny groan. Serenade gave her best motherly look. “Come on, honey. It’s good, I promise! And good for you, too. Lots of nummy nutrients!” She inched the spoon towards Cadance, but the filly held her mouth shut and turned away. The spoon maneuvered around to meet her again, but her head swiveled back as though magnetically repelled.
Serenade squeezed the exhaustion from her eyes. “Please don’t be difficult tonight, sweetie. Here, watch mommy.” She lifted the spoon and ate the peas herself. It tasted like wet paper that peas had been strained through, but it was better than nothing. She swallowed and beamed at Cadance, who blinked. “See? Easy! Now you try.”
The spoon dipped into the can and came back to Cadance with another—smaller—helping of peas. She eyed it strangely for a few moments. Eventually, though, she pressed her eyes shut and opened her mouth a fraction. “Good girl,” Serenade whispered. She hovered the spoon into Cadance’s mouth and slid it back out after the foal had clamped down.
Cadance instantly made a retching noise and spat the peas up all over herself. She unleashed a shrill wail, writhing in Serenade’s arms. Serenade bit her lip. She tried to shush Cadance as she scanned the room for a napkin of some kind. In the nightstand she found an empty pack of baby wipes and grimaced. As Cadance’s cries grew louder, Serenade tore a scrap of fabric from her pillowcase and set about wiping up the mess. “It’s okay, Cadance. Shhh, sweetie. Mommy will make it better.”
The cries settled as Cadance watched the peas disappear, but still she whimpered. Her little lips trembling, she rolled towards Serenade and pawed at her abdomen. Serenade frowned. She looked from Cadance to the can of peas to the soiled piece of fabric and was suddenly overcome with a nigh inexorable desire to scream.
She suppressed it, heaving a sigh instead. “Fine. Fine, Cadenza, you win. Today’s been hard enough as is.” She brushed back the hair that covered one of her teats, and Cadance latched onto it like a starved catfish.
Despite it all, the sight and sensation of Cadance feeding returned a fragment of a smile to Serenade's face. “I will have to wean you eventually, though,” she whispered. Finally back to a relative peace, Serenade ate another spoonful of creamed peas. Ponderous, and for a lack of anything to do, she allowed her gaze to roam.
The room had hardly changed from the day they’d moved in. Tiny cracks snaked all across the off-white walls as though they would flake away at even a harsh glance. Her bed was the same old cot the condo had come with—still as ratty and uncomfortable, too. Dingy hardwood covered the floor in lifeless slabs. It had the ashen colour of varnish that had spent too long underhoof, but Serenade never remembered the floors having varnish to begin with. A single oval rug formed an island for Cadance’s crib, and the crib lorded over most of the bedroom, its teak frame and colourful fabrics mystical amid the bleakness. On the crib’s far side stood a pair of closet doors, though they had been closed so long that Serenade accepted them more as wall furnishings than storage space. The nightstand rested between the bed and the crib as the crux of the room’s personality. It held two cards, a framed picture, and a skeletal lamp that lit the room with all the intensity of firefly light. One of the cards was a simple bit of ivory cardstock, folded in half and inscribed with black ink. The other was a patchwork mess of pink and purple glitter with bright golden letters reading HAPPY B-DAY SERI!!! across the front. The words shimmered like raindrops caught in sunlight.
Serenade smiled and levitated the birthday card over. She held it in the air just beyond Cadance and flipped it open. The card’s inside served as a performance stage, and a tiny illusion of Melody played the dancer, twirling about within. Magic-Melody hollered, “Weee!” a few times before facing Serenade and beaming with all her features. “Happy Birthday, Seri!” the illusion cheered, and Serenade giggled. “I couldn’t fit all of the birthday wishes I wanted into one card, so Madame Presto helped me enchant this one to say everything! Just close the card and open it again and you’ll get a new message! Neat, huh?” Melody resumed hopping all across the card. “Wee! Look, Seri! I’m an illusion! Wahoo!” Serenade chuckled again, and this time her heart was in it. A deep, true bosom-laugh.
A tiny pink hoof reached for the card. Cadance had stopped feeding, and her mouth made a small ‘o’ as she stared starstruck by the magic. Her hoof waved through Melody a few times before the illusion fizzled out. Cadance turned up to Serenade, the filly’s face still frozen in perplexed wonder. Something about that look simply melted Serenade, and she gently reached and bopped Cadance on the muzzle. The foal’s eyes crossed, and she chirped happily. Serenade giggled, but then Cadance’s face twisted into something sour. She writhed for a moment before burping up a tiny air bubble. She squealed with joy and clopped her hooves together, and Serenade giggled even more.
Laughter subsiding, Cadance leaned forward and poked at the birthday card. Serenade flipped it shut and reopened it instantly. A new Melody looked up at her with a crooked smirk. “Guess how much I love you, Seri?” She stood proudly on her back hooves and spread her arms wide. Then a great line of Melodys—seventeen in all—popped into existence and extended the length of the card, all of their hooves touching to form a small chain of little sisters. The two illusions at the card's edges stood with only one hoof on the card and wobbled as they tried to stay on board. “I love you thiiiiis much!” they chanted in unison. The Melody in the middle swayed as her balance began a mutiny against her. She blew a stray bang from her face and said, “Happy Birthday!” The illusion cut out just before she fell over.
Cadance cheered her foalish noises and tapped the card again, evidently hoping to coax the tiny pony back to life. Serenade rolled her eyes and flipped the card twice more. This time Melody had her back turned, and her head had vanished in a cross-section of blue magic. “Remember to stay in the rune circle, Melody,” whispered a mare’s voice—Madame Presto, Serenade recognized. “Your whole body has to stay inside the lines for this to work well.”
“Wait, we’re going already?!” Melody cried, wheeling her head around so that her face poked out of thin air. “But I’m not ready! Quick, stop the spell! And don’t put this one in the—” The image vanished abruptly. Serenade snortled. Again, Cadance smacked the card, nearly sending it pinwheeling. Serenade flipped the card another time to trigger the next illusion.
Two ponies appeared on the card this time; Melody stood astride a mauve pegasus stallion, and they both wore bold smiles. Ice gripped Serenade’s chest, forcing a gasp. Her magic winked out, and the card slapped against the floor as it swung shut and snapped the illusion away. The noise sealed the room in a sharp silence like the pinprick bang of a popped balloon.
Serenade took stock of herself. She was holding her breath, she wasn’t blinking, and the illusion of Wind Wrangler and Melody still ghosted in her memory. She exhaled a slow, heaving breath and allowed herself a few blinks, but she kept staring at the offending card. The longer she stared at it, the more heat built in her eyes, and the more she longed to open it again.
She heard a strained grunt. Looking down, Cadance was stretching her hooves towards the card and trying to worm free of her mother’s embrace. Serenade blinked and sealed her mouth in a taut line. She lowered Cadance to the floor and let the foal go.
Cadance scooted over to the card and smacked it with her hoof. When that didn’t work, she smacked it again—harder. The card stubbornly did nothing. Cadance pouted. She lowered her muzzle to the card and poked it, sliding it along the grainy hardwood. The card threatened to open as her nose caught it, but it closed when she pulled away. Cadance’s eyes widened a little, and she touched the card again with her muzzle—this time she purposefully caught the card’s opening and flipped it up. The card flew open, and another illusion began.
Serenade’s breath caught in her throat.
The illusion was a different one, but both Windy and Melody were still there. They stood face to face—well, Melody stood, but Windy was prone on his stomach so that he and Melody were eye level—and bore mock grimaces at one another. His eyes, Serenade thought. She bit her lip. Mercy, those eyes.
“Nuh-uh!” Melody bellowed. “I love Seri more!”
Windy pffft’d and rolled his eyes dramatically. “No way!” he said. His voice! “I love her more than anypony!”
“We’re sisters! There’s no love bigger or better!”
“She’s my wife!” That word. Serenade had to close her eyes. “She gave me a wedding band and everything!”
Melody barked out a laugh. “Wedding band, schmedding schmand. She buys me ice cream and braids my mane like all the time! Has she ever braided your mane?” Despite herself, Serenade chuckled. I did, once. You were asleep, you big lug.
There was a moderate silence, then Windy said, “Huh, good point.” He laughed. Laugh again. “I guess she really does love you more, Seri. Can’t argue with that!”
Serenade’s eyes popped open in time to see Melody pounce atop Windy’s back. They were both looking at Cadance—who sat transfixed by the magic sparkly ponies. “Just kidding!” Melody chimed. “We both love you the same!”
“Happy birthday!” they cheered together. Windy quickly flipped around and grabbed Melody. He tickled beneath her mane. She squirmed around and laughed uproariously. Windy seemed about to say something, then the illusion vanished.
A few tears had sprung loose from Serenade’s eyes. She allowed them to roll unabated—down her face and towards her smile, as though they were trying to push it back into a frown. Serenade sniffled and shook her head. “You were so good with her.”
She looked at Cadance—the foal was trying to flip the card again, but she just kept sliding it farther along the floor with her muzzle. Serenade breathed a half-laugh and reached down, lifting Cadance by her middle. “Time for bed, sweetums.” It stunned her when Cadance made no protest. The filly just looked up at her with shiny, blue-button eyes, then folded in on herself and snuggled against Serenade. Soft waves of warmth flowed over Serenade’s chest with each of Cadance’s breaths, like the tide on a cloudless summer night.
Serenade smiled. The thought of putting Cadance back in the crib never even crossed her mind. She cradled the foal near her bosom and very slowly maneuvered herself beneath the mothwing blanket. It was a scratchy, brown thing, but it did the trick. She scooched a bit to create a small gap between herself and Cadance, just enough to see her tranquil face. Serenade tucked a kiss beneath Cadance’s mane and whispered, “Good night, Cadenza.” She brought one arm around the filly and settled against the pillow.
Yet despite the exhaustion scraping at her eyes, Serenade found herself unable to fully close them. She had become fixated on the nightstand at the last moment. The second card—black, white, and formal all over—sat askew in the lamp’s mild glow. It was just barely too far away to be legible, so Serenade nudged it closer with her magic. Her eyes first caught the chicken scrawl at the bottom which read Happy 17th Seri! and she gave a ghost smile. Then she proceeded to read the card proper.
She got through the first page before the words jumbled into a slurry of cursive writing. A headache nipped at the back of her skull, and she could sense more tears lurking beneath her eyelids, so Serenade gingerly closed the invitation and laid it face-down on the nightstand. The words With thanks, the E.C.A.G. staff were inscribed on the back.
Serenade’s attention drifted lazily to the framed photo. The picture was as simple as they came: a vast green meadow under a clear sky with a white lattice archway as the centerpiece. But it was for this very simplicity that Serenade gave it her truest smile—one reserved for her own private use, and the same one she gave Cadance most every day. Her eyes traced the line where the windswept emerald field kissed the blue horizon. Everything about the image was just as she remembered it from the day she’d been there. It had been her and just one other pony, and they had stood together beneath that arch for a long while. Till death do us part, Serenade mused.
It was with this picture in mind—nothing of the eviction notice or the storm outside or the dwindling food supplies or the uncomfortable cot or the utterly uncertain future—that Serenade finally escaped into sleep. Just a meadow in her head and a baby by her heart.
Dry, stagnant air pinched her nostrils and throat, and Serenade coughed herself awake. She sat up—careful not to nudge Cadance—and slid out from beneath the blanket. She smacked her lips and swallowed the saliva that had gathered in her mouth, but the very act of swallowing grated her dusty throat. The only thought that formed in her head was that there was a sink in the kitchen and she needed water, so she plodded out into the hallway.
As she rubbed the sleep from one eye, her other eye spotted the window. It remained sealed as grey, mid-morning light trickled in, dulling the world to a newspaper shade. Tendrils of frost framed the glass, and Serenade could already sense the crisp, dewy atmosphere waiting to fill her apartment and free her from the mummified air. She reached out with her magic and pulled the window open.
It was too late that her sleep-addled brain noticed the mistake. Rainclouds still loomed large outside, and thin droplets tapped against the glass in an innocent staccato.
The humid autumn air flooded in, bringing the scent of still-fresh rain with it. It swamped Serenade’s nostrils and assaulted her brain, electrocuting all the drowsiness from it. A rasp wrenched itself from her. She fell hard against the opposite wall. Primal frenzy ripped through her conscious mind.
She didn’t even remember hitting the floor.
Twisted orange light. Blood.
It breaks. Burning wood. Discordant pain. Music, in fragments.
Crack-thud. Ozone, or gunpowder. Mother.
Music in fragments. Orchestral, and electric. Floral. Pink light. All is well.
“Calm down, girl! Come on! Get a hold of yourself!”
Reality snapped back into place. Serenade lay on the floor mid-scream. She silenced herself and stared up into a pair of bright periwinkle eyes. She realized the eyes were attached to a pony—a mare—and that the stranger had her hooves firmly on her shoulders. Then she realized she was lying against the wall, and her side hurt from having slammed against it.
Then she realized that Cadance was crying, and suddenly nothing else mattered.
“You with me?” the mare began. “You alright? Say something—”
“Cadance!” Serenade tore away and turned sharply into the bedroom.
Cadance was sitting up on the bed. Her lips quivered and her eyes warbled as she looked all around like a lost child. She saw Serenade and immediately crawled towards her, but she reached the edge of the mattress and tumbled off. Pale yellow magic caught her just in time, but the foal only wailed louder. Serenade rushed forward and scooped Cadance up in her arms. She immediately sat on the bed and began shushing her despite the tears still present in her own eyes.
“Ohmigosh,” said the mystery mare. Serenade didn’t even look up. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t hear the baby and I wanted to make sure you would be okay and I would’ve checked here if I heard her I swear and—”
Through her sniffles, Serenade caught a whiff of the damp air still rolling in. She jerked her head at the mare and half-shouted, “The window!”
“What?!” The mare looked from Serenade to the window and back again. She frowned. “Yeah, that’s how I—”
“Close it! Close the window! Please!”
“Right! I can definitely do that!” The mare leapt out of sight and Serenade heard the sound of the window clicking shut. With that off her mind, she returned all her focus to Cadance and continued cooing softly.
Soon enough, the mare returned to the doorframe and said, “Okay, window’s shut. You alright?”
Serenade sniffled and swallowed, steadying her breaths. “I’ll be fine. Just give me a moment. Shh, Cadie. It’s okay. Everything’s okay…”
The minutes stretched on as Serenade rocked Cadance back into calmness. The filly’s cries descended into whimpers, and from there subsided into occasional groans. All the while the stranger stood quietly at the door. Aside from the occasional shuffle of her hooves, not a sound rose from her, almost as though she were a shadow or figment of the imagination.
Eventually Cadance’s eyes fluttered shut, and her breathing settled into a rhythm. “I think she’ll be okay,” Serenade said, and at once she was reminded of how dry and raw her throat felt. She looked up at the mare and said, “Could you get me some water, please? Kitchen’s just down the hall.”
“Got it.” The mare trotted off to the kitchen. Moments later she returned with a tall glass brimming with water. Serenade nodded and took it in her magic. She inhaled it greedily, and as she did she took her first real look at the stranger. Her faded lime coat blended well with her braided mane—just a shade darker than her ice-blue eyes. It was like mother nature had plucked the most delicate colours from a springtime forest and painted this mare with her gentlest brushstrokes.
The last of the water trickled down Serenade’s throat. She exhaled and said, “Sorry, I really needed that. Thank you, Miss…”
“Miss nothing.” The mare trotted over and sat down next to Serenade—the bed moaned under their combined weight. “It’s Jade. Jade Rosary, if we’re being formal.”
Serenade nodded at her. “Jade it is. Now… not that I don’t appreciate your help, but what are you doing here? And how did you get in, for that matter?”
Jade gave her a look betraying utter confusion—as though breaking into a total stranger’s home were the most normal, acceptable thing in the world. Then she blinked and said, “Oh! Right! I guess you didn’t exactly expect to see anyone once you calmed down from… whatever that was out there.”
At that, Serenade had to break eye contact. Her gaze fell to Cadance. “Um… yeah, it was kind of…” Struggling to find the next word, Serenade allowed the room to slip into a thick silence.
Jade cleared her throat. “Right. Well, I was just kinda walking by when I heard you start screaming. I didn’t really know what to do. I was just gonna keep going, but it just got louder and louder and… shriller, I guess. Nopony else was around, so I found which condo it was, saw the window open and climbed inside. Then I saw you and…” Her face tightened—almost a wince. “Well, we don’t have to relive that part. Eh-heh.”
Still, Serenade kept her eyes down. An interminable heat broiled behind her cheeks. “Yeah,” she whispered, “I’d rather not.”
“So when I saw you, I just did the first thing I could think of. I grabbed you and spoke as calmly as I could, trying to snap you out of it.” Jade shrugged. “Dunno if it helped at all, but we’re here now, so I guess it’s cool.”
“Mhmm.” They suffered through another silence. Eventually, Serenade managed to turn back to Jade and forced her best smile. “Well, thank you for your help. Most ponies probably wouldn’t have even tried.”
“Don’t mention it, uh…” Jade rolled a hoof through the air. She gave Serenade a hopeful look.
It took her a moment, but soon enough she blurted, “Oh! Sorry. It’s, erm, Serenade.”
Jade beamed. “Serenade! What a nice name.” She looked to Cadance, and her smile softened. “And who’s this little cutie pie?”
Against all odds, Serenade’s smile softened too. “This is Cadenza. She’s my daughter. Almost six months old now.”
“Daughter?” Serenade’s chest tightened at the tone of curiosity in Jade’s voice. “Seriously? I thought you were just, like, foalsitting or something. How old are you?”
“Twenty two,” Serenade shot. Too quick—she’ll know you’re lying. Pull it back. “Most ponies say I look younger than I am.”
“I’ll bet! Damn. Wish I’d looked so good at twenty two.”
“Heh.” That was all Serenade could manage. Anything else she had hoped to say was either blocked by the lump in her throat or swallowed by the pit in her stomach. Yet another break in the conversation followed, filled only by the remnants of the previous night’s storm still tapping on the walls outside. Serenade tried to focus on Cadance’s breathing, matching her own to the same rhythm.
“Hey.” Jade lightly touched Serenade’s shoulder. She flinched, but she allowed it. “Look, I know this hasn’t exactly been the best morning for you—and trust me, it’s not how I expected mine to go either. But you seem nice, so… why don’t we just forget all of this and start over?” She got off the bed. “I know a little place down by the Opal where we could get some breakfast. Might help get your mind off things. My treat!”
Serenade forced herself to look up. Jade smiled, softness in her eyes. Serenade did her best to return the look. “I appreciate the offer. Really. But I have a lot that I need to get done today, and I’m already behind. So—”
“I promise it’ll be quick,” Jade said. “And maybe I can help with whatever else you have to do too. You know what they say: eight hooves are better than four!”
A reply had already formed on her tongue, but Serenade paused. Her empty stomach ached, begging her to reconsider. And she almost did, but the bold letters of the eviction notice tugged at her like a shackle on her mind. Forty eight hours. And counting.
Hope sparkled in Jade’s eyes. “Well?”
“I…” Serenade shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jade, but I just can’t. I’ve already inconvenienced you enough as it is, and—”
“It’s no inconvenience, honest!” Jade took a step closer. “I didn’t really have much planned today anyway. Please, Serenade, I just—”
“Jade,” Serenade snapped—harsher than she’d meant to. She took a single, deep breath and spoke in as level a voice as she could. “Sorry. I do honestly appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I promise I’ll be fine. I just need to be alone right now.” She hung her head and held Cadance ever closer. “Thank you again.”
Gentle clops sounded as Jade took a few small steps back. “Right. Yeah. Of course.” She simply stood there for a few moments in stark silence. Serenade almost made to say something, but Jade’s hoofsteps resumed, and she kept quiet.
“I don’t live too far off,” Jade said, pausing in the doorframe, “so maybe I’ll see you again sometime. And hopefully I won’t have to break and enter to do it next time, heh.”
Serenade gave a small nod—she wasn’t even sure if Jade would be able to tell. The hoofsteps picked up again, growing quieter and quieter as they continued down the hall. There was a click, a door opening—briefly heightening the sound of the rain and wind outside—and the door closed again.
Collapsing sideways on her bed, Serenade exhaled a shaky breath. She gave the photograph on her nightstand a long look, getting lost in its colours. She absently stroked Cadance’s mane and waited for the rain to end.