• Published 6th Oct 2017
  • 656 Views, 25 Comments

Cosmic - ArgonMatrix

Serenade is a young mother who wants nothing more than to provide a safe, normal upbringing for her infant daughter, Cadenza. But just how much is she willing to sacrifice to make that a reality?

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Chapter III – Stories

Serenade set down her powder brush and looked in the mirror. For better or worse, she could hardly recognize herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d put on makeup. The process had felt familiar, yet somehow wrong—like trying to fit into a dress she’d outgrown years prior. Regardless, her beautification skills had been second to none in her schooling years, and she evidently still had the touch.

She fluttered her eyelashes and feigned a smile. Just a little more. She took the powder brush in her magic and ran it along the inside of her rouge compact, scraping together the last scattered flecks of blush and powdering her cheeks. The difference was probably imperceptible, but it made her feel better all the same.

The compact clicked shut. She regarded it distantly—it was a black clamshell design with the golden letter L engraved on its back. It had belonged to her mother, once upon a time. Serenade twirled it in her magic for a moment before sliding it into her saddlebags. Just in case.

Leaving the washroom, she trotted down the corridor and stopped beside the window. She halfway wanted to open it again. The grey clouds had long since dissipated, and the heavy autumn sun was quick to warm the streets. Yet a wayward raindrop still clung to the glass, giving her pause. She inhaled, opened the window a crack, and continued to her bedroom.

Cadance’s mid-morning nap was well underway, the foal fast asleep in her crib. Serenade gave her a wistful smile as she stepped over to the nightstand and opened the drawer. It mostly contained the necessities for foal care—a thinning pack of diapers, a small sun hat, and a lone pacifier, all of which she magicked into her saddlebags—but a square of pale yellow fabric sat tucked away in the back. She pulled it out and allowed the mesh scarf to unfold, tumbling down under its own weight. She sat on her bed and set about wrapping the scarf around her neck while simultaneously reaching into her saddlebags and scouring for her pearl earrings. They were hidden away at the bottom beneath her five remaining bits.

As the scarf fastened around her neck, Serenade lifted the earrings in her magic and frowned. For months she had gone back and forth on whether or not to sell them—not that they would go for all that much, but every little bit counted. Windy had given them to her as part of a first date anniversary gift, yet surely he would’ve told her to sell them had he been there. He would have understood.

Then again, Serenade wouldn’t have been in this situation at all had Windy been there. She bit her lip and put the earrings on. The cold metal made her ears twitch.

Pushing the feeling aside, Serenade stood and stepped over to Cadance’s crib. She reached in with her hooves and gingerly lifted the foal out, blankets and all. Cadance squirmed a bit but did not wake. With slow and precise steps, Serenade made her way out to the kitchenette.

Even in the hot morning light, it seemed as dark and dismal as she had left it the night before—the marked newspaper still spread across the table, and the cupboards still open. Water dripped in slow, steady droplets from the sink’s faucet, plopping against the basin like an ancient heartbeat. Serenade quirked an eyebrow at it before remembering that Jade had come here to get her a glass of water earlier. Her heart pinched as she suddenly became aware of just how much the kitchen revealed.

Her eyes flitted past the newspaper, and her stomach twisted.

She reached her magic out and turned the faucet off. Her aura then shifted to the corner of the room where the baby carriage lay, and she pulled it over. She set Cadance inside and spent far too long adjusting the blankets until they were just right. Some of the foal-care supplies hovered from her saddlebags and settled into the undercarriage—Serenade spent a few long minutes double-checking to make sure everything was there. Then she triple-checked. Once she was satisfied, she stepped around the central table and took the three cans of peaches from the cupboard, meticulously checking their expiry dates before hiding them away in her saddlebags. She shut the cupboard doors and moved on to the fridge, which was empty save two bottles of milk she’d put in overnight. She took each bottle and methodically checked them for every minute detail she could think of—fullness, temperature, cleanliness, taste, even consistency.

Quit stalling, her mind chided. You’re on borrowed time, remember?

Finally, Serenade shut the fridge and tucked away the milk bottles. She shuffled over and sat at the table which dominated most of the room. The newspaper was still open to the classifieds, but she ignored it for the time being and instead pulled out her day planner—it had seen little use since her days had become so routine, but the process gave her peace of mind anyway. For lack of a quill or ink, she took the marker she’d used for the newspaper and scrawled out her to-do list.

Morning - Attempt to find a job (Celestia help me).
2:30 - Meet Melody at school (early because Friday). Maybe take her to Comet Tail Park if there’s time.
Sometime - Go to Wind
I can’t
I have to
I can’t
Sometime - Go see Windy’s parents & ask about staying. Maybe go early so Gale will still be in school.
Failing that, maybe talk to Mom & Dad
I actually can’t
Failing that, find a really cheap motel. Think there’s one in Topaz? Not sure if shut down or not.
Failing that…?
Evening - Pack up & enjoy your last night here.

It took her wholly too long to write, and rereading it left her feeling cold. Serenade shook her head and sighed through her nose. Having wasted more than enough time, she pushed the planner aside and began poring over newspaper ads.

The route to her first potential job led Serenade on an unfamiliar path through Elmshire. Much of her life had been lived between three places: school, her parents’ house, and Windy’s home—the Topaz District quickly becoming an ugly fourth. There had been occasional outings with her family, mostly to the theatres and galleries of the Garnet District, as well as date nights with Windy to a few nearby parks and restaurants, but she knew the city to be far larger and more diverse than her narrow slice.

It so happened that the quickest path to the Golden Horizons headquarters took her through one of Elmshire’s famed day faires. She knew that she couldn’t afford to spend the last of her savings on anything there, but she needed a distraction, and curiosity about these events had nibbled at her since she’d been a filly. Her father had always forbidden her from going. We don’t associate with mudhooves, he’d said.

Finally getting to see a faire with her own eyes, her opinion of her father only worsened.

Vibrant, upbeat music bounced through the streets. Most came from myriad phonographs set up beside the many colourful stalls and booths, and some came from live bands playing instruments Serenade couldn’t name on street corners and makeshift stages. It laid a foundation for the mess of voices that rose from the crowds, flooding the festival in an orderless scatterplot. Serenade was used to classical music played in precisely organized notes by an orchestra. The noise here was so much different—so much more alive. A symphony told a story—this cacophony told many at once in dynamic tempo. Stories of the entertainers who danced or sang or painted or juggled to the delight of colts and fillies. Stories of the vendors who hocked wares from every walk of life—funnel cakes, doughnuts, fresh lettuce, hot fried okra, juices and wines, wax sculptures and clay dolls, homemade jewelry and clothing, and even animals bred for prize or purpose. Stories of the endless onlookers, sweating under the late morning sun and sloshing through puddles left overnight as they pushed past one another to visit each individual attraction, hoping not to miss anything special. And every story was unique to this moment—this faire, in this part of the city, in a time that would never exist again. Serenade allowed herself to become lost in the stories, silently adding her own to the mix.

Most ponies were kind enough to give her a wide berth as she pushed her carriage through. Yet as Serenade watched longer and entered the thick of things, it seemed less like courtesy and more like the ponies were distancing themselves. She caught a few eyes following her in sidelong glances—some ponies gave half-smiles, others scowled and turned away, but nopony said a word. A lump slowly built in her throat as her mind raced to understand. Was it the makeup? The saddlebags? Cadance?

Her father’s voice rang in her memory like a cast-iron bell. We don’t associate with mudhooves, he’d said.

Serenade scanned the crowds again, this time observing the ponies themselves. She noticed the many mussy manes and bulky builds unique to earth ponies. She noticed a few pegasi fluttering about, keeping low but airborne. What she didn’t notice were any unicorn horns poking out above the sea of heads. Not a single one.

Except hers. A slimy chill rushed through her—she’d removed herself from society for so long that she’d completely forgotten the status quo. Serenade quickened her pace.

She veered away from the main thoroughfare and followed the sidewalk where the crowds were thinner. She found a relatively empty spot behind one of the vendor stalls and took a moment to breathe. Separating her mind from the faire, she glanced inside the baby carriage and was unsurprised to see that Cadance had woken up. The filly’s eyes were wide and glossy, mesmerized as though she’d gazed upon paradise. They moved to Serenade, and Cadance frowned. She wiggled her forelegs out from under the blankets and stretched forward, making little mumbling sounds that were barely audible in the festival’s hustle-bustle.

“Oh, dear,” Serenade said. She pulled her saddlebags off—conscious not to use her magic, as she still felt dozens of curious eyes on her—and pulled a bottle from one of them. She took it in her teeth and brought it up to the carriage. Cadance reached out and tugged the bottle from Serenade’s grip, quickly guzzling the milk within. Serenade sat down on the sidewalk and watched with a fragile smile. Feeling a bit more at ease, she let her gaze roam back out to the festivities.

Her eyes landed on a colourful fruit stand just a small distance ahead. A tall, husky stallion shouted to the crowds with a big smile, selling what looked to be apples, oranges, and pears. But what really pulled Serenade’s attention was the filly stationed just beside the stall—the vendor’s daughter, she assumed. She couldn’t have been older than Melody, though her hair and face were somewhat disheveled, so it was difficult to tell for sure. Her eyes were stark as she frantically glanced back and forth across the swarms of ponies, her body half-hidden behind the stand’s wooden frame. She looked more nervous than Serenade felt, if that were possible. Serenade wanted nothing more than to run up and hug her.

Then her heart froze. The filly slowly stepped out of her hiding spot and lifted a backpack from her haunches. She wandered up to a basket of apples resting beside the stand and pulled a hoofful of fruit into her bag. She cinched the bag shut, heaved it onto her back and took off down the street in a flurry.

Serenade blinked. She looked feverishly at the ponies all around, but nopony else had seemed to notice—many still keeping their eyes on Serenade herself. She looked back and saw a final glimpse of the filly’s tail as she disappeared beyond the crowd.

Pretend you didn’t see anything, her mind urged. You won’t catch up with her anyway. And you don’t have time to spare. Forget it ever happened.

The thought was fleeting. Serenade sprang to her hooves and levitated her saddlebags back into place. She lifted Cadance out of the carriage, separated her from the bottle, and cradled the foal in one arm as she tore after the filly.

Ponies bombarded her with annoyed grunts and damning looks as she ripped her way through the crowd, but Serenade did her best not to care. Her focus split between keeping Cadance safe and trying to spot the fleeing filly. She had expected to be overwhelmed by Cadance’s crying, but somehow the foal was giggling instead. Serenade shot her gaze down and saw Cadance beaming up at her, the wind tousling her exposed mane. Despite herself, Serenade managed a smile and kept on running.

It wasn’t long before she hit the edge of the fairgrounds. She swerved around the wooden barricade and halted on the street corner. The roads here were far emptier, and it didn’t take long to spot the filly—she had stopped just a short ways ahead after rounding the corner. Slumped over the curb and panting harshly, she clutched her backpack close to her chest. Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to spill at any moment.

Walking in measured steps, Serenade approached the filly. She stopped a good few trots away and said, “Excuse me?”

The filly gasped. Her panic-struck eyes locked onto Serenade and she shuffled backwards along the street. Her tears sprung loose, flowing in rivulets over her flushed cheeks.

“Hey, it’s okay, sweetie.” Serenade offered her most delicate smile and chanced another step closer. “I just want to talk. What’s your name?”

The filly said nothing. She stared up at Serenade, unblinking and quivering from head to tail.

“Well, my name is Serenade. You can call me Seri if you want. My friends do.” Another step—the filly inched away. Serenade sat on the curb, still a couple body-lengths away from her. “This is my first time at one of these faires, you know. How much do I stand out?” She punctuated it with a light giggle.

Still, the filly kept quiet. As Serenade watched her, though, she saw her eyes shift slightly downward.

Following her gaze, Serenade looked down at Cadance and smirked—the foal was intensely preoccupied nibbling her own hoof. “Oh, yes. And this is Cadance.” She flicked her head in a sharp motion, allowing her ponytail to dangle just above Cadance’s nose. The foal’s hoof popped out of her mouth and she watched the ponytail sway hypnotically. Serenade’s eyes darted back to the filly, and she gestured with her head. “Did you want to come say hello?”

The filly sniffled. She rose to her trembling hooves and took a strained half-step towards Serenade before freezing on the spot—as if two equal forces were pulling her in entirely opposite directions. She bit her lip.

Her eyes screwed shut. She collapsed to her haunches and sobbed in short, timid bursts. Her backpack tumbled to the ground, and a few apples rolled onto the sidewalk.

Something twisted in Serenade’s heart. “Hey,” she said, closing the distance. She instinctively reached one arm out and huddled the filly close to her shoulder—the filly didn’t resist, continuing to cry as she pressed her forehead against Serenade. “Shh, it’s okay. You’re alright.”

Now that she was closer, Serenade examined the filly more carefully. Her mane and tail were clumped in places, and she smelled of sweat and sick. Parts of her body were pallid and frail—she could feel the curves in the filly’s spine as she held her. It made Serenade’s heart sink, and she said nothing more as the filly cried.

Eventually, the filly found her voice. “Why…” She choked out another sob. “Why are you being so nice?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Serenade said. She pulled back and tried to meet the filly’s eyes, but her head remained down. “I just want to help.”

“B-but, mama said…” The filly wiped her eyes with a forehoof. “Mama said unicorns are bad. They’re the reason we had to move, and why papa’s never home…”

Serenade suppressed the urge to bite her lip. Instead she caressed the filly’s shoulder. “Not all unicorns are like that.” Her eyes trickled down to the apples scattered across the pavement. “Were you getting those for your mama?”

The filly nodded. “Mama’s sick. So’s Squash. They told me to get as many as I could, but w-we don’t have enough money, a-and—” A hiccup cut her off. She fell forward against Serenade and continued weeping.

Gently rubbing the filly’s back, Serenade felt a burning weight in the pit of her stomach. She looked down at the apples again—four had spilled out, and the backpack held another five or six, she estimated. She hadn’t heard the vendor’s prices, but she knew apples weren’t that expensive. Five bits would be more than enough.

Or, said a voice, crammed away in the back of her head, you could just let her go. These apples mean more to her than that salespony would ever understand. He won’t even notice they’re gone. Don’t waste your bits on this.

Serenade smothered the voice, burying it deep in her subconscious. She traced her hoof up and along the filly’s face, catching her chin and guiding her eyes up. She smiled into the filly’s tired face and said, “What’s your name, sweetie?”

She sniffled. “Primrose…”

“Tell you what, Primrose. How’s about you and I go back into the faire for a minute? You can apologize to the stallion, and I’ll buy those apples for you. Does that sound okay?”

Primrose’s eyes dilated, and she shook her head. “Uh-uh, I can’t go back there. He’ll be mad at me!”

“He might be,” Serenade said, “but you know what? I bet he’ll be even more impressed that you came back and told him the truth. And if he does get mad, I’ll be there too. I’ve got your back.” She winked, although it felt strange on her face.

“Uh…” Primrose looked back and forth between Serenade and the apples. She looked to Cadance too—the foal gave a happy squeal and reached a hoof out.

For the first time, Primrose smiled. She touched her own hoof to Cadance’s. “Okay.”

The knot in Serenade’s gut twisted and tightened with each step. Somehow she felt even more out of place than before as she guided Primrose back through the faire—she was certain that the crowds had grown denser, too. She did her level best to focus on Cadance’s soft breathing, ignoring all of the probing looks.

She glanced down at Primrose. The filly walked in small trots, her backpack weighing down her posture. Serenade nudged her. Primrose flinched and looked up into Serenade’s grinning face. She gave a tiny smile of her own before turning away again. Serenade’s smile dipped.

The two of them eventually made their way back to the fruit stall. The vendor had not slowed his sales pitch, and he was red in the face from bellowing. Some ponies loitered nearby, but none seemed to be paying him much mind. For that, Serenade was grateful—the last thing she needed was more attention.

As they drew close, the stallion met Serenade’s eyes with a broad smile—she could tell it was wooden, but it was still a relief. “Ay-howdy there, Miss!” he shouted. “Folks’d told me there was a unicorn in the midst. And a damn gorgeous one, I see! Ha! Well, thank’n ya for gracin’ my humble little shop. What can I do ya for? Maybe some vitamin C for the littl’un?” He lifted an orange at her.

Serenade faked a giggle and said, “Oh, you’re too kind! But I’m afraid I’m not buying today. No, it’s just that little Primrose here wanted to tell you something.” She looked to the filly and gestured her forward. “Go on, sweetie.”

“Uh…” she said, a distinct tremble undercutting her voice. For a minute she just remained rooted in place, staring up at the stallion like he were the end of the world.

“Aw, c’mon now, kiddo!” The stallion plodded out from behind his makeshift counter and ducked as close to Primrose’s level as he could. “I know I’m a mite big, but you don’t gotta be scared o’ me! Whatcha got?”

Primrose’s mouth sealed in a taut line. She methodically reached around to her backpack and plopped it in front of herself. “I, ah… um…” She unlatched the top and flipped it open, revealing the fruit within. Instantly her eyes squeezed shut and she winced away, as if bracing for a strike.

The stallion’s smile waned as he looked into the backpack. “’Fraid I don’t understand, kid. These mine?”

“Sorry!” Primrose squeaked. She darted away from the backpack and half-hid behind Serenade.

Frowning at the filly, Serenade turned to the stallion and cleared her throat. “She, er, took them, when you weren’t looking.”

The stallion’s face clicked in clarity. “I see,” he said, standing back up.

“But!” Serenade pushed the bag back to Primrose. “She really needs them, you see. So what do I owe you?” The clasp on her saddlebag flicked open.

The stallion turned to her and raised an eyebrow. His mouth hung slack for a moment before he said, “You’re payin’ for ’em?”

His words shot through her more fiercely than they should have. Serenade blinked back whatever emotion had been manifesting in her eyes. “Yes, I am. Is that so strange?” Not waiting for his answer, she pulled up the lip of her saddlebag and asked, “How much?”

It seemed as though the vendor couldn’t process what she’d said—like she’d spoken another language. His gaze shifted between Serenade and Primrose, his eyes narrowing as though he were trying to solve a puzzle.

Serenade stepped over, placing herself more directly between him and the filly, which seemed to snap him back to his senses. “Oh, uh, sure.” He shook his head, then his smile returned. “Yeah, o’ course! Before anything though, how ‘bout I top up that li’l bag for ya?” He reached into his stall and produced a woven basket full of yet more apples. “Looked like y’could do wit’ another couple!”

Primrose poked her head out from behind Serenade—a watery film coated her eyes. “Really?”

He nodded slowly. “Least I can do for such a brave young’un. Took a lotta courage t’come back ’ere, y’know.”

Primrose stepped back out and took the backpack in her mouth. She gingerly stepped up to the stallion, who proceeded to put three more apples in the bag, filling it nearly beyond capacity. The filly beheld her newly full bag like it were made of gold. Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes. “Th-thank you!”

“Anytime.” The stallion’s smile broadened. “But jus’ ask next time, kid. I always got spares, and y’don’t wanna make a habit o’ makin’ your sister pay for it.”

Serenade pursed her lips. “She’s, um, not my sister.”

With a tilt of his head, the stallion stared up at her. “Foalsitter?”

“Just friends,” she said, maybe a bit too quickly. “At any rate, how much?”

The look that he gave her skirted the line of understanding and enigma. He rose back to standing. “Two bits’ll do.”

Nodding curtly, Serenade whisked all five bits out of her bag and held them mid-air. Two of them fluttered over to the stallion’s counter, landing with a hollow thud. The other three floated in the dull hum of her magic, and her eyes drifted down Primrose.

She stood transfixed by the apples in her bag, her eyes full of innocent awe. Yet something still felt off. Sections of the filly’s fur remained caked in sweat and dirt, and she was so thin—the apples would only go so far.

Serenade’s eyes roamed back to her three remaining bits.


In an instant she became intensely aware of Cadance’s weight in her arm. Glancing down, the foal was nearly asleep again, her eyes lulling between open and not—Serenade had been unconsciously rocking her back and forth for some time. Despite all that had gone wrong in the past day alone, despite every misfortune great and small, the foal could still smile as she drifted off, cradled in her mother’s embrace. She was still safe.

Serenade smiled. What difference would three bits make, really?

“Primrose.” She knelt down beside the filly. “Listen, I…” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I want you to take these bits, okay?”

The filly’s attention ripped away from her backpack. At first she stared up at the bits with the same glossy-eyed wonder, but it shifted to Serenade a moment later. “Are you sure?”

Serenade had to torture the next word out, but eventually she said, “Yes. I’m sure. I know it’s not much, but I want you to take it and use it for yourself—whatever makes you happy, okay?” The bits hovered closer to Primrose but stopped just out of reach. “On one condition, though.”

Primrose’s face fell. “What?”

Serenade smirked. “Don’t steal any more apples, okay?”

Primrose’s mouth curved up in a smile—small, fragile, but there. She threw herself around Serenade’s free foreleg. “Thank you, Seri,” she whispered.

“Oh, pfft,” somepony said. The voice was loud and sharp, cleaving through the faire’s music like hot iron through flesh. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing? Giving a poor little urchin your pocket change. How very generous of you.”

Serenade’s attention snapped sideways. A lanky grey stallion stood there, glaring at her through half-frame glasses. A mare had one arm hooked to his, and she stared daggers at the back of his head. Keeping her eyes on the stallion, Serenade rose to her hooves and said, “Pardon?”

The mare pulled at his arm. “Don’t make a scene, Char. Let’s go.”

“Nah,” he said, slipping out of the mare’s grip. “I don’t think so. I’m not getting another chance, so I’ma give this two-bit unicorn hussy a piece of my mind.”

Cold tension wracked Serenade’s body. “Excuse me?” she said, recoiling a step. “I’m sorry, but I don’t even know you.”

“Yeah, and why should you?” he said, advancing on her. “I’m just a lowly mudhoof, aren’t I? Isn’t that what you lot call us? You got a lotta nerve coming to this stretch of the city, ’specially to one of our faires—dressed to the nines, no less!”

Serenade shrank in on herself with each word. She tried looking anywhere but at the stallion, but every pony within earshot had their eyes locked on the commotion. She did her best to cover her scarf and mumbled, “It’s just a little makeup…”

“Yes!” said the mare at his side. She stepped between the two of them and gave Serenade a too-wide smile. “And you look lovely, Miss. So sorry about him. We were just—”

The stallion shoved her aside and gave her a withering look. “Stay outta this, Rad. I’m just saying what everypony else won’t.” He pushed himself into Serenade’s face. “You think you can get away just waltzing on through here, looking like that, not buying a damn thing, and acting like you’re all high and mighty cause you gave a kid three measly bits?! Even I woulda given her more!”

Serenade squeezed her eyes shut, feeling heat gathering behind them. “It’s all I have!”

“Ha! Fat chance. What? Daddy cut you off?”

Stop it!” Her horn flared with a heavy whump. Grunts, gasps, and a single shriek followed, as well as a wooden crunch. Cadance began wailing and kicking, her screams the only sound left alongside the faire’s upbeat music. Serenade opened her eyes.

Pale yellow light extended from her horn in a wispy thread, connecting to a magic dome that had formed around her. She could see the mare and stallion sprawled across the pavement in a dazed heap just beyond the barrier—the crowd behind them had backed off considerably. Whirling around, she saw that the edge of her shield had clipped the fruit stall, crushing the wooden corner. Primrose and the vendor stood just past the magic’s edge, staring at her with wide eyes.

Serenade fell to her haunches and lifted a hoof to her mouth, shaking. The barrier fizzled away.

“And that,” said the stallion’s dark voice, “is why you unicorns should keep to yourselves. Arrogant, spoiled, dangerous—

Sir!” boomed the fruit vendor. He marched past Serenade and presumably over to the stallion—Serenade didn’t dare look. She numbly rocked Cadance in one arm, staring through Primrose. “I think we’ve heard quite ’nuff outta you. Now ’less you want things to get ugly, I sugges’ you follow your mare’s advice ’n get goin’.”

“Are you joking? She coulda seriously hurt me! I have a right to—”

Something cracked—like bone on bone. Primrose gasped. Serenade winced and clutched Cadance closer.

“I said go.

The crowd’s silence lingered—a corpse of the faire’s din. Serenade hid her head down and blocked out everything but herself and Cadance—the foal’s face still warped by horrible shrieks and puffy red eyes. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered. She poured her everything into soothing the child, caressing her and inundating her with soft, wordless utterances. At first it seemed helpless, Cadance trying to wriggle free and staring up at her mother in fractured expressions. Yet time wore on, and through some combination of love and exhaustion, the foal began to settle. She buried her face in Serenade’s chest and continued sobbing in light bursts. Serenade released a shaky sigh, and her own tears rolled free.

A hoof on her shoulder pulled her from the moment. She looked over at the vendor as he frowned at her. “Y’alright, Miss?”

She blinked at him and looked away. The faire had regained a veil of normalcy—although nopony seemed to be looking her way, for better or worse. She glanced to the fruit stand and saw an empty space where a filly should have been. “Where’s Primrose?”

“I sent her home. Shame she had t’ see all that. She wanted me t’ make sure you were gon’ be okay.” He sat beside her—his bulk dwarfed Serenade’s small form. “Never gotch’er name. Mine’s Cortland.”

“Serenade,” she said, her eyes still locked on where Primrose had been.

“Well, Miss Serenade, I’m real sorry.”

She turned to him. Cortland’s head was bowed, and he scuffed the ground absently with one hoof. “Why are you sorry? I mean, you were the one who finally stopped that… that…”

“Arse.” He shook his head. “Shoulda done it sooner, ’fore it got outta hoof.” He looked ahead at his fruit stand.

Serenade followed his gaze and landed on the splintered corner of the wooden counter—now that she looked closer, it had charred in places too. Her stomach did a painful flip. “I’m the one who should be sorry. He was right.” She hugged Cadance tighter. “I shouldn’t have come through here.”

“Y’got as much a right to be here as anypony—more, if’m honest.” Cortland stood and lumbered back to his fruit stall. He started rummaging behind the counter and said, “I know it prolly ain’t much to a pony like you, Miss Serenade, but…” He hefted a small barrel onto his back—the top brimmed with apples and pears. He grinned—a real one. “On the house.”

All at once, Serenade felt like laughing, crying, and screaming. Instead, she stood. “Cortland… I can’t. After all the trouble I’ve caused—”

“Take it.” He took the barrel and set it in front of her. “A peck’s the leas’ I can offer ya. Ma always said I had a knack for readin’ ponies, and if’n I’m readin’ you right—” He nudged the container closer “—y’need it more’n me.”

She looked from Cortland to the barrel. Apples and pears filled it entirely, their skins gleaming like ambrosia in the sunlight. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d had fruit that hadn’t come from a can. And with that thought, she realized just how massively, utterly, impossibly hungry she was. The sight of the food was nearly enough for her to break down and weep all over again.

Holding back the temptation to inhale an apple that very second, she rose to her hooves and walked over to Cortland. She gave him a half-hug with her free arm and smiled. “Thank you. You have seriously no idea how much this means.”

“Reckon I don’t,” he said, returning the embrace. “But I hope it makes a difference.”

“It will. Definitely.” She pulled back and gave him a quick nod, which he returned. Nothing more was said as Serenade lifted the barrel in her magic—heavier than she had anticipated—and made her was quietly back to the stroller.

Serenade made an effort to put Cadance back into the carriage, but the foal whimpered and clung to her chest. Her heart ached, and Serenade planted a little kiss behind Cadance’s ear. She indulged in the baby’s warmth and continued cradling her.

The cask of fruit just barely fit in the undercarriage, but it eventually squeezed into place. Serenade pulled a red apple from it and held it in mid-air, watching it like it were a dream she could wake from at any moment. She bit into its crisp hide. Sweet juice filled her mouth instantly, and bursts of freshness sprinkled her mouth each time she chewed the morsel. Nothing in her life had tasted better.

She took in the faire one last time as she finished off the apple. To a bystander, it would seem as though nothing at all had happened—the music still bounced, ponies still laughed, and the air remained awash with smells of fresh or fried foods. New stories blended together in the cacophony, uniquely defining the moment. Yet perhaps more important were not the stories themselves but how they lived on once they had been told. Stories that continued only in the silent places nopony cared to look. The story of the filly who had left home to tend to her sick family. The story of the fruit vendor who sat solemnly by his wares. The story of the stallion whose blood stained the pavement, and whose words stained the air. The story of the mare who had only wanted to listen but had not been able to keep herself out of the narrative. And the story of her child, who deserved better.

Swallowing the last of the fruit, Serenade looked skyward. The sun loomed directly overhead like a great judging eye. She pushed the carriage along and left the faire behind. Her day had only just begun.

Author's Note:

Proofread by Absolution.

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Comments ( 7 )

The urchin really ties the chapter together- she's a cutie!

Yeah, I had a lot of fun writing her! :twilightsmile:

The exact opposite happened to what I thought was going to transpire. I figured someone would step in to protect Seri from the street vendors wrath at sticking up for a thief, not the vendor coming to her aide! A pleasant surprise mind you. Can't wait for the next chapter!

Nice to see a bit of good happen to Serenade :pinkiesmile:

Something tells me this is going to tie in to a story you published over three years ago now. I don't want to name it – it's my potential hope! Not yours! – but it'd be one hell of a coincidence if it didn't.

Although three years is quite the gap, I probably shouldn't get my hopes up.

Hey, nothing's impossible!

I was thinking about this story lately. Here's to hoping it will continue.

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