We Are What We Are

by Theigi

First published

What does it take to transform three innocent youths into the most fearsome enchantresses two worlds would ever know? Redemption be damned. Sometimes one's past is too painful to leave behind. A dark, novelesque & musical Sirens origin story

What makes a victim and what makes a villain?

After their defeat at the Battle of the Bands, the Dazzlings retreat into self-confinement to lick their wounds whilst they reassess their entire strange and fated lives from their beginnings in Equestria, up to the present. However, learning how to cope with the world and each other—living an immortal life in a powerless body—might just be more than any of them can bear.

Lines are blurred in this dark, historical, novelesque sirens origin story of innocence lost, heartache, betrayal, hope, and of course, beautiful music.
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(Featured on Equestria Daily: 7/11/15)
(Featured on FIMFiction front page: 9/23/16)

A Stable Mundanity

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The air was thick and pulsing with an old, familiar melody. Adagio Dazzle watched the deep, teal waters crash against the rocks on the shore. She was in a daze. Something wasn't right about this place, but she couldn't put her hoof on what. The emotions running through her—that of a profound sadness hovering silently beneath a rather plastic and fragile sense of joy—seemed inexplainable. It felt quite valid to be feeling these things, but for the life of her she couldn't remember why. Turning her gaze back toward what lay before her, her eyes met with a deep purple pair belonging to a rose-ish pegasus. The questioning look on the other pony's face made her nervous. Somehow she just knew that she had missed something.

It took a moment for the pegasus to speak. When she did, the words came labored and slow. "Well? If it were to be done again, knowing what would happen, would you?" she asked as she scratched the strange shadow of a birthmark between her chest and neck—a birthmark almost identical to Adagio's. The pegasus' expression almost pleaded for a reply.

Adagio blinked. She remembered this question too, and even though she couldn't recall what it was about, she had the feeling that it was something bad, something that held much weight depending on what her reply would be. She found herself unable to answer. Instead, she felt very much like crying.

Gazing down at her lap for a moment, and then staring back up at the glum pegasus, she was met with a tired look of frustration. Thus, it surprised her when the other pony seemed to fall into a state of meditation, running her hoof through one of her purple and green pigtails.

She then decisively reached out to touch her lap. "It's fine. We are alright," the pegasus said sounding a bit unsure of herself. The words echoed as Adagio felt the pony's hoof graze lightly against her. The touch was cool before it began to tingle, then burn. Something hit her in the chest as hard as a brick, and suddenly she was falling through blues and wisps of green, flashes of fire, and choking darkness. A buzzing in her ears became louder and louder until she swore she might go mad.

Adagio awoke with a start, jolting upward in her bed as the penetrating buzz of the alarm clock echoed against the walls of her skull. No matter how many weeks or months passed, it seemed that accursed digital shriek was something she would never get used to, especially considering what the sound of it had come to signify.

Reaching over to bang her fist against the off button, she finally took a moment to breathe deeply, and release a long, telling sigh. Her shoulders slumped as her eyes roamed about her body, remembering her arms, her fingers, her legs, and the burning scar that now lay in the space between her chest and chin where her now shattered pendant once sat. She glanced toward the slivers of light peaking in through the ribs of her window blinds. Scratching the unruly orange mop that sat atop her head, she gingerly rose to her feet, braced herself for a moment as she cracked her back, and slowly made her way out into the hall.

Dragging her fingers against the wall as she turned the corner, she hissed when they snagged upon a splinter protruding from a rough, worn patch upon its surface. For a house that had been charmed away from its previous owners about fifty years ago, things mostly seemed to be holding up well—not counting the essentials, like plumbing and wiring, which Adagio insisted on having maintained every two years anyway. Still, there were a couple flecks of chipped paint, worn wood here and there, and an iffy boiler in the dusty basement. She supposed that these weren't cause for immediate concern, especially since it was still summer, and especially considering the three girls' relatively new, dire, monetary predicament. Sucking upon the pained digit, Adagio eyed the patch sharply, and continued on her way.

Her morning routine was committed to memory at this point. First would come a knock on Aria's door at the end of the hall, then a quick tap on Sonata's as she headed toward the shower, and finally the inevitable second bang on that insufferable Aria's door after leaving the bathroom. Sonata was never any trouble when it came to getting up for work in the morning. While she was definitely not the brightest individual anyone was sure to meet, one thing amongst a few others that Adagio had always admired about the cheery, blue-haired girl was her tireless work ethic. She wasn't prone to complain or question, and even after they had lost their powers, she never once objected when Adagio had given them all the news that they would have to begin to make their living just like everyone else. In fact, it was Sonata who had first obtained a small job as a waitress to support her sister sirens whilst they were all fighting through those, first, emotionally draining days directly following their defeat at the Battle of the Bands.

At first, Adagio wasn't sure if any of them would pull through the crushing depression, the fighting, and not to mention the horrible physical symptoms of withdrawal from their no longer being able to feed on negative energy. In its place, the girls had to gradually learn to consume more cooked food than they usually would, something that their systems were definitely not ready for. One minute they would be hurling curses at each other, the next they'd be hurling up their dinners. However, despite their inability to consume this energy, they were still, for some reason, able to see it as it floated from and around its sources, venomously green, delicious smelling, and completely unattainable to them. Perhaps it was their fate kicking them while they were down for them to be further cursed with the ability to perceive that which they hungered for the most without ever being able to devour it again.

Between all these things were the tears. It had been dreadful, to say the least. There were a few times Adagio had been on the brink of leaving them both to their own corrupted devices, but fortunately she hadn't. Looking back, she didn't suppose that she would have been able to make it through the guilt that was sure to come afterward if she ever did leave. She wondered to herself whether this was actually a selfish decision or not, and in the mean time, recognized that while nothing would ever be able to heal the wounds of their profound loss, at least now she could breathe easier knowing that their lives had finally reached some sort of stable mundanity.

The warm water against her goldenrod skin was more than a comfort. Showers were life giving to her. After all this time living in this land-bound body, any moment spent in her beloved element was a moment worth cherishing. It was truly one of the highlights to her day, surpassed only by her ritualistic evening bath hour at which time it was expressly forbidden for anyone in the household to disturb her.

Feeling refreshed after washing away yet another evening's worth of haunting dreams, Adagio quickly wrapped her hair and body into two fresh towels, and headed back out into the hall. She began to hum to herself, but no sooner had she, did her brow furrow. The cracking, unfamiliar sound that escaped her throat was something that still broke her heart. Her greatest talent and her greatest love had been to sing, just like her companions, but she refused to let the tragic circumstances of their situation get to her, at least not right then. Even without their powers, she still considered herself the former sirens' leader, and knew that she couldn't allow herself to fall into a state of complete listlessness and despair right when they needed her the most. There would come a time for true grieving, a time to sit down, and actually comprehend what her life had turned into, but not now. Not for her.

Her eyes brightened when the enticing aroma of coffee and bacon wafted up from downstairs. Pausing a moment, she turned her head to face the steps. "Scrambled eggs, Sonata?" she called to the girl she knew was currently bustling about the kitchen.

"They're coming! Black pepper and cheese, right?" Sonata's cheery, though hoarse voice called from below.

A small smile escaped her. Turning about, feeling a little more chipper, she was suddenly met, again, with the off-putting sight of Aria's closed door sitting still and silent at the end of the hall. Grumbling to herself, she marched over, and banged loudly upon it, twisting the expectedly locked knob for emphasis. She knew that this would alarm the dour girl lurking within into consciousness at the threat of her personal space being invaded. "So help me, Aria, you're not going to be late, again!" she cried. "Don't make me pick the lock like last time!"

To her utter surprise, Aria's door swung open as Adagio hurled her fist at it one more time, almost making her fall into the room. The look on the rose-colored girl's face was nearly homicidal, and the fresh, dark circles around her tired eyes certainly didn't help this. She was clad only in her underwear; the worn, gray, oversized shirt of some obscure band; and a pair of ironically cheery, yellow slippers that clashed horribly with her skin. Her hair was loose, disheveled, and hung down to her waist in purple and green waves. Slowly sticking an indignant finger into the center of Adagio's chest, she prodded her as she spoke. Her eyes sparked. "My time slot got shifted. I start in the afternoons now. Do not. Come into. My room. Ever," she croaked painfully, her throat raw. She wasted no time in slamming the door back in Adagio's face.

The orange-haired girl huffed to herself, but decided it best not to get into an argument with her sister so early in the morning. Right before she turned to walk back to her room, she heard Aria's door crack open again. This time only a small, fuchsia nose and one purple eye peeked through the slit.

"Is that bacon she's got down there?" Aria rasped, her tone no less rude.

Adagio crossed her arms, and raised an eyebrow. An amused smile spread across her face. "Maybe, but I'm feeling extra hungry this morning; so, I'm not sure if there will be any left overs," she teased as she finally turned to head back to her room, waving a hand at the angry purple eye that watched her go.

Breakfast was relatively silent as usual, but the three girls were far too familiar with each other to feel anything resembling discomfort about such a thing. Sonata, who was currently flipping through a fashion magazine as she picked at her plate, had fixed up a reasonable batch of bacon and pancakes with a single platter of scrambled eggs set for Adagio. Adagio, fully dressed for the day in a knee-length black pencil skirt and frilly white blouse, ate quickly and daintily unlike Aria who, after somehow managing to drag her unwashed, underwear-clad body downstairs, now sat slumped over her plate, shoveling forkfuls of bacon and pancake into her already overpacked mouth. Adagio stared at her with a forkful of eggs hovering between her lips, uneaten. Her eyes trained on the half-naked siren before she put down her fork, and picked up the nearby coffee pot in order to top off her mug.

Despite what Aria Blaze might ever have been willing to admit out loud, it was clear to both Adagio and Sonata that she was the least able to cope with the loss of their powers, not to mention their beautiful voices. Oh, it had definitely taken a while for reality to set in, considering Aria's affinity for striking out in anger at that which she deemed confusing and unacceptable. However, after that first week and a half of rage, and countless half-formed plans for retaliation that always fell through, the dark cloud of realization moved in to overshadow all else. For the entire first month after their defeat, the pinkish girl had been utterly inconsolable, and Adagio, the peer whom she found more tolerable, could not get a word in with her before random objects and spiteful curses were hurled in her direction. Sometimes in the middle of the night when Adagio would make her secret trips to the attic where she stored a millenia's-worth of cherished belongings—things she liked to visit to reminisce, especially during these tough times—she would pass by Aria's room, and hear the faint sounds of muffled sobbing. At first, the protective instincts that Adagio never liked to admit she had would kick in, and she would always feel the need to venture forth to comfort the girl. However, time had proven to her that this was not a good idea, especially now. She knew that Aria at least partially blamed her for what she deemed the utter destruction of their lives. Perhaps she was correct in thinking so.

Still, it was never good to leave someone like that in their deeply depressive funk. Sure, knowing Aria, some of her reclusive ways were par for the course, but lately a few of her actions had begun to worry her companions. The usually aggressive and razor sharp girl had become even more reserved and reclusive than usual. She hardly spoke of her own volition anymore, and would quite often disappear for long swathes of time, sometimes returning home clearly drunk, disheveled, and exhausted. Her sense of humor had become even more grim and cold as she would now find amusing that which others would deem slightly disturbing. Sonata burning a finger upon a hot pot, for example, would inspire mirthful laughter, while accidentally receiving a static shock to her own finger would set her to chortling. At first it was annoying to the eldest former siren, but then gradually it dawned on her that maybe, just maybe, this was Aria's way of beginning to get comfortable with the idea of her own vulnerability, and more troubling, her own mortality. Of course, the other girls were immortal, like herself. Thus, it was made plain that a siren's mortality could only exist when the siren decided it should. Though such thoughts terrified Adagio, it was undeniable that Aria's current state had become a problem to which she could not foresee a happy conclusion. The girl needed a distraction from her own thoughts. So, in addition to forcing her to get a job—a concept which was obviously met with much resistance—Adagio also decided to be mindful to try to communicate with the other girl in whichever way seemed possible, even if she hated her for it. Therefore, when small opportunities for interaction presented themselves, she decided she would take them. Some way, somehow, Aria and Sonata would know that they were all still here and still living.

Placing her mug down, Adagio smirked at the sight of the sulking girl once again. "How difficult would it have been to put on some pants, for chaos' sake? I know we're all going through a great deal right now, but you don't have to eat as if you've completely given up all self respect," she chided before rolling her eyes, and taking a bite from her plate of pancakes. "Besides, you know you're going to barf again if you stuff yourself that much."

To this, Aria slowly raised her head, and turned it to stare lazily at her elder. Her mouth was packed to bursting, but for a moment it appeared as if she might actually say something to her. Adagio raised an eyebrow, waiting for the inevitable rebuttal or snide remark, and instead was met with a loud, disgusting belch after which Aria turned her attentions back toward her meal.

"You're revolting," Adagio sneered as the dour girl raised a middle finger toward her in return.

Sonata's snickering, which had been tittering since Aria's gross display, was suddenly silenced at the sight of her rude gesture. She seemed to quietly be praying for calm to prevail as she glanced between the both of them. Anyone could see, looking at her own weary, darkened eyes, that she too had been taxed by all the goings on of the past few months. "Oh, come on, girls. Don't fight. It's Friday! I hear that new vampire movie that came out is pretty good. Why don't we go check it out tomorrow?" she posed gently, trying to change the subject.

To this, Aria sat up straight in her chair and laughed, small bits of pancake escaping from between her lips. She forced her mouthful of food down, and turned to Adagio who had already risen to her feet, mug in hand, preparing to head out. "Yea, Adagio. Why don't you go check out the frilly vampire movie with her?" she chortled, completely ignoring Sonata's bruised expression. "You two could make it a date!"

Adagio had been maintaining her composure all morning, but for some reason the obnoxious sound of Aria's forced laughter was the tipping point. Slamming her hand against the table, making all of the dishes on top shake, she passed the pinkish woman a serious and unamused expression which demanded nothing less than complete attention and respect. It was a look that even Aria knew not to test. Taking off a pair of sunglasses that hung from her neckline, Adagio placed them upon her face. Then, without missing a beat, she turned to walk briskly toward the door. "Sorry, Sonata," she called back without a second glance. "Some kid I teach just started cram school on Fridays. His dragon of a mother thought it would do the poor bastard some good to have his piano lessons on Saturdays—double time. With me. That level of bitchiness is admirable. Besides, we've gotta save the money."

After she put on some black flats and a sweater the same color as her eyes, she picked up a stack of notation booklets, and turned to leave. Sonata, too distracted with her own thoughts, stared only for a moment at Aria who now looked into her plate with an expression even more tired than the one she had come downstairs with. Turning her attention back toward the eldest siren, Sonata quickly bolted upward, and raced to stop her from walking out of the door.

Even with her body blocking Adagio's path and precious time of the essence, Sonata still found it troublesome to find the proper words for what it was she had wanted to say.

Knowing that the younger girl didn't usually put that much thought into her words, Adagio immediately became suspicious. Once again, one of her sleek, orange eyebrows rose slowly, twitching in expectation of that which was sure to annoy her."Sonata," she said in a cautioning tone. "What is it?"

"I... Well..." the other girl began.

"Spit it out! I've gotta go!" Adagio yelled, threatening to push past her.

"Weeelll, you see, I was just thinking that perhaps we've been cooped up in the house for too long, and it's not good for us to just work and stay home, and work and stay home all the time, and we should really try to get out this weekend, you know? Like to the movies or a restaurant or camping, or—"

"No," Adagio interrupted harshly, pushing past her, but not before plopping her empty coffee mug down in the blue girl's hands. "We simply can't afford that right now, and you know it."

Sonata turned as she walked past, a heartbroken expression upon her face. "Adagio, it's just this one time!" she pleaded. "I... I think it would do us all some good!"

"I said no!" Adagio yelled with finality as she turned onto the sidewalk, and headed down the street. "And I don't want to hear about it, again!"

Gripping feebly at her own shoulder, Sonata bowed her head. She then headed back into the house, slamming the front door behind her.

She and Aria now sat at the table, both in a glum state, picking at what remained of their breakfast.

Thinking that she might finish the rest of Adagio's eggs, Sonata had placed them beside her own plate, only to end up picking at those as well. After a while, she glanced upward, remembering that Aria was still there. "Want these?" she posed, raising the plate of half eaten eggs toward the glum, rosy girl.

Aria stared at her for a moment as if contemplating whether or not it was worth it to get a verbal jab in while Sonata was feeling vulnerable. She decided against it. "Pass 'em here," she stated, reaching for the plate, and immediately digging in.

Sonata looked at her curiously, a memory clearly having dawned on her.

Aria, catching her eyes twice between mouthfuls, managed on the third glance to address her staring. "What is it?"

"Have you been having dreams?" Sonata asked gently, beginning to twist the end of her blue ponytail around her finger.

Aria looked her over, and then cocked an eyebrow. "Of course I dream, genius. Though, lately the theme is mostly about how that bitch Adagio ruined our lives," the dour girl croaked before focusing her attention back onto her plate.

"Come on, Ari. You don't mean that. You know that Adagio has always tried her hardest for us," Sonata gently chided, not wanting to get the other girl's temper up. She immediately knew she had failed when Aria's head snapped upward to gaze at her, fire in her eyes.

"How can you still believe that?" she hissed at first. "Seriously, Sonata, how on Earth can you still believe that? That bitch? Adagio has only ever tried her hardest for herself!" She banged her fist on the table, making Sonata jump in her seat. "Despite what she may tell you, despite whatever lies she may tell herself, we're just her accessories. We've always just been her accessories. A means to her end." She said this last bit almost as if she were crushed to hear herself speak it out loud. By and by, she picked up her fork, and began to eat once again.

It appeared as if Aria's words had only served to confuse Sonata, considering the slightly contorted expression upon the younger siren's face. Aria already knew what it was that proved difficult to understand, but she refused to mention it. She refused to acknowledge that perhaps what had happened to them at the Battle of the Bands at the hands of those stupid, stupid Rainbooms was, in all actuality, none of their fault. Especially considering their own natures, and their need to harvest and feed upon negative energy for sustenance, it would seem that what had happened was simply the result of some good timing and some very bad luck.

A sudden look of profoundness washed over Sonata's face. It didn't happen often, but during the few times it did, one was able to see clearly the two millennia's worth of depth that lay beneath that seemingly naive exterior. As much as could be said about the other girl's processing abilities, Aria still had to admit to herself that the endless lives' worth of experiences they had acquired in this world was something that they all had in common. They had just decided a long time ago to express it in very different ways. Sonata's go-to choice seemed to be relentlessly attempting to drive everyone around her insane with silly commentary. "We are what we are, Ari," she began in a low, unwavering tone. "Adagio will be Adagio, and you know that we aren't much better. You know that we're the same."

"Well, we aren't sirens anymore, are we? We aren't vessels of chaos, anymore. Hell, we can't even sing worth a damn, anymore!" Aria hissed, cutting straight to the point. "And now that we're no longer sirens, what does that make us? Answer that, oh sage. What is our purpose? What are we here for now? To live out our eternity toiling away like a bunch of those pitiful saps out there? At least they're given the pleasure of dropping dead after half a century or so!"

Everything went dead silent as the air became as thick as the pancakes Aria had dug back into.

Sonata looked calmly into her lap, either unable or unwilling to process what the other girl had just said. Instead, she chose to change the subject. "I dream of the beach. The one from the beginning, where we met. Do you?" she posed.

Aria's gaze tellingly snapped up to meet her own.

"It's just that, lately I've been hating to sleep. Lately, the dreams just don't stop. I feel like... something horrible is going to happen. I've gotta get out of this place for just a second! Somewhere, anywhere besides this place and Sammy's," Sonata blurted, resting her forehead tiredly in her palm. "Idunno, I feel like I'm losing it or something, you know?" She shrugged, looking up, and pointing a tired yet syrupy sweet smile in Aria's direction.

At Sonata's words, the tiniest flicker of concern flashed across Aria's face, but not one the blue haired girl would have ever noticed. Taking a moment to breathe deeply, Aria swallowed her mouthful of food, and gently placed her fork down beside her plate. She then dusted off her hands.

For a moment, Sonata thought that maybe she might say something encouraging.

"You know, Sonata, you're asking me a lot of questions way too early in the morning," Aria muttered, turning onto an unexpected offensive. "Do I do this to you? Do I pop up, dripping hearts and shrill sounds all over the place, asking you a bunch of questions first thing in the morning?"

Sonata stiffened in her seat. "No, but—"

"Okay, then. So, could you please just give it a rest?" Aria yelled, after which the room fell into another depressing silence, only to be broken by the sounds of her continued munching.

After a moment of watching Sonata's sad face stare down at her half-eaten pancakes, Aria sighed heavily, and rolled her eyes. She leaned back in her seat. Resting a hand on her full belly, she glanced the younger girl over once again. Perhaps it was only to clear the air of the previous conversation that she finally spoke up. "You know you can still go to that thing, or whatever it is you were talking about, right? Your glampire flick," she began.

"No, I can't. Adagio said that we have to save our money," Sonata replied, her voice leaking disappointment.

At this Aria only scoffed, rolling her eyes, once again. "Our money. Right. Leave it up to Adagio to lay claim to every damn inch of everything that someone doesn't plant a flag down on first. She's got some nerve, considering she refuses to sell all that old, useless jewelry she's got stashed away in the attic. We shouldn't even have to work. Listen here. Adagio isn't the one showing off her 'gals' to those greasy dudes down at that ol' burger joint for two dollar tips," Aria stated, crudely grabbing her own breasts, and squeezing them for emphasis. "You are. Far as I'm concerned, you should be able to do whatever you want with your money." She sneered before reaching forward to snatch up the last piece of bacon, and chomping down on it.

The question of whether to disobey Adagio didn't often occur to Sonata, but it was clear that it had at that particular moment. Her eyes, so similar to the eldest siren's, went wide, and slowly she began to nod as if convincing herself of something. "My money," she breathed.

"S'right," Aria agreed, pointing at her with the bacon strip.

"Yea!" Sonata yelled, rising to her feet, and slamming the table. A glimmer of confidence grew in her eyes. Catching sight of Aria one last time, she raced around the table toward her sister siren. Her arms instinctively opened, preparing for an embrace. "Let's do it! Let's go out together! We do need a break, right?"

"Ah!" Aria protested, holding out her bacon defensively, and wielding it like a sword. She almost fell backward out of her chair in an attempt to get away from the impending hug. "No touching rule, remember? Touching bad!"

"Oh, right," Sonata giggled, quickly putting her hands back where they belonged: at her sides.

After the seated girl was absolutely sure that her sister would not attempt another embrace, she relaxed back into her seat. "Okay, number one," she began, feigning composure. "I don't like you."

Sonata's face fell into an adorable pout, one that, at least today, was incapable of penetrating Aria's energy-starved, and possibly hungover psyche.

"Number two, I've got plans. There's a horror movie marathon on Saturday, and I don't wanna be disturbed."

"Ok, well... I mean... thanks, Aria. You don't think Dagi will be too angry, do you? It's been such a long time since we... you know. She'll understand, right?"

Aria stared at the doe-eyed girl with an expression that begged the question: What do you think? Taking one last chew at whatever remained in her mouth, she sighed before rolling her eyes, and returning her attention to her nearly empty plate. "Sure, she'll understand."

It wasn't until Sonata had skipped back upstairs to grab some things before work, and then quickly headed back down and out of the front door, that Aria finally reached across the table to grab what was left of the cheery siren's pancakes.

"Idiot," she mumbled to herself before picking up her fork. Before she could put a single mouthful between her lips, she felt a terrible tremor in the pit of her stomach, and tasted a strange sweetness upon her tongue. She gagged, and dropped her fork. Covering her clamped mouth with her hand, she bolted up out of her seat, and raced across the room toward the nearest toilet.

___

"There's my favourite waitress!" the mustached, tan-hued, white-haired wall of a man cried in a heavy city accent as Sonata rushed into the half-empty establishment.

She quickly tore off the jacket that she wore over her work clothes: some black shorts along with a black waist apron, and a red shirt with 'Sammy's' emblazoned across the upper right chest. "Sorry! Sorry, I'm late!" she huffed as she picked up an empty tray from the counter, and rushed toward the back of the restaurant to get to her locker.

The mustached man smiled, and shook his head as he watched her pass. "It's only a minute past ten, my dear. Take a breath, why don'tcha? And tell that kid of mine to bring his tail out here!" he said as he moved to head back behind the grill to turn some of the sausages that had begun to sizzle.

Pausing at the doorway to the back rooms, Sonata decided to take the man's statement to heart. She inhaled almost too deeply, and then let out a long, loud breath. Afterwards, she popped up to smile at Sammy. "That did feel good! Thanks, Sam! I'm on it!" she exclaimed with a genuine smile as she disappeared through the door.

In the dull gray back rooms, a far contrast from the bright red and white main floor of Mr. Sammy Salami's Diner and Grill, Sonata rushed to her locker, took a moment to carefully enter the lock combination, and popped it open. The interior of her locker looked exactly as anyone who knew Sonata might suppose it would. It was covered in photos of her sister sirens, favourite celebrities, a few mismatched pieces of old jewelry, pink socks, and one cracked mirror having long outlived its usefulness. Practically throwing her jacket inside, she reached into the locker, and pulled out her name tag which she immediately began to wrestle into place.

Just at that moment, the nearby back door swung open making her jump. She pricked her finger with the tag pin, and cried aloud, bending over, and sucking on the sore finger.

At the same time, in from the back parking lot rushed a tan-hued, green-haired young man, far too tall and far too skinny. He waved his arms apologetically, clearly having heard Sonata's cry of pain. "Sorry, Sonny! Didn't mean to scare you, there. Just taking out the trash!" the young man exclaimed, forcing an embarrassed smile, and backing up into the open bathroom door to wash his hands.

Sonata forced the pain in her finger down, and plastered her own smile onto her face. "Oh, it's okay, J.R. It's nothing, really. Just a poke!" she muttered, turning her attention back toward the pin, and finally getting it into place.

"Junior! That you?" Came Sammy's loud, booming voice from out front. "Get ya rear out here! We've got a ton of orders waitin' for ya!"

Poor J.R.'s attention was torn in every which direction. Choosing, hesitantly, to finish speaking to Sonata, he tried to glance over her shoulder at the offended finger, then rung off the excess water from his hands. "You sure? Hold on a sec," he said, reaching into the mirror cabinet, and popping out a band aid. Hustling over quickly, he held it out for her to take.

Glancing down at the band aid, Sonata noticed that it was covered with small, pink hearts. Her eyes brightened, and she gleefully took it from him. "Cy-oote!" she exclaimed, opening it up, and quickly wrapping it around her aching finger. "Thanks, J.R.!"

Fighting off the heat that threatened to overtake his entire head, J.R. scratched the back of his dome, and smiled. "Eh, it suits you," he laughed, his cheeks turning red.

Sonata smiled sweetly at him, and suddenly the tan-colored boy found himself lost in her gaze.

His smile widened at the sight of her. Slowly, his lips parted, and it seemed as if he was fighting with himself to find the right words to say.

"Junior! I'm not gonna ask ya again!" Sammy called once more from out front, a twinge of irritation leaking into his voice.

"Oops! Gotta go," J.R. exclaimed bashfully, backing up toward the front rooms. "See you, Sonny!" He immediately disappeared through the door, but not before miscounting the distance it took to keep himself from accidentally slamming his back into it first.

Sonata smiled. Shaking her head, she closed her locker, preparing to head back out to the floor. "Kinda goofy, that kid," she muttered to herself, admiring her band aid one last time before walking away.

To the Sea

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"Eyes forward, no slouching, both hind and front legs together, no muttering, address all visitors as "Master" or "Madame", do not flutter your wings unless flying to a designated area, or specifically asked by an elder of the house to do so, and I shall pray that you shall remember to keep your mane tidy at all times. Have I made myself quite clear?"

To this, the stout, elderly, lavender-colored pegasus received no reply. Instead, what she heard coming from behind her was the gentlest sound of a melancholy melody being hummed. As pretty as the tune was, it nevertheless, had little affect on her. Swishing her tail in irritation, and raising a brow, the elder pegasus spun around. She flew over to the young one in her midsts on shaky wing, and cleared her throat. "Miss Aria Blaze! I said have I made myself quite clear?"

The small, rose-ish pegasus' attention was drawn back to her elder from whence it had previously been placed, namely outside of the window where lay the most gorgeously sunny day. Aria shrank before the older pegasus, apprehension very apparent in her deep purple eyes. She gasped when a strand of her bone straight, brightly colored mane fell out of the frighteningly neat bun it had been placed into. Tucking it back quickly, she performed a very short, and slightly off-centered bow whilst lowering her gaze to the floor. "Yes, Mum!" she replied in a small voice. "Quite clear, Mum!"

"And no singing! Have you not learned from before? Has it not been made utterly clear how much this displeases the lady of the estate?" the elder pegasus exclaimed, a strange twinge of desperation accenting her words. "Do you not remember what will happen?"

"B-but, I have not done anything wrong, Misses Clouds," the young pegasus stammered, even quieter than before. "Why can't I ever be allowed to sing? All the mothers, and fathers, and artisans like it. Why can't I?" The smaller pony became quite distraught and confused as she stood there on the brink of tears.

Noticing the filly before her begin to shake and shiver, Misses Clouds' stern gaze softened. She sighed heavily, and allowed a smile to crack the surface of her wrinkled face. Landing gently upon her hooves, she reached under Aria's chin, and lifted her gaze so that they might look at one another. "Don't be worried, and don't be distraught, my child. You are of the sweetest and loveliest of fillies in the lady's care. Any patron would be most fortunate to have you. They can see this even without the songs. Chin up. Your time shall come."

At these words, little Aria's nervous expression faded, and she lunged forward to embrace the elder pony. At first the lavender pegasus welcomed the nuzzle until her eyes opened slightly, and she caught sight of a rather large, purple bruise beneath the young one's front leg. Her expression immediately grew dark as she continued to embrace her.

After a while, Aria let go, and performed her small bow one more time. "Thank you, Misses Clouds," she shouted cheerily before flying past the other pegasus, and out of the fillies wing's bedroom door.

As she went, Misses Clouds noticed the same lock in Aria's bun fall out of place again. She sighed wearily, and shook her head. Trotting out into the hallway, she called after her. "Your mane! Remember, Aria!"

When the young one had disappeared around the corner, Misses Clouds huffed wearily, her expression immediately falling into one of utter indignation. She turned straight away, and marched off down toward the opposite end of the long corridor. Upon reaching a large room at which, on the far side lay a massive double-door made of thick gray cloud, Misses Clouds quickened her pace.

When she reached the entryway, she didn't bother to knock, choosing instead to storm right in, ready to unleash her rage at whoever sat within. She immediately stifled her words when she noticed not one, but two pegasi inside of an enormous, grimly decorated personal chamber and study. At the large, gray table ahead sat a stern-looking pegasus, also gray of color, mane jet black, and pulled back into a tight, neatly kept bun reminiscent of the one Clouds had made for Aria earlier on. This bun was then surrounded by a rope of jet black braid. Her body was wrapped in a billowing white robe, and upon her braided and bunned crown sat a wreath of golden flower petals. If it weren't for the well-formed sneer set firmly upon her face, the pegasus could have been thought a gentle queen by appearances alone.

Leaning on the table from where he stood on the other side was an equally grim-faced, though slightly younger looking pegasus. His coat was the drabbest of blues, and his mane a deep, greasy violet. The stallion's entire body was covered with what appeared to be worn, dented armor.

Upon Clouds' abrupt entrance, the both of their heads spun around, and their bodies tensed. It was clear to her that she had just interrupted what appeared to have been an extremely important and private conversation. "M'lady," she said curtly, making a small bow as her eyes met the gray mare's. When her gaze trailed over to the blue stallion, the expression on her face quickly drew up into one of poorly hidden disgust. "Master Swift," she murmured. It was clear she would have preferred to not have to address him at all. "Mum, a word, if you will."

"Is it very important, Matron Clouds? I am quite busy at the moment," the gray pegasus sighed in disinterest. She began to straighten rolls of parchments upon her table, threatening to give her attention to something else if it, indeed, wasn't.

"'Tis, M'lady. Quite. Important," the elder pony said through gritted teeth, her eyes darting anxiously between Swift and the genteel mare.

Taking the hint, the gray pegasus dropped her parchments, flipped the edges of her robes across her lap, and leaned forward. "Swift, we shall continue this later. Do not forget what it is I have told you," she said without ever looking up.

"And do not forget what I've told you," Swift hissed at her angrily before turning about, and marching out of the door without a word to Misses Clouds.

The moment he had left the room, Clouds exhaled a breath she had not realized she'd been holding. Her muscles relaxed.

"Get on with it, Matron," the gray pegasus said, slightly irritated.

It took a moment still for Clouds to decide on exactly what it was she wanted to say, and how it should be posed. "Lady Mist, once again, I am here to implore you to take pity on the little ward Aria Blaze. Just a moment ago I found yet another bruise on the poor creature's body. That would be the fifth this week. The fifth! Something must be done! I beg of you!" Misses Clouds urged, her face clouded with worry.

"Matron Clouds," Mist groaned with a roll of her eyes as she inspected her pristinely manicured hoof, "these are children of which we speak! Children play, they fight, and they are bruised in the process. Once again, I must urge you to find solace in these quite reasonable truths."

"She is beaten, not bruised," Clouds hissed. "The other children, they torment her. All for the child's beautiful voi—"

"Not a word on it, Clouds! Not again. I shall have none of it! Time and again I have told that little... thing to never sing. I have done all I can. My conscience is clear. If she disobeys the instructions given her, and feeds the fires of the other wards' jealousy, what else am I to do? They are what they are. They are wards, and must be whipped—" Mist caught herself mid-sentence, and quickly changed direction, "—I mean... molded into honorable ponies. Aria Blaze has disobeyed my wishes. Had she not, she would not be suffering at the hooves of her peers."

Misses Clouds was boiling over by this point. Straightening the white shawl that covered the equally white, neatly kept mane that sat atop her head, she stormed forward, slamming her hooves onto Mist's table, staring daggers of fire into her eyes. "Those bruises are not only the work of children, not the one I saw today. I know this. I feel you are aware of it as well. Yet, it is under your supposedly watchful gaze that this poor foal's torment is allowed to continue! It is under your gaze that... that—"

"Silence!" the gray pegasus thundered, standing on her hind legs, and slamming her hooves against the table, rattling a goblet of hard cider that sat nearby. She brought her face dangerously close to Clouds'. "How dare you?" she hissed. "Was it not I who took you in from the cold and rain? Was it not I who fed you, and brought you on as the caretaker of my wards? I could have left you down there on the dirty roadside begging for scraps from the earth ponies, and surely hunger and illness would have made quick work of you. I am your saviour and your mistress, and this is to be my payment? Endless suggestions of the foulest deeds taking place under my roof?"

Things became very quiet then. The grimness of Mist's chamber sank into Misses Cloud's very bones. Slowly, she backed away, composed herself, and gazed at the floor. She was shaken, but it was clear that she remained steadfast in her feelings.

"Leave, now. Go and meet the benefactors and families. This will be the last time I shall entertain these ridiculous fantasies, Clouds. The next time..." Mist's voice trailed off tellingly.

Without another word, Misses Clouds performed her short bow, turned tail, and slowly walked out of the study. Her ego might have been bruised, but her head was raised proudly.

____

"And you embroidered these ribbons all by yourself?" the finely robed, clearly well-to-do pegasus asked the yellow-maned filly. She took another moment to stare at the unevenly sewn curls and rainbow colored flowers upon the lovely strip of silk draped in her hooves.

"Yes, Madame! All by myself!" the young pegasus replied with a huge smile that clearly showed off her one missing front tooth.

The affluent pegasus covered her mouth to silence her laugh. "Oh my. How very talented you are, little Miss..." she trailed off, waiting for the filly to supply her name.

"Star Dust, Madame," she replied, bowing low.

"Yes. Star Dust. You know, Star Dust, you are really very good at sewing. Why, I would venture to say that given time, and the proper training of course, you could be one of the best one day, like me. Is that something that interests you?" the lovely pegasus said, flipping her perfectly pinned curls out of her face.

Star Dust's eyes brightened. "Very much, Madame. I would love that," she breathed, barely able to contain herself.

"Very good. Now, Star Dust, how would you enjoy a stroll with me through the cloud gardens?" the fancy pegasus asked, patting the young one's head sweetly. "Then perhaps a chat with the caretakers, yes?"

"Oh, I would enjoy that, indeed, Mum—I mean... Madame!"

The atmosphere in the Mist estate's courtyard was quite festive that day, probably because of the beautiful weather. The patrons were numerous, and the sound of laughter and playing could be heard all about. Lady Mist, the mistress of the estate, was the most wealthy and influential pegasus in town. It was rumored that she was one of the descendants, and the most recent heiress, of the legendary Fillius the Great, 'Conqueror of the Wilds'. It was he and his legionaries who had supposedly founded the city at Gales three hundred years prior after fighting off a hoard of angry dragons that had been roaming the area. All of this was purely speculation, of course, but what was certain was the Mist family's power over the local populous and its affairs. Supposedly, no great decision about the city or its inhabitants could ever be made without first consulting Lady Mist. Even locally elected officials trembled in dread whenever she made clear that any of their decisions had displeased her. One wave of Mist's hoof could bring about the end to a career that had taken a lifetime to achieve, and everypony knew it was best to remain on her most amicable side.

However, while Lady Mist might have, to a large extent, controlled the tongues and actions of Gales' leaders, the same could not be said for the common folk. Amongst them rumors about the Lady abounded. One such piece of gossip claimed that lately the Mist family, due to the generational squandering of their fortunes, had fallen into a desperate state of affairs, and had taken up questionable business endeavors in order to replenish their wealth. Another stated that the Lady kept what could be called a collection of hopeful suitors and patrons—none of whom she had any intention of marrying—in order to continue funding her lavish lifestyle. Yet, the most popular piece of hearsay, by far, was the report about the children's ward that Mist kept on her extensive estate grounds. In an obvious attempt to pass herself off as motherly, and a lover of all children, she had ordered the construction of a massive orphanage—the first of its kind—into which she took in these "poor little lost souls", in order to feed, clothe, house, and hopefully raise them to be socially acceptable young foals. In all actuality, at least according to the townsfolk, the young ones were taken in, groomed, and "maintained" by her staff until they could be sold off to rich families who did not have children of their own, or to various artisans or craftsponies as apprentices. It goes without saying that all of Lady Mist's "children" came with a very high price tag. After all, these foals were being raised to be the best of the best, and only the best of the best should ever have come to see them. No words were ever spoken about those young ones who Mist might have claimed were irredeemable. Perhaps nopony wanted to think on it.

On that particular day, there was a large table ladened with drink and cakes for the visitors placed out in the courtyard. Even though Lady Mist had expressly forbidden the wards to partake of them, Misses Clouds had told them all in secret that if offered a treat from the table by a visiting adult, then it would be quite alright. Some of the children played games of jumprope or hide and go seek amongst themselves, while the more emboldened of them approached patrons they found quite interesting, to touch their fine robes or to hear them speak more clearly in their most dignified accents. The quietest of the children usually sat off to themselves doing something like drawing on papers with pieces of colored wax or molding small pieces of cloud near the garden. However, with all these goings on, there was one small, pinkish pegasus that was missing from the festivities.

Aria sat hidden inside of a nook near the outer sidewall of the cloud garden. She was kneeling down on the ground on all four legs, mane a mess and disheveled. There were endless patches on her face and body where she was covered in bruises and dirty rain water. Her head was bowed in silence as she tried to sniff back her enormous tears. The noise of the other children enjoying themselves only caused her more distress, and the sound of what appeared to be Star Dust's voice nearing the garden along with one of the patrons nearly made her scream. Aria wouldn't have ever claimed to hate much of anything or anypony, but that Star Dust, to her, was not a somepony. She was a monster, something unspeakably horrible. The white and yellow filly had it out for her ever since Aria first opened her mouth to sing on her first visitors day, and had unintentionally stolen the attentions of half the patrons to the orphanage. Needless to say, it wasn't difficult for Star Dust to then gather the support of the other children behind her in deeming little Aria a menace and a threat, one that had to be dealt with if any of them could ever hope to be adopted.

At first they would tease her, tell her her voice was strange and ugly, and that was why it had received all of the attention it did. Then the pranks began. Spit in her food, well hidden thunder clouds in her bed, hurling water sacks at the headmistress and other staff, then blaming it on her was par for the course. That alone earned her countless missed meals, and long nights scrubbing the orphanage bathhouses clean. Finally, when all of these things still proved useless in dissuading Aria from her very apparent passion for singing, things became physical. Pinches, punches, and slaps, torn robes, and unraveled ribbons were to be had. She knew by now that it was almost guaranteed that she would end up dirty and bleeding on any given visitors day, and all because of that horrid Star Dust.

Like clockwork, Star Dust and her rotten cohorts had gotten her again today before the first visitor had ever arrived. They had dragged her behind the building, and threatened her about keeping her 'filthy' mouth shut. When she shoved Star Dust in the chest, attempting to stand up for herself despite her smaller size, they showed her just how serious they were by kicking her about, and dousing her in unclean water, making her utterly unpresentable for the day. It was to the garden wall she ran. She had learned that hardly anypony came here, except sometimes for the estate's head guard, Midnight Swift, whom she also despised with all of her being. He had discovered her there one night whilst making his rounds, and even now it was something that Aria had deeply regretted, though she never spoke of why. But today... Today was a visitors day, and she also knew that the grim and almost disturbing sight of Swift sometimes put the patrons off their festive moods. Thus, the Lady had told him long ago to make himself scarce during these occasions. Yes, at least today she knew she would be safe in her secret place. She knew that at least here and now, it would be alright to...

Take me away to the sea, the sea,
Bear me down to that shining shore.
There I shall roll in the depths, the depths,
There I'll know gray skies no m—

"I say! Who could this be? Where is that beautiful sound coming from?" came a distinctly female voice.

Aria gagged herself with a gasp, trying her best to disappear into the nook where she was hidden. She knew that it was expressly forbidden by almost everypony at the orphanage for her to sing for whatever reasons they gave themselves. She knew what would happen if anypony found out. The sound of clouds puffing underhoof could be heard as somepony approached. She saw their casted shadow growing larger and larger until, finally, around the bend came a finely-dressed, pink pegasus. She wasn't quite as old as Misses Clouds, but the wrinkles appearing around her eyes were telling all the same.

When she caught sight of the frightened, disheveled little filly, her eyes went soft. "Oh, darling. There, there," she said edging closer. "What has happened to you? And pray tell, where does one acquire such a lovely voice?"

"I... I..." Aria stammered, eyes darting about nervously to make sure no one else was listening in on the conversation.

However, before she could get anything out, the lady pegasus had scooped her up, set her right upon her legs, and had begun cleaning up her robes. "Come now, child. There is nothing to fear. I am here with you," the pegasus said gently. She thought to herself for a moment before reaching into a fine green purse carried at her side. Pulling out two cookies from the refreshment table in the courtyard, she held them out to the child.

Aria, eyeing her cautiously, reached out, and took one between her teeth. Her eyes brightened ever so slightly at the delicious taste.

The pink mare smiled at her again, took a cookie of her own, and bit down upon it. She then did something rather astonishing. She removed her purse, and sat down before Aria in a rather carefree manner. Pulling the filly close, she contemplated the child's long, unraveled mane. With a mischievous smile, she reached into her purse again, pulling out two, pretty, purple ribbons. Gently, she began running her hooves through Aria's locks, first on the right side of her head, then the left. "Would you believe that I am a singer, as well?" the fancy pegasus said as she gathered one half of Aria's mane together, and tied one of the purple ribbons around it. "Well, I was once a singer. The voice, unfortunately, is only a temporary instrument, but even now, it is still my greatest passion." She then gathered up the other side of Aria's mane, and tied the last ribbon, forming two, rather flattering pigtails.

Aria, quite surprised to hear the mare speaking to her in such a friendly way, could honestly not imagine what would have been the proper thing to say in response to all of this news.

Apparently, she took too long trying to think of something, because as soon as her lips had parted, the older, pink pegasus spoke once again. "Where did you learn that enchanting song, my dear?" she asked, pulling two shorter locks of mane that would not fit neatly into each pigtail down to either side of Aria's face.

Aria fought down the lump in her throat, and decided that, for once, she would follow her heart without fear. She shrugged, and looked down at the clouds under her hooves. "I'm quite sure I do not remember, Madame. I... I guess I've always known it," she replied in a small voice. "It helps me to feel better."

Even without turning around to face the older pegasus, Aria could feel her warm smile upon the back of her neck.

"And have you ever been to the sea, my dear?" the odd noblemare posed.

"Yes," Aria replied, racking her brain for a vision that barely remained. The sight of the setting sun, and the sensation of sand against her belly was something that had somehow ingrained itself upon her young mind. "When I was very, very, very little. I can barely remember it now."

The filly gasped in surprise as she felt the older pegasus' hooves catch her on her sides, and spin her around to face her. She was met with a bright, affectionate smile that she had not quite been expecting.

"Well, then I suppose we will just have to go again, and create a new memory for you. What do you think of that? Would you like to come along with me for a few days? Just to see," the mare posed gently, understanding how nerve racking this entire ordeal must have been for one so young.

At first, the meaning of her words didn't click for Aria. She rolled every possible interpretation around in her head until the only one left that made sense was the one where this kindly mare would take her away from this horrid place. Her eyes lit up in a way that they hadn't for so long, and she immediately lunged forward, embracing the older pegasus. She was almost afraid to let go for fear that something, somewhere, would snatch her away, never to return.

"Well, I suppose that settles it!" the mare laughed.

___

"Aria. What a fitting name. Pray tell, who gave it to you? One of the nurses?" the older pegasus asked as she and Aria strolled slowly back out from the garden wall nook.

"No, Madame Rosedawn. I did," Aria answered enthusiastically as she finished yet another biscuit hanging from her mouth. "My name has always been Aria. This was one of the only things I remembered when I awoke."

"Awoke?" Rosedawn asked, raising an eyebrow. Her wings perked up out of curiosity.

"Yes, on the beach where the rain cloud pegasi found me. They are the ones that brought me here to Gales, to Lady Mist's estate."

"Ah, yes, the patron of our fine city, kind-hearted Lady Mist, lover of all foals," Rosedawn said, making sure that Aria missed the sarcasm leaking from her words. "And how does the Lady Mist see that you are treated? Quite well, I imagine." Rosedawn knew the answer to this question, but she just wanted to see what the young one would say.

Aria said nothing, her head bowed low. She curled into her own body as she trotted along amongst the clouds.

The sight of it was disturbing to Rosedawn, and suddenly she realized she had made a grave mistake. "Your song," the older pegasus breathed, quickly trying to change the subject. "Finish that lovely song for me, my dear. After all, I did interrupt you. Sing it now, and we shall both sing it when we go to the sea."

Aria's heart fluttered whenever Rosedawn mentioned the sea. She didn't know why, but something about it called to her even though she could only speculate that she had seen it but once in her entire young life. That, as she had expressed before, was the day she was discovered upon the shore, tired and soaked to the bone, singing gibberish to herself. That was a song that she no longer could recall. "I would like that very much, Madame," Aria murmured before glancing about quickly to make sure no one was around. When she was sure, she took a deep breath, and parted her lips.

Shed no tear for me, my love...

She couldn't help it. It happened every time she sang. Aria was suddenly quite unaware of the subtleties of her surroundings, already lost deeply in her song. Besides, today for the first time in perhaps ever, she was truly happy. She could think of no better moment to get lost in her tune. Never did she notice how quickly she and Rosedawn had been nearing the courtyard as she sang. Never did she notice how her voice began to echo and reverberate in the most unnaturally beautiful way, as if the very sky itself were singing along. The air harmonized with her as if her happiness itself had taken on a voice of its own. The oval birthmark between her chest and neck began to itch slightly, but she paid it no mind.

For now I've too many to know...

She never noticed how the lively sound of children's laughter and adult chattering slowly disappeared, little by little, to a curious mumble of speculation, and then to awestruck silence.

I pray one day we shall meet again...

She never noticed the look of absolute astonishment and wonder that settled upon Madame Rosedawn's face as she stared at the little marvel with the most ethereal of voices.

And embrace in the fathoms below.

Her eyes were closed as she finished her song, and smiled to herself. Taking a deep breath, she allowed the world around her to slowly come back into focus, only to realize that the air had gone dead silent, save for the sound of hooves upon the clouds as she and Rosedawn turned the corner into the courtyard. Her expression of content immediately fell into one of utter despair as her gaze was suddenly met with the sight of the entire congregation of children, visitors, and staff—Lady Mist and Swift included—gathered in the courtyard. They all stared back at her.

One rather emboldened patron who, by the looks of his soot-covered robe appeared to be some sort of smithy, pointed directly at Rosedawn with his worn and yellowed hoof. "Was that... Did that sound come from you?" he asked with nothing but astonishment in his voice.

It was all Rosedawn could manage to mumble something that barely resembled words, and to then motion, purely by instinct, toward little Aria Blaze who was shrinking into herself more and more.

All of the other children stared at her, huffing and shaking their heads in disappointment. Some were on the brink of tears, knowing from experience what just one "dose" of Aria's voice could do to their own chances on visitor's day. As for Lady Mist, her expression was one of utter fury. Next to her, looking quite fearful, stood Misses Clouds. Without a word, Mist turned her head to stare indignantly at Clouds, and simply pointed toward the grim orphanage doorway, directing her to take Aria inside.

Slowly, the stout, lavender mare approached the filly, sadness and disappointment becoming more and more apparent on her face until they stood in silence before one another. "Come now, child," she sighed in the most weary of voices. "That will be quite enough."

Aria could no longer face her or anypony at this point. Instead, when she saw Clouds' hooves turn, and begin to walk away, she simply followed them, head hanging low. She saw the hooves of Lady Mist stomp quickly past her toward where Rosedawn stood. Before the grim, gray mare could near the fancy pink pegasus, she was already attempting to clarify exactly what had just happened, spewing out words such as "cursed" and "troublemaker". Perhaps it was the last shred of hope in her heart that made Aria glance backward toward Rosedawn. She stared at the mare's face, looking for the same affection, the same promises that had lived there a few moments prior. All she saw there was shaken confusion and worry as the pink mare watched her being led away. Something inside Aria's chest cracked. Suddenly, she became lightheaded, and the world around her felt surreal. Staring up toward the giant, grim, gray clouds of the orphanage's front door, she never noticed the crowd parting right down the center to make way for her. She walked along as if being lead to the gallows, knowing that all of them were hearing the horrible things that Lady Mist was saying about her. Aria knew exactly what was to come now, and perhaps forever after. She knew that there was never to be any song by the sea.

___

Hungry, bruised, and covered in grime, Aria put the final touches on the estate's bathhouse floor, and threw down her scrubber. She had been sent straight away to work without lunch or supper that evening with the promise of much harder labors to come. In the meantime, while the caretakers weren't watching, the other wards mercilessly beat and pummeled her as punishment for her earlier misdeeds.

The rest of the estate had gone to bed long ago, and she alone remained awake, surrounded by the now spotless bath. Staring down into the darkened, dirty bucket of water she had been using to clean, Aria caught sight of her own wretched reflection. She decided that the image suited her quite well before angrily tossing the scrubber into the bucket, accidentally making the water splash all over herself. Sighing again, and accepting what she deemed to be her own extraordinary stupidity, she tucked her soaked and loosened strands of mane back into the now reformed bun she was made to wear. Somehow, it felt as if the damned thing had been pulled even tighter than before, if that were at all possible. Biting down on the handle of the pail, she wearily flapped her wings, and floated upward. Her hooves barely scraped the flooring as she flew out of the back door to dispose of the dirty water.

Pouring the contents of the pail about bit by bit so as not to send a missile of grime hurtling down to any unfortunate souls upon the earth, Aria never once noticed the dark figure who watched her from a small, lit doorway on the other side of the estate's back yard. Her head bolted upward when she heard somepony whistle nearby, trying to catch her attention. Her heart immediately began to race, and her entire body shivered anxiously.

Just ignore it. Just ignore it, she thought to herself.

Breaking her own rule, and quickly dumping the rest of the water out of her bucket in one place, she then immediately picked up the pail, and flapped her wings as hard as she could, preparing to speed off toward the children's quarters. She had only gotten slightly off of the clouds when she heard something large whip past her in the darkened atmosphere. Out of fright, she dropped the pail, and extended her little wings to fly at as fast a speed as they could manage.

Her face careened into a figure that had seemingly glided down from nowhere to block her path. She squealed as she grabbed her nose, and fell back down toward the clouds, hitting them hard with a loud 'POOF'. Groaning in pain, tears forming at the corners of her eyes, it took her a moment to actually regain a sense of where she was.

Slowly, her eyes opened, and out of the blurriness formed the body of a grimey, grim-faced, blue pegasus stallion covered in worn and dented armor. "Well, hello there, Love. And what are you doing out here at this hour?" Swift said, in the most oily, patronizing manner. "Only no goods are out and about this late."

Aria jumped quickly to her hooves, and stood before the much larger stallion, shivering, and staring down at the clouds. Her eyes were wide with fear, and she could not manage through the emotion in order to form a reply.

"You, there! Answer me!" Swift commanded, stomping his hoof down hard, and scaring her into jumping backward.

Aria couldn't help but gawk into his flaming, blood red eyes. "I... I was told to clean the baths, Sir. But I'm done now, Sir," she barely managed to mutter.

"Oh, well if you aren't a right angel," Swift said sarcastically, trotting backward just a bit to take a look for himself through the bathhouse doors. "Impeccable, as usual, little Miss..."

"Aria... Aria Blaze, Sir," she replied.

"Aria Blaze," he repeated, smiling a rather wide and sinister smile. "Beautiful name. Well, Aria Blaze, what say you to a plate of biscuits from the gathering today? Such hard work must surely be rewarded."

"No, Sir! No, thank you, Sir," she blurted, preparing to flap her wings again. "I am very, very sleepy. I must go home now, Sir."

Suddenly, a large hoof reached out before she could get anywhere, caught the very edges of her wings just as they splayed outward, and pinned them down hard to the clouds by the feathers.

Aria stifled a scream, not from pain, but from terror, as she slowly glanced up into those red eyes. For all the fire that could be seen within them, they had somehow gone dull, cold, and very serious.

Tears threatened to stream down her face.

"That crying. You know that I cannot tolerate that accursed crying," Swift growled below his breath.



Aria hit the wall hard as she was thrown into the small, unkept room next to the cellar that Swift called home. As the world swirled around her, she heard the loud sound of the door lock shift into place. The streaks of multi-colored light from the stream of rainbow that fell in the corner to brighten the small room stained the walls as well as the mountains of junk around her. It let off an eerie glow.

Please, please, please...

Before she had even regained her vision, she blindly bolted off in the air toward the sound of the lock, but was caught by a strong front leg. She was carried over near the rainbow fall where she was promptly plopped down onto a crudely formed stool at a crudely formed table, all of them made from gray cloud. Swift did not release her until she had stopped squirming. He then walked away somewhere behind a nearby stack of large boxes. She found this strange, but realized that it was because he was probably sure that she would not be able to figure a way to escape. Eyes darting about the room, she tried to find some hole, some crevice through which she might possibly be able to squeeze in order to evade him. She began to hyperventilate when she found that, indeed, there was none.

She snapped back into the present when a loud 'Clack!' came from before her as a platter of biscuits was placed onto the table. Midnight Swift slowly walked around her, inspecting her closely. Suddenly, with one swift motion, he reached out to the pin that held her mane in place, and snatched it out.

Aria's beautiful strands of purple and green tumbled down about her shoulders. In a way, she was thankful that at least now she could hide her face from him.

"I cannot understand why somepony with such a beautiful mane must be made to pack it away as one would a pile of old winter scarves," Swift muttered to himself as he carelessly tossed the pin away over his shoulder, and continued around the table. He plopped himself down on the other side.

The long silence that followed made Aria want to scream. She prayed to the child miracle Celestia for mercy, wishing that Swift would be struck by a sudden bout of blindness just so that the staring might stop.

"Well? Eat up," Swift said after a while, feigning sudden cheer. He grabbed one of the cookies for himself, broke it in half, bit down upon one piece, and held the other out for Aria. "They are quite good!"

She didn't take it. Her eyes slowly glanced up at him, then down to the plate before her.

Seeing that she was not going to be tempted with treats, Swift dropped the act. His expression became grim once again. "You are the one with the golden voice," he said casually, leaning forward onto the table. "I remembered your beautiful song from when last we met. Come now, dear. Sing me another."

"P-please, S-sir. I m-must go home," she begged one last time in the most pitiful way, her voice shaking erratically. She could manage no more after Swift stood up, reached across the table, and struck her across the face. Gazing up toward him in shock and terror, holding her now doubly sore cheek, she recoiled when, in his eyes, she saw desperation instead of rage.

It was all still strange and quite confusing to her, but gradually, it became something which she knew she simply had to accept. Happening upon her by the garden wall that first evening, Swift had heard her singing, and came rushing to see what its source was. Somehow, in that brief moment, he had managed to acquire what could be called a dangerous addiction to the sound of her voice. He told her it eased the spirit, calmed the mind, and quelled the body better than any other thing he had ever been privy to. Since that evening, Swift had made it clear that he intended to hear whatever song he wished to hear, at whichever time he chose, forcing them out of her in whichever way proved most successful. She remembered the first time that it had happened. He had beaten her and beaten her, forcing her to sing until she was too exhausted to even speak. Then, he beat her some more just to make sure that there was not even one more note left in her. It was a memory that would never leave her for as long as she lived, and now cowering there, she was being forced to relive it.

She could do nothing else but gaze at him, her mind racing. When Swift was sure that she would not object again, he took his seat, and made a motion for her to proceed with the song he had longed for.

In that silence, as the stinging of her cheek began to spread, the reality of Aria's perilous predicament finally dawned on her, and as it did, her own face fell blank. Her eyes went wide and dim, staring straight ahead to nothing in particular. Forcing her body to go numb, she told herself that this horrid situation would eventually come to an end, and repeated this in her mind until she believed it. Something new, something that burned was birthed within her at that moment—a fire of resistance that grew into a rage. It grew and grew, but did not reveal itself upon her surface. She had been born in song. Song was what had saved her, and salvaged her heart on countless occasions. Song had been her only companion in her darkest times, and now here it dangled precariously in front of one who threatened to take even that away from her, to take away her song's ability to allow her some comfort, some escape from this pathetic thing she called her life. It was then and there that she promised herself that no matter how much anypony tried, no matter how many beatings she might receive from Swift or otherwise, she would never allow them to take away her only friend in order to warp and change it into yet another thing that would serve to hurt her.

Somehow, she willed her lips to part, and inhaled deeply. As she did so, she allowed the world around her to disappear, to turn into a place where only she and the song existed. In this place, she knew which song always helped to quell the pains of her heart. Gently, she began to sing, the ethereal sound beginning to fill every last shadowed corner of the small cellar room. She never even noticed Swift leaning forward eagerly, and sighing in complete satisfaction as the melody wrapped itself around his brain. She never even noticed her own tears flowing endlessly as she stared ahead into nothingness. In spite of them, her voice never shook. Assuredly she sang until even she disappeared, and the song was the only thing that existed.

Take me away to the sea, the sea...

Like Those Pitiful Saps

View Online

Aria grumbled to herself in between pained coughs as she sorted through the mounds of dirty laundry, notebook paper, and odd electronic components strewn carelessly across her bedroom floor. She cursed when she nicked her finger on a pair of scissors hidden beneath a shirt she had cut the sleeves off of out of sheer boredom. Shaking the finger, and sucking on it for a moment, she then stood up straight, and headed toward her closet.

"These fucking hands. I'll never get used to them," she said as she shook her offended finger one more time, and then began to rummage through the clothing within the closet. Soon, she came across what it was she had been looking for, namely her favourite black baseball cap as well as a rather small, seemingly random screwdriver which had previously been hiding inside the pocket of one of her jackets. "Aha! Jackpot!" she exclaimed to herself, holding both items in either hand. Nearly gouging out one of her eyes as she moved to put on her cap without first putting down the screwdriver, Aria then decided it would be best for her to calm down, and take things slowly.

This wasn't the first time she had been late for work, but it was the first time she was going to be late after having begged her boss for a change in her schedule. Aria used to think that she simply was not a morning person, having lost her affinity for rising before the crack of dawn about a millennia and a half ago. In all actuality, it was schedules that she really hated. People expecting things of her that she did not want to deliver on, especially if it benefited her in no way, was something that she quite despised. She had thought she had been done with doing things like that for over two thousand years. Back in Equestria, when she had her full powers, this sort of thing never happened. There were no schedules and no promises to keep. The entire world seemed to revolve around her, and that was exactly how she had liked it.

Alas, times had changed. Now, she found herself nearly falling down face first in the hallway attempting to somehow run out of her room whilst tying the laces on one of her combat boots at the same time. It was all to get to her shitty little job where she would be surrounded by shitty little people asking shitty little questions for the rest of her shitty eternity. At least she could be thankful for the job's one, miniscule saving grace...

She rubbed her tired eyes, and slipped on her cap as she cursed to herself again, and made a quick dash to Adagio's room. Storming in as if she owned the place, she marched right up to her sister siren's vanity table, and snatched a pair of black, clearly expensive, designer sunglasses that were sitting atop of it. Sliding the glasses into place upon her face, she scoffed at the notion that 'Adagio the witch' might ever think to keep anything from her that she was set on having. She then marched out of the room, slamming the bedroom door behind her. Quickly making her way down the stairs, she stuffed a purple wallet, a half emptied pack of cigarettes, and her screwdriver into her jacket pockets before running out of the door.

___

"Long night?" the young man with stark red skin and brown hair said while stifling a laugh as Aria barged into the instrument repair shop.

Sneaking through the door to the back room, she quickly passed him a deadly glare. "Shut up, Mud," she spat as she darted around the room, trying as silently as she could to put her things away, and look as if she had been there twenty minutes prior.

"Seriously, though, who hit you with what size truck?" the red man laughed in his country accent, ignoring her threats.

Aria took her place on the stool beside him. She pulled over a gorgeous boutique electric guitar she had been babying for the past week, and got to work unscrewing the back plate with the screwdriver she had retrieved from her pocket. Despite this, she had forgotten that Adagio's glasses were still sitting upon her face. As the man laughed, she could hear a loud rustling behind a door on the opposite side of the room. She began to sweat. "I swear to God, Wheeler," she threatened him, her voice wavering nervously.

Muddy Wheeler was one of the biggest jerks that Aria had had the displeasure of knowing in this town, besides that infernal hoard of singing, giggling, hugging destruction that roamed the halls back at CHS, of course. Wheeler, on the other hand, didn't do any of those things. He was one of those special kinds of self-obsessed blockheads who, along with his good looks and wannabe rebel vintage car, had just assumed he was personally bestowed upon all women as a gift from the heavens. The worst part?—He was excellent at hiding it behind a greasy veneer of fake charm and semi-entertaining jokes. If only he could know that along with the ever present trail of negative energy that any halfwit siren could see leaking from his very pores, the experience that also came along with Aria's age had given her an incredible sense of perception when it came to the subtleties of other people's personalities. After over two thousand years of existence, there wasn't much that she and her comrades couldn't tell about others just by looking at them—if they were actually trying, that is. Hell if she knew how the Rainbooms had managed to pull the wool over their eyes. Wheeler hadn't pulled the wool over her eyes, and while it was a fact that his hidden, negative thoughts encompassed him, Aria still considered him to be rather harmless.

"Alright, alright! I'm done!" Wheeler said, jokingly raising his hands in defeat. A couple seconds of silence ensued after this. "But was it a whiskey truck? OW!"

Aria withdrew her fist quickly, and then pointed a finger in the man's face, but before she could get any words out, she heard the loud sliding of furniture and papers from the door behind them. She could hear a few gruff coughs before the thunder began raining down.

"Is that Aria? Tell that good for nothin' to bring her scrawny ass back here!" yelled a woman's voice.

Both Aria and Wheeler froze where they sat. A self-gratifying smile spread across Wheeler's face as he shrugged at Aria, almost as if he could shake off his own guilt at having gotten her into trouble. "Alright, Cookie!" he yelled, then turning to face the terrified-looking girl. "Aria, Cookie would like to have a word with you." His words came calmly, and dripping with ill gotten satisfaction.

Silently threatening him with a beating once more, Aria then turned her attention to the more important matters at hand. Taking a deep breath, and exhaling as she slammed her screwdriver down onto the workbench, she slowly got to her feet, straightened her hair and clothing, and began what she deemed a slow death march toward her boss' office door.

Taking another deep breath as she stared at the closed door, she held it, and quickly stepped inside. "Cookie, I know what it looks like, but I can explain," she blurted as she stared down at the cinnamon-skinned, late twenty, early thirty-something, poofy-haired woman that sat at the desk before her, shuffling through papers.

As Aria spoke, the woman never even looked up at her. A long pause ensued after she said this until, finally, Cookie took a moment to glance up. She swept the huge, haloing puff of white hair away from her hidden hazel eyes, revealing a rather striking white patch of a birthmark that encircled the left one."Well? I'm waiting," she said, holding her stack of papers.

In her line of sight, Aria's entire body went stiff. Her eyes went wide, and a huge lump grew in her throat. It was the strangest thing. Cookie Dough was one of those rare, enigmatic, mortals that Aria couldn't quite wrap her mind around, and it thrilled her. She never spoke much about her own history, but on the few times she was actually being amicable to Aria, say if they were out for drinks after a particularly difficult day, the pigtailed girl could always count on learning something new and fascinating about her. Cookie had been born and raised in a small town, settled in the big city, and, in the end, had returned to yet another small town. Between those events, she had held just about every job that one could imagine, as well as all the adventures that came along with them, most of which Aria had yet to hear about. She had first been a cook in her family's house where she showed great prowess in the craft of baking, had gone to culinary school while playing electric guitar in a number of bands in her free time, until finally she opened up her own restaurant before realizing that being a chef just wasn't her cup of tea. After she closed down the place, she hit the road, living out of her RV and picking up whatever job she could find, from diner cook to mechanic, to, after a few alterations on her RV, a moving bed and breakfast hostess. Eventually, she realized that music was her passion, and settled down here to open up her very own instrument and instrument repair shop. Even after all this, Aria knew that Cookie's well ran even deeper, and there were so many more stories to be told. After so many centuries of countless faces and boring personalities, people like her were always refreshing, almost magical, and all of these thoughts now showed blatantly upon Aria's face.

She took a deep breath. "Ok, so I don't have a good explanation," she admitted, looking up at the ceiling with exasperation. " But, please, Cookie, I swear to you that this is the very last time."

She recoiled when she saw the other woman grimace, her eyes burning into Aria in a way that made her anxious.

"Kay, darlin', why don't you have a seat?" Cookie sighed, motioning to the chair on the other side of her desk.

As Aria slowly moved to sit down, to her horror, she saw Cookie pull a hairband from off of her wrist and tie her big poof back away from her face. The former siren knew from experience that this was never a good sign when it happened.

"And take those damn sunglasses off, will ya?" the hazel-eyed woman yelled.

Aria snatched them off, quickly placing them down on the desk. She knew that the shadows around her eyes looked bad in the horrid fluorescent light of Cookie's office, but somehow she managed to meet her gaze, despite the worried expression that flashed across the other woman's face.

"Listen, I don't know what's goin' on with you right now, Aria, but I know it's goin', and I'm sympathetic to that. I really am. But I'm tryin' to run a business here, got me? Now, you're one of the best instrument docs I've ever met, and believe me, that's sayin' a lot, but Doll, I can't have you showin' up late every day. That just ain't good for business." Cookie sighed heavily, and began to shake her head as if she were trying to decide upon something.

Aria recognized the warning signs, spotting slight glimmers of green smoke beginning to halo the woman's head. She leaned forward onto her boss' desk. "Cookie? Cookie, no. You don't understand. I need this job. You've gotta give me another chance. I promise this won't happen again. Please!" she begged looking as if she might grab the woman by the collar and throttle her.

Cookie stared at Aria for a moment, arms crossed, and expression rather skeptical. She peered at her as if she were waiting for something to happen.

Eventually the younger girl rolled her eyes and sighed. "I'll buy you an entire pint at Bubble's tonight, deal?" she muttered.

A crack of a smile broke out on Cookie's face as she cocked an eyebrow in Aria's direction. "Bribery, eh?" Cookie laughed.

Aria's expression remained rather stern. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," the dour girl deadpanned.

Cookie thought for a moment, but by the way she was smiling, Aria knew she had the woman hook, line, and sinker. In all actuality, it was a small price to pay considering she would be getting to spend time with one of the few beings, mortal and immortal alike, who didn't cause her mental distress.

"Alright, deal," Cookie said, hitting her desk with her palm for emphasis. She immediately pulled her big, white poof out of the hair band, letting it fall back into place over her eyes. She stood up with a smile and stretched her back out. "But, I swear, Aria, if you're late even one more time..."

"I won't be. I promise," Aria assured her, exhaling with relief. Her head tilted backward against the back of the chair. It was then that she caught Cookie leaning on her desk, staring at her. Becoming anxious, once again, Aria's eyes darted about until finally she found the nerve to pipe up. "What? What is it?"

"Nothin'," Cookie lied. "It's just that, I still don't believe you're... How old did you say you were again?"

Aria's jaw immediately tightened as she tried to hide the gritting of her teeth through a very pained and very forced smile. If it was one thing that she absolutely despised after all these years, it was mortals and their endless prying about her age. This was yet another thing that she could blame Adagio for. Back in Equestria, she and her fellow sirens had indeed stopped physically aging around the end of their teens, but the forms that they were able to take, because of their expansive power, were numerous. If they chose to appear as elderly earth ponies, or pegasus fillies whilst they hunted for their fills of negative energy, they could. However, having deemed one's teenage years the most volatile and tumultuous time of anypony's life, Adagio had preferred that form. Teenagers were easy to hunt, easy to manipulate, and easy to drain, as far as she was concerned, and Aria had to admit that at the time she had agreed, but when Star Swirl the Bearded had banished them to this forsaken place, it was in their teenaged forms that they were swept away, and it was in their teenaged forms that they were to remain, never again being able to muster the same amount of power to change themselves. Aria was grateful, at least, for the fact that in this world teenagers also appeared to be of a rather turbulent spirit. That guaranteed that at least they would not starve. Nevertheless, today, she wished that she had time to put on some damn makeup. When done well, at least that managed to age her enough to give her some reprieve from these incessantly blood-boiling inquiries.

"Oh," she managed to laugh. "Don't worry, I'm definitely older than twenty-one... hundred." She muttered the last part so low that Cookie didn't hear it.

The woman nodded in satisfaction, and began to walk around the desk. "Well, you sure do hold your liquor like a disillusioned forty year old, that's for damn sure," the woman joked as she passed by, playfully flipping one of Aria's pigtails over her shoulder. "Now, get outta my office. I'm goin' out to eat."

At the smell of Cookie's perfume as she passed, and the sensation of the woman's fingers brushing against her arm, Aria's body stiffened. She felt her face threatening to burn up. Thank goodness she was already rose-colored. Feeling rather light-headed, she quickly jumped to her feet, shoved her hands into her pockets, and followed Cookie back out into the work room. She marched rather mechanically in a poor attempt to not look fazed by the other woman's presence. The last thing on her mind at that moment was remembering to retrieve Adagio's sunglasses from where they sat upon the woman's desk.

She quickly took her seat back on the workbench where Wheeler was busy trying to figure out some kid's busted trombone.

"Forty minutes," Cookie yelled as she grabbed her bomber jacket off of a nearby wall hook, jingling the keys from the pocket around her fingers. "Hold down the fort!" She then disappeared out of the room and through the front door.

Aria watched her until she was gone, the expression on her face unreadable. With a sigh, she snatched her screwdriver back up, and immediately got back to work. She never noticed that Wheeler had been practically staring a hole into the side of her face the entire time she had been watching Cookie.

"Say, Aria," he finally spoke up, arms crossed, leaning against the workbench. "So, how come you and me haven't gone out yet, huh?"

"Hmm, maybe it's because you're a sleaze? Not sure, but that's probably it," Aria replied, pointing a sarcastically sweet grin in his direction.

"Ouch," he said grabbing his chest dramatically. "Now, what have I ever done to you? What's the problem, huh? You batting for the other team or somethin?"

This made Aria instinctively pause what she was doing. She could feel Wheeler's stupid smile on the side of her face. Taking a deep breath, she then slammed her screwdriver down, and slowly turned her stool so that she could face him directly with a steely expression. She cocked an eyebrow at him. "As a matter of fact, Wheeler, I do bat for the other team, and also the same team. Lots of teams, even. Except, of course, for whichever team is your team," she said calmly before fluttering her lashes at him, rolling her eyes, and turning back toward the guitar she had been working on.

Wheeler, his ego clearly bruised, forced a laugh, and shook his head as he got back to his project as well. He tried not to show any reaction, but it was clear by his tightened jaw, and the billows of green smoke that she perceived escaping from his body, that Aria had successfully gotten to him. "You're really somethin' else, aren't you, Aria Blaze?" he muttered, almost threateningly.

"You really have no idea," she replied, unfazed, her eyes still on her work.

____


Not too long ago, Sonata Dusk was an immortal, energy-sucking bastion of chaos, alright, but one with a very clear philosophy for living. That philosophy, as odd as it might have seemed, was to just keep things simple. Sure, it might have been a personal ideology that no one else understood, including her fellow former sirens. However, one great truth that she never uttered out loud to them when they would verbally attack her for her supposed slow-wit was the fact that the two of them were usually terribly miserable, and thus, inadvertently trapped themselves within terribly miserable lives of their own making.

She wasn't exactly sure when it had first hit her to put a filter on her mind and the things she would allow herself to become too emotionally invested in. Maybe it was some time around the great plagues. Or, perhaps it was during the French Revolution. No, nevermind. That one was kind of fun. Oh, who could keep all of these human woes straight after watching a thousand years of the most minute to the most grandiose calamities go by, especially since she and her companions had been the cause for quite a few of them? There were seemingly so many reasons to lament about this, and cry about that, and after a time, Sonata watched as even her sister sirens began to get drawn into the silliest conflicts of everyday human life, quarreling over someone's goat getting into their fields, or mourning over a red wine stain on an expensive robe à la française. What did these tiny, earthly things really matter? Sonata, clearly, had been the only one to realize that they didn't that much.

Not to say that she didn't enjoy the occasional simple pleasure of a new dress, or a much-needed mani/pedi, but to allow these very mortal, very temporary things to live in her forever, to slowly beat against her like the waves against the rocks on the shore instead of rolling delightfully off of her back like droplets of water, seemed silly. If she opened herself up to every little irritant, every little qualm, what would have been left after all this time?—Nothing but an empty shell, that's what. Sonata didn't understand how Aria and Adagio had managed to make it through all of these ages with most of their sanity intact.

The fleeting seasons, or smell of a sweet perfume—that was life to her. Tender kisses from a summer love in the dark, and all of the glorious food. The temporary nature of all of these things only worked to enhance their beauty. It wasn't something that Sonata thought she should mourn. And, of course, there was the music. Oh, how the changing music of the ages thrilled her. Countless incantation songs had been born within her just by inspiration of the age alone. The refrains that left her lips were powerful as the whizzing of the thoughts that buzzed through her brain.

Perhaps she might look at a newborn baby, finding it interesting how wrinkles showed up at the very edges of what was mortal life, and make a seemingly silly comment like, "That baby looks like that nice grandpa guy that lived next door to us in London." Or maybe the sight of her plucking flowers whilst contemplating the very fragility of their existence might have appeared to her sisters, and any other onlookers, as her simply picking stupid flowers.

"Silly Sonata", they would say. "Sonata, go back to sleep." What they didn't know was how very much awake she had been, and though she might have appeared to be what these lovely little temporary creatures called "spaced out," she knew that absolutely no one could fault her for not being mentally present and aware when it counted. Whenever Adagio had a plan, she knew what to do. Whenever she received an order from her elder sistren in song, there was never any questioning it. It was done. But after it was done, she would allow her mind the opportunity to fly free once again. So, she came off as a little bit dopey. So what?

However, things had indeed changed very much during the past few months following the Battle of the Bands. Being stripped so unceremoniously of her powers, her melodious magic, and in a sense, her life blood, had been the second most eye-opening moment of Sonata's long, long life. It was exceeded only by the moment when she first gained full realization and control over her abilities many ages ago. Now, suddenly, everything about her eternal philosophy had changed. Never before had she been required to worry or want for food, for water, for shelter, or any of those seemingly "silly" things that she had once found endearing about mortals, all whilst charming away the hard earned fruits of their labors from their very fingertips. Only once before had she been expected to give up so many hours out of each and every day—hours that she would usually reserve for her colourful ruminations—to instead, toiling for sustenance. That was an old, nameless time, a time that she would much rather never remember again. Yet, as she marched off to work dutifully, day in and day out, those dark things, long gone, seemed more and more to rise up out of the past to haunt her.

She had to admit, the hard, mundane work, the lack of having her thoughts all to herself, and not to mention the withdrawals from not being able to consume precious negative energy had taken their toll on her, both mentally and physically. Her ability to withstand her anxieties and things that might have been called guilt weakened. Her dreams were turning sour, and the hours of her sleep shortened with each passing week. She didn't know why, but lately a suffocating sensation had gathered about her neck, and remained there.

Alas, the ones who loved and watched out for her had needed her help, and to her, there was no question about whether or not she would be there for them. To her it was love, besides song and music, that was the most precious, eternal thing in the universe, even more so than life itself, and unlike those horrible Rainbooms, Sonata knew in her ever-beating heart that you didn't have to be a damned saint or sparkly "better-than-thou" princess to give or deserve love. You certainly didn't have to be of a pristine personality to get it. Being a former siren, she should know that. None of these conclusions felt wrong to her. To her, there were only delights and sorrows, and the many different paths to getting them both.

There was one thing, however, that she could not tolerate, something that she could leave no gray area for. To leave the one who gives you delight, or worse yet, their love without due repayment, to her, was an unforgivable sin. Thus, if Adagio and Aria needed her to work a thousand more hours a week, she would surely have done it, and still it would not be enough for what she owed them. For, how could she ever repay those who had given her the greatest gift of love she had ever known?

"Two cheeseburgers, one with extra pickles, a chili dog deluxe, and three choco shakes!" Sonata yelled, forcing some cheer and pep into her voice as she slid each dish quickly onto a table full of hungry young men. "Can I get you fellas anything else?"

One of the young men, looking the pretty blue girl over, passed a sly glance toward his friends, and then turned to smile at her. "Yea, uh, Sonata," he began, taking a moment to read her nametag. "There is just one more thing. Now, rumor has it that out of all the shakes in this joint, you've got the best. So, how 'bout it?"

Sonata's smile went bright, and the rather sleazy nature of the man's request zipped right over her head as she took a step backward away from the table. "Well, those rumors are totally true!" she said giving a quick twirl and a cute shake in beat with the jukebox music that played loudly in the restaurant. Passing a wink toward the table, she then walked away smiling, and left the boys in the middle of an uproarious cheer. The whistling and hooting could still be heard as she disappeared behind the kitchen door to fetch another order.

"Sorry, running a little behind!" J.R. called to all four of the restaurant's other waitresses who lingered about near the doorway, fanning themselves with their trays every minute or so as they waited for their next orders to come up.

As Sonata entered, one particularly pretty, orange haired girl with big, green, angel eyes glanced through the door's glass window to the table of content customers the former siren had just left behind. "Man, Sonata. You're amazing. That's another huge tip for you, I bet. I can't even do the hokey pokey without falling on my butt," she moaned.

Sonata walked over to lean on the table next to her, and nudged her affectionately in the arm. "Oh, come on, Peach. It's really not that hard. Here, I'll teach you! You just hop and shake and hop and shake. See?"

Peachy Keen observed Sonata with amusement before, with a little resistance, she took a small hop herself, and did an awkward shake. "You've got it already!" Sonata giggled encouragingly. "We'll call it the Peach Shake!"

The two girls giggled amongst themselves, never once noticing the other three standing idly by, staring them down judgmentally.

After a while, one cream-skinned girl standing nearest them stood up straight, and approached. "You know, Sonata, it's fine if you wanna prance around, slutting it up for the college lunchtime crowd for extra cash you know they don't have, but you don't have to drag innocent little Peach into your... dubious ways," she said, flipping her dark brown hair, and allowing it to fall back over one of her sparkling, blue eyes.

The two dancing girls immediately faltered in their step, and then froze to stare at her with hurt expressions plastered on their faces. Sonata, who was never very good with witty quips, opened her mouth to say something, but when words failed her, her gaze fell to the floor.

Peachy, noticing this, stroked Sonata's shoulder, and then turned an angry eye toward the brunette. "Hey! Lay off of her, Patti! She isn't being a slut, okay? What's wrong with liking to dance?"

"Nothing!" Patti said, feigning innocence as she shook her hands. "If you're good at it, that is."

"Oh yea?" Sonata managed to blurt finally. "Well, the customers like my dance, Patti. That's all that matters."

All three of the other girls laughed mockingly at her. One orange-skinned girl with green and brown streaked hair popped the gum she had been sluggishly chewing on. She rolled her brown eyes, and approached the group to stand next to Patti. "Come on, Son-ny," she cooed. "Are you really that naive? It isn't your jig that the customers like."

"Yea, it's your jugs," called the last girl from behind them both before all three of them broke out into hysteric laughter.

Wiping a stray tear from her eye, Patti quelled her laughing long enough to take a deep breath. "Amongst other things, that is. Aw, come on, Sonny. You're a cute girl. You've got assets, and you get your tips. Kudos to you. But let's not act all innocent about what it is you're doing. Crude manipulation, is what it is."

The former siren's raspberry-colored eyes darted back up toward Patti, now on fire. They peered at her sharply. As she watched the pungent, green vapors begin to emanate from the three sneering girls before her, her jaw tightened to hold back words she knew she was forbidden to say.

Sonata could decipher girls like Patti Mint and her cohorts, Pumpkin Spice and Candy Ice, all too well. It wasn't difficult. Envy was a very common human emotion, one rooted in the inability to accept one's own imperfections. Back in Equestria when she still had her full powers, Sonata would devour the energy of ponies with personalities like this as if they were mere snacks. Of course, once being banished to this world it was a bit harder, but still, these types were the easiest of them all to coerce into feeling inadequate, to compel to lash out negatively. They speak of manipulation? If only they had known her in her prime. With all of that foul energy that surrounded the girls, she would have quickly made mindless food bags out of each of them. Still, the jabs of these worthless words stuck her hard. For some reason they always did, even coming from strangers. Of course, she would forget after a while, but the feeling of not being accepted, of being shunned instead of loved, was something terrible to her. It was a soft and scarred over part of her heart that still pained horribly when prodded. Again, shaking ancient thoughts from her mind, she huffed heavily and stared away out of the glass door window, into the main dining area without speaking again to any of them.

The minutes passed by slowly, and as the former siren continued to look through the glass window, the orders for the other girls came up, one by one. Soon, only she was left waiting. The table of college fellows appeared to be finishing up their meal, and she sighed heavily thinking again about what Patti and her friends had said. It wasn't because it made her question her ethics. Despite what one would think, Sonata was very clear on what she wanted, and how she was willing to go about getting it. Instead, it was simply that horrid lack of acceptance that still bothered her.

Her sigh caught J.R.'s attention as he frantically tried to finish the last large order before his late afternoon break. He looked up to her quickly, only to catch her chewing her pinkie nail as she was apt to do whilst deep in thought. Attempting to double task, he decided to speak up. "You know, you shouldn't listen to those girls," he began after clearing his throat. "They're idiots."

This drew unexpected giggling from the pretty blue girl as his statement reminded her of something Adagio would say. She was quick to stifle herself upon viewing the confused expression upon J.R.'s face. "Oh, they're not idiots," she said wistfully, glancing again out of the small, round window. "They're just unhappy."

"Yea, well, that still isn't a good reason to take it out on you, but what do they know? Everyone else loves you, Sonny," J.R. said, trying not to sound too self conscious about making such a statement. "So, what does it matter that those three don't, right?"

At that moment, Sonata caught a glance of Patti through the glass as the brunette was turning to face her direction. Catching Sonata's gaze, Patti didn't hesitate to stick out her tongue in a mocking fashion at the glum, blue girl. She then turned to walk away toward another table.

"Right," Sonata muttered, smirking ruefully to herself.

The sound of J.R.'s voice faded into the distance as she caught sight of the table of young men once again. They had just pulled out their wallets, and were calculating a tip which they were placing in a separate pile.

Sonata watched the boys, unmoved as bill after bill fell into the pile, enamored grins on their faces. Big tip again, just as Peach had predicted, but to her it didn't matter. She already knew that those boys adored her, as they should, because naturally she was lovable. But she just couldn't tolerate, nor could she understand anyone who did not. And so, just like that, another preoccupation was born in her mind. Patti and her friends were all she could see at the moment, and the want of their love, the desire for them to know that she was a phenomenal person, took over. Her first inclination was to give them things, but she quickly shook this notion from her thoughts. She had fallen prey to such self-depreciating ideas in the past, and it had proven utterly detrimental. Suddenly, as if she were struck by some invisible force, a vision flashed before her eyes, and instead of dollar bills falling to the table, she saw gold Equestrian bits. Instead of the faces of young men, she saw the deeply entranced and enthralled faces of a crowd of cheering ponies. As her mind zipped back to the present, a once familiar and mischievous smile slowly spread across her face.

"Order up!" J.R. yelled right at that moment. The grin on his face evidenced how proud he was feeling about the speech he had given to Sonata which had mostly gone unheard.

Turning to smile brightly at him, Sonata approached, and snatched up the hoard of dishes onto her serving tray. "Thanks, J.R.!" she called as she winked at him, and disappeared through the door.

After hurrying off to deliver her latest batch of orders, Sonata then walked over to the now empty table where the young men once sat. There, she pulled out the bill payment as well as her tip. Quickly counting through the cash, she silently nodded to herself. This should be enough to cover it.

Waiting around the empty booth, out of the corner of her eye, Sonata watched as Patti finished up for the moment at one of her own tables, and headed back toward the kitchen. She then made her move. Acting quickly, she walked over to Patti's table where sat a rather kind-looking family, complete with a small boy. Once there, she smiled brightly and waved. "Afternoon, folks. I just came on over to personally say sorry for the long wait times we've been having today. We're down a cook, but we still hope that your service has been great!"

The man and woman looked at each other quizzically before passing an equally polite smile back to the cheery, blue girl. "Oh, everything's been fine! No problems at all with service!" said the man.

If the family would have looked closely at Sonata's face at that very moment, they would have noticed the small traces of dull irritation growing around her eyes.

"Not as off the charts as you, of course, but still good," the woman finished in a more soft, almost careful voice.

This made Sonata's eyes brighten up again. "Oh shucks, well, I just enjoy putting smiles on all of these faces. No, biggie. You all just let your waitress know if you need anything else," she said gleefully, turning to walk away. The family never caught the sudden, devilish look in her eye. "Hopefully, she won't take too long with your free sundaes."

She could almost hear the family blink to themselves. "W-wait a sec!" the man called. "What free sundaes? Our waitress didn't tell us about that."

Sonata grinned brightly, but hid it just in time to turn around, feigning a puzzled look. "For realzies? Well, because of the wait times, we've been offering our super duper, special free sundaes to customers. Gosh, that's the third time today she's forgotten." She waited just long enough to see the most disappointed of expressions growing upon the little boy's face. "Not to worry!" she exclaimed. "I'll get right on it for you. Actually, I'll bring them out first. Our customers' happiness is key!"

And with that, Sonata marched away to go put the sundaes together herself. Afterward, she quickly walked back out while the other waitresses, Patti included, rolled their eyes at how enthusiastic she always was about working this supposedly hum drum job. Reaching the table, she slid the delicious looking sundaes out to each of them. "Here you go! I even put a special treat on yours, little guy," she said with a smile, motioning toward the rainbow-colored sprinkles on the young boy's sundae.

"Wow! Thank you, lady!" the boy exclaimed right before he dug in.

"Well, you have just been absolutely fabulous," the woman breathed with a smile. "If you don't mind, would you wait for us for the rest of our time here?"

"Yea," the man continued. "To be perfectly honest, the last girl was kinda, yknow... rude."

"Marsh!" the woman scolded him. He quickly turned, cleared his throat, and began to eat his own sundae to fill his troublesome mouth.

Sonata could barely contain her smile at this point, but somehow managed to force a tortured look. "Well, if that is what you would like, then of course. The customer is always right after all!"

"See? Now that's quality service," the man said to his wife with a mouth full of ice cream, motioning toward Sonata. "Young lady, you keep up the great work, and expect a big tip." The man passed a wink to her as he glanced around jovially.

Sonata, feigning gratefulness, quickly thanked them, and headed back toward the cash register. Pulling out the tip money she had made prior, she punched in the amounts for the three desserts she had given them, and paid for them out of her tip money. She bit her lip self consciously. If Adagio ever found out about this, she knew she'd be in big trouble. However, considering the circumstances, everything inside of her agreed that this was something that must be done. As she watched Patti Mint exit the kitchen, once again, and walk up to the family's table, she paid close attention to their body language as they hastily informed her of their change in choice of waitresses. Something jubilant grew inside of her chest as she watched Patti spin around to pass a confused glare her way. The brunette then marched in a shamed rage back to the kitchen, trailing mounds of green energy smoke behind her, enough to make Sonata's mouth water. The blue girl watched her go, smiling brightly to herself. This just proved what she had been thinking all along. Not everything was about the money. Some things, after all, were about the principle.

Roundabout

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"Sonata? Sonata Dusk!" a female voice rang out over the rolling, grassy knolls. The sun had just about disappeared behind the horizon, and the sky was the most magnificent mix of purples and pinks.

A small, blue pony, trotted amongst the flowers with a filled water bucket hanging from her mouth. She quickened her pace when she heard the call. "Cmfg Mvvrrrm!" she yelled through her teeth, almost dropping the pail in the attempt.

Sonata Dusk could have kicked herself for losing track of the time, yet again, but how could she resist spending a few peaceful moments with as gorgeous a view as the meadows at sunset? The day had been long and grueling, as most were, and that special space between afternoon and evening was usually her only small chance to breathe. So, she had taken the opportunity thinking her mother and father would be none the wiser.

After a day's worth of singing—her absolute favorite thing to do—she had been sent down to the valley to fetch cooking water from the well therein. Whilst there, she had listened to the few fading sounds of songbirds, and couldn't resist humming along with them. The birds were much wiser than ponies, as far as she was concerned; for, at least they had the sense enough to know that moments like these dripped music, and were ripe with magic. Moments like these should never go to waste.

As she spotted her family's cottage on the hill coming into view, Sonata took a moment to place her bucket down in order to retie the sackcloth shawl she wore about her shoulders. This was done as a way of shrouding the large, round birthmark that sat in the space between her chest and neck. Her mother thought it a bit too unsightly, and so she had made her the meager shawl in order to hide it. It wasn't much, but it was the best her parents could do. Her mother had even embroidered a row of blue crescent moons about the borders, just for her. Sonata smiled at the sight.

Hearing her name called one last time, she picked up the bucket, and raced the rest of the way to the cottage. As she turned the bend into the gate, and neared the front door where a spindly, yellow, dull-faced mare awaited her, the child's eyes brightened. Running up quickly, she nearly tripped into the other pony, almost spilling the contents of the bucket all over her simple but neat robe.

Hiking up her hems, the mare took a step back angrily. "Sonata! You almost got me wet!" she yelled.

"Aprggss Mvvr!" Sonata muttered before finally spitting out the bucket handle, and smiling apologetically up at the mare. "Apologies, Mother. My mistake."

"Do you know how late you are?" the mare yelled, ignoring the blue filly's apology. "You should have started on supper ages ago. Your father is famished!" She nudged the young one into the cottage, bucket in tow.

Passing the small main room, awash in oil lamp light, Sonata raced by a stout, equally as yellow, bearded stallion. He stared crossly at her as she ran into the back rooms. "Famished!" he yelled, echoing the mare's words.

"Yes, Father! Apologies, Father!" Sonata yelled from the back as the sounds of pots and pans could now be heard clinking and crashing.

The blue filly now moved with much urgency, very much cross with herself for having upset Master Fylleion and his wife. She chastised herself silently, knowing that she should try harder to do better, be more behaved, be more disciplined, especially considering all that the pair had done for her. They had fed her and taken her into their home when no one else would. They had allowed her to sing to her heart's content—at strictly designated times, of course. They had loved her by giving her a place to call home. Surely, she was not repaying that love in kind. Surely, they would see that, and think of what a horrid little filly she was. She could not allow that to happen, ever. The pair meant the world to her, and she was obliged to show them that.

Fylleion and his wife, Thistle, were tenant farmers on the lands of Lord Goldenstalks. They grew small greens. Besides owning this quaint little cottage far out into the countryside, they were also put in control of farming the wide spread of land that bordered the meadows for thistle, dandelion, clover, and all other sorts of miniscule edibles that usually went into the nightly stew they ate—a stew that, quite frankly, Sonata was sick of. Of course, she dared not express such an ungrateful sentiment to the pair whom she now thought of as her mother and father.

In the early summers, the greens would be plentiful, and the labor to harvest them was difficult. They had told Sonata once before that it had been a blessing that she had shown up when she did. She was happy to be needed, and helped out as much as she could, proud when her bunches of greens gradually became bigger and bigger than any the two adults would harvest. Despite the hard work, they had given her life meaning. Before the Master and Mistress, there were only cold streets, and roaming from door to door during the evening times, singing for table scraps.

Sonata had almost always had confidence in her voice and her song. Before her adoptive parents, it was the one thing in the world she could trust to provide for her, and to convey exactly what it was she was trying to say. Naturally, it had taken a while for her to discover all this. For in the beginning, after waking up on that strange beach with only memory of her name, she had been mostly a mute. Nothing was wrong with her, of course. Perhaps she had been just a tad afraid, a touch too daydreamy, and a bit uninterested in speaking—an apprehension that would stick with her for her entire life. Thus, almost by instinct, she simply began to wander about the nearby coastal town of Greenwaters in silence, foraging for food through piles of daily wastes. She quickly blended into a sea of faces that could care less about her, a nopony. If she found nothing to eat during the day, she would be satiated by singing herself to sleep at night near the back kitchen door of the town's bakery, where it was warm. These were the only times when sound escaped her mouth, and her song would always seem to calm her growling stomach. In between all this, she would always make sure to visit the beach where she first remembered waking up, a place which she had loved from the start. Sometimes, if the weather was warm enough, she would sleep there instead.

One morning, after having gone three whole days without food, and not having the mettle nor the skill to pickpocket, in her delirium, she had begun to sing to herself where she sat on the side of the road. It was a glum, slow, rather absurd song that seemed to fit the poor, blue filly's bewildered state of mind.

Oh, roundabout. Oh, round I go,
For a bit of bread and butter,
Or a massive pie about my height,
Or a cake in every color.

She fell backward, feeling too weak to sit upright. In her rash attempt to quiet the desperate thoughts that now raced through her mind, she never noticed a small colt—white of fur with brown mane, and seemingly equal in age to herself—approach her. Slowly, the young one began to smile at her song, then began to dance, clacking his hooves against the ground. By and by, she looked up at him. For a moment, seeing what joy she had given him, and realizing that he had actually noticed her, she seemed to forget about her troubles. Slowly, she stood, beginning to sing louder and faster. As she did, it seemed the song, which usually took on a sarcastically melancholy tone, became more and more jovial and whimsical. Gradually, faces turned, and strained to see from where such a lovely, rich, little voice had come, and as more did, they all began to stomp their hooves in rhythm to the delightfully addictive tune.

Oh, none can know my woe, you see,
For 'round me lurks a beast.
No blessed rest can I receive,
Lest it pounce during my sleep.
I question not why, curiously,
It groans when I smell chowder.
And when I flee, most famished then,
The growling gets 'more louder'!

Oh, roundabout! Oh, 'round I go!
Bid farewell to my mother!
And if my love refuses me,
I'll go 'round to the other!

Something akin to a wellspring broke open within her chest as she watched the adoring eyes upon her, and ponies beginning to dance. Never before had anypony looked at her this way. All she could ever remember from before were gazes of scorn and disgust at her dirtied face, unkempt mane, and ragged clothing. In an instant it had all changed. Perhaps the key had been her voice all along. As her confidence grew, strangely her birthmark began to itch, and almost like magic, the song seemed to take on a life of its own, rippling through the air. One could almost hear harmonies and the pull of fiddle strings. More words now seemed to sprout within her. It was as if her mind could barely keep up as they flew from her lips. Quickly, she climbed atop a stack of wooden boxes with the help of two larger ponies, and then turned to face the crowd.

The dumplings in my daydreams
Are the best I've ever had.
Delusions of double whipped creams,
I must be going mad!
Oh friendly folk I tell you that,
This hungry life's not easy.
But join me on the roundabout,
And you'll find it quite breezy!

She repeated the choruses as if the song might never end. However, as the refrains came to their conclusions, so did her wellspring of words. Slowly, the thoughts dried up as if to make her understand that this was where some unseen force had deigned that the song should end. She had no choice but to let it happen. As she stopped singing, little Sonata could only wonder for a moment what exactly the meaning of her words were before the crowd broke out into an uproarious applause. This made her gasp, snapping her out of her melodious reverie. Almost as if the crowd were following suit, a strange air of realization seemed to dawn upon them. Slowly, their smiles faded into dull looks of normalcy, and those precious visages of adoration began to slip away. Then the gathering began to dissipate. Not understanding what had just happened, Sonata frowned, and slowly backed away from the roadside, deeply confused. Hitting the wall as her legs gave out, she fell to the ground, again, very close to fainting. Hunger pangs racked her even harder now as she could only ponder to herself about what had just happened. Her eyes shut. Assuming that, once again, the world had made her disappear, she never expected to feel a small tap upon her head. Raising her eyes upward, she caught the gaze of the young colt who had been dancing before her earlier. Between his teeth, he held a rather large chunk of bread and a carrot.

Letting the provisions fall before her, he smiled. "Your song was lovely!" he said, waiting for a reply.

Sonata, without song, had once again gone mute, and found that no words wanted to escape her. She gave him a grateful smile through her overgrown fringe. Nodding her head, she then took a frantic bite out of the bread.

The other child blinked at her, slightly confused. "Can't you speak, anymore?" he asked.

In the distance, somepony called loudly above the din of the morning masses. "Peewee! Peewee!" called the female voice, until, through the rush, a gray mare approached them. "Prance! There you are! Why did you run off like that?"

She only seemed to notice Sonata in the shadow after she had raced up, and checked the colt for injuries. When she did notice the little vagabond, a slight look of both repulsion befell her. "Come along, Dear. I have told you many times not to speak to these things," she muttered to Prance as if Sonata couldn't hear her. The mare then shooed the little colt further on down the road. In an instant it was as if all memory of Sonata had been wiped from the elder pony's mind.

"But Mother, she sang a pretty song," Sonata could hear Prance say as they went.

When he said this, the mare leaned over to nuzzle her child lovingly. "I will sing you three when we arrive at home," she said.

Sonata could only stare at them as she took hasty mouthful after mouthful of the food that sat before her, drinking in that familiar look of love that the mother had given her son. It was a look that, a few moments ago, was directed toward her by the cheering crowd. Suddenly, a small flame was kindled within her, a flame that could only be fed with the same adoration she had seen in the crowd, and the tender care she had seen between Prance and his mother. Slowly, as she ate, and tears began to fall from her eyes, a plan began to formulate in her young mind.

It was then that her nightly routine began. Instead of sleeping in the evening behind the bakery, Sonata would sleep during the daytime. Then, in the evenings, while everypony was at home having supper, she would roam about the town knocking on doors and singing for scraps. Not yet understanding how to use currency, she would always refuse coins when the inevitably enamored town residents would try to offer them to her. Still, she soon found that this door-to-door method was a reliable way to keep herself well fed.

One evening, fortune had decided to smile upon her as she wandered farther out into the countryside looking for new audiences. This was how she happened to knock upon the door of Master Fylleion and his wife. However, on that night, as the couple stood in awe before the small filly and her wondrous voice, Sonata had seen them pass a rather undecipherable glance between one another. Then, to her surprise, instead of just giving her a few scraps of bread, they had offered her a home, provided that she would be willing to earn her keep, of course. After a time, they had somehow even coaxed her into speaking to them. Things were rough at first, but she quickly caught on to her duties in no time. Cleaning and cooking breakfast would come first in the mornings, then usually it would be time for one of her parents to escort her through town as she sang for coins while the other stayed at home to handle the farm's business. When the sun began to set, they would head home where Sonata would then go to fetch water, and return to fix supper, after which she promptly went to bed. By that time she was usually exhausted. The only instances during which things seemed a bit harder were during their harvest in the early summer, but that only lasted about a month or so before the routine became the usual once again.

All that had been over a year ago. Now, in the drafty, little, stone kitchen and pantry room, which also doubled as her bedroom, Sonata moved as if dancing from memory. She lit the kitchen fire, then ran to the pantry to grab as much cabbage, clover, carrots, and apples as she could carry. Hurrying back to the kitchen, she grabbed the large stew pot from where it sat in the corner, almost tumbling backward as the sheer size of it overshadowed her small frame. After setting it down, she poured in the well water, and somehow, with her hind hoof, managed to set it on a hook over the growing fire whilst, with her front hoof, she grabbed a few herbs and seasonings off of a nearby shelf—Fylleion had built it short, especially for her. Tonight she would try a cabbage and carrot stew and an apple cake as a surprise. Perhaps her parents wouldn't mind the absence of the usual greens in their broth when they laid eyes upon the delicious dessert.

Thirty more minutes had passed before she had finished, and by the time her mother bellowed for her again, she had already filled the bowls, and plated the lovely-looking cake. "Coming! I'm coming!" she called before dashing out of the kitchen, balancing plates on her nose and head, and leaving a few floured hoof prints in her wake.

Fylleion and his wife were already seated at the simple, yet well laid table beside their fireplace. Both of them stared crossly at her, choosing to remain stoic and silent as she plopped their bowls down before them. Eyes all agleam, she then presented the cake, sliding it toward the center of the table. She eyed them both in silence, waiting anxiously for their reaction as they gazed down to inspect their meals.

"There is no dandelion in this stew," the Mistress huffed in a matter-of-fact manner.

"Indeed," Fylleion agreed dully, even as he leaned over to begin gulping the stew down.

An utterly dejected look befell the filly as she watched her mother regard her husband.

Thistle then turned to the small filly, and sighed. "Very well. You may go have your supper," she said.

"Y...yes, Mother," Sonata replied glumly as she turned tail, and walked back toward the kitchen.

"Oh, and Sonata?" the mare called once again.

Almost too eagerly, Sonata spun around, hope glimmering in her eyes. "Yes, Mother?" she asked.

"Do try and get an early sleep this evening. We will be leaving for town a bit earlier than usual tomorrow," stated the mare.

"Oh," Sonata replied, now doubly deflated. "Yes, Mother."

As Sonata turned to walk away again, she could only attempt to figure how she might possibly get an earlier night's sleep when she still had to clean up the kitchen. Regardless, she resigned herself to the task at hand. When she re-entered the kitchen, there were chopped pieces of herbs, fruits, and vegetables everywhere, not to mention a healthy coating of flour all about. Huffing to herself, she slowly reached up toward her shawl, pulled it from around her neck, and upward onto her head. There she tightened it so that it pulled her long blue mane back away from her face. Moving over to where the remains of the bucket water sat, Sonata poured what remained into a different bucket used for cleaning, fetched the scrubber, and promptly got to work, deciding to forgo her supper until later.

By the time she had finished, it was far too late an hour, and the rest of the household had long ago gone to sleep, bellies filled with stew and cake. Utterly exhausted, Sonata pulled her shawl from around her head with one hoof, and with her teeth, scooped up the small wooden bowl filled with her now cold stew. Dragging herself through the small doorway to her little pantry, Sonata immediately plopped down on top of the meager set of blankets given her for a bed. She set the bowl of stew down gently, and then fell backward onto her dirty, almost too flat pillow. Heaving a sigh of relief, she waited a moment before reaching inside of the pillow through one of its many tears, and pulling out what seemed to be a rather hideously constructed, stuffed pony doll. Even at such a young age, Sonata had sewn this herself, and despite the ugliness of the dirty little thing, she regarded it with only pure affection. "And how are you this evening, Socks?" she asked it, giving it a hug.

Shimmying down beneath her thin blankets, she pulled her bowl of stew toward her, planning on heading to sleep right after she gulped it down. "Late one for me, tonight," she continued on, her head almost instinctively tilting down to rest upon the pillow. Her weary eyes began to droop. "But no worries. I will tell you all about it right after I... finish... my..."

It took less than a minute for the filly's eyes to shut completely, and just like that, she was asleep, her supper left untouched.



The cockerel's crow came far too soon the next morning, and no sooner had it, did Sonata receive a rude awakening. She felt a firm nudge in her back, and her thin blankets were then immediately snatched away from her face. Her eyes popped open, teary from weariness. She sat up in an instant, and stared toward the blurry figure in the doorway now coming into focus, her mother.

"Sonata, I expressly told you to get up earlier, didn't I?" Thistle chided her, keeping her voice low so as not to wake Fylleion who could still be heard snoring, even from this distance.

"I know, Mother, but I—"

"No excuses," the mare interrupted. "Go down to the well and clean up. Your robe and hat will be waiting by the door when you return."

"Yes, Mother," Sonata replied obediently, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She was too tired to attempt to defend herself.

When she had finally willed her legs to stand and move without wobbling, she groggily collected the water bucket, and made her way out into the field. The air was cool and refreshing, and dew hung from the blades of grass that stretched on till the horizon. Her beloved birds had awakened by now, and though the water was chilly as Sonata dumped it over her head, and began to scrub at her fur, she didn't even seem to notice. Despite its cold, it somehow seemed that the water could always give her enough warmth and energy to sing along with her flying friends.

Oh, songbird, how do you sing,
When there's long flight in the winter,
Bitter work in the spring?
In the summer your children leave you,
On freshly feathered wing.
Yet, still you sing.
Still you sing.

Her strong, rich voice echoed throughout the fields, and even the birds, after a while, seemed to stop and listen. Realizing she had overpowered her friends, Sonata giggled to herself, and blurted a small apology to them. The last thing she had expected was to receive a reply.

"It's alright!" came a strangely familiar voice somewhere far to her right. When her head whipped about to take a look, standing there on the small dirt path that cut between Fylleion's farmland and the open fields was a recognizable young colt, about her age, white of fur with brown hair. Prance smiled brightly at her, and made a quick dash into the fields to meet her at the well.

As he approached, Sonata felt something tightening in her throat, silencing her voice. The same shyness that seemed to plague her before she met Fylleion and his wife crept upon her once again, and in that instant she realized that it had been a long time, over one full year, since she had met anypony of her own volition without her mother or father being present. In that time she had never been required to speak to anypony on her own, only sing when she was told to. The few times when her speech was necessary, it was always in her parents' presence, and usually only consisted of a few words.

"Hello! You are the filly from the town marketplace a while ago! Why are you so far out into the country?" Prance inquired as he reached the well.

Sonata backed away from him, looking very much as if she would like to hide.

"My family comes here during the summers to vacation. I didn't think there were any other children nearby." An uneasy expression spread across Prance's face as he realized how uncomfortable he was making her. "M-my name is Prance Lighthoof. My father was once a guard for Lord Goldenstalks. Now they are very good friends. He is whom we're vacationing with. Do you know Lord Goldenstalks?" He seemed to become self-conscious as he looked Sonata over, and realized from the sights of her bucket and ragged shawl that she might not be able to relate to his tale. "P-perhaps we could be friends... If you wish," he posed unsurely. A long silence ensued between them as he awaited her reply.

At this point, it was clear that Sonata was neither happy nor comfortable with the idea. In fact, her eyes darted about, and her breath began to quicken as if she were waiting for somepony to catch her in the act of doing something wrong.

Prance's eyes fell to the ground so as to save her any embarrassment. "I very much enjoy your singing. Why is it that you do not speak to—"

"No!" Sonata finally managed to scream in a panic, making Prance jolt backward in surprise. He looked up again just in time to see her snatch up her bucket, and bolt off toward her home.

"Wait! I still don't know your name!" he called to her. After taking a few steps in her direction, he realized that perhaps it would be best not to follow, and sadly turned back around. It was then that he noticed a shabby piece of embroidered brown cloth flapping in the wind against the side of the well. It was Sonata's shawl. She had forgotten it in her haste to get away. Prance quickly dashed over to scoop it up between his teeth, and began the trek back down the road past the farmlands.

___

Try as she might, Sonata just could not keep still as she sat next to her mother upon a large wooden box in the marketplace at Greenwaters. The square was just beginning to liven up, and while this usually tended to lift her spirits a bit, today she could not help but feel anything besides guilt. She couldn't quite decide on why, but somehow she knew that she had done something wrong. Staring up at the cloudless sky, the blue pony reached up to the wide brim of her straw sunhat, and pulled it down upon her head, as if trying to make the entire thing disappear within it. For what might have been the millionth time,

Thistle reached out, and swatted her little hooves away. "Stop it! You'll surely ruin the thing, and I am not making you another until next year. Besides, you're making me quite nervous. Why are you acting so strangely, child?" she inquired.

Knowing her eyes could not tell lies, Sonata looked away from her mother, and toward the ground. "Nothing, Mother. I... I suppose this robe is just a little hot," she lied.

"Oh, nonsense. I wear the same material as you, and I feel fine. Besides, every young filly needs a good robe for special occasions," the yellow mare retorted, looking back down into a basket that sat before her, filled with pretty dandelions.

Sonata's looked confused. "But Mother, we do this everyday," she mentioned cautiously.

"Oh, Sonata, do stop whining and second guessing everything that I say," Thistle said with a pained wince of annoyance. "The sun is high, and there are enough patrons now. Time to get started."

With nothing more than a tight-lipped and obedient nod of her head, Sonata immediately got to her hooves, glanced around cautiously just once, and then closed her eyes. There she stood in silence for about a minute, listening to the sounds around her, smelling the fragrant odors of the marketplace, feeling the warmth of the sun upon her skin. Slowly, a shapeless, melodic tittering began to reverberate in her skull. Gradually, it took on a solid form, and when her birthmark began to itch, she knew she had it.

Come down to Sweetrush River,
We shall make good company...

She began in a long, hauntingly beautiful refrain that caught the attention of everypony within earshot. When she saw the eyes upon her, glee seemed to fill her up, as it always did, and even the dominating presence of her mother seemed to dissipate from her mind. As she continued on through the song, the melody then took on a more elated feeling and pace.

Finally, as the song ended, Sonata held the last refrain as she glanced around at the enamored crowd, already clapping and dancing where they stood. Some of the faces were familiar to her. They stared back at her adoringly, having learned to expect the child's lovely singing everyday at the same time. Her mother seemed elated when she glanced toward her, handing out sweet dandelions, one after the other, as a show of gratitude for the mounds of gold bits that were now dropping into her woven basket. It was during these times that the mare always seemed to be at her happiest. Sonata's little heart skipped a beat, and jumped for joy at the contentment that seemed to surround her. Almost disappointed, she let her refrain end, and finished the song where she had started it.

At once, the crowd roared with delight. By and by, she took off her straw hat, and bowed low to them all, making sure to keep the feeling of joy within her heart so as not to cause an incident like the first time she sang for a crowd, that of dissipating love and swiftly being forgotten.

If she were to be quite honest with herself, Sonata knew she could have held the refrain for so much longer than any other pony could. However, having done it once before, it had proven to be detrimental when after a good two minutes of holding a note, whispers of sorcery began to surface amongst the crowd, and their happiness fell away. Even her mother seemed quite fearful at the time, and forbade her from ever doing such a thing, again. Just to show that she was quite serious, she had sent Sonata to bed without supper that evening.

It had all been a learning process, trying to figure out which of her abilities were to be hidden and which were to be utilized just enough to seem exceptional for those who were normal... well, more normal. Eventually she had gotten the hang of it. For yet another day, she could glance at her mother and smile, and be sure that in this one moment she would receive a pleased beam of pride in return from where the mare sat next to a basket that glittered gold.

Later on, at the first sign of a setting sun, they began the long, arduous walk back home. Humming gayly to herself, and stopping every now and then to gulp up a mouthful of strawberries from the basketful her mother had bought her before their trek, Sonata couldn't help but feel especially favored by the world. Thistle, who walked in silence beside her, seemed to be ignoring the filly, making a poor attempt out of counting her gold bits instead of giving the young one any attention, whatsoever. Seeing this, the small pony, for just a moment, felt a twinge of selfishness rush through her. Why should a basket of shiny metal captivate her mother in lieu of her own daughter?

"What is it for?" she asked meekly, gulping down another mouthful of strawberries.

This question astonished Thistle into attention. Her head spun around, and she stared, wide-eyed, at the small, blue, filly. "What did you say?" the mare asked in disbelief.

"The coins. What do you use them for?" Sonata asked again, making sure only sweetness escaped along with her words.

Things were silent between the two of them for a moment until the child witnessed her mother's visage cloud over ominously. The mare stopped walking, silently bidding Sonata to do the same. As she stared at her, the filly seemed to shrink into herself. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen Fylleion's wife so angry.

Slowly, the mare began to speak. Every word seemed to drip warnings of punishments to come. "And who are you to inquire about such things?" Thistle hissed. "Is it that you are not satisfied with our humble home, any longer? Must you have an estate now?"

"N-no, Mother! I didn't mean to—" Sonata stammered only to be silenced by a stomp of the mare's hoof.

"Your father and I use this money to care for you and our home!" the mare said with finality.

It seemed that the world had cruelly tricked her into believing she should be happy, that she could feel free. Now, she could only contemplate on how wrong she had been as she cowered before the yellow mare. "Mother, please. I'm sorry. I shall not ask after it, again," she whimpered, near to whispering.

Thistle glanced down at the little, quivering lump, and slowly, the expression on her face lightened. Sighing heavily, she reached out, and placed Sonata upright, back onto all four legs, dusting her off. "Why must you be so questioning, child? And getting dust onto your robes. What ever shall I do with you? Come. Let us make haste before all of the strawberries are gone. I'm sure your father would enjoy a pie this evening."

A small smile escaped Thistle, and Sonata, supposing this was affection, smiled brightly in return. She exhaled loudly as they continued on down the road.

By the time they neared Fylleion's farm, the sun had sunk to the horizon, and the sky was filled with Sonata's beloved wisps of purple and pink. Thus, her spirits were lifted once more. Humming to herself again, she skipped alongside her mother up the dirt path, and through the gates, not paying attention to her surroundings. She heard her father open the front door and speak.

"Welcome home, Dear," he said to his wife who, for some reason, didn't answer.

"Hello, Fath—" Sonata began, but was quickly stunned into a crushing, horrified, silence as she opened her eyes, and caught sight of what lay before her. She had an inkling all day that something wasn't right, something was amiss, and had not been able to remember what. Now, the truth sat plainly before them all; in the doorway, standing by Fylleion's side, stood a young colt, about her age, smiling happily.

From his mouth dangled her shawl, forgotten at the well earlier that day. He spat it out at once and waved to her. "Hello, Sonata! Good to see you, again!" Prance exclaimed merrily.

In her desperation, the only thought that could come to her mind was to deny knowing him, which she attempted to do quite poorly. Her eyes darted guiltily between her mother and father as she stammered. "H-how did you... get that? G-give it here! I don't know you!" she lied, snatching the shawl, now on the brink of tears.

Prance, who had never heard her speak so many words until that very moment, recoiled in shock.

Thinking that perhaps Sonata's desperate outburst might reveal how strictly she was dealt with at home, Fylleion stepped forward, and laughed loudly, blocking out the sound of the filly's whimpers. "Oh, my silly little daughter, why the tears? Of course you know this young lad. We all do! Haven't you ever heard of the Lighthoofs, the valiant family guards of the Goldenstalks? How honored we are, indeed, to be host to Sir Lighthoof's strapping son in our very own home!"

Sonata was stunned, to say the least. Utterly confused, she could do nothing but sit in silence.

Noticing this, Fylleion spoke up, once more, plastering an almost too saccharine grin upon his face. Yet, his eyes began to reveal his growing impatience. "Sonata, dear, Prance has come all this way to play with you. Have you nothing to say to him?"

Taking the hint, Sonata's head began to nod in agreement before her brain had even thought up what to say.

After a while of this, Thistle gave her a quick bump in her rear. "Speak up, dear," she laughed nervously.

"Thank you, Prance. Th-that would please me very much, indeed," Sonata finally stammered politely in her small voice, then waiting again for her parents to instruct her on what to do.

Thistle was the first to speak this time. "Why don't you take your new friend, and show him down to the meadow, hm?" she suggested, patting the small filly's head.

Sonata nodded frantically. Without hesitation, she got to her hooves, walked past her father, and into the house, toward the back door. Her eyes never met any of the others' as she went. "This way, Prance," she instructed the colt as she went.

He snatched up her twice forgotten shawl, passed a respectful smile to the master and mistress of the house, and turned to follow.

___

Sonata sat silently under the shade of the large oak a little bit away from the well. She watched Prance, well... prance about nearby, kicking rocks here and there, or chasing squirrels. Every now and then, he would bid her to come play with him, then quickly losing focus once a new squirrel popped its head up above the level line of grasses and wild flowers. However, it was all Sonata could manage to simply sit and stare at him, grimly pondering to herself.

After a while, even the colt caught the hint, and quieted down. He edged closer to her until he was but a few steps away from where she sat. He stared at her curiously. "Is something the matter?" he asked, tilting his head to the side.

This made her brow furrow. "Is something the matter?" she mocker him. "Of course, something's the matter. Do you know how much trouble it is that you are here? Do you know how cross my family will be with me?"

"Trouble?" Prance muttered, shying away ever so slightly. "But your family was so kind. I thought that—"

"No, they—" Sonata interrupted, only to cut her own words short. To go on would mean that she would have to admit out loud to the world, and worse yet, to herself, that her parents were actually being extraordinary fakers. It was something that she not only didn't want to believe, but couldn't believe, for the sake of her own sanity and sense of belonging. The Fylleions were good, hardworking ponies. There could be no doubt about it. Taking a deep breath, she tried again. "They must be kind to you. You're a noble," she said matter-of-factly, turning her head away, and flipping the overgrown fringe out of her eyes.

Her words made Prance take pause. He sighed, now slightly irritated himself, and moved to go sit next to her. As he did so, she scooted away slightly, still not taking even a moment's glance at him. "Well, that doesn't mean that we can't be friends, does it?" he asked gently, passing her a smile that she did not see.

"Yes, it does," she stated outright. "We aren't the same, obviously. Aren't there any other foals out here for you to play with that are nobles like you?"

Prance grimaced and scoffed to himself, a harsh sound that actually made Sonata finally turn to face him. "Of course, there is Lord Goldenstalk's son, Upright," he muttered, passing her a sarcastic smile.

Sonata snorted. "His name is Upright?" she chuckled. He nodded in return, laughing along.

"Yes, quite the adventurer he is, never wanting to leave his mansions or the inside of his carriages unless they're going to a mansion. He hates the country. As soon as we arrive he always begins begging to return to town," Prance sighed, shaking his head.

Sonata stared at him and blinked. "Well," she murmured. "He sounds rather... spoiled."

"Well, he is the son of an Earl, after all," Prance continued. "Courts and schooling since he was born. He is be—...betrothed, as well."

"Be—... betrothed?" Sonata asked curiously, following Prance's example in having trouble pronouncing the unknown word.

"Yes, to some rich daughter of a Baron, somewhere. That means they are to be married when they grow up. I haven't seen her as yet, but the Earl says she's pretty, and that she likes to sing just like you!"

"Oh. It must be so sad to not be able to choose," the blue filly breathed as she turned away to stare at the ground. It took her a moment to force out her next inquiry. "And, are you betrothed to somepony as well?"

Prance burst out laughing at this notion. "Of course not. I shall never be married. Fillies are dreadful," he said making a sour face.

"Hey!" Sonata protested, reaching out with a hoof in order to nudge him harshly. Afterward, she too began to laugh.

"Even still," he continued when their giggling had quieted down. "I suppose you are not that bad." He seemed pleased when the blue filly smiled contently to herself. "Now that you are talking, of course. I could tell by the way you sang and danced all that time ago when I first saw you in Greenwaters. I knew we would make good friends."

Things remained oddly silent. An unspoken thought seemed to pass silently between the two foals. Naturally, the colt was the first to bring it up. "Was it true? The song, I mean," he asked gently, not having the heart to look at her. He didn't expect Sonata to actually answer.

"It was. That was before I met my parents. But, I can have all the pies I can eat, now!" she lied while displaying a blatantly forced laugh.

Perhaps, in order to save face, Prance decided to play along. "Oh yes, and mountains of colorful cakes and dumplings," he joked.

"You're making me hungry," Sonata giggled. Just at that moment, her stomach growled loudly. They both laughed, again.

"I never thought you would sound the way you do, though," Prance continued casually.

"What do you mean?" Sonata asked him, confused.

"You sing differently than you speak. It's almost as if you're..." he paused briefly, trying to figure a less abrasive way to say what it was he wanted to say. He could decide on none. "...less afraid when you sing. When you sing, you sing strong. When you speak, you're like a little mouse." He sighed, wanting immediately to take everything he had just said back. Nervously, he tapped his hooves together, hoping the blue filly next to him wouldn't lash out in anger.

"I never noticed that," Sonata said calmly after a time. "I... I guess I just am not sure if what I say will be the right thing. After all, somepony can say anything they want about whatever odd things are in their head, whenever they wish to. So many choices of words. It's difficult to decide. But, with a song, it seems everything is already right there in its place. It's as if I only have to read it out of my mind."

The strangeness of the filly's words caught Prance by surprise, and he snorted, beginning to shake with nervous laughter. Sonata stared at him for a moment, wide eyed, before she too began to giggle.

"Well, even if you didn't talk, you're still way better company than Upright. Upright would never have a race with me to the well or anything of that sort," the white colt stated suggestively, then obliging himself to sit in a smug silence. It was but a moment later that Sonata had burst forth, laughing joyously to herself as she took a head start toward the little stone well. Prance bounded to his hooves only a moment after to give chase.

___

The sun had disappeared behind the horizon, and the sky was now all lavender. Sonata knew that she was probably due at home by now, and decided to bid Prance farewell. It still confused her how the son of a noble could be so carefree as to associate with commoners such as herself, but she had to admit that she did not mind the new company for the time being. She also found the fact that her parents could barely bring themselves to refuse a noble of almost anything strangely satisfying as well.

As she trotted up toward the back door which attached itself to the kitchen, a strange feeling began to grow in the pit of her stomach. It took a moment for Sonata to recognize it as slight dread. Perhaps her parents would be cross with her after all. Perhaps she had misconstrued the meaning of their words. Perhaps they had secretly wanted her to get rid of Sir Lighthoof's son on her own.

As she went into the kitchen, she felt a tightening in her chest and throat. When she spoke, it barely came out as a squeak. "Hello? Mother? Father? I'm home," she said, gently closing the kitchen door behind her. She was surprised to find the kitchen fire long since smoldering with a pot full of a delicious-smelling stew hanging above it. Edging closer, she stood on her hind legs to peer into the pot. Her mouth began to water when she discovered traces of seasoned mushrooms and tomatoes floating inside.

Coming back down onto all fours, she then took that moment to look about the kitchen, and was then flabbergasted to have missed the sight of two fresh pies sitting, warm and untouched, upon the counter. Rushing over quickly to smell each one, she was delighted to discover that they consisted of apples and strawberries.

The rich and heavenly aroma nearly bowled her over as she dropped onto all her legs, once more, accidentally upsetting a few pans that sat atop the counter.

Following the loud sound came a call from the front room. "Sonata, dear, is that you?" Thistle called to her. "Please come here. Your father and I would like to have a word with you."

Still not quite sure about the nature of the supposed "words" that awaited her, Sonata planned for a showy recompense by collecting together two fine saucers, a teapot, and teacups from the pantry. Placing some heated water and wildflower petals within the pot, she then carried it from her mouth whilst balancing the rest of the dishes as well as the two pies upon her nose and head. "Cmmmng Mvvvrrr!" she called, hurrying out toward the front.

Walking quickly, though cautiously, into the next room, Sonata dared not glance at the faces of her mother and father who were seated in their usual place by the fire until she had laid out the pies and tea for each of them. She then took a step back, and finally managed to look them both in the eyes. It stunned her to see two pleased smiles staring back at her. "I brought you some tea for your pies," she murmured, still not believing that something was, in fact, not amiss.

"Oh, Sonata, silly child," Thistle laughed at her. "These pies are for you. Tonight, you may have all of the pie and stew you desire, and go to bed early. I will clean the kitchen this evening."

Sonata fell backward onto her rear on account of her hind legs giving out. Her jaw dropped as her eyes darted between her parents in confusion. "I... I don't understand," she croaked. For a moment, she feared that all this was some type of cruel trick, but why would her parents do such a thing to her?

"Well, of course you must go to sleep early," Thistle continued as if it were obvious. "You have a long day ahead of you, what with singing at the Earl's summer estate tomorrow evening!"

"Is it not an honor, Mother?" Fylleion asked his wife. They both then turned to stare at Sonata with those frighteningly wide grins, nodding their heads as if agreeing on her behalf.

Sonata's stomach almost seemed to drop straight out of her body, and her chest felt as if it might cave in. "What?" she peeped, unable to say anything else.

"Yes, child. It was your friend, Sir Lighthoof's son who proposed the idea," Fylleion continued. "He said he remembered you from long before you blessed our little home with your arrival, and I told him that you sing often in town, a loving act of support for your family. It was the colt who then supposed that Lord Goldenstalks himself might have an ear for that lovely voice of yours. Why, he ran straight home and back to confirm the good news."

Sonata's expression grew more and more sickly as Fylleion went on. She had never felt so betrayed in her entire, young life.

"Why, dear, you seem surprised at all of this wonderful news," Thistle murmured, leaning forward. "We thought that perhaps the young esquire would have told you."

"Esquire," Sonata breathed to herself realizing that her mother was talking about the colt she had just been playing with in the fields.

"Yes. After all, the Baronet is a good friend of Lord Goldenstalks," Fylleion continued. Sonata gulped.

"B...b..." she couldn't even bring herself to say it. Prance had, indeed, been keeping things from her, even though he knew the differences in their status made her uncomfortable. The old memory of the colt's mother calling her a "thing" suddenly flashed before her eyes. If she hadn't felt so nauseated at the thought of appearing in front of those who might hold nothing but scorn for her, she would have screamed in a tremendous rage, something she had never done before. Instead, she nodded her head almost mechanically, and turned to leave, a blank expression upon her face. "Yes, Mother," she said, barely above a whisper as she began to walk away.

"Sonata, will you not eat something?" Thistle asked her, a type of worry in her voice that Sonata had never heard before.

"Yes, I..." Sonata trailed off as she disappeared through the kitchen door. In the kitchen, she collected her small bowl and spoon, and purely by muscle memory, poured herself some dinner, carrying it straight away to bed. She was sure that if she had any pie, she would end up sick the next morning. It would be difficult enough to attempt to get any sleep tonight with all of the events of the following day looming over her. She need not worry about belly aches as well.

She ate quietly, and then quickly fell into a deep, fitful slumber, filled with dreams of judgmental eyes, all trained upon her.

Cracks

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That evening, by the end of her shift, Sonata's mood had been lifted significantly. With her pockets full of the extra tips she had received from all of the patrons stolen off of Patti's table roster, she was not only sure that her plan was off to a great start, but that she would also have the spare cash she needed to celebrate at the movies the following day. Luckily, she had obtained enough to spend time out without eating into her household's grocery funds.

The back rooms at Sammy's diner were eerily quiet as she collected her things, and headed back through the front to leave. What was also unusual was that, for the time being, the main floor of the restaurant was also devoid of the three waitresses who usually stayed a few minutes later, namely Patti and her cohorts. Shrugging this off as mere happenstance, Sonata walked quickly out into the cool evening air, humming a happy tune to herself. She had only taken a few steps into the parking lot before she heard the bell of the restaurant's front door jingle, and glanced back to see Peachy running up to meet her.

"Sonny! Hey!" she called while waving.

Sonata smiled, and waved back, waiting for her to catch up. When they stood before one another, the former siren waited for the green-eyed girl to adjust her sweater before they both continued on down the road.

"Oh. My. Gosh, Sonata. What you pulled today with Patti's tables? Absolutely brilliant!" Peachy exclaimed, waving her hands about for emphasis. "You've finally taught her a lesson. I'm sure of it. I think it's safe to say that she, Pumpkin, and Candy won't be messing with you again anytime soon."

Sonata smiled almost pityingly at Peach's lack of foresight. Stealing all of Patti's customers for the night was nothing, hardly something to inspire submission, that is, if submission had been what she was really after. In fact, the way Sonata figured it, first would come retaliation after which, of course, she would just have to follow up with increasing the pressure on Patti. That would most likely provoke desperation in the girl, perhaps the incentive to bargain for a truce, and when Sonata inevitably denied her this small comfort, then would come Patti's submission. At that point, and not a moment sooner, would Sonata extend to her the olive branch of peace. By that time, Patti would surely be so desperate for reconciliation that she would see this action as charitable, caring, sisterly, even. It wasn't, of course. Truth be told, she didn't really care all that much for Patti and her acquaintances, at all. The girl and her friends were crude, mean, the type of people that Sonata would much rather use to feed her energy cravings than befriend. Regardless, the former siren was sure that at that point, the brunette would feel an indescribable motivation to return her false love with the good stuff, the genuine stuff, in kind. "Oh, idunno about all that, Peach. It was just a couple of tables," she lied, smiling to herself.

"Now that's modesty," Peachy retorted. "It was definitely like all of her tables. Did you see her face? I thought she was gonna vomit by her second break, for sure."

Sonata smiled genuinely this time as she and Peachy rounded the corner onto a dimmer, less populated street. "Yea, I noticed that," the former siren replied, trying to hide the pride in her voice.

Their homebound walk was enjoyable, and not at all out of the ordinary for the first couple of minutes. However, as the two of them strolled past the entrance to a rather shadowy alleyway, two pairs of arms reached out to grab them both. Peach, not expecting this at all, began to scream, only to have the sound muffled with a hand clasped tightly against her mouth.

Sonata, on the other hand, didn't make a peep when the hands yanked her into the alleyway by her hood, nor when she was slammed up against one of its cold brick walls, Peach pinned beside her. She was hardly surprised to see Pumpkin and Candy standing in front of them both. In fact, one could say she had expected something like this to happen. "Patti," she murmured under her breath as the brunette stood at the backs of her cohorts, staring flaming daggers into Sonata's eyes.

At the sound of the other girl's name, Peach finally stopped struggling against Candy's grip, and opened her eyes.

"This really isn't like me, Sonny. Really it's not," Patti began calmly as she inspected her nails, "but it seems you've forced my hand. The money. Give it to me. All of it."

The stern glare that Sonata passed Patti spoke could, at a glance, be mistaken for one of self doubt and caution, but after the brunette's request, the former siren instantly gave her an amused grin. When she began to giggle, Patti, her friends, and even Peach were, at once, quite baffled. Noticing their confusion, Sonata quieted down, and cleared her throat. "Or else what, Patti? Are ya gonna hit me or something?" she asked with her too bright, too happy smile spreading even wider by the second.

Patti cocked an eyebrow, and took a step forward. "Yea. That would be the general idea," she said matter-of-factly at which time Sonata practically burst out laughing whilst trying to muffle the sound with her hands. This obviously proved successful in raising the brunette's hackles, and she pushed past Pumpkin in order to get to the girl. Reaching out with one arm, she grabbed the end of the former siren's ponytail, and yanked it hard, wrenching her neck to the side in what was clearly an excruciating position. Sonata's slightly knocked knees very nearly caved in on themselves at this sensation of pain, only to be reinforced by Patti's leg coming up against her thigh to pin her securely against the wall. Grabbing the blue girl's collar, Patti then brought her face very close. "Listen, you little bitch. The grown ups have got places to go and bills to pay. So, I want all of the money, and I want it now, or else the only tips you're gonna be getting from now on are tips on how to conceal a black eye and a busted schnoz. You understand me?"

Despite the stinging pain running across her scalp, Sonata's expression went rather grim, save for the amused glimmer that still remained in her eyes. Though caught in quite the precarious predicament, she didn't seem fazed by any of Patti's threats. "Go on, then. Hit me," she stated quite seriously.

"Sonny!" Peach managed to interject before she was silenced once again by Candy's hand.

"What, you think I won't?" Patti laughed.

"No, I totally want you to!" Sonata replied, a sincere expression upon her face. "Hit me, Patti. Get it out of your system, but you know Mr. Salami isn't gonna like this."

A pregnant silence befell them all.

"Who do you think the Salamis are most likely to side with if I were to tell them about this, huh? Their favorite waitress ever... or you?" Sonata said with a giggle. "Silly Patti, I've got your money, I've got the popularity, and I've got the hearts of the Salamis. But you... You've only got your big, scary threats, your super spooky dark alleyways, and your job." She snickered again. The sound of her laugh echoed through the alley in the eeriest way. "Gosh, when you think about it, that's really not much of anything at all, is it, Patti? How much do you think you'll have left after I go telling the Salamis about this, with a bloody nose to boot? You think they'd care that their customers would rather tip their best waitress instead of some big, ol', violent meanie? Gee, they might even dock your pay, but then again, I bet if I cried enough, they'd probably just fire you. All of you."

The gleam of Sonata's smile, as cute as it was in any other setting, in the now darkened alleyway worked instead to send a chill down the backs of everyone present. The expression on the faces of Patti and her cohorts revealed their quickly failing courage. Sonata's eyes darted over to stare at Pumpkin who now stood with her arms folded apprehensively across her chest. Her mouth worked vigorously on her gum, popping it again and again.

"I hope you guys are good at retail, cause you know how big Mr. Salami's mouth is. You'd probably never be able to get a restaurant job in this town ever again. He's been here for like, a gazillion years, though. So, I still wouldn't count on those other jobs either," the Siren stated outright. Her gaze shifted back toward Patti whose nerve, by this point, had clearly failed her. By and by, she let Sonata's hair go, and removed her knee from across her thighs. Candy had long since released Peachy, choosing instead to stand next to Pumpkin who was looking very much like she would like to leave.

"See, Patti? Doesn't it feel good to be just a little bit nicer?" Sonata asked. No one could decide whether she was being facetious.

Patti seemed to be thinking deeply to herself, rolling possibility after possibility over in her mind, but nothing of worth happened to come to her. When she finally lifted a finger to say something, the look on her face was nearly desperate.

This made Sonata's brow furrow. 'Oh, Patti. Gonna beg for a truce already? How boring,' the former siren thought. She then reconciled herself to salvaging the brunette's pride for the time being with a timely interruption. "I'm gonna keep this money, if you don't mind. Cause, you know... Ya snooze, ya lose and all," she giggled, shoving her hands deep into her pockets to secure her cash. "But, who knows. Maybe Monday will be better for you. See ya, Patti!"

The blue girl shrugged her shoulders as if finalizing the entire conversation, and just like that, casually turned to walk out of the alley, leaving Patti and her companions behind in their state of utter confusion. Peach, suddenly realizing that she didn't belong amongst the three, rushed to follow.



The two of them walked down the street in silence for a long time, watching the streetlights turn on one by one before Peach finally mustered up the nerve to speak. "You really surprised me back there, Sonny," she squeaked.

Sonata turned to look at her, but when she did, she noticed Peach recoil a bit. A slight haze of green began to envelope the girl, but the Siren simply shrugged it off as being energy residue from their recent encounter. "Sometimes I surprise myself! Anyway, who doesn't like surprises, right?" Sonata blurted, offering her disarming smile.

This appeared to reassure the angel-eyed girl, and she laughed in response. "I'm sure Patti and her friends won't be wanting anymore of them for a while," Peach retorted, nudging Sonata in the shoulder.

"Well, if I keep doing it, it wouldn't really be a surprise anymore, would it?" Sonata asked, tapping her cheek thoughtfully.

This statement seemed to surprise Peach. "You're... going to keep doing this?" she asked.

"Eh. Ionno," Sonata lied as she shrugged, and began to hum to herself. Peach's friendly smile faltered again. Sonata, quickly losing herself to her own thoughts, never even noticed. They walked the rest of the way down the street in silence, Peach taking a moment every now and then to glance questioningly at her companion. She didn't know what it was she was searching for there, but it felt like, somehow, now her sweet, bubbly friend was a little bit harder to find inside of the person Sonata had put on full display a few moments prior.

When the two girls reached the corner where they usually split to go their opposite ways, Sonata turned, and smiled at Peach. The smile unnerved the angel-eyed girl, and she took a small step backward, forcing a laugh. "I... I guess I'll see you Monday, then?" she said with a shrug.

Again, Sonata tapped her cheek thoughtfully, then gasped when a brilliant idea came to her. "What about tomorrow? Wanna see a movie with me?" she asked.

Peach scratched the back of her head, and glanced down at her shoes. "Idunno, Sonny. I don't really have that much spending cash this week," she mumbled.

"Oh, don't worry about that, silly. It's my treat!" Sonata offered, patting down the sides of her rather fat pockets.

Peach hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting around. Finally, she let out a big sigh, and gave Sonata an affectionate grin. "Well, then, I suppose that's an offer too good to refuse," she laughed.

Sonata bounced around gleefully, blurting out all of the plans she had in store for them the following day before the two finally parted ways after one, last, friendly wave. As she continued on down her block toward home, Sonata couldn't help but suppose that perhaps things were beginning to look up.

___

"Really, we were just so lucky to have caught you with a free space this week, and right before our trip! I just don't know what we would've done if Cryssie couldn't see you for four whole weeks. You know about her stubby finger condition, right? Heavens, I don't even want to think about how she would sound after a full month away from the piano," the hyperactive, pale, blue-skinned woman crowed.

Adagio Dazzle sat across from her upon a sickeningly floral patterned couch, in a sickeningly floral decorated piano room, sipping from a small cup of tea in order to hide her clear disinterest in what the woman was saying. Pulling the cup away from her lips, she looked the jittery woman over, and forced a small smile of her own. "Well, the piano is a fickle instrument. The ability to play it can be rather... tenuous," the curly-haired girl said before taking another sip from the cup, hoping the edge of the piece of china could hide the roll of her eyes.

The other woman had begun to nod furiously before Adagio had even managed to finish her sentence. "Absolutely right. That's what I always tell her. Use it or lose it, little missy! But do you think she ever listens to me? No, of course not. And what is a musical performer without at least one instrument under their belt, right? Why, she would have never even made it into the 'Star Seeker' talent search finals if she hadn't played that fantastic piano solo you taught her. And, just between you and me, my neighbor Stellar? She was so jealous when I told her the news. Why, I thought she would just explode..." she rambled on.

At the sound of the woman's voice, Adagio felt her rage levels rising. Thus, she decided that it would be best to tune her out all together. Of course, as her luck would permit, soon after, she heard her name being called. When her eyes bolted upward to stare at the woman, the expression on her face told her that an answer was currently expected for something she had not heard. "I'm sorry?" Adagio blurted, wiping a drop of tea from her lips.

"I said: How long have you been playing again? I'm so sorry, I just keep forgetting, but you're a pro. So, I'm sure it was for quite a while, right?" the woman asked, taking a sip from her cup.

Adagio's gaze could not grow any wearier. This woman, Ms. Crescendo, was an absolute oddity, one of those secretly unfulfilled mothers who only raised their children to be an image of the life she wish she had lived during her own youth. To the former Siren, the other woman's endless talking was an obvious giveaway. She talked so that she wouldn't have to think about how unhappy she was with her own life. She talked so that she wouldn't have to genuinely absorb the news of others' good fortunes when they expressed them to her, and regardless of whether Adagio could, in any way, find the jittery woman amusing, one thing was for certain. Her endless talking was had the ability to instantaneously drive the Siren toward violent thoughts.

As Ms. Crescendo continued to sip the tea, waiting for Adagio's reply, the yellow-skinned girl cocked an eyebrow in the usual fashion, and smirked. She placed her cup and saucer down upon the coffee table in front of her, and crossed her arms. "Oh, for about five hundred years now, give or take a year," she said, staring daggers into the blue woman's face, looking for any reaction whatsoever. As she expected, she received none. Ms. Crescendo had barely heard her, and continued to sip on tea as she nodded her head. Adagio's smirk now turned into a smug smile. "Of course the first two hundred years were all on harpsichord," she continued. Still more nodding from the blue-skinned woman. "You know... Because the piano hadn't been invented yet."

It was this statement that finally got Ms. Crescendo to glance upward with a gasp, and when she did, she saw Adagio sitting back comfortably, unafraid in her seat, arms and legs crossed, simply waiting for something, anything, to happen. After a brief pause, the other woman began to laugh heartily. Wiping a stray tear from her eye, she swatted a hand in Adagio's direction. "Oh, Adagio Dazzle, you absolutely slay me," she sighed, shaking her head.

Adagio grinned brightly, her jaw just a tad too stiff. She gave a small, weary chuckle of her own. "If only. If only," she whispered to herself through clenched teeth.

All of a sudden, like a gift from the heavens, a loud crash came from upstairs.

"Maaaaaaa!" an ear splitting voice shrieked from somewhere unseen. "I can't find my Star Seeker packet, and I wanna show it to Adagio! Where'd you put it?"

"It's on your dresser, Cryssie, dear!" Ms. Crescendo called in return, somehow still managing to sound polite while doing so.

"It's not there!" the voice replied, sounding now as if it might begin to cry.

After this, the pale azure colored woman quickly bolted upward to her feet, nearly dropping her teacup and saucer. Placing them down gently, she passed a cordial smile toward Adagio who still sat cross legged on the couch, feigning patience. "Pardon me a moment," the woman said, raising a finger. She then turned around, sped out of the room, and up the stairs in the hallway.

No sooner had she completely disappeared from view did Adagio let out a giant sigh of relief. Rising quickly to her feet, she marched toward the baby grand that sat nearby, and plopped herself down upon the piano chair. She gazed angrily at the collection of magazines and old mail that sat atop the thing, wondering why anyone would hinder the sound of such a beautiful instrument by using it like a cheap coffee table. Not bothering to open any of her booklets just yet, she straightened her back, reached her hands out, and flexed her long, elegant fingers. The crack of the joints could be heard just before they came down heavily upon the keys, running through tumultuous arpeggio after arpeggio. Up and down the board she went taking her anger out on the instrument.

She closed her eyes as she played, having long ago memorized every inch of the board. Making an attempt at shifting her mind away from what the song was blatantly trying to tell her proved a complete failure. Try as she might, her mind's self imposed fog gradually began to dissipate. All that remained as it did was the truth of her current predicament. No matter how much time she gave it, no matter how patient she tried to remain, it never faded nor did it dim, and the truth was that here sat a thing that was once Adagio Dazzle. There was a time when that name would invoke reverence, and another in which it would invoke awe, and then eventually fear. Yet, now the name meant very little, if anything, to anyone else. Did that mean that she meant nothing, and served no purpose? She had to struggle with keeping at arms length the notion that, now, she was even less than a mere shadow of her former self—the utter indignity, the utter unfairness of it all.

These mortals that she was now forced to live subject to in exchange for pieces of green paper used to mean very little to her. To her they were mere prey, sustenance for her power. The ones whom she could tolerate, even the ones whom she had learned to appreciate, could never penetrate her immortal mind with their naivety. And, was it not fate who had deemed this so? Was it not fate that had ripped and scarred, mashed and molded her sistren and her into what they had become? If she could have had it her way, she would have been a shining example of a simpler kind of joy. She would have sung, and she would have been content with others loving her song. She would have been content with a grand estate in the countryside, gardens filled with birds to sing with, and a happy, mortal life. It wasn't inappropriate or too much to ask for, but alas, destiny had surmised otherwise. It was destiny that had led her down the path to becoming the type of bitter creature that would serve a needed purpose in the universe—the need for chaos. It was destiny that did this by destroying all that she had held dear in the dawning of her life. So, when the truth of her purpose was finally revealed, she had accepted it, as all the sirens did, saying 'Damn it all' to her previous life and desires, knowing that they could never be hers. Eventually, she learned to like this new being she had become, reborn from strife. She became a vessel of the very chaos she reaped, just as destiny had wanted her to. Thus, it seemed obvious that it was also destiny that had brought her and her fellow sirens down to this current, deplorable state. She had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled. Could anyone really fathom the notion of being used up, and thrown away by the universe itself, to be deemed useless by creation, tossed out like dirty rags into a void of nothingness when one's job was over, and in such an unjustified manner?

There was a time when she had enough power to control an entire world. Then one cool summer evening, in the blink of an eye, that power was snuffed out like the weakest of dimming candles. It was crushed like an ant underfoot by the same kind of naive, simple minded creatures she once drained for sport, idiots that could never even fathom the type of pain she had experienced, lifetime after lifetime. Now, here the three of them were serving these talking food bags, watching as the little creatures realized the types of little dreams, and gained the types of little accomplishments that she and her sisters would have gladly given anything to have for themselves those many lifetimes ago.

Adagio's fingers stopped moving, resting on a soft and somber chord, one which was both familiar and terrifying to her. Her widened eyes stared down at her fingers as she just now realized how out of breath she had become pounding away at the piano. "So close," she breathed to herself, barely above a whisper. A small bead of sweat formed upon her brow. She lifted her hands, placed her shaking fingers very deliberately upon a particular set of keys, and after a beat of silence, pressed down.

She sighed and closed her eyes as the keys rang out the infamous melody, the song that they had sung the evening they had lost their powers. The Battle of the Bands was not the first time she and her fellow sirens had used that incantation. On the contrary, it was an ancient and quite meaningful melody to them. Born out of a shared strife and desperation during the dawn of their lives, and sung only during moments of greatest distress or despair, that song had saved them in times when all hope had seemed lost. It had delivered them from all sorts of powerful magic, riots, angry mobs, secret schemes, and even their own penchant for self destruction. It had wrought merciless sorrow and vengeance upon those that were foolhardy enough to claim themselves as worthy challengers. Though the spirit of the incantation, over time, had changed the words and rhythms of the song as they were expressed and funneled through the girls, its living soul still remained the same. The haunting melody had endured even beyond the sirens' ability to use it, but back when they could, she and her sisters had wielded the song like a sword with endlessly sprouting blades. The crushing power of their voices would crescendo, chorus after chorus, until their foes, no matter how mighty, were inevitably vanquished. It had worked every time. It was supposed to have worked at the Battle.

A small smile escaped her when the notes of Aria and Sonata's harmonies blended beautifully into the mix. The sound of their distinct voices had, naturally, implanted themselves upon her brain, and she remembered them fondly as one would the birthmarks of close siblings. Aria once had the best soprano of them all. Ethereal, holy, it floated like a single golden thread in the wind, dancing and twirling gorgeously, capturing the minds of anyone within earshot. With this voice, she would reel them all in. Sonata's strong, twisting, heart wrenching alto would confuse them, cloud their mind, and weigh them down, thwarting off any innate desire to escape. Adagio's piercing lead would then easily penetrate them, infest and replace their minds, playing them like puppets to do the girls' bidding.

A small laugh escaped her. Truth be told, it was bubbly Sonata who had surprised her and Aria with the most powerful voice of them all. It didn't take long before she had realized that it was the girl's undying righteous passion and devotion that had made this so. Adagio remembered how rapturously the blue girl had sung during what would be their final battle. She had sung with utter abandon, her incantation so powerful that her voice had begun to harmonize, and double over upon itself—an ability that had taken Adagio quite a while to perfect. What was heartbreaking about the girl's efforts was that they were all for Adagio and all for naught. So much faith Sonata had put in her, and she had betrayed the girl with her failure.

By and by, Adagio's lips parted, and a sudden look of worry crossed her face. It was almost as if she expected to be struck down again if she dared say anything. Slowly, the words came, cracked, broken, and defeated.

"What we have in store, all we want and more. We will break on through..." she trailed off, and so did the sound of the piano. Her hands now rested uselessly upon the keys as her lips parted again.

"All we want..." she repeated, only managing to whisper it this time. Something wet began to form at the corners of her eyes as she meditated, in that pregnant silence, upon those old, familiar lyrics. Now, after two thousand years, here the invocation sat, flat, dead, and useless upon the tip of her tongue. "We will break on through," she sighed with finality, bowing forward to allow her head to rest upon the top of the piano. The two tears that had been threatening to fall for the past few minutes finally ceded under their own weight, and plopped unceremoniously onto the shiny, black, lacquered surface.

Turning her head to the side, away from the keys, Adagio decided that it would be best to not dwell on how little she believed the words of that song anymore. By and by, the world came back into focus. It was only then that she caught sight of a shiny beauty of a letter opener teetering precariously off the side of the baby grand, next to the pile of papers and magazines. She scoffed when the first inclination that entered her mind was that of destiny, any siren's sworn enemy, now bidding her to snatch it up right away, and plunge it deep into her own chest. The smirk on her face slowly turned into a thoughtful smile as she mused on how hilarious it would be for spoiled little Crystalline Crescendo and her utterly irritating mother to descend the stairs, and enter their blooming nightmare of a piano room, only to find all of their beloved roses and begonias splattered with red. Lying there would be Adagio Dazzle, expired only after having dug her dirty shoes into their disgusting couch. The horror. A small snicker escaped her, and then died, as did her smile, when that single, morbid thought began to gel and solidify within her brain.

As she slowly sat up, and began to reach out with one shaking hand, she recalled the time she had lied to her sisters about ever even having these types of urges. It had happened during one of many dark and volatile evenings following the Battle of the Bands when her companions had accused her of not taking their feelings for their profound loss seriously. All three of them had been going through the darkest parts of their depression, but only she had decided to feign an air of composure bordering aloofness, barking loudly about meaningless chores instead of allowing the other two their due time to grieve. After all, she was the one who was always cool, calm, and collected. She was the one who was supposed to be utterly unbreakable.

Alas, right now, she couldn't help but try to convince herself that maybe Aria and Sonata did not, in fact, need her to be strong for their sakes. Perhaps this was all an elaborately self-constructed excuse in order to keep herself here. Maybe it was all just a frilly lie.

Her hand closed around the cold letter opener, and brought it up to her face. Strangely enough, she laughed, and rolled her eyes at it, almost as if the letter opener itself could be made to feel inadequate. Still, when she looked at it again, it was as sharp and menacing as ever. The fact that she felt shaken at the sight of the thing only worked to irritate her. Nothing disturbed her inner confidence unless she deemed it be disturbed. Thus, taking a deep breath, she decided she would just have to prove to herself that such an insignificant object could never faze her. Adagio Dazzle, no matter how much she was wrongfully punished by fate, would always be a survivor. She would always be a fabulous woman worth being; nothing could change that. Thus, she resolved herself to proving this with a test. Reaching toward her collar with her free hand, and without looking, she undid the top button of her blouse, exposing the butter-hued flesh of her chest. Keeping her eyes open, steady, and trained upon the blade in her hand, she turned the tip of the letter opener toward bare skin, and simply sat there for a moment, meditating.

Pros and cons—she recognized herself as a rather rational-minded being, and was usually very good with weighing the both of them. Yet, lately, she had to admit that some of her more level-headed thoughts had begun to seem absurd, whilst what she would usually call irrational had slowly begun to make a great deal of sense. She had chalked all of these strange ruminations up as being a result of her withdrawal symptoms, only so that she wouldn't be required to accept them for what they really were—logical and enticing. It was true that all it would take was just one quick shift, one swift decision, and she might have been allowed the chance to scoff, be it ever so briefly, in the face of destiny, destiny who had trapped her within endless lifetimes by feeding her own pride and sense of self importance. However, for as long as she had known herself—and it had been a very long time—Adagio never once had known herself as a loser or a quitter. Then again, perhaps pushing the blade in wouldn't be quitting. Maybe it was victory in disguise. Perhaps, it was time she think radically.

The coldness of the blade as it touched her skin, stung in a way that forced her into alertness just as soon as a horrible, shrieking voice came echoing down the hallway toward the piano room.

"Adagioooo! Look at my Star Seeker booklet!" the voice cried, shaking her out of her daze. The former siren was startled, and jerked the blade, accidentally leaving a long, red scrape upon her chest. At first she went wide eyed, her mouth agape, as the deep cut began to sting. She barely had time to settle her own nerves before a preteen girl with light blue skin bounded into the doorway to face her.

Adagio could only imagine what type of spectacle she was putting on as the smile on the girl's face slowly dissolved into a look of nervous questioning. It was all the curly-haired woman could manage to just sit, and stare for a split second, letter opener in one hand, blouse top unclasped, and fading tears in the corners of her eyes. She had been caught being vulnerable and unsettled in her feelings, and that was utterly unacceptable. So, she resolved herself to do what Adagio Dazzle did best when she was hurt which was, namely hurt someone else. She managed to catch her breath, and quickly cross her arms, tucking the clenched letter opener beneath one of them while simultaneously hiding the now bleeding, red mark down the center of her chest. She cocked a haughty eyebrow in the girl's direction, and smirked. "Once again, Crystalline Crescendo, you seem to have mistaken me for someone who enjoys the slow frittering away of their time. I'm going to the restroom, and when I return, those ballades better be impeccable."

Adagio had barely managed to hobble into the bathroom, and lock the door before her legs collapsed from under her. She fell to the floor. It was only now that she inhaled a loud, rapturous gasp as a sense of exhilaration consumed her. Gawking down at the long, bleeding line upon her chest, she contemplated why such a seemingly small thing had incited such a grandiose feeling inside of her. After all, this certainly was not the first time she had been wounded, and it certainly was not the worst wound she had ever received. In fact, she had been healed of mortal wounds, and restored from the brink of death a few times during her life with the help of her and her sisters' powers. It was this thought that made her realize that now, being powerless, every little scratch she received would, henceforth, be permanent. Perhaps this explained the revolutionary feeling that now enveloped her, making everything around her spin. It was a feeling she hadn't known for quite a while. It was that strange mix of fear and wonder at the unpredictability and the inevitability of death.

Her eyes were dripping tears when she finally snapped out of her daze. Glancing at her right hand, she realized she had been clenching the letter opener the entire time, and immediately threw it into the corner in disgust. Lunging for the toilet paper, she yanked a long trail through the air, and slapped it against her chest, desperate to staunch her bleeding. Instead, she accidentally began to smudge even more blood onto her once pristine white blouse. This made her panic. Her hands flailed through the air as her breath quickened. "No. No, no, no!" she pleaded to no one in particular as her eyes darted around the room. She spotted the sink, and immediately reached out to clench onto its side. Gingerly pulling herself up to her feet, she leaned over the basin. Moving to reach into the cupboard inside of the mirror, she spotted something therein that made her freeze—her own reflection.

Red eyed, face completely flushed, hair a sweaty, disheveled mess, and blood smudged all about, Adagio could only gawk at whatever this wretched thing was that stared back at her. The sight filled her with disgust, and it took a moment to remember that it was herself that she was looking at. Still, she sneered at the reflection, and spat into the sink. The fog that encapsulated her began to clear, and slowly she managed to stand up straight. What a mess, crying like a worthless, spineless rat because of one scratch? Is this what she had been reduced to? Certainly not. Not if she had any say in it. However, as these thoughts rushed through Adagio's mind, she couldn't help but feel slightly unsettled by the notion that perhaps she didn't have any say. Destiny was a powerful foe, but she had yet to admit to herself exactly how powerful. One thing was for certain, though. If she was going down, she wasn't going down without a fight.

Taking a deep breath, she reached up toward her hair, tugged it all back, and wrapped it around itself, forming a gigantic bun. Then, she turned on the cold water, and bowed over the sink basin. Splashing the cool liquid onto her face and the back of her neck made her feel an infinite number of times better, and when she stood up straight, she was pleased to find that her reflection again resembled something of its proud owner. Reaching into the cabinet, she found a small tin of band-aids, and plastered about seven of them along the stinging trail on her chest before closing up her blouse, and rinsing out as much of the blood as she could. In the end, a large pink smudge remained, emblazoned across her chest, evidence of her moment of weakness. She resolved herself to wearing her sweater over it until she could reach the sanctuary of her house.

After cleaning up the rest of the bathroom, she found herself standing with her hand on the doorknob, head leaned against the door. She wanted to venture outside, but she knew that, at this point, her day was completely shot. There was no way she was going to make it through another twenty minutes of Crystalline's boorish piano pummeling with her sanity intact. Alas, she knew she could not remain in the restroom forever, and inhaled deeply.

Barging out into the hallway, she made a quick dash for her sweater on the hook by the front door. Once it was secured around her body, she called out to Cryssie, feigning concern. "How's it coming? Are you ready for an audience?"

She felt almost as if she could cry as she entered the blindingly tacky piano room again, and knew that she might have to make a quick dash back to the restroom as she neared Crystalline. Then, suddenly, by way of some divine providence, a blessing was bestowed upon her. She froze mid-step when she heard them. Eight measures, she counted. The sound of eight whole measures of what should have been eighth notes came mangled and slow. The source?—Crystalline's unpracticed fingers.

It didn't matter what the excuse was, really, Crystalline and her mother knew the rules. Adagio had made it very clear to them on day one that she would not entertain students who refused to practice. Thus, barely being able to hide her own content, she bid the child and her mother farewell, reminding the girl that she expected all of the same ballades to be perfect by the time she got back from her competition. Bashfully, Crystalline agreed while Adagio quickly collected her things, payment for the day included, and headed out of the front door.



The fresh, early evening air did much to lift her spirits. She even managed a smile as she neared her bus stop. Thankfully, Cryssie's lessons were always scheduled last on her daily rounds, for obvious reasons, and by the time they were done, she was usually drained.

Collapsing onto the wooden bench by the stop, she sighed wearily, leaned her head backward, and allowed her eyes to close as she contemplated more enjoyable things like dinner and the much needed bath awaiting her at home. Her brow furrowed slightly as Aria crossed her mind. She wondered whether or not the other girl had actually made it out on time, and whether or not her later work schedule would also spell more late nights out doing who knows what.

All of these thoughts dissipated as the sound of slow and steady footsteps approached. Adagio's eyes opened up in a moment of realization, and immediately, she reached toward her collar, removed her sunglasses from where they hung, and casually placed them upon her face. She listened as the second lone bus patron neared the bench and stopped, the heel of their shoe kicking up some gravel. Spotting a flash of yellow and red, and the shine of a leather jacket out of the corner of her eye, Adagio pretended as if she didn't notice the girl now taking a seat on the complete opposite side of the bench. Tilting her shaded face away, she waited for the other girl to stop staring at her, as usual. By and by, she heard her shuffling inside of a bag, and pulling out what the former siren assumed was a book. Only then did Adagio turn her gaze back toward her front.

Anyone who knew them both might have found the scene almost comical, and one would be justified to suppose that Adagio might feel nothing but fury at the notion of having to share a daily bus ride home with the one person who had caused her so much grief. Still, the reality of the situation was that the sight of Sunset Shimmer, while once enraging to her, now only managed to inspire feelings of slight discomfort and irritation. The damage that the little turncoat had done was immeasurable and beyond repair, but after a time, it had dawned on the former siren that continuing down the path of vengeance, especially in their weakened states, would only lead to her and her sisters' own destruction. So, she decided to put that all aside for the time being in order to focus on more important matters, namely keeping her sistren and herself alive.

Still, the rides had been awkward, to say the least. Considering that neither of them had any desire to speak to the other, they consisted mostly of Sunset trying her best to take brief glances at Adagio while not being noticed, and the curly-haired girl, clearly noticing her doing this, trying her best to keep her shaded eyes directed toward the front of the bus. She figured that the less emotion she showed, the more Sunset would wonder what was going through her mind, and the more she wondered, the more she would worry. This thought, at least, gave the former siren some small joy.

A few moments later, Adagio noticed the bus coming up the hill, and slicked her hand over the front of her tightly bound hair in relief. With a sigh, she got to her feet, and quickly made her way toward the bus stop sign post, eager to get on board first. This was yet another small pleasure of hers. She knew that Sunset would always relinquish the front of the line to her, probably thinking that her former nemesis might retaliate violently if she didn't. Smiling smugly to herself as the bus came to a stop, and the doors opened directly in front of her, Adagio took her time stepping daintily into the vehicle. Her one regret was that her hair was not loose today so that, perhaps, she might be able to flip it backward into the other girl's irritating face.

After getting onto the bus, Adagio took a few steps into the aisle before completely stopping, a thought having struck her. She then began to search through her pockets and musical booklets as if looking for something. Truth be told, she wasn't searching for anything at all. Instead, she was simply trying to force Sunset Shimmer into taking a seat so that she might be able to sit directly behind her. Ever the devious Dazzling, she knew that not only was Sunset too proud to show fear or to relinquish worried words to her, but also that without being in the leather-clad girl's line of sight, she would make the honorary Rainboom so many delectable flavors of uncomfortable. She had had a long, hard day, and deserved a pick-me-up. Being front and center when those deliciously green fumes of worry and fear began to leak from the girl's every pore seemed like just the tonic that her mood needed.

Much to Adagio's dismay, Sunset still proved to be as stubborn as ever. She tapped her fingers, shuffled her clothing about, even cleared her throat loudly in an attempt to signal to the former siren that she wished to pass. Seeing as how Adagio prided herself on being unrelenting when it came to getting what she wanted, she decided to take that particular opportunity to pull a small compact and lipstick tube out of her sweater pocket. She then began to apply lipstick, very, very slowly.

"Say, can you girls have a seat, already?" the bus driver, a stout, bearded man, yelled.

At once, Adagio heard a soft, defeated sigh come from behind her, and smiled victoriously as she heard Sunset Shimmer finally take a seat. Moving quickly, she then took the seat directly behind her, and settled in for quite an amusing ride. As the green fumes began to twist and twirl off of Sunset's body—smelling distinctly of suspicion and paranoia—Adagio grinned, and licked her lips.

An End to Grace Notes

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Stepping off of the bus at her stop near the edge of town filled Adagio with a sense of relief. Thankfully, Sunset Shimmer would usually get off six stops before hers; so, she didn't have to worry about any more snooping than the usual that could be expected from the girl. Finally, her responsibilities for the day were over with, at least if one were to accept the notion that Aria and Sonata could take care of themselves. Thinking over all of the shocking events of her day, she realized that perhaps she had been taking on too much, putting too much pressure on herself. Rubbing the burning spot under her sweater, she then grimaced. If that rotten little Crystalline hadn't walked into that piano room at exactly the wrong moment, Adagio would not be having to deal with this nuisance of a pain, now. After all, she would never have actually done that to herself on purpose... would she?

Turning up the walkway toward the old, looming house before her, she was relieved to see that no lights were on inside. At least she would have the place to herself for a little while longer. Quickly unlocking the door and stepping inside, Adagio then braced her back against the other side of the entrance, and slid exhaustedly to the floor. After sitting there with her head in her hands for a few minutes, she kicked the shoes off of her feet, stood up, and marched straightaway up the stairs.

Barging into the bathroom, she wrenched open the shower curtain, and turned on the tap water to fill up the tub. She then began to bustle about the house, putting away all of the evidence that the day had ever even happened. A thought then struck her, and she headed toward the kitchen. When she entered, she immediately began searching through the cupboards.

Usually, she wasn't one to get drunk just for the hell of it, but if she were to acknowledge that today had been one of those kind of days, then she would also have to acknowledge that alcohol was a quick and effective balm for those who experienced them. However, as she found each subsequent cupboard bare of any wine—her particular poison of choice—she began to get more and more desperate, wondering if she had ever actually instructed Sonata to purchase some for her. Ending her frantic search at the fridge, Adagio snatched the door open, and peered inside for anything that might do the trick. The only drinkable items she found therein were a full pack of juice boxes sitting right next to a half-finished pack of beer, both of them distinct reflections of their purchasers. Adagio frowned at the sight of these, and then sighed. Grabbing two of each, she then headed back up the stairs, and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

The ritual was second nature. A few candles were lit, and the bathroom light was turned off. Incense was burned, and gradually, a warm, pleasant-smelling haze filled the glowing room. Popping open a bottle of pink bath oil, Adagio smiled at its fragrant scent of rose before she poured it into the tub. Wondering if there was anything more to be done, a strange feeling of anxiety befell her when she realized there wasn't.

She hadn't really had a chance to think clearly about what had happened to her at the Crescendos' house that day, even right after it had occurred. Her state of panic and desire to leave had won out over any in depth brooding that could have taken place over the incident. Now, however, everything was quiet and calm. There was nothing expected of her. She had been left to her own devices. She laughed in disbelief when she found herself wondering whether or not she would be having a nicer experience if one of the other girls was home making some type of irritating noise that was sure to distract her, even just a little, from her own troubled thoughts. "Now you're losing it, Adagio," she muttered to herself as she moved to stand in front of the bathroom mirror. She began to undress.

Everything else besides her blouse came off first. It was almost as if she didn't want to confront the sight again. Haunting questions began to pervade her mind. Would it be uglier now that she had time to inspect it more clearly? Would it leave a permanent scar? What about getting it wet? Would it sting? How long is something like this supposed to hurt? Shaking her head free of what she deemed cowardly thoughts that were unbefitting of her, she closed her eyes, and quickly unbuttoned the pink-stained blouse. After this, she then undid her bra. She reached toward her chest, and ran her fingers over the column of band-aids that sat there. Taking another deep breath, she then slowly began to peel each of them off, one by one. When they were all gone, she stood there for a moment, working up the courage to open her eyes. When she finally did, and took in the long, dark gouge that sat upon her once pristine skin, she felt a painful pang in her heart.

Try as she might, it was just not a sight she figured she could get used to. Oh, why did she even bother to pick up that stupid letter opener in the first place? Now, she would have to spend her eternity making sure the other girls never found out about it. She felt herself welling up with self-pity, and moved her hand to graze against the cut. It stung, badly.

As her fingers attempted to gently follow the terrible trail, she was startled by the sudden sound of the front door opening, and slamming shut. Brushing against the wound too harshly, she hissed in pain, crouched, and held her breath, waiting for the sensation to pass.

"Adagio! I'm ho—" came a bubbly voice from downstairs.

Hearing Sonata abruptly cut her sentence short, Adagio wondered, in her daze, if something had happened. With a sigh, she then resigned herself to simply worrying about that which concerned her for the time being. As she ambled over toward the tub, and gingerly stepped inside, she heard the voice call once again.

"Adagio?" Sonata shouted, sounding much more nervous this time.

Settling herself into the tub, and wincing at the initial sting of the water upon her chest, Adagio exhaled, and leaned back. Ignoring the other girl for a second time, she eyed the clutter of drinks that she had placed next to the tub, and quickly snatched up one of the beers. Cracking it open, she stared at it for a moment in disdain before holding her nose, and chugging it down. "Ugh, revolting!" she sputtered a few times before repeating the action, as if forcing down a disgusting tonic. She figured the faster she drank, the sooner its effect would kick in.

Finishing the first can, she crushed the empty thing in her hand, and tossed it toward the nearby waste bin. Wiping her mouth, she gingerly reached toward the second one, and cracked it open. Holding her nose, once again, she momentarily stared at the can in utter disgust, and then moved to place it against her lips, almost looking as if she were about to kiss a frog.

An abrasive knock resounded against the bathroom door. Adagio's eyes shot open, and she stared at the entryway in disbelief. "You've gotta be kidding me," she muttered to herself.

"D... Dagi? Are you okay in there?" came Sonata's voice, ever so cautiously.

"You've gotta be kidding me, Sonata!" she yelled again, this time out loud. "What have I told you a million times?"

"I know! I'm sorry. I just needed to check if... I'm going now!" the blue girl blurted behind the door. No sooner had she said this could the sound of her hurried footsteps be heard scampering back downstairs.

Rolling her eyes, Adagio settled back into her bath, and moaned when she remembered the unfinished beer in her hand. Sighing heavily, she clamped her nostrils closed one more time, placed the beer to her lips, and tilted her head back, swallowing mouthful after mouthful. When the can was empty, she crushed and tossed it, yet again, and giggled when she found herself swaying to and fro ever so slightly.

Mission accomplished.

Closing her eyes as she slid deeper into the warm, enveloping water, she then reached for one of the juice boxes, popped in its garish, neon green straw, and set to work trying to wash the horrible taste of cheap beer off of her tongue.

__

Sonata bustled about the kitchen, pulling out pots, pans, and cooking ingredients to prepare for dinner. Anyone who glanced at her at that particular moment would have been able to see that something was troubling her. As she worked in silence, rinsing off a large head of broccoli, and then beginning to chop it up upon the cutting board, her mind wandered back to when she had first entered the house.

She had been feeling great, if not slightly wary for fear that one of the girls would have arrived home before her. She hoped that no one would be around to somehow spot the extra "fluff" in her jacket pockets that day; so, when she peeked her head in through the door, it was to her relief that she found no one downstairs. Moving quickly, she pulled the money from her pockets, rolled it up into a wad, and slid it down the front of her shirt. Taking her sweater off, and slamming the door, she then called upstairs after noticing the presence of Adagio's sweater and shoes. "Adagio! I'm ho—" she had begun to call. Her words were unexpectedly cut short by a sudden, painful pang in the center of her chest. She flinched, and caught herself against the wall, touching the once painful spot, wondering what it might be. Slowly, a sudden sense of anxiety befell her. Very confused, Sonata dropped her sweater onto the floor. She took a few more steps toward the stairs as her intuition began to speak to her.

"Adagio?" she had called again, slowly made her way up the stairs. By the time she stood opposite the locked bathroom door, intuition had turned into raw instinct. She knew now what it was that she had felt, and the thought frightened her. She had known that she wasn't supposed to knock, but in that circumstance, she had also known that it was necessary.

Now, as she stood absentmindedly throwing floret after floret of broccoli into a pot to steam, Sonata's brow remained furrowed as her internal conflict raged on, fueled by memory and experience. The chest pain followed by that familiar sense of foreboding had been of a sort that was startling, but not new to her in the slightest. Quite often, back when they had their powers, and when either she or one of her sisters had been injured in a way that might have diminished their drive or ability to sing, the other two would be able to feel the drop in the others' energy as well as what had caused it. Like most of their abilities, it wasn't something that any of them had ever been able to explain; however, after a time, they had come to the shared conclusion that their powers, though wielded independently and often in very different ways, still came from the same, mysterious source. Thus, a danger or detriment to that shared power, via its earthly avatars, was something that all three of its spawn would, undoubtedly, be made aware of.

It had been a while since Sonata had felt one of her sisters call to her through their pain like that, at least in the mortal sense—almost half a century. She remembered the instance when Aria, who expectedly was the most injury prone of the three, had gotten into a nasty motorcycle accident while riding home in the rain. It had been right after they moved to this town, and both she and Adagio had felt it the instant it had happened, nearly keeling over where they sat on their then brand new couch. Wasting no time, they went outside, charmed a car away from the nearest driver they could find, and sped off in the direction from which Aria's spirit had called. When they finally found her after about half an hour of driving up and down various wooded highways, she had been lying up against a tree on the side of a lonely road, bleeding, unconscious, and suffering from broken bones. Sonata remembered the terrified look on Adagio's face as she scrambled out of the driver's seat toward the girl who was sitting limp as an unmanned puppet in the grass. She remembered her elder's panicked breath, even though she had kept calling Aria an idiot, and wondering out loud when and why she had obtained the motorcycle. They both secretly knew that it had been for the same reason the girls had obtained a television for their new home, as well as fancy new furniture, and new sets of clothing. It was to represent a celebration of yet another new start in a new place, perhaps one that might prove fruitful one day, unlike all the rest.

Sonata had watched the curly-haired girl discreetly wipe her cheek, probably hoping that it would look as if she were wiping away rain. She carefully laid Aria flat upon the ground, then brought her forehead down to touch hers, and held either side of the girl's face in her hands. Sonata, who at the time was stunned, and trying her best not to cry, moved to Aria's other side, and bent down low next to her sister. A silence had ensued during which only the heavy patter of rain could be heard. As the two sirens meditated, listened, and dug deep within themselves for the words that were buried there, their gemstones had begun to glow. Slowly, a melodic hum grew in their throats right along with it. It was Adagio's lips that had parted first, but soon Sonata's voice joined in the call, harmonizing in kind.

May you hear us,
Our sister of the sea.
Like water may healing flow,
From our beings into thee.
We bid your eyes be open,
That we may then rejoice,
The reuniting of three,
Rekindling of one voice.

It had taken a few terrible moments of waiting, and singing, waiting, and then singing again before anything had happened. After a while of no response, Adagio had, hysterically, begun to scream the incantation at Aria. She had even slapped her face a few times before the girl had finally sputtered back to life, to both her sisters' relief. Her bones and bruises had even begun to heal with a few more repetitions of the incantation, and soon they were all heading back home—very slowly albeit—in the stolen car.

Of course, half a century, to a siren, wasn't much; so, the memory of all this still lived fresh within Sonata's mind. However, the now obvious question still hung in the air, heavy and pregnant with possibility. If their powers had been completely destroyed, then how could their bond by magic still remain? Perhaps she had just been imagining things, but what else could have possibly spurred on such an old, familiar, nagging sense of pain and foreboding when her evening had been going so well?

Sonata covered the pot of steaming broccoli over, and then got started on tearing apart a few slices of bread to set aside for meatloaf. In the meantime, her mind reeled. As far as she was concerned, there was only one person who would be able to clarify what happened for her. It took another hour or so for Adagio to come sauntering down the stairs, wrapped snugly in a berry red bathrobe. The look on her face was rather pleasant, and Sonata smiled at her as the other girl took a seat at the dinner table. "Meatloaf and mashed potatoes tonight," she said as she stirred a steaming pot, and covered it over.

Adagio seemed less than thrilled. "Fantastic," the elder siren said sarcastically. "No need to wait for Aria. She'll almost certainly be getting home later from now on."

"Really?" Sonata replied as she quickly began to fix two plates. After she had finished, she brought them over to the table, and placed one before Adagio.

The yellow girl stared down at the plate Sonata had set before her as she swayed, ever so slightly, from side to side. "Splendid," she muttered, then looking up, half lidded eyes directed toward the blue girl. "Sonata, next time you go shopping, buy me a bottle of red wine, will you?"

Sonata giggled, and nodded, digging right into her food. "Okey doke! Which kind?" she asked.

"The strong kind," Adagio sighed, picking up her fork.

While her sister appeared to be trying to decide which mound of undecipherable food substance she should taste first, Sonata continued to stare at her through the edges of her fringe. The youngest Siren ate quickly as if nothing was bothering her until she could contain herself no longer. Casually, she cleared her throat, forcing yet another bright smile onto her face. "Say, Dagi, nothing weird happened to you today or anything, did it?" she asked as if trying to make conversation.

Adagio, being the brilliant woman that she was, immediately became suspicious. "What do you mean, weird?" she asked.

Her glare made Sonata slightly uncomfortable, and the girl giggled, shaking her head."Oh, nothing, just making conversation. Weird stuff happens all the time in this town, right?" she asked, covering her tracks rather poorly. After mentally regrouping, she decided to try a different tactic. "Something weird happened to me," she murmured.

Adagio continued to eat, unbothered. "And what was that?" the elder siren asked, assuming that perhaps the girl had caught sight of a rabbit or a deer at the side of the road that day, or something else equally as boring.

"Well, I came home today while you were upstairs, and out of nowhere, I got this really bad pain. Right here!" Sonata immediately pointed to a spot in the center of her chest as she held her gaze expectantly on Adagio's face. Just as she had hoped, she caught the curly-haired girl's beer glazed eyes flicker, and then begin to glance anywhere except toward her.

Adagio coughed a few times, and dropped her fork. "You did?" she almost yelled, as she got to her feet, and leaned over the table.

Sonata held back a small smile, knowing that Adagio also recognized the implications of such a thing. "Yea, I did! Do you know what it might be?" Sonata continued in her attempt to lead the conversation.

A look of realization crossed Adagio's face, and her brow then furrowed. Perhaps it was the beer, but she had let herself slip once again. What Sonata had told her was extremely important news; however, in order to verify exactly what they both thought this phenomenon had been, Adagio would first have to come clean about what had happened to her earlier that day, and that was simply out of the question. Her head began to shake before words ever escaped her mouth. "No," she replied bluntly. "I can take a wild guess, though. You've probably been eating too much of that junk down at Sammy's, again. I've told you to stop doing that."

Sonata looked hurt as she watched Adagio pick up her plate of half-eaten dinner, and turn to head toward the stairs. As she began to ascend them, the youngest Siren shot out of her seat and ran toward her, grabbing hold of her free hand. "No, Adagio, wait!" she yelped.

Adagio, surprised at Sonata's brashness, spun her head around, and peered back at the girl from over her shoulder. It was clear the elder Siren was trying her best not to show the rush of thoughts and emotions now clouding her mind. As usual, searching for the right words, Sonata's lips opened and closed like a fish.

"Spit it out," Adagio barely managed to mumble, her voice shaking. She couldn't bare the look of concern in the younger Siren's eyes, nor the feeling of her hand squeezing tightly around her own.

"You... You'd tell me if something was wrong, right?" Sonata asked, barely above a whisper. It appeared that the two girls' eyes were having the conversation that their mouths could not bear to, because as she watched her, Adagio's eyes then clenched shut.

The elder Siren inhaled sharply, and turned away. "Sonata," she began quietly, "You know that I don't like being manipulated by anyone."

"Adagio, please. I'm not trying to manipulate you. I just need to know if—" Sonata whimpered before Adagio wrenched her hand out of the girl's grip. Without taking another glance at her, she hurried upstairs to her room.

Sonata winced at the sound of her sister's door slamming. She stared at the empty stairwell for a long time before turning to head back toward the kitchen. It hurt, and she resented the fact that Adagio would accuse her of false sincerity in regards to her concern for her well being. She cared about both of her sisters very much, though they did tend to treat her harshly at times. Thus, she resigned herself to ensuring her elder's well being, even if it meant that Adagio would lose face in front of her subordinates. Setting about to emptying and washing dishes, after she was done, Sonata then planted herself upon the couch to impatiently await Aria's return.
___

"Fucking beautiful," Aria said to herself sitting up straight, and pulling the face mask off of her nose and mouth. After removing her goggles, and placing her soldering iron back into its holster, she glanced down to inspect her handiwork. Finally, after all of her efforts over the past couple of days, the repair job on the boutique electric guitar she had been working on was complete. Poor thing. Some old, stoner jackass had brought it in last week with its insides worn to hell. It clearly hadn't had a gut-out in at least two decades. Aria was surprised the thing still even worked, and then immediately felt pissed to acknowledge that such a beautiful model could belong to someone who she was sure didn't have the wits to play it properly. However, that evening, here lay the instrument—which she had nicknamed 'Beauty'—restored to its former splendor, thanks to her. The soldering on the once worn pots and output jack was now firmly reinforced, and both of those components freshly replaced. The neck had been straightened, and the wood buffed to a shine. She had even sneaked into Cookie's office while she was out, and dug into the drawer where she knew the woman kept the expensive guitar strings. This wasn't for the sake of the customer, of course, but just so that, even for one second, Aria could stare in awe at the craftsmanship of something made to play the most beautiful of music.

Taking no heed to caution, since it was now evening, Wheeler was long gone, and Cookie was still out for her "hour long" lunch, Aria snatched the lovely, cream-colored thing up, walked over to one of the test amps that Cookie kept toward the back wall, and plugged it in. Strapping the guitar over her shoulder, she picked up a bag of picks that sat atop the amp, and pulled out her favorite one, a small and narrow pick with a mother of pearl pattern. Flipping it a few times between her index finger and thumb, she slowly turned up the gain on the amp with her free hand, and brought the pick down toward the string. Her eyes were wide as she licked her lips, eager to hear what kind of sound the instrument would make. "Be gentle with me," she joked to herself without even a hint of a smile. Quickly, she hit a C power chord in a downstroke, and laughed as the guitar sang, its cry echoing off of the walls.

"Holy shit!" she exclaimed as she skipped around in place a little, and set her fingers to really getting down to business. She then let loose a fast-paced, silky solo. Her nimble fingers moved swiftly, jumping up and down the fretboard, bending and tapping the strings as if the girl had been born with the instrument in her hands. Honestly, she had learned how to play the guitar about three hundred years ago, simply because she was bored, wanted an excuse to not have to talk to her sisters, and liked the ease at which it could be transported. Naturally, being the musical prodigy that it was fated she should be, she picked up the skill for it rather quickly. When her guitar sang, she had listened to it; however, she conceded that it wasn't until the electric guitar had been invented almost two hundred years later that she had ever actually heard what the instrument had been trying to tell her. From then on, it had been a love affair, and Aria's fondness for the instrument would span across any, if not all, genres and eras. One of her fondest belongings was her record collection, stowed away in the attic along with the rest of her sisters' old crap. Every now and then, she would venture up to the dusty old room, break out her archaic record player, and simply sit and listen to them for hours. Old blues, big band, jazz, hard rock, punk, funk, metal, hip hop, bass, rhythm, lead, it didn't matter. If that oh so enticing and unpredictable twang so much as showed itself in a way she had yet to hear, she had to know it, she had to learn it, she had to have it all for herself.

Her eyes closed as she lost herself in the music. A familiar itch grew in her chest, which stunned her until she realized it had just been a cough trying to escape her still sore throat. Lost in what she was doing, she never even heard the jingle of the storefront bell, nor the door to the workroom opening up behind her.

"Weeell, welly, well, well, well!" Cookie exclaimed as she stood behind the startled girl. Aria spun around to glare at her. The look on the brown woman's face was ecstatically mischievous, to say the least.

"Cookie!" Aria gasped, tearing the guitar off from around her shoulders. "I didn't even hear you come back!"

"Yea, I know, I can tell! You and that thing seem to be in a rather committed relationship. I hope I'm not intruding."

"N-no!" the pigtailed girl stammered defensively as she then watched Cookie slowly begin to approach her, that giddy smile still plastered upon her face. "I finished fixing it, and was just testing it out is all."

"Uh huh. Mind if I wreck this happy home up a little bit then?" she muttered, edging up close to Aria, and hooking a finger beneath the guitar strap. Pulling it out of Aria's grip, she quickly placed the strap over her own shoulders, grabbed a pick out of her back pocket, and began to play a swift solo of her own.

The expression on Aria's face gradually changed from one of astonishment, to interest, and then to almost disappointed amusement. Cookie was good, but only in that endearing way that mortals with very limited time are. Something about her fingers were clumsy, not as precise as they could have been, not as careful, not as intimate. The shopkeep had only been in the presence of music, what, less than thirty years? She'd probably only been an avid conversationalist with it for a decade and a half, two decades, tops.

And yet, this had been the first time Aria had heard the other woman play in such length, something that she had always wished to hear ever since she had gotten to know her. The Siren leaned up against the wall, crossed her arms, and listened politely.

When Cookie finished, she turned around, and smiled at the rosey girl. "How do you like them apples?" she asked.

Aria, who had rarely ever lied to save someone else's feelings, smirked and mimicked a tiny applause. "You're good," she muttered, inspecting her fingers with a wry smile.

"Just 'good'?" Cookie asked, noting the inflection in the other woman's voice. "Them's fightin' words." She pulled the guitar off, and handed it back to Aria. Turning to walk toward a wall where about five more were hung, she pulled down a pretty, lime green instrument, strapped it on, plugged it in to another nearby amp, and performed a practice lick. "You know any Jimmy?" Cookie asked her.

"Which one?" Aria retorted, strapping the guitar back on.

Cookie shot the girl a wry smile. "Cute," she retorted, running through a minute straight of speedy soloing.

Aria picked up the place where she left off almost as if predicting where the other woman would stop playing. The pigtailed girl went on for three minutes straight. She could have gone on for longer, but didn't want to raise the woman's suspicions. She smiled when she saw a flicker of green begin to halo the woman's head. Was she making Cookie Dough nervous?

Looking determined, Cookie pulled the solo away from Aria one more time, even though she had still been playing. She sped up her own fretting significantly, her fervent mortal fingers flying. Aria could barely contain her amusement at the sight of Cookie straining to show off. She waited a moment before continuing her own solo; however, this time, just for a second, she lost herself in her own ability, and began to play fast, very fast, just slightly too fast than what should have been possible. Cookie's own playing slowed to a halt, her pick dropping to the floor as she gawked at the younger woman.

Aria's eyes shot upward when she heard Cookie's playing stop, and suddenly, realized what she had done. Thinking quickly, she deliberately began to miss strings, forcing a groan. "I can only keep that up for a second. Nice trick, huh?" she lied, quickly turning off the amp, and pulling the plug from the guitar. Usually, she was more mindful about showing mortals more than they should know, unless she was purposely just trying to freak them out. This, however, had caught her off guard. She gripped her arm self consciously, unable to meet Cookie's gaze. Her eyes shot open when she heard Cookie begin to laugh.

"You're amazing!" Cookie exclaimed. "How come you've never told me you... Do you know how much I... Wow!"

"Eh, it's really nothing. Really," Aria muttered, the smile fading from her face as she found this amount of doting a bit nauseating.

"You're joking right?" Cookie asked, cocking an eyebrow. When the pink girl shrugged, and continued to stare at her unmoved, the poofy-haired woman placed her hands on her hips. Aria could not tell if this was a show of defiance, defeat, or maybe a little of both.

"Alright, Aria Blaze. Ya clearly beat me at guitar," Cookie sighed."But that poker game down at Bubbles has my name written all over it."

"What poker game?" Aria asked, befuddled.

"The one I'm challenging you to, of course!" the white-haired woman exclaimed, grabbing her jacket off of the rack once again. "And once I win, you and me are gonna have us a little chat."

___

"Go," Aria groaned with a roll of her eyes.

"I'm going to!" Cookie replied glancing down at her cards, and then back toward the glum girl's unamused face.

"When? Next year?"

"No, now!"

"Okay, then go."

"I am!"

"... Listen, I gotta take a piss."

"Aria Blaze, you sit your ass right in that seat until this game is over, or else!"

Aria snickered at Cookie's frustration as she stared at the green fumes encircling the woman's head. She took another sip from her mug of beer, placed her cards face down upon the table for the time being, and leaned back in her seat. Bubbles, the bar down the street from Cookie's music shop, was pretty packed that evening. It was Friday night, after all, and everyone around them was clearly pre-gaming for the night. For the freer crowd, the popular bar—leaking with cheap ale—was only stop one on a long night filled with poor decisions. Aria and Cookie sat by the side wall of the establishment so as not to be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. Cookie's card deck was sprawled out onto the wooden table. Aria had bought her the first pint, just as she had promised, but by Cookie's second loss at five card draw, she was tipsy and desperate enough to offer to buy the following two as a bribe. She needed Aria to stick around so that she might win back her lost cash.

It was kind of sad, really. Aria new quite well that the more inebriated a mortal got, regardless of how, the easier it was to read their energies. Thus, whilst Cookie did her best to hide her emotions from Aria's penetrating, purple gaze, the former siren simply had to look around her boss in order to decipher whether or not the woman's current hand of cards was a good one. Aria, having long ago chosen to stay with her current hand, had simply been waiting on Cookie to finish trading in her cards so that she might put her out of her misery, yet again.

Cookie's eyes brightened at her fresh hand. "I'm raising you ten," she exclaimed victoriously.

Aria squinted, eyeing her energy. "You sure about that?" she asked the poofy-haired woman.

"Oh, don't give me that, you... you..." Cookie muttered. "I know you're shaking in those worn out boots of yours. Gonna win all of my cash back."

"Whatever you say, Cookie. I'll see your ten," Aria sighed, again, cocking an eyebrow.

The dour girl's almost disturbing composure frustrated Cookie to her wit's end. She had seen some poker faces in her day, but this woman's was, by far, the most unreadable. "Okay, so show 'em to me," she stated.

"No, you first!" Aria retorted.

"You stayed like a million years ago!"

"Yea, well you raised last!" Aria blurted. Things went quiet between the two. Cookie was now trapped by the technicalities of official dictate. "Them's the rules, Cookie."

"You think I don't have anything, don't you?" Cookie hissed.

Aria smiled smugly to herself. "I didn't say that."

"But you're thinking it. You're probably thinking I'm gonna fold or something. Oh, no. Oh, I've got something for you, believe me. I've got something big."

Aria muffled a chuckle at these words, and took one more sip of her beer. She cocked her eyebrow. "Yea? Well, whip it out!" she joked.

One more string of silence ensued before Cookie—allowing her carefully guarded awareness of her own impending doom to show all over her face—plopped her horrible hand of cards down upon the table.

Aria snorted, and began to laugh loudly, throwing her head back. "A pair of fours? Holy shit, Cookie! I knew you were bluffing, but—"

"Shut up," Cookie whined, finishing off her mug before pouring herself another. "You know, I don't get you, Aria. How do you win like that every time?"

Aria shrugged, and smiled mysteriously. "You've got a bad poker face," she lied.

"How is that possible? You can't even see my eyes!" Cookie yelled, lifting the front of her hair up to peer at the amused, pigtailed girl.

Aria shrugged, bidding the woman to simply forgive and forget, even though she had just lost fifty dollars. "Now that that's out of the way," the former siren sighed, "finish that thing you were telling me last week. That thing about the one time you got lost in that cornfield for five days."

"Eh, I don't feel like it," Cookie sighed, clearly drunk at this point.

Aria looked at her, slightly perturbed. "Didn't you say you wanted to chat?" she inquired.

"That's not what I meant, Pigtails," Cookie sighed. Somewhere underneath all of that hair, she rolled her eyes, then sat up. "How about you tell me where you learned to play cards, and I'll think about it."

"I already told you, I'm not telling," Aria replied, crossing her arms.

"Ok, then tell me where you learned to play guitar like that," Cookie retorted.

Aria thought for a moment. If she were to be honest, she would have to talk about the time she and the girls lived in Spain all those centuries ago, and yada, yada. It didn't matter, did it? Cookie would just believe whatever she told her, right?

"Hey! I saw that look!" Cookie exclaimed, pointing toward Aria's face.

"What look?" Aria asked, looking as if she had been caught stealing something scandalous.

"The look that you make when you're going to just make something up," Cookie replied. "Hey, I don't do that with you, Aria. So, don't do it with me. Just tell me the truth. It's just guitar. Nothing crazy."

Aria's shoulders began to fidget about nervously, now that she knew she was being studied. "Eh, just, around," she replied before occupying her mouth with the edge of her glass.

"Okay," Cookie murmured suspiciously. "Where is 'around'? How many places have you lived? I can't believe I've never asked you all this before. This is what I wanted to chat about. How do you manage to draw all the talking out of me? Me of all people, when I barely know a damn thing about you?"

"Practice," Aria muttered, hoping the honesty of the reply would be well hidden behind a veneer of sarcasm.

"Hey, don't joke around," Cookie chided. "Answer the questions. Where is 'around'? How many places have you lived?"

Aria's eyes shifted instinctively to the side again, as she tried to think.

"You did it again!" Cookie exclaimed.

"Cookie, you're imagining things," Aria said. Her skin was beginning to itch. Vigorously, she scratched at them.

"How old are you? Like, exact number, Aria. Where were you born?" Cookie asked with an air of finality.

Aria forced herself to meet Cookie's gaze even though she felt as if she wanted to run away screaming. She gulped down the lump in her throat, and closed her eyes for a moment to regain her composure. When they opened again, a stern look had replaced the previous expression. Her lips slowly parted. "The truth is, Cookie, I can't tell you any of that," she sighed, now very serious.

Another silence passed between them as Cookie blinked at her in drunken confusion.

"Trust me. If you knew all of those things, then things... would be different between us, and..." Aria stammered, scratching the top of her head. This was already more tender emoting than she had done in the past two months combined. "I just don't want things to change between us, you know? I really like your stories, and... I sound like a total nutjob." She shook her head, and wearily placed her face in her hands.

Cookie simply continued to stare, even when the Siren's eyes met hers.

The pigtailed girl resolved herself to picking up her mug of beer, taking one more sip, and motioning to stand. "I'm gonna go have a piss and a cigarette," she muttered.

The poofy-haired woman sat up in her seat, then stood, choosing to slide her chair right next to Aria's to prevent the younger woman from getting up. She sat down again, leaned in, and leered directly into the former Siren's eyes.

Aria, not used to such close contact in such public spaces, shied away. Her eyes went wide. "Cookie, what are you doing?" she croaked, forcing a nervous smile.

Cookie snatched up Aria's arm and held it tightly. Bringing the appendage up to her face, she stretched open the cuff of Aria's jacket, and peered inside. When she could see nothing, she shoved her own hand into the sleeve, grasping frantically at Aria's arm. "Go to the bathroom. Right, I'm so sure, Aria," Cookie muttered. "I'm gonna at least find these cards you've been cheating with. I can bet you that."

The Siren, expectedly, began to struggle in her grasp. "Hey! Let go! I... I don't like to be—AH!" she squealed as Cookie's hand brushed a particularly tender place beneath her arm. The Siren was lost somewhere between humor and agony before she took a single opportunity to wrench the offended appendage away, nearly falling out of her seat. "Don't fucking touch me, Cookie! I don't like to be touched like that!" she yelled, grasping her arm defensively. Her expression went dark and furious in a way the other woman had never seen.

Cookie, caught off guard, along with most of the bar patrons that surrounded their table, stared at her wide-eyed, mouth agape. Aria's gaze darted about at all of the gawking eyes. She shrank into her seat as an ancient, though familiar feeling of shame enveloped her. "I... I mean..." she began to stammer when, suddenly, she doubled over, and clutched her chest with a painful gasp. A strange ache and a sudden sense of foreboding befell her, one that felt very familiar. It was all too much—the touching, the staring, the yelling, the chest pain, the implication of it all. Her face went hot. The room began to spin. Standing up quickly, she glanced at Cookie one last time. "I've gotta go," she said before dizzily stumbling out of the door.

Aria felt mortified, vulnerable, and afraid, things that she wasn't used to feeling all at the same time anymore. As she ran all the way home, the sound of mocking laughter and spiteful whispering began to reverberate in her mind.

Exposed

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Barging in through the front door, Aria braced herself upon her knees in order to catch her breath.

The sound of the door slamming made Sonata jump to her feet from where she sat on the couch. The blue girl's eyes were weary, but determined. She was rubbing anxiously at a space on her chest. "Aria!" she shouted. "D... Did you feel it too?"

"What the hell was that, Sonata?" Aria pressed, standing up straight and marching toward her. "How am I feeling this, and why? Is someone hurt?"

Sonata shook her head frantically, trying to get Aria to calm down, and stop trying to push her hand out of the way to search for injuries. "No, no, Ari! It's not me!" Sonata hissed, holding a finger up to her lips, bidding her fellow Siren to lower her voice. "I think it's Adagio. Aria, I think something's wrong." She approached Aria, and reached out cautiously, grabbing hold of the cloth of her sleeve. "She won't say anything to me. Maybe she'll talk to you."

Aria eyes narrowed, her lips pursed together. "What the hell makes you think she'll talk to me?" she hissed, glancing sporadically up the dark stairwell. "What is this, anyway? How is this even possible? We don't have our powers anymore."

"Just, make her talk, Aria! Just do it!" Sonata replied, her eyes going wide and glassy. There was a desperate concern in her voice, one that Aria knew would not be satiated until she did as she was asked. "Please, Aria. We... we can talk about why it's happening later. Right now, I just need to know that she's alright."

It took a moment, but after a while, Aria nodded, yanked her sleeve out of Sonata's grasp, and turned to head up the stairs.

__

Adagio lay flat on her back in bed, eyes closed, brow furrowed, utterly regretting ever having touched Aria's vile beer. Even though she was now dressed in her pajamas, and warm beneath her blanket, she was still in pain. About half an hour prior, she had worked up the courage to douse her horrid scratch in rubbing alcohol in order to clean it. She had nearly passed out, but somehow, managed to cleanse and re-bandage the wound. Now, lying there, she tried her best to ignore the dull ache so she could either think more clearly about what had happened between Sonata and her downstairs, or get some sleep. What she didn't expect, however, was the sudden knock on her door. "What now?" she groaned, opening one eye. Her frown grew even deeper when the door swung open to reveal Aria leaning cooly against the frame.

"Hey," Aria muttered.

"Hi," Adagio replied, feigning politeness. She was quick to drop the act. "Get out."

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I need to borrow something," Aria sighed unfazed, daring to step into the eldest Siren's domain.

"Like you needed to borrow my glasses?" Adagio spat. "Yes, I know you took them, and I want them back."

Aria, not expecting the topic to come up, winced at the memory of having left the item back at work. "Uh, right, but no. Something else."

"Well, whatever it is, the answer is no," Adagio said flatly, far too achey to rage.

"Relax. It's just a pen," Aria said, pulling a random slip of crumpled paper out of her pocket to use as a prop. "I need to draw out a diagram for work, and I lost all of mine. So, just let me borrow one, okay?"

Adagio glowered at her before she sighed, rolled her eyes, and sat up, gingerly. She winced as she reached toward her bedside stand for a pen, and then tossed the thing over to Aria.

The pigtailed girl caught it with one hand, though her eyes were completely trained on her sister. She looked the elder girl over. "You okay, there?" she asked ever so cautiously.

"What do you care?" Adagio replied.

"Idunno. Maybe I don't want to catch any infectious diseases if you've got 'em," Aria scoffed as she turned the paper over, and pretended to write something.

Adagio's remained completely unamused. "Hilarious. Hurry up and get out," she ordered, now rubbing her temples.

"Fine, fine! Here!" Aria stated, holding the pen out as if to toss it. When she did, she very deliberately threw it short, making it land upon the bed near Adagio's feet.

Adagio, way beyond the point of exhaustion, rolled her eyes, and leaned over, wincing the entire time. As she managed to reach the pen, Aria caught a quick glimpse down the front of her pajama top to the white, bandage padding that sat beneath it.

The pigtailed girl's eyes went wide. "What the fuck is that?" she gasped, moving closer to Adagio's bed.

"What are you talking about?" Adagio asked, not yet having caught on. She edged away from the advancing Siren.

Aria, suddenly infuriated, shoved Adagio back onto the bed by her shoulder, and reached for her collar in an attempt to pull it down. "I'm talking about that fucking huge bandage on your fucking chest! What's under it? How'd you get it?" she screamed.

Adagio barely managed to roll out of her bed, and stand menacingly upon her feet. "Get the hell out of my room," she hissed, trying to catch her breath. Her eyes bored into Aria as she pointed toward the door.

"No. I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on. Sonata and I both felt that... that thing, whatever it is on your chest! Did you know we could still do that? Why are you hiding this from us when you knew we could still do that? Are you trying to cover up the fact that we still have powers or something?" Aria yelled, her hands balling up into fists.

Adagio's patience, at this point, was completely spent. The ache on her chest worsened, and a headache was beginning to set in. Not thinking clearly, she lunged forward to grab at Aria's shirt, but missed as the younger woman easily dodged out of the way. The curly-haired Siren stood tall, and calmly crossed her arms. "What, exactly, should I tell you, Aria? And what for?" she said, her voice still composed and refined; yet, somehow filled with resentment. "I don't owe you anything. You're just being a sour faced, whining, little ingrate, as usual. I've dragged you and Toothpaste Hair around forever, and you two are always glad to have me doing all the brain work. So, the way I see it, I don't have to start telling you anything about what I'm thinking or what I do. Now get out!" She moved to shove Aria toward the door.

The pigtailed girl squared her shoulders, and planted her feet firmly upon the floor, staving her sister off. Sonata, hearing the commotion, had long since rushed upstairs, and now stood in the doorway looking terrified.

Aria laughed, attempting to contain her own fury. "You're a real piece of work, you know that Adagio? A real piece of work. You carried us? You act so damn high and mighty, so indestructible all of the time, and everyone around you knows you're not. You're so fucking obsessed with saving face, and you'll fight for it even if everyone else around you has to pay the price! You're a selfish bitch, and you're a liar! It was you who led us to this end! Just like it's you who's hurting us now, and you don't even care. And yet, somehow we're the ones who're supposed to be grateful for having you?" Aria inched closer toward the seething siren leader. Her voice, though shaking, became dangerously low. "Here's some more fucking truth for you, Adagio, and it's high time you heard it. You used us. You forced us to follow you for almost two thousand years. You forced us to submit, and now you complain that we weren't independent enough? That we relied on you too much? After all these years of shooting us down in every way? Are you completely nuts? Wait a minute, don't answer that. You are."

Aria reached into her pocket, perhaps out of nervous habit, pulled a cigarette from the opened pack therein, and popped the unlit thing between her lips. Rolling her eyes she then looked at Adagio, now feeling renewed confidence. "Who's the one who even found you on that beach in the first place, huh, Adagio? Do you remember that?"

It was clear that Aria had crossed a line that should not have been crossed by the way Adagio's eyes went wide and red.

"Do you remember who finally gave you your awareness? Me. And what the fuck had you ever even done for yourself before that day except be a spoiled, rich, brat, and kill your grease stain of a duke husband because he was boring, huh? If it weren't for me, you'd probably still be out there, crying like a fucking newborn foal, on Equestrian sand, an unrealized, worthless outcast."

Sonata, predicting what was coming next, had already run to place herself in between the two girls just as Adagio lunged for Aria's throat. "You ungrateful little—!" the eldest siren screamed, hot tears streaking her cheeks.

Sonata pushed backward against Aria who was trying to move her out of the way. "Please, you two! Please stop!" the youngest girl pleaded with them.

They were both deafened to her supplication.

"Oh, she's had this beating coming for a long time," Aria hissed out of the corner of her mouth. "Let me go!"

"Aria, Adagio, you've got to stop! We're supposed to be past this, remember? Adagio, I'm the one that sent Aria up here. I'm sorry. I was just worried!"

"Because you're hiding that thing on your chest!" Aria hissed. "So, what is it, Adagio? And why can we sense it?"

It was at that moment that something occurred to the curly-haired woman, namely that she was far too tired for all of this. Also, being no fool, she had to relinquish the fact that Aria, having been raised and hardened amidst gobs of physical turmoil and pain, would surely have beat her to a pulp if given the chance. She stopped struggling. By and by, Aria and Sonata did the same, knowing by Adagio's current expression, that she was about to say something of importance.

Cocking a proud eyebrow, and fighting back the fresh tears that threatened to escape from the corners of her eyes, the eldest girl struggle with their words. She knew herself. She knew she could and would hurt Aria right now if she allowed herself to. She knew about Aria's sensitivities, and all the secret worrying she had done over the younger Siren's well-being. For a moment, sentimentality flashed across her face, only to be bested by an expression of defeat, as if she had lost a great battle within herself. Adagio Dazzle knew herself, indeed, and she knew that she could never allow herself to be bested in any way, especially in one so personal. Finding just enough resolve, she opened her mouth as if it pained her. "You think you're so much better than me, Aria? That you would have been so much better off without me. Like if you had the option of leaving me out there? You just hate to admit the fact that you needed me even more than I needed you, and that it's always been that way," Adagio croaked, taking a step backward, and lifting a finger to point accusingly at the other girl. "How quickly you forget what state I found you in on that beach. Yes, I did horrible things with my life before we found each other, but let's not pretend that your hooves weren't soiled either, Aria!" The self-gratifying smile she now wore suited her quite well.

"Don't you dare, Adagio," Aria cautioned her, shaking her head. Her fists drew up tight and pale.

The curly-haired girl covered her mouth to hide a spiteful laugh. "Aw, the big, bad Aria can dish it out, but can't take it, huh?" She placed her hands upon her hips. "Yet again, why am I not surprised? Let's talk about how you were out there on that beach, babbling to yourself..."

"Adagio..." Sonata pleaded as she pulled anxiously at her own fingers. She stared at Aria as the girl turned a horrible shade of raspberry red.

"...bruised and beaten out of your mind because of some lustful, washed up soldier. Let's talk about how you were so far gone, that you had started doing it to yourself!"

Hot tears began to streak down Aria's face as Adagio continued on. The eldest Siren walked straight up to her. Her voice came slowly and elegantly in that beguiling, black widowish way that only Adagio could manage.

"And you know what I think, Aria? I think, by that point, you liked it. You needed it. You didn't feel alive unless someone was making you bleed. I think you still feel that way, to be quite honest. I think that's why you stuck around. We both know you're not a stupid girl. I think you just needed me to treat you the way I do," Adagio murmured with a cocky grin upon her face. "Why don't you just admit it, Aria, and stop lying to yourself? You get off on pain and misery, and you're ashamed because you do. We all know it, don't we Sonata?"

Aria, her mind now lost in fury, lunged for Adagio whilst Sonata grabbed her torso, forcing her back. The pigtailed girl and her younger sister fell to the floor slightly short of their elder.

Adagio took a step backward, and stared down at the two struggling, screaming girls in disgust. "Pig," she spat before reaching up toward her pajama top, and undoing the button to reveal the neat, rectangle bandage that sat beneath it. "I've spent so much time explaining, thinking that you two would understand why I had to do the things that I did. Why I still do have to. Let's just face it. We're all selfish, and we're all monsters. That's just what we were bred to be." Gingerly, she peeled the edge of the bandage off, revealing the deep gouge that lay beneath it. "Do you think back when we were soaring across Equestria, when we were roaming across Europe, or even when we were singing for scraps down at Sammy's that this is what I wanted? For any of us? Do you really think that?"

At the sight of Adagio's wound, the two struggling girls on the floor went numb. Sonata sat up first, covering her mouth as she stared in disbelief. Aria popped back up to her feet, her eyes wide and wet, not sure what to say or do. The now broken cigarette still hung from her lips as she struggled with herself to decide whether she should grab Adagio and chant a healing incantation over her, or take the opportunity to scratch the hideous thing even deeper into her flesh.

"We were all hurt, but it seemed that only I could ignore retaliation in light of a bigger picture. One of justice, where we would get what we deserve. Our reward for all this bullshit we've been put through!" Adagio glanced down at the floor, taking a moment to compose herself. "None of what happened was any of my fault," she mumbled to herself, almost as if, for a split second, she had forgotten where she was. She then shivered where she stood before managing to meet the unreadable gazes of her peers. "Fine, so this one thing," she said, pointing to her chest, "This was my fault. I did this to myself, but I didn't mean to. I don't know what happened, I...," her voice trailed off. She cleared her throat. "And I don't know why you can still sense it. That is a surprise to me, as well, and I would like to know just as much as you do. But for now, all that I do know is... is what happened to me, and that I didn't imend for it to..."

The air was silent and very heavy between them all for a moment, until Aria, her face now streaked with fresh tears, took a step forward. She slowly reached her arm up and out. It appeared for a second that she wanted to gently touch Adagio's wound. Her arm shook as it then stretched backward then jettisoned forward, her hand coming back across Adagio's face hard. The strike left a red mark in its wake.

The pigtailed girl struggled for the correct words as Adagio turned her head to glare at her. The eldest siren's expression remained unmoved, totally unfazed.

"Adagio Dazzle," Aria barely managed to breathe, shakING her head from side to side. "You selfish bitch. Who's lying to themselves, now?"

There was a beat, a pause between them both before Adagio quickly swung her arm forward, and returned Aria's blow in kind. The eldest Siren's gaze never wavered. Indeed, she appeared as still as stone, her expression equally as cold. "Does that remind you of Swift, Aria? Does it remind you of those good old days, pegasus?" she hissed mercilessly, her red raspberry eyes sharp as daggers.

Aria's mettle finally imploded upon itself. Her entire being wilted like a blossom caught in the unrelenting brilliance of desert sun. Her lungs instinctively released a loud, defeated puff of air, and with it, the long destroyed cigarette fell from her lips to the ground. Something in her eyes went dead, and as she slowly turned to amble toward the door, her entire body began to shake. Disappearing around the corner and into the hallway, it took almost a minute before her bedroom door could be heard shutting.

Sonata stood her ground even though her eyes leaked tears for the pain her sisters had caused each other. She sniffed back a few, rubbed her arm self consciously, and gazed in defeat toward a far corner of the room.

Adagio, whose eyes had been trained on the empty doorway from which Aria had departed, then shifted her gaze toward the blue girl. Her expression still cold, she scrutinized the distraught underling. "And I suppose you resent me, too, " she muttered, her voice flat and emotionless. Sonata winced as the words stabbed into her like a blade. She cringed away her pain, and after a time, managed to muster up just enough energy to form a reply. "Adagio, we've always been right here beside you. If only you could see us," she said before stepping forward, and reaching out to squeeze her elder's hand, never once looking into her eyes. In one quick motion, she then leaned down to the level of Adagio's gash, and perhaps by habit, kissed and whispered an old, short, healing incantation against it. Plucking up the opened side of the bandage, Sonata gently adhered it back into place, then turned to take her leave. Slowly, she closed the door behind her without looking back, leaving Adagio Dazzle standing tired and shaking in the middle of her disheveled room.

The eldest Siren's gaze fell toward the floor, her mind reeling, jumping between knowledge of the pain she had just caused Aria and the single piece of mind blowing information that had been revealed over the course of the evening. After a moment, her brain decided to settle on the latter, the far more pliable of the two. Their magical bond—it was still intact. What could such a revelation possibly imply? Was this residual, like their immortality or their ability to perceive negative energy? Was this a symptom of two thousand years of enchanted biology simply taking its time to pass away? Or, did this mean that their powers, on some plane, in some way, still endured?

She couldn't help herself. She was a girl as driven and focused as the bullet of a sniper's rifle. Thus, her sisters very quickly faded to the background of her mind as she turned to face her desk, her thoughts now captivated by that one, single notion. Breath now coming quickly, she walked toward the workspace, slid open its bottom drawer, dug deep beneath the piles of papers and folders contained therein, and pulled out a small, ominously carved, antique, wooden box. Reaching into the hairband that she was always prone to wear, she pulled from it a tiny, golden key. With this item, she unlocked the box, and held her breath as the lid opened. There, lying on a worn, velvet bed, sat those ancient, ruby red shards of old, the evidence of her tragic downfall, the remnants of her shattered pendant.

The Little Lady - Hither

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"And what of her schooling? Has she received proper training in all of the typical areas appropriate for a young filly of her stature?" the gold colored unicorn asked the two lavender unicorns seated before him.

"You have no reason to fear, My Lord. The child has been given the same rigorous upbringing as her natural born sisters in every possible way, education included," said the mare, seated to her husband's left. She reached up to proudly flip one of her many, long, silver curls behind her shoulder, and then leaned forward upon the courtyard table. A basket of salt licks sat upon the slab, and she bowed her head, using her magic to transport a fresh cube to sit before the golden unicorn. "Why, she speaks one of the traditional languages fluently already, and even knows a bit of the ancient tongue of the Canterlotian royal courts. She is also well versed in all of the poetry classics, and sewing, and dancing, and singing, and—"

"Yes, I have heard a rumor on the winds about the child's voice," the golden unicorn said, stroking his orange beard.

"If you ask me, servants gossip knows the fastest form of travel," the lavender stallion laughed, adjusting the plush, feathered cap that sat upon his crown. His wife nudged him in the ribs discreetly when she noticed that the golden unicorn did not seem amused by this.

"I do love a good song," their guest continued. "You know, there is a saying that quotes: 'A beautiful voice is the crowning jewel of any age'. Do you not agree?"

The pair before him nodded vigorously.

"My Lord has always had exquisite taste in the arts," the mare doted as she raised a hoof for a nearby servant to come pour more cider into the golden stallion's goblet. "I assure you that your intrigue is justified. Adagio's voice is like none other. We must admit that none of our other daughters have ever managed to match such sonic beauty."

"Intriguing, indeed," the golden one murmured, continuing the stroke of his beard. After a beat of silence, he pounded his hoof upon the table in finality, clearly having come to some great decision. "Very well, then. I shall arrange the meeting."

The lavender mare smiled, brightly. "Excellent decision, My Lord Goldenstalks. I can assure you it is one you shan't regret!"

"Very good. I trust she shan't disappoint then," Lord Goldenstalks murmured, taking one more sip from his goblet. "Well, then. Where is the young Miss? I should very much like to meet her before she is introduced to my son."

The smile on the lavender stallion's face wilted ever so slightly. "Yes, about that, My Lord," the stallion stammered. "I was hoping that I could speak with you more in depth about this matter. Do you not suppose that perhaps the children are a bit young to already be considering the pressures of marriage? Adagio is but a filly, after all."

Lord Goldenstalks began the steady stroking of his beard again. This time, his expression was unamused. "It isn't simply marriage, Glow," Goldenstalks began. "Upright is my only son and heir. I intend for him to be well provided for, and to provide for the Goldenstalks name for many years to come. This is a matter of finding a suitable match to strengthen and propogate the bloodline. Is it that you do not consider it an honor, then, for your daughter to be, at such a young age, weighed by the Goldenstalks family as one of great grace and fortitude, one well suited for this most important task?"

The expression on the lavender mare's face was one of absolute mortification. Vehemently pressing the bottoms of her hooves together, she forced a pained laugh. Passing a glare toward her husband, she then swatted coyly in the Earl's direction. "Oh, absolutely, My Lord. You must forgive the Baron. Surely, you can understand how difficult it is for a father to consider these types of things for such a beloved daughter as our Adagio. His heart simply has gotten the best of him when he should be using his head to consider such matters," the lavender mare said as she playfully tapped her husband on his shoulder. "We would be honored that you should want to meet our daughter. We shall send for her immediately. Would you please join us in the great hall?"

Ignoring the rather upset look on her husband's face, she turned to a nearby servant, nodding her head to signal for the young colt to approach. "Send for the Lady Adagio at once. Tell her she is expected in the great hall," she commanded. Turning again to face Goldenstalks, she rose out of her seat, performed a curt bow, and raised her foreleg in the direction of the courtyard entrance. "If you would follow me, My Lord."

____

The midday sun shone down brightly upon the waves in the distance. From where Adagio Dazzle stood upon her balcony, the rays appeared to sparkle off of the water like dancing diamonds. She smiled at the sight of it. Her eyes closed as she breathed in the salty sea air, trying to remember, with all of her might, the feeling of sand underhoof, the now foggy memory of floating upon the gentle tides.

She used to sneak down there often, usually in the middle of the night, just to be able to stand beneath the glorious moon, and sing out toward those rushing waters. Every time she would visit her beloved beach, she would step slowly through that foamy space between the sand and surf, and then dance in the spot where the Glow household servant, Beryl, had first found her.

Beryl, a young, apple green filly a few years Adagio's senior, had been the first to witness the filly's penetratingly beautiful voice as she sang to herself from where she dreamily lay upon the sand, seaweed tangled in her endless curls. Thinking her a pitiable survivor of some far off shipwreck at sea, Beryl had brought her back to the Glow estate where she had been put to bed rest. At first, she had lived amongst the servants, wandering about them like a little ghost, singing endlessly to herself. The poor thing lived in a daze, as if she were always trying her hardest to remember something of the utmost importance. For a time, many in the household had supposed she had gone mad. Regardless, the little filly seemed harmless, and her beautiful voice would help the work day to go by faster. Thus, they allowed her to stay, hidden amongst tall platters of food, and behind giant mountains of dirty linen, yet another faceless attendant of the Glow estate.

As the days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, gradually, Adagio's wandering consciousness planteded a small anchor on the world around her. She began to speak to others, even though for the most part, it was in the form of profoundly poetic verse. The other servants had even managed to get her to quietly tag along with them during their chores, washing small loads of clothing, or helping in minute ways with the cooking. However, though she followed along obediently, the others would have never guessed that in her heart, a small seed of resentment had begun to bud.

Having been born with a tender affection for the water, it was quickly made clear to Adagio that, in this world, others did not feel the same way. Those pure droplets were scrubbed and splashed coldly across the most soiled and filthy of fabrics, or thrown into a pot, and boiled until the liquid itself would scream. The ponies here built bridges to avoid the waters. They made walls to force them back. Of course, the little filly could not recall any other way of living that would have her react with such odd displeasure at these seemingly small and necessary offenses. Even still, there came a time when she had grown to be spiteful of the menial labors of the household servants. She didn't enjoy scratching and peeling her hooves in her beloved ocean. She hated the burns she would receive from the boiling pot. It seemed her world knew well how to take the most beautiful of elements, and turn it into something harsh and crude. She concluded, then, that her life would have as little to do with these types of degrading labors as possible. From then on, she was nowhere to be found when it was time to do the laundry, and quite often, her lovely songs could not be heard echoing in the kitchen at supper time. Many would wonder where, exactly, she would run off to.

Then one day, whilst strolling through the garden, the Baron Glow, himself, had heard her melancholy song upon the gentle breeze. After a time of following the trail of the voice, he had found little Adagio sitting by herself, staring into one of the estate's fountains. She was touching the surface of the water as if contemplating her own reflection. Asking after her name, and where she had come from, he was met with a look of startled confusion, and then the most mysterious of replies.

Never before had I walked upon stones,
And I had wondered what it was like.
But now that I have,
I find that my long lost fin sparkling like jewels,
Is the only thought that seems to captivate me.

The two stared at each other in utter confusion for a moment, the Baron stuck between a place of astonishment and good humor. Suddenly, he began to laugh, straightening the wreath that sat atop his head as it jostled about. Wiping away a tear, he approached the young filly, and patted her head. After a few more questions, he was able to discover her name, who had found her, and where.

It didn't take long to adjust into the Glow household, especially for one as naturally charming, talented, and intelligent as the little, yellow filly. It could be expected that the two daughters of the Baron, Moonstone and Violet, would be ecstatic about the sudden arrival of a new sister to play with, and as time went on, Adagio's sing song speech turned into the familiar chattering of a normal child. As for Starry, the Baron's wife, being the noble opportunist she was, she couldn't resist taking in a filly child so promising and seemingly worthy of wellborn company as Adagio. She had only bore daughters, after all, and had long ago concluded that the family's upward mobility must be directly tied to how enticing she could make any one of them appear to the sons of other noble families. To her, Adagio and her sublime voice was a sure promise of future power and prestige.

As the family, for their various reasons, spoiled the child with gifts of fine clothing and jewels, elegant rooms, lavish meals, and the most proper of upbringings, by and by, little Adagio would turn away from that constant song of the sea echoing day and night in her head. Warm sands would be forgotten for gems that matched the color of her eyes. The cool waves would grow distant in her mind whenever she caught sight of the fashionably dressed lords and ladies of the unicorn royal court. Her dreams, once brimming with deep blues, now transformed into glitter and gold, and after a time, it was all she could think about to try her best to one day fulfill her new dream—a dream of living an elegant life of beauty, pleasantry, and power, free of the harsh, menial labors that she had grown to disfavor.

Still, every now and then, usually during quiet moments like this, Adagio would hear the sea whispering her name ever so softly. It would call to her from beyond her chamber window. It would beckon her out until she could see it, and remember it for its old, natural glory. Standing there upon her balcony, she felt a forlorn type of affection for that which was now, literally and figuratively, below her. It had been a long time since she had gone down to talk with the waves, splashing about in the foam while the servants stood nearby washing the household laundry. Some of them were down there right now, taking moments between the soaking and scrubbing to relax upon the shore, smiling, holding hooves, feeling, loving, carefree.

As she stared down at them, Adagio's expression became rather somber. With a sigh, she then turned to face the interior of her chamber, and walked back inside. It was a difficult thing to accept, indeed, especially since no one had expressly forbidden her from visiting the beach. Regardless, it was an unspoken rule that none of the ladies of her household ever walked and mingled for too long amongst the servants and commoners. Adagio was not eager to seem out of sorts, or to give the impression to any of her family, especially her mother, that she might not be fit for the life of a true noble lady. She loved this comfortable existence. She wanted more of it. Thus, if her sisters were comely, she would have to be enchanting. If her sisters were cultured, she would have to be refined. To her, there was no room for mistakes, not if she was to obtain the kind of things that she now desired for herself.

Moving to sit in front of her vanity table, Adagio peered into the bronze mirror before her, and straightened out the curls that had been ruffled by the ocean breeze. Catching sight of a large, polished sea shell that sat in the corner of the table, she smiled to herself. When the Glow family had moved her into their home as a permanent resident, Beryl, who was now appointed Adagio's personal maidservant, had gifted it to her, for memory's sake. Every now and then, the filly would bring her more seashells that she had found upon the shore, but none had ever been as beautiful as the first. It was a treasure that, especially now, Adagio adored. However, her self-imposed edicts of nobility and grace made her ashamed to outwardly show just how much she had appreciated the lovely thing.

Just as she reached one hoof out to touch the shell, she heard a loud knock on her door, and before she could bid the intruder to enter, in bounded a small, deep lavender-colored, violet-maned filly. She appeared to be slightly younger in age than Adagio was. Quickly, the curly-maned filly shifted her hoof away from the seashell to snatch up a nearby comb instead. She used her magic to levitate the thing off of her hoof, and began to work it through her strands as she watched the younger filly bounce about the room.

"Gio, Gio, Gio! May I comb your mane if I let you comb my mane? Will you let me choose your robe? May I wear one of your robes as well? Mother only allows me to wear white ones!" the filly spouted. Adagio knew better than to try to get a word in before the other child was good and ready. So, she resigned herself to sitting there, combing her mane, and wearing a perturbed smirk.

"Moonstone, I don't wish to play costumes with you right now. Besides, you have no idea how to do my mane properly. You'll just ruin it, as usual," Adagio huffed when finally given a chance. Hopping off of her chair, she headed toward her bed.

Moonstone pouted at her words. "But I must comb your mane! You have to be pretty for your audience!"

Adagio froze, and slowly turned to face her sister. "Audience?" she inquired. "You mean with—"

"Lord Goldenstalks!" Moonstone exclaimed, hopping up and down some more.

The bottom dropped out of Adagio's stomach. She lacked as much interest in Lord Goldenstalks' notoriously grim son as just about any of the other young fillies that knew of him. However, despite her beingbeing young, Adagio was no fool. She knew that the Goldenstalks name carried much power and clout, and this was certainly no opportunity to be missed or floundered if she was planning to obtain a comfortable and well-to-do living for herself. A boring future husband seemed a tolerable offense from where she stood on this matter.

"W-why does Lord Goldenstalks want an audience now? Mother and Father are supposed to be speaking with him! He smells like stale apples! Why do I have to go?"

The younger filly shot her an exasperated look. "Why does any smelly, old lord ever wish to have an audience with you? So, that you can sing, and dance, and prance about doing your jester tricks for them, of course," she moaned with a roll of her eyes. "I still think you should learn how to juggle."

A panicked squeal escaped the curly-maned filly as she ran toward her vanity table again, scrambled her way back onto her chair, and began to comb her mane in a crazed frenzy. "Why wasn't I warned about this! My mane! My mane looks like fuzzy cheese!" she cried before turning to face Moonstone, looking determined. "Moonstone, fetch the shears!"

"Yes!" the lavender filly exclaimed in delight at the expectation of the inevitable makeover to end all makeovers. No sooner had her little legs begun to rush toward the door, did yet another knock come from its other side.

"Who's there?" Adagio screamed hysterically. When Beryl rushed in with a look of mixed joy and excitement upon her face, it didn't seem to calm the yellow filly's nerves at all. Instead, her comb tangled in her mane, and she fell out of her chair onto the floor. Turned to face the apple green filly, she screamed in a panic.

At the sight of her young mistress on the ground, Beryl let out a squeal of her own. Riled up by all the excitement in the room, Moonstone looked from one filly to the other, and then she too joyously joined in the screaming, bouncing up and down where she stood.

___

"Beryl, what of my mane? Are you sure you've fixed it?"

"Yes, M'Lady. The woven jewels look stunning on you."

"And what of my robe? Are you certain this color is appropriate?"

"It matches your beautiful eyes. It truly is lovely."

"Very well. Beryl... some water. Quickly," Adagio murmured whilst standing tall just beyond the closed doorway to the great hall.

"Yes, Mum," Beryl replied softly. Performing a quick bow, she then turned to rush away.

Adagio could make out the chattering and soft laughter of her parents and the Earl Goldenstalks coming from within the chamber. The sound made her brood; not because she happened to be nervous, but because the tremendous pressure of being perfect during important times like these weighed down heavily upon her. She couldn't help but be succinct with her words.

Beryl returned a few moments later with a silver bowl and pitcher of water in tow. Setting the bowl down to the side of the doorway, she poured some water out for her young mistress, and then took a step backward to give her some room.

Adagio approached calmly, bowed her head, and took a few sips. The liquid was refreshing, almost renewing. As she raised her head, she took a deep breath, and allowed her eyes to close.

The song—the song was always the most important part of these meetings. By now, the little filly had realized that, depending on what she sang for a visitor, she could open herself up to their favor in a myriad of different ways. Was it joy she wished to evoke today? Awe? Perhaps just charm would be enough. As these possibilities rolled around in her mind, shifting her psyche through a catalog of songs that she could not recall the origin of, she then reached up toward her chest, and scratched the spot where a dark birthmark had now begun to itch.

To Beryl, this appeared to be a nervous reaction. The slightly older filly resolved herself to comforting her little mistress. "You know, he will love you just like all the others," she murmured, refilling the silver water bowl.

"Mhm," Adagio replied, never opening her eyes to regard the maidservant.

"I really and truly don't think you have anything to fear, M'L—"

"Beryl, this is none of your concern! Do be quiet!" the little filly finally turned to yell, her raspberry eyes piercing.

Shaken, the apple green filly said nothing, but simply bowed low to the ground, backing away slowly.

Watching her until she was a good distance away, Adagio huffed once more, and returned to her meditation. A few moments later, her eyes opened again, calm and collected. She took a deep breath, swished her tail just in case there were any curls out of place, and silently beckoned Beryl forward to come open the door.

Adagio Dazzle glided across the floor in her robe as if she were floating. She walked quickly toward the opposite side of the room where her audience sat at a small table set with refreshments.

At once, her mother, Starry, stood up. There was nothing but satisfaction on her face. Once again, her daughter, Adagio, had shown that she knew how to delight the eyes. "Ah! Our radiant daughter approaches. And how are you feeling today, my dear?" she tittered.

Adagio bowed respectfully in her parents' direction. "The day finds me well, Mother, Father," Adagio murmured in a subdued voice. Keeping her eyes directed toward the floor, she then turned her body toward Lord Goldenstalks, and awaited their introduction.

"It is with the greatest of pleasure, My Lord, that we introduce to you our beloved daughter, Miss Adagio Dazzle Glow," Starry said beckoning for the filly to come closer.

Adagio took a few steps forward, and performed a low, graceful bow before Goldenstalks. It was then, and only then that her eyes lifted to meet his. "It is an honor to make your acquaintance, My Lord," she said gently.

Adagio's grace and astonishing penchant for conversation at such a young age would usually captivate those who were introduced to her, making them easier to read. However, Goldenstalks seemed to be of a rather reserved sort. The most she could pull out of him was an intrigued stare as the stallion stroked his hoof against his thick, orange beard. For safe measure, the yellow filly directed her gaze toward the floor, again feigning reservation.

"Surely, when your mother and father described you to me, they should not have forgotten to mention such an important point of consideration," the Earl stated, every emotional inflection of his voice well hidden.

Adagio's eyes covertly darted toward her mother, whose eyes then darted toward the Earl. The mare appeared on the verge of panic.

Adagio quickly spoke up. "What might that be, My Lord?"

"That you are surely the most charming, and well-spoken of fillies I have had audience with to date. What an absolute delight she is to behold!" Lord Goldenstalks exclaimed, turning to the Baron and his wife, and smiling brightly.

Starry let out a great laugh of relief, clapping her hooves together, and nodding in a way that reminded Adagio of a puppet. "A delight indeed!" the mare exclaimed turning to glance at her husband who sat on her opposite side. The Baron was looking rather bored and averse to the entire situation. "Adagio, Lord Goldenstalks is a great lover of music. Perhaps you might sing a song for him," she urged her daughter, her head still bobbing up and down.

Adagio barely managed to hide a smirk of disdain. She knew her mother well, and her actions annoyed her greatly. Even one as young as she could see that the mare was too eager, too hungry. It was unbecoming. Still, she had to admit that her methods were justifiably sound. Goldenstalks was clearly sniffing around the hook. Perhaps it was time to use stronger bait. "I would be honored, My Lord," the filly murmured, performing another low bow, and then taking a few steps backward.

Closing her eyes, she straightened her posture, and relaxed her shoulders. Taking a deep breath, she allowed the aura of the room to wash over her. She accounted for the sweet smell of incenses, and the savory aroma of the food-laden table. All of these things were of the utmost importance to consider when choosing a song. Though too young to completely comprehend the intricacies of the senses, Adagio was at least clear on the notion that atmosphere could be used to her own devices. Sight mattered, scent mattered, and today, sound would matter most of all.

Though most ponies of any race were hard headed, refusing to hear the messages their world beat endlessly against their skulls, Adagio was one of the few who could listen, interpret, and translate. She could enhance. She could manipulate, and while she may not have perfected the art as yet, she at least knew that she was well on her way.

When a warm, sweet feeling filled her chest, she opened her eyes and smiled, knowing she was ready.

A blossom blooms and stays but shortly,
Quickly doth its petals fall.
Better to spy the morning glories,
Than to ne'er have seen them.

Adagio watched the Earl closely, barely able to contain a smile of vindication as she observed his eyes going glassy, his pupils dilating. The ever-moving hoof that constantly stroked his beard came to a slow halt, hiding his mouth in an attempt to deny his hosts the satisfaction of knowing his true feelings.

Friends, dear friends, we gather together,
All for fear of our final farewell.
Though rosy and radiant but for a time,
We live eternal in the hearts we knew well.

Little by little, as she sang, the Earl leaned forward in his seat, unable to hide his enthrallment any longer. His jaw hung open ever so slightly, and his hooves pressed together in some poor, subconscious attempt to feign composure. Adagio glanced into his eyes again, almost as if she could draw his mind outside of his very flesh with her beautiful, raspberry gaze. Perhaps it was truth. For, as the warmth in that spot on her chest burst and overflow, and a new ending verse erupted freshly from the depths of her mind, she watched as the Earl nearly fell out of his seat.

Let us toast to our immortalizing spell.

The room was silent as the remnants of the filly's ethereal song faded from the room, almost as if what was left could be lapped up out of the very atmosphere itself. All three of the adults in the hall sat stunned in different ways. Starry was perched on the edge of her seat, hooves pressed together tightly, breath belabored. She stared wide-eyed at her daughter as if she had suddenly transformed into something far grander, far greater than a mere flesh and bones unicorn.

The Baron leaned off to the side in his chair, eyes also wide, but filled with a fearful type of apprehension as he failed to comprehend how such maturity, such knowledge of manipulation could be wielded by his own, beloved little daughter. His shaking hoof could not cover his silently quivering mouth.

Lord Goldenstalks, the enamored expression never having left his face, tilted his head toward his side. He levitated a nearby goblet filled to the brim with strong cider until it floated in the space just to the side of his own lips. His mouth stuttered uselessly for a moment before he found his words again. "Let... Let us toast our immortalizing spell," he croaked before taking a long, long sip.

At this moment, Adagio bowed low again, and stayed bowed, moving her gaze toward the floor.

"Here, here," Starry exhaled levitating her own goblet. The Baron could not manage any words, but still followed suit with the others.

At the sound of the third goblet being drained, Adagio rose up one last time. She knew that one of the most important parts of any good sale was to always leave the ponies wanting more. "It is an honor, My Lord. Now, if you would excuse me," she murmured before turning to take her leave.

She smiled when she heard the Earl's chair shift out of place as he stood in a show of respect.

___

The Glow clan entered the great hall later on that evening, and took their seats at the massive table topped with numerous delicious delights. Chairs were pushed in, goblets filled by household servants, and dishes offered up. No one spoke or ate until the Baron took his first bite. Afterward, the gathering fell into a more casual air.

Naturally, the hot topic of discussion that evening was the immediately arranged meeting between little Adagio and Upright, the Earl Goldenstalks' only son and heir whom was almost twice her age. As was customary, the younger in age one was, the less one spoke in matters as important and intriguing as this. Thus, Adagio resigned herself to mostly staying quiet that evening, paying attention to the course of the conversation.

"I hear the colt is of a rather dour sort, you know," the Baron stated while prodding at a mysterious brown lump upon his plate. He then levitated it toward his mouth.

"Oh, don't be silly, Dear. I'm sure the young Viscount is an absolute delight," Starry interjected as she busied herself with helping Moonstone levitate her meal toward her mouth without making a mess. "He's extremely intelligent, as well. Quite the diplomatic strategist in the making, I hear."

Violet, a lovely teenaged pony of the same color as her name, had been sitting and eating in reverent silence, as daintily as one could expect, until she heard her mother make this statement. At once, she gave a single, delicate, and very deliberate laugh, cocking one of her brows. The entire table glanced at her in surprise since it was rather rare for Violet to speak up in the presence of elders or those of higher rank. She was, after all, ever the obedient noble lady unicorn, and nowadays, her mother's pride and joy.

Adagio huffed as she stared daggers into the side of Violet's face. She then levitated some food toward her mouth, and took a big, angry bite. Though she loved both of her sisters dearly, Adagio had recently acquired a fresh contempt for her eldest sibling. Despite lacking the radiant beauty of the midday sun like the kind that Adagio possessed, Violet instead managed to retain an opposing, but equally striking elegance. Her lovely fur, contrasted against her long, shiny, snow white mane, gave her a mysterious and genteel allure reminiscent of a gorgeous full moon. It was a quality that the younger child envied, especially considering her elder sister's most recent "accomplishments". For, as if to add insult to injury—without having any particularly striking talent that stood out besides her scholarly mind and occasionally witty conversation—Violet had, not long ago, managed to attract the attentions of Lord Vision's son, the heir to his father's dukedom. This dukedom lay about three days travel to the West, very close to Canterlot. Therefore, upon their betrothal, and Violet's increased proximity to the Canterlotian throne, she suddenly, but expectantly, became the new apple of her mother's eye. She had now become the basket into which the mare placedd more and more of her eggs each and every day.

Before their betrothal, Adagio had been Starry's sure bet to notoriety. The filly was sure that had she been presented to the court much earlier in age, perhaps she would be the one to be affianced to a duke's son, enjoying all the comforts that came along with such prestige. Instead, she would be settled for a notoriously boring viscount, son of Earl Goldenstalks, whose lands, filled with small, dirty towns and vast, untamed countryside, lay farther away to the South. It was all Adagio could do to thank her lucky stars that at least the Earl and his son carried that oh, so important Goldenstalks name with them. She knew she would be fortunate, indeed, if one day she might at least be able to do the same.

Violet finished chewing on a small mouthful of food. She daintily levitated her cloth napkin toward her lips before speaking. "Lord Vision says that Upright Goldenstalks is a hermitish bore. How could he aspire to be a diplomat when he never leaves his room?" she put forward.

Moonstone began to snicker under her breath at this very brash comment. Adagio very blatantly kicked her beneath the table, passing an annoyed glare her way.

"Fillies!" Starry scolded, waiting for both of them to be silent, and turn back toward their meals. Facing her eldest daughter once again, she offered a warm smile. "Now, Violet, I'm sure that Lord Goldenstalks' son would have just as many criticisms about your betrothed as well. Perhaps he and the young Lord Vision simply do not mesh."

Violet remained unmoved.

"Does Lord Vision have any brothers that like singing?" Moonstone posed to her eldest sister, shooting a cheeky grin in Adagio's direction.

"That he does," Violet replied, winking at both of her younger siblings.

The sole, curly maned unicorn at the table prodded her younger sister with a hoof, and tossed a stray pea into her lap. Moonstone returned fire, and soon, all out war had been declared beneath the table.

"We are not talking about Duke Vision's sons. We are talking about Upright Goldenstalks," Starry said, bidding caution to her eldest daughter.

"Oh, Mother," Violet sighed, dropping her uneaten bite of food back onto the plate. She barely managed to hide the roll of her eyes beneath her long waves of white mane. "It just doesn't seem fair that a filly with such a heart and talent for song should be settled with that... that little..."

Adagio's cheeks turned red, and she stared down at her plate in distress. On the one hoof, Violet was right, of course. Everypony knew that Upright Goldenstalks was rather strange and reclusive. Time and again, she had to agree that she would not have chosen such a match for herself if she were free to do such a thing. However, the sight of Violet criticizing the gains of her own hard work and good fortunes only worked to fill her with even more bitterness. She moved to stand in her chair, and yell at her elder sister. The white-maned pony hadn't said much, but as far as Adagio was concerned, it was high time she shut up.

Before she could get any words out, Starry bolted upwards, and slammed her front hooves hard against the table. "Silence!" she cried, her voice echoing throughout the entire hall. Things became deathly quiet as she, again, took her seat. No one dared say a word, but the look upon everypony's faces spokeoke volumes. "What is done is done," she said very seriously, looking around the table. "If the Earl's family will have Adagio, then so shall it be. I would suggest, young lady, that you learn to contain your tongue against your superiors!"

Violet gazeded silently into her plate, a resentful look upon her face. Having now lost her appetite, she didn't touch her meal again for the evening. Adagio's eyes had glazed over, almost as if she were imagining she were somewhere else entirely. Moonstone simply stared around the table, afraid to make a peep.

The only pony who had been eating their supper, seemingly unperturbed by all this "mare's businesses," was the Baron. With one quick levitation spell, he finished off the last bite of his meal. Hastily, he looked about the table, forcing a very fake smile. "Well, I must thank you all for yet another wonderful family gathering. Until next!" With that, he stood up, and trotted away from the table, leaving the four mares to sit in silence.



Later that evening, Adagio Dazzle sat alone in her chambers, curled up in her bed. The day had been exhausting, and she was quite happy for it to be done with. The sun had not yet set, and as she lay there, her eyes drifted lazily toward the beautiful wisps of orange and pink that peeked in from beyond her balcony windows. Never expecting a soft knock upon her door, she gasped and sat up in her bed. "Enter," she bid whoever it was, and watched as the door opened slowly to reveal Moonstone and Beryl peeking around its frame.

"M'lady, we've brought you something. Perhaps it might cheer you up," Beryl murmured, as she picked a wrapped object off of the floor with her teeth, and carefully entered the room after Moonstone. She closed the door behind her, and approached Adagio's bed. Then, placing the wrapped object down, she undid the knot to reveal a stunning, auger seashell.

Adagio glanced at both of the fillies, afraid to react too soon.

"We both picked it out together, isn't that right, Miss Moonstone?" Beryl said with a smile, turning toward the smaller filly.

"It reminded us of a unicorn's horn," Moonstone giggled, hopping up onto the bed with her sister, and nuzzling her closely. "Sorry Mother is so awful."

Adagio accepted the nuzzle, and then turned to face them both. Eventually, she managed to smile. "It's lovely," she said to them. "I'll add it to my collection."

"That's good," Moonstone replied, trying to hide her happiness at having done a good job. A sly smile then spread across her face. "Gio? C... Can I style your mane, now? Pleeeease?"

Adagio sighed, and rolled her eyes, doing her best to hide a mischievous grin of her own. "Moonstone, I've told you a thousand times that you'd just ruin it," she stated, waiting just long enough for a the younger filly to look disappointed. "But... I suppose I can let you this one time."

"Really?" Moonstone yelled, jumping to her hooves.

Adagio paused a moment. "That is, if you can catch me!" Stansing up, she bounded off the bed, and began to run around the room. Moonstone followed close behind while Beryl took a seat on the floor, giggling at them both.

The Little Lady - Yon

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Adagio's exceptional performance during Lord Goldenstalks' visit guaranteed that the arranged meeting between Upright and herself would happen sooner rather than later. However, no one, including Adagio herself, could have predicted that the Earl would have sent for her so soon. Exactly three days after his departure, a message was delivered by unicorn magic to the Glow household, summoning Adagio Dazzle and her parents to the Goldenstalks estate at her earliest possible convenience. Naturally, Starry insisted that they get a move on with it before the Earl changed his mind. Therefore, within another two days, she, the Baron, and Adagio had packed up all the necessary trappings and comforts of home—trusted servants included—and headed out by drawn carriage toward the Earl's large manor which was situated near a small, but bustling town called Greenwaters.

Riding through Greenwaters was a bit of an eye-opening experience for Adagio, who had never before passed through a town to see exactly how the commoners—mostly consisting of earth ponies—got along in their day-to-day activities. Everywhere she looked, she spied something she had never witnessed. There were ponies toting heavy carts around, and tossing buckets of waste out of windows. There were ponies laughing, yelling, and dealing their odds and ends in the streets. One pretty mare, spotting the Glow family's carriage train, had even trotted up to the side of her buggy to pass Adagio one of the lovely flowers she had been selling by the side of the road. The filly gave her a small smile, and waved. Smelling the blossom's pleasant fragrance, Adagio enjoyed how the scent mingled with the aromas of fresh baked breads, perfumes, rubbish, sweat, and all the other interesting odors that trademarked vivacious pony life.

"Beautiful day, don't you think so, Dear?" the Baron said to Starry, nudging her shoulder gently.

Though she was not the one being addressed, Adagio turned toward her father, and smiled, glad to see that somepony else in the carriage also acknowledged the uplifting energy of their surroundings. She was about to nod in agreement when she heard her mother scoff.

The mare gave an eager roll of her silver eyes. "It is so dreadfully hot. 'Tis a miracle that I haven't fainted away as yet. And that ghastly stench...!" Starry exclaimed as she held a finely embroidered kerchief up to her nose. Adagio frowned, quite unsurprised that her mother would not understand such a uniquely curious experience as this.

"That is the stench of life, my dear," the Baron chuckled, giving his wife an all too eager tap on the shoulder that made her wince. He winked in Adagio's direction.

Feeling redeemed, Adagio smiled, and held the flower up for her parents to see. "Mother, Father, look what that pretty mare has given me! Isn't it lovely?" she asked.

Unexpectedly, her mother snatched the delicate thing up in her magic, placed it into her kerchief, and crushed it to bits before shoving the cloth against her nose. "Oh, thank goodness. This does help a little bit," she sighed in relief while Adagio gawked at her, enraged. Turning to finally catch her daughter's gaze, the mare gave her a supplicating tap on the top of her head. "Oh, come now, dear. There shall be mountains and mountains of flowers just for you when we arrive at the Earl's manor. I'm sure of it."

They were now passing through the very heart of Greenwaters, specifically the town square where the townsponies would set up their marketplace each and every day. Adagio had never seen so many common ponies up so close before. The only times she had witnessed this type of crowd was as a backdrop to public affairs of the Canterlotian court. It was implied—usually by the adults of her stature—that ponies like these were to be ignored, tolerated as a necessary nuisance, at best. However, looking at them now as she rode amongst them, Adagio couldn't help but feel more joyful, more alive.

She spied a sizeable crowd at the edge of the marketplace hovering around a stack of boxes on top of which stood a small, quaintly dressed, blue filly. The ponies standing around the filly were saying something that she could not quite make out. Finding the sight rather strange, Adagio leaned out of the carriage to get a better look. As they passed the crowd, she realized that the ponies were not talking, they were chanting, singing! Many of them had even begun to dance merrily, a type of dancing she had never seen. It was energetic, elated, full of all the exciting things that the traditional court dances lackeded.

Looking again at the small blue filly wearing a big, straw sunhat, she realized that the child was also singing. In fact, she had been leading the enchanting tune as she danced about on top of her box. Ponies cheered all about her. The melody was beautiful, bubbly, and the sound carried clear across the square. Even those who had not joined the crowd still tapped their hooves, and hummed along as they tended to their own businesses. Adagio stood up in her seat, and began to giggle. Something about the scene, the crowds, and the child was enticing to her. Something about it seemed more free, more honest. If she were allowed to choose how she might perform for others, it wouldn't be in private, for hopes of sealing a marriage contract. It would be something more like this, so that others might admire her, and enjoy the soul of every song that they heard just as much as she did.

"Look, Father! Look at that filly!" Adagio exclaimed, leaning out over the edge of the carriage to gesture in the crowd's direction.

Her father turned, looked toward where she had been motioning, and smiled. "Well, isn't that something, now? Why I'd say that little one has a voice almost as lovely as yours! Why don't we have a stop to get a closer look, hm?" he posed.

Adagio gasped, barely able to contain her myriad of emotions. Walk amongst the commoners? But they were destitute and dirty! They smelled! Their hooves weren't even manicured! Still, glancing at the blue filly again, she couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to meet somepony who enjoyed song as much as she did, somepony whose voice might even contribute to something of a lovely duet if they, by some rare chance, were to sing together. Adagio eagerly licked her lips, not sure of what her answer might be when she next opened her mouth. The filly's song was so enticing. Perhaps, just this one time, she could allow herself to...

"My Lord!" Starry exclaimed, swatting her kerchief against the Baron's shoulder. "Stop putting these ridiculous ideas into the child's head. Mingle with commoners—and what's more, earth ponies? Do you realize what an utter fiasco that would create? No, my dear, I think it best that we stay in our place, and they stay in theirs. That is the proper order of things."

Adagio's entire expression collapsed. She glanced at her father who looked at her, and sighed. He shook his head apologetically, and then turned to face the road. Eventually, Adagio lowered herself back into her seat, and did the same. The path ahead was now nearing a curve as it came to the edge of town. Beyond the curve, atop of a hill in the distance a large, grey stoned castle bore down upon the small town like an ancient and oppressive patriarch.

"There it is, Dear!" Starry exclaimed, nudging her daughter. "Aren't you excited?"

Adagio's face contorted into a hesitant grimace as she stared at the estate's many off-putting sharp edges and pointy spires. It didn't seem like a place that might ever be enjoyable for a filly such as herself to visit, much less live. However, as they exited the town, and entered the Earl's woods, Adagio resolved herself to her edict once more. This manor, as dreary as it might have appeared to be from its exterior, would be sure to provide her with all of the comforts and luxuries that she needed in order to stay safely away from that harsh, cruel, crude... lively... exciting... cornucopia of life outside of the world of nobles. This is what she had wanted, wasn't it?

___

There was an expected hubbub and commotion that took place as their carriages were opened and unpacked after stopping just inside the manor gates. Adagio had figured that gossip about her had gotten around the manor by the way the entire huddle of servants stopped and applauded her as soon as she was helped out of her seat. By the time she stepped onto the cobblestones, she was feeling, again, like the important, young, noble lady that she was. She smiled graciously, and performed a curt, half-hearted bow before following her parents up the walkway toward the manor's gaping front doors.

The Earl was eagerly awaiting them at the end of a long, red carpeted hallway that led into the belly of the estate. Standing next to him was what appeared to be a rather waifish, anxious-looking, orange, earth mare. Her nervous smile could not hide the gauntness of her visage.

When both stallions finally stood face to face, they patted each other on the back like old friends. The Earl kissed Starry's and Adagio's hooves before gesturing to the orange mare at his side. "May I introduced my dear wife, Ginger," the Earl said, taking the mare's hoof in his own, and guiding her forward. Ginger's nervous smile grew wider.

"My Lady," Baron Glow murmured, bowing low to kiss her hoof.

"P-pleasure. I-I-I'm sure," she stuttered before nodding her head toward Starry and her daughter. "What a b-beautiful family y-you have, Baron Glow."

During moments like these, Adagio appreciated the rather mischievous nature of her father. It was sweet vindication for both of them to see the look on Starry's face when she had realized that the Countess Goldenstalks was an earth pony. And at the sound of the Countess' voice, the little filly and the Baron knowingly sharing an inward chuckle at her expense.

Their glee was short lived as the Earl was quite intent on whisking them away further into the estate. "Come, come! We have much to discuss!" he exclaimed, turning about, and heading toward what appeared to be the grand hall. "News of Miss Adagio has very much caused quite a stir in the household, as you can see," he chuckled to himself as servants bustled about them happily pouring drinks, and laying out sweets upon the great hall's table. "I think you were right, Glow. I suppose servant's gossip does know the fastest form of travel." He slapped the Baron on the back, making the stallion's uncertain laugh turn into a sharp cough. "Now, how about we get down to business, eh? Before the papers are signed and whatnot."

"Yes! Let's!" Starry piped up, once again, far too hungry.

Before turning away toward the table where, along with refreshments, pen, ink, and parchment awaited, Goldenstalks turned to face Adagio, smiling warmly. "Miss Adagio, perhaps you might like a tour of our gardens for the time being, yes?" he asked.

Adagio was relieved to hear him make such a suggestion. She couldn't fathom how mortifying an experience it might have been to have to sit and watch all of these awkwardly aggravating adults hashing out the terms of her sale. "Yes, My Lord. I would like that very much, indeed," she replied.

Motioning forward a young maidservant, a magenta mare, Goldenstalks directed her out toward the garden gate. "Lila shall show you the way," he said. Turning back toward the others, he urged them forward toward the table.

"Follow me please, M'Lady," Lila murmured to the little filly with a bow before heading toward the garden doors. Adagio followed close behind.

_____

How terribly boring, Adagio thought as she wandered about the immense garden paths, following a few paces behind the magenta mare. She should have known better. How long could she really expect flowers to captivate her attention? It wasn't that they were ugly. They were, in fact, quite lovely, especially during this warm time of year, but none of the blossoms had been anything different than what she had already seen back at home. There were just way more of them here. Still, she had grown tired of pretending to be enthralled as Lila, the servant who tended the gardens, explained the differences between red and white lavender, or harped on about the poisonous properties of buttercups. Thus, when the mare's back was turned, the little yellow filly took the opportunity to sneak away. At least the tall hedges were good for getting lost for a time. She giggled to herself, imagining how panicked Lila must have felt when she turned around to see no one there. Even now, she could hear the mare calling her name, worry in her voice.

Adagio began to run, ducking behind shrubbery, and darting down pebble-paved pathways. After a time, she lost track of exactly where she was. The only thing that was clear to her was the fact that the hedges appeared to be growing larger, more thick, the deeper she went into the garden. Finally, when she could no longer hear Lila's call, she stopped to catch her breath. Glancing backward, she noticed that only the tips of the castle spires could be seen this far away behind all this wild greenery. Flipping her mane triumphantly, she trotted away. She glanced around at the tall trees that now blended in with the rugged flower bushes, as well as the untended pathway that lay before her. Shortly after, she came upon an old fountain, and approached it to peer into the water.

Ripples danced across the surface of the water as she touched it, and as usual, the liquid felt cool and refreshing on her skin. She wondered if anypony might catch her if she were to dangle her hind hooves in the fountain to cool off for just a moment. Looking around, and seeing no one there, she quickly hoisted up her thick, raspberry-colored robes, stood onto her two hind legs, and carefully moved to step into the water.

"You there! What are you doing?" came a deep, commanding voice from somewhere in the distance.

Startled, Adagio stumbled backward on her hind legs, and fell hard against the ground. Eyes darting about, scared that she had been caught by a guard or, worse yet, the Earl himself, she rushed to her hooves, and bowed low, too afraid to look whoever it was in the eye. "My apologies! I'd gotten lost, and—" she stammered before the sound of a young voice laughing echoed throughout the clearing. Looking up in confusion, she spotted before her a colt, about her age, with white fur and a brown mane. He appeared to be incredibly tickled at the sight of her distress, seeing as how he was chortling in such a grating manner that he nearly lost his balance and fell over.

Adagio frowned, now extremely perturbed that somepony else dared get a laugh at her expense. Bounding up quickly to face the colt, she poked him in the chest. "How dare you? Do you know what could have happened? Do you know I could have gotten my robes all wet or ripped? What would I have done then?" she yelled.

The colt, startled by her reaction, took a few steps backward. "I didn't mean to scare you... Well, I did mean to scare you, but I didn't mean to make you angry. Are you alright?" he inquired, a jovial smile still plastered upon his face.

Before he could finish, Adagio had already turned tail, her nose high in the air. She marched away from him in a huff.

"Oh, don't be angry. Would you like to play ball with me?" the colt asked, then producing a large, red ball from somewhere at his rear.

Adagio's head spun about to face him. "Don't you tell me not to be angry, and no! I do not wish to play with you or your filthy ball!" she huffed, trotting away faster. "Get away from me! Shouldn't you be doing your chores, anyway, colt? Shan't they whip you for this?"

"Oy!" the colt exclaimed, sounding quite offended, now. "Who do you think you are, little miss prim and proper? I don't have any chores here, and I said I was sorry about your stupid robes!"

Adagio scoffed, and turned to face the colt. The look on her face was one of disbelief. How dare this uncultured, little thing speak to her in this way? "Who do I think I am? Who do I think I am?" she laughed, approaching him slowly. "I'll have you know, that this one robe is probably worth more than your entire..."

Her voice trailed off, and her eyes went wide. All this time, running around the gardens, far away from the manor, lost in her own thoughts at the fountain, and not having to stare at the Earl, somewhere along the way, Adagio had forgotten that she was no longer at home. She had forgotten that here there were bound to be other children that she did not know. She had forgotten that one of them would surely turn out to be...

She studied the colt's lack of a horn, suddenly remembering that the Countess Goldenstalks had also been an earth pony. A pit that felt to be the size of a boulder grew in her throat, and she felt almost as if she might cry. "Y... You are..." she whispered, stumbling up to the colt who was now backing away.

He was clearly startled by the sudden shift in her demeanor. "Arrreee..."

Adagio stopped directly before him, and bowed low to the ground, her mane dragging in the dirt. "Forgive me. I didn't kn—I forgot th—I'm sorry, My Lord," she stammered, outraged at her own stupidity.

"What are you—" the colt began.

"I didn't realize," Adagio continued forcing a fearful laugh . "You know how things are. I just thought you'd be a unicorn like most of... I-I just forgot that your mother was an earth pony—not that anything is wrong with earth ponies, of course. What I'm saying is..." She took in a deep breath, and directed her gaze toward the ground, utterly humiliated. "...What I'm saying is..." her voice began to waver, and her eyes welled up with tears. It was very clear the poor thing was about to cry. After all this work, she had surely ruined everything. Earl Goldenstalks would probably call off the entire betrothal after hearing about this unfortunate rendezvous. Her parents would be furious. Her mother would probably lock her in her chambers for weeks.

All of this did not escape the attentions of the brown-maned colt who, seeing what distress the yellow filly had caused herself, reached a hoof out to touch her shoulder. "Listen, it's alright. Really, it is. I'm not angry," he said, pulling Adagio upward out of her bow.

She looked at him, perplexed, wiping away a stray tear. "You're not? Well, why not?" she asked him.

"Eh, many of the other children I play with speak that way. Especially when I beat them at ball. I'm used to it," he laughed.

Adagio's tilted her head, still confused.

"For what it's worth," the colt continued, "I think your robe is pretty. Even though fillies are dreadful." He passed a sly grin her way, and slowly, the yellow filly's face began to brighten. She exhaled in relief, and performed another thankful bow which the colt immediately pulled her out of. He pressed his hooves against her shoulders to prevent her from doing it again. "Stop doing that, will you? I know you have to do it for the Earl, but to me, it's... odd," he murmured.

Adagio felt something flutter in her chest when he got close, even for that one split second. Her breath momentarily caught in her throat. Unable to speak, she simply stared at him, nodded, and took a step backward out of the indecency of his touch.

Finding the silence rather awkward, the colt smiled, and presented his red ball once again. "So, shall we play?" he tittered, laughing as he watched a grin grow on the yellow filly's face.

She moved to make another bow, but stopped herself, remembering what the colt had told her. Instead, she kicked up the hems of her robes, and flicked her tail back and forth. "If that is what you wish," she said with a nod.

Cheering loudly, the colt immediately dropped the ball, and kicked it her way. Surprisingly, Adagio kicked the ball right on the mark, sending it flying across the fountain clearing. Usually, she would only feel comfortable playing these types of games with Moonstone, and only when their mother wasn't around to tell them it was "unladylike". This, however, was something that she very much enjoyed, especially if the one she was to be bound to didn't think of her as less genteel because of it.

Screaming in delight as she ran to chase after the colt, Adagio never noticed the small gathering of ponies quickly entering the clearing.

"Adagio Dazzle Glow!" came a commanding, female voice from somewhere behind her.

The filly's brief moment of happiness came to an abrupt and horrifying end as she spun around to see her mother staring angrily at her from the edge of the clearing. With her was her father, Earl Goldenstalks, Lady Ginger, and Lila who was looking rather dejected.

"Mother!" she exclaimed, trying to stave off the sudden weakness in her legs.

"What in the name of King Bullion do you think, you're doing, young lady?" the lavender mare asked her, taking a step forward.

"It's alright, Mother. I was just playing ball with the..." Adagio trailed off as she noticed Goldenstalks and his wife stepping aside, allowing a shorter unicorn colt—fur the color of drab goldenrod—to step through.

"... Who... Who is this?" Adagio asked, her voice going as weak as her legs.

"Mind your manners, Miss!" Starry continued, shaking her kerchief in the filly's direction. "This is—"

She was interrupted by Earl Goldenstalks raising a hoof, and nodding, gesturing for her to be silent. He still wore a welcoming smile. "It's quite alright, Baroness. She is but a child. She is allowed to play," he stated. Starry nodded in agreement, and stepped back, her lips now tight with embarrassment. The Earl turned to look at the servant Lila who had now begun to shake with dismay. When the golden stallion began to stroke his beard, the poor, magenta pony all but wilted away. "Lila, you shall instruct Prickle to lock you in your quarters for the day. I shall send for you at a later time."

Letting out a defeated breath, Lila lowered her gaze to the ground, bowed curtly, and turned to stumble away on shaky hooves.

Afterward, as if nothing had happened, Goldenstalks turned to face Adagio, smiling brightly. The other adults followed suit, not wanting to seem adverse to any of the Earl's decisions. "I see you've met Prance Lighthoof!" Goldenstalks continued with a loud laugh as the brown-maned colt entered the clearing again, kicking his ball. "This little scamp's father is Sir Race Lighthoof, you realize. A hero, that stallion!"

The Baron and Baroness' eyes went wide with understanding. Surely, if anypony knew Lord Goldenstalks, they also knew of his best friend, the former knight, Sir Lighthoof. A few years prior, the stallion had been made Baronet in reward for his bravery in service.

"I'm going to be just like him when I grow up!" Prance exclaimed as he trotted around the fountain.

The Earl gave a hearty laugh. "So you shall, son! So you shall!" he shouted, then turning his attention to Adagio. The filly stood there staring ahead in a state of shock. She continued to wonder who the goldenrod colt was, as well as what was to become of the maidservant, Lila. As she did so, the Earl urged the goldenrod colt forward so that Adagio might get a better look at him. "Miss Adagio," he began again, far more gently. "May I introduce to you my son and heir, the Viscount and future Earl, Upright Goldenstalks."

Adagio tried her best not to let her facial features curl or crease in surprise as she studied the colt before her. He was stocky, of a much more sturdy build than this Prance Lighthoof was, and he stood tall being twice as old as she. His chest puffed out as an acclimation to his perfect posture. His mane was also brown, but eyes were a stark, wintery blue. His face was very serious, though thankfully, not unhandsome. All in all, the colt looked rather plain and quite severe. Even still, Adagio accepted this, taking it all in stride with remarkable grace. So, this was to be her future husband.

Something about his visage unnerved her, but she figured it was simply a bad case of the jitters after all that had transpired a few moments prior. Collecting herself quickly, and putting Prance out of her mind, she took a step forward, and shook her robes back into place. Once she stood before Upright, she performed a low, graceful bow. "My Lord," she murmured. "It is an honor to meet you."

"Miss Glow," Upright replied, performing the stiffest, coldest, and most rigid of bows before he reached out, and placed his hoof beneath hers. He tugged a bit too roughly at her foreleg as he pulled her out of her bow. So much so, that she had to ring the sting out of her joints before placing her hoof back upon the ground.

Waiting for him to say something else, Adagio followed the all-purpose, tried and true rule for a lady who was just now meeting somepony of great importance for the first time—remain silent. It was a lesson her mother had taught her, of course, but she figured that at least this time, she could count on it.

As she continued to stare at the goldenrod colt, she soon realized that he had no intention of saying anything to her. His piercing, icy, blue eyes worked her over, boring holes wherever they scanned. He even reached out with a hoof to prod and poke at the material of her robe.

Adagio held back a gasp. How could it be that this foal had felt so free to touch her in the company of others? It seemed a highly presumptuous and undignified thing to do to a noble lady. She couldn't help but imagine that this must have been what livestock at an auction felt like, at least according to the stories Beryl would tell her.

Forcing her head into a bow of obedience as she felt her cheeks beginning to burn, the yellow filly simply waited for the inspection to all be over with. Was this normal? Was this supposed to be a show of affection, perhaps? Why hadn't her mother told her about this? Passing a brief, fearful glance toward the Baroness, Adagio noticed that even she looked perplexed as to what was happening.

"This robe," Upright said matter-of-factly after what felt like an eternity.

"Yes, My Lord? D-do you like it?" Adagio breathed, relieved to have the silence finally broken.

"No, I don't think so," he sighed, sounding quite bored. "I don't like this color."

"U-Upright!" Ginger chided the colt, only to be silenced by the Earl who turned to glare at her.

Nervous laughter echoed throughout the clearing, but Adagio couldn't tell who it was that was laughing. After a moment, she realized the sound was coming from her own mouth. Eyes darting toward her parents, again she saw the increased look of anxiety growing on her mother's face, while her father was doing his best to hide his disdain for the rude colt. "Th-that is quite alright, My Lord," she blurted, thinking quickly, and shoving together whatever words she could manage at the moment. "I have many more in many other colors."

Forcing a smile, she did her best to give off an air of calm and understanding. Noticing this, Upright's grinned. Earl Goldenstalks burst out in joyous laughter.

"Wonderful! They get along well! Absolutely splendid!" the stallion exclaimed.

Adagio watched, stunned, as Upright peered at his father out of the corner of his eyes, and then very blatantly rolled them in irritation. Holding out his foreleg to guide the yellow filly forward, the colt began to walk away. "Come. Let's go back inside. The air out here is filthy."

"But Upright!" Prance shouted from the center of the clearing where he had spent this entire time kicking his ball about. "Don't you want to come play with me?"

Quickly turning about to face the white colt, Upright looked him over, and gave him a reserved sneer. "No, I don't think so, Prance," he murmured before turning tail once again, and heading past the adults.

Adagio walked alongside him, knowing that she was now bound to his side by edict whenever they should find themselves together. As the adults followed a short distance behind, chatting amongst themselves, the yellow filly looked at Upright, and passed him a smile that he did not notice. Feeling a bit more determined, she resolved herself to speak.

"W-what is to happen to that servant pony? Lila, I believe her name is," she murmured.

This only drew a scoff out of the unicorn colt. "Oh. Her," he sighed. "Well, she is to be punished, of course. A servant does not simply lose the daughter of a noble. You are very valuable, you know."

This drew the tiniest of smiles out of Adagio, and she flipped her mane proudly. Still, she was quick to wonder what exactly the typical punishment for such an offense was. Perhaps it was best if she told the truth. "I must tell you, My Lord, this wasn't exactly Lila's fault. You see, I was a bit bored with the flowers. It was I who decided to run from her. I didn't think anypony would get into trouble for it." She recoiled when Upright turned to pass her the most foreboding of grins.

"Well, then," he began, "it would seem that today you have both learned a very important lesson. Lila has learned to be attentive to the most pressing of her duties, and you have learned that it is best that you should never think to run away."

The colt's words disarmed her, and she suddenly felt very small in his line of sight. Nodding her head obediently, she gazed at the ground as she walked.

Taking a chance, she then turned her head to get one parting look at Prance. The colt appeared to have long forgotten them both as he leaped about the fountain clearing. Something skipped in Adagio's chest at the sight of him looking so happy and so free despite his being alone. She watched him run past the fountain with his shiny, red ball. Racing further down the path in the opposite direction, Prance ran deep into the beauty of the untamed garden, toward the unknown that lay in the distance.

Wishful Thinking

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Upon closing Adagio’s door, Sonata released a breath that she didn’t realize she had been holding. The hallway was dark and silent, save for the moonlight that filtered in through the window on the far wall. The blueish glow seemed to cast itself ominously upon Aria’s bedroom door at the end of the hall, almost as if it were calling for Sonata to approach.

Gulping down a lump that had settled in her throat, the youngest siren took a few, silent steps until she stood directly in front of Aria’s door. She raised her hand to knock, and froze on the spot. Things were bad right now. What Adagio had done, bringing up Aria’s past in such a cruel and thoughtless way, was something that could prove disastrous. She had seen the look on her sister siren’s face when their leader had jabbed those sharp, poisonous barbs into her. She knew what Aria was like whenever she got into one of her moods, especially as of late. It made the idea of simply knocking on the girl’s door to check on her seem foolhardy. Perhaps it was best if she just kept watch by the door overnight to make sure no worrisome sounds came from within.

Sonata lowered her arm, spun around, and slumped down onto the floor to think. Sitting there with evening shadows cast upon her, telltales of the troubles of her incredibly prolonged life seemed to flit across her face. Her head began to ache.

Her entire life, she had never been one to complain about the notion of hard work, or suffering for a cause on behalf of those who truly cared for her, but at long last, tonight, she found herself wondering if she had not finally reached her limit. It was one thing to roam through two millennia only having to dedicate oneself to the emotional welfare of two other beings. Food, clothing, shelter, health, and any other desire was always taken care of. However, when it came to this powerless existence, now life included deadlines, reminding oneself to eat something in between those deadlines, counting and recounting money, worrying, deadlines, and judgments. What will your superiors think of you if you wear this shirt? Do you have time to pick up that laundry? Your voice sounds horrible when you sing; try not to sing. Deadlines. Aria is banging her head against her bedroom wall again. She’ll yell at you, but go distract her anyway. You have a job now, remember? Go to work. Oh, fennel, you’ve accidentally cut yourself again. Patch it up. It won’t heal with a song like it used to.

This was learning to live a mortal’s life in an immortal’s body. This, Sonata thought, was true torture. Small, seemingly trivial thoughts that would once delight her to muse upon as she relaxed within the comforts of her Sirenhood, now warped and distorted into absurd little fixations that perpetually piled up to dominate her entire life. Her thoughts were no longer hers. Her own body and its actions were no longer hers. Now, it just seemed as if the color, the flavour, the life that once seasoned the world around her had been sucked and drained away into one, giant, lump of grayness that stretched out before her to eternity. By the spirit of the seas, what she wouldn’t do to be able to once again look at the sky, and actually see that indomitable, cerulean blue, or to be able to eat a taco and actually taste the damned thing. Her burden had grown exponentially, and in return she did not receive the love or the adoration she required to replenish herself. There was no more sucking it out of the essences of mortals, gorging herself upon their forced affections; of course, her sisters, being made of the same, chaotic stuff as she, often had little if any affection to spare.

Eyes closed, Sonata didn’t realize that she had slowly begun to drift off to that place between deep thought and sleep. Her body had begun to slump to the side, grazing against the front of Aria’s door. It wasn’t surprising, then, that a few moments later, the knob twisted loudly, and the hinges spun backward as the glum girl yanked the door open. Sonata fell backward into the room, knocking her head against the floor, and jolting her into alertness. As she looked up into her elder sister’s deep-set and darkened eyes, she couldn’t help but sigh in exhaustion. She knew what was coming.

“Why are you sitting outside of my room?” the gloomy former siren asked in a flat monotone. As she leaned down toward Sonata’s face, her long locks of hair threatened to brush against the younger girl’s nose.

Sonata looked up at her with weary eyes, and for once, apprehension was not one of the emotions visible within them.

“Oh, come on, Aria. You know why,” she croaked matter-of-factly, running a hand through her blue-streaked fringe.

There was an indecipherable look that crossed Aria’s face for just a split second before irritation took over once more. Without having to be told, Sonata sat up, and slid herself back past the threshold of the door. She didn’t even bother to look at her sister.

“I don’t want you here, Sonata. Get away from my door, and go to bed,” Aria said with finality before slamming the thing shut, and locking it. Sonata flinched as the sound cut into her consciousness like a knife. She leaned forward, and pressed her fingers against her aching temples. Her eyes, teary with fatigue, opened wide as those ancient memories of her gruelling childhood crept into her skull.

There was a pressure building within her that would soon need release if she weren’t to pop. Some kind of escape, some small glimpse of the colorful, passion-filled life she had once known as a siren was required. She didn’t find it strange, then, that the two images that grew to encapsulate all these worries within her mind were that of her beloved beach by the sea, and Patti Mint’s oh, so enticingly criticizing face. However, since Adagio would notice if she disappeared for an entire day—if not more—in order to visit the sea, then the only outlet that was within reach for the time being was that horrible, blue-eyed girl. Her love would be Sonata’s to bask in, and when she finally did, that burst of color, that blast of fresh air, would be just what the former siren needed to catch her second wind. It would make those terrible ghosts of her past disappear for a little while longer. It would replenish those memories of the sweetness of her former Sirenhood.

Releasing her temples, Sonata stood up, and dusted herself off. With a smirk, she pulled the band off of her ponytail, and headed toward her room. That trip to the movies tomorrow most certainly couldn’t come soon enough.

She was on the brink of sleep by the time she hit the bed, and could barely muster up enough energy to wiggle out of her work clothes. Sliding beneath her covers, she took a deep breath, and exhaled. It was a sad thing to acknowledge that her mind—usually racing with images and interesting questions during quiet moments like these—was now simply exhausted and blank, as silent and empty as the halls of their house. Thus, Sonata was surprised when, from the edges of slumber, she was briefly drawn back to awareness by the soft sound of piano keys coming from somewhere above her.

___

There were two concerns competing with each other in Adagio’s mind since the fallout of that evening, two thoughts that fought to grab her energy and attention. So much so that she had felt a desperate urge to get away somewhere to think. Her room simply would not do, and usually, when she was feeling so troubled, there was only one place that would. After the rest of the house had gone to sleep, she quietly made her way up to the attic. Upon entering the dusty, old room, she peered through the grit, toward a large, tarp-covered object sitting by the window, awash in moonlight. Closing the hatch door gently, she tip toed toward the object, and tore the tarp off, revealing a large, antique, console piano. Coughing up some of the disturbed dust, she pulled the piano stool out, took a seat, and unfurled her long fingers.

The song that echoed against the walls of the attic had been soft, slow, undulating. A smile crept across her face as she fondly remembered the first time she had discovered this magical tune. It had been about three centuries ago after their stint in Spain. The girls had been enamored by rumors of the decadent and exciting lives of the Parisian elite, and thus, had resolved themselves to move. Paris had been some of the best times obtained out of the horrible circumstance that was their banishment to this world. If there was ever a time that the three sistren had felt almost alive and enriched with energy again, it would have been there.

One morning, she had set off by carriage to visit a handsome, young socialite who, ironically, had been the son of a Count. He was one of the many mortal lovers she had collected for herself out of sheer boredom over the course of the centuries—by magical means or otherwise. Actually, he had truly not been anything special if she were to consider the entire matter again all of these years later; however, at the time, when she had found him that day, rolling around in bed with not only some debutante opportunist, but also his rental suite’s chambermaid, Adagio had to admit that she had become a bit… miffed.

It goes without saying that she had to cut him loose, and of course, she did—him and the two women. Whether or not she had sung all three of them witless before “cutting them loose” in a goat pasture—dawning only their shifts and stockings—would be something she would forever keep to herself.

Not having yet spent up all of her anger, the siren had then decided to take a brisk walk through town, reading the negative energy around every young, fresh-faced couple she could spy, and so graciously letting one of them know whether the other was a liar, a licentious fiend, or simply had no interest in them at all. Then, after having bestowed so many courteous favors upon the world, she had marched straightaway into a fortepiano maker’s shop, sat down at one of the many instruments therein, and decided to just play the rage out until she could feel it no more.

She had not realized what she’d been playing until twenty minutes later when, upon opening her calm and collected eyes, she caught sight of a crowd of intrigued onlookers, as well as a pair of police lieutenants gawking at her through the glass windows. Sure, Aria had to sign her release from that stinking Parisian jailhouse the next day, but at least she had been wholly and completely relaxed.

Adagio laughed to herself, and shook her head as she allowed these trivial memories to fade into the distance. As she took in a deep breath, and her fingers continued their trip up and down the board, she obliged the horizons of her mind to open.

That musical, magical bond, the root of power that her sisters and she all syphoned from, was an ancient and mysterious thing, indeed. A form of Equestrian magic older than Equestria itself, the bond had birthed the three sisters at a time before the separation and inevitable regathering of the three tribes under the guardianship of the Celestial Sisters. The event had happened so long ago, that by the time the three sirens had been banished to this plane, the story had already been resigned to legend and song. There were few in Equestria who had possessed the power to live long enough to remember it all as it actually happened. Her sisters and she made three; the princesses, Celestia and Luna, made two more. They all knew that the strife that had taken place over the course of early Equestrian history, beginning with the turmoil betwixt the tribes, had begun the day that all three siren sisters had finally reconnected with each other and themselves. Having attained realization, they had then disappeared—in an incensed foam—into deep waters. As they writhed there in the dark, seething and germinating in their own newly realized chaotic powers, it had been that fool, Star Swirl the Bearded, who had come down searching for them, accidentally stoking their immense hunger in the process. It was he who had roused them up out of their sorrowful reveries from the depths to fulfill their destiny: spreading their chaotic influence across the land. In a way, just as they were bastions for chaos, Star Swirl had been the bastion for them and their age. Perhaps it was because of his own guilt, then, that the old unicorn wizard had made it his mission to get rid of them once and for all.

A cold-hearted chuckle escaped Adagio. Now, the old fool was dead, nothing but dust, and despite the best efforts of all those Equestrian do-gooders, she and her sisters were still alive, and very likely still possessed magic. She knew in her heart of hearts that this must be true. When her spirit had called to Aria and Sonata, the only way for them to have heard it was through the unbroken, undamaged source. Somewhere, it was still intact, and try as they might, the forces that worked against them could not destroy such an old and superior strength. Now, in this life that was seemingly filled with the humdrum and hopeless, Adagio knew that it was still possible to quicken themselves once more. Of course, she was determined—ecstatic even—to discover how. A little trial and error, and a bit of experimentation wouldn’t hurt. She did have all the time in the world, after all.

As her mind flowed from one thought to the next, it was inevitable that the former siren should come upon thoughts of Aria Blaze, the second thing that had grown to permeate her mind, despite her efforts to avoid it. When she had said those cruel things to the girl, she hadn’t been considering the regret that was sure to come afterward.

Adagio grimaced at the thought of her own callousness. Her sister had been right, after all. Though neither the eldest nor the most acclimated to toil, Aria was someone that both Adagio and Sonata knew was owed a great deal of debt; for, it was she who had been the first siren to exist. It was she who had been the first to reawaken after the abominable circumstances that had been her life. Indeed, they could not have realized themselves without her; however, that still didn’t mean that all of those ancient wounds were magically healed when they had obtained their power. On the contrary, those pains were the traumas that fueled them. Yet, the yellow girl had thought of it as nothing to prod her younger sister whilst she was in a far more dangerous emotional state. Aria had not deserved such treatment. The eldest girl could at least admit that now, but as usual, it wasn’t until after the fact that she had felt anything resembling contrition. Little by little, she began to ponder upon what Sonata had told her after the fight that evening. Was she really that unappreciative and blind toward them? Were the horrible things that her sisters accused her of being true? She didn’t want to believe it. After all, had she not provided for them all of this time? Had she not been the one that held them all together for a thousand years? How selfish could she possibly be? Didn’t they understand what kind of stress such a thing put her under? Couldn’t they see that she, too, had suffered all these years despite all of her tremendous efforts?

She pulled her fingers off of the keys, and sat in the moonlit silence of the attic, thinking. Her eyes wandered down to the bandage upon her chest as she allowed herself to contemplate how much strife the three girls had seen. Indeed, it was their fate to ever be wrapped in turmoil. Chaos was, expectedly, attracted to them like iron to a magnet; however, this life had proved to be long and cruel, and now Adagio wondered exactly how much more they were expected to be able to take before they might have some recompense.

Rising up out of her seat, she turned to head back downstairs, knowing that she would not be getting much sleep in the hours to come.

___

An alarm clock went off, and was promptly thrown across the room. A small flame flickered to life in the dark. The flame licked the end of a cigarette, and disappeared. Inhalation, exhalation, and then a dancing plume of smoke rose to the ceiling. A cough echoed in the dark as Aria sat up in bed, and shook the sleep off of her.

It always took a moment or five before she could collect her wits about her after a long night of sleep, especially the inebriated kind. Sitting there in the darkness of her room, despite it being past noon, had a rather hypnotizing, time obliterating effect. Still, she found it soothing, and easy to meditate in this type of space. After yet another night of dreaming about warm sands and welcoming blue waves, she found herself thinking deeply about the events of the evening before. No, she wasn’t dwelling on that tremendous hellion, Adagio, who she might have expected would act like a complete jackass upon others holding up a mirror to her own faults. She also decided that it would do her troubled mind some good to also forget the incident with Cookie at Bubbles’ bar, at least for the time being. That could wait until Monday. Instead, she was thinking on the matter of her magical bond, something that, for Aria, Adagio now had little to do with. Hints of the truth had begun to reveal themselves to the sullen siren. The bond was unbroken. That was now a given. With this fact came the notion that, somewhere, the source of their power still lived, intact. Her brow furrowed as she tried to ignore what implications this spelled for Adagio. She was certain that the eldest girl was already planning another doomed scheme to regain their powers, and take over the world. Instead, Aria tried to consider, for the first time since the Battle of the Bands, the possibility that one day she might be able to sing again. Before, she had obliterated the notion in her own mind, finding it too painful to dwell upon. It was easier to tarry on hopelessness, settled in a resolute acceptance that her voice was never coming back. This was around the time she had begun to smoke habitually. Perhaps she had simply been trying her best to drive the final nails into her own proverbial coffin. Maybe she just wanted to get it all over with.

Song had never been a means to an end for Aria like it had been for her sisters. Sure, they adored song just like she did, and perhaps, at one time, long ago, they had known how to sing just for the love of it; however, that was no longer the case. It had been made plain, relatively early on, how Adagio and Sonata used their music in ways to influence how others treated them, but for the rose-colored siren, this simply was not so. Her song, unlike the others', had been a constant source of hope, of self love, and of defiance toward any who should try to destroy her or it. It was her spirit. That was all, and that was enough for her to wield it as a weapon against a world that had treated her so viciously. There was a time in the beginning, before her Sirenhood, when her song had very nearly been taken away from her, permanently. That dark time, the time Adagio had so callously thrown in her face the evening before, had left its deep scars upon her, scars that were invisible, scars that would never fade no matter how long she would live. Still, despite these experiences, her song remained, and was what had kept her going ever since. It had been her raison d’etre.

When she had lost her ability to sing, that will, that drive, all but disappeared. After two thousand years, here she found herself songless, and very nearly hopeless, wondering why she had even bothered to continue on if things were bound to end up this way. Was this to be the epilogue of her story? More importantly, who was the one writing it? Was it Adagio? Fate, maybe? Or perhaps, was there still a chance that she was?

It wasn’t a secret to anyone that self destruction was something that was always lurking in the back of Aria’s mind. Ever since the beginning, the notion had planted itself there, unwilling and unable uproot itself. In a slim list of choices that she had been given in her life, she had forced it to come last; yet it still perpetually remained. It hadn’t been until the destruction of her voice that those dark shadows were again revitalized, beginning to creep about in her thoughts, permeating her mind. After all, if she still had some semblance of a choice, then why shouldn’t she have considered just ending it all as being a credible option?

However, now, she knew the bond remained, and slowly the same shadows went into retreat as the tiniest glimmer of hope began to show itself once more. With much hesitation, Aria pulled the cigarette from her mouth, and sat there in the dark silence. Her eyes had grown wide as she licked, and parted her lips. She took a deep breath.

W-what we have in store…” she sang quietly before cringing at the sound of her own voice. Stopping abruptly, she grimaced, shook her head, and took another long drag from her cigarette.

After having showered and dressed, she ran downstairs, and was surprised to find that Sonata had not yet risen. What was not remarkable, however, was the sight of Adagio sitting, fully dressed for work, at the kitchen table. She was stirring a cup of clearly cold coffee, and attempting to stave off the sleep that she didn’t get the night prior.

Good. Suffer, you witch.

As Aria walked passed her, and into the kitchen without a word, she ignored the glare that the eldest girl gave her. Upon entering the room, she was struck with the realization that if Sonata had not risen that morning, then most certainly there was no breakfast to be had. Of course, the spoiled, orange-haired, siren queen sitting at the table was useless in the culinary department, and Aria was the only other one of the three that knew how to cook.

Throwing some bread into the toaster, she awaited her meager breakfast whilst loudly tapping her finger against the counter. From her rear, she heard Adagio take a deep, purposeful breath before clearing her throat.

“Aria?” came the eldest girl’s voice, feigning authority that she didn’t have the right to be employing. Aria stopped her tapping. For a moment, it seemed that the silence had become even louder than her fingers. As the stillness ensued, the younger girl never turned around to face her sister.

Don’t. Just don’t.

Like a saving grace, the toaster timer finished, and the toast was instantly snatched up into her hands. Shoving one of the slices into her mouth, Aria spun around, and walked straight away past her elder without ever acknowledging that she had spoken. Reaching down by the entrance to snatch up her sneakers, she then walked barefoot out onto the porch, slamming the door behind her.

Toast in one hand, cigarette in the other, Aria braced herself forward against the porch railing. She was trying her best to clear her mind, and enjoy the cool air against her skin. Between her job and home life, there had been entirely too much wrong going on as of late. Recently, she had decided that if she was planning on staying even the least bit sane, she would have to take the small moments of peace that she was given, and find ways to make them last.

Surprisingly, out of her forced calm, an image of Sonata appeared in her mind’s eye. Usually, the very thought of the blue girl was enough to increase Aria’s heart rate. All that annoying cheer and sunshine—not to mention the constant, irrelevant crap coming out of her mouth—was an absolute aggravation. Still, a small smile now spread across the surly girl’s face as she considered that maybe, just maybe, the youngest of them had also had enough of Adagio’s shit. Perhaps that was why she had not made an appearance downstairs early that day.

She wasn’t aware of how much time had passed as she was standing there, feeling the breeze. However, almost as if being summoned from her thoughts, she soon heard the sound of the front door knob turning, and spun around to catch Sonata stepping out whilst slipping on a light sweater. Both sisters look at each other stoically out of the corners of their eyes, saying nothing. Her curiosity now piqued, Aria let off a plume of smoke, and turned to face her.

“Super busy this morning?” she asked, not really knowing a more polite way to start up a conversation. Sonata said nothing, pulled out her keys, and began to lock the door.

“What was up with breakfast?” Aria prodded. This finally seemed to get the blue girl’s goat. She spun around, fluttering those perfectly doeish eyelashes in her sister’s direction.

“For your information, Aria, I don’t always have to cook breakfast. You can cook sometimes too, you know,” Sonata chided, placing her hand upon her hip.

“I could,” Aria said with a shrug, “buuuut…”

With that, she let off another plume of smoke. She smirked, finding herself rather funny. Sonata coughed as the smoke hit her in the face, then waved the fumes away.

“Why do you smoke those things so much nowadays? They’re bad for you, you know,” the blue girl said as she took a step closer. Aria let loose a loud laugh, and ran a hand through her hair.

“What, you scared I’m gonna die or something? Scared it’s gonna mess up my voice? I assure you, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” she chortled.

“Oh, yea? Well it’s super gross, just like you,” the blue girl retorted, sticking out her tongue. The elder siren rolled her eyes as she inhaled upon her cigarette again.

By Discord, Sonata was annoying, especially when she was trying to sound clever. Even still, Aria couldn’t hold her irritation against her. They both had reason to be in bad moods as far as she was concerned.

“You know, you should try it some time. Maybe then that prissy stick won’t be shoved so damn far up your ass,” Aria said. Sonata crossed her arms, and took a few steps toward the stairs.

“Gross,” the blue girl replied.

“I’m actually being serious. After a bit, it’s pretty relaxing. Come here a second,” Aria urged. Sonata stared at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“Haha. Very funny. You know I’d never—”

“Just come here,” Aria said, reaching out to grab the other girl’s arm, and pulling her close. Taking one last inhale on the cigarette, she eyed her. Too old and jaded to feel anything resembling regret, Aria quickly plucked the stick from her lips, turned it around, and popped it between Sonata’s.

“It’s not gonna hurt you, dummy. Just inhale slowly, hold it a second, and let it go,” she instructed her. Sonata, taking a moment to glance worriedly into her elder’s eyes, did as she was told, then quickly plucked the cigarette from her mouth, coughing loudly. Aria caught the thing before she could drop it, and began to laugh.

“First time’s always a bitch, though,” she cackled as Sonata strained to catch her breath.

“Aria! You’re... such... a jerk!” Sonata gasped between her hacking. Bracing herself against the railing until she could catch her breath, the youngest siren then stood up straight, adjusted her sweater, and turned to leave.

“Been awhile since I’ve seen this side of you. I was starting to wonder if you’d act like a piss-stained, security blanket forever or something. What’s gotten into you today, anyway?” Aria asked, preferring to hear straight from the horse’s mouth what was going on in the younger girl's head—as frightening a notion as that might have been.

“Nothing,” Sonata groaned as she skipped down the steps.

“Wait!” Aria called, a hint of desperation in her tone. Her intonation made Sonata spin around, her eyes wide.

As much as Aria hated to admit it, she had to acknowledge the fact that, at that very moment, if she were forced to stare at Adagio’s face, or the inside of their house for yet another day in a row, she might actually flip. Looking into her younger sister’s eyes, she could see the same need for a release. There needed to be some sort of small escape from this life that they had been living for those past months, and by Discord, she would have it if it presented itself, even if she was forced to tolerate the blue one whilst doing so.

“You’re going to that movie today, right?” Aria asked. Sonata nodded.

“What did you tell Adagio you were doing?” she continued, releasing a fresh plume of smoke.

“Really, really, really long grocery run,” Sonata replied, now very curious as to where this was headed. Aria cocked an eyebrow.

“And she bought that?”

“I don’t think she even heard me,” the blue girl replied with a shrug.

After a beat of silence, she watched as the elder girl reached down, slipped her sneakers onto her feet, and descended the steps to meet her. She flicked the cigarette away, and slipped her hands into her pockets.

“I’m coming with you.”

___

The bus ride to the theater was as quiet as could be expected. It seemed that despite the amount of time they had spent together, the two former sirens had never found much to relate over, except for the business of controlling and devouring negative energy. With that life now gone, there wasn’t really anything to talk about unless they were planning on bickering over their vast personality differences, as usual.

Still, Sonata’s curiosity always seemed to get the best of her, and as the two girls stepped off of the bus, and into the movie theater parking lot, she decided to ask the obvious question that needed asking.

“No offense, Aria, but why are you even here? You already said that you hate this movie, and you and I don’t get along. I don’t get it,” the blue girl asked.

Aria swept her hair over shoulder to keep it from blowing about in the gusts of wind passing through the open parking lot. Sighing, she tried to think of the least emotionally telling way to answer the question.

“Let’s just say that being here is better than being there. I guess I just needed to get out, too,” she replied. Apparently, this answer was sufficient for Sonata. The blue girl immediately nodded her head.

“So, you agree with me?” the youngest girl asked. “Something feels not finished, but I don’t know what. It’s like I can’t hear the messages right. It just ends up feeling like I need a huge vacation or something.”

This already proved to be too much conversation for the rose-colored girl, and she quickly held a hand up to silence her sister whilst rubbing her temples with the other.

“Sonata? Please. I came here to get away from all that quixotic, ominous crap. I just want it all to go away for a while; so, do me a favor, and shut up about it,” Aria stated plainly.

Sonata pouted, and grumbled under her breath. After walking in silence for a few more minutes, she then decided to take an interest in the sky. She smiled, noticing that today it seemed to be more blue than it had been the day before.

“At least the sky is clear today, right? Isn’t it pretty?”

“It’s as blue and vapid as you are. So… eh,” Aria shrugged half-heartedly as her attention was pulled away by someone standing in the distance. A butter-skinned, green-eyed girl with peach colored hair had seemed to catch sight of them, and begun to wave. Aria tapped her sister’s shoulder curiously.

“Hey, I think that girl is waving at us.”

Sonata, who had still been lost in the blue of the sky, looked ahead to where her sister had been pointing, and smiled brightly. She raised her hand, and waved back.

“Oh! That’s Peachy! I’m treating her to a movie today,” she said excitedly. This immediately garnered Aria’s interest. She peered at the blue girl, cocking an eyebrow.

“Treating her, huh? Why?”

“Because she’s my friend, and I like having her around. Duh. You wouldn’t know anything about having friends though,” Sonata said, sticking out her tongue. Aria simply rolled her eyes. Staring at Peach again, she noticed something interesting about her energy, namely that as Sonata and she got closer, a slightly green haze began to swirl and expand around her body.

“Why is she flaring like that?” Aria asked her sister. Sonata shrugged.

“Ionno. She’s always doing that. She’s kinda quiet and… what’s that word again?” the blue girl asked.

“Wary,” Aria replied.

“Yea, that. That’s the first time she’s flared that much around me, though. I wonder why,” Sonata said, tapping her chin curiously.

“Maybe because she’s not a complete idiot. She can sense that you’re a monster,” Aria chuckled, taunting her.

You are!” Sonata yelled which only made Aria laugh harder.

When they finally reached the front of the theater, and stood in front of Peach, the green-eyed girl reached out to hug Sonata. She then passed a bashful smile in Aria’s direction.

“Hi, Peachy! This is my… sister or whatever, Aria,” Sonata began, directing a rather limp and unenthusiastic finger toward the elder siren. “Aria, this is Peachy!”

Aria, not one for being cooperatively social, forced a smile, trying her best to hide the fact that, at the moment, she was too busy eyeing the plume of green that had exploded out of Peach’s body when she had embraced Sonata. Reaching out indifferently with one hand, she waited for Peach to shake it.

“Oh! So, this is one of your sisters! Nice to meet you… Aria?” Peach said to the disinterested girl. Sonata quickly jabbed her sister in the ribs, jolting her back to attention. Aria’s unnerving purple gaze quickly trained themselves on Peach’s eyes.

“Yea. Same,” she replied without smiling. Perhaps to pick up the slack, Sonata grinned far too brightly in return.

Rattled by their odd behaviour, Peach forced a laugh, and scratched the back of her head.

“Well, um. I think I’ll just go get us some snacks, since you’re buying the tickets and all. Sonata, I know you like sugarfruit babies. Aria, what will your pleasure be?” the angel-eyed girl asked.

“Just get me some peach— uh, I mean... Whatever, I don’t really care,” Aria replied, her gaze having long trailed off back over the girl’s head.

“Alrighty, then,” Peach croaked before backing away, and escaping to the interior of the building. Aria simply watched her go, wide eyed. When she had disappeared from view, Sonata spun around, a gaze of fury upon her face.

“Aria! Can you please try a little harder not to freak my friends out? You’re staring at her like she’s steak and potatoes!”

“Her energy smells like peaches, Sonata. It actually smells like fucking peaches. That has got to be, like, the first… Okay, well the third time that’s ever happened. Can you believe that? How can you even stand being around her?” the elder girl said, rather bewildered.

“Because I have a little something called self control. Not every mortal has to be a meal,” Sonata chided. “Actually, none of them are anymore. So, just get over it, okay?”

Aria quickly passed her an unamused glare. “Sonata” and “self control” were two things that clearly didn’t belong in the same sentence together.

“Give me a break, you little liar. Don’t tell me you’ve never hung around her specifically to smell her energy. She smells delicious. Admit it,” Aria commanded.

Sonata huffed with irritation, and crossed her arms as she quickly moved to go stand in the ticket line. After a while, she turned around to face Aria who she discovered had been giving her a wide, knowing grin the entire time. The blue girl rolled her eyes in defeat.

“Okay, fine. Maybe, like, twice. Are you happy now? I don’t hang out with her just to smell her, though. So, just give it a rest and stop freaking her out,” the younger siren hissed. Aria smirked.

“We’re not even allowed to do anything, because of the tyrant bitch queen. How is it even possible that you two “hang out” anyway? What do you do? Sit around on her couch staring at the ceiling?”

Sonata thought for a moment.

“Yea, pretty much!” she said, passing an innocent smile Aria’s way. The elder girl gawked.

“You mean to tell me you are locked alone in a room with that four course meal on a regular basis, and you’ve never even… Never even…”

She thought for a moment.

“Well, idunno what one could actually do, but I’d totally figure something out. Regardless, yes. I’m satisfied. I just wanted to hear you say it,” Aria quipped, tidying her long, unbanded hair with a smug smile. She already knew she had planted the seed of infatuation in her sister’s head.

“I’ve smelled way better anyway,” Sonata continued on without prompt.

“I’m sure,” Aria replied curtly, inspecting her nails. A long silence ensued as the two of them watched Peach standing in the refreshments line through the glass windows. Slowly, Aria leaned in toward Sonata who had, interestingly enough, begun to chew upon her bottom lip.

“You know, hypothetically speaking,” Aria began, “I bet there is a way, somewhere out there, to devour energies without Equestrian magic. It’s plausible, right? I mean, looking at little Peachy there, a few pretty good ideas come to mind.”

Sonata shoved Aria away, now grimacing at her.

"Aria, you're so—"

"I don't think boiling the hair would work,” the elder girl interrupted again. “I bet that would taste like hardly anything. She's got alot of it, though; so, I don't know. Maybe. Though I'd be willing to bet that all the really tasty stuff is hiding inside her precious, little—"

"Puh-leeease, Aria!" Sonata interjected sounding desperate for the other girl's silence. "Why do you have to be such a weirdo?"

Aria feigned shock despite the fact that she was enjoying her sister's restlessness, immensely. Whatever made Sonata uncomfortable spelled good times for her.

"I'm the weird one? This is coming from the girl who I caught chugging a bottle of dish soap because she wanted to know what dawn tasted like," Aria muttered, crossing her arms.

"Oh, come on. Don't tell me you've never wondered about that. It's dawn, Aria. Dawn. Like the beginning of that lion movie," Sonata hissed, her cheeks puffing with embarrassment. "Wouldn't you like to taste that scene too?"

Aria laughed, holding her forehead in her palm. When she had calmed down sufficiently, she leaned over again, now bracing herself on Sonata’s shoulder.

“In all seriousness, though, I’d give up like, an entire paycheck for someone to invent a way to be able to try her. What do you think she tastes like?” she murmured into the younger girl’s ear, nudging her shoulder. “Like cobbler? Or maybe it’s all a trick, and she tastes like fruit salad or something. Or maybe she tastes—”

“Only like the best pie, ever,” Sonata finally blurted, pressing her palms against her cheeks in exasperation. “She probably tastes like a field of ripe, Equestrian peaches after a summer rain or something, okay? Idunno. It's not like I think about it every, single, little time I'm around her or anything, right? By Discord, Aria. Now, those sugarfruit babies aren’t gonna do anything for me!”

By this point, Aria had already broken out into a loud, obnoxious cackle, her head thrown back. She was only silenced by the sudden sound of someone hissing from somewhere in front her. When she looked around, she was surprised to find the entire line ahead turned to stare at them in shock. A mother, waiting directly in front of them, had reached down to cover the ears of her young son who she had brought along with her that day.

“Do you girls mind? There are children present!” she hissed.

Unimpressed by the woman’s anger, Aria took a quick glance at the tepid puffs of energy escaping off of her body, and bent down to face her child.

“Your mother didn’t really want to come here with you today, did she?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow. Sonata was forced to quickly take control of the situation, and pulled Aria behind her, placing herself between the rose colored girl and the other woman.

“Sorry, ma’am. We’ll keep it down,” the blue girl blurted with an apologetic smile. Still, Aria managed to stick her tongue out at both the insufferable woman and her snotty, little spawn.

Things eventually quieted down. The two former sirens obediently purchased their tickets, and went to go meet Peach. The pretty girl had been standing just in front of the ticket taker, her arms full of popcorn, drinks, and candy. Sonata took some of the items from her, and handed her a ticket.

“Gee, thanks Peach! You didn’t have to do this, you know!” the youngest siren exclaimed.

“Yea, I did. We both needed a pick-me-up after what happened with… you know who,” Peach replied. Aria, being ever the sharp one, picked up on this statement, and passed Sonata a questioning glance.

“With whom?” the elder siren asked Peach. The girl quickly shook her head, and smiled, realizing her mistake. Wisely, she decided to change the topic.

“Oh, by the way, Aria, I didn’t know what you liked, so I got you the same as Sonata. Hope you’re into sugarfruit babies!” the girl said, handing her a box.

Aria, her urge to meddle again aroused, reached out, and took the box, making sure to brush a finger against Peach’s just to see that delicious plume of smoke escape off of her once again. Popping the box open, she deliberately reached in, and pulled out one of the little gummy humanoid shapes it contained. Perhaps it was just by luck that the gummy also happened to be orange-colored.

“Why, thank you, Peach. As a matter of fact, I just got a hankering for sugarfruit babies just now. Imagine that,” she stated. Purposefully giving the little gummy man a squeeze, she popped it onto her tongue, and slurped it up, trying her best not to laugh at Peach’s clear discomfort.

“Uhhh, you’re welcome?” Peach laughed nervously, not understanding why a burning sensation had begun to creep up into her cheeks. Sonata reached out, snatched the girl’s arm, and began marching her straightaway to the ticket taker. Turning around, she passed Aria another furious glare before relinquishing her ticket, and shoving Peach through the turnstile. Aria, chuckling to herself, followed close behind.

The movie actually wasn’t so bad, at least not the fifteen minutes or so that Aria had stayed awake for. For as much as she could tell, it was about a bunch of sexy immortals who would hypnotize their victims with their sexy glampire powers before draining them. That wasn’t something that she couldn’t altogether relate to. After all, she did consider herself to be the most attractive person she could think of. There was also some other boring stuff about vegetarians and love buried in the flick somewhere, but by that time she had just about nodded off.

Afterwards, standing outside of the theater, Aria had fired up a fresh cigarette as she waited for the two bubbly girls alongside her to stop harping on about the movie. Fifteen minutes later, she was still waiting. Finally, when she could take no more of their overly enthusiastic chattering, she decided to speak her mind.

“Please, for the love of all that is rotten, can you two shut up about this frikkin movie?” she very nearly begged as she stomped out another dead smoke. Sonata and Peach both turned to gaze at her, almost as if they had forgotten she had been standing there.

“Sorry, Aria. It was just really good,” Sonata murmured, the expression on her face so innocent and excited that it made the sullen siren want to vomit.

“Yea, like the part where he picked her up, and ran through the trees,” Peach stated. Sonata gasped with joy.

“Or the part where he jumped in front of that truck to save her,” the blue girl continued.

“Or the part where—”

“For fuck’s sake!” Aria yelled, scaring a few other patrons scattered out front. “Do you two hate me or something? Why are you doing this to me?”

“Alright, alright! Gosh!” Sonata ceded, raising her hands defensively. “We’ll just have to talk about it next time we see each other at work.”

She turned to smile at Peach who had begun to giggle. Aria’s eye twitched as she noticed the haze of green that had haloed the girl all afternoon slowly begin to dissipate. Was Peach enjoying her blatant discomfort?

“Yea, I’ve gotta get going anyway, Sonata,” Peach sighed. “Going out of town tomorrow.”

“Lucky you,” Aria muttered, shoving her hands into her pockets.

Surprisingly, Peach didn’t seem put off by the glum girl’s words this time around. She turned to give Sonata a hug, and then stretched her hand out toward Aria one more time.

“It was nice meeting you, Aria. Maybe we’ll see each other around some time,” she said with that typical, sweet grin.

Aria reluctantly took her hand, and shook, disappointed when no green fumes appeared. When Peach tried to pull away, the former siren locked her grip a little tighter.

“Uhh,” Peach began, unsurely.

“Yea, just… hold on a sec,” Aria said as she stood there staring at the girl.

At that moment, neither the rose colored siren nor Peach had noticed Sonata’s gaze moving beyond them to the opposite side of the street. The blue girl’s raspberry glare turned sharp and hot, trained on whatever it was she had seen like a hound who had just spotted its prey.

“Squeezing my hand kinda tight there, Aria,” Peach laughed, again becoming quite anxious.

“I know,” Aria stated flatly as she watched green fumes begin to emanate from the girl before her. When the pleasant smell of peaches hit her one more time, she finally relinquished Peach’s hand. “Alright, I’m done.”

“Oookay,” Peach murmured, rubbing her wrist. “Well, see you two later, I guess?”

Noticing that she wasn’t getting any replies, she gave one last nervous grin, and turned to quickly walk away. Aria sighed longingly as she watched the girl go, shaking her head.

What a waste.

She was promptly brought back to attention by Sonata gripping her arm.

“Time to go, Aria,” the blue girl stated outright, her eyes still trained on whatever it was she had been watching go down the street.

“Go where?” the elder girl asked, already annoyed.

“Sammy’s. We gotta go to Sammy’s,” Sonata replied.

“Why the hell would you want to go there? It’s the weekend. I thought you wanted to get away or whatever,” Aria continued, wrenching her arm out of the blue girl’s grasp.

“I’m hungry,” Sonata retorted, already beginning to walk away.

“No. Pick something else,” Aria replied.

“I’ll buy you anything you want,” the younger siren posed, anxiousness now entering her tone. The elder girl cocked an eyebrow at her.

“I’m going to hold you to that. Let’s go.”

____


Aria remained suspicious as she sat across from Sonata in a booth located in the far corner of Sammy’s. From the time they had arrived, she had watched the younger girl act strangely, sneaking around, and speaking quietly as if she weren’t supposed to be there. Following her to the distant booth, Aria observed, unamused, as she snatched up a menu to hide her face, and proceeded to peer out onto the restaurant floor.

“What’s going on, Sonata?” Aria asked her plainly, crossing her arms, and sitting back in her seat.

“What? Huh? Nothing! Don’t be silly, Ari. Why would you think anything’s going on? Does it look like something’s going on? Nothing’s going on. Nothing at all! S’cuse me a minute!”

Having said that, Sonata threw down her menu, bounded up, and rushed across the currently waitress-free restaurant floor. Ducking down beside the windowed door to the kitchen, she paused a moment to reassess the situation.

Back in the theater lot, she hadn’t wanted to believe her eyes when she saw it, but now she was finally in a position to either confirm or disprove her suspicions. As she peeked in through the door’s window, those suspicions were put to rest; for, there she stood, Patti, fanning herself with her serving tray in the kitchen’s heat. Sonata’s target of choice was awaiting her next order. The youngest siren had seen her walking quickly down the street in Sammy’s direction wearing her work clothes. Now that she knew why, her brow furrowed with irritation. What was Patti doing working on the weekend? She didn’t have any shifts today, the little sneak. Was she trying to find an out somewhere? Well, there most certainly wasn’t going to be one. Not if Sonata had anything to say about it.

Gasping in surprise when Patti’s order came up, the blue girl then dove down behind the cash register. Once the sour-faced woman had exited, and walked by, the former siren then crawled along the floor back to where Aria was sitting. She then hid herself behind her menu, once more. By then, Aria had been given enough time to work some things out for herself.

“I think I know what you’re doing,” the older girl stated plainly.

“What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything,” Sonata muttered, her entire head hidden behind the menu.

“Yes, you are. You’ve got your eye on somebody. Who is it? Does he work here? Is it that scrawny, little cook guy?" Aria urged, nudging Sonata’s leg beneath the table.

“Who, Junior? No way! I mean, I don’t have a crush, Aria!” Sonata hissed as Patti happened to come dangerously close to their table at that very instant. She breathed a sigh of relief as she walked away. “Will you just shut up?”

A bored expression spread across Aria’s face.

“Sonata, you’re the worst liar; we all know this. So, why don’t you just come clean, and tell me wh—”

Right at that moment, when Aria had spun around to catch Patti Mint sauntering away, she realized that Sonata’s glare had been trained on the tiny haze of green that followed close behind her. Her eyes went wide with realization.

“You’re hunting! You little hypocrite, you!” Aria gasped, a mischievous grin now spreading across her face. “You want that girl! Who is she? She doesn’t look like anything special to me.”

“Aria!” Sonata pleaded, guilt seeping from her voice. “Don’t be silly! What would I need to do that for?”

“What does she smell like?” the dour siren inquired as she continued to stare at the girl, ignoring her sister’s pleas.

“She doesn’t smell like— I’m not hunting her, alright?” Sonata hissed. At that instant, Aria watched as the blue girl’s eyes went livid as she observed Patti picking up a tip from one of her emptied tables. The elder girl’s eyebrow rose with intrigue.

“This isn’t about her energy, is it?” Aria put forward sternly as she turned to face Sonata. “Not that it could be. Listen, Sonata. You can’t make people feel the way you want them to about you anymore. You know that.”

A frustrated, almost bruised expression passed across Sonata’s face as she watched Patti march back into the kitchen. Turning her eyes upon Aria, she growled, clenching her fists.

“I can make anybody do whatever I want!” the younger girl hissed, losing herself in her anger for a moment. “Patti loves me. She just… doesn’t know it yet.”

Aria, too familiar with their old ways, just couldn’t bring herself to feel shocked or even disturbed. She had seen this side of Sonata reveal itself many times before. Every now and then, the girl, who Aria had to admit was very popular in her social circles, would be rejected by someone. More often than not, it was never anyone special, but Aria knew that for Sonata that didn’t matter. Inevitably, the younger girl’s attention would be drawn in a way that was frightening. An obsession would reveal itself in her, one that would not be satiated until the object of her desire was practically groveling at her feet. Usually, with their powers, getting to this result was rather simple and uncostly; however, considering their new circumstances, Aria knew for a fact that, now, the notion was foolhardy. All this seemed to be an ominous situation that could not only put the youngest girl in peril, but all of her sisters as well. Sonata was sweet and cheerful when she wanted to be, but one would be reckless to assume that this meant that she wasn’t as dangerous and chaotic an entity as her comrades, perhaps even more so. After all, the girl did have a propensity for getting lost in her own delusions without consideration for the world around her.

“Okay, Sonata. I’m going to tell you something, and I need you to hear me,” Aria began, pressing her palms together in a serious manner. “You need to let this go. The control you think you have over others doesn’t exist anymore. If you keep doing whatever it is I know you’re currently doing, then this isn’t going to end well.”

She knew that Sonata had heard her by the way the younger girl’s cheeks puffed, and her breath seemed to quicken with frustration. It appeared that she was having a war within herself. For a moment, Aria thought that perhaps she would see things her way. Her raspberry eyes softened, and she let loose a loud sigh. The blue girl’s mouth fumbled for a few apologetic words until, out of the corner of her eye, she spied Patti exiting the kitchen again. The girl headed toward a freshly emptied table, and picked up yet another tip.

The youngest siren’s rage was rekindled, twofold. Forgetting her previous feelings of remorse, she moved to stand. Aria grabbed her arm, but it was swiftly swatted away.

“You’ll see,” the blue girl hissed, sticking out her tongue. “If you’re scared, then that’s your problem, isn’t it?”

With that, Sonata stood up, and marched out of the restaurant, headed toward the back lot. Aria, equally resentful over having been spoken to in such a way—by 'the blue one', no less—picked up the menu, and began to sift through the listings. At first, she was determined to just let Sonata learn her lesson the hard way; however, as a feeling of dread slowly descended upon her, she found it difficult to concentrate on anything else but the danger the younger girl was putting them all in. Sighing loudly, she slid out of the booth, and headed out the door.

Sonata, knowing that the back door to the locker rooms was always open, marched through the entryway as if she owned the place. The back rooms were usually quiet until it was time for a shift change, or someone needed to use the restroom; thus, she resolved herself to waiting for Patti to venture through the area. Fortunately for her, she only had to wait a few moments before she heard that familiar voice rudely telling one of the other waitresses off. The voice’s owner then neared the back room door.

Edging herself closer to the parking lot door where she would not be seen, Sonata waited until Patti had crossed the hallway to walk into the restroom before she made her move. Unfortunately, Aria, who had been wondering where Sonata had disappeared to, decided to finally meander in through the back door to take a peek, startling Patti in the process. The brunette spun around to glare at her. She caught sight of Sonata at the same time.

“What the hell?” Patti murmured, a bit shaken.

Sonata, now rather cross at her sister, pulled the other siren in through the door, slamming it shut behind her. She then turned, and passed an all too saccharine smile Patti’s way.

“Heya, Patti! I didn’t know you worked weekends,” the younger siren stated, edging closer. It was clear that the blue girl was the last person that Patti had wanted to see by the way her shoulders fell, and her glare seemed to lose its edge.

“Uh, hey. Yea, actually I—” Patti mumbled, trying to fight off the strange impulse to back out of the locker rooms, slowly.

“No, you don’t have a shift today,” Sonata finished for her, shaking her head. The smile was still plastered upon her face. “So, what’s going on? Making a lotta tips today orrr…?”

“Th-things are kinda slow today, actually. What’s it to you?” Patti said, determined to not lose face to such an annoying little twerp as Sonata. She placed a hand on her hip, and defiantly cocked an eyebrow. Aria, trying to quickly assess the situation, backed up into the shadows whilst she studied the girl.

“Oh, Patti. You’re so silly. Things aren’t ever slow on a Saturday,” Sonata giggled, now anxiously tugging at her own fingers.

“Look, Sonata,” Patti began. “I didn’t kick your ass yesterday, and I think that was really rather generous of me. So, I’m going to need you to back off.”

Patti stepped forward to aggressively poke Sonata in the chest. It was clear to both sirens that the girl was feigning courage considering the amount of fearful energy that was now seeping out of her pores. Still, to Aria, a threat was a threat. The dour siren stepped forward, her hands instinctively balling up into fists.

“Listen, Sweetie—” Aria began to threaten her, only to be stopped by Sonata’s outstretched arm.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Patti. I just wanted to say hi, and see what you were up to, that’s all!” the blue girl said before turning to leave. “We weren’t planning on staying long anyway, but I guess I’ll just see you Monday, right?”

Passing one last, ominous grin in Patti’s direction, she marched with Aria out of the back door. Once in the parking lot, the elder siren watched as Sonata’s expression immediately fell blank, a clear indication that she was now lost deep in that spacious head of hers. The blue girl marched away in the direction of home as her sister, still getting a bad vibe from the entire situation, lit up a fresh cigarette, and followed close behind.

Trial and Error

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Earlier that day, whilst brooding at the kitchen table, the plan had seemed quite clear to Adagio. She would be having three private classes that afternoon, and at each of them, would conduct a number of experiments to test whatever effectiveness, if any, was left in her shattered pendant. These enterprises were to be carried out in a variety of ways. For example, whilst instructing little Filene Forte, her first student of the afternoon, Adagio had begun her trials by attempting to sing an incantation outright as she clutched the box. Unfortunately, it seemed that the force that opened the lyrical wellspring in her mind, like the rest of her musical powers, no longer functioned in the way that she deemed it should. She could only gape down toward her own mouth in horror as it fumbled over her crude, unappealing words.

Filene, Filene,
Won’t you come and obey,
M-my wishes and… whims,
On the… menu to—

"Oh, dear Discord..."

Obviously, this horrible excuse for a song had no effect on the little girl who stood there in Adagio’s shadow looking quite confused and afraid. The former siren then quickly excused herself to the bathroom to have a good vomit. Alright, so maybe lyrics would not come as innately to her as they would an undamaged siren. All this meant was that she would just have to apply a little more effort and preparation, that’s all.

When she returned from the restroom, her hair was gathered up into a large bun once again. Adagio couldn’t put her finger on why, but for the past two days, the feeling of her hair, hot against her body, and constantly brushing against her shoulders, had begun to irritate her. Like the extra fat on a slab of meat, or a hedge full of overgrown rose bushes, all of a sudden, the giant, orange mass had become somewhat of an unnecessary nuisance that drew her away from the extremely serious matter now at hand. Just like any other irritant, it needed to be out of the way; thus, she quickly resolved herself to keeping it up like this, at least for the time being.

Upon entering the living room where the piano was located, Adagio patted little Filene on the head whilst reassuring herself that the girl was far too young for any of the previous incident to have latched onto her long term memory. Surely, she’d forget the former siren’s singing had ever even happened.

“Go ahead, short stuff,” she said boredly as she took her place by Filene’s side at the piano bench. “Whatever it was we did last week, from the top.”

As the girl fumbled through her notes, much to Adagio’s dismay, the former siren bided her time by penning out fresh lyrics in her notation booklets. By the time the lesson was over, she had jotted down something that wasn’t as technical or beautiful as any of her siren incantations, but was still acceptable. Patting Filene on the head one last time, Adagio was quick to let the girl know how much work she still needed despite barely having heard a note of her playing. After all, if she were to err on the side of reason, then it was more likely than not that the child was just as lousy as any other 'mortalling' who had only known music for but a moment of their lives. Adagio bounded upward to leave. There was far too much to do today, and in too little a time.

Brownie, a little piano prodigy and whiz kid, was the student she tutored next. His mother, Ms. Bits, was a rather domineering, frightfully strict woman who, as far as the former siren could tell, was always trying to squeeze more tutors for skills no one really needed into her son’s life. Try as she might, the woman seemed unable to break him; however, this didn’t mean that Adagio didn’t find great humor in witnessing her many attempts.

The curly haired girl had to admit that despite the best efforts of both his mother and herself, what Brownie was able to pull off during his piano lessons was quite admirable for a mere mortal child. He had even, on one occasion, managed to outplay Adagio by a single note, purely by mistake. Of course, this didn’t sit well with her. Clearly, this kid was begging to be crushed. Consequently, she would enjoy torturing Brownie with the most difficult piano pieces she could find, just to see how his mother would react when he did happen to play that one incorrect note time and again. Every week was a new delight; concertos, sonatas, waltzes, and ballades would be passed his way in stacks along with a very quick deadline, all for Adagio’s wicked amusement.

“D. It’s a D sharp, Brownie!” she groaned. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

In truth, the boy had successfully gotten through six pages of a rather complex nocturne before, to Adagio’s glee, he stumbled right at the finish line. Looking rather exhausted, having played the tune no less than ten times during the session, the child turned to look up at his instructor with weary, pleading eyes. A cruel smile spread across her face as she leaned over to face him at eye level.

“A-gain,” she bid him, at which point Brownie released a heavy sigh, and started playing from the top.

Adagio had been having so much needed fun that she’d nearly forgotten about her experiment. Fighting off the urge to watch Brownie crash and burn one more time, the curly haired girl reached into the small purse she had brought along that day, and pulled out her gem box. Cracking it open, she poured the shards into her palm, and held them tight. She was willing to tolerate the sharp pain of the broken fragments if it meant discovering, or rather rediscovering, something about her powers.

Glancing at Brownie fuss and fume over his nocturne, Adagio decided that now would be the perfect time to test her abilities. The piano playing was boorish, and lacked intimacy, as usual for mortals; thus, she figured that if she were to sing quietly, no one would be able to detect her influences upon them. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and squeezed her palm tighter around the shards.

From the pits of your mind,
I rise up and call to you.
Answer and obey me,
Do what I say to d—

“Ms. Adagio?” Brownie interrupted her, his piano playing coming to a halt. Adagio’s eyes shot open, irritation splashed across her face. For a moment, she had almost lost herself in her song. It had even nearly given her a comforting, familiar feeling reminiscent of her wielding Siren magic.

“What, Brownie?” she hissed.

“I… I don’t think I can play while you’re singing like—”

“I’m not singing! I’m… keeping track of your dynamics. Now, start over!”

The boy was startled into playing, delving deeper into the sheet music which, at this point, he had practically memorized. Taking a deep breath, Adagio turned around, and closed her eyes once again.

Your will flies away,
Like a bird in the winds…

Brownie, trying to speed through the nocturne, was nearing the end of the piece. As he approached the portion that he could never seem to get right, Adagio found her attention wavering between her own words and his playing.

And as I b… bore deeper,
Your…

One of her eyes popped open to angrily stare down the child as the tempo of the song began to slow. She felt her hands balling up into fists, the shards grazing her even deeper. Shaking her head clear, and closing her eyes again, she powered on.

And as I bore deeper,
Your little mind sp—aaAAH!

“D! It’s a D. Sharp. Brownie!” she interrupted herself, banging her fists down hard upon the board as the boy, once again, muddled up the ending. Aborting her mission, she quickly snatched up her gem box, placed the shards back inside, and turned to face the child. “For Chaos' sake, if I knew you were planning on butchering two hundred year old classics, I would have given you “Chopsticks” instead. Out of my way!”

Adagio, brandishing her curvaceous hips like a battering ram, bumped the boy clear off of the bench, and reseated herself in its center. Brownie, too exhausted and shaken to do anything but cower in Adagio’s line of sight, rolled away onto the floor, practically limp.

Her nimble fingers made the nocturne look easy. As she flipped through its pages, it was made clear that she had not even needed them to play. Staring daggers into Brownie’s eyes, she cleared a quarter, then half, then three quarters of the complex song until finally, she reached the portion that the child simply could not get right. Pausing, she pushed down hard upon the little, black key again, and again, trying to drill the point into the boy’s head.

“See? Far from rocket science,” she said, then leaning in to whisper. “So help me, Brownie, you’re gonna get this right. If not this century then the next. I’ll be here, you know!”

Brownie who, by this point, could only manage a frantic nod of his head, never expected the other voice that soon came booming from somewhere inside of the kitchen.

“Me too!” Ms. Bits could be heard yelling from the other room. Adagio smiled with satisfaction. By thunder, if the propensity for loving mortals still existed within her, that woman would have her heart.

The former siren sighed to herself later on as she walked down the street, headed toward her final lesson for the day. Twisting a frazzled finger through a loosened curl, she shook her head in frustration. So, the lesson at the Bits’ didn’t quite go as expected either, but it had only been the first day of her trials. Surely, things would soon turn around. Surely, Brownie would not always be able to pull her attention away so easily with his failures. Still, somewhere in the depths of her mind, Adagio knew, and perhaps didn't want to acknowledge her desperate desire to see some effect, some sign of progress as soon as possible.

As she walked, the girl wondered to herself if the urge to torment those who were weaker and more vulnerable than she was just too tempting to ignore. If this was the case, then she would have to be more realistic about which students she decided to test her capabilities on. Fortunately for her, the next and last student on her list wasn’t another tiny, snotnosed brat.

Striker was almost perfect—for a mortal. It was something even Adagio had to cede. He was the perfect cook, the perfect handyman, the perfect aspiring electronic musician, notably handsome, and obnoxiously humble about it. In addition to all this, he also happened to be the perfect young father. Of course, all of these things would not be complete without a perfectly gorgeous wife and home to go along with them. Even Adagio could only presume that had she, in the dawn of her life, had any desire for a common, yet comfy existence, this type of thing would have suited her well. Coming over every week to be subjected to the kind of warm contentment that seemed to float about Striker and his home filled Adagio with an emotion that she couldn’t quite place; it hovered somewhere between amused fascination and enraged jealousy.

He had been one of Adagio’s first students, and whilst he was hardly the greatest musician as far as technicality and ability were concerned, his love for the art was profound. It made her smile, and reminded her of a child experiencing pain or eating sweets for the first time. She found it all quite endearing and much needed, though she could and would never reveal this to anyone else. Being around her sisters for such a long time, she had all but forgotten that such depthful passions could exist in the mortal realm. In hindsight, it seemed so obvious. These creatures couldn’t wield musical magic, and most of them weren’t anything like the few superstars who belted out their sonic garbage in exchange for green paper and short lived notoriety. Why else, then, would the rest of them love music except for the joy it brought them?

She accepted that such a love mixed with such a power as a siren’s could not survive for long without, at least partially, becoming corrupted. If anyone could harp on about the ways in which Adagio, since the beginning of her life, had been driven to use her gift to gain what she desired, she would have been the most capable of doing so. Regardless, this did not stop her appreciation for song, and it did not hinder her from feeling refreshed to find someone new who was so infatuated and in love with music purely for the pleasure that it brought them. It was easy for Adagio to forget the inevitability of a siren’s perversion when she was present in Striker’s happy, little world.

Upon their meeting for the first time, she remembered that he had given her a rather in depth tour of his sprawling home studio whilst very nearly talking both of her ears off.

“This is my signed record collection. I’ve only got ten, but they’re all gems. This is my state-of-the art soundproofing. It just looks like foam, but you could crash a car in here, and no one outside of this room would ever know.”

Finally, after much babbling, the man walked over to what appeared to be a silver, eighty-eight key, electronic keyboard, glided a hand over its surface, and beamed with pride.

This is my newest, and most prized addition. It’s actually why you’re here. I’ve tried playing around with it with what little skills I have, and its been disappointing to say the least. Well, I guess I mean I’ve been disappointing. It’s only a waste if I don’t learn how to play it, right?”

Full of skepticism, Adagio walked over to the instrument, and ran her fingers over its surface. She then pressed down onto the board, playing through a short, yet expectedly brilliant piece before admiring the fact that the keys were almost weighted like the real thing. However, never one to give too many compliments, especially to a modern twist of convenience on what she deemed to be a perfect instrument, she spun around to face him. The usual smirk was plastered upon her face.

“It’s no Steinway, but it’s not bad,” she sighed. “I suppose I can teach you on this.”

Striker beamed at her, and she felt the need to roll her eyes to save herself from genuinely smiling in return.

One would think that Striker, or anyone who was married, really, would be put off by Adagio’s looks, and the fact that they would often be left alone for long periods of time every week. Even someone like him must have known that this particular play’s setting and characters would, in any other circumstance, make for quite a scandalous performance. The former siren could not say that the notion of kicking up a little worry in this perfect little home didn’t slightly excite her chaos-starved heart. Yet, to either her increased astonishment or comfort—she couldn’t tell which—nothing ever happened. Striker, she should have known, would always act like the ideal gentleman that he was. Despite the fact that they would often sit rather close upon the studio seat, she never once caught him turning to lose himself in the smell of her perfume. Despite their fingers often bumping into one another’s upon the board, it seemed that he had no desire to take her hand in his. Even as she would toss about the usual insults that she threw at all of her students when they inevitably disappointed her, he always remained jovial, and took it all in stride. The negative energy that floated around him never exploded to give credence to any lustful thoughts or bitter frustrations he might have had about the former siren. Though this did often work to annoy her, Adagio had to admit that she also found it quite impressive.

To her dismay, when she entered the house that day, a sickly feeling seemed to descend upon her. Striker smiled brightly, as happy to see her as could be expected, and this only made her feel worse. It took her a moment to realize that what she was experiencing was guilt. She looked down at the bag she carried which contained her gem box, and bit her lip. She knew that the very real potential that she might, on this particular occasion, purposely bring chaos into his happy home was necessary if she wished to realize her abilities. The emotion was startling to her. At what point had she begun to care about the happiness of mortals?

“Adagio! You’re early today,” The green-eyed man said, moving aside to let her in. His genuine grin stung her, and she edged away as she entered.

“Yea, well, my last lesson ended early. The kid passed out from exhaustion or something. Idunno,” she shrugged, taking off her sweater. This drew a laugh from Striker until he could see, clearly, the grim and detached shadows splashed across her face.

“You alright? You look kind of… sick,” he asked worriedly, moving to stand in front of her. She didn’t want to meet his eyes, but slowly forced herself to look at him. Irritation began to grow inside of her as she regarded his expression. He actually cared about how she was feeling. Her, a broken, immortal, devourer of negative energy.

What a fool.

She rolled her eyes.

“Cripes, Striker, stop being such a damned saint all the time, will you? It's nauseating,” she said, then tossing her sweater into his hands before walking away toward the studio in a huff.

___

“That was better. It barely sounded like a cat running across the board this time,” Adagio sighed, trying to hide a self-indulgent smile. Striker began to laugh, and ran a hand over his jet black hair.

“Wow, did you actually use the word ‘better’ in a sentence? You’re getting soft,” he quipped.

Paying his words no mind, she swatted a hand in his direction. By this point, the man knew that this meant to slide over on the seat to give her room to play. Once again, she zipped through the concerto without glancing at the sheet music.

“See my wrists? They haven’t fallen. Keep your wrists up. Remember, that it is forte until page three when we move to piano,” Adagio began, once again showing off her prowess by playing impeccably while speaking at the same time. “Don’t just hammer the entire, damn thing like a circus bear. You have to follow the story of the music. It’s a tune dedicated to a secret lover. Can’t you hear it?”

Losing herself in the music, she smiled. This was one of her favourite concerto pieces despite its simplicity. Sure, it had been painful to listen to Striker butcher it for the first two weeks of him playing the thing, but as it came together, she found herself feeling something akin to pride in his progress. Of course, a mortal could never truly perfect or understand such a piece unless they were its creator. However, because she didn’t hate the man expressly as she did most of these “walking food bags,” she resolved herself to the attempt of making him understand. Maybe, out of curiosity, she wanted to know whether or not the propensity for loving music as deeply as a realized siren were possible in him. Her eyes went dreamy, and it seemed as if she had floated a million miles away as the song progressed through its stages.

“Here there is majesty; they discover their love for each other, and it’s unlike anything else they’ve ever witnessed. Then the despair at being wrenched apart. Short, sparse notes. Dark. Sharp. There is nothing in their lives that can fulfill them like each other,” she continued. Now, forcing herself to return to reality, she turned to face Striker who seemed to be observing her fingers with awe. His head nodded in amazement as if he finally comprehended what she was speaking of.

“Come here,” she commanded. “Now, you try playing from page three.”

She slid over quickly, hoping that in his new aura of understanding he might be able to improve upon the tune. Striker set his hands upon the board, and picked up the light, rolling melody from where Adagio had left off.

“Remember, piano. Here, they wait, and meet in secret. Soft notes. Don’t tap the keys, you idiot!” she exclaimed, swatting at his hands. Striker immediately corrected his mistake. “There. Slow. Legato. Long, drawn out like the night. Pianissimo here. You can hear their soft touches in the dark. Gradually it gains volume and power as if day approaches. Their frustrations at having to be parted grow, once more, and—”

“It’s like it explodes or falls apart,” Striker interrupted her, his head still nodding as he played, lost in his own thoughts. “The notes sound desperate, like running footsteps.”

Adagio’s gaze snapped to his face, her eyes wide. She slowly nodded her head in agreement.

“They run, and are caught. The ending, fortissimo, finally falls to a piano. The notes slow down, and end abruptly.”

“A struggle, and then… something bad happens. I can’t tell what. What is it?” Striker asked, trying to decipher what he was playing. Adagio’s head nodded slowly as her gaze seemed to float away to some distant place. She never even noticed her own eyes beginning to grow glossy with tears.

“They’re caught, and they die together,” she murmured as the song ended, and Striker placed his hands in his lap. The two of them seemed lost in the land that they had imagined, both watching the lovers that had now become so real in their minds, lying there, cold and stiff. For Adagio, the song implied far more than Striker, or anyone else but her sisters could ever know. A memory from long ago sunk in, and planted itself within her head. Despair seemed to grow on her face as the images became more and more vivid.

“It isn’t quite a happy ending. For them, there could be none, but in a way, there is peace because at least they had found a way to escape together.”

Her voice shook, and was so quiet that it startled Striker into turning to stare into her eyes. Noticing the tears therein, his brow furrowed. Clearly, the song wasn’t all the girl had been thinking about as she sat there. Something very real was on her mind.

“Adagio? What’s the matter?” he asked, opting to wave a hand in front of her dazed eyes instead of touching her, something she might have found inappropriate.

“Hm? Oh,” Adagio sighed as she snapped back into the present. She swiped at her own eye, and sniffed back her feelings. Looking away from him, she forced a smile. “I got lost for a moment. It’s one of my favorite pieces after all.”

It was clear that Striker wasn’t buying her story. His brow remained furrowed as he watched the former siren make a poor attempt at keeping a disapproving smile upon her face. Every time she tried, it seemed to melt into melancholy. Slowly, he reached his hand out to touch hers as she was gazing at the floor. When she felt his fingers upon her own, she instinctively snatched her arm away.

“Don’t,” she blurted ominously, staring daggers into his eyes. There was a long beat of silence before she decided to stand.

“Excuse me a moment,” she croaked before picking up her bag, and casually walking out of the room.

In the restroom, she rubbed her temples as she leaned over the sink basin, yet again splashing water upon her face and neck. Why was it that she was beginning to memorize the decor of all of her students’ bathrooms? Why did it seem as if, gradually, she was losing her fortitude to deal with these simple creatures, and their simple lives?

Sinking down to sit on the edge of the bathtub, she inwardly chastised herself for ever thinking it might be a good idea to teach Striker that piece in the first place. Those ancient thoughts, now so intertwined with her beloved concerto, came to mind once more . Then she shook her head free of them. What was done was done. What was the point of constantly despairing over that which she could not change? This question seemed to make sense; thus, it always annoyed her to acknowledge the fact that she had been asking herself the same thing for over two thousand years.

Glancing down at the bag that sat at her feet, Adagio sighed to herself as she realized that she had been neglecting that which she could possibly change long enough. She had not yet attempted to use her powers on Striker. Slowly, this understanding began to enrage her. How dare she allow herself to get lost so completely in the mortals’ silly, little world of tiny distractions to the point where she might forget her own beloved pendant? Disgusted with herself, her ire was then directed onto her seemingly irreproachable student.

That perfect little man, with his perfect little life was an offense. Why was it that someone like that got to enjoy themselves while she, someone far more beautiful, intelligent, and talented, had not been given the same opportunity? It would seem that he lived without a care in the world, and acknowledging that, she now resolved herself to trying her hardest to inject some worry into his life. No one was flawless, and if it were up to her, no one would live without experiencing deep regret or pain. Life was full of the stuff, and to somehow make it through unscathed seemed unnatural, reprehensible. She couldn’t fathom how, earlier, she had managed to feel anything resembling remorse about bringing chaos into his home.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the wooden box, cracked it open to ensure the safety of the shards, and then slammed it back shut. She stood, gathered the rest of her things, and exited the bathroom confidently. Her drive was restored, her anger renewed. She swore to the universe that if any powers remained inside of her, she would find a way to get to Striker.

Upon entering his studio, she found him absent-mindedly tapping at the keyboard, looking rather dejected. Knocking against the wall, she waited until he turned to look at her before she placed her hand on her hip. A devious smile grew upon her face.

“Enough of all this sad stuff. Why don’t we try something loud and fast, hm?”

She couldn’t help but laugh when she noticed Striker gulp down a lump caught in his throat.

___

The bus ride home was far more productive that day if she did say so herself. Adagio sat mulling over her notes of lyrics, records, and trial reactions, lost in such a haze of meditation and paper that she never even noticed her usual bus companion, Sunset Shimmer, gazing intensely upon her from across the aisle. There were far more pressing matters to attend to besides what sour expression “ol’ bacon-hair” was giving her today. For instance, there was the business of her trials with Striker which had proved to be quite fruitful.

Upon her return to the studio, she had broken out a new piece of music for him to pour over whilst she sang her “incantations”. The piece was quite loud, ensuring that she was less likely to be heard from where she decided to stand in the corner. She used the excuse that she did not want him to get used to her babying him during every lesson as the reason why she had decided to linger a ways back. Thinking nothing of this, Striker had begun to play.

At first, she had gotten the same disappointing results as she did with Brownie when she realized that, perhaps, the incantations did not work because they weren’t being heard. Thus, despite the ragged state of her voice, she resolved herself to singing in front of Striker in hopes that something might happen. Shooing him out of the way, as usual, she took her seat, and sang her odd song, disguising it as a piece she planned to have him learn later on; however, this only resulted in even more nervous and confused stares, not to mention inquiries as to whether she had begun taking some new form of medication. It was frustrating. It was humiliating. She thought she could endure rejection, but then she remembered that she’d never before been rejected for her music.

She had turned upon him, inquiring as to whether or not he had been feeling any strange sensations, or whether any random urges had entered his mind at all. He had denied it, edging away from her uneasily. The urge to throttle him became nearly unbearable. How could he not have felt anything? The bond was still intact, the wellspring still unbroken!

It was then that she had noticed herself beginning to sweat, her heartbeat beginning to race. Adagio felt like she had gouged herself in the chest all over again. Rarely had she ever felt anything resembling desperation or panic, but the constant reminder that she had little to no control over what was happening to her, little to no say about the way her world might turn, seemed to batter her worse than any physical blow she’d ever received. Feeling her face growing hot, she approached him.

“You’re either lying or don’t know what you’re talking about,” she began in a low murmur, pointing an accusing finger in his direction. Striker held his hands up in defense.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied trying to keep the calm in his voice.

“I’ve been singing, albeit poorly, but still it doesn’t have any effect? How can that be? That’s impossible. My music has never been rejected,” Adagio continued, not realizing that she had absent-mindedly made a rhyme. “Striker, come on. You have to understand… You have to feel...

This is what I need. This is the only thing left,
That can prove to me that my bond is still r—

She gasped, and clasped her mouth shut with her hand, realizing what had just happened. Staring into Striker’s eyes, she saw nothing but the same confusion and fear as before, but in that single, spectacular moment, it no longer mattered. She watched as he silently edged toward the studio door, and opened it, a stern look gathering about his green eyes.

“Adagio, I think it’s best if we end it here today. I think you need to go home, and rest.”

She hadn’t remembered how she’d managed to get outside without forgetting all of her belongings. She did remember throwing up in the bushes on Striker’s front lawn before ambling her way toward the bus stop. It was there that the wellspring of ideas began to pour out of her. She was quick to pull out a pen, and let them all fall upon paper.

Perhaps it was the feeling of fear or desperation that had influenced her. Maybe the musical inspiration would only come when it was in her own defense. Or maybe, her powers were just weakened, and needed a bit of help, something to open the emotions. Alcohol perhaps? No, that didn’t seem like a sustainable concept at all. Perhaps more than one voice was now necessary for the incantations to actually prove useful. Should she pose these ideas to Sonata and Aria? Immediately, she decided against it. Such presuppositions were sure to ignite anger and confusion from her sistren unless she could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their powers were, in fact, still functioning. As much as she wanted to tell her companions about what had happened, even she knew that action with no result was useless no matter which part of the multiverse they existed in.

Lost so deeply in her work, Adagio didn’t catch Sunset Shimmer finally getting to her feet, and casually walking over to seat herself behind her to get a better look at what she had been doing. Had she not heard one of the buckles on the girl’s leather jacket click against the chair, she would have never even noticed. Her eyes going wide at the sound, she quickly covered all of her papers over with notation booklets, and spun around to glare directly into the fiery-haired girl’s eyes. Sunset only seemed fazed for a split second before her moxie returned. She settled into her seat, arms crossed defiantly.

There was a brief pause as they both lingered on the fact that they had not spoken to one another for months, not since the Battle of the Bands. The last time they talked, Adagio had been a different, less desperate, more confident siren. She still had her powers, and at least an inkling of respect from her compatriots. Today, she had little to none of those, and it was Sunset Shimmer who was the one to be blamed for ending a two millennia-long legacy. Adagio’s mouth gawked open, and closed repeatedly as her eyes scanned the girl, trying to decide exactly what her first words to her should be. Her face settled into a resolved grimace.

“I’ve lost my ability to draw attention from you mortals, and yet your obsession with me somehow increases. I must be the luckiest girl in the world,” Adagio murmured, sarcasm leaking from her voice. Turning back around, she began to put her papers away. Sunset remained unmoved. The scrutinizing look she was giving the former siren never eased up.

“You know me,” Sunset began. “Whatever grabs your interest, grabs my suspicion. What is it that’s got you so distracted there, anyway?”

“I’m sorry,” Adagio said with a covert roll of her eyes, “I must have missed the part about oweing you explanations.”

“That’s fine. I’ve got time to kill,” Sunset replied, purposely leaning forward onto Adagio’s seat, and resting her head upon her folded arms.

Adagio resisted letting out an audible growl. Clearly, the girl was trying to get under her skin. Regaining composure, she spun around, and brought her face close to Sunset’s. That sly, signature smile was plastered upon her face.

“You sure you want to be seen with me like this? People will talk you know. They might think we’re a secret item.”

“I thought you knew all about me,” Sunset retorted with a snort. “If you did, you’d know that I never cared much about what others said about me.”

“Good. Then you won’t mind this: Keep your tacky jacket, and your expired hair out of my personal affairs, and we’ll get along just swimmingly. Got it?”

Adagio climbed up onto her knees in her seat, edging toward the amber-skinned girl. Sunset, not being one to take threats lying down, leaned in some more as well.

“Or else you’ll do what? Oh, wait, that’s right. You can’t do much of anything anymore, can you?”

Adagio visibly faltered for only a moment, but long enough for Sunset to take notice. Detecting an aura of sadness surrounding the former siren, she could not help but feel a little guilty. Adagio didn’t bother to respond at this point. Her gaze fell toward the floor, and she turned around in her seat to sit quietly. Sunset wrestled with herself over what she should say next in order to make things right. Realizing that nothing she said would be able to do such a thing, she resolved herself to sticking to the point.

“Look, I… I’m just making sure you’re not up to no good. I’m not going to sit here, and pretend like I don’t know what you were capable of in the past. We’re both Equestrian. We both know the stories. I can’t allow anything like that, or what you pulled at the Battle, to happen again,” she said, accepting the fact that there was no way this conversation could be anything but uncomfortable.

“Why? Because you’ve sold yourself the lie that you’re now a good person, and that people actually accept you? Please, Sunset Shimmer. You and I both know that bad memories are hard pressed to fade, and old habits die hard. I wonder how sparkly your reputation is back in good, old Equestria.” A glimmer of amusement had entered Adagio’s voice as she said this.

Sunset felt her muscles stiffening with anger. Choosing to take the higher road, she took a deep, calming breath, and regained her composure. Her words now came slowly and carefully in an attempt to not inspire more impatience within either of them.

“No, that’s not it. I just wanted to make sure that—”

“So, you’ve made sure! Now, go away,” Adagio spat. There was a pause. She didn’t bother to begin packing her papers away again until she heard the sounds of Sunset reluctantly getting up, and moving back across the aisle to her original seat. Then, turning to face the window, the former siren sighed to herself whilst lamenting her currently obliterated vigor for her secret project. It was even more annoying that it had been Sunset who, once again, had found a way to ruin things for her. Even now, she could feel the girl’s gaze still burning into the side of her face. There was no way that she could continue her work under this nosey wretch's watch. Perhaps her evening spent at home would not be as bad as it had been the night before.

___

Aria sat on the recliner, rolling a toothpick around in her mouth as she flipped through the channels on the T.V. The sound of screaming and chainsaws filled the living room as she found what she had been looking for. Fortunately for her, her horror movie marathon had not yet ended. Yet, despite her delight at the sight of some good, old fashioned, grindhouse gore, her eyes couldn’t help but occasionally dart upward toward the kitchen where Sonata was now fixing dinner. The younger girl had remained in her state of deep introspection ever since their encounter with Patti Mint earlier on. Usually, something like this would not be enough to draw any of Aria’s attention, except for the fact that, right now, Sonata was cooking food that they would all have to eat. From where Aria was sitting, the combination of all of these factors made for quite a harrowing viewer experience, enough to draw her away from the blood and guts currently on the tube.

As she watched each time Sonata reached into a nearby cupboard to grab something in a bottle, Aria worked out in her mind whether or not that particular ingredient made sense with the others she was using.

Salt and garlic powder. Harmless, enough.

The powders disappeared over the edge of a large, bubbling pot that sat on the stove. Expectedly, the blue girl reached into the cupboard once again.

Cayenne and… cinnamon? Well, cinnamon can be savory I suppose. Geez, not so much, you idiot!

Aria bit down hard upon the edge of the toothpick, nearly breaking it. Her hands gripped the rests on the recliner. She watched in dread as Sonata reached up one more time into the cupboard, and nearly choked when she saw the girl absent-mindedly pull down a bottle of chocolate syrup. Popping it open, she moved to turn it over the boiling pot before Aria bolted upward, and raced toward the kitchen to stop her.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled, putting herself between Sonata and the pot. The younger girl looked at her in confusion.

“What do you mean? I’m making chicken and dumpling soup,” Sonata answered plainly.

“With chocolate syrup?” Aria asked, pointing to the bottle in her hand. Sonata glanced at the thing, and then proceeded to laugh bashfully.

“Oh! How did that get in my hand? Could have sworn it was honey.”

“Honey?” Aria croaked. “Why the— You know what? Nevermind.”

The dour-faced girl stared into the bubbling pot just to make sure that the current ingredients looked acceptable. Breathing a sigh of relief, she turned to give her sister a questioning look.

“No, actually, I do want to know. Why do you need the honey?”

“I was trying to thicken it up. I’m so used to brothy soups. That’s the only kind I’ve ever made. There was this guy on T.V. who made his thick with something, but I can’t remember what. I was thinking maybe I should try it so it will last longer,” the younger girl blabbed on, squirting a bit of chocolate syrup onto the tip of her finger, and popping it into her mouth. “Mm! Good!”

Aria rolled her eyes. With a sigh, she reached upward toward her hair, pulled it back, and tied the entire thing into a long ponytail. Edging toward the cupboard Sonata was standing in front of, she used her slender hips to bump the girl out of the way.

“Beat it, sister. I’ll show you how it’s done,” she stated, then reaching up into the cabinet.

Taking the opportunity to turn the entire chocolate syrup bottle over into her mouth, Sonata quickly gulped the sweet, sticky liquid down, wiped her lips with the back of her hand, and glanced again at the older girl. Aria was now standing before her holding a large, white paper sack in one hand, and two, small, golden cubes in the other.

“Flour and bouillon—your two best friends,” Aria stated matter-of-factly as she turned, plopped the two cubes into the enormous pot, and then yanked open the sack of flour. Leaning against the counter with her hip, she unceremoniously tipped the sack over the pot, and began to sprinkle it in. The intrigued smile on Sonata’s face slowly melted into one of apprehension as she stared at the amount of flour Aria was adding. The elder girl, who had been boredly gazing into a corner, caught Sonata’s eye, and shrugged.

“What? We didn’t have cornstarch!”

“No, that’s not it,” Sonata began cautiously. “Um, are you sure that you should be using that much?”

Aria stopped pouring, and huffed in the blue girl’s direction.

“What is the most people… or ponies, that you’ve ever cooked for at one time?” the dour girl asked her, placing a hand on her hip.

“Umm… like... fourteen?” Sonata replied, taking a moment to quickly think over the past millennia and a half.

“Right. I’ve made meals for a hundred, multiple times. We’re not exactly rich as kings here. There are tricks to this sort of thing,” Aria quipped turning her attention back to the pot, and beginning to sprinkle the flour again. Sonata giggled.

“I keep forgetting that you were a lunch pegasus once. I still can’t imagine it,” she murmured, being careful not to delve too deeply into stories about the girl’s roots. Aria grimaced.

“I was not a lunch pegasus,” she growled, finally folding over the flap of the flour sack. “I was a frikkin scullery pegasus.”

Pushing past Sonata again, whilst taking a moment to snatch the chocolate syrup out of the girl’s hands, she placed both items back into the cupboard, and closed it shut.

“Stir it around, cover the lid, and let it boil for ten minutes,” she commanded whilst heading back toward the living room to catch the rest of her movies. “And how about saving your spaciness for your own time, okay?”

By the time Adagio walked through the door looking rather grim and pensive, Sonata had already set the table for Aria and herself. When she spotted the expression on the curly-haired girl’s face, the youngest siren figured it wise not to speak for fear of being reprimanded. Her eyes darted toward Aria whose entire being had grown dark and indignant at the very sight of the eldest girl. Sonata knew then that it would be best to stifle herself from addressing either of them. The feeling of nervousness that descended upon her made her reaction quick and instinctive; the relieving visage of Patti Mint’s face popped into her mind’s eye once again. Soon enough, even she was brooding.

As Aria watched Adagio remove her sweater and purse, hanging one up, and plopping the other onto the floor, she rolled her eyes in disdain. She had been hoping to quickly eat her dinner while finishing her movie, and then disappear upstairs before the eldest girl ever arrived. Aria grimaced as she acknowledged the fact that her plan was now shot, as was her current mood. Having made a habit of mentally deleting herself from situations she had little patience for, she silently got up off of the recliner, strolled over toward the table, took her seat, and began to eat.

After Sonata had whipped up a bowl of soup for Adagio, and placed it at her spot on the table, she took her own seat, and waited for the eldest girl to sit down. Looking into her lap, she began to peel sticky bits of flour from off of her fingers as her mind continued to wander.

Adagio, not in the mood to tolerate the loud sounds of screams and knife stabbing blaring from the television, didn’t think twice about walking over to turn the thing off. She never noticed Aria bearing down, gripping her spoon tightly with rage, still too spiteful to say even a word to her. Turning about, the eldest girl then walked toward the table, looked at the two moping girls, and figured that it was her own presence that was causing the trouble. Resentfully, she thought to pick up her bowl, and head upstairs if that would be sure to end the silent crisis, but at the last minute she decided against it. Why should she let anyone make her feel self conscious for simply existing? After all, none of them were perfect, either.

Clearing her throat, and slowly taking her seat, Adagio picked up her spoon, resigning herself to also eating in silence. As each of the girls looked about the table, unwilling or unable to talk, the events of their day replayed themselves over in their minds. Gradually, something akin to shame descended upon them all as they each came to the realization that their own pride had made it easy to speak with everyone and anyone else, even sworn enemies; however, it had rendered it nearly impossible for them to say a word to the ones they knew best, the ones who needed to hear their voices the most—each other. Now, sitting so close to one another, the three former sirens, eternal sisters bonded by seas, strife, and song, had never been more aware of how very distant and alone they had become.

A Call in the Dark

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It was Misses Clouds who had found her in the wee hours of the morning, lying unconscious and broken in Swift’s dark and empty cellar. It was Misses Clouds who always seemed to find her there. Aria’s purple and green strands of mane, having grown far longer over the years, splayed themselves against the gray, clouded flooring, and concealed her still face. Her battered wings had managed to wrap themselves haphazardly around her body for comfort from the cold.

Always one to be in a huff, Clouds tried her best to stifle her desire to cry over the familiar visage of Aria’s unmoving form, and instead hurried to spread a large bedding sheet she had been carrying onto the floor. Moving to the unconscious mare’s side, she shoved her into the middle of the sheet, and gathered up the edges into a toteable knot. When Aria was but a small filly, it had been far easier to grab her up by the tail or carry her upstairs from Swift’s cellar upon her back; however, now that she was fully grown, she proved far too heavy for the old pegasus to lift.

Biting down upon the knot in the sheet, Clouds then pulled Aria as gently as she could manage back up the endless stairway toward the upper rooms where her chamber was located. She dragged her for quite a while down dark, unpopulated hallways before she came to a large door. Unlocking the thing with a worn key, Clouds pulled Aria’s form into the room, and shut the door behind her.

Quickly untying the knot, she ran off to fill a bucket with water in the servant’s bath house which sat directly next to her chamber. Upon her return, she bent down beside the unconscious mare, and began firmly tapping her cheek.

“Aria! Miss Aria Blaze!” she hissed, her voice full of worry and terror. “Please! Please wake up!”

At first there was no response. Bracing the younger mare’s head with her hoof, Clouds fought down a yelp when she realized one of her eyes had been totally blackened.

“Spirits of the winds, please, no,” she breathed to herself, staving off yet another round of tears. Reaching over toward the bucket, she picked the thing up, and quickly splashed a great deal of water onto Aria’s face. The mare groaned. Another splash, and she sputtered to life with a round of coughs.

“Oh, thank the stars,” Clouds cried as Aria’s one good eye opened, and her vision began to focus. Tears finally rolled down the older one’s cheeks as she watched the rose-colored mare’s gaze slowly train itself upon her. “You gave me a fright, Miss! Forgive me, please! I left you for far too long this time. I was ordered to tend to the banquet all evening, and couldn’t get away. I’m sure that beast planned it this way. Oh, I was so afraid. I thought that this time he would surely…”

Clouds could not finish her own sentence, finding the notion in her head too abhorrent to bear. Aria, who had been listening in a daze, shivered in pain before attempting to push herself up to a seated position.

“Careful, Miss,” Clouds chided her gently. “Your wings are a right mess. We’ll have to patch you up. Oh, Aria, I did truly think this time he’d finally done it.”

Clouds stared at her again, her eyes welling up before she lunged forward, gathering the mare up into a relieved embrace. Aria coughed in pain, and patted her back.

“Come now, Clouds. That’s enough of that,” she croaked, forcing a pained laugh. “You know it will take far more than Swift to be rid of me.”

Clouds poured a bucket of water over Aria’s head as the mare sat stewing in a warm bath a few moments later. She hissed back the pain of liquid hitting all of her scrapes and bruises, but eventually settled into the tub with a sigh. More lively than she seemed to be a few moments ago, the older, lavender pegasus now bustled about, fetching scrubbers, and mysterious bottles from off of the window sill where she had left them. Upon returning to Aria’s side, she popped open one of the bottles, and gently turned the younger pegasus’ head to face her.

“Here now, Miss. Let me see that eye.”

Aria winced as Clouds gently prodded the swollen and blackened thing. The older mare growled to herself angrily as she produced a clean cloth, and poured the contents of the bottle into it.

“That monster. The day I get the key to the Lady’s poison cabinet is the day he goes,” Clouds huffed, slamming the bottle down. As she patted the moistened cloth onto Aria’s eye, the younger mare studied Clouds’ face.

“You mustn’t say such things,” Aria began very seriously, her voice still hoarse. “What if somepony were to overhear?”

“Let them,” Misses Clouds retorted. “Everypony hates him. You know the only reason Lady Mist tolerates his presence is because of that accursed agreement.” Aria nodded, and sighed, once again choosing to close her eyes.

By now, she knew the story well, having heard it repeated numerous times amongst the kitchen staff, and the household servants of which she was but one of the number. Everypony in Gales knew the story of Lady Mist’s ancestor, Fillius the Great, the founder of their city. However, the part of the story many often forgot to mention was the part that explained that when he had defeated the dragon hoard to found the city, he had done it alongside his closest companion, one of his legionaries, Agallopetos Swift. When all had seemed lost against the biggest and most fierce of the dragon hoard, Agallopetos had not only saved Fillius’ life from the literal jaws of death, but with his help, wounded and drove the creature away for good. On that very same day, Fillius swore an eternal oath to his friend that the Mists and the Swifts would be forever bonded. The well being and good fortune of one would spell nothing less for the other, and if any of their descendents should ever think to break this bond, they would forfeit whatever inheritance their forefathers had passed down to them.

“Believe me, she hates him just as much as anypony else. Here’s to hoping that one day she might put some of that fortune to good use, and get rid of the bastard,” Clouds continued on.

Such bonds that superimposed themselves upon the will of those who had no power to choose usually ended tragically. Aria acknowledged this as truth. Midnight Swift, Agallopetos’ descendent, had followed in his ancestor’s hoofsteps by rising to the ranks of an honored commander, a great pegasus of war. He had not been known for his cruelty then, not until the Lady Mist called him away from the heart of Gales to work in her household, fulfilling the bond of their forefathers. The reason why, to that day, remained a mystery, but knowing the Lady Mist, everypony supposed it was probably for guarding against something scandalous that might have the potential to ruin her. Aria would often sit around the other servants as they speculated tirelessly about what this possible scandal could have been. It bored her, to be quite honest. All that really mattered about it all is that Swift had grown cruel as he found life under the Lady quite unbearable, to say the least. He shunned her offers of fine rooms and riches, opting to dwell as far away from her as possible whilst still being on estate grounds. They often spent hours in her study arguing over things that the rest of the household could only wonder about, and they never once shared a moment that could give rise to the idea that their forefathers were once the best of friends. Strangely enough, from time to time, Aria found herself wondering if Swift’s own pain was why he treated her with such cruelty. She wondered if the stallion wasn’t pitiable despite the fact that he was a degenerate.

“Clouds?” she began, stroking her chin thoughtfully. “Do you suppose that perhaps I should… forgive him for what he does? Perhaps the Lady Mist brings grief upon him just as—”

“No, Miss Aria!” Clouds nearly screamed, reaching into the tub to grab her by the shoulders, and stare into her eyes. “Don’t you ever say that. Don’t you ever attempt to sympathize with him. What he does is wrong. He wreaks cruelty. He is venomous. Don’t you ever let him poison your mind as well; for, then he would have truly conquered you.”

Aria, quite startled, met Clouds’ stern gaze while shrinking into the water. She nodded her head fervently in hopes that the older pegasus might release her shoulders. When she finally did, she continued on dabbing the younger mare’s eye with the potion-soaked cloth, pretending as if Aria had never made such a disturbing and foolish statement.

“That should take care of it. The potion is fortified with unicorn magic this time. This dreadful thing will be gone, hopefully, within the hour.”

Clouds grimaced to herself whilst she soaked the cloth in the potion once again.

“Why, by the four winds, why must he always strike your face? He fears you catching somepony’s eye. He dreads the day somepony takes you away from this horrible place, and gives you the good life that you deserve! I know it!”

Aria scoffed as Clouds helped her lean forward so that she might begin applying the healing balm to her battered wings.

“Indeed. I’m sure Mist would be just delighted to let me go,” Aria hissed as Clouds carefully expanded one of the mare’s wings with her hoof.

Clouds frowned at her words.

“Oh, Aria, why don’t you at least try, and see? There are many eligible stallions in Gales. Some you’d remember from when you were but a filly! I’m sure I could think of something to coax some of them here, and—”

“Most of the other children ignored me if they weren’t busy being my tormentors. Why in the heavens would I marry any of them?” Aria inquired, her voice growing resentful. Clouds’ expression grew rather irritated.

“The servants of the house, then. You do know that Comet Racer will be leaving to open his trading outpost on the edge of the city next month. A mare with your charm should have no trouble with him. I’m sure of it. Why can’t you just try?”

Aria turned to give Clouds the most pitying of smiles.

“Clouds, no upstanding pony of honor would have me. You’ve heard the horrible things they say about Swift and me.”

Clouds shook her head, and winced her eyes shut to stave off a feeling of disgust.

“Never you mind those malicious lies, Miss. Deep inside, everypony knows the truth.”

Clouds’ lips tightened closed as if some invisible force had forbidden her to speak more on the topic. She felt sick and helpless looking down at the poor mare who now sat staring at her own marred reflection in the water. In her eyes, the old, lavender pegasus saw a beautiful defiance, one that had existed since her childhood, but also one that was growing weak and wearing thin with time.

This was not the only way in which Aria had noticeably changed, however. As the years passed by, Clouds had watched as that proud and burning rebelliousness was slowly smothered by Aria’s gradual realization that she could not figure a way to free herself from the woes of Mist and her estate. This was after many escape attempts over the years which had all proven to be futile. As this awareness dawned on the younger mare, that brash energy died down into a more watchful and patient simmer. She had become even more quiet, having learned harsh lessons, in many ways, about being too quick to open her mouth and speak her mind. She had become more glum, and quite often unamused in response to the inexplicably strict dictates that controlled her life, the worst of all being her inability to ever leave. Those towering gray walls, and murky dark hallways had been the same hallways she had lurked down her entire life. Her sharp and eager mind became bored amidst the mundanity, her disposition became quite short and often harsh with those estate ponies she had learned to decipher over the years. To Clouds, it often seemed as if the mare was biding her time until something happened, but she was quite sure that neither she nor Aria knew what that ‘something’ was. It was a relief, at least, that the fuchsia pegasus appeared to had not yet given up hope for her life. Having dedicated herself to keeping Aria as safe as she could from her torments, the stress nearly did prove too much for Clouds to handle; yet, she persevered, using the younger mare as her inspiration. For, if Aria could be filled with fortitude under such duress, then surely Clouds could also find a way to do the same.

After applying the salve to the mare’s other wing, the older pegasus gently laid them out to hang over the edges of the tub. Gathering together Aria’s long mane, she moved to her rear, and began to comb it through. Fortunately for her, the rose-colored pegasus could not see the frustrated tears falling from her eyes from where she sat.

“Miss Aria, I’d never be able to forgive myself if I were to lose you. I tell you this all the time, and it seems you have yet to oblige me on any of my suggestions. You have to find a way to escape. It’s only a matter of time before… before—… You must promise me that you will at least try with Comet Racer. Please.” Clouds heard the younger mare sigh, and watched as her shoulders slumped into the water.

Aria felt herself growing more and more irked by the older pegasus’ frantic worrying, not that she would ever outwardly turn against the other mare in anger. Over the years, Misses Clouds had proven to be the closest thing to a loving family that Aria had ever known. She was a beloved friend, and vigilant protector in whichever minute ways she could manage. It was not lost on Aria that had she not been under Clouds’ protective watch all of these years, she might have very well already been dead. However, she could never confront the older mare with the harsh truth that her incessant suggestions, spurred on by feelings of helplessness, no doubt, would always and forever prove to be futile. Clouds seemed to be in denial about the very blatant fact that Aria’s inability to leave Mist’s estate was not the result of some passive force, a story spawned by countless coincidences piled up to create accidental captivity. This was active imprisonment; everypony knew it, but could never figure what the reason for it might be. The estate guards fervently watched for her, especially if she ever happened to go too near the gates. It seemed the household would be put into a panic whenever they—Swift especially—could not account for her whereabouts. Though she was now an adult, even now, she was still required to remain hidden and locked away in her rooms during any visitor’s day, a practice that had begun long ago after the incident with Madame Rosedawn. She was never allowed even the smallest opportunity to dream that perhaps a friendly or loving connection with somepony else might ever lead to her freedom. Indeed, the secrecy of her existence was made quite clear, and everypony who was a part of the Mist household knew this, just as much as they all knew about the torments she had been enduring all these years at the hooves of Swift; yet, none of the cowards dared say anything. None of them dared venture out for help, knowing that the power of the Mist name superseded any and every law that one might claim was just and good.

The younger mare grimaced as her thoughts wandered back to Comet Racer, yet another strapping, young stallion that Clouds was using to alleviate her own worries, and to stave off having to finally accept the truth. He, of course, had not been the first stallion that the old matron had suggested as a means for Aria’s escape. Somehow, somewhere along the way, her desire for Aria’s happiness was overshadowed by her desire for the mare’s survival. She no longer considered the fact that perhaps Aria might not have wanted to continue on had she no hope of someday being content, especially with somepony who she should be expected to marry. Clouds would claim that Aria did not want to try to make connections with somepony else, but what she had not known was that to Aria this was already a notion that had long ago proven to be a flop. The elder one did not realize that the vice-like grip that the authorities of Mist’s estate had on her could never allow her even the smallest inkling of an independent life, and this included anypony she might have cautiously chosen to give her heart to.

There was once a mare, not too long ago; Cirrus Weaver was her name. A seamstress in the main house of the Mist estate, she was neither the brightest, bravest, nor the strongest of pegasi, but Aria had found her radiant. A bubbling, honey-colored, ball of life and joy, she had stumbled into her one evening while the dour mare had been delivering Lady Mist’s supper, and had immediately taken a liking to her. Not having worked at the estate long enough to have caught on to the rumors about Aria, Cirrus grew to be a singular, shining light in the glum pegasus’ dim world. Despite the seamstress’ naivete, she proved to be the one pony who could make her laugh, the one pony who showed profound interest in her personal feelings—at least those of which she was willing to reveal—and the one pony who did not fear her song, but in fact found it beautiful. It didn’t take long for her to win Aria’s heart.

Of course, with the understanding that such feelings shared between mares were frowned upon, it could be expected that Aria had no plan to ever reveal her sentiments to Cirrus out loud. The mare’s company seemed more than enough. In the end, however, it didn’t matter since back then, Aria’s mannerisms had been quite transparent, something she could kick herself for now. Always stuttering and going red around the mare, it wasn’t too long before her feelings for Cirrus had become yet another unspoken piece of common knowledge amongst the Mist household staff. Being ever the popular and social pony amongst the servants, this of course meant that, soon enough, Cirrus came to hear of these rumors. She was surprisingly quick to return Aria’s affections. Little did the two know, during their secret meetings by the cloud garden whilst furtively holding hooves as Aria read poetry to her, that an insidious eye was upon them both.

Aria knocked her forehead with her hoof, and grimaced as she sank deeper into the tub water. Even now she wondered how she could have ever been such a grand fool, how she could have ever allowed herself to become so comfortable, so careless as to allow Swift to see them, to understand them, to understand her. The inevitable reckoning for allowing herself to find happiness didn’t take long. Cirrus was a sociable and optimistic pony, but she was, indeed, also gullible, rather naive. Swift, being a former tactical stallion of war, made quick work of her.

He had called for his supper one evening, and everypony knew that he would only accept the meal if brought by Aria. As usual, Misses Clouds accompanied her so as to dissuade Swift from any funny business. The young mare had been in a relatively affable mood that evening, having secretly planned another meeting with Cirrus by the cloud garden wall for later on. Knowing Clouds would not do too much to dissuade her, she had even begun to hum a quiet tune to herself as she neared Swift’s dark, chamber door.

Moving to knock, she was surprised to find the doorway unlocked. Opening the thing, and calling from outside for the stallion to fetch his fare, she at once had heard a strange sound coming from deep within the murky room. Bidding Clouds to stand watch by the door, Aria persevered, and ventured forth into the gloom. As she moved further into the room, the sound she had heard began to take shape and form—belabored breath, a mare’s groaning. She could hear it coming from around the bend of boxes that Swift stored near the front of the chamber. Aria’s eyes went wide as she considered that perhaps she had caught Swift in the act of torturing yet another victim. Running quickly toward the sound, hopefully to save whichever soul had been so unfortunate as to draw the wicked attentions of the dark stallion, Aria turned the bend, and pushed past the threshold into Swift’s grim inner chamber. She froze on the spot. The plate clenched between her teeth clattered to the floor, spilling its contents everywhere. Her mouth gawked in silent horror as her hind legs threatened to collapse.

“Cirrus?” she croaked, barely above a whisper. At the sound of her name coming from Aria’s mouth, the honey-colored mare’s head shot up to stare at her in equal horror from where she lay—sprawled, flushed, and sweaty beneath Swift’s sturdy, armorless, form.

“A-Aria?” Cirrus yelped, pushing away the long, damp, strands of mane that hung in her face, and immediately shoving Swift’s wickedly grinning maw off of her bare belly. The sprightly mare’s body began to shiver with anguish as she watched Aria’s entire visage cave in upon itself, her heart breaking straight down the middle. “Aria, p-please, let me explain… This is—… I don’t...”

Her voice began to crack as she stumbled out of Swift’s bed, and onto the floor. She watched as Aria began to retreat out of the room, her head shaking in disbelief. From the shadows where he lay fevered and content in his own depravity, Swift began to chuckle. The sound cut the air like a knife.

“I don’t think there’s anything much to explain, Love,” he said, staring at Cirrus’ shaking form. His eyes slid over toward Aria, and the bile rose into her throat as she watched his smile grow even wider. “Do you, Miss Aria?”

She ran, fast and far away.

That was the last time she ever saw Cirrus, the sprightly pegasus who she had loved so. Of course, soon after that night, Swift was hasty in having the mare defamed, and dismissed from the Mist estate for her “disorderly conduct”. There were many times between that incident and her departure that she had attempted to speak to Aria, to explain to her that which the dour mare really didn’t care to know. She even had Misses Clouds deliver to her a long, drawn out letter of which Aria only read a few words, something about an “agreement” with Swift and a “negotiation of freedom”. All naive rubbish that no longer mattered. The entire letter was immediately torn to bits and tossed to the wind. How could Cirrus say these things to her thinking that Aria would not recall every horrid aspect of that unspeakable picture, down to the smallest detail, down to the tiniest glimmer of the satiated smile that she’d seen on Cirrus’ face before she had called her name? It wrecked her. The images of that smile would not fade from her mind, so much that she could no longer bear the thought of her knowing that fiendish stallion had played her so effortlessly. Perhaps it was, in some ways, selfish on her part, but nopony, if they had been privy to her personal feelings for the other mare, could have denied that it wasn’t completely understandable.

She closed her heart off, then. She made herself an iron-clad wall for the sake of any other pony that might fall prey to the dark stallion. Bit by bit, she had to admit that Swift was pulling her apart. Now, he had even found a way to control her ability to love. Lest he completely destroy her heart, she committed herself to never acting so foolishly again.

Her mouth, by this time, had sunk below the level of the tub water. Blowing lazy bubbles as she let this memory fade from her mind, she considered Clouds’ proposition, wondering what woes would befall Comet Racer if Swift were to find out about him. She scoffed to herself, spurting water as a radical notion came to her. Why should she care about Comet Racer? She didn’t love him, and certainly Misses Clouds had not supposed that she should. He was simply a means for escape, a feasible out. If courting Comet Racer could bring her freedom, then wasn’t that all that mattered? Wasn’t her freedom what would bring her the most happiness? If the plan failed, then none of it would have to matter; for, no greater harm or benefit would come to Aria that was any different from that which she had been enduring for years. Certainly, there was no detriment in making a fresh attempt at a covert escape. She didn’t have any other plan of action at the moment, anyway. After a beat of silence, Aria turned her head toward Clouds.

“Alright. I’ll do it.”

Clouds’ audible sigh of relief echoed throughout the empty bath house as she finished with Aria’s mane, and laid the shiny length back down across one of her shoulders.

“That is a relief to hear, Miss. Truly it is,” she breathed, trying to stifle an overjoyed laugh.

Now, moving with more gusto, Misses Clouds picked up a scrubber, and trotted again to Aria’s side. Lifting one of the mare’s hooves, she began to scrub the thing shiny. Aria, whose injured eye had now healed enough to open, stared at the elder pegasus, and then groaned in exasperation.

“Clouds, what are you doing? You know they’re just going to get dirty again once I go down to the kitchen.”

“Just putting the finishing touches on you, Miss Aria. That’s all. Never know when you might meet somepony nice,” Clouds blurted, trying to hide her very apparent smile. Aria sighed, and rolled her eyes. She did not reply, instead choosing to sink again into the welcoming waters.

__

Before she headed downstairs for the day, Aria had gathered her long mane into a tail that fell over her shoulder, and was tied with the two pretty ribbons that Madame Rosedawn had gifted to her so long ago. Never revealing how much the two small pieces of silk meant to her, Aria had managed to carry them around all this time without having them confiscated or stolen. She then slipped on a large, bland, tan shawl that Misses Clouds had gifted to her in order to better hide the never-fading bruises upon her body as well as the mark emblazoned upon her flank. The lovely star and forte symbol had come in about a year after the incident with Rosedawn, much to everypony’s dismay, but to nopony’s surprise. Though she personally thought it beautiful, its testimony to her love of song and music was a searing mark of shame upon her in the Mist household. It attested to her inner defiance, and her inability to be dissuaded from what was forbidden to her. Indeed, she could hide her love of song only as much as she could now hide her beloved mark—superficially, with a large, woolen, cloth.

The shawl made her look rather frumpy, but who was she trying to show off for anyway? Poking at her eye to make sure that the bump was mostly gone, she then opted instead to push more mane to the front of her face to hide whatever might be left of the bruise. She then exited her chamber, being careful not to wake the other two maidservants with whom she shared the room.

The vast kitchen was quiet and empty, as it usually was when she entered in the mornings. Promptly getting down to the business of bellowing the cloud hearth hot for cooking, fetching the cooking water, and scrubbing the floor, Aria worked hastily, and in silence, enjoying the moment’s peace she had to herself before the hectic day began. She had been doing this for years now. As soon as she had grown too old to be adoptable, the Lady Mist had made sure to promptly add her to the household staff. Of course, she had been appointed as nothing more than a scullery maid, and knowing Mist, she knew it was unlikely that she would ever be anything greater than that. However, at least now she was being paid—albeit meagerly—for all of the floors she was made to scrub. Of course, it was never enough to buy or do anything extraordinary. It was certainly not enough to somehow purchase her escape; yet, it did bring its small pleasures. Occasionally, she would purchase candy from the street vendors that neared the estate gates. She wasn’t allowed to leave for any reason; so, the money would be passed to the peddler through the fortified bars under the watchful eyes of the Mist household guards. On other occasions, she would purchase reading scrolls from her colleagues who were happy to trade for what little extra funds they could get. Aria’s love of reading was only surpassed by her love for song. As she grew up, she had discovered that, besides her voice, reading made a great way to escape—be it ever so briefly—from her arduous life.

As she scrubbed, she tried as hard as she could to keep the events of the night before out of her mind. Of course, nights spent in the company of Swift were nothing short of abhorrent; thus, this task proved quite difficult. She would not deny that over the years, her mettle had grown stronger, her hide tougher, and after a time, the villainous stallion's blows became but another tick on the list of offenses that she was made to endure on occasion. Where her eyes once avoided his gaze in youth, they had gradually learned to meet them, filled with fury and spite. Where her lips had been sealed shut until ordered by his word to sing, she eventually took small delight in opposing him, defying his command until she could bear the pain no more. Only then would she open her mouth, giving him just a lyric, only a taste of what he so desired. She had thought that she was no longer fearful—until relatively recently.

As she grew into marehood, a few ponies who had proved casually kind to her had, from time to time, revealed to Aria their admiration for what they called her “comeliness”. Of course, she could never understand what it was they had been talking about, and most of the time they only mentioned her looks because they wondered why she never thought to pull her mane out of her eyes, or stop wearing enormous, frumpy shawls about her lovely, slender frame. However, none of these things seemed to matter to her. How could they when, deep down, she knew that her appearances could do nothing to help her? She hadn’t thought to linger on such things until Swift had begun to notice them.

Recently, during their visits, she would find his words far too beguiling, his touches far too suggestive to have been something she had ever dealt with before. Confronted with threats of something new and far more terrifying, she found herself beginning to worry and fret all over again. With ghastly memories of Swift and Cirrus haunting her mind, she would hide from him whenever words on the winds said he was looking for her. She would make sure that she only brought him his meals alone during the day when she would be missed, and if it was suppertime, she would always deliver the meal along with Misses Clouds. She also tried her best to never travel close to his route at night. Knowing this, she had to acknowledge that what had happened the evening before was inevitable. There had been a banquet, like Misses Clouds had explained. It was large, and lasted all evening. Most of the household servants were called away. She had been one of the few exceptions, of course, and it was during her trek to fetch more water for cooking that Swift had snatched her, dragging her off to his dusty cellar whilst her screams went unheard.

Aria smiled proudly to herself as she got up to fetch the piles of bowls meant for the wards’ breakfast. She had not revealed to Misses Clouds that this time around, she had managed to withstand him. Not one of her precious notes ever escaped her throat at his beckoning, even when he had struck her in the eye, making her black out. Surely, the elderly mare would have chastised her, and asked her why it should matter in that worrying tone of hers.

Just sing him a blasted song!” she would probably say, but Aria knew that Clouds could not understand. Clouds could not grasp that her song was her friend, her will. It was hers alone, and a rare gift if given to anypony else. Swift could never dream of deserving such a precious thing.

Snatching up a giant cauldron, Aria flew it over to the hearth, and plopped it down upon the flurry of swirling, heated air. She then flitted over to the pantry, collected together mounds of fruits, and a large sack of grain, and brought them over to the enormous work table to prep them. Pushing up the edges of her large shawl, she snatched up a sharp blade, and masterfully twirled it upon the tip of her hoof before beginning to chop.

She smiled when the beat of the blade hitting the tabletop seemed to trigger her musical wellspring, instantly lifting her mood. Her tail swished to the rhythm as she began to feel that familiar itching sensation in the spot below her neck. At first she hummed to herself, a habit of caution brought on by having been caught singing far too many times. Her head shot up, a disdainful grimace on her face as she realized that if she could withstand Swift, she could withstand anypony. Besides, the kitchen would be empty for quite a while, anyway.

Into a dragon’s maw with them all!

Throwing caution to the wind, she took a deep breath, parted her lips, and allowed the enrapturing melody to fill the room.

We’ll never see the day,
When they shall let her fly away,
They say.
But they shan’t rattle me,
I know that they shall never see,
What guides my way.

Peels and skins fell to the floor by her hind legs as Aria moved swiftly through the pile of fruit. After she had completed this task, she figured she might as well go ahead, and prepare the bag of oats since the cook had not yet arrived. Tearing the sack open, she then danced, and twirled through the air in the absolute comfort of her own company as she flew it over toward the large, heated cauldron. There, she began to pick up bucket after bucket of the cooking water she had fetched earlier, dumping it into the enormous pot. As usual, she lost herself in her song, never noticing how the air itself began to tremor and hum happily along with her. Likewise, it never occurred to Aria that as she had grown, consequently, the once subtle effects of her childhood voice had transformed into something far more powerful.

Not something to perceive.
Not just some simple ‘Do Re Mi’,
Its something,
On which I can depend.
And every part of me agrees,
It is the key,

The call,
That draws me from those monsters in the dark,
Instantly,
It always whisks me far away.

Once she finished with the water, Aria began to scoop mound after mound of oats into the liquid until the giant thing was filled to the brim with thick, mealy lumps. Flitting high into the air where she knew the cook kept the spices upon a hidden shelf, she quickly snatched up the cinnamon and sugar, and descended again in front of the cauldron, pouring some in bit by bit as it began to bubble. Snatching up a large, wooden spoon, she stirred the pot as she wiped away a bit of sweat beginning to form on her brow.

No matter how they try,
That part of me could never die.
And someday I’ll,
Bid farewell to this grayness.
Someday I’ll cross that open sky.
Soar far away,

When the porridge was done, Aria carefully pulled the massive pot from the heat, and dragged it toward the long work table. There, she laid out endless rows of bowls in the blink of an eye, and carefully began to pour a heaping helping into each one, tossing a medley of fruit atop the portions as she went.

I guarantee,
Someday I’ll see that sunset on the sea,
Fair and free,
Forget my troubles in good company,
Finally,
Just me,
And my melody.

She never noticed how the very air had seemed to catch a fire with song until after the melody had finished, and the pleasant itch on her chest had begun to fade. Tilting her head back in a state of euphoria, she took a deep breath.

“That one is worth keeping,” she snickered to herself, confining the tune to the catalog of her memory.

The kitchen’s back door slammed hard, making Aria gasp, and hop back into alertness. Hoping that whoever was lurking there in the shadows had not heard her entire tune, she quickly turned about, and finished filling the rest of the bowls, putting on a pretense that she had been concentrating in complete silence.

“Morning!” she called anxiously, now assuming it was the cook, Bellypuff, as she heard slow hoofsteps begin to approach.

“You’re in luck today, Mum,” she said, forcing a nervous laugh as she heard the figure move to stand directly at her back. “It seems I lost track of what I was doing, and already finished up the wards’ breakf—”

A hoof came down hard upon her shoulder, and spun her about. She felt her stomach drop as she peered into two, flaming red orbs hovering over a sinister grin. Retreating quickly away from them, she backed up against the table, nearly tipping over some of the bowls in her wake.

“What are you doing here?” she murmured, eyeing Swift over with disgust. His grin only seemed to grow wider.

“My job,” he said flatly, as he began to circle the table. “I happened to be completing my rounds as I passed by, and swore I heard the faint traces of a song on the breeze. It seemed I was correct in my suspicions.”

He paused on the opposite side of the table, directly across from Aria. Looking her over, he noticed that she was not covered in bruises and welts.

“Clouds patched you up quite well this time, didn’t she?”

“Yes, she did,” Aria spat. Swift ground his jaw at this.

“You should really be more careful, Love—”

“Don’t call me that,” Aria growled, her purple eyes burning. Swift stared at her for a moment, and blinked before taking a deep breath, and continuing on his trek about the table. He seemed to be busying himself with inspecting the bowls she had prepared.

“You should really be more careful, Aria. Somepony less forgiving than I might have heard you.”

Aria retreated down the length of the table once more as Swift made a beeline directly toward her.

Less forgiving,” she scoffed, a defiant smile spreading across her lips. Swift, noticing this, breached the rest of the distance between them, and continued to push on until he had cornered the mare up against the cold wall. Pressing herself hard against its surface, Aria turned her head in an attempt to get away from the sensation of Swift’s hot breath against her skin.

“What do you want?” she asked, a twinge of desperation betraying her show of courage. She shut her eyes tight as she felt him bring his face so close that his lips brushed against her cheek. Her legs threatened to collapse from under her.

“I want…” Swift began, enjoying the sight of the mare cowering before him, “...supper.”

The dark stallion pulled himself away from her casually, and stood there, a smug smile upon his face. He seemed to draw delight from Aria’s current expression of confusion.

“Delivered by you, of course, and only you. You can spare me the sight of that fat, gawking, matron, or any other of your bird brained companions. I just want you.”

Aria blinked, and let loose a spiteful laugh.

“Do I look like a fool? I’d much sooner be whipped.”

“That could be arranged,” Swift stated matter-of-factly, inspecting one of his enormous, worn, hooves.

“I don’t care,” Aria continued. “The answer is no.”

Swift’s eyes seemed to spark as he turned to face her, closing the distance between them once again until they stood nose to nose.

“You shall, or else the Lady Mist will hear about your little performance.”

“She cannot do anything to me,” Aria retorted, her eyes never wavering as she glared back at him.

“No, but I can,” Swift snarled, reaching out to wrap his hoof around Aria's neck, pushing himself up against her.

“Get off of me,” she croaked, struggling to push him away to no avail.

“If you haven’t noticed, Mist obliges my every whim under pain of destitution, and we both know that the “Lady” could never allow that. Either you come to me tonight, or she makes you come, but I’m afraid I shall have to express my deepest displeasure if you force my hoof toward the latter.”

“I’m not afraid of you anymore, Swift,” Aria breathed, her voice clearly shaking.

“Perhaps you should be. Perhaps you should extend some of that fear toward your beloved Matron… or the children,” Swift murmured, grinning wildly as he watched Aria’s eyes go wide.

“You shan’t harm any of the wards or Clouds,” she growled under her breath, fresh fury in her gaze. The dark stallion gave a smug huff.

“Well then, it would seem we have come to an agreement, hm?”

Aria said nothing as, gradually, her eyes fell from Swift’s horrible grin, toward the floor. A beat of silence passed between them both before, with much hesitation, she nodded her head.

“Good mare,” he said, tracing the length of her mane with his hoof. Reaching down, he ran his hoof across her tail, curled it around to grip it, and gave it a quick, cheeky tug before turning toward the table where the wards’ breakfast sat. As he passed by to trot toward the door, he made sure to swat a few bowls off of its surface with his tail. He laughed to himself as they shattered onto the floor, spilling their contents everywhere.

The mare held her position against the wall until she heard the back door slam shut, after which she slid in defeat down to the floor. Burying her face into her hooves, she sat there, allowing her mind to sink into a deep fog. Perhaps, for a moment, she could once again forget where she was, and what she seemed fated to endure.

Suddenly, a thought, a blazing hot flicker, flashed before her eyes.

“Comet Racer,” she breathed to herself, quickly jumping to her hooves with resolve. Then racing toward the pantry, she pulled out some flour. Dragging it over toward the work table, she shoved aside some of the bowls, then fetched some water, and a myriad of other ingredients. Tossing back the edges of her shawl once again, she set herself to work. There was very little time before the cook arrived, and she simply had to be finished before then.

___


The back courtyard was mostly empty this early in the morning save for the random main household servant here and there. Aria pulled her shawl tighter around her body to stave off the cool morning air. Between her teeth, she clenched a large item tied with a pretty piece of scrap cloth. Quickly, she trotted off in the direction of the cloud gardens, knowing that Comet Racer, being a stocker for the Mist household, would be bringing in goods by one of the small back gates.

Flying over a particularly large mound of cloud, she looked down toward one of the gates behind the garden, and spotted two ponies standing there. A passing guard below saw her flying above him, and immediately called out to her.

“You there! Blaze! You know the rules. No flying outside of the buildings! Get down, now!”

Aria rolled her eyes, and slowly descended until she was standing in front of the guard. He continued to glare down at her. She did know the rules, namely that all of the Mist household guards were ordered to take particular care to keep her from flying about whenever she was too close to the gates, fearing an escape. They often claimed that the rule applied to all of the pegasi who occupied the Mist household, but Aria knew better. If there was one thing that was completely and utterly absurd to say to a pegasus, it was that they were forbidden from flying.

Stupid, mindless, brutes.

“Beg pardon. I forgot,” she hissed through her teeth, passing him a very forced smile before trotting off past him in the direction of Comet Racer.

As she approached Comet, whose back was facing her, she noticed that he seemed to be energetically discussing something of great importance with the other stallion standing before him. Aria caught only a few words before the stranger gestured to Comet Racer that somepony was approaching.

“Yes, I’m certain nopony has seen this except for me,” the stranger had said as he passed Comet Racer something that looked like a thick, plaid-decorated money satchel. Comet Racer snatched the thing, and hid it inside of one of the pockets of his shirt.

“Good, the rest shouldn’t be a—”

This was when the stranger had cleared his throat. Aria stood before them patiently, eyes turned down toward the clouds, the decorated sack hanging from her teeth.

“Hey, isn’t she that mare who—” the stranger began quietly to Comet Racer.

“Aria?” Comet interrupted, giving her a quizzical look. “W… what are you doing all the way out here?”

At the announcement of her name, a guard who had previously been standing back to the side of the open gate doorway, quickly slid himself into place between the threshold to block any potential path of escape. Again, Aria rolled her eyes. Forgetting the guardspony, she cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and approached Comet Racer until she was standing directly before him. She felt her cheeks going red as she put the package down gently in front of him, not knowing what to do next.

She had never been too good with the ways of showing romantic affection. Situations like this one would probably always feel strange and unnatural to her. Nervously gathering her shawl about herself, she took a deep breath, looked into Comet Racer’s eyes, and forced out something as close to a beguiling smile as she could muster.

He seemed to get the hint, and gave her a pleasantly surprised grin of his own.

Thank the stars.

Clearing her throat one more time, she walked near enough for him to smell how the morning air clung to her mane. Then, she turned and headed further on down the gate, back toward the garden. As she passed, she deliberately made sure to let her tail wrap itself around his hoof, ever so slightly. After she had cleared enough of a distance, she heard both of the stallions let out a great exhale.

“By thunder, that’s some mare. How did a dud like you manage that?” the stranger said before being jabbed in the gut by Comet.

“Shut it, will you? She can still hear you, you idiot,” the red stallion chided his companion. Aria smirked.

The rest would be simple, practically a waiting game. She knew that Comet Racer would love the cakes she had made for him, and inevitably come to her again to return the cloth she had wrapped them in. She would then simply rinse and repeat, laugh at his jokes, laugh at his friend’s jokes, hopefully share at least one interesting conversation with him, and then, probably after a kiss that he definitely wouldn’t deserve, he would insist that she come away with him next month. It now seemed more fortunate, in her opinion, that he was a tradespony. She knew that Comet often used many big carts, crates, and boxes to carry his wares back and forth. Perhaps she might even be able to fit herself inside one of them to get out. It seemed, most certainly, to be a rather good plan.

She smiled to herself as she daydreamed about her inevitable victory over Mist and her minions, never once noticing a dark, grim figure lurking in the distance atop a tall puff of cloud. She was snapped back into reality by the sound of heavy hooves, and her neck craned in its direction just in time to see a dark, violet tail disappearing over the mound. Pondering to herself a moment, she shrugged off a strange and sudden feeling of unease, and quickly headed back up toward the wards’ quarters.

___

“Be seated!” the headspony bid the endless rows of children as he stood before them. Immediately, and in one, mechanical motion, all hundred or some odd foals took their seat. As Aria stood at the rear of the hall with the rest of the kitchen help, waiting to serve the food she had prepared, her eyes darted about the room, eyeing the young ones. What Swift had told her in the kitchen earlier had startled her more than she had realized. Remembering those dark days from her childhood, she couldn’t help but wonder and fear the notion that Swift might possibly be tormenting other young wards at the orphanage. Scanning for bruises or a hint of any silent whimpering, Aria never noticed her name being called.

“Blaze!” shouted the head cook, Bellypuff, a large, round, and quite fearsome green mare. Aria gasped, her head spinning about just in time to catch her tossing a stack of bowls toward her back, and then shoving another into her mouth. Having had much practice balancing the dishes, Aria grunted a sharp, indecipherable apology before turning to head toward one long row of hungry children, all of them eyeing the balanced bowls atop her back hungrily.

Passing each one out quickly, Aria had finished with the stack held between her teeth in no time. Fluttering over to the opposite side of the long row, she began to pass out the ones balanced atop her back. Strangely enough, her gaze never directly met with any of the wards’ eyes. Something about them made her uncomfortable, especially those who were slightly older in age. She didn’t know why, but it almost felt like they were able to see right through whatever small authority she might have pretended to wield because of her adulthood to the battered, morose mess of a filly that still remained buried somewhere inside of her. Their gazes always held this twinge of wonder as they watched the pretty, shawl-draped pegasus pass their way. Perhaps they wondered why she was deigned to hold the position of the lowest staff in an estate orphanage. Maybe they assumed that it was because she was hiding something unforgivable. Or maybe some of the staff rumors about the history of her voice and subsequent imprisonment had found its way to the children’s ears.

The bowls clinked as they began to shake between her teeth. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. The eyes—She couldn’t bear them. As she came to the end of her table where a small colt, one she had not seen before, sat waiting eagerly for his breakfast, she breathed a sigh of relief. Quickly plopping down the bowl in front of him, she began to march away. A tug upon her tail stopped her dead in her tracks.

Not expecting the sensation to be so reminiscent in her mind of the lewd touches Swift had forced upon her earlier that day, she spun around to find the little colt holding tightly onto her tail with his teeth. He stared up at her warily.

Her mouth curled in upon itself until only a small hint of a line lingered below her nose. The rose in her cheeks seemed to drain away. She found that she had no words as the strangest sensation of anxiety descended upon her. She felt as if the entire room could somehow see those horrible things Swift had done.

“Mum,” the colt began in the most cautious of voices. “This bowl has a crack. M-may I have another?”

The child seemed to wither in Aria’s line of sight as he saw her violet eyes go wide. At once, the only thing she could think to do as more sweat rolled down her neck, was to yank her tail out of his grasp. Her lips quivered for just a moment before a sharp intake of breath.

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.

At once, the low din in the hall ceased as all eyes turned to stare at the fuchsia mare. The small colt shrank into his seat in fear, nearly disappearing beneath the table itself. This only worked to rile her up even more. Taking a step backward, her eyes darted about the room. Words bubbled in her throat, and began to rise. As if acting of their own accord, her lips moved again.

“Don’t any of you ever touch me! I do not like to be touched! And why do you all look at me in that way?”

“Miss Aria!” the headspony huffed as he slammed his long wooden staff into the floor, insisting on her silence. Her eyes darted toward his direction.

“Is it that you think I do not notice? That I don’t know what it is you say about me when my back is turned?”

The distressed mare never saw Bellypuff inching toward the great hall doorway behind her. At once, the large cook darted through the threshold, and down the corridor, calling a name that Aria could not determine.

“Miss Aria, I will tolerate no more of this insolence!” the staff-wielding stallion shouted as he made his way toward her. “You are dismissed! Retreat to your chamber at once!”

Trotting up to her, he moved to grab her by the shawl, and drag her toward the door. She snatched the cloth out of his teeth, and backed away. The faint hints of a tremor could be seen coursing through her hind legs.

“I said get off of me!” she screamed, clutching the cloth around her body even tighter. The stallion’s eyes went wide, startled by the mare’s outburst. It seemed his loss of control over the situation had become clear as a few of the younger wards then began to cry. Aria reeled at the sound. Panic overtook her, and she spun about, unable to spy her own exit through her increasingly blurred vision.

“Aria!” a voice called to her through the fog.

“Stay… stay away,” she gasped, fighting off a powerful wave of nausea.

“Miss Aria Blaze!” the voice shouted again as Aria felt a hoof come across her jaw—hard.

The sting of the blow seemed to knock the instinctive panic right out of her, bringing her back to her senses. Turning about, wide-eyed and breathless, she was stunned to find Misses Clouds standing before her. Bellypuff lingered silently at the elder’s side.

“That will be quite enough!” Clouds huffed, staring down at her. “Come with me!”

As if for the very first time, Aria glanced about the room at all of the gawking, horrified eyes trained upon her. A few of the foals had moved to hide beneath the table whilst many more of the servants whispered amongst themselves.

“I…” Aria stammered, meeting Clouds’ gaze again. Before she could get anything out, she felt her stomach turn, its contents rushing up through her gullet. Shoving her way past the elder pegasus, she dashed through the hall doors, and turned to stumble out into the yard.

Pawns and Queens

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Aria laid upon her sparse bed in the small, drafty chamber she shared with two other maidservants. Her eyes were trained upon the ceiling as she tried her best to concentrate on not retching for the thousandth time. Her purple and green strands of mane had been freed from their constraint, and spilled off of the bedside, onto the floor. For a somewhat pinkish pony, her complexion now casted a slight twinge of green.

Misses Clouds, ever the busy body, bumbled about lighting the oil lamps, and some mysterious herb infusion whose smoke would supposedly work to settle Aria’s stomach. It only proved to make her cough, jostling her insides about like a dropped sack of crabapples. When she was finished, the old mare flew over toward her, descending to take a seat by her side.

Sitting upon one of the other two small beds on the opposite side of the room, knitting what appeared to be the last sock in a matching set of four, was another mare. She was sky blue in color with a yellow mane tied up in a ribbon. As she purled and looped, she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the nosey glare she was passing in Clouds' and Aria's direction.

“This is all my fault,” Clouds began in that shaky, worried tone of hers. Aria sighed, thankful that her long mane was concealing the fervent roll of her eyes. She mused on the notion that, if it were up to Clouds, she would surely find a way to blame the very existence of evil in the world upon herself. “I should have never let you go down to the kitchen today. You needed your rest, and I just—”

“Clouds, please. This has nothing to do with you,” Aria groaned, all while passing an annoyed and attentive glare in the third mare's direction.

“On the contrary, Miss Aria. It has everything to do with me. I have to tell you—"

"One moment, Clouds," Aria interrupted the old, lavender pegasus with a lifted hoof. She eyed the third mare intently. "Bella, would you give us a moment?"

The blue pegasus jumped at her name being called, and turned to face Aria with a haughty frown.

"Aria, these must be done today. I simply don't have time to spare," Bella replied blowing her forelock out of her eyes. Aria grimaced.

"Well, then go and knit by the cloud garden. It's a beautiful day outside," she posed, trying to feign composure.

"I'm sorry, Aria, I work fastest when I'm in my room. I simply can't have any distractions and..."

As the other mare continued on, Aria felt her temperature rising. These gossipy, young mares always ate up every chance they got to learn more juicy information about Aria, information that they would, no doubt, grossly exaggerate. It had been primarily their fault that the horrid rumors surrounding Midnight Swift and herself were always circulating around the estate. It also didn't help that Bella Blue had been Cirrus Weaver's replacement as seamstress after the mare had been sent away. At once, Aria bolted upward, her pillow clenched between her teeth. She chucked the thing violently toward Bella who it missed by just a hair.

"Get out or I shall knit socks out of your mane, Bella!" she screamed, her eyes on fire. Gawking, the blue mare leapt up, and raced from the room, blocking her head from the threat of another white, puffy onslaught.

Clouds rubbed her head in disappointment as Aria continued to stare at the door angrily. Gradually, the younger mare's breath returned to normal, and she reclined once again onto her back. She sighed, somewhat regretting that she had relinquished her pillow, and was now forced to lay flat. There was a pregnant pause as it seemed Clouds was trying to figure a way to return to the conversation, making a talk that they had a thousand times seem fresh and meaningful. Aria heard her take a deep breath and exhale.

“Miss Aria, please listen to me. Ever since you were a filly, my inability to save you has always been my greatest shame.”

Aria was genuinely surprised by this outburst, but hesitated to reply. She felt a gentle hoof on her shoulder, and turned her head to meet Clouds’ eyes. She saw therein exhaustion and the most genuine look of affection.

“I have been a servant in the Mist house for so long, sometimes I plum forget the meaning of happiness and freedom. Sometimes, I confuse this place and the meager scraps I’m given here for happiness and freedom. But when you came along, Miss Aria, things were different. Even now, I look at you, and I remember again that there’s far better beyond those gates. In your eyes I can see them clearly.”

Clouds sniffed, miraculously managing not to whimper, and brushed Aria’s mane away from her face.

“I’ve wasted my chance thinking myself clever for remaining here because the scars of my past experiences beyond those gates were too much for me to bear. You, Miss Aria, you have the flame that I did not… that many do not. Your scars do not have to define you, but to watch you withering amongst these walls is…” Clouds trailed off, shaking her head to regroup. “If it’s the last thing I do, I shall see that you get away. Then my conscience will finally be clear.”

The older mare’s honesty startled the younger. Perhaps it was her own guilt that forced her to avert her eyes back down toward her bed.

“My life is beyond you, Mum,” Aria murmured, using her affectionate title for Clouds. “Nothing of what has happened is your fault. You cannot continue to blame yourself for these things.”

“No, Miss Aria. Like I said before, I can, indeed!” Clouds replied, very serious now. “You see… there’s something I haven’t… haven’t told you.”

A beat of silence. Aria slowly turned back 'round in her bed to look at the old pegasus through the dim of the little chamber.

“Do you remember the widow Rosedawn?” Clouds murmured as she fumbled with her hooves.

Aria blinked.

“Of course, I do.”

How could she forget? After all this time spent regretting and dreaming of what could have been, the image of Madame Rosedawn had warped, and grown to take the form of a sublime being in Aria’s mind. As she chose to remember it, the mare had been some unexpected shining light, some deliverer of mercy sent to save her, and all Aria had done was muck the entire thing up like the incessant fool she was. It did seem strange, however, to hear that Rosedawn had been a widow. This opened up an array of fresh questions about her in Aria’s mind. Who was her husband? Could they not have foals of their own? Which void within herself had she wanted Aria to fill?

Realizing that she had drifted off into her thoughts, Aria cleared her throat, and glanced again at Clouds. The look of guilt that had washed over the old pegasus caught Aria’s attention, and she sat up on the bed, clutching her belly for comfort’s sake. What could Misses Clouds possibly have to tell her about Rosedawn that would have her feeling so on edge?

“Clouds? What about Rosedawn?”

A silence descended upon the room, so thick one could cut it with a dragon’s tooth. The two stared at each other as Miss Clouds’ mouth gaped open and closed. Finally, she exhaled a great puff of air.

“Miss Aria… over the years… Rosedawn and I have been kee—”

The chamber door swung open with a deafening ‘BANG!’ In raced two mares, Bella, once again, and Daisy, Aria’s second roommate. Skidding to a halt, their necks both drooped as they tried desperately to regain their breath.

“Young mares!” Clouds exclaimed, immediately forgetting the conversation between Aria and herself. “What in the skies is the problem?”

“Comet… Racer!” Bella gasped, pointing out of the door toward the front side of the building. Aria jumped to her hooves at once. Her heart began to race. The nauseous feeling that had been plaguing her, again began to grip her stomach.

“What about Comet Racer?” she breathed.

“Guards... Dismissing him!” Daisy replied.

Before the words could finish leaving the maidservant’s mouth, Aria was already halfway down the corridor, listening to Misses Clouds’ desperate pleas for her return fading into the distance. Racing down the dank, servant’s stairway, she exploded through the front door, and out into the yard. There were numerous servants of all ranks littering the space, some gawking, some whimpering, and some simply whispering amongst themselves as servants were prone to do.

“Hold him! Hold him, you idiot! Get him back!” spat a fully armored guard, directing his subordinates to take control of the raging, red stallion as he bucked, and pulled at the ropes that threatened to bind him. From where Aria stood, she could see clearly the sweat glistening off of his bruised and battered hide, and his single black eye that shone even in the early evening twilight. Comet Racer was yelling something wildly as he fumed, but it was barely distinguishable. Aria, reeling in disbelief, took a few shaky steps forward to get a better listen.

“Bastards, all! I’ll take every last one of you!” Comet bellowed, managing to yank his ropes so as to draw two of the guards closer. With no hesitation, he then headbutted them both out of commission. Unfortunately, the two ropes he managed to free from around his neck were swiftly replaced with four more, and soon enough he was wrestled down to the clouds, completely bound. As the realization that he had been bested fell upon him, his brazenness quickly melted away.

“I demand to see the Lady Mist! Take me to her at once!” the stallion cried, only to be met with the head guard’s hoof coming across his face. Comet Racer staggered, and fell silent.

“That softened you up a bit, didn’t it?” the guard laughed, waving his foreleg to direct his team toward the estate’s open gates along with their defeated cargo.

It was at that time, as Aria took in the entire scene, that unexpectedly, an untouched switch was flipped within her. The sight of the usually brash and confident Comet Racer, now crushed, and being dragged against the ground, and the image of the plethora of household servants not having the decency to stand up for even one of their kind under the threat that the house’s vicious eye might then be turned upon them next, all seemed to fade and become flat. Suddenly, she was looking at a play, something unreal, a moving painting filled with characters that, for as much as she entangled herself in their welfares, could now easily be kept at a foreleg’s distance as she coldly watched them dance about within their canvases. Standing there, she acquired the clearest understanding that fate had not wanted her to be a vibrant participant in the normal achievements and discoveries of life. She asked herself why, then, should she grant it the pleasure of feeling too much for any of what she saw?

Comet Racer had been a means to an end, and indeed, she had not loved him. Even though what was happening to him was unjustified, and even though she might have very well been the cause of the entire thing, she found herself finally able to cede that all of these ponies, these players around her, were nothing but tools. They were pawns whilst, for some reason yet to be discovered, she had been the queen all along. These servants, wards, and guards could be, and were all shifted and uprooted, played and punished, simply for the sake of getting to her, cornering her into submission. She recognized herself as a target, and thus, the one who suffered most, the one who made others suffer. Hence, a grand conclusion was reached in her mind. She reckoned that her own happiness and freedom, her finally getting away from this place, would subsequently free them all.

Lost in a trance, her eyes plastered upon the open gates, Aria never noticed Misses Clouds finally catching up to meet her. When she had, she too faltered and fumbled over her words at the sight of the ruckus.

“Oh, stars. What is this?” she breathed, realizing what was happening to Comet Racer. “Aria, what has happened?”

Aria scoffed to herself at Clouds’ question. Try as she might, she could not quell her resentment for the older pegasus’ naivete. What had happened? After all these years, Clouds still seemed unable to grasp the notion that whoever Aria had known, had touched, had shown affection for would inevitably suffer for it. Eventually, Aria undid the large shawl bound around her slender figure, revealing her scars, bruises, and the mark upon her flank to the world. All of them were testaments to what she had endured over the years.

I happened, Clouds, but no more,” she said, digging her hooves into the clouds, and spreading her wings as something both radical and beautiful presented itself to her.

Misses Clouds glanced at her in confusion only to catch the mare giving her a look filled with such affection, such sad regret, that it made her heart leap.

“I’m sorry, Misses Clouds. Goodbye,” Aria breathed.

She darted off at full speed toward the open estate gates, spreading her wings. Ignoring the small aches that still lingered, she bounded into the sky as the guards were all bent low, tending to the struggling Comet Racer. They didn’t have the wherewithal to turn, and catch sight of her until hearing the gasps of the household staff, watching as they pointed in disbelief beyond the threshold.

As if she had been preparing for the escape her entire life, Aria’s graceful form could be seen amongst the clouds beyond the gate, moving with purpose. She glanced backward to the guards, and retracted her wings, folding them to her sides. Then, eyes trained gleefully upon the estate for perhaps the first time in her life, she dropped out of the air like a stone, vanishing into the foggy maze of an enormous cumulus floating below. The entire courtyard paused for a moment, struck by just having seen what they thought was the impossible. The head guard was the first to move, raising up, and rushing forward in a panic.

“After her!” he screamed wildly, all but tossing Comet Racer to the side in a forgotten heap.

The only thing she could hear was the rushing of the wind past her ears, and her own belabored panting. The only thing she could see was the extended, puffy white in front of her own nose. So much adrenaline now coursed through her veins that every fiber of her being began to buzz. Aria knew that it didn’t matter in what direction she flew, as long as she flew fast.

She couldn’t say how long she soared before deciding to descend out of the cloud. As she dropped, white wisps gave way to a beauty that she barely remembered—sprawling green.

As quickly as her joy came, it was swept away by the sound of flapping wings, and ferocious shouts coming from behind her. Craning her neck around to take a look, she was distraught to see the armor of the Mist estate guards glinting in what little was left of the day. For a moment, a wave of panic washed over her, and she slowed ever so slightly. Noticing what was happening, she shook her head free of doubt, faced front, and hunkered down against the wind.

Alright, Aria. Time to let them know who it is they're dealing with.

A young guard, swift and slender, was the first to catch up to her. She evaded him easily. Rolling upward into the clouds, and then down to his other side, she then hoofed him in the barrel, sending him reeling. The next to approach was the head guard, a rather large and stocky stallion. Aria felt herself grinning at the thought of the challenge.

“Come on then!” she laughed at him as he struggled to keep up. “What’s the matter? Grown too old?”

“Swift will have your wings for this, mare!” the guardspony shouted as he kept up expertly with Aria’s dodges and evasive rolls in and out of the clouds. They settled into a straight line again, Aria panting for air as she felt the rage rising at the mention of Swift’s name. Glancing down toward the earth, a thick and seemingly endless patch of deep green came into view. An idea struck her, and she grinned mischievously.

“Give Swift this message for me!” she shouted back toward the guardspony before angling her body downward, and tipping herself over into a roll. As she curved upward directly under the guard, her front hoof came careening up into his jaw, knocking him out cold in midair. She continued her roll until she tilted back ‘round and downward toward the endless expanse of treetops. Pushing off in the air with her wings, she sped into a death defying dive. Taking just a moment to glance backward at the guards, she saw them all diverting downward to save their tumbling leader. Laughing to herself, it wasn’t until she broke the surface of the forest canopy that she remembered she had never attempted to fly through a forest before. Twisting out of the way of an enormous branch, she yelped and reeled through the trees before straightening her angle, and slowing her momentum. Even still, she did not escape being hit with snaking vines, mosquitoes to the face, and a mouthful of leaves before she came careening down to the ground.

Sputtering out a gob full of foliage and bugs, she wiped off her tongue all whilst spinning around in the grass, her gaze locked ardently upon the canopy above her. Stumbling into a bush to hide, it took mere seconds for her to notice that no sounds could be heard save for the expansive flora and fauna of the woods. Realizing that she had evaded Mist’s guards, she let out a triumphant howl before racing deeper into the forests.

Night had fallen a few moments before she had dashed into the woods; yet, Aria could feel anything but fear. Around her thrived a glowing and magical world the likes of which she had never seen, a world full of things far different from a cloud, pegasus, or any other creature of the air. In fact, she had already spotted quite a few strange beasts that didn’t have wings at all. She wondered if they found her as odd as she found them.

Walking reverently through the brush, Aria lost herself in complete wonder and awe, drinking in everything she laid her eyes upon. She didn’t care where she went, so long as it was far, far away from Gales. To her, it was impossible to be lost in such a place as this.

She wasn’t aware of how long she wandered; it could have been hours, it could have been mere minutes. At one point, she stopped to sample some of the most delicious-smelling fruits she had ever encountered, growing from a strange vine. The fruit, for some reason, made her tongue tingle, but she decided it was worth it, and ate another soon after. After gleefully chasing a small owl through the brush simply because she could, she came upon some rows of long grass. Peeking through them, she gasped in delight at the sight of what appeared to be a cool and gentle spring. The water glowed, beckoning for her to come closer; however, being ever the suspicious pony, she peered down into its depths with a look of skepticism.

Touching its surface, she verified that the liquid wasn’t harmful to the flesh. Splashing about on its banks, she established that there were no hungry creatures lurking therein. Finally, bending her head down toward the water, she took a small gulp which turned into a large gulp, which turned into ten more. Raising her head up, she sighed in satisfaction before backing away from the pool, and racing to dive into its depths.

Strangely enough, sinking into that calm, deep blue, she felt unlike she had ever felt before—at peace, at home. She couldn’t even recall how it was she knew how to swim, and yet, she moved through the stillness effortlessly. The birthmark upon her chest began to itch as she felt something ebullient beginning to glow within her. As she rose up again to break the surface, for the first time in forever, Aria felt like she had become who she was meant to be, consecrated into the wonderful world that she had been longing for. Blowing caution to the wind, she let loose a brief but beautiful soprano as she kicked about in the water. Doing so, the air went still and silent as the entire blessed night listened to her in awe. Though it had no words, the song was unlike any she had ever sung before. It felt timeless and familiar, almost as if it had been lurking below the surface ever since she was born.

Hours rolled by. Happiness engulfed her. Everything was right and good. A subdued hum escaped her throat as she finally stepped onto the shore, shaking the excess wetness from her long, shining mane. Plopping down near the bushes, she set to work braiding the length over her shoulder. It was only then that exhaustion caught up with her, and she recalled all that had transpired during the course of her day. Almost instantaneously, her eyelids began to droop. Thinking that a plan of action—one that led toward the sea—was needed before she went to sleep, she decided that it would be best to head out first thing in the morning, deeper into the length of the wood. Gales was a floating city after all, as were all pegasus townships. She would have to make sure to make some good distance at first light in order to avoid the place accidentally moving in overhead. Yawning once, she then collapsed onto her side, quickly falling into a deep slumber.

The sound of rustling in the bushes woke her with a start the next morning. Head darting about in confusion, it took her a while to remember where she was. This was understandable since she had never before awoken outside of the estate in the clouds. Still, feeling rather sleepy, she shrugged the sound off as yet another new and strange little creature making a ruckus. She plunked down again, beginning to snore. When the rustle came a second time, more loudly, she darted up into full attention. Glancing around the clearing in vigilant silence, she saw and heard nothing. Still wary, she decided that it would be best if she got a move on.

Trotting up to the waterside to have a morning dip, she dove headlong into the coolness once more, trying her best to confine the pleasant sensation to memory before she left. She reveled in the fact that it was just as enjoyable as the first time she had done it. She closed her eyes, and floated around but a moment before rising again to the surface. Gasping gleefully for air, she swiped away the long curtains of mane that had clung to the front of her face, and climbed out of the pool. After shaking off the excess water, she bore down, spread her wings, and took off into flight over the spring.

The entire day was spent in flight, soaring over the forests. After a while, a hypnotic trance descended upon Aria as she went, watching the small speck that was her shadow racing below her against the green of the trees. She grinned when she realized, amidst the sound of songbirds and rustling leaves, that she was finally free. So, this was what peace felt like. An indescribable calm wrapped itself around her; it was both startling and relieving. There was a strange sense of emptiness, of listlessness that came along with not being under the command of somepony else. There was a slight sense of panic as she realized that her life was now her own to make or destroy. With it came an extraordinary exhilaration, and laughing loudly, she began to dip and twirl in the sky, following those distant flocks of birds toward the horizon.

She had nearly begun her descent as the sun moved halfway through its own decline. Had she done so, she would have missed a sudden glimmering of blue and white at the very edges of her field of vision. Gasping loudly, heart racing, she slowed down her pace, and flapped in place for a moment. Had she seen what she thought she saw?

She began to ascend, pushing her wings and her lungs to the very limit until she could confirm that, indeed, what she had seen was that gorgeous place she barely remembered, the place she often visited in her dreams—the sea.

"Stars..." Aria breathed, trying not to choke on her own words as she allowed herself to float back down. She had finally done it. In a state of shock, she realized that the growing tremor in her shaking wings would not allow her to go any further for the day, even if she wanted to. Besides, there was still quite a trek to make before reaching the ocean, and she would have hated to arrive too late to actually see the sunset as she had imagined on the other side of those gorgeous waters. As she landed gently upon a branch slightly below the canopy, she decided that it would be a good idea to rest there for the evening, and head back out again at first light.

The night seemed to take a most thrilling turn when, whilst looking around for a good place to sleep, she happened upon a cloaked figure wandering through the darkened wood. Using her ability of flight to her advantage, she bounded up onto a branch in order to follow the stranger without being noticed. At first she figured she had been tailed by one of Mist's guards until she realized that the stranger was moving to and fro, foraging for plants, and seemingly unaware of her presence. In wonder, Aria trailed them from up above, interested to better know the ways of wingless ponies.

After a while, perhaps to take a breather, the figure pulled back its cloak, and took a seat against an enormous tree. Aria could barely contain her gasp as she stared down at the odd pony. With its striking black and white stripes, and beautiful golden jewelry, she was quite sure she had never seen anything like it before. Quietly flitting about to another branch to take a peek from a different angle, she watched as the strange pony pulled some fruit out of the satchel it had been carrying, and took a bite. It must have felt rather comfortable because a few moments later, it sighed to itself, leaned back against the tree, and closed its eyes.

Seeing this as her opportunity, Aria quietly floated down to the ground toward the back of the pony, and as silently as she could, edged her head around the side of the tree. A small smile crept up onto her face as she took in a detailed view of the stranger's beautiful fur, its oddly shaped mane, and its sparse tail.

"You know, I can hear you," the odd one spoke up, nearly making Aria jump out of her wings. Stumbling backward in fear, she found herself tripping over weeds and twigs as the stranger peeked amusedly at her with one, golden eye. When the rose-colored pegasus fell hard upon her back, groaning, the creature then stifled a small laugh.

"Are you quite alright?" it asked. "You seem to have forgotten how to use your gift of flight."

"Yes," Aria sighed, rubbing her head until she realized how much potential danger she had put herself in. "I mean, no! I mean... Who... who are you?"

The odd one smirked.

"It would seem that I should be asking you the same. You follow me around, then ask after my name. These woods were my home before you ever came. Some humility could take you far, and might save you a little shame," the odd one replied. Aria instinctively scoffed at the creature's odd style of speaking, but quickly muffled her mouth, knowing that she sounded extremely rude. Cautiously, she took a step forward toward the smirking figure.

"I'm sorry. I'm... I'm Aria. I come from Gales. Excuse my following you. It's just that... I've never walked around off of the clouds before. I'm afraid this is all a bit new to me. I didn't realize there were ponies like... Are you a pony?"

The figure smiled. She seemed to be enjoying this strange encounter.

"I am Zidaya. This is all you need to know," the striped pony said. "Come closer, friend. Let us talk before I go."

With slight hesitation, Aria nodded her head, and moved to sit beside this Zidaya. Noticing the mare's anxiousness, Zidaya reached into her satchel, pulled out a piece of fruit, and offered it to her. Aria declined, still not quite sure she trusted the strange pony. Shrugging, the striped mare then ate the fruit herself.

"Tell me then, Aria. Why have you never left home? You're a full grown mare, and never had desire to roam?" Zidaya asked through a mouthful of juice. Aria rubbed at one of her wings nervously.

"No, I've always had such a desire. I just have never had the opportunity," she lied. "My life has been rather... strange, if you will."

Trying to hide her own embarassment, Aria peered toward the ground, allowing her mane to conceal her face in shadow. Zidaya eyed her knowingly.

"I see," the striped mare said. Eventually, she sighed, glancing upward contently toward the moonlit canopy. "Well, there is no time like the present. That is what I say. Everyday is an opportunity to find a brand new way."

This seemed to lift the pegasus' spirits, and she passed a soft smile Zidaya's way.

"Do you live here alone? Are you hiding from somepony?" Aria asked curiously. Perhaps she might be able to learn something of use in evading the Mist estate guards from this strange pony.

"Yes, I live alone as my kind is sometimes prone to do. In the quiet, I learn powerful things that I never knew. There are secrets in the stillness, here with me and you. Something tells me that you also understand that this is true."

Glancing again up toward the canopy, Zidaya took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, perhaps to take a nap. Following suit, out of curiosity, Aria did the same. She leaned back against the tree, closed her eyes, and sighed, taking in those gorgeous sounds of the night. As the various nightbirds and bugs continued their singing, Aria chuckled as she felt the spot upon her chest begin to tingle, and the wellspring in her mind open up. As to be expected, all awareness of her surroundings slowly melted away, and soon enough, a gorgeous hummed melody joined the sounds of the evening, twisting amongst them, adding to their beauty. She never noticed Zidaya slowly turning to give her a wide eyed look, as she recognized the presence of one able to wield a unique and powerful magic. This look then warped into one of awe and slight fear. As the rosy mare's melody faded away into a contented sigh, the striped mare cleared her throat, trying to still her own breath.

"You do not know what it is that you are, do you?" she asked cautiously. Aria passed her a confused look.

"W... what?"

"Savor the sweetness of our time. For soon she shall have us all in her ravenous eye, and we shall walk toward destruction thinking it sublime," Zidaya finished. "Aria, have you ever heard this rhyme?"

Aria shook her head, a bit put off by the eeriness of the striped mare's words.

"What does it mean? Is it some sort of story?" she laughed, now nervously fiddling with her tail. Zidaya huffed. A conflicted look passed across her face as she appeared to be thinking to herself. Her hoof wandered back into her satchel, and slowly pulled something sharp and shiny from within.

"I wonder what calamities could be avoided if you were simply gone, ending these impending sorrows, ending a siren's song," the striped mare croaked, almost saddened to be saying these words.

Aria's eyes went wide at the glint of the dagger, and the sight of Zidaya strapping it around the base of her hoof. She slowly rose up, and began to retreat.

"What are you talking about? I don't understand! What is a siren?" Aria yelped frantically. Not receiving any reply, she opened up her wings, preparing to fly away only to be caught around the neck by a taut rope. When she looked at Zidaya again, the striped mare was attaching the end of the rope to the tree where, a few moments prior, they had been sitting together as friends. One more moment, and another length flew out to bind all of her legs together.

"Please!" Aria begged as she pulled and wrestled with the rope, unable to get anywhere. "I promise, I shall fly away. I shall never bother you again!"

With such a look of sadness in her golden eyes, Zidaya came closer until she loomed over Aria. The pegasus lay before her, worn out and gasping for air, a look of terror upon her face.

"Why are you doing this?" she whimpered, feeling like a fool for having trusted the other mare in the first place. Zidaya huffed, and seemed to think to herself again.

"Who could have thought that you would be so lovely? Pretty mare, I beg you to please pardon me. What I do, I do for the rest of the world and for thee. I save you now from your own prison of misery, and swiftly send you back to the depths of your beloved sea."

Confused and horrified, Aria could do nothing but stare at the dagger as it rose up into the air. When it began its swift descent she closed her eyes, and bid farewell to all that she had held dear in this small life of hers. At first she didn't notice the 'CLANK!' of metal against metal, but hearing Zidaya suddenly yelp urged her to reopen her eyes. Realizing she wasn't dead, she then glanced around quickly to find two daggers lying nearby. One of the daggers, Zidaya's, lay next to another which appeared more streamline, and had a hilt made of glossy black metal. Gawking in shock, Aria barely had time to try to struggle against her restraints before the striped mare turned angrily toward the brush from whence the second dagger had come. Quickly, she faced the fuchsia mare again. Aria screamed as Zidaya lunged toward her, ready to strike. Suddenly, she felt yet another small gust of air rush past her legs, cutting the rope that bound them. Flying upward, she shifted her body around to dodge clear of the other mare's attack. One more swish of air past Aria's face, and her neck pulled loose, sending her head tumbling backward. She spiraled for a moment before realizing the rope around her neck had been severed as well. Instinctively, she flapped her shaky wings, and rose to a low tree branch.

Not seeing nor caring who her savior had been, Aria flapped hard, forcing herself to stay steady. Bounding off of the branch, she soared high up above the canopy, into the starry, night sky. Hoping that no one on the ground would be able to see or notice her at this altitude, she sped away further over the endless green.

By the time she landed, exhausted and shaken, she was whimpering. Her entire body ached. The night had grown even deeper and quieter around her as she stumbled along. Eyesight blurry and weak, she searched for a suitable place to eat and then collapse. Wearily foraging around for some food in the glints of moonlight that peaked in through the treetops, fortune smiled upon her when she finally stumbled upon an entire patch of blackberry bushes growing beside a gentle creek. Inspecting them in wonder—having only recognized them from reading about them in one of her many scrolls—she cautiously plucked one up with her teeth, and swallowed. Humming to herself in thankful delight as the delicious flavor exploded in her mouth, she collapsed onto her back, gorging herself as she plucked one after another. Wiping her face clean of old tears and blackberry juice, she then took a deep breath, and attempted to calm herself down. Gazing up dreamily at the sky, mouth full of berries, she allowed herself to ruminate on all that she had endured, and all that she had left behind for the first time since she had escaped. Her heart ached at the thought of Misses Clouds, but she knew that the old mare would find nothing but joy in the fact that Aria was now unfettered from her proverbial shackles, roaming the world—free. After the evening's events, however, she could not help but wonder if it was a wise thing to do. It seemed that pain and death lurked around every bend, and it appeared to her that they kept her constantly in their line of sight. Why was it that the one thing that brought her so much joy—her singing—was the one thing that seemed to drive everypony around her mad?

Resolving herself to being more cautious with her voice from now on, she sighed, and turned onto her side, nuzzling into the grass as sleepiness fell upon her like a rock. Even after the trials and troubles of her day, the tiniest of smiles still managed to grace her face as she fell asleep imagining the joy that awaited her once she would reach her beloved ocean. Soon, she had drifted off into a deep slumber to the sound of crickets chirping.

A rustling in the grass stirred her, and she was suddenly aware of the morning sun glinting through the treetops against her closed eyelids. Supposing it just another woodland creature, she grimaced, shook her head, and stretched. Turning to her other side, she attempted to get back to sleep. A strange, shadowy cast blocked out the glimmering light upon her face, and her brow furrowed as she wondered if some nearby pegasus ponies might be bringing rain that day. Yawning, and rubbing the sleep off of her face, she then allowed her eyelids to flutter open. She gasped as her gaze met with two burning, red orbs inset into a dark blue visage. Her eyes went wide.

“Good morning, Love,” Swift growled, staring down at her with a practically hungry smile.

A hoof came down into her face, and her world went black.

The Things We Covet

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Swift’s eerie cellar was deathly quiet as he and Aria sat before one another at his dark table. He eyed her over, leaning to one side whilst running his hoof around the base of a large goblet of hard cider. The expression on his face was a strange amalgam of perplexity and disdain for the mare. Aria sat opposite of him, perfectly composed and defiant in spite of her, again, blackened eye. She was wrapped in Clouds' old shawl which had been collected for her as a vindictive gift from the dark stallion. Even still, though sitting there dressed in her clothing of shame, her gaze floated proudly somewhere above Swift’s head. Finally, having had enough of her audaciousness, the stallion grimaced, and sat up straight.

“I ask for supper, and you give me a two day witch hunt,” he stated plainly. “Mare, you try my patience.”

Aria cocked a brow in her usual fashion.

“I thought we both could do well with a little change of pace,” she deadpanned, never once glancing at him. Swift immediately pounded his hoof upon the table, making Aria flinch; yet, still, she sat tall.

“Why this endless impudence? Why can you not see that it is your own stubbornness that brings about your suffering?”

Aria did not respond to the stallion’s rage. He stomped his hoof down harder, bidding her to answer. She sneered and leaned forward.

“Because you are a fiend. Because you are cruel and unjust. There is nothing else to do but be impudent."

Taking a moment to allow the point to sink in, she then sat upright, and straightened her shawl.

"Why did you order the dismissal of Comet Racer?” she blurted, the question having lingered in the back of her mind since her forced return to the Mist estate. Swift stared at her for a moment before inhaling sharply.

“It wasn't I who dismissed Racer. It was the Lady Mist herself. I simply acted upon orders received." The stallion seemed to relish in the confused look upon Aria's face. "You seem to have been expecting to hear a different tale."

"No," Aria lied, still unable to hide her befuddled expression. Swift smiled.

"He was a thief. He stole a satchel of gold bits out of the estate vault,” he stated, running his hoof over the rim of the goblet again.

“You lie,” the mare hissed. The stallion's amusement seemed to fall away in lieu of irritation.

“Indeed I do not, Miss,” he retorted. After a beat, he stood, and marched away. When he returned it was with a satchel hanging from between his teeth. The bulky thing was printed in a plaid fabric, the one Comet had been collecting from his companion two mornings ago by the wall. Dropping the satchel down upon the table, yet another pouch spilled forth out of the first. Upon inspecting it, Aria found the Mist family seal printed clearly upon its side. Quite skeptical about the implications of all this, the mare shook her head.

“This is a ruse. None of this is proof of anything. You could have stolen both of these from their rightful owners.”

Swift gave her an exasperated look. His countenance went grim.

“And why, in your opinion, Miss Aria, would I do such a thing? Do you suppose I have been given reason to take up disfavor with Comet Racer?"

Again, Swift's crimson eyes bored into her, studying her, waiting for a slip up. She shook her head, and again looked to the floor. The stallion's eyes narrowed.

"I can admit that I have many faults, but being a liar is not one of them. I cut the satchel off of him myself in front of the entire staff. You may ask any of them.”

“Th... that cannot be,” Aria stammered, her eyes darting as she remembered back to two evenings before, the servants whispering to each other, not stepping forward to help the struggling Comet; and Comet and his friend’s strange behaviour when she had startled him earlier that day.

“That just cannot be.”

Swift cocked a pitying brow at her, and scratched tiredly at his dark violet forelocks.

“I have been doing this for a while, Miss, and I must say that I am quite good at it. It is of no concern to me what you believe. If you cared to delve into the matter, you would see that I speak the truth. You on the other hoof...”

Aria blinked as the stallion took a moment to produce a beautifully colored piece of cloth from where it had been hidden behind his breastplate. It was the cloth with which she had wrapped her gift to Comet Racer the day before. Her features curled into a grimace.

“What were you planning to do?” he asked plainly.

“Nothing,” she lied.

“Miss Aria,” Swift began matter-of-factly as he stood up, and paced about the table. “Somepony who has lived the life that I have knows a lie when they hear one—an amateur lie, at that. You were planning on seducing this Comet Racer hoping for a route of escape. Does that sound more like the ‘truth’?”

Aria paused, furious at herself for having been so simple.

“Only as much as Comet Racer as a thief sounds like the truth,” she murmured, sounding quite unsure.

“You loved him, then?” Swift asked, stifling a chortle. “A fine pair you two would have made, a sorceress and a swindler!”

Aria did not reply, acknowledging that they both already knew the answer to his question. Her head slumped with exhaustion. Heartbroken, she recalled how very close she had been to her beloved sea. She longed to somehow find herself miraculously in her magical woods, one more time. She yearned for the safe, enveloping feeling of her soothing spring to take away all of her troubles. A horridly invasive sensation began to bore into her when she heard a strange sound escaping from Swift's throat. Her brow furrowed, and she held back a moan as she realized that he was humming the tune she had been singing in the kitchen two days prior—her song of freedom, her song of escape. He was taunting her.

“Why…?” she groaned under her breath. Caught off guard by the pained and weary sound, Swift turned to stare at her.

“Why what?”

“Why all this?” Aria yelled, her eyes darting upward in fresh fury. “Why do you insist on torturing me? On keeping me here? Surely, Swift, somewhere inside of that cold armor, you must still have some semblance of a heart! Why can you not be settled with my absence?”

Swift continued to look at her as if he were entertaining the idea of actually answering these inquiries. With a glimmer of interest in his eye, he took his seat, and leaned forward upon the table.

“You used somepony as a means of obtaining some reckoning for yourself, have you not?” he asked her again calmly. Aria still found it a difficult thing to hear. “If this is the case, then we seem to be more like-minded than you may think.”

Aria’s eyes went sharp and livid.

“I am nothing like you,” she hissed. Swift worked his jaw, and after a pause, continued.

“I was like you once: on fire, stubborn as a mule, sure about my future prospects, and those of the ones that I once held dear. Then came that noble wench, Mist.” He took this opportunity to down his goblet of hard cider, and then pour himself another. “With her incessant conniving, and her seedy relations, she took that… them all... away.”

A look that Aria had never seen coming from Swift swept across his face. It was a look that seemed to signal the remembrance of old woes. At once, the gauntness of his appearance, the weary and tired shadows around his eyes became glaringly apparent. Aria found herself wondering just how much the stallion had changed from that rumored, shining hero the other servants claimed he once was.

“But because of you, I came to know joy once more,” he said with fresh determination in his voice. “Because of you, I have retrieved from the depths some semblance of myself again. You wouldn’t very well expect me to just give that all away, would you?”

He laughed as if the thought of keeping her captive would have made perfect sense to anypony. Aria’s features twisted in disgust as she watched him down another whole goblet of cider.

"You're just fortunate I was there when that deranged, babbling forest-dweller attempted to run you through," he mumbled to himself, half distracted by the fact that he was now trying to pour more drink from an empty bottle. Aria's entire face drooped in shock, her eyes blinking in confusion.

"Th-those daggers... That was... you?" she breathed unable to make sense of somepony she utterly despised being so quick to save her life one minute, and then strike her unconscious the next. Swift didn't answer as he was too eager to rush off, and retrieve yet another bottle of cider. Upon his return, he popped it open, and opted to drink straight from the container itself. Aria's conflicted emotions clashed only briefly before the overwhelming part of her that hated the dark stallion won out.

"Well, Swift, it would seem that you have saved my life," she murmured, then motioning up toward her blackened eye, and the dismal room that surrounded them both. "And here it is in all of its splendor. I hope you weren't expecting any sort of gratitude."

Swift chuckled in that gruff, grating voice of his as he wiped the moisture from his chin.

"Of course I wasn't, Miss Aria. That would be something quite unbecoming of you, and to be honest, something quite useless to me," he said taking another swig of the drink. "As much as it would delight me for you to return my affections, even I, being a stallion of reason, must concede that this would be highly unlikely at this point. Am I correct in saying so?"

Aria sneered in spite of the smug smile upon his face.

"Absolutely," she hissed slowly, hoping the vitriol in her reply would cut into him like a knife. To her dismay, Swift's smile only grew brighter. His crimson eyes glistened under the powerful spell of drink.

"I saved you because you and your voice are precious to me, something that I cannot live without," he continued calmly, pouring a portion of drink into the goblet, and sliding it to sit before Aria. She did not touch it.

"You mean only my voice," the mare corrected him, pushing the goblet away toward the center of the table.

"On the contrary, Miss," he said with ease, now taking the opportunity to wrap the decorated cloth Aria had given to Comet Racer around his hoof. "You, as well."

Aria made a noise filled with disgust and ridicule.

"How quick you are to break and destroy that which is so precious to you," she scoffed.

"I don't particularly enjoy doing those things," Swift said, leaning back in his seat. "I take no delight in it. However, I'm afraid that from the very start, you have shown me that these things are, indeed, a necessity. All that I have done, I've done to get what it was that I needed, just as you have."

Aria now looked absolutely incredulous. She leaned forward, pounding her hooves upon the table.

“I would’ve never hurt anypony. I would never try to...” she stifled herself, quickly sifting through years of horrible memories. “...I don’t do the things you do.”

“Don’t you?” Swift laughed. “You did it to Comet Racer. You drew him in, were willing to allow him to love you, yet were so quick to leave him in ropes, right there by the gate, being dragged to his punishment, were you not?” Swift seemed to delight in the disquieted look that crossed the mare's countenance. "Be honest with me just once this evening, Miss Blaze. Do you truly care what has happened to the stallion? Did you think of him even once while you were out there, flying through those forests? Does it matter to you where he is now? If he is even still alive? When you thought you were the reason for his misery, did you care at all?"

"Stop it," Aria hissed.

"Did you?" Swift exclaimed, urging her to reply.

Aria contemplated the questions if only to prove to herself that he was wrong. However, as she mulled them over, to her alarm, she found that the first and only feeling that she got while picturing Comet's face was slight guilt. That was it. Her heart didn't swell for the want of his safety. Tears didn't fall for fear that he might be harmed. For all intents and purposes, she had practically felt nothing. After all, he was just another figure in a flat painting, a pawn amongst those who were mightier. An uncomfortable silence passed between the two figures sitting in the shadows as Aria found she could not look at the self-gratifying grin now on Swift's face.

"I didn't think so," the stallion said. "You need your freedom with a burning passion, don’t you? You do not wish to concede that, given the opportunity, you would do anything, hurt anypony you had to for it.”

“No,” Aria breathed, shaking her head as if to convince herself. Swift cocked an amused brow at her.

“These things have a way of crescendoing,” he stated, inspecting the delicate cloth wrapped around his hoof. “One day, the consequences of our actions may bring about the dismissal of a few servants, perhaps a good whipping or two. Before you realize it, you find you have learned to care far less for being the cause of far worse, all for a taste of that single, glorious, coveted thing.”

Aria sat there in silence, lost in her own head. Was it possible that what the stallion said to her had been the truth? Was it possible that anypony, even she, might carry in them the potential to become the type of monster that Swift was? Could she do the type of things he had done, all to get her way, her due piece of happiness? Eyes slowly rising to meet his, she was distraught to find that, now, she could no longer imagine Swift without separating him from his evil. To her, the worn, hollow-eyed stallion had begun to look as depleted and drained as she had felt. A horrible tremble traveled up her spine as she recalled Misses Clouds' warning about allowing herself to sympathize with the scoundrel. She knit her brow, and again looked defiantly toward the floor.

"M...my desire for freedom... is not the same as your obsession with me," she murmured, only hoping that she was actually right.

"You are my freedom. It is the same thing. The evidence of this is what we would be willing to do to obtain the things we want," Swift mused, absent-mindedly drawing one of his black hilted daggers from its scabbard, and rocking the shining thing between his hooves. He grinned when Aria's mouth drew up into an unsure scowl.

"You're raving mad," she mumbled beneath her breath, sniffing at him in scorn as she glanced off to some far corner.

Sensing the weakness in her will, Swift stared at her for a moment, his eyes flaring up before he took a deep breath, and made his way to the other side of the table. He moved to stand behind her. Reaching out he brushed the mane away from her nape, and brought his own face close. The mare edged away in disgust.

“You are my glorious, coveted thing,” he said, bringing his hoof up to hook around her shoulders, “and I shan’t ever let you or your song go.“

“They were never yours to release, Sir," she hissed disdainfully, even as he grazed her jawline with his lips. "And you shall never have either without great difficulty." She craned her head away from him. Not strong enough to resist his grip, she cringed as she felt him kiss the pulsing flesh of her neck.

“So be it, but make no mistake. I shall have them,” he breathed into her collar, sending one wandering hoof down her side, under the hem of her shawl, and ever so slowly, up the innerside of her hind leg. Aria jolted aside, shoving his hoof away. Fed up with the stallion's antics, she whipped her head around to look at him, and at once, spat in his face. She glared at him, pure insolence in her eyes. Holding her tightly, Swift gazed back, peering through his frazzled forelock. His entire aura grew incensed. At once, a grim shadow seemed to darken those burning eyes of his as if he were caught in a sudden trance. He huffed, winding his hoof onto the cloth of her shawl. Then snatching the entire thing from around her, he tossed it unceremoniously to the floor. Aria's gaze remained unmoved as she gulped down a dreadful lump that seemed to rise into her throat. A sickly look befell her as a beat of horrible understanding passed between them both.

Bounding upward, she hoofed Swift across the muzzle. Then, kicking the table into his path, she made a quick dash toward the door. Reeling for only a split second, Swift easily leapt over the obstacle in his way, and caught her in his teeth by the tail. She fell hard against the floor. Scraping and struggling for freedom, the terrified mare gazed in horror at her own shadow writhing desperately against the dark and eerie walls as she was pulled back into the gloom. Flipping her around to face him, Swift loomed over her, planting both of his hooves to either side of her downturned ears.

Huffing to regain her breath, she watched him wipe away the blood she had drawn from his face. With that glazed expression of simmering fury, he then slowly brought his nose down against her barrel to inhale the scent of her. Making a last ditch effort to reason with the deranged stallion, Aria cleared her throat, and did her best to control her own trembling, even as she felt Swift's breath working its way up her belly.

"Y-you are out of sorts this evening," she said, feigning cordiality as she kept her wide eyes directed toward the ceiling. It was a ludicrous thing to say at this point in time, all things considered, but in her desperation, she figured that maybe addressing him reasonably would bring some semblance of calm back into this daunting situation. Taking a chance to glance at his face once more, her stoic expression began to fracture as she saw no understanding there, no mercy at all. There was nothing else but dreadful resolve and determination within those burning eyes. Still, she continued on, even as Swift's lips grazed against her chin, and her voice began to crack.

"Come, let us return to the table, and... and I shall sing for you," she stammered, attempting to push the stallion away with her hoof. Swift easily wrenched it off, and pinned it to the floor. He scoffed, knowing well enough that even in this circumstance, especially in this circumstance, what she offered to him so willingly was nothing but a deception.

"More lies, lies, lies, Miss Aria. On the contrary, I can assure you, you shall sing gloriously before we're through," he huffed with the most venomous of smiles, then reaching upward to unhook his breastplate. With one nimble movement it went clattering into some dark corner. This action heightened Aria's panic. Eyes darting about, she suddenly caught sight of something glinting at Swift's side where it was tied about his barrel. Beginning to reach out toward it, she found that it was just a hair out of her grasp. Desperately, she stretched her foreleg, hoping that Swift would not turn and notice. Finally, the stallion brought his lips up to meet hers. She turned her head away, terrified. The air suddenly became oppressive, too thick to breathe; everything began to spin.

"Swift, if there is anything left in you of the hero that Gales remembers, then for his honor's sake, don't do this," Aria gasped. Swift recoiled ever so slightly, and peered at her, as if taking offense to her words. With his hoof, he forced her face upward once again. Staring into his eyes, Aria found that now the crimson had all gone dark like stale blood.

"Do not speak on things of which you know nothing. I am reviving that stallion," he hissed, then pressing his lips firmly against hers. Aria reeled at the invasive sensation, and the taste of cider upon his tongue. She recoiled at the smell of his sweat. Yearning for air, she suddenly experienced her vision dip in and out. Growing fearful that she might faint, her wings instinctively began the arduous task of pushing her up off of the floor, struggling against the dark stallion. Her hoof now managed to brush the hilt in his scabbard. She was so close. The lights in her eyes dimmed again when she felt him knock her wings out from under her, and pull her haunches upward. With one rapid motion, he dragged them up against him. Heaving as she felt his weight bear down upon her belly, Aria made one final effort to reach forward, and knock Swift's blade from its sheath. Pounding upon the hilt, it flipped in the air, and landed upon her shoulder where it cut a small, bleeding scratch into her flesh. It then fell to rest beside her head. She saw Swift's brow furrow in confusion at the sight of the blade. As she attempted to reach out to clasp the thing between her teeth before he could snatch it up, the sound of the world around her faded away, only to be replaced by a singular, pulsing note. A bright, green light flashed before her eyes before everything around her seemed to vanish into nothingness.
___

A blood-curdling shriek echoed throughout the rear courtyard, loud and piercing enough to wake the ever wary Misses Clouds from her slumber. Befuddled by grogginess, it took her a moment to realize that the shriek had not been just any ordinary scream. There had been a strange timbre to it, almost as if it were flowing, echoing, like a whistle or a musical note. Eyes going wide with sudden realization, she bounded from her bed, raced out of her chamber, and down the servants staircase; out into the back courtyard she ran.

“Aria? Miss Aria, where are you?” she cried into the darkness, eyes darting around, searching for the source of the screaming. A horrid notion occurred to her. If she had heard Aria like she thought she had, then that meant the guards had found her, and brought her back. There was no way in which Clouds could figure why she might return to this horrid place if she had actually managed to evade them. If this was the case, then she knew who had her. Quickly, she turned to fly toward Swift’s chamber door.

She was halfway there with the door in sight when she witnessed the thing violently swing open. The sound was loud enough to stop her dead in her tracks. She suddenly noticed a strange, deathly silence consuming the atmosphere as she watched one, shaky, rose-colored hoof appear from behind the open doorway in the distance.

Aria slipped into the courtyard, kicking Swift’s chamber door shut with her hind leg. With difficulty, she began to drag her hooves across the clearing. Her head hung low. Her long mane was loosened, and disheveled, obscuring her face from the side. As the mare took one small, unsteady step after another, Clouds could hear her quietly mumbling something to herself in a cracked and shaking voice. Glancing down at her path, the old mare realized, to her horror, that Aria was trailing blood. Clouds’ legs went weak, long feared nightmares forcing themselves into her mind.

“Miss Aria?” she croaked almost too quietly to hear. In the distance, the younger mare never halted her slow trek across the yard. It took a moment for Clouds to realize that she was headed toward the wards’ bath house. Watching the mare disappear into the dim lamplight of the building, she soon worked up the courage to follow.

She approached slowly, and as she did so, the sound that Aria had been emitting became both clearer and stranger to the ear. It was too quiet to be crying, too crystalline and pure to be a scream. The words forcing their way through this strange, piercing sound, were indecipherable, but borne on heaving, frantic breaths.

As Clouds pressed herself up against the outside of the door, she noticed a glowing red twinge bouncing from some unknown source onto the empty bath house walls. Inhaling some courage, the old pegasus quickly went around the corner, and gasped in horror.

Aria Blaze sat inside of one of the many tubs, scrubber in her hoof, practically scraping at her flesh with the large brush. Miraculously, around her body, and in a pillar high up into the air above, floated dancing blobs of clear and crimson liquid—blood and water. Her disheveled main hovered about her, swaying of its own accord, now making clear to Misses Clouds the contorted and deranged expression upon the younger mare’s face.

“The stench... The… stench,” Aria mumbled to herself, beginning to scrape away at her hind leg. It was then that Clouds realized that the singular piercing note she had heard was echoing in the air in spite of Aria’s bumbling mouth. How could it be that the two separate sounds were emanating from her at once?

Swallowing nothing, her mouth gone dry, Clouds took a terrified step toward the tub.

“Miss Aria?” she repeated.

Aria’s head whipped around to face her, and it was only then that Clouds realized what the eerie red glow had been. The younger mare’s eyes glowed completely crimson, two searing fires set into an enraged, rose-colored bezel. Clouds paused instinctively, and then willed herself to persevere. She took another wary step forward, outstretching her foreleg, trying not to make any sudden movements as the entranced mare stared blankly at her with those horrible eyes.

“Please, Miss Aria. I just want to help,” the matron murmured as she neared the edge of the tub. Something in Aria seemed to wither, almost as if she recognized Clouds through her bewitched fog. A tear rolled down one of her cheeks as the scrubber in her hoof began to work again, grating against her fur. It didn’t take long for her to begin drawing her own blood.

Contrition, remorse, repentance, and rue,

“Useless,” Aria hissed to herself after a third voice emanating from somewhere within her let loose the frightening melody.

I renounce you all and birth malice anew.

“Get his stench off. Get his stench off me,” Aria repeated in her normal intonation over and over through the haze of hypnotizing noise. As the melodic refrain echoed throughout the air one last time, the younger mare’s expression became like stone. Though Clouds could not see the pupils of her eyes through the blazing red, she knew that they were trained directly upon her. Suddenly, another sound rose up out of her aura, and swirled about in the air. It was a growling—the sound of a large unnameable beast, weaving in and out of the manic melody that echoed off of the walls. The older mare's breath caught in her throat.

Savor the sweetness of this time,
For, now I have you all in my ravenous eye.

“Oh stars,” Clouds whimpered at the younger mare's words. She noticed a shadow, something green and barely visible, beginning to rise up out of Aria's back, and seep from the corners of her glowing eyes. She reached out to touch the mare, but all too late.

Like the breaking of a floodgate, Aria's entire being unhinged. Her jaw dropped open, and a bellowing cry echoed throughout the air as if made by some deranged chorus. The water around her swirled violently as an invisible force blew Misses Clouds backward through the air. Aria watched as Clouds hit the far wall, and fell to the floor before what was left of her vision was blanked out by furious red.
____

Aria awoke with a gasp in the early afternoon in what she realized was Misses Clouds’ empty bed. Taking a moment to collect her bearings, she then shot upward. Tossing about in a confusion, she tangled herself in the blankets before deciding to calm down. Slowly picking her way out of the mass of cloth, she then sat up and took a deep breath. Her brow was knit in confusion as she began to tap her forehead with her hoof, desperately trying her best to account for the transpiring of events the night before. The first thing that flashed into her mind was the image of Swift bearing down over her. Her head began to shake in fear of what she might remember next. Her hoof dragged down the length of her face in dread as she remembered the groping in the dark, pleas gone unheard, the muffling of her frantic breaths with Swift’s own lips, the fallen dagger... Then the memory ended abruptly.

Racking her brain for more, she felt a wave of panic befall her when she realized there was nothing else. It was as if the rest of the memory, between Swift’s chamber and Clouds’ bed, had been completely erased or never existed at all. Fearing the worst from Swift, she wrapped her forelegs around her body. Rocking back and forth a few times, she tried to work up some courage.

Calm down. Think a moment.

Her eye still hurt, though even now she could smell the strong scent of Clouds’ magic balm wafting to her nose. The old mare had patched her up after something or other. Moving her forelegs about, she felt small twinges of pain there, too. For once, she was happy that she still ached enough to gain some sense of what had happened to her as she turned her neck to and fro, and fluttered her wings. Finally, with much hesitation, she gulped down a lump caught in her throat, and brought her hoof down to her lower abdomen. Holding her breath, she pushed down upon the spot, and exhaled a great sigh of relief when she felt no pain at all. Feeling a bit more confident, she moved her hind legs, and found that, save for the ache from wandering about the forest for a day and a half, there was nothing that felt startling or new there either.

“Stars,” she breathed, falling backward into the pillow.

What time of day is it?

She sat up again, realizing that the sun was bearing straight down in the sky. Flipping the covers off of her body, she heard the distinct sound of papers falling to the floor. Pausing a moment, she turned around to see a few scrolls, and loose parchments scattered about on the other side of the bed. Walking toward the pile cautiously, Aria then bent down, and placed them back in order. Flipping over the folded parchment that sat atop of the stack, she discovered, written in large, crooked letters, the words: ‘To Miss Aria Blaze’.

Flipping open the folded paper, Aria absent-mindedly sat back down upon the bed, placing the rest of the stack next to her as she began to read.

My Dearest Aria,

By the time you read this, I will be gone. My favourite, bright-eyed, little ward, I’ve stood by over the years, and have watched as those beautiful lights in your eyes slowly receded because of those who have been judged to be wicked and cruel. Yet, now, after much sorrowful contemplation, I must admit to you, and to myself, my own guilt for adding to your torments.

There is a mare, Madame Rosedawn as you know her, who you met once, many years ago. I think you would agree that was the closest to happiness and freedom that you have ever been until yesterday. I also tend to mark that day as the day on which your confinement to the Mist estate began. I know you rue that day, my little ward. I see the longing in your eyes whenever Rosedawn’s name is mentioned. I must now confess to you, Miss Aria, that your beloved Rosedawn has never been too far away.

All these years, she has never forgotten you. For, you see, she and I have been keeping correspondence in an attempt to find your route of escape. After you were sent away to your chambers on that fateful day, she asked after you, but the Lady Mist refused her. When Rosedawn insisted, she was banished from the estate forever. However, before she departed I managed to steal a private moment with her to ask after her home location. From that day forth, whenever I would go to market, I would have a messenger deliver a letter to her, and she would do the same by unicorn magic. Those well-to-do pegasi do have access to the most amazing resources, I do concede.

She loves you, Miss Aria, and if anypony could and would make a happy home for you, it would be she. Even now, as you have grown into the most beautiful of mares, she would still have you as one would a beloved daughter.

Enclosed here are some of our correspondences, only enough to inform you briefly of what I should have told you long ago. Also enclosed is information I have provided for you from Lady Mist’s own private vaults. It is dreadful, but I feel, necessary for you to know. Be steadfast and strong, my dear Aria. For this crime, I will surely never be able to see you again. After what I have witnessed last night, I know now that we are out of time…

Not taking the time to finish the last part of the letter, Aria tossed it down momentarily, and moved on to the correspondences, all of them littered haphazardly upon small, discreet squares of parchment.

To the Honorable Lady Rosedawn:

I humbly thank you for accepting this correspondence on behalf of our shared and most important of interests. Forgive me if my letters remain brief. I am being watched, always.

Gratefully yours,
Matron Castinette Clouds

Aria anxiously flipped the page to read another.

Dearest Matron Clouds,

My heart goes out to you. I am open to any course of action that you might suggest. The filly has not left my mind since my visit to the Mist estate. It would seem that Aria, in the very short time that I have known her, has become very dear to me. I am at your disposal. In the meantime, I shall converse with my most trusted friends to see what, in the ways of law, can be done to have the child released.

Yours Sincerely,
Rosedawn

To the Honorable Rosedawn:

I am truly regretful that all of my plans to have the child smuggled out of the estate have amounted to nothing. No one would dare cross the Lady Mist, and they fear Swift’s retribution. The filly has now grown too big. I’m afraid this course of action will no longer prove fruitful.

Humbly Yours,
Matron Clouds

Dearest Matron Clouds,

After all these years, my heart is heavy to hear of the torments the filly faces, but I remain as steadfast and determined as ever. Once again, the courts have refused to take up my plea. Those cowardly magistrates tremble at the thought of Mist’s retribution. I fear I have come to an impasse.

How is she? Tell me the potion has given her some comfort.

Yours,
Rosedawn

My Lady,

She is doing much better. The potion helped immensely with her bruises. I thank you for sending it. I regret to inform you, however, that after careful research, I’ve concluded that none of our guards have proven penetrable in their allegiance to Commander Swift. His grip on their will seems to be absolute. I shall persevere onward in my efforts.

Yours truly,
Clouds

Dearest Clouds,

Please give Aria these manepins as a birthday gift for her coming of age. You do not have to inform her who they are from. They are in the shape of stars, just as you claim her mark appears to the eye. I hope she finds some happiness today, and the same to you.

Yours,
Rosedawn

Staring in confusion at the paper, Aria looked around her to see if, somehow, the item of which the letter spoke was dropped. Soon enough, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something flash in the midday light. Bending over to pick the small, shining objects off of the ground, she gasped in awe as she got a better look at them. The manepins were fine, made of silver, and accented with two large gorgeous stars upon each of them. They did indeed remind her of her markings. A small smile spread across Aria’s lips. Picking the letters up again, she continued onward after taking a moment to place the pins into a pocket sewn inside of her shawl.

My Lady,

If only you could see how wonderfully she has grown. Not only is she brilliant, stubborn, a good cook, and sharp as a tack, but also her beauty shines brightly even in the darkest of these gloomy hallways. I am very much proud of the mare she has become, especially under such duress. Unfortunately, I fear that I am not the only pony who notices these things. Many eyes are upon her now, and very few of them kind. We must work faster.

Please send more of the healing potion at your earliest possible convenience.

Yours truly,
Clouds

Dear Clouds,

I fear I’ve made a horrible mistake. I hired private aid to attempt Aria’s rescue. A day or two after doing so, he disappeared. Upon returning to me, I found he had been beaten into confession. He used my name, and Aria’s. I, thankfully, had told him nothing about you. Have you not heard any of this news? I dread what may happen.

Yours,
Rosedawn

My Lady,

I have heard nothing of this. Swift and his stallions are very clever. They are probably withholding this information for a reason. Fear not. I shall keep a watchful eye on them all. Thank you for sending more healing potion.

Yours,
Clouds

At this point, after flipping the page, Aria noticed that the next letter was another written by Misses Clouds. The writing was scrawled, and disordered. What appeared to be tear stains streaked the page.

My Lady,

It appears we have run out of time. She escaped and was caught. My fears have become a reality. Something has happened to our dear Aria. Terrible. Oh, terrible. You must send help. Her eyes, and that unearthly shrieking. Something has happened.

A request. Please return unto me all of the letters I have written to you, including this one, so that I might show her, so that she might understand what has happened. She must know the horrid truth of it all. I will retrieve things from the estate vault. Thus, this shall be the last time I shall write to you. Take care of our dear Aria.

May the spirit of the skies watch over us all.

Farewell,
Castinette Clouds

Her hoof now shaking, Aria turned, wide-eyed, to the final letter lying near the bottom of the pile.

Dearest Castinette,

Tell her to prepare. I am on my way. Go with good winds, my friend.

My eternal thanks,
Rosedawn

A tear fell from Aria’s eye as she took all of this information in. With belabored breath, she attempted to calm herself and think. Clouds was gone, but where? Why? And what terrible thing had she seen? Did it have something to do with why she couldn't remember the events from last night?

By the way she spoke in the letter, it seemed that much of Clouds' mysterious departure had to do with the scroll that the old mare had taken from the estate’s vaults. Perhaps some answers would be in there. Putting the letters down, she picked up the scroll that had been included with the stack, took a deep breath, and unfurled it.

It was some type of ledger. That much was immediately clear. As Aria scanned the document, her eyes fell upon Swift’s name listed for something. The payments written upon the ledger, all of which were marked out as if they had been forgiven, were to Lady Mist as she assumed it might be. Glancing at the dates, the fuchsia mare was surprised to find that they spanned many years, almost as long as she had been present at the orphanage.

She wrinkled her nose in confusion. Rolling through the thick ledger more and more, it seemed almost comical. The prices increased over the years, but regardless, every last one of them was crossed out. Surely, the Lady Mist had written them in simply as a means of nagging Swift in an attempt to make him care about the price he was costing her. It looked like a favour had been done for one or the other, perhaps both.

After a while of rolling, the comedy faded away into a disturbed sense of dread. One had to wonder what could have possibly held the dark stallion’s interest for so long that he would be willing to take up the chance of possibly owing an exorbitant amount of payment for all of these years. She gulped, fighting off a sickening notion beginning to take root in the back of her mind. Her eyes grew red, as she fought off tears, realizing the conclusion to this tale before she had even seen it. Clamping her shaking lips shut, she spun to the end of the reel where a name was listed—her name.

“Ward Aria Blaze,” she repeated to herself, trying to make what she was seeing real in her mind as the tears began to blur her vision. “P...patron… Commander Midnight Swift… T-title holder…?”

She huffed loudly, and closed her eyes, looking away for a moment to compose herself. Scratching her nose as if to hide—from no one in particular—how much distress this was causing her, she picked up the scroll again, and continued reading.

“Title holder, The Most Honorable Lady Fillimene Mist hereby releases the above listed goods, products, and/or services for usage by C...Commander Midnight Swift for utilization at his/her discretion in return for the payments received as listed…”

She dropped the scroll. There was nothing else she needed to see. She crumpled to the floor into a shaking, woolen ball. Clamping her hooves against her mouth, and burying her face into the thick shawl, she let out a muffled wail.

So, there it was. After wondering why she had been confined to the estate for all these years, all along, it had been because she had already been purchased. Not adopted like a beloved child or a skilled apprentice whose papers and payments were signed and relinquished with the utmost contempt, as if the participants couldn’t bear it. Instead, she had been bought like a tool, a pet. All of these years, she had been like a caged bird for Swift to poke and prod for his own obscene amusement. This was why Rosedawn was banished, and forbidden to ask after her. This was why Mist had her locked away after that day. All this talk about her behaviour, all this incessant wondering where she went, the forced songs, the beatings, were never meant to change. She was not a pegasus in their eyes. She was a thing to be used until she broke.

Feeling the bile rising up into her throat, Aria sat up at once, shaking her mind as free as she could manage from her anguish. Sniffing back the urge to break down again, she took a deep breath, and reached toward Clouds’ first letter, the one addressed to her. Blinking her eyes clear of their blurriness, she brought the letter close in order to finish it. She read the words out loud, her voice hoarse, but resolute.

...Please do not resent me, but remember me fondly. All I’ve ever done was in an attempt to help you. Now, you must do for yourself. The others have relayed that you are being punished for running away, and will not be down today. Do not raise suspicions. Only take what is essential. Rosedawn is coming for you. Be prepared.

May your life be filled with all the wonderful things that you deserve, my dear Aria.

Forever yours and with love,
Misses Clouds

Aria hadn’t tears enough for another go ‘round on the grief cloud. It took but a moment for a sense of determined resolution to take hold as the reality of the situation dawned upon her. Moving quickly, she snatched up the letters and the scroll, and bolted from the room.
__

In a grim, dark chamber fortified with gray cloud, two dazed, crimson orbs flickered to life. Midnight Swift groaned, tapping his aching forehead as he rolled over onto his back. He glanced about his chamber. The place was in shambles. Boxes, once towering to the ceiling, had tumbled and cracked open, spilling their contents everywhere. His table and chair were overturned as well as the food and drink that once sat atop of them. Trying to sit up, he hissed as a sharp pain racked his side, and a dull one ached between his hind legs. Eyes going grim as he remembered what transpired the night prior, he quickly forced himself to his hooves whilst muttering to himself.

“Bewitched shrew,” he growled as he stumbled toward his overturned sitting stool. Setting it upright, he took a seat.

Still feeling the sharp pain at his side, he turned to take a look, and spied a large, bleeding laceration on his abdomen. Looking back to where he had been lying, he caught a glimpse of a red-tipped dagger sitting in a small puddle of his own blood. His eyes followed a small trail of crimson as it led from the puddle toward his chamber door. Pounding his hoof furiously upon the table, he took a deep breath, and then set about retrieving the materials to patch himself up. As he did so, thoughts of vengeance planted themselves deep within his demented, delirious mind, and quickly began to germinate.

“Aria Blaze,” he grunted to himself as he gingerly set to work bandaging his side. “At long last, my patience has waned.”

Heat

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Aria sat in the back parking lot of the fast food joint behind Cookie’s shop with a half-eaten cheeseburger in hand. A completely burned out cigarette hung from her lips, unsmoked. Around her neck hung some oversized headphones attached to an old portable cd player she had stolen from some hipster garage sale a few weeks back. Her usually half-lidded and unamused eyes did nothing to hide the fact that she was currently lost deep in her own thoughts. Almost as if being pulled by a string, in one, slow motion, her free hand rose, reached toward her opposite side, and touched a hidden patch of darkened skin beneath her arm. She grimaced at the sensitive sensation, and then sighed.

She had the bruise ever since Midnight Swift had given it to her the first time he had ever forced her to sing for him. When she had received it, she was still but a filly, still growing, and far too innocent to have encountered what she had. In the freshness of its youth, her body, like any other aspect of one so young, seemed to have remembered and recorded that first experience of pain upon itself. Inevitably, all of those memories of her harrowing experiences had become attached to that one, hidden, patch of deep purple. Even after she was reborn into her sirenhood, still, that terrible piece of evidence of the cruelty she had endured had never faded. How could Cookie have known what would happen, the horrible feelings that would arise, when she had so carelessly brushed her fingers against it?

Reaching up to the space between her shoulder and collarbone, Aria then rubbed at a place where, very long ago, there was once the scar of a dagger scrape. It was a nervous and subconscious reaction, something she sometimes caught herself doing when everything began to feel too surreal. This was a way to remind herself that her life was something that was really happening, that all of these experiences was what had made her who she is, what had sealed her fate toward chaos, what had forevermore caused her so much secret shame.

The orphanage happened. Swift happened. Those desperate final moments happened. Your hopeless decisions upon that lonely beach happened. Don’t ever get to thinking that they didn’t. They made you. They brought you into your own divinity. You are them. They are you.

Once upon a time, Misses Clouds had told Aria that her scars didn’t have to define her if she didn’t want them to; however, anytime the girl happened to glance at her own otherwise pristine skin—besides the two or three shadows of scars or marks that were left—she couldn’t help but visualize every last scratch, every last bruise that those spiteful, long dead foals, and that brute of a stallion had given her. When she inevitably did, that’s when the anger, the resentment, the embarrassment would bubble up toward the surface. That’s when all those soft, painful parts of her would crust over inside of that hardened, vindictive shell she always seemed to present to the world. To her, this was the only option. To even consider forgetting, much less forgiving those who had conjured such a spitefulness within her seemed a dishonor not only to herself, but to her own ability to endure. She knew who “Aria Blaze” was because of these experiences. Aria Blaze was a fighter, a survivor, and a deliverer of karmic justice to all those who would hide malice behind a facade of innocence or righteousness. She lashed out like a whip at those who seemed ingenuine or naive in any way. She bid them all to recognize the world for the cruel and harsh place that it was, all because it had been cruel and harsh to her first. This was the way it had been; this was how she liked it. This was how, with the aid of her ageless powers, she had intended to keep it. Cookie should have minded herself before daring to touch that which was beyond her understanding.

Cookie...

The ash from the edge of her cigarette finally dropped, falling into her lap, and smudging her torn jeans in the process. Her work goggles, forgotten haphazardly atop her head, now collected sweat that dripped down the sides of her face in the afternoon sun. The heat sucked. Not being able to dive beneath the surface of some cool water whenever it got too unbearable sucked. Her home life sucked. Her job sucked. This burger sucked, and most importantly, that damned Cookie Dough sucked—really sucked. She sucked so hard you could flip her over, and run her across a living room rug to gather loose change.

Who does that loudmouth, cotton-haired, uppity, perfectly proportioned, so-and-so think she is, anyway? How dare she make me… me feel remorse for my crappy existence after all I’ve been through? Screw her little silent treatment. I’m the greatest, grudge-holding bitch on the planet. We can just duke it out, and see who comes out on top.

“Man,” Aria moaned, squeezing her eyes shut. She was doing it again. She was taking this way too personally, and if it was one thing that she didn’t need right now, it was a reminder of the fact that she cared about this particular mortal affair as much as she feared.

The pigtailed girl’s face contorted into a deep frown. It had been almost a full week since the Friday night incident at Bubbles’ bar, and since then, things had been awkward between Cookie and her, to say the least. She had amped herself up all of Sunday evening and Monday morning, readying herself to march straight into her boss’ office, explain everything to her—including what she could about her past without sounding insane—and then apologize profusely for her over-the-top outburst. Somehow, she had even managed to make herself feel good about the idea of doing so.

Everything about the simple plan seemed right as she walked into the shop that Monday afternoon, sat next to Wheeler who she gladly proceeded to ignore, pulled out one of the guitars she had been fiddling about with, and got to work. Waiting for Cookie’s arrival from an errand she had run seemed like no trouble until Aria heard the front door bell jangle, and the woman finally walked in, arms ladened with bags of components and strings. Their eyes met from across the room for just a split second before Cookie looked away. As she approached to enter through the workroom door, the former siren felt the confident smirk she had been wearing all morning recede. Her heart began to patter at a million beats a second, and she suddenly felt sick to her stomach as she remembered:

Wait a minute. I don’t apologize for anything.

Suddenly, she found her defensive shell crusting over once again. A haughty sneer spread across her face, and as Cookie silently walked through the back room toward her office without first acknowledging the younger woman like she usually did each and every day, Aria felt fresh anger rise within her.

“Right. Got it. Loud and clear,” she had murmured to herself. Tossing down her screwdriver, she had then quickly exited the shop to get some air, and calm her nerves.

That’s practically how things had been since then. She should have known that Cookie’s pride would permit her to speak only as much as her own would allow her to reply without being a spiteful bitch about it. Aria would just have to face the facts: that brief, lovely thing that had been their friendship was now over.

Sighing, the pigtailed girl jostled herself out of her thoughts, and gazed down at her cold burger. The thing had cigarette ash all over it. Grimacing for a moment, she then shrugged to herself, dusted it off as best as she could, and took a huge, unenthusiastic bite. It was disgusting—perfect fare for crappy moments such as this.

Rolling the mass about in her mouth whilst gazing around the empty parking area, it took her a moment to see the poof of white, curly hair directly across from her on the other side of the lot. Her chewing slowed to a halt as Cookie approached with a bag in hand. Gulping the lump down, Aria quickly moved to toss the burger aside, and fire up a fresh cigarette. Her hands shook when she popped it between her lips and lit it; so, she sat on them afterward until they were numb. There was no way that Cookie was going to see that she made her nervous. At least Aria got some small comfort from the sight of the green haze that trailed the other woman. There was solace in knowing she didn't have to feel uneasy alone.

As the other woman approached, and inevitably stood before her, arms crossed, Aria had to peer down at her just slightly from the tall platform she was sitting upon. It was a good feeling, towering over her. She felt powerful. It felt like Cookie was at her mercy.

Swinging her legs back and forth, the former siren scanned her over whilst the other woman did the same. It was like one of their high stakes poker games all over again—straight faced and full of false confidence.

“Hey,” Cookie muttered.

“Yo,” Aria replied cooly, jostling the cigarette around in her mouth.

That was the extent of the conversation until, after another uncomfortable silence, Cookie leaned over to place the bag on the ground, took one of her hair bands off of her wrist, and tied her hair back. Picking the bag up again, she peered at Aria.

Shoot me in the face. Those damn eyes.

Aria felt her mettle melting away in Cookie’s line of sight. The shivering in her arms came back with a vengeance; so, she decided to cross them.

Cookie reached into the bag, rooting around for a second, before pulling out what appeared to be a blue, tupperware box. At first she held it out toward Aria who remained unmoved, eyeing the thing suspiciously.

“I, uh…” Cookie began before clearing her throat. Finding that nothing of real value would escape her mouth, she simply shoved the box into Aria’s lap, trusting that the younger woman would not let it fall. She didn’t. “Here. This is for you.”

The former siren didn’t say thank you. It wasn’t like she could have had the chance to anyway since after the box was practically thrown at her, the white-haired woman had then immediately turned tail, and marched away back toward the music shop. She had reached a quarter of the distance there before pausing, and turning around to stare at Aria once more.

“Don’t take too long. Some chick is having a crisis over her one-string banjo in there,” Cookie said.

Aria’s eyes shot wide open. For a split second, she could have sworn that she had seen… Yes, it was—a smile. Cookie had smiled at her. Did this mean that Aria had won the grudge match?

That’s right. Better smile.

“Uhh, yea boss. Be right in,” the siren barely managed to croak. Cookie turned to leave again, and Aria watched her until the woman had disappeared around the side of the building.

Alone in the lot once again, Aria now took the time to stare down at the tupperware container in her hand. Removing the lid, the wonderful aroma of baked brown sugar and vanilla immediately hit her nostrils. Inside of the box was what appeared to be at least fifteen, uniquely-shaped, and decorated sugar cookies. Nose wrinkling in confusion, she lifted one of the odd shapes, and stared at it for a second. Turning it around to its other side, she snorted at the instantly recognizable sight of an erect middle finger throwing a glorious bird into her face.

“The hell…?” she murmured under her breath, taking a moment to shake off some of her cigarette ash before popping it back between her now smiling lips.

Putting the cookie down, and picking up another, she laughed out loud this time to see that it was decorated like the most sour-faced smiley she had ever seen. There were a few cookies that were simply word balloons with various expletives printed into them—Aria’s favourite being the one that just said ‘UTTER SHIT’ in all girly, pink caps. Discarding her smoke, she popped the treat into her mouth, and took a bite. Digging deeper, she found another shaped like ‘Beauty’ the guitar she had been babying the week before. Coming upon the last cookie, her smile widened, and something leapt in her chest as she gazed down at a shape that looked exactly like the star accessories she liked to put in her hair. Next to this cookie sat a simple, folded note. Aria bit her lip nervously, took another bite of the cookie to preoccupy her teeth, and then picked the paper up.

I owe you. Dinner tonight at my house?

She choked. The cookie in her mouth fell to the ground as she read off the proposed time and Cookie’s home address—her honest-to-Chaos official location of residence. Suddenly, the racket of the entire world was drowned out by the sound of her own racing heartbeat. She felt her face practically catch on fire as she finished reading the message.

Don't bring up the fact that I did or said any of this to my face, or I will be forced to strangle something… Something cute… Like a pony or something.

Shut up,
The Cookie Monster

Aria’s jaw was hanging open. She felt as if she might soon follow her cigarette in falling to the ground if she didn’t take a couple of deep breaths, but for some reason the air had turned thick, impossible to breathe. Something weird was happening to her face; it felt as if it were stretching too much in the wrong directions. Her cheeks went numb, and her mouth was curling up into itself like a dying insect. What was going on with her chest, heartburn? Maybe these nasty burgers had finally given her a heart attack.

Oh, thank you sweet seas. Just let me die... Wait, no, not yet.

She folded the note back up, and tossed it back into the tupperware container. Closing the lid, she then leaned back against the brick wall, an utterly content smile upon her face. Opening her mouth, she could have never predicted in a million years that she might eject the most disgustingly gleeful squeal she had ever heard coming from anything, ever.

Her hand instinctively balled into a fist, and careened itself into her mouth to shut it up. What was happening to her?

Turning in horror to peer into the cracked side view mirror of a lonely van that had been parked nearby, she caught a glimpse of herself, and nearly screamed at the sight of the stupid, blushy grin that was plastered all over her maw. Her eyes went wide as she finally understood what was taking place, why her heart felt like it was about to burst out of her chest like one of those aliens from that movie—which, at the moment, seemed more preferable—and why a rock had apparently decided to settle in the very center of her throat. These were feelings that she had rarely felt. Perhaps they had come on this strong only ten times in her entire life. No wonder she had thought it was indigestion.

Turning to face the back wall of Cookie’s shop, Aria allowed her expression to slowly droop into a terrified gawk as flashes of a sprightly, honey-colored mare coursed through her head.

“Aw crap.”
_____

Worst. Work day. Ever.

Except, this time she really meant it. For the fifth time that afternoon, Aria had been jolted out of her anxious reverie by the sound of Wheeler whistling in her ear, only to stare down, and find herself trying to hammer a twist-in screw into a beat up guitar with the backend of a cold soldering iron.

“Dammit, again?” she hissed at herself before placing the iron back into its holster, and running to go fetch some scratch remover. Wheeler watched her closely, very much amused.

“Bit preoccupied there, Blaze?” he snickered stroking the fuzz upon his chin. Aria sighed.

“Not right now, Wheeler. I’m not in the mood.”

Wheeler snorted.

“Alright. I’ll just wait until you—Aria Blaze—are in the mood to have a chat,” he stated, making finger quotes as he watched the girl violently rubbing the scratch remover into the surface of the tarnished instrument. Her eyes occasionally darted up toward the door. Wheeler, noticing this, smirked.

“She ain’t gonna be back for another twenty minutes,” he continued. As he did so, Aria seemed to rub harder and harder. “What’s so damn urgent, anyway? Don’t tell me you’re quittin’ or somethin. We ain’t even been to Bubbles together ye—”

Aria dropped the rag she had been wiping the scratch with, spun around, and snatched up Wheeler’s collar into her fist, drawing him close. Her eyes were wide with restlessness, and from this distance—or lack thereof—the red man could see a sheen of sweat collecting on her skin.

“Mud? I will promptly put my boot into your esophagus, so help me,” she growled, her eye twitching erratically.

“Now, you hold on there, little missy!” Wheeler said, beginning to feel equally irate. “I was just joshin’ with ya!”

“Fuck Josh!” Aria yelled, releasing the man’s collar. She never even noticed the startled expressions upon the faces of the few shop patrons who then quickly proceeded toward the door. “Fuck your jokes, and fuck your constantly trying to figure out how to worm your way into my pants! It’s not gonna happen! Not now, not ever! So, do me a favor, and stuff it!”

She began to collect the scratch remover and the guitar to go put them away. As she turned around, Wheeler, who had surprisingly managed to keep a half amused look on his face while staring down the brunt of her rage, cleared his throat. Aria’s entire body stiffened up at the noise. She took a deep breath.

“The next words outta your mouth better be the frikkin secret to the meaning of life,” she said in a dangerous tone. She heard the man fishing around in his pocket for something. A few seconds later, she heard the sound of a piece of paper being unfurled.

“Nuclear Sunburns,” Wheeler said in that smug tone of his. "But you were close!"

Aria’s back straightened. Her shoulders hitched upward, and stayed there. Slowly, she turned around to peer wide-eyed at the man who was now holding a worn and crumpled band flier in his hand.

The Nuclear Sunburns?” she croaked. Wheeler nodded slowly, his grin spreading.

“Tonight only at The Hole.”

Aria froze for a moment before dropping everything in her arms back onto the workbench, and snatching the flier from his hand.

“Bloody gimme that!” she gasped, practically shoving her nose up against it.

No way. There was no way the Nuclear Sunburns—only one of her most favourite hardcore bands ever—would choose to tour here, of all places. Showcasing the most gorgeous, skull crushing riffs she’d heard in the last decade, and not to mention, Bender Bridges, otherwise known to be the fastest fingers currently in the underground, the Nuclear Sunburns had, years ago, come to hold a special place in Aria’s guitar-obsessed heart. She had never had a chance to see them live anywhere else, thanks to Adagio’s iron grip upon her personal affairs. Of course, that grand bitch called fate would make it so that the one and probably only opportunity that she would ever get to go to their concert would occur now, like this, at the mercy of “Muddy Wheelduuurr,” and on the very same night she was invited to spend the evening at Cookie’s. As her eyes slowly rose to meet Wheeler’s, she caught sight of the two tickets he was now dangling in front of his grinning face, and quickly motioned to snatch them from him. Anticipating this reaction, he yanked them just beyond her reach.

“Woah! Calm yer tits there, Sugar!” he laughed spitefully. “Do you know what I been through to get these?”

“I don’t wanna hear about whose junk you had to cup to get ‘em, Mud,” Aria began. “How much do you want?”

This situation was still salvageable as far as Aria was concerned. Cookie and she shared very similar tastes in music. Perhaps the woman could be persuaded to go out to a concert after dinner that night. After all, getting to a Nuclear Sunburns gig late was better than not going at all.

“It ain’t exactly about how much I want,” Wheeler began in a cheeky tone. “It’s more about what I want.”

Aria sneered, and crossed her arms, blowing a loosened strand of hair out of her face.

“If it takes place anywhere beyond this shop’s front door, then no. If it has anything to do with a body part of yours that's below your hairline, then the answer is no,” she growled. Wheeler seemed to think to himself for a second while touching his hair, then his beard, and then looking somewhere down below.

“Well, shoot, I got about four o’ those,” he murmured. Aria groaned wearily, letting her arms drop to her sides.

“One date,” Wheeler finally blurted, getting to the point. “That’s all. Meaning one and only one of these tickets is up for grabs. I pick you up, we maybe get somethin’ to eat, get tanked down at Bubbles, and then...”

He flicked the edges of the tickets twice with the fingers of his free hand, and leaned back comfortably against the workbench. The former siren now looked utterly incensed.

“Wheeler, you don’t even like the Sunburns,” Aria began. “Just sell me both the damn tickets, and I’ll hold your hand right now for ten seconds without hurling. That’s more than a fair deal.”

Oh contrair-y,” he replied in his heavy country accent. “For your information, I’ve been listenin’ to the Sunburns for years, ever since that one week me and that Mint-whatever girl were a thing.”

Aria snorted, and cocked an eyebrow, finding it amusing that somehow that Mint chick Sonata was currently obsessed with had found a way to pop up into her own little world. This town was too damn small.

Still, Wheeler currently presented to her a rather large problem; nevertheless, it was one that, in her heart of hearts, she already knew the solution to. Sighing in defeat, head bobbing backward, she picked up her dropped guitar and work materials with a sense of finality. Turning, she then headed toward the back of the room to put them away.

“Ey! Where ya goin? I need yer address so I can pick ya up tonight!” Wheeler exclaimed, swiveling his chair around to face her.

“I’m not going to the concert, Wheeler,” Aria murmured almost as if saying the words caused her physical pain.

“Well, why the hell not?” the man asked, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

“Because...” Aria hissed through her teeth, now irritated by his nagging. There was a brief pause before she heard Wheeler sigh, pull a piece of paper from somewhere, and begin scratching something upon it.

“Well, here’s mah number in case ya change yer mind, and I am expecting you to change yer mind,” he said, slapping the paper down in front of Aria’s work space.

Right at that moment, the bell at the shop’s front door rung, and Cookie stepped in ladened with a ton of bags as usual. However, catching sight of her in that instant, interestingly enough, didn’t seem to rile Aria into a state of panic. A sense of comfort washed over her as she became settled in the feeling that, somehow, in some small way, she had taken back the reigns of control in her life. She passed a rather content look toward Wheeler supposing that maybe today wasn’t necessarily the worst work day ever after all.

“Not gonna happen, man. I’ve got plans.”

___

Once, whilst sifting through an old nature magazine to find the wildflower photo feature contained therein, Sonata had stumbled upon an interesting fact. She had learned that baby bottlenose dolphins did not sleep at all for the first couple of months of their life. When they became old enough, their resting would entail half of their brain powering down while the other half stayed awake. This would interchange in periods of “sleep” that weren’t really sleep at all. For all intents and purposes, these creatures went their entire lives without completely shutting down into that blissful state of unawareness that land mammals seemed to need so much. Now, standing on shaky legs as she tried to blink away the wavering haze before her tired eyes, Sonata wondered to herself how feasible such a thing would be for a pony turned siren turned human. After all, she had been a sea dweller for a large portion of her life, even though she could never remember a night where the need for sleep didn’t beckon to her. Maybe that was just an addiction left over from her previous days on land. Maybe it was something that had to be weaned out. Still, after all this time, the urge had never seemed to change. Before the loss of her powers, tiredness was never a problem because there was never really a reason to be tired. Now, of course, things were much different.

It had been about a week since she had put her plan into motion against Patti Mint, and in that week, Sonata had learned quite a few more things about the whole “not having powers” bit. For one, it was pretty much impossible to keep track of the desires of a crowd of non-enchanted beings, no matter how much one tried. Rushing about the restaurant floor, the former siren felt like a chicken with its head cut off. One minute, one of her tables would want a drink refill. The next, another one would be asking for a dessert menu. Soon enough, it would come time to check up on Patti’s tables, and inevitably outdo her services. This part was the hardest because it required Sonata to think up a scheme to win the patrons over; thus, it would be necessary that her story change according to what she assumed each customer wanted to hear. The elderly would, more often than not, hear about how much she loved to volunteer or visit her non-existent grandmother. Young women got overly lavish compliments about their looks. Young men would simply get a good look at the ‘gals’ as Aria would call them.

Of course, considering the new, increased number of people she was tending to, her attempts at winning absolutely everyone over could never prove completely successful. There had been quite a few times where the customers did not respond to her enticements at all, in which case, she was begrudgingly obliged to allow Patti to collect her due tips from those particular tables. However, more often than not, this didn't happen.

There was no such thing as time anymore, especially now that she had decided not to take any days off for fear that Patti would work without her knowing. As a result, everything began to flow into everything else, and at once, became one giant, swiftly rolling blob of faces, voices, actions, and commands. Perhaps it was inevitable that, after a time, mistakes would be made as delirium set in.

Sonata teetered up against one of the kitchen counters in her usual place next to Peachy as she awaited her next order. To any onlooker, it was immediately clear that the blue girl was out of sorts, to say the least. To those who knew her well, the change was startling. Her eyes had become gaunt, ringed with darkness, whilst the pop of her pretty, blue skin had faded, becoming rather drab and dull. Her usually cheery disposition had ebbed into an exhausted struggle to simply maintain an air of cordiality with those she interacted with. This would all happen in between the time she would spend lost in her own disoriented thoughts.

“Order up!” a voice called from somewhere in the haze. Sonata had barely heard it as it floated around on the edges of her awareness.

Indeed, there was an uncomfortable silence that permeated the kitchen, save for the sound of various sizzling entrees. All of the waitresses, save for Patti who was looking rather exhausted herself, seemed to be completely cognizant of the fact that whatever was wrong with Sonata, it had much to do with the blue-eyed brunette. This seemed obvious at the moment seeing as how the former siren was now passing the eeriest of raspberry glares in Patti’s direction. She seemed blithely unaware of the four more pairs of eyes trained upon her as a heavy green haze began to fill the room. Pumpkin and Candy stood in silence, tapping their fingers, and popping their gum as they tried their best to manage their anger whilst warding off the increasingly disturbing vibes they had been getting from the former siren. J.R. glanced up from his grill every now and then to look at them all curiously. He was never around the waitresses long enough to be privy to their affairs, but even to him it was clear that something was going on, and that Sonata was at the center of it all. Peachy stood by Sonata’s side, arms crossed, wearing a strange look of both worry and irritation upon her face as she wondered what was happening to her friend. Stealing a peek, she glanced at the girl just in time to catch the hints of a bizarre smile creasing her lips. Something in Peachy recoiled as she tried to deduce what exactly was going on in Sonata's head.

Patti, oh, Patti Mint,
Soon, soon, soon...

Sonata broke out into a tiny giggle as she repeated the phrase over in her mind, daydreaming about the day Patti would worship the ground that she walked upon. Weary eyes trained on the brunette, it was clear to see that the girl had been worn down. A few days ago, the plumes of negative energy escaping from Patti had peaked; her defiance of Sonata’s will was delicious to behold, but gradually, as she realized more and more that perhaps she had underestimated the former siren’s craftiness, and as her own exhaustion set in, those hazy emerald surges died down to a small spurt. Now, the only massive waves of negative energy came from those that honestly didn’t matter to Sonata much at the moment. In her world, where only she and Patti existed, the air was practically still and clear. Patti’s resistance was waning. For the time being, Sonata figured she could continue to endure, knowing what bliss awaited her on the other side. Indeed, in a short time, surely…

Patti, oh, Patti Mint,
Soon, soon, soon…

The sore patch between her chest and neck began to itch. She scratched it, supposing it was just more fatigue setting in.

“Order up, Sonny!” J.R.’s voice cut through the fog. She jolted into alertness, and quickly bounced forward.

“Oh! S-sorry, Junior! I’m on it!” she cried racing up to collect her plate. J.R. smirked at her as he plopped the thing upon her tray.

“Don’t call me Junior, Sonny. What’s going on with you lately? You seem pretty out of it.”

“N-nothing, J.R.,” the blue girl giggled nervously as she spun about, and headed toward the door.

The last thing Sonata had expected when she had reached her table was the harsh awakening that she received.

“I specifically said no onions,” the woman at the table said as she removed the sunglasses from her face, using them to motion toward her plate. Sonata gave her an astonished look.

“B-but, I don’t remember you saying—” she stammered as she whipped her notepad back out, beginning to flip through its pages.

“I’ve been allergic since childhood, sweetheart. Are you going to try and tell me that I forgot about that? I said that I absolutely didn’t want any onions.”

“B-but—” Sonata continued on, bewildered by the fact that, yet again, she had gotten another order wrong, something that never happened under normal circumstances.

“Are you gonna argue with me? Because I don’t have time for arguments. Just make the burger over, or we can take it up with your manager. How about that?” the woman asked, giving Sonata a threatening glare. Utterly deflated, the former siren snatched the plate back up, turned tail, and shuffled back into the kitchen.

There was a look of vindication upon the faces of Pumpkin and Candy as Sonata took her walk of shame back through the kitchen area. However, Peachy eyed her worriedly as the former siren reached out with her occupied hand to plop the plate down in front of J.R.’s station.

“Sorry. Fudged it again. No onions,” she muttered, never once looking at him. Instead, she continued walking toward the back room door, and disappeared through it. Dropping her tray, Peachy followed close behind.

She found Sonata splayed out upon the bench that sat between the lockers, staring up at what seemed to be a photo that she was holding in her hands. Her locker was wide open, blocking Peachy’s path. When the green-eyed girl slammed the thing shut, and loomed imposingly over her friend, to her surprise she found that Sonata could only manage a befuddled smile.

“Oh heeey, Peach!” she mumbled, stifling a delirious snicker. “Whaz wrong with yer face?”

Peach was not amused.

“Sonata, what is going on with you? Ever since last Friday you’ve been acting so strange, and the way you’ve been behaving around Patti… It's starting to worry me.”

Sonata giggled as her eyelids began to droop.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, Peachy. I couldn’t feed off of you even if I wanna… I mean, I wanna which is weird cause I don’t usually wanna do that to friends, but by the seas, have you smelled you? It’s like… crazy good, but it probably wouldn’t be worth it… I think. Not that you wouldn’t taste super good… or… anyth—...”

The siren’s words trailed off as her train of thought floated away like a feather in the wind. She stared at the ceiling in confusion.

“Sonny! What are you talking about?” Peach exclaimed, her face going red.

“Huh?” the blue girl asked, apparently having forgotten that her friend was even there. “Oh heeey, Peach!”

There was a pregnant pause as Peachy Keen stared down at the bewildered girl, shaking her head. Taking a moment to glance up at the clock on the wall, she breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed it was almost time for her break. Reaching down to grab Sonata’s arm, she pulled the girl up into a seated position.

“Sonny, you’re taking a break with me. We’re gonna get some caffeine in you, and then we’re gonna talk.”

She reached out to grab the photo that the former siren was holding in her hands, only to recoil as Sonata lashed out toward her. The blue girl’s eyes suddenly went sharp and alert.

“Don’t touch that!” Sonata yelled, pressing the photo to her chest. Realizing what she had done, her gaze softened. “I mean… It’s just that this is really special to me. I don’t want anything to happen to it.

Peach rubbed her hand nervously for a moment before nodding.

“Okay, Sonny. Just meet me outside in five, alright?” she murmured, turning around, and heading back out through the doorway.

Sonata watched her go. When she was sure that the girl was gone, she sighed with exhaustion, and stared down again at the photo. In it, in vintage, Prohibition-era clothing, posed her two sistren and herself in a wash of grays, blacks, and whites. Despite the strange appearance of their varied apparel, they all seemed to be wearing smiles upon their faces. They weren’t necessarily smiles of glee or smiles of excitement. More so, they were smiles of confidence, smiles that clearly depicted three beings who knew exactly how special they were, beings who were determined to make sure that everyone else could see it too.

Kissing the picture, Sonata then slowly rose to her shaking feet, placed the item back into her locker, and slammed its door shut.

After walking out to meet Peachy to collect their coffees, Sonata then headed out toward the back at the girl’s insistence that the fresh air would do her some good. Huddling together on an old bench that sat by the edge of the lot, Peachy waited for Sonata to get a couple sips of the drink down before she turned toward her, and sighed.

“You know what I’ve realized lately, Sonata? We don’t really talk to each other much about… y’know… important things which is weird because we’re always talking. It doesn’t always have to be about stupid stuff though. You know that you can talk to me about what’s bothering you, right?”

Sonata blinked at Peachy. As sweet and sociable as the former siren was, even she had enough experience with the fickleness of mortals to understand that such a thing could never be. As sirens, she and her sisters had learned long ago that bearing their whole hearts to mortal beings—ponies and humans alike—was foolhardy unless they were asking for a witch hunt or a cramped, cold cell in the belly of a madhouse. That kind of existence, a life filled with secrecy, half truths, and downright lies, became par for the course. It was something that, over time, drew them into themselves and each other until, eventually, very little of their understanding of mortals remained besides the fact that they were to be fed off of for sustenance. Sure, they lived and mingled amongst them, and they had all become fantastic actresses on that front, but they knew, and even the dimmest mortal could feel, that there was a perpetual wall, a chasm between them when interacting with the girls. It was something that seemed utterly unbreachable. They wouldn’t mesh with their circles so much as they would haunt them, looming about their so-called friends with knowing, almost hungry expressions upon their faces. Their presence in a room was lauded as they leached more and more adoration from others, but only in that reverent way one might laud a queen or celebrity—gingerly, with the utmost caution, and as much obedience as could be managed. Even though Sonata had perhaps been the best at hiding, even ignoring, the differences between her nature and the mortal world, still that impenetrable rift seemed ever present.

The former siren sighed, and gave Peach a pitying smile. Taking the last swig of her coffee, she placed the cup down beside her, and tapped her fingers upon the lid. Her expression settled into one of deep contemplation. Squinting and nodding slightly as she seemed to decide on something within herself, she tilted her chin toward Peach, meeting her gaze with one of profound appreciation.

“The stupid things are plenty, Peach. I bet you’ve noticed by now that my sisters and I kinda freak people out sometimes… a lot of times.”

Peach cracked a smile as she remembered Aria’s strange behaviour at the movies the week prior.

“Yea, just a bit,” she snorted. Sonata couldn’t help but grin in return.

“We’ve never really gotten the whole “friendship” thing, and we always kinda ended up getting rid of people who got too close in a way we didn’t like.”

Sonata continued to labor through her words, trying her best to fit her siren truths into a digestible package for mortal ears.

“But I haven’t gotten rid of you. That stands for something!”

There was a brief pause as Sonata glanced toward the restaurant, and happened to catch a glimpse of Patti through the window, pulling her apron off. It seemed the girl was about to go on her break. Sonata’s eyes narrowed, and she continued to talk whilst watching the brunette disappear from her line of sight.

“Things have been like, super stressful with my sisters and me, but you don’t have to worry about that, Peach.”

Sonata’s eyes widened with interest again when she saw Patti, Pumpkin, and Candy exiting through the front door of the restaurant, and heading across the street to a quiet corner. Patti walked in between them both, her arms crossed self consciously about her chest whilst the two other girls occasionally rubbed her back.

“I’ve got a super weird hunch that I’ll be feeling a lot better, really soon— Say! Where are they going?” Sonata blurted motioning toward Patti, and her friends. Peach was suddenly jolted from her enjoyment of this rare, seemingly intimate moment with her friend. Her head spun around to look at the other girls.

“Oh man, how long have we been out here? They’re going on their break now. We ought to get back, and man the floor.”

The angel-eyed girl got to her feet, and had taken a few steps before she realized Sonata wasn’t following. Noticing the former siren’s eyes still trained sharply upon Patti and her friends, she crossed her arms and sighed.

“Enough, Sonata! I don’t know what your deal is with Patti, but it’s time to let it go!”

The phrase echoed in Sonata’s mind, sounding very much like the chiding Aria had given her over the weekend. Forgetting herself, her head snapped about to glare daggers into Peach. For a moment, a terrifying look of rage was plastered across her face. Peach recoiled as Sonata watched a giant burst of green escape from her aura. Catching herself, the blue girl sat up straight, and feigned calm.

“Y… you’re totally right, Peach. You’re right! I think she’s got the point by now. I’ll lay off of her. I double promise,” the former siren lied with the sweetest, and most practiced of smiles. There was a pause until Sonata realized Peach was still waiting for her to follow her into the restaurant. She laughed nervously, twisting a finger around the end of her blue ponytail.

“I’ll be right there. I just need a sec to myself to think… and stuff.”

Peach passed her a suspicious smirk, and then, turning her palms upward in defeat, spun around to head back inside. Sonata did her best to look meditative and calm until the girl had disappeared out of sight. Almost immediately after, she bolted upward to race across the street in the direction Patti and her cohorts had walked off toward.

After a few moments of searching, she found the trio together amongst some old crates and garbage cans in a shady backstreet. What was it with Patti and alleyways? The brunette was currently seated upon a large, empty crate, hunched over to grip her knees, with the most exhausted expression upon her face. Opting to stand hidden behind the mouth of the alley, Sonata tried her best to listen in on the three girls’ conversation.

“...And I had to drop some of my classes in order to make the extras up at my other gig at the Tank,” Patti said with a scoff. “Hell of a way to spend the rest of my senior year, pouring shots into some skeezy dude’s mouth for six hours a night, but my professors kept looking at me all sad all the time, anyway. Drove me nuts. I thought one of them was gonna take me out back, and shoot me like a rabid family pet or something.”

“So, why don’t you just quit, Patti?” Candy urged, taking a few steps forward into the brunette’s line of sight. “Just find something else, and quit this dump. Then you could free up some of your time again, right?”

Patti rolled her eyes and groaned.

“Okay then, Candy. I’ll just quit Sammy’s, and pray that my landlord enjoys getting paid in candy bars and ramen. I’m sure that will work out. I’ve told you a million times, I’ve looked everywhere. There’s nothing open. This damn town is too damn small.”

As Sonata hid just outside of the alleyway, listening to Patti’s two companions trying as best as they could to comfort their downtrodden friend, she couldn’t help but be reminded of her sisters and herself, or at least what she wished her sisters and she were more like. It was clear that, despite their lack of showing public affection, they really did care very deeply about each other. To anyone else, this might have seemed sweet; however, it only worked to make Sonata seethingly jealous.

How was it possible that these three mortals, in their short, insignificant existence, had managed to create a more loving connection than three eternally bonded sisters? How dare her precious, blue-eyed target pull toward someone else for comfort when what she should have been doing was finding a way to appeal to Sonata’s sense of mercy? Had the former siren known that Pumpkin and Candy would actually turn out to be genuine friends to Patti, she would have surely found a way to get rid of them first.

The pop of Pumpkin’s gum echoed throughout the alleyway, snapping Sonata out of her thoughts. As the orange-hued girl sighed heavily, and pushed herself up off of the wall where she had been leaning, a grimace spread across her face.

“I still think you should just kick her ass, and take the cash back,” she said. “I’m sure Sam won’t fire you over it. This is a pretty big deal, Patti.”

“No!” Patti exclaimed, waving an arm at her companion. “Sam hates me. If any of this blows up, you girls know I’m gonna be the first to go; so, just do me a favor, and lay off of the blue bitch, alright? I’ll figure this out on my own.”

It was clear to Patti’s cohorts as well as Sonata that the girl didn’t actually believe what she had just said by the way she then bent over, and slammed her face into her palms. There was a pregnant silence as her friends considered their companion’s wretched predicament. Ever so cautiously, Candy Ice spoke up once again.

“Well… why don’t you just tell her you’re sorry? I mean, you don’t have to actually mean it or anything, right?”

From where she was hidden beyond the lip of the backstreet, Sonata felt her skin growing warm as a small smile began to spread across her face. She licked her lips in anticipation of Patti’s imminent breakdown.

Yea, Patti. Why don’t you just tell me you’re sorry?

“No…” Patti murmured, her voice dripping with enough venom to instantly obliterate Sonata’s smile. “That is completely out of the question. I’m not that desperate yet.”

Sonata felt such anger rising inside of her chest that she began to shake, and the hue of her cheeks went purple. She heard Pumpkin scoff.

“Are you kidding me, Patti? Your situation sounds pretty damn desperate to me. What other choices do you have?”

Too many, Sonata thought as she immediately turned, and began walking back toward the restaurant in a huff. Her raspberry eyes seemed to glow with rage as, bit by bit, she settled upon what should be done about the last bits of her pesky Patti problem.

Smoke

View Online

“Lame, trash, garbage, rubbish, bollocks…” Aria prattled off as she dug deeper into the recesses of her closet. Why was it that every beloved piece of clothing she owned had suddenly become so unappealing? Not that she was in the business of dressing for loveliness’ sake, but right now it seemed that the urge had struck her to actually care about how she presented herself.

She was expected at Cookie’s in about an hour, and to anyone who might have happened to look in on her at that moment, running around completely disheveled and pantless, they would have assumed that she was already well prepared for a quiet and secluded night at home in front of the T.V. Eventually, enough time had whittled down for the former siren’s desperation to kick in. Weary about how much energy she was putting into acting like a fool, she sighed to herself, reached into her closet, grabbed a handful of items, and tossed them onto her bed so that she might sift through them.

Initially, Aria was annoyed by how much she subconsciously disliked the idea of dresses until she actually put one of the two she owned on. It was a slinky, little, purple thing that Adagio had picked out for her back when they had been working a stint performing at a big nightclub in New York. She glanced into the mirror, and immediately shrank into herself. She couldn’t deny that she looked absolutely amazing, like the goddess she used to be, but damn if this wasn’t too much skin for this. Aria knew herself. She would be hoisting her hems down all night if she wore this. It was too gaudy anyway.

“How the hell did Adagio ever get me to go outside in this?” she muttered to herself. “I swear to the spirits, she fantasizes about making a small harem out of us. Might as well just go naked.”

Already too disgusted with herself for words, Aria wrenched the thing off, and stared listlessly down at the rest of the items on her bed. She sighed, and rolled her eyes. Why was she taking this so seriously? It wasn’t like Cookie actually felt the same way about her or anything, right? Besides, this was Cookie. She’d probably answer the door looking exactly as she had at work that afternoon.

Feeling a bit less anxious, she opted to put on a nice pair of black jeans and a snug tank top before calling it a day. Now, what in the name of chaos was she going to do about her face and hair?

Aria barely noticed the sound of the front door slamming, and aggressive stomps coming up the stairs. She deduced that it must have been Sonata since Adagio had long since taken her weird, ritualistic bath, and disappeared into her room for the evening without supper. The sound of perturbed grumbling grew louder as her sister made her way down the hall toward the bathroom. Apparently, she had caught a peek into Aria’s room as the dour siren had just been putting the finishing touches onto her pigtails and black-as-death lipstick.

“Wow!” Sonata exclaimed, forgetting her troubles for the moment as she rushed to Aria’s bedroom door. The elder girl immediately rolled her eyes and sighed.

Here we go…

“Ari you look so... pretty! You going out? Where’re you going?” Sonata asked, then lowering her voice, and leaning into the doorway to assure that Adagio would not hear. “Can I come too?”

Aria sighed. Sonata was lucky that she was in a relatively good, though anxious, mood that evening.

“Thanks, and nope. I’m going to Cookie’s,” the elder girl stated, only barely paying attention to her sister before grimacing at herself in the mirror. “Besides, I don’t like you, remember?”

“Cookie?” Sonata blurted in confusion, having long since learned to ignore a great deal of her sister’s slander. “Oh! You mean that loud chick you work with that looks like a pile of leftover caramel and marshmallows from Sugarcube Corner?”

Aria snorted.

“That would be her. Ugh! Everything is so. Fucked. Up!” the elder girl yelled, suddenly pulling her hair out of its bands.

Forgetting the conversation, she quickly snatched up a previously discarded piece of paper from the floor, and began rubbing everything off of her face, leaving the entire thing covered in black smudges. Exasperated, she turned to fetch more supplies from her dresser before catching sight of the knowing smile that had begun to stretch across Sonata’s face.

“Ooooh, I get it now,” Sonata murmured with glee. “You’re in loooove!”

Aria’s black splattered eyes went wide.

“Shut the hell up! I’m just going to get a free meal!”

“Lemme help!” Sonata blurted, bouncing up and down.

“Wh… Huh?”

“Oh, come on, Aria! Let me do your hair! I’ll make you look so awesome! Pleeease?” the younger girl began to plead. Aria scoffed.

“First of all, I already look awesome,” she began, motioning toward her bedraggled hair, and black smeared face. “Secondly, you’re out of your mind if you think I’d let you within three feet of my head. I don’t want to end up bald. Now, get out of my room!”

Sonata pouted. Aria found it simple to avoid the girl’s penetratingly cute gaze until she fell to her knees, hands clasped in a begging pose.

“Sonata, what the hell are you doing?” Aria sighed, finding herself quickly losing patience.

Sonata didn’t answer. Her lip simply trembled.

“Stop making that face right fucking now,” the elder girl threatened, crossing her arms.

Sonata’s eyes went wide and teary.

“You’ll be so pretty, Ari! Come ooon! You haven’t gone on a date like this in, what, four decades? I’ll make you so perfect!”

After a beat of silence, Aria rolled her eyes, and sighed, staring up toward the ceiling.

“I swear, if you so much as yank out a strand, I’m going to pummel you... repeatedly… And it’s not a date,” she muttered, moving to collect the items from her dresser for Sonata to use, and then sitting upon her bed. The younger girl jumped up with a squeal of glee, and to Aria’s confusion, ran from the room. A few moments later, she returned with a handful of her own supplies. Aria, a bit wary, offered up her own handful to Sonata who promptly proceeded to slap them away onto the floor.

“Get that outta here! I’m gonna make you look like a fairy queen! Except… you know… a gloomy one that creeps people out like all the stuff you like!” the blue girl exclaimed dropping tons of glosses and glitter all over Aria’s bed.

“Sonata...” Aria growled nervously.

Realizing she had, perhaps, put on too much enthusiasm for her sister’s tastes, the blue girl cleared her throat, and attempted to calm down.

“Whoops! Sorry. Got excited for a minute there, but I swear, you’re gonna like it. Trust me.”

Recoiling ever so slightly as the wildly grinning younger girl approached her with a myriad of brushes, and strange metal objects, Aria grit her teeth, and clenched her eyes shut, praying to the Old, Nameless Ones that somehow she might survive the ordeal.

For some reason, the silence that ensued between them became unnerving. Perhaps it was because they both knew each other so well. It seemed that there was so much to be said that their own silly feelings of resistance toward each other were made obvious. Considering all that had happened at her job the past week, Aria’s hand once again travelled up to that odd space upon her shoulder, beginning to run the line of the healed dagger scratch. Recognizing her sister’s nervous tick, Sonata’s brow furrowed when she saw this. Hesitantly, she took a deep breath.

“Something’s wrong,” she murmured whilst running a comb through her sister’s long hair. “What is it?”

“Huh? What do you mean? Nothing’s wrong,” Aria said, turning her head slightly to the side.

“Well, you’re touching that… thing. You always do that when you’re thinking about the old times.” Sonata paused for a moment. “Are… are you thinking about... you know who?”

A weak scoff escaped Aria.

“Midnight Swift. You can say his name. Hearing it doesn’t bother me anymore. And no, I’m not.”

Sonata winced at the sound of the name. She’d, of course, never known the pegasus stallion those many lifetimes ago, but over the ages, as her sister revealed, bit by bit, all of the terror he had wrought upon her in the dawn of her life, a strangely vicarious aversion to the thought of him had grown within the younger girl. She supposed that maybe now she might even be more sickened at the thought of him than Aria was. To her sister, Swift had been her reality; he had actually happened to her. But there was a sense of limitation when it came to reality, constraints that weren’t there when one tried, instead, to imagine something that seemed too horrible to be real. Sonata trying to fathom Swift only made the image of him warp, and change into something of unrealistic proportion, a surreal nightmare.

“G-good,” the blue girl stammered, exhaling in relief as she finished up with Aria’s hair, and moved toward her front to start on her makeup. “What is it then? Something about the dreams? The beach?”

Aria tried her best not to stare daggers into her sister. It always perturbed her how unaware and uncaring the younger girl seemed toward the silent boundaries that others put around themselves. The constant prodding, the lack of tact with her cheery-toned questions always carried the potential to be infuriating, and often proved to be with Aria. Perhaps it was time for the girl to get a taste of her own medicine. The dour siren forced herself to take a deep breath as she closed her eyes, and allowed Sonata to begin dabbing at her face.

“How’s that Patti girl you want so much?” she asked, completely blowing off Sonata’s previous statement. “Heard you stomping around a while ago. Things not going so well down at Sammy’s?”

She smirked with satisfaction when she felt Sonata’s body tense. There was a long silence.

“She’s… alright,” Sonata muttered, barely above a whisper. Aria had assumed that she wouldn’t care what her sister’s reply would be as long as she was annoyed; however, when she heard the ominous tone in her voice, she couldn’t help but feel perturbed.

“Have you thought about what I told you the other day?” the elder girl asked.

“Mhm!” Sonata lied, layering on the cheer just a bit too thick whilst putting the finishing touches on her sister. “Oh my gosh, you look amazing!”

Aria cocked an eyebrow at Sonata’s clear attempt at changing the subject. Since the younger girl and she had apparently made the subconscious decision to act cordially toward one another for the time being, she decided she should at least make yet another attempt at gently prodding her in the right direction.

“Sonata, I’m gonna say something to you once, and only once, and if you ever tell anyone that I said it, especially the queen bee over there, I swear I’ll declare war on you for the next century and a half. Got it?”

Sonata said nothing; thus, Aria, ruminating behind closed eyelids, assumed she had silently agreed.

“I know you’ve always had a thing about acceptance, and I get why rejection is hard for you. I get why you want that Patti girl for yourself. But now that we don’t have our powers anymore, I think it would be wise for you to realize that you don’t really need the acceptance of mortals like Patti to know that you’re worth not being used… or hurt. Even if you didn’t have all those awful mortal companions that you always keep around you, that still wouldn’t mean that what Fylleion and his wife did to you was justified. It wasn’t; it never will be. You don’t have to be loved to know that you’re worthy of it.”

Aria took a deep breath, and exhaled, still not believing that she had said all of that to Sonata, of all beings. Waiting anxiously for a reply—any reply—she quickly became perturbed again when the other girl didn’t answer, but instead chose to continue fiddling with her sure to be ridiculous makeup. The loudest of silences passed between them for what seemed like forever before Aria felt Sonata take a step away from her face.

“You’re done, Ari! Why don’t you go have a look?” the blue girl finally blurted, all evidence of a reaction to elder girl's words void from her tone of voice.

Realizing she wasn’t going to pull any further conversation on the matter out of her sister, Aria sighed heavily, and decided to let the issue go. Turning toward her mirror, she stood up, eyes still closed.

“Alright, Sonata, but I’m warning you. If I look like one of those kid show princess thingies, I’m gonna cut off your—” Aria stifled herself as her eyes opened, and she gazed upon the magnificence that was her own reflection.

“Hot. Damn.”

It wasn’t even like she could put a finger on what Sonata had done, except for tying her hair back into a spectacularly messy ponytail. For all intents and purposes, it was almost as if the girl hadn’t done anything at all, and yet it was clear that Aria now seemed to glow as radiant as a strawberry moon. Walking up to the mirror, she touched it, wondering how her space case of a sister had ever paid attention to anything delicate or quiet long enough to figure out the definition of subtlety. Spinning around to cock an eyebrow at the smugly grinning blue girl, Aria huffed, and placed a hand upon her hip.

“Meh. It’ll do, I guess.”

They both grinned as they glanced at one another; then both of those grins melted into tight lipped frowns of guilt.

A few moments later, whilst putting on her jacket, and preparing to head out of the door, Aria found that her nerves had quickly jumped back into action. Sonata sat a short distance away upon the armrest of the couch, kicking her legs back and forth. She studied her sister with deep interest. Noticing the elder girl’s hands shivering ever so slightly as she reached for a cigarette, Sonata decided to speak up.

“You don’t have to feel nervous about it, Ari. This is a good thing, right?”

Aria froze just as she was about to light the smoke. Her eyes peered at the younger girl who gazed back with the sweetest, and most sincere of smiles. Something jumped in Aria’s chest, and suddenly she felt her shoulders relax. This was a good thing. What was she being so perturbed and nervous for? Cookie was someone she actually wanted to be around. Why should she allow her own paranoia to ruin the opportunity? Aria smiled ever so slightly, and put her lighter away. Plucking the cigarette from between her lips, she then tucked it safely into a free compartment in her wallet. Pulling the rest of the pack of cigarettes from her pocket, she stared at them for a moment before tossing them down upon the table beside the entrance.

“Yea. It is,” she replied to the girl before hoisting her jacket into a fit upon her shoulders, and opening the door.

Sonata waved eagerly, a mischievous grin upon her face.

“You kiddies be good, okay? Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” she teased with a sly wink. Aria’s entire face went red as she crossed the threshold. Before she shut the door behind her, she turned to face her sister one more time, now wearing an annoyed grimace.

“Sonata, quit while you're ahead.”

The blue girl simply giggled as the front door slammed shut. Sitting there, kicking her legs to and fro, she seemed to be enjoying the memory of the rare moment of peace that Aria and she had just shared. That sort of thing simply did not happen anymore. Sure, having to hear about all those yucky things from the old times had made her skin crawl, but as long as she only had to hear about it, and not relive it, then she could consider it to be a fair compromise.

As she mulled things over to herself, Sonata could not help but revisit Aria’s warning. It was the second time her elder sister had warned her in this manner which was serious business because Aria almost never repeated herself unless she was completely insistent about something. Still, the entire time, Sonata could barely resist the urge to tell Aria that she simply didn’t understand how she felt, and it was practically impossible to explain how she was feeling since she had never been too good with putting her thoughts into words. Perhaps all of the ages that her sisters had spent worrying and wrestling with mortal-type troubles had emotionally prepared them for dark times such as this, but Sonata just wasn’t like them. Her simple life philosophy had never accounted for pressures like these, and she wasn’t about to be settled with them now. She wasn’t about to be trapped in a life of unhappiness and toil as if it were the old times all over again.

By this point, the smile had completely faded from her face. Her legs had stopped kicking, and she sat in an eerie silence in the quiet living room. Sliding her gaze toward the front door, the next phase of her plan to win over Patti Mint came rushing back into her mind with a powerful gusto. Rising to her feet, she calmly made her way toward the entryway, grabbed a hoodie, one of Aria’s caps, and then her keys and wallet from the side table. Shoving the cap into the hoodie pocket, she quietly unlocked the entrance, slipped through the threshold, and off into the night.

___

The Tank was a rather shady bar, definitely not as warm as Bubbles, at least not from what Sonata could remember of the few times she had gone there with her sisters or friends. Instead, this place seemed purposely lit—or rather, darkened—to better reflect the intentions of its seemingly questionable patrons. Sonata couldn’t help but muse on how much Aria would probably enjoy a dive like this.

Donning her hoodie and cap as she walked into the place, she was relieved to discover that at least the A/C was on full blast inside. Looking about for Patti as she slowly made her way through the somewhat filled pub, and toward the bar, she seemed completely heedless of all the dubious stares she was currently receiving from the other guests. As she passed one particularly seedy-looking fellow, he gave off a loud whistle, surprising her into glancing in his direction. Seeing his wide grin, and inevitably missing its underlying message, she smiled back sweetly, and whistled a short, cheery tune in return.

“So much fun when people do that,” she giggled to herself.

Moving further, she spotted a table with two rather grim looking women sitting at it, sipping at glasses full of something clear. As Sonata passed them, one leaned into the other, and could distinctly be seen mouthing out the words: “Fresh meat”. Her companion smiled brightly, and cupped a hand to the side of her mouth.

“Nice legs, sweetheart!” she yelled. Sonata gasped, and grinned even wider.

“Thank you!” she replied warmly. “I think it’s because I dance a lot. I can give you girls a playlist later if you want, kay?”

Waving like a madwoman, she finally skipped up to the barside where two utterly inebriated young men were sitting, yelling about something or other. The one nearest her, upon taking one glance in her direction, immediately shoved his companion off of his stool, stepped over, and gestured toward the now empty seat to allow her to sit. Sonata’s doe-ish eyes sparkled.

“Aww, you’re so sweet! Gosh, everyone here is so nice! I guess that’s what I get for judging a glam magazine by its cover.”

Things were good. Despite the fact that she still felt exhausted, at least her spirits were lifted on account of all the wonderfully “polite” people she now found herself surrounded by. As she watched the barkeep approach her, she made a mental note to herself to visit this spot more often if she ever got the chance. It seemed to be a great place for a quick confidence boost.

“Hey, sweetheart,” the middle-aged, redheaded, raspy-voiced woman behind the counter said whilst she dried off a freshly rinsed whiskey tumbler. “What can I get ya?”

Sonata thought for a moment, tapping her chin. To be quite honest, she had only come here to dig up some information on Patti, but seeing the girl nowhere around, she concluded that perhaps she might have to wait. She might as well enjoy herself in the mean time.

“Gee, I don’t know. You got any juice boxes?” she asked.

The redhead peered at her with a look of utter exhaustion. Rolling her eyes, she sighed heavily, and placed a hand upon her hip.

“No. Which reminds me, let me see some I.D.”

“Oh. Well then, whatever you’ve got that’s really, really fruity,” Sonata said with a bashful grin as she reached into her hoodie pocket for her wallet. “I’ll take that.”

Pulling the wallet out, she unsnapped one side of it revealing, to the barkeep’s utter surprise, a thick row of ID cards shoved into a near bursting pocket. Pulling them all out, she began sifting through them to find the right one.

“Here it... Oh, wait, no. That’s expired. Or what about… Oh no. They don’t even print those anymore. Ooh! Here it is!” she exclaimed, picking out one of the newer looking cards, and handing it to the woman behind the counter.

The woman didn’t even bother to look at the thing, but instead, cracked a small smile. Indeed, despite Sonata’s oddness, it seemed nearly impossible to not be charmed by the ever cheery girl.

“I’m just gonna pretend like I didn’t see all that just now,” she murmured handing the card back to her. “What did you say you wanted again, sweetheart?”

“Something really fruity and sweet. Not that bitter stuff that my sisters keep tricking me into drinking whenever they buy stuff.”

“You know what? You look like a ‘Sex on the Beach’ type of gal,” the woman rasped, reaching under the counter for a tall, curvy glass. She never even noticed Sonata’s eyes pop wide open, a panicked yet guilty expression upon her face.

“W-what! Why, I never… I…” she stammered, slapping her palms against the counter. Leaning in, the former siren’s gaze pierced into the barkeep. The woman recoiled.

“What’ve you heard?” Sonata hissed just slightly above a whisper, her eyes darting about. “Who’ve you been talking to? It wasn’t a skinny, purple-y girl with a scary face who likes to break stuff, right?”

The woman at once began to shake her head fearfully, not knowing in the slightest what she should say.

“Because, I told her that it wasn’t what it looked like! We were opening our chakras or whatever!”

“I—” the redhead stammered whilst her hands worked vigorously below the bar.

“By the seas, Aria! It was the Sixties! Leave me alone, already!”

“Here!” the older woman yelled, throwing a tall glass full of a delicious looking pink and orange liquid in front of Sonata. This seemed to immediately pull the girl’s attention away from her own frantic thoughts.

“Oooh! That looks goood!” Sonata squealed, snatching the glass up, and reaching into her pocket for a few dollars.

“Now, y-you just settle down, and sip on that slowly, sweetheart,” the barkeep said with a relieved sigh as she watched Sonata pop the drink straw into her mouth. “Hopefully it’ll calm yer nerves or… whatever the hell is wrong with you.”

Picking up the crumpled bills that she had placed on the counter, the woman smirked as she listened to the sound of the strange girl in the baseball cap slurping down her drink, humming happily to herself.

“You’ve never heard the name of that drink before?” the woman asked her suspiciously. “It’s really very popular.”

Sonata shrugged.

“People always just buy this stuff for me. I dunno why. I don’t know the names of any of them, really.”

Just as she was saying this, the drunk young man beside her motioned for the barkeep to approach him. Whispering in the older woman’s ear, he slipped her a bill as she rolled her eyes.

“Really?” she asked him, unamused. The man shrugged.

Sighing to herself, she reached under the counter for a few moments, yet again, and when her hands reappeared, they were holding yet another glass of the colorful drink that Sonata had been sipping on. Plopping it down in front of Sonata, the redheaded woman cocked an eyebrow at her.

“The gentleman sends his regards,” she croaked. Sonata’s eyes widened.

“See what I mean?” she exclaimed, completely ignoring the man to her left, to his utter disappointment.

She continued to gulp down her beverage—faster this time so she could get started on the second. A moment later, after finishing the first glass, her head popped up with a gasp, and she glanced at the barkeep once again. Worried that the girl might go off on another tangent, the redhead braced herself, and took a step back. Instead, Sonata let out a small hiccup, and giggled.

“S’cuse me,” she murmured bashfully. “I just remembered I wanted to ask you something. Does this girl named Patti Mint work here? Brown hair, blue eyes, face always looks like she ate something bad?”

The redhead scoffed, and rolled her eyes. Noting this, Sonata tried her best to hide the wide grin that threatened to break out upon her face. There was absolutely no doubt that this barkeep was yet another person who had been touched by Patti’s “charm”.

“Yea, she’ll be comin’ in in about half an hour or so. Why? You one of her little, snotty friends or somethin’?” the woman asked looking very much as if she wanted to snatch Sonata’s drink away.

“Nu uh,” the former siren said with a shake of her head before taking another sip. “She uhh… She just uhh… owes me some money.”

She received yet another snort from the red head.

“Figures. That girl just can’t seem to get her shit together. Ever since she started here, she’s been late just about every shift she’s had, busy gettin’ drunk on the clock, always runnin’ off to a bathroom stall with some good for nothin’ every chance you give her.”

“Oh, really?” Sonata said, looking genuinely captivated.

“Of course, and between you and me, I don’t think you’re ever gonna get your money back, sweetheart. I’ve seen that Mint girl skimming outta the cash register before. Not very good at it either. Only a matter of time before she gets caught,” the barkeep said, picking up a fresh glass to dry.

A squeak escaped Sonata’s throat when she heard this. Her raspberry eyes gleamed with excitement.

“Why don’t you just tell whoever owns this place?” she asked as beguilingly as she could manage. The barkeep looked at her in a rather perplexed fashion.

“What do I look like, a snitch? A little rat or somethin?” she asked. “You aren’t a rat right? Cause that kinda shit can get you into a lot of trouble around here.”

Sonata coughed, caught off guard by the woman’s sudden flare of suspicion.

“No! I meant…” she thought to herself for a moment. “I’m no rat. I just… forget it.”

Eyeing the barkeep with interest, Sonata quickly figured a different approach, and tried again.

“Who does own this place, anyway? Everyone here’s so wonderful. He or she must be the nicest person in the whole wide world, huh?”

The redhead woman now glanced at the siren as if she were insane.

“You pullin’ my leg, kiddo?”

Sonata shook her head innocently, slurping up the dregs of her drink. Seeing that she was serious, the barkeep cocked an eyebrow, and sighed.

“Who owns The Tank? Why, Tank owns The Tank. You never seen him? He’s hard to miss. Huge, enormous, gray guy. Got a scar on his cheek. Likes collecting little, ceramic puppy statues. You know. Classic “don’t fuck with that guy”-type guy. He don’t always come in, though.”

Sonata had heard everything she needed to hear. Plus, she had just finished off her super yummy, “One of these days, Aria,” drinks or whatever the glass of deliciousness had been called. Thus, she decided that it was time to take her leave before Patti came in for the evening.

“That’s okay. I was just curious.”

She eyed the redheaded woman one more time with the deepest of interest, and leaned forward.

“Say, you said you’re no snitch, right?”

“‘Course not,” the woman repeated with a raspy cough.

“Great. So, then it wouldn’t be a whole lot if I asked you not to tell Patti that I was here, right?” Sonata asked, smiling sweetly. The woman peered at her with suspicion, but yet again, Sonata’s grin won her over.

“Eh. You seem like good people. My lips are sealed if yours are,” the woman said, then turning her back to the girl with an air of finality.

Smiling quite contently to herself, Sonata popped up to her feet with a giggle, and let go of the counter to pull her hood on. Teetering to the side in her tipsyness, she fell into the arms of the drunken young man who had been practically gawking beside her the entire time. Passing him an enamored gaze to meet his lecherous smile, she hiccuped once, and then spoke.

“Gosh, are you like… Superman or something? You’ve got like, super speed,” she murmured to him, her eyes wide. The man cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Baby, I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”

“Really?” Sonata gasped, pushing herself out of his arms, and clasping her hands. “You can shapeshift too? I used to be able to do that! Isn’t it the best?”

After giving the now confused drunkard a polite wave, Sonata headed toward the entrance. Still teetering on her feet, she waved goodbye to the rest of the new “friends” she had made that night, and pushed her way through the door.

The wind was knocked out of her as she bumped into someone headed in the opposite direction. Being rather sturdy for such a bouncy girl—something she liked to thank her earth pony roots for—Sonata practically knocked the other person onto the ground before realizing that it was Patti that she had run into. Thankfully, the girl had not yet looked at her face, being far too busy rubbing the pain out of her backside from where she fell onto the concrete. Thinking quickly, Sonata pulled her cap low, and turned in the direction of home.

“Uhh, excuse me, Miss,” she blurted in the manliest voice she could fake, and then quickly rushed away.

“Oh, nice. Yet another gentleman,” Patti muttered to herself. “Good job not even helping me up, asshole!” she yelled, but by the time she had looked in Sonata’s direction, there was no one there.

__

Sonata was humming to herself by the time she got home. It was only upon entering the house that she realized how quiet it was without Aria in front of the T.V. or blasting her music from upstairs. Adagio wasn’t really one to make much noise unless she was angry and yelling; thus, the atmosphere seemed rather eerie. Nevertheless, Sonata’s spirit was uplifted. After having obtained some new dirt on Patti, and potentially getting Aria some action, she couldn’t help but feel pleasantly accomplished, rather brilliant.

Perhaps it was the warm shower that reminded her of how exhausted she had been. Maybe, it was the coziness of her pajamas, or maybe it was the warm feeling of her blankets as she crawled beneath them, but as soon as Sonata had hit her sheets, the world seemed to fade away into the most lovely haze. Maybe those haunting dreams of the ocean would leave her alone just for tonight.

The tinkling of piano keys coming from above—playing an all too familiar melody—forced her eyes open. Rousing herself from sleep, Sonata sat up in her bed, and looked at her clock. To her shock, two hours had already passed, even though she felt like she hadn’t slept at all. The persistent sound of that ominous song, at once, made her heart sink from the heights where it had flown earlier in the evening. Thus, wrestling with herself over whether or not she should heed the urge to go up to the attic, Sonata finally took a deep breath, threw off her covers, and headed out into the hallway.

__

Reaching up, it took a fair bit of her strength to push the attic door open without making a sound. Wincing, she froze as she heard the old wood creak upon being laid on its opposite side. Not hearing any break or slowing of the pace of the hypnotic melody coming from within, she released the breath she had been holding, and slowly tiptoed up into the dark.

The room was warmer than the rest of the house, a bit stuffy, but the small window that sat open on the far wall let in just a bit of a comforting breeze from the starry night beyond. Sonata worried herself with quietly closing the door back behind her to shut out the hallway light. She then moved to hide herself behind a large wooden crate. The thing was left unopened, caked with dust, and printed with the words “Port of New York, 1918,” on its side. Looking around the room, one could find many locked and lonesome mysteries of a similar sort, all of them splashed in moonlight.

This attic was a sort of haven for her sisters, especially Adagio who was more prone to take care of her precious belongings. The elder girl knew how to preserve things, make things last. Sonata supposed that she might even still have some old neck ruffs neatly folded away, or even a hennin—rotted, but still shaped to its perfect point—somewhere within one of these many chests and boxes.

Smiling to herself as she quietly zipped through a millenia of memories from her little corner, Sonata brought her knees up to her chest, and allowed her head to rest upon them. Glancing fondly toward her eldest sister, she sighed to herself, wondering what could possibly have had the girl so entranced that her fingers never seemed to slow, to break pace, or to rest.

The encore of that haunting tune made the younger girl's lips curl under into a slight frown. Raising her head to take a better look toward Adagio’s back, she searched for some sign as to why she would play such a song that would forevermore bring such melancholy upon their hearing it.

It was beautiful, though. Of course, she would expect nothing less from Adagio. In some ways it was as if the old magic could still be drawn from where she knew it now lay forever dormant within each note. The sound of each pulsing, crescendoing chord matched Sonata’s heartbeat, and for a moment it almost felt as if that old familiar itch might revisit her, the warmness that spread all the way out to her fingertips. Perhaps the wellspring might even open up, just a little bit, and send forth its beauty into the world through her, its vessel. Her lips parted as Adagio began the refrain once over. It became increasingly more difficult to stifle herself. Eyes wide, and glassy, she lost herself, for a tiny moment, within that gorgeous melody.

“...We’re here to let you know. Our time is now…

Sonata’s alto, though hoarse, and still utterly imperfect to the ears of any siren, now carried with it a sad sweetness in its flaws, a type of rustic charm that seemed to betray its true age. Her long, fracturing note trailed off slowly, as did the piano, almost as if Adagio had been expecting to play in time with her all along. It seemed like forever until the lingering chord disappeared from where it dawdled upon the blue-cast walls, and then another eternity for an ensuing silence to pass between them. Sonata hadn’t the mettle. So, Adagio spoke first.

“I thought you and Aria were out for the night,” she said calmly, still facing front toward the open window.

“Just Aria. I was only gone for a little while,” Sonata replied gently, not moving from her hidden spot behind the crate. Not hearing an immediate reply, she figured that her superior was cross with her for having interrupted her private time. “Sorry. I heard the song, and… I couldn’t sleep, I guess. Are you mad?”

Adagio spun around halfway on the chair to glance in the direction of the small, semi-muffled voice. Spotting two sets of five, blue toes wiggling out from the edge of the large wooden box by the door, the elder girl couldn’t help but stifle a smile. She opted to sigh heavily instead.

“No, I’m not mad. I’m too tired to be mad. Come on out of there,” she bid her. Obeying orders, as usual, Sonata quickly got to her feet, and traversed the length of the room. Standing before Adagio, she clasped her hands together, unable to look at the seated woman’s face. She heard a scoff.

“You smell like vodka and gummy bears,” Adagio murmured, sliding over to make room for the younger girl. “And you’re tilting sideways. Sit down before you fall.”

Sonata quickly took her seat, ignoring the comment.

“So, you went out drinking,” Adagio sighed matter-of-factly. Sonata tapped her index fingers together nervously. She knew that the elder girl would probably not like the idea of her spending money so frivolously.

“Yes, but I have way extra tips. There’s still plenty more left over.”

As she finished, Adagio slowly raised her hand to stifle anything more that might come.

“It’s alright, Sonata. I said I’m not mad. I understand that perhaps you might be feeling a little… stressed. Lately, I am too.”

More silence ensued between them as the younger girl tugged anxiously at her fingers. A more serious issue rolled about in her mind.

“Adagio?” she spoke up finally. “How… how do you play that song?”

“Well, it’s not really that difficult… technically,” Adagio sighed. “I mean, it’s not supposed to be, but there are a ton of nuances that a mortal’s ears might miss in the pressure of the key taps, and—”

“No, I mean. How do you play it, knowing what it is... what it means? How do you bring yourself to do it?”

Adagio turned, and cocked an eyebrow at her.

“I was going to ask you how you could bring yourself to sing it,” she replied. There was a brief pause. “It didn’t sound too bad for what it was, actually. It was quite… quaint.”

“I thought so, too,” Sonata said, drawing an even more surprised look from her elder. She met the expression with a sweet smile. “And I can sing it because it helps me to remember… or forget, depending on whichever makes me feel better. I was scared to tell you, but I haven’t really stopped singing ever since… well, you know. I just wanted to know if you did that, too.”

The elder girl looked astonished. Caught off guard by the confidence in Sonata’s tone, she glanced down toward her feet.

“Yes, but the remembering is always painful for me, even when it’s not. And I do it because it hurts. I don’t know. There’s something satisfying in that. It feels like I’m scratching an itch.”

Sonata smirked at this, and faced front.

“Aria would love to hear you say that.”

Adagio let loose a small laugh, realizing the truth in the statement.

“I’m sure she would. So, you better not tell her.”

The smile the elder siren wore gradually melted away as thoughts of Aria permeated her mind. She and the other girl had not spoken since the evening of the fight, and ever since, despite her inability to admit that she had fouled up, Adagio had wanted to find a way to show her remorse for the terrible things she had said to her.

“So, is she… well?” she asked her subordinate. Her fingers curled under the edge of the bench, and squeezed until her knuckles turned white. She was afraid of what Sonata’s answer might be.

“I think so,” Sonata replied, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “She went on a date or something. Got all dolled up… Well, dolled up for her.”

Adagio snorted.

“Aria? On a date? What’re they gonna do, go throw rocks at windows, and crush beer cans with their foreheads?”

“Oooh, that sounds kinda fun,” Sonata murmured. “But I don’t think so. She said she was going to some girl’s house for dinner. That lady from her job.”

The elder siren suddenly looked rather surprised.

“You mean the walking vanilla ice cream cone?” she asked.

“Yea, her!”

Adagio smirked, and turned to face the piano keys again, beginning to lightly tap upon them.

“That one’s got a smart mouth… and a perfect rack. I shouldn’t even be surprised. Aria’s always known how to pick her girls. Terrible taste in men, though. I thought for sure, if anything, she’d gun for that red guy at her job, to be quite honest. Great looks, great car, utterly aggravating personality, and you know how Aria loves being aggravated. ”

She tried to smile at her own joke, but found she could not. Sonata’s silence only worked to make her discomfort even worse.

“You know, she let me do her hair and her makeup,” the younger girl blurted, attempting to change the subject. Adagio’s playing stopped.

“What?”

“Yep, and she let me come into her room, too.”

The elder girl gawked before slowly bringing her fingers down upon the keys one more time.

“Oh, she’s got it bad for that poodle, huh?”

Sonata giggled.

“I guess so,” she murmured, her smile softening ever so slightly. She glanced at her elder sister out of the corner of her eye. “You know, you should try talking to her. I don’t think she’s that mad anymore.”

Adagio rolled her eyes, beginning to play a little louder.

“I threw Swift in her face, Sonata. Trust me. She’s still mad.”

The younger girl winced at the name, tugging at her fingers yet again.

“Well… well, just do what you always do when you want her to listen to you: Lock yourself, and a plate of buffalo wings in the same room with her, and yell. That always works, right?” Sonata posed, sounding slightly desperate. Adagio did not respond, opting instead to continue her playing. A moment later, she heard Sonata sigh loudly, and stand up.

“Adagio, I’m tired! I’m tired of this whole “I know what I have to say, but I won’t because then I’ll lose” stuff! I’m tired because I can’t sleep without dreaming about beaches calling my name all night, and I don’t even wanna sleep, because I’m scared when I wake up that… that something might have happened to one of you. We have to talk about all this at some point, Dagi, because I don’t think we can live like this… like walking and talking and breathing and doing stuff without our powers or our song. It’s not what we are, and we keep taking it out on each other—Well, we always do that, but it’s getting worse! I keep feeling like something really bad is going to happen at any moment, and…” Sonata trailed off, noticing that Adagio had made no effort to turn, and look at her, or to stop playing gently in the dark of the room.

“...We’re broken, Dagi, and I think we need to be trying to figure out how to fix it… fix us, but it feels like I’m the only one that wants to or something, and I definitely can’t figure stuff like that out on my own.”

When the youngest siren’s voice faded away, only the tinkling of piano keys was left. A slight whistle of wind crept in through the open window as if to join it in harmony. Feeling dejected, Sonata let her shoulders slump, and turned to leave without another word.

“You’re right,” Adagio’s voice said over the melody. The younger girl froze in her footsteps, and turned around, her eyes wide. “We are broken. Over the past week, I’ve come to believe that the source, the wellspring from which we were made, is still whole, still intact. We can still see energy, and apparently we can still feel the energy within each other as it ebbs and flows.”

Sonata, now mesmerized by her sister’s words, took a few silent steps forward, and lowered herself to sit on the ground. Peering up at Adagio as she continued to play, it seemed as if the elder girl was now slowly putting herself into a meditative trance.

“However, if we are broken—cracked, if you will—then we can’t hold the power of the source any longer, or at least not properly, not wholly. We can call up the source. We can beckon it, even with these horrid voices of ours. I don’t think anything will ever be able to change that. But the water of the wellspring just seeps through the holes until there’s nothing left. The power is useless within us now. What I can’t seem to figure out is how to go about fixing those cracks. If we could find a way to contain the source again, then maybe… maybe… To fix a broken vessel, one needs—”

“Glue,” Sonata finished. The piano playing stopped abruptly, and Adagio spun around to face her as if she had forgotten the younger girl was even there.

“Glue?” Adagio murmured, half exasperated, half confused.

“Yea! Special glue so the pieces hold together. We just need to figure out what our glue is.”

Adagio felt irritation coming on. For once, she had allowed herself to be open in front of Sonata, and here she went again, babbling on about some random nonsense. Wincing away the beginnings of what would surely turn into anger, Adagio lifted a hand, bidding for the girl to stop speaking.

“What makes us feel like new, Dagi?” Sonata began softly, noting Adagio’s attempt at keeping her composure. “Water! What if the reason we’ve been having those dreams is because the ocean is calling us?”

Now, instead of irritation, something new sprung up in Adagio’s chest. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she felt her palms turn sweaty at the very thought of facing the ocean again, in the flesh. Like a forsaken haunt or a dysfunctional childhood home that brought up a host of painful memories about broken promises and dashed dreams, she suddenly realized that she was quite content in avoiding the place altogether. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand how Sonata could feel any different when even the thought of those blue waters in her dreams now made her want to puke.

“We’re not going anywhere near the beach,” she murmured, something dangerous and threatening in her tone. “I’ve told you once, and I’ll tell you again. We’re staying right here. If water sourced from the ocean was going to do anything, it would have done it by now.”

Realizing just how defensive she was being, Adagio quickly spun around on the bench, and began to play again. When the younger girl pleaded with her to listen, she drowned her voice out by pounding even louder upon the keys.

Determined to be heard, Sonata got to her feet, took a deep breath, and walked toward Adagio. Reaching out to the voraciously flailing figure at the bench, she touched the girl’s shoulder to draw her attention. Adagio’s playing ceased at once as her head spun around to face the younger girl. There were flames in her eyes. Instinctively, she stood up, and moved to shove her back. Sonata winced, and brought her arms up to protect herself, only to be left waiting for a blow that never came. When she worked up the nerve to look again, Adagio was standing in front of her, arms recoiled, ready to strike. A terrible look of shame was plastered across her face. At once, she brought her hands up, digging them deep into her hair. Pulling at the curls in utter frustration, she shouted as loud as she could into the air, and then collapsed to her knees on the floor.

Sonata, justifiably startled by all of this, simply stood there, hands clasped over her mouth as she stared down at her elder in shock. She dared not move, even when Adagio began to laugh—a small sound at first that grew and grew until it echoed off of the walls, and tears were leaking from the corners of her eyes.

Just as abruptly as it began, the laughing ceased, and Adagio was, again, left staring thoughtfully at the floor. There was a long silence before she took a deep breath and spoke.

“You ever wonder if all of those times we sang about getting our “reward” or “what we deserve,” if this was it?” Sonata didn’t respond; so, Adagio gazed up into her eyes. “You ever think that our being broken and miserable all the time is the way it was intended to be, or is that just me?”

“Dagi…” Sonata murmured, hesitating before joining her sister on the floor. “No. We’re supposed to be whole. We’re supposed to be happy. We’re supposed to be… exactly what we are.”

The younger girl shrugged, not knowing how else to phrase such a simple concept. Adagio’s brow knit at she listened to her words.

“We’re monsters. We lure mortals in, and drain them of their energy and their free will until barely anything is left. Come on, Sonata. I know you love all of those crappy old fairytales. The monsters aren’t supposed to win or be happy in the end.”

Sonata peered at her for a moment, disturbed that Adagio would honestly feel this way. Taking a deep breath, she leaned in, and gripped her sister’s shoulders.

“We’re not monsters, and we’re not in a fairytale, Adagio. No one gets to say whether we should be healthy and happy, or what we should do to stay that way besides us.”

Adagio scoffed, glancing again at the floor.

“The Rainbooms did.”

Sonata frowned, and placed her hands into her lap.

“Only if we sit here, and do nothing,” she replied.

Adagio then looked up at her, a half formed smile upon her face.

“We could always just take their advice, and be kind, and sweet, and hug everything we come into contact with. You could have a ton of friends down at CHS, you know.”

The younger girl’s nose scrunched up as if she had smelled something horrible.

“Hugs and friends are amazing, but being a goodie is so overrated, Adagio.” Sonata said, swatting her hand playfully in her sister’s direction. “No one’s perfect. Not even those Rainbooms girls. Mortals and immortals like that always think they’re so darn shiny and clean. They always think what they’re doing is the best thing ever, and that being good is the right way for everything in the whole universe or something…”

Sonata paused to shift her position, bringing her knees up against her chest, and resting her head upon them.

“...but what does ‘good’ even mean without us? Without beings like us, the Rainbooms wouldn’t be good. They’d just… be, and everybody wants to be something.”

A soft hum escaped from Sonata’s throat as she delved deeper into the wide spaces in her mind. Her eyes reflected the moonlight as she gazed out of the window.

“I can see why the Rainbooms exist...”

This elicited a shocked gaze from her elder, but the younger girl appeared neither bothered nor moved by this.

“... but I don’t think they get that we’re here for a reason, too. We didn’t just choose to exist. I think if those goodies got rid of every last baddie or chaos maker in the whole wide world, they’d just sit around hugging, and dancing until they all realized how lame it was, and went nuts with boredom. Then they’d just end up right back at sadness and anger where they started. Then they’d be their own baddies. There’s no getting rid of the chaos, at least not forever. No one should even try, if you ask me.”

She tapped her chin.

“Huh. They wanna save everybody in the whole wide world, but in a way, we’re kinda saving them, aren’t we?”

Adagio was at a loss for words. Peering, tight-lipped, at the younger girl, she couldn’t help but shake her head, and smile.

“Sonata, you are full of surprises, you know that?”

The blue girl looked perplexed.

“Why does everybody keep telling me that?”

Sighing heavily, and getting to her feet, Adagio dusted herself off, and reached out to help her sister up.

“Come on, I’ll make you some hot chocolate. Maybe you can work off some of whatever kind of hangover you’ll have tomorrow, you lightweight.”

“You can make hot chocolate?” Sonata asked with a genuinely astonished look on her face. “But Aria says that you cremate water.”

Adagio clenched her fist, and grated her teeth, wrestling with the idea of dropping the girl back onto the floor.

“Yea, well Aria thinks like the two millennia old grandma that she is. Have you ever seen her try to use the internet by herself?—Complete catastrophe. Maybe one day we’ll teach her about microwaves.”

The two girls laughed to themselves as they walked toward the attic door. Sonata, being ever the obedient helper, pulled the thing up, and held it for Adagio to pass through. Taking her time, the curly haired girl took one step onto the stairs, then another.

Shockwaves. A sudden punch to the chest. Tingling and warmness all over. Sonata doubled over, accidentally dropping the door. Clutching the burning place between her chest and neck, she fell to her knees, gasping for air. The room was spinning as she tried to get a grip on what was happening to her. Then, she remembered…

“Dagi!”

She fumbled desperately for the door handle in the darkness. When her fingers finally hooked around it, she yanked it open, and nearly fell forward, straight down into Adagio who now sat on the floor below. The elder girl was also clutching her chest and gasping. Thinking she might have hit her in the head with the door, Sonata prostrated herself on the attic floor, and dipped her head out of the opening.

“Dagi, are you oka—”

Another thump to the chest. They both inhaled sharply as Adagio’s eyes shot upward to stare at her sister. It seemed that in their strained, teary eyed gazes, the same message was spoken. With each thump it seemed like the juice that gave them their vigor, the very energy they required to even lift a finger, was sucked away. Trying to think through her distress, Adagio closed her eyes, and made an attempt to study the sensation. When the thump came again, she felt her arms fall limp at her sides. In a moment, they were moving, but one more thump, and suddenly her legs went numb. Her energy was being drawn from her in bouts. That was the first thing to become immediately clear.

“Leach” she stammered in her deliriousness. “Someone’s... leaching..."

Adagio choked before doubling over.

“It hurts, Adagio!” Sonata gasped trying her best to crawl safely down the attic stairs, and instead falling straight down onto the floor with a loud ‘THUD’.

Bracing themselves for a moment longer, they waited, and prayed to the seas that the invasive pain would cease. Eventually, it ebbed. Trying to catch their breaths—Sonata lying flat on her back, and Adagio propped up haphazardly against the wall beside her—they both eventually managed to turn their heads, and give each other knowing glances.

“Aria.”

Flames

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Something putrid had been hovering in the air ever since Aria had left the house. It was so faint that she couldn’t tell whether it was just a strong feeling or a weak scent, perhaps energy or maybe something even stranger. Whatever it was, it put her on edge, made her wary. Of course, that relentless broad called fate would have had it no other way on a night that had already seemed harrowing enough.

She had been standing there outside of Cookie’s door with her hand raised, prepped to knock for what seemed like forever. Everytime she retracted her fist, and jettisoned it forward, it would always freeze just an inch away from the white-painted wood. In her opposite hand dangled a quickly thawing six pack of beer that now leaked cold water onto her skin. The sensation only worked to heighten her restlessness.

Leaning her head against the doorframe, she sighed loudly, and reached into her pocket for the pack of cigarettes that was not there. She growled to herself. How in the world had she allowed Sonata, of all beings, to convince her not to bring them? Fumbling around for her wallet with her one, free, shaking hand, she pulled the thing out, unzipped the pocket that held the single cigarette, and popped the thing between her lips. Envisioning the sweet relief that would course through her in only a few moments, she flubbed about for her lighter.

“Come on you little piece of—”

She found it. Flicking the spark wheel once, then twice, she finally got a solid light on the third try. The flame made her deep purple eyes glimmer as she brought it close, near enough to barely lick the edge of the stick.

“Ey!” came a deep voice from somewhere to her left. Her head snapped around, unlit cigarette still clenched between her lips. Across the yard, and behind a fence, Aria was barely able to make out the outline of a stocky, bathrobe-clad man, wielding what appeared to be a baseball bat. Snorting in both relief and disbelief, she quickly put the lighter away, and pulled the cigarette from her mouth.

“Yea?” she almost laughed, finding the spectacle before her ridiculous.

“Why are ya snoopin’ around people’s doors at night, huh? You got business around here or not?” he exclaimed, making sure to give the rose-ish girl a good view of the bat. Aria eyed him for a moment, sniffing the air in his direction, trying to get a good handle on the scent of his energy. It seemed obvious, however, that this would turn out not to be the strange presence she had been sensing from earlier. She promptly rolled her eyes.

“Idunno, old man. Is that any of your business?”

“It is when it’s right next door to me!” he yelled, now incensed.

“Hey, you know what else is right next door to you?” she laughed, then reaching under her chin with the flat of the back of her hand. Sliding it out in the direction of the robed man, she made an obscene gesture.

“That’s it,” the man grumbled. “I’m calling the cops.”

“Yea, tough guy? Can’t handle your problems by yourself?” the former siren yelled just as she heard the sound of the door in front of her unlock. Before she could prepare herself—or rather, shut her mouth—the thing swung open. Cookie’s toffee eyes peered out, darting about to find the source of the commotion; they landed squarely upon her.

“Aria!” she exclaimed, her lips curling into a grin. Spotting her next door neighbor waving his bat about angrily, yelling and cursing about the police, her joy quickly seemed to dissipate. Eyes darting between the man and Aria, whose simpering smile now leaked pure guilt, Cookie seemed to immediately catch on to what had happened.

“Oh, boy,” she muttered. “Sorry, Mister Marsh! Aria’s with me!”

“You tell your delinquent friends to keep their muzzles on when they’re yappin at honest, hard workin’ people, Cookie!”

“Sorry! It won’t happen again!” the white haired girl called rolling her eyes as she tugged Aria into her house by the arm.

Slamming the door shut, she turned to stand before the embarrassed siren, a stone cold expression upon her face. Crossing her arms she waited in silence. Aria could feel the tremble already working its way up from her feet. Her entire face began to burn up, and she couldn’t even bring herself to look at anything other than Cookie’s purple socks.

“Aria Blaze, can't you leave the house without getting into a fight?” she asked calmly, her voice leaking aggravation.

Aria just stood there for a moment, happy to just allow her brain to go numb. By some miracle, something inside of her decided to persevere.

This is a good thing, she repeated to herself as if it were a mantra. Shaking her head clear, she then took a deep breath, and forced herself to look Cookie in the eyes.

“Cookie? I… I’m so, so sss…sooorr—”

“Oh, relax! I’m just messin with ya!” the other woman guffawed, leaning forward to playfully swat at the wreck of a siren standing before her. “Marsh is a retired cop. He’s always paranoid like that.”

The curly-haired woman glanced down at the case of bottles hanging from Aria’s fingers, and quickly moved to snatch it from her.

“What’s this? Seven dollar convenience store beer! Aria, you truly are a woman after my own heart.”

Cookie nudged her playfully with her elbow before walking around her toward the living room, leaving Aria stunned, confused, and slightly pleased with herself. She didn’t move again until she heard her name being called from her rear. Spinning around, she quickly walked toward the voice whilst pulling off her jacket. Remembering the cigarette still in her hand, she decided it was too late to smoke it anyway, and tucked it back into its designated pocket within her wallet.

Nearing the corner that turned into the living room proper, a strange scent wafted into Aria’s nose, and stayed there—or was it a strange energy? It wasn’t the one that had been nagging her from before. It was too strong, too familiar, one that she knew she had smelled often, but in the setting of Cookie’s home, she could not quite place it. A strange jingling sound, like someone rattling keys, suddenly caught her ears as she reached the turn in the hallway. It seemed to be coming closer.

It dawned on her just as soon as the low growling began, and as she turned into the living room, a large mound of white fuzz and drool leapt directly onto her. Yelling fearfully as the dog continued to growl, she very nearly tumbled onto the ground before managing to scramble away.

“Get it off!” she cried, flailing her arms about as the creature approached, sniffing, then panting, and then growling. It seemed as if the pooch were confused as to what to make of the frantic girl before him.

“Aria?” Cookie cried as she popped her head back into the hallway. Seeing her friend in distress, she quickly approached to intervene. “Pud, ya big dummy! Get off of her!”

Turning around another bend, a sense of panic enveloped Aria as she bumped into a corner. Finding no escape from the approaching deadly mass of fuzz, her sirenesque instincts kicked in. She hunched forward, arching her back. Opening her eyes wide, she bared her teeth, and let out a low, threatening, almost too authentic growl. The fuzzy white creature before her seemed to understand this familiar language, and immediately hushed its noise. Laying docile upon the ground, it whimpered, and wagged its tail, as if to apologize.

She wasn’t taking any chances. The startled siren maintained her stance, hissing and taking a step forward to spur the vanquished creature back. This was how Cookie found her after popping her head around the corner.

“Puddin!” Cookie yelled, not yet having noticed Aria’s strange behaviour. At the sound of her voice, Aria and the dog broke their intense glares into each others eyes, and turned toward the curly-haired woman. The poor dog, relieved to see its friend come to save it, bounded up, and circled round to Cookie’s rear, licking her hand. Aria, her breath still belabored, moved to stand up straight, and fix any possibly misplaced hair or clothing. Fortunately, Cookie was too busy patting the dog’s head to notice any of this. Afterward, she glanced up toward her friend.

“I’m sorry, Aria! I completely forgot to tell you I have a dog! I… I didn’t think it would be a problem. I figured you of all people weren’t scared of anything.”

Aria looked at her incredulously whilst still attempting to fan the fluster from her cheeks.

“I wasn’t scared,” she blurted. “I was just… caught off guard.”

Cookie passed a sly grin her way.

“Riiight. Well, in case you were wondering, this is Puddin, Pud for short. I’ve had him forever. Can’t believe I’ve never even mentioned him. I guess it’s cause he’s always attached to my hip when I'm home. It’s like he’s just another part of my body at this point. You wanna pet him? He’s real friendly once he gets to know you.”

Cookie stepped toward Aria, ushering Puddin forward by the back of the collar—an act which was clearly met with much resistance by the fearful dog.

“No, that’s okay! I can see him just fine from here. He’s a real cute… creature!” Aria stammered whilst waving from her corner. Eyeing her strangely, Cookie shrugged, and then looked down toward her dog. Patting him on the back, she bid him to go away.

“Go on, Pud. Get outta here. This is supposed to be a relaxing night for Aria, and you’ve already given her about three heart attacks. Mission accomplished.”

The dour girl took a moment to lean over, close her eyes, and take one more relieved breath after she saw the giant fuzzball actually leave.

“Are you alright?” Cookie asked. Aria began to nod until, to her shock, she felt a warm hand gently rest upon her back. Jolting away from the touch, she glared at Cookie wide-eyed. The other woman immediately seemed regretful, almost frightened of what Aria might do. She raised her hands and shook them apologetically.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I… I forgot. I promise I won’t do it again,” Cookie blurted. The two stood there looking at each other as Aria watched the other woman slowly curl into herself. Her cheeks turned red, and her gaze fell to the floor in embarrassment. Knocking her palm against her forehead, Cookie then gave her a determined look.

“C… can we just… do all of this over again?” she asked, almost pleading. It took a while, but gradually, a relieved smile crept over Aria’s face. The former siren stood up straight, and nodded.

Stars, yes.

Cookie busied herself switching on her T.V. and then, somewhat ironically, turning down the volume. Finally, she had a chance to comfortably get a look at Aria. As soon as she gazed at the somewhat nervous-looking woman, her smile seemed to falter ever so slightly. Aria, who had been busying herself with the task of trying to figure out where to stow her jacket, soon gave up, opting to drape it over the back of the living room couch. Looking up, she was met with the other woman’s odd glare.

“What?” she asked, her eyes darting about anxiously.

“Nothing! It’s just that…” Cookie began. “Ya look, really nice. Love the hair.”

She said this with a pleased nod, as if she had been the one who had put all the work into Aria’s appearance that evening. The otherwise dour siren had to bite down upon the edge of her tongue to keep her face from curling up into that same, stupid smile.

“Urrryeathanks,” she muttered, beginning to pace around the couch like a content cat. When the curly-haired woman turned the corner to head off somewhere, Aria exhaled. Finally, she was free to take in everything she could about Cookie’s living room. It seemed the perfect opportunity to figure out what each and every object she spied said about her.

There was a rack of guitars leaning up by the room’s entrance, sitting beneath photos of what Aria could only assume were Cookie’s former bandmates. One of them, a strikingly good-looking, redhead of a man, had his arm wrapped around her in a way that made it seem that they had been a little more than simply bandmates. At once, the dour girl crossed her arms, and smirked. Peering closer, she studied the guy, trying to figure out what in the seas could have possibly been so special about him that Cookie would…

Pssh. Whatever.

Spinning about, her eyes then caught sight of the obvious spot in the back of the room where all of Cookie’s culinary photos and awards were hung. Warily walking past Puddin who was now sitting quietly behind the couch, she stuck her tongue out at him in warning, and then turned to stare at the wall.

Certifications, reviews, and accolades littered the surface by the rear window, amongst various photos of Cookie basking in all of her comestible glory. Prodigy, indeed. Looking at all of this now, that seemed to be a bit of an understatement. However, what was most shocking about all of these items were the dates on them. If Aria were to calculate correctly, the oldest of her awards was only from five years ago, meaning all of the adventures, all of the stories of music and the road that the former siren enjoyed so much had taken place in a relatively short and recent period of time. To Aria, Cookie just as well could have opened her music shop yesterday. She turned toward the door where the woman had disappeared, calling over the sound of a sink tap running somewhere in the other room.

“When you said you were exceptional at cooking, I didn’t know that you meant you were born some kind of stove goddess. Geez!”

She heard Cookie laugh from the other room.

“I know my way around a kitchen!” she replied.

Growing more curious, Aria made her way through the far door toward what she assumed was the kitchen, and turned into the room to find Cookie washing her hands, and other various utensils in the sink. Glancing around at the counter, it seemed obvious that she was about to do some serious cooking. Aria gulped, suddenly feeling a twinge of guilt.

“Cookie, you really don’t have to go through all this trouble. I will eat stale fast food burgers covered in dirt. I’m serious. I’ve actually done that... like... today.”

The white-haired woman looked back over her shoulder to give Aria the most mischievous of grins.

“Oh, it’s not going to be any trouble at all!” she murmured, turning around with a freshly cleaned spoon and pot in her hands. Sauntering up toward Aria, her smile seemed to grow ever more devious with every step until she stood right before the now anxious siren.

“Uhh… I-It’s not?” Aria croaked, quite confused.

“Nope!” Cookie snorted, tossing the pot and spoon into the sullen woman's arms. “Because we’re gonna make it together!”

“Oh okay,” Aria nearly laughed despite not knowing precisely what emotion she was feeling in response to this news. “And what, exactly, are we making?”

For a moment she felt worried thinking Cookie might name something spectacular, impossibly difficult, something that would surely result in Aria burning her house down to the ground.

“Lasagna, of course!” Cookie chuckled, motioning to another far counter where a pile of very obvious lasagna ingredients were stacked in the corner.

“Oh,” Aria murmured, surprised to find that she now felt slightly disappointed. Honestly, she couldn’t name exactly what it was that she had been expecting, but lasagna wasn’t it. Not that she didn’t like the dish. She had actually made it in a myriad of ways over the past century or so. It was just that the meal was relatively simple to her considering she was old enough to have made it from scratch hundreds if not thousands of times. She glanced up toward Cookie, passing her a false grin.

“Oh?” Cookie mimicked her, narrowing her eyes.

“I… I just figured someone like you wouldn’t be able to even tolerate something so… so…” Aria stammered.

“Quaint? Rustic? Simple?” Cookie chuckled, finishing up at the sink. “Sugar, I toured in a band, and lived out of a giant truck for five years. I’m not some snooty, highbrow, wine spitter or somethin. Well, I can be, but that’s not really me. That’s why I left all that behind.”

Eyeing Aria with interest again, her sly grin returned.

“But if you’re saying that it isn’t that big of a deal, then I suppose you wouldn’t mind making it yourself! It would give me a chance to get dessert done at the same time. I mean, unless you don’t think you can do it, or...”

Aria cocked an eyebrow at these words. Her very aura suddenly seemed to ignite.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Oh, no, no, no, Doll! I would never,” Cookie lied, not even trying to hold back her grin anymore. Before she could get another word out, Aria had traversed the distance between them both, forgetting her nervousness, and apparently the dictates of personal space. She’d never noticed it before, probably because she had never dared to get so close, but interestingly enough, it turned out that she was a slight bit taller than the object of her affection. It made her feel that much more confident. Smirking, she placed one hand upon her hip, and held out the other in the direction of the fridge which Cookie was leaning up against.

“Hand me one of those beers, short stuff,” she murmured, never breaking her gaze. Cookie, not being one to rattle so easily rolled her eyes, turned, popped open the fridge to retrieve a cold bottle, and tossed it into Aria’s waiting hand. Using the top of the container, the siren pointed it right up against the other woman’s chest.

“You wanted some fun facts about me, Cookie? Here’s a fun fact for you. I used to work in a scullery. I can guarantee that I’ve made pasta more times than you have in your entire life. I’ll make you that lasagna. A good one, at that. You just make sure that cake or pie or whatever it is you’re dreaming up is done when I am.”

Leaning to one side with the bottle, and bringing her boot up, Aria hooked the container’s cap onto one of its metal buckles, and quickly popped the thing open.

“I wouldn’t want it to get cold,” she finished. Taking a swig, she then walked away toward the back counter. Cookie watched her go, giving her a smirk of her own. Crossing her arms, she smiled and turned back around to the fridge to pull out the ingredients for dessert.

“Those are some big words!” she chuckled.

“Made for big people,” Aria taunted her as she began to chop tomatoes. Cookie snorted.

“You’ve got like an inch and a half on me. What, now you’re gonna make that a thing?”

“Oh, no, no, no! I would never!” Aria joked.

Screw that. There was no chance in the multiverse that she was ever going to call anyone "Doll".

___

Aria did the best she could to hold Cookie’s gaze with a straight face as she watched her chew. She would rather die than admit that she was nervous, but just at that moment, she felt a bead of sweat working its way down the back of her neck. That eerie aura from before still thinly permeated the air. Along with Pud, who sat on the floor by Cookie’s feet, whining for all the delicious smelling food that he couldn’t have, they both worked to irritate her. A few moments later, Aria became tired with all of the annoying noise, and sighed.

“Well?” she urged, leaning in closer upon the kitchen counter where Cookie was hunched over, munching. The curly haired woman sat up straight, casually finished her mouthful, swallowed, and cocked an eyebrow at Aria.

“I can’t tell whether or not I like it,” she murmured. “I’m gonna need two more pieces, just to make sure.”

A relieved smile spread across Aria’s face, and she finally took a seat upon the stool that lingered behind her.

“Told you it would be good,” she laughed, polishing off her bottle of beer, and placing it down upon the countertop. “Now what about that cake, or whatever? Why don’t you break that out, and let me splash my judgement all over it?”

Cookie laughed.

“Tell you what. Let’s carry all this stuff to the couch, and then you can have at it, you spiteful, little gremlin, you.”

“You should see what I’m like if I eat after midnight,” Aria snorted, grabbing the lasagna pan. Turning, she headed in the direction of the living room.

“Bring the beer!”

By the time she plopped down upon the comfortable couch, Aria was already chewing on a gobful of her lasagna, utterly shocked at how good it tasted. Maybe it was because Cookie, being a former chef, chose to use better ingredients, but she just couldn’t stop eating it.

By the seas, Aria. You are a frikkin’ lasagna savant.

She was still chewing when Cookie joined her, carrying the beer in one hand, and what seemed to be a large pan containing a giant cookie in the other. Her interest piqued, Aria placed her plate down upon the coffee table in front of her, and leaned forward to get a better look.

“Wrrsrt?” she mumbled through her mouthful whilst grabbing a fresh beer from the pack, and wrenching it open against her boot again. Cookie smiled, and jumped onto the seat next to her.

“Blackberry clafoutis,” she said, picking up her own plate of lasagna, and taking a bite.

“Blackberry what?” Aria asked, snorting at Cookie’s pronunciation.

Cla-foo-tee. It’s French!”

Aria threw her head back, and let loose her all too familiar cackle. She was familiar with the dessert, of course, but not the way Cookie had vocalized it.

“I bet it is!” she guffawed as she watched Cookie breaking a piece off of it with a fork, and holding it up for her to take.

“Shut up, and just try it, okay?” Cookie muttered, her cheeks going red. Still smiling, Aria placed her beer down, plucked the fork from her fingers, and popped the pastry into her mouth, preparing to be utterly unsurprised.

She should have known better. Just the fact that the thing contained blackberries was enough to send her hurtling backward into nostalgic bliss. Breaking away from memories that were sure to turn sour if she followed their course for too long, she chewed, savoring the creamy texture, and the comforting sweetness. This was definitely way better than the stuff they were calling clafoutis a century and a half ago.

“Aw man,” she groaned, reaching out to pull the pan away from Cookie’s grasp. Immediately, she dug in again with her fork, shoving a bigger piece into her mouth. The other woman laughed.

“I take it that means you like it! Some critic you turned out to be!”

“I need to… reassess the… crumb consistency and the... something,” Aria muttered through a mouthful of the dessert, passing the other woman as serious a look as she could manage.

“Well, at least leave some for me!” Cookie said reaching out for the pan. Aria pulled away, playfully.

“I didn’t see your name written on it,” the former siren scoffed. “I advise you to take your grievances up with management.”

Cookie smirked, then allowing her expression to melt into a full blown smile. Laughing to herself she watched Aria huddle into the corner of the opposite side of the couch with her coveted clafoutis as she stuffed piece after piece into her maw. The rose-colored girl even edged away when Pud sauntered up toward her, begging for some of the treat. Eager to be rid of him, she plucked a single blackberry from the pan, and tossed it over her shoulder, hoping that would keep him far, far away.

She knew she shouldn’t have been shocked that actually spending time with Cookie would feel effortless. That’s the way it had always been between them. Now sitting there, feet kicked up on the coffee table, stomach filled to the brim with tons of great food and cheap booze, Aria couldn’t help but wonder why she had ever felt nervous in the first place.

“Hey, Aria,” Cookie said after a while of staring at the T.V. in silence. “Can we, maybe, talk for a second?”

Oh. Right.

Now, she remembered—the incident at Bubbles. The air had immediately seemed to change somehow. Inhaling an all too familiar scent, Aria turned to find that plumes of negative energy had slowly begun to seep from Cookie’s skin. The energy was particularly pungent, rich with the distinct aroma of uncertainty and doubt. Warding off her now useless urge to feed, she roughly rubbed the scent out of her nose with her palm, and then sat up.

“Y… yea. Sure. What about?”

As if she didn’t know.

“About last week. About that whole thing,” Cookie stammered, moving to switch off the television. Aria couldn’t bring herself to respond. Her fingers clasped together tightly as she waited for her next words.

“I just wanted to apologize,” Cookie continued. “I shouldn't have pushed you over the edge like that."

"Don't worry about it," Aria said, hoping that this might be the end of the matter, but knowing that it wouldn't. She glanced down toward her boots. Cookie raised her hand in protest.

"No, don't say that, Aria. I do have to worry about it, cause... weeell... I care about you..."

Aria's head shot upward to stare straight ahead at nothing. Everything inside of her seemed to explode into color.

"... and all of these mysteries and secrets on top of how upset you were just made me think that maybe you weren't alright. The way you acted made it seem like you haven't been for a while. Idunno. I don't know much of anything about you, Sugar, but you should know that you can tell me if you ever want to. I understand if you can't, though."

She couldn't look at her. She swore if she did she might actually explode. Keeping her gaze fixed upon the blank screen of the T.V., Aria took a deep breath, and held it as she seemed to be deciding on exactly what to say. Finally, after what seemed to be forever, she exhaled.

"There was somepo—... someone a long, long time ago," she breathed. Nodding to herself, she attempted to fight off every last screaming voice in her head that insisted that speaking about this was a bad idea. "Someone I couldn't get away from. They..."

She couldn't mention it, choosing instead to look down at her boots for a moment.

"...And it was a mess. That's why I have this."

In one awkward motion, Aria lifted her arm, revealing the deep purple bruise beneath it. With much hesitation she then reached down toward the bottom of her tank top, and pulled the side of it up to reveal her lower ribs. There, only slightly visible, was yet another deep scar.

“And this,” she finished.

She heard Cookie inhale sharply. Unable to look at her, the former siren turned away, opting to face the doorway out of sheer embarrassment. A palpable silence ensued for what seemed to be an eternity. She heard the other woman take a deep breath.

“W… what is that… on your ribs?” Cookie asked. It took a moment for Aria to be able to bring herself to respond.

“It was the stupidest decision I’ve ever made… or the best. I’m still not sure,” she murmured ominously.

For a second, she thought she might vomit at how painful the sporadic silences seemed. A wave of relief washed over her when she heard Cookie take another deep breath.

"You know, living on the road, you see and experience a lot of wild shit."

There was a distinct sound of Cookie rising from her seat, and then the shuffling of clothing.

"I don't know if this even means anything to show you this. I don't know if I could even comprehend what you've been through, but just know, Aria, that you don’t have to feel alone."

All of the sounds stopped for long enough for Aria to wonder why. Turning her head ever so slightly to peer over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Cookie standing with the side of her shirt hoisted up to reveal her left hip. The former siren's eyes went wide as she caught sight of a long, deep, ghastly, running gash that traveled from the woman's side all the way up to where her rib cage began. A myriad of emotions struck her, the most prominent being that of astonishment at this revelation, and rage at whoever had committed such a heinous act against such a seemingly undeserving person.

Aria instinctively sprung to her feet. Not knowing what else to do with herself, her hands clenched and released in and out of fists, over and over. If only she still had her powers. If only. She would charm Cookie silly just for the chance of coaxing a name out of her—one wretched name. Then she would hunt them, and feed on them to the point of insanity before kicking their head in with the steel toe of her favourite boots.

"Wh... who..." she stuttered, too angry and confused to properly form words. Her gaze shot upward, and caught Cookie right in the eyes. Those eyes met hers with a look of understanding. The saddest smile flickered across her face before she huffed.

"I can't tell you," Cookie said, almost amused by the irony of her being the one to say these words. "And it doesn't even matter anymore because it's over, at least to me."

Meanwhile, Aria had frozen to the spot where she stood. She had goofed up. She had forgotten that she wasn't supposed to look at her. She knew that she wouldn't be able to think clearly if she did.

Aria wasn't a known crier, and she would battle anyone who claimed differently, but at that particular moment, she felt like a shaken can of soda on the brink of eruption. A million different thoughts zipped through her mind for a million different reasons.

Spirits, she's so utterly unhateable. How could anyone do that to her? Why would they want to? How... I can kill 'em. Mortals do that all the time. I can still find ways. Stars, I wish I could... I wish there was a way to just... just go back and...

Aria's shoulders slumped in defeat, knowing that Cookie was right. There was nothing to do at this point. What was done was done, and now it was over. Still, the former siren couldn't help but wonder how she could be so okay about it all. How could she keep smiling, and joking, and laughing when the world—in any part of the multiverse—seemed to be such an ugly place to those who least deserved it? Didn't she just want to burn it all down, and laugh at its ashes? That’s how Aria felt. Why not her?

It was then that the former siren spotted Cookie’s outstretched hand beckoning toward her. Unsure, she hesitated for a moment before willing her feet to move forward. A rose-ish row of fingers stretched out toward a caramel-set, and upon their meeting, intertwined with them. For the grand show of mettle and ferocity that Aria always displayed to the world, in that moment, she found that she had none left to even properly curl her fingers. It was the hazel-eyed woman who squeezed her hand reassuringly.

Suddenly, for the first time in such a long, long while, everything was beautiful in Aria’s world. She couldn’t remember a single thing that was wrong, or that worked to irritate her. Everything felt realer than it had for decades. Dropping her guard, she lost herself in the sensation of their hands touching. Looking up a moment later, she swore she caught a flicker of something in those hazel eyes. What was it? Most of her sensibilities were too erratic at the moment, but glancing around the white-haired woman, Aria could at least see that there wasn’t a trace of murky green to be found. Everything seemed crystal clear; thus, the siren supposed that what the flicker in those eyes meant was crystal clear as well. Finally, returning the sure grip upon her hand, Aria yanked Cookie toward her.

The way their lips met—It was perfect, just as she had imagined it might be. It was like a shock to her system, a more invigorating elixir than the most dense puff of emerald-hued energy. She found herself snatching her closer, leaning in further, pushing against a figure that didn’t seem to be wrestling or pushing back until they fell against the couch. Both surprised, their lips shifted apart just long enough for Cookie to gasp.

“A-Aria?” she murmured, her voice trembling. Before she could continue, Aria advanced again, almost certain that if she separated herself from her warmth for too long, she might actually die.

By the seas, the way she feels is so… And the way she smells is better than… Spirits, don’t let it end…

A hand was placed on the siren’s chest, and she moaned at the sensation, a shiver rolling up her spine. Leaning in further, she was startled when the hand didn’t budge, but instead kept her at a distance. It then began to gently push her away. At the threat of having the air slowly pressed out of her lungs, Aria pulled away for a moment, dizzy with joy. Wrapping her fingers around the wrist that held steadfast against her, she allowed her eyes to open.

“Yes?” she panted, moving her love drunk gaze up toward Cookie’s eyes.

Immediately, the smile fell off of her face when she noticed the woman's expression of guilt and hesitation. Looking around in her daze, suddenly, the siren became aware of the murky green that had erupted from somewhere to surround them both. Dread slowly began to seep into her very bones as the hazel-eyed woman began to shake her head.

Bounding upward and away from Cookie to sit on her knees, Aria pushed the loosened strands of hair away from her face. Her purple eyes went wide with confusion as she studied the woman’s horribly embarrassed expression.

“Aria, I’m sorry,” Cookie whispered, immediately sitting up to reach out toward her, to find some possible way to comfort her from the fallout she knew was coming.

Aria jerked her arm beyond Cookie’s reach. Her brow knit as shame took the place of confusion, and anger the place of shame. Searching desperately within those hazel eyes for a sign that she had not made a mistake, Aria eventually willed herself to speak.

“You… you’re not…” the former siren stuttered.

Cookie just stared at her, not knowing what to say, her own mouth gawking open and shut.

“B-but I thought that y-you…”

Aria's palm collided so hard against her own creased brow that, at once, it set her entire world right side up again. Cold reality descended upon her, as familiar and despised as ever. That rank smell of green haze filled her nostrils, and electrified her mind into alertness. The gloom that, a few moments prior, had seemed to let up for the first time in ages, now crowded around her more densely than before. She should have suffocated, and yet her once fevered breath now slowed down to a steady and eerie calm. Her eyes shot open, pupils sharp, and trained upon a singular point, straight ahead.

Seeing clearly the change within the woman before her, Cookie made a last ditch effort to reach her through the growing storm clouds in her mind.

“Aria, please calm down. It’s alright. I think maybe we’re both getting ahead of ourselves. Let's just relax and talk ab—"

"Do you have a phone?" the dour girl interrupted in a frightening monotone, her clenched hand dragging down the center of her face. The sound of her voice made Cookie's words catch in her throat.

"Aria, please. I—"

"Do you or don't you?"

Her eyes bore into Cookie's in a way the curly-haired woman had never seen before. It was terrifying, cold, disconnected. Still, for the sake of what their relationship meant to her, she persevered.

"Just listen to me for a min—"

Aria bounded from the couch, snatching up her jacket with one hand, and marching straight away toward the front door. Cookie, taking a split second to compose herself, followed her. By the time she turned the corner, the former siren had already put on the jacket, and was turning the doorknob.

"Aria Blaze, you hold it right there!" Cookie exclaimed in her typical, authoritative fashion from where she stood on the opposite end of the hallway. Aria's head snapped around to glare at her, and when she did, the other woman’s blood ran cold. Her knees felt as if they might buckle and collapse. The look the former siren gave her was something horrid, something lacking all feeling. It wasn't an expression that people gave to each other. It was a look passed between two beings of unequal and incomparable rank. It made Cookie feel small and afraid. Unable to make anymore words come out of her mouth, she just watched, wide eyed, as Aria turned again, and quickly disappeared out of the door.

____

Aria cursed Adagio's hesitation to sell some of her useless old jewelry in order to buy them phones during her entire walk to the gas station—seven blocks away. Sure, nothing had been stopping her from selling a few of her own items, perhaps a valuable, old instrument, or one of the precious vinyls from her collection, but that wasn't the point. Adagio hoarded way more stuff than she did, most of it things that no longer served any purpose. Besides, wasn't she supposed to be the leader or whatever? This was supposed to be her responsibility. They could have been living like kings if it weren't for that damn, big-hipped, harpy, and her inability to part with a bunch of shiny rocks, and even if that was such a damn problem, why didn't she just go digging through some of Sonata's old crap? Surely, someone on this wretched planet would have paid top dollar for a vintage yo-yo, or rocking horse, or ball of lint or whatever it was the spacey ditz found entertaining.

The dour girl fumed as she continued to think up more outlets for her fury. On the way to the gas station, she managed to wrench her hair loose from its ponytail, and wipe all of Sonata's gunk from her face until she felt something of her old self again. When she had made herself so angry she could barely see straight, her mind simply set itself ablaze, erratic, full of explosive sound effects rather than images and words. That strange, ominous presence or scent, whichever it might have been, seemed to have grown stronger since the beginning of the night, and now worked to provoke her even more. When she walked into the fluorescent lighting of the gas station, she very nearly gave the kid at the register a heart attack when she approached her, and pounded upon the countertop.

"Where's your phone?" she growled. As the poor girl scrambled beneath the counter, Aria fished around in her pockets for something until she found what it was she had been looking for. Pulling out a crumpled and torn strip of paper with a phone number scrawled upon it, Aria straightened the thing out just as the cashier attendant plopped the phone down upon the slab. Snatching the receiver up whilst, for once, thanking her lucky stars that she had been paranoid enough to pick the slip up off of the workbench earlier that day, Aria then dialed the number, and waited impatiently. After a few rings, someone picked up on the other line.

"What?" came a familiar voice with a country twang.

"Wheeler?" Aria grumbled.

"Knew it!" Wheeler exclaimed. "What can I do ya for, sweet cheeks?"

There was a pause as Aria closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, contemplating the scientific plausibility of reaching through a phone in order to strangle someone.

"You know what? Nevermind," she murmured quietly, moving to hang up.

"No, wait! I'm sorry!" she heard Wheeler yell through the receiver. "Idunno what I did, but still, sorry! Whaddya need?"

She rubbed her temples a bit.

"That ticket to the Sunburns still up for grabs?" she asked, doing her best to keep her composure with the man on the other line.

"You bet your sweet, little caboose it is. You in?"

"I'm in. Pick me up by the Grub n' Go... Fuck, that's a stupid name... Anyway, pick me up there."

"On mah way, honey. You sit tight."

"Hold on a second," Aria cut in. Quickly looking up to the cashier, she peered at her sharply. "You got Bronco cigs?"

The skinny, young girl shook her head frantically. Aria rolled her eyes, and then put her ear back onto the receiver.

"Wheeler, find me a pack of broncos, will ya?"

"You got it. Later."

Slamming the phone down upon the hook, Aria turned, and marched out of the store without another word. Walking out near the road, and leaning up against a streetlight, a thought suddenly struck her. Pulling her wallet out of her pocket, she unzipped the compartment that held the single cigarette. Quickly snatching it up, and popping it between her lips, she then grabbed her lighter, and lit its edge. Inhaling deeply, her eyes closed in relief. Feeling an artificial sense of calm beginning to course through her veins, Aria then gazed lazily ahead, as unamused and emotionless as ever. Every deceptive incident that had taken place since Cookie had handed her that stupid tupperware box zipped through her mind.

Welp.

She exhaled a plume of smoke, not blinking when the breeze blew it and that strange, nagging aura right back into her face.

Rager it is, then.

Onto You

View Online

REMOVE

The venue, a small, dingy bar sitting out front of an enormous, poorly kempt yard, was alive with yelling, laughing, screaming, and the powerful vibrations of an opening band just getting warmed up. For Aria and Wheeler, it was the perfect time to get “tanked up,” as the red man liked to put it. To him, there was no better way to be but half sloshed whilst taking a glorious dive off of the Sunburns’ stage. To Aria, this was a prime opportunity to scrub, scour, and completely erase the happenings of that evening from her mind.

“Who woulda thought a little thing like you could put away this much booze?” Wheeler laughed as he poured them both another round of shots from a fifth of whiskey he had obtained. Hiccuping, he almost swayed right off of his seat before managing to compose himself. Grinning brightly at Aria who sat across from him at the dingy, little, wooden table, he noted that her eyes happened to be even more lidded than usual.

“What’s this feelin’ I’m feelin’? I think it’s pride or somethin’.”

“Or it’s the three other drinks you’ve already had coming back up to say hi to you,” Aria replied, pulling one of the small glasses close to her side of the table.

Ignoring her, and turning about in his seat to face the rest of the rather grim and tattered crowd standing in the bar, Wheeler then spread his arms out wide, and let off a loud whistle.

“Y’all see this pretty, little lady right here? She's workin’ her way to near a fourth of that there bottle-a whiskey! Can I pick ‘em or what?”

By this time of night, most of the crowd was equally as inebriated. They responded to the teetering man, and the grim girl sitting across from him with either a round of enthusiastic hoots or unimpressed jeering. Wheeler stood, and took an almost expected self-congratulatory bow. Aria, hiding the roll of her eyes behind her overgrown fringe, forced a clearly fake smile, raised a fresh shot glass to the patrons, and threw its contents back.

Morons.

Sighing out the pleasant fire coursing down her throat, she waited for Wheeler to take his seat before passing him an exasperated look.

“All that pride is well earned, Mud. Spirits know that you could drive a girl to drink.”

Leaning her head back against the chair, and closing her eyes again, Aria wondered whether or not she had yet to consume enough alcohol to forget all that had transpired that evening. Licking the liquor from her lips, her brow knit at the realization that the taste of Cookie still lingered there, ever so faintly. She mused on the notion that it might never fade away. A small smile broke out on her face when she acknowledged that she didn’t want it to.

“Aria, you are a woman after my own heart,” Wheeler muttered.

Now she was grimacing. It seemed the stars were aligning that night to completely destroy what was left of her sanity. Plus, that strange aura in the air—now confirmed to be a scent after all—had apparently been made stronger with the help of the booze now coursing through her bloodstream—or was it that it was actually getting stronger... closer? She smelled the air again with intent. Something small, a quick flash of speculation, sparked in the back of her mind. Her eyes shot open when her thoughts were interrupted by Wheeler’s whooping and yelling. Groaning as she rubbed her temples, Aria snatched up the whiskey bottle, and bounded to her feet. She headed toward the yard in the back of the bar where the openers had just finished their set.

“Hey! Where ya goin’?” Wheeler called out to her. She winced.

“Aw, Wheeler. Shut up, and finish your damn shots. I just wanna catch the opening.”

“Well, I hope you’re not gonna do anythin’ stupid with the resta that fifth!” Wheeler laughed, staring down the small glasses left sitting before him. “Damn, I’m gonna need more food.”

Sweeping her hair over her shoulder to catch some of the cool night air upon her back, Aria allowed Wheeler’s excited yelling to fade into the distance as she made her way out into the yard. The Sunburns would be next for sure, and she wanted to be right there in the middle of it all where the wail of Bender Bridges’ guitar could hit her square on in the face. Perhaps then she might be able to forget.


RAGE

White lights blinded her. The wail of three screaming stringed instruments blasted through the speakers, crowding her head. A rhythmic punch beat against her chest as the drums started up, and an anguished screech resounded over the crowd. All of a sudden, chaos seemed to break out around her. Bodies began running, punching, flying through the air, and slamming against each other.

It was absolutely gorgeous.

Aria looked at the raging crowd around her, writhing about, trying to purify themselves of their own enormous, green fog of energy, and couldn’t help but feel pride in knowing that she and her sisters might have been the ones to bring about the seeds of confusion and anger that resulted in such a beautiful outlet. These people, unbeknownst to them, were her children. This enormous strip of torn up grass and disturbed earth was her temple. In their strife, she could hear them calling her name.

She smiled at the irony that something as beautiful, as deceptively neat and serene as a siren song could stir the spirits of mortals so thoroughly that this kind of wildness would be the inevitable outcome. Yet, one couldn't argue with results. This was the way it had always been, even before her own existence—chaos out of order and order from chaos, an eternal dance between darkness and light. It was here, in places like this, among mortals like these, that she found the remnants of her long lost glory, a requiem to what she once was.

In a way, being out there was an experience similar to when she was singing. The world became a blur whose nuances and intricacies didn’t matter. In the midsts of the hoard, her mind reeling at the heavy scent of fleeting negative energy, she felt herself flying, too. Things went dark, and the next second, countless hands were upon her, snatching her up into the air. For a moment, she floated joyously upon a sea of bedlam. A hard cuff to her back jolted her awake in the middle of the pit, and she smiled at the sensation of the sting. Throwing herself up against some faceless body, she screamed in elation before the wind was knocked out of both their lungs as their bones collided together; they both laughed as the ache seemed to coarse from one to the other. The world went black, again. The music raged on.

Yelling. A punch to her head. Some faceless body was shouting expletives at her, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what it was that she had done. Thus, Aria supposed that she hadn’t done anything at all, and swung back hard at a bare jaw, once, then again, then again until there was a spurt of red. A pair of strong arms snatched her up, and carried her away. That delicious smell of green had all but faded, worked out completely in those first glorious moments of furor. However, it seemed that the embarrassed look she remembered being on Cookie’s face still wouldn’t vanish from her mind. That strange scent grew ever stronger, and oddly enough, more enticing. She sniffed the air. The tiny hairs on her back and arms rose like that of a provoked predator.


REPLACE

She could have any willing body filled with turmoil and confusion. In this crowd, that wouldn’t be difficult to find. What she wanted, however, was to find the source of that maddening scent. There was something about it that was different from all the rest, something that made it feel like it was made just for her. Unable to get a stronger handle on it, it was difficult to read, especially amongst all these anxious mortals. Yet, she was still intent on seeking it out.

At this point, she could barely make out any vision more than a couple feet beyond her nose, and the lovely ache that coursed through her body made the world buzz. She was shocked that she had somehow managed to make it through the entire ordeal of the Sunburns’ first set with the whiskey bottle in her hand, still intact. At the time she had picked it up, she didn’t completely understand why she was doing so. Looking down at the thing now, she couldn’t help but smile at the honed precision of her own instincts, fine tuned by centuries of experience.

__

Crouching in the woods, far from the concert, amongst years’ worth of dead leaves, Aria looked into the eyes of the young woman who sat before her, back bracing up against an old oak. She mused on the fact that the girl’s eyes were hazel like Cookie’s. Not caring what kind of look she was giving her, she watched as the woman bit her lip bashfully, and glanced away.

“Well, you dragged me all the way out here, gave me free whiskey. You gonna say something or are you just gonna stare?” the hazel-eyed whoever asked, laughing nervously. Aria blinked when a small haze of green began to surround the woman. She inhaled.

“You’re an anxious person,” the former siren murmured in a rather eerie monotone. The woman didn't reply.

Aria crawled close through the leaves, until she peered right into her face. Then, something happened in those eyes, a twinge of fear, perhaps? Aria looked up, and saw the green escaping in plumes now. The scent changed, but still remained familiar. She sighed, feeling a bit disappointed. This mortal, the fifth one she had lured out here into the woods, was not the one she had been looking for. Her gaze returned to those hazel eyes, and remained steady, unsmiling.

“Do I scare you?” she asked plainly. The woman gulped.

“I… I don’t know yet.”

There was a long silence. Then the golden-eyed whoever shook her head, and moved to stand. Acting instinctively, Aria hooked her fingers onto her shoulder, and shoved her back down to the ground. Even she didn't understand why at first until she got another whiff of her negative energy. Bringing her head in close, she then rested her cheek in the crook of the woman’s neck, breathing in deep. The scent of her energy was alright. There was nothing particularly special about it, and yet, her own weariness, coupled with her inability to ever utilize any of the coveted stuff again, still frustrated her. She opened her mouth slightly, and took in another breath, wondering if she might be able to at least taste a little that way if she wished to the stars hard enough. After a time, she seemed to forget the woman was even there.

Ironically, all of this only made the warm body relax against her. The negative energy began to dissipate as the woman sighed with delight at Aria’s touch. Feeling rather irritated, the siren's head bolted upward, and she shook her by the collar.

“Aw, quit with that crap, will you?”

“W-with what?” the other woman gasped, utterly confused. The plumes returned. Aria bit her lip as she watched the haze floating upward.

“You stay nervous,” she blurted, suddenly reaching up in her inebriated daze to wave her hands through the fog. Her voice held a twinge of desperation as her fingers began to dig flesh. “Just stay… this way.”

The mortal with those eyes, now confused and frightened, pushed Aria off when she tried to move in close.

“What the hell? Get the hell off of me, you freak!”

In one swift movement, she brought her knee in, and kicked her leg out right into the center of Aria’s chest. The former siren fell backward onto the ground, clutching herself in pain. When her clenched eyes opened again, and the tears of pain that blurred her vision had finally dried up, the hazel-eyed whoever was gone.

She didn’t move for a long time. Instead, she opted to just lie there in the leaves, surrounded by that strange, delectable scent that now seemed to set her mind ablaze, until she heard the sound of crunching footsteps approaching. Even when the steps stopped somewhere beyond the top of her head, she still didn’t move to take a look at who it was. To some extent, she didn’t have to.

“Night not going so well, sweetheart?” a male voice chuckled in a tone so raspy that it could hardly constitute as a voice. It held an accent so strange, that it immediately made Aria’s eyes pop open with interest.

Some random someone, a grey skinned man in black, head completely shaved save for a low cut, sky blue strip of a mohawk, popped his face into her line of sight. Aria blinked, her vision went sharp for just a split second. The hairs on her arms were doing that thing again.

“Not until now,” she replied.


RECALL

Obviously, this guy wouldn't be as easy for her to unnerve unless she just outright threatened him with physical violence. Considering everything horrid and ancient within her was currently packed into this scrawny, little, rose-ish package, she decided against this. There were still other means. After all, negativity could be drawn out in a myriad of ways.

They walked in silence, deeper into the woods, all by his request. He didn’t seem to find it strange when Aria had obliged him willingly. The gears in her mind were grinding as she stared at him out of the corner of her eyes. The bottle of whiskey sloshed about in her hand as she shuffled one boot in front of the other.

This mortal’s eyes and skin—There was something striking about them, and yet she couldn't place what it was. She took a deep breath, and looked down at her boots. They fumbled over each other, and she fell. Flailing out to grab onto him, she cursed as she missed, and tumbled with her hands grabbing into the tops of his boots. Acting quickly, she snatched at him to pull herself back up, gripping frantically at his pockets.

Allowing her to brace upon his arms, the mohawked mortal helped her up. When their eyes met again, her gaze had sharpened. She noted that he didn’t seem to find any of her clumsiness unbecoming or strange despite the fact that she had not tripped or stumbled all night. A small smile escaped her as she gripped her fingers tightly onto the cuffs of her jacket. She then shoved her hands into her pockets.

“Let’s stop. Now,” she panted. “I don’t wanna wait anymore.”

Straddling his lap, leaning against his chest, she listened to his calm heartbeat, and considered what an amazing mood lifter it would have been to be able to shapeshift into her true form right at that very moment. One second, your night is going perfectly, and a girl was practically face planted into your rib cage. The next, your entire head is being chewed off by an enormous, floating, sea demon from another dimension. Aria chuckled to herself at the thought. Her arms wrapped around him, holding him close as they groped around beneath his jacket.

“What’s so funny?” came the raspy voice.

She rolled her eyes, perturbed at having to remember what it was she was doing, and why. Sitting up, she pulled her arms from around him, cuffs clenched tightly. Again, she shoved her hands back into her jacket pockets. Pulling out her pack of cigarettes, she then popped one between her lips, and lit it. Offering the pack to the mohawked mortal, her eyes trained upon him with intent when, at first, he glanced at the box with a look of confusion, and then swiftly refused.

“No, thanks. I don’t… uh… do that.”

Her eyes narrowed at this reply.

“Do what?” she asked out of the free corner of her mouth.

“You know... That.”

A haze of green began to envelope him.

“You mean smoke?” she scoffed. The man blinked at her.

“Of course. What else would I be talking about?” he laughed. She peered at the haze surrounding him. It was clear to her that he was trying to put on a pretense of calmness. Still, she shrugged, put the pack away, and took a long drag on her smoke.

“Do I scare you?” she said upon exhaling. The bald whoever simply laughed. He laughed so hard that he began to cough, making Aria jostle about upon his lap. There was a metallic clinking that came from the shaking of their jackets; she couldn’t tell if from her own or his. Her brow furrowed as this notion made her nervous.

“Are you kidding me? You couldn’t scare a kitten, gorgeous,” the man replied nudging her playfully under her chin.

The oddness of his accent, the way the words sounded when he put them together made her ears twitch. During the course of her lifetime, Aria had heard many languages spoken in many accents, and yet, this one seemed something more than annoying to her. It was irksome. It prodded her into paying it just a bit too much attention. She again inhaled upon the cigarette.

“Do I make you angry?” she asked next, completely unmoved by the man’s prior reply. His smile seemed to falter.

“Why do you ask that? Do you want me to be? Are you into that type of thing?” he scoffed.

“You could say that,” she murmured.

Inhale.

“So, what’s your deal, huh? Mommy issues? Daddy issues? Got your ass beat in middle school issues?” Aria asked as if having caught her second wind. “Or maybe you just have good, old fashioned, nemesis issues, perhaps, hm? Somebody in particular stuck in your craw? Come here to shake ‘em off in the pit?”

The man scowled, and just like that, a solid fizzle of green began to escape from the top of that bald head of his. Aria’s focus went sharp once again. She tried to conceal her smile with her palm.

“Maybe they’re ‘None of that is any of your fucking business’ issues,” he muttered. “You’ve got some gall to ask about other people’s issues after the way you carried on out there in the pit. Are you gonna just talk my fucking head off all night or is something gonna happen here?”

Aria’s smile disappeared. There was a brief pause.

"Now, how'd you manage to single me out in the pit, hm?" she asked, noting a wary flicker in the man's golden eyes.

It was at that particular moment that, out of all the mortal and immortal beings in the world, the thought of Adagio Dazzle decided to pop into Aria’s mind.

The cheesepuff wouldn’t have done it this way, she thought.

Adagio was a piece of work, a real piece of work, and yet, Aria had to cede that over the centuries, the “queen” of the sirens had taught her a useful trick or two about the arts of distraction and persuasion. She had taught her that not only could their own voices be used to manipulate mortals, but also the mortal’s very own senses and surroundings.

Sight matters, scent matters, touch matters, and sound matters most of all,” the curly-haired woman had told her all those centuries ago, and she would go on to prove this to Aria in a myriad of different ways—some of them highly questionable—that would keep the sullen girl resentful toward her for centuries to come.

Nevertheless, as she slowly forced a sweet and disarming smile upon her face, Aria couldn’t help but recall every last one of those lessons. Her voice was no more; thus, what she had learned would now have to do. She would have to be perfect for him.

The tension was palpable. She licked her fingers, crushed the end of her cigarette, and threw it off into the woods. Leaning in close to the mohawked one’s face, she then curled her fingers onto the neckline of his shirt.

“I’m sorry. I'm being rude. Here, let me answer your question for you.”

She shoved him flat onto his back upon the ground, and loomed over him, her long strands of hair curtaining both their faces. Reaching out with a hand, she plucked up the whiskey bottle which had been sitting nearby in a patch of dead leaves. Unscrewing its top, she presented it to the mortal beneath her, and gave him a wink.

“Have some,” she said, bidding him to drink. She noted a twinge of doubt flit across his face.

“I’m alright,” he muttered. “L-let me get on top...”

Aria grimaced, and shoved him back down when he attempted to push her over.

"No."

"Why not?" he asked, sounding slightly more than perturbed.

"I've had bad experiences, if you catch my drift," she stated outright. The man under her still seemed hesitant.

“You know you’re being real fuckin’ picky for some sober dude hitting on a willing, drunk chick in the middle of the woods at night,” she said, then bringing her face in very close to his. “I swear, if you don’t drink this damn whiskey, or if you try to get on top of me, I’ll scream bloody murder. You don’t want that do you? I thought we were having fun.”

The man seemed to study her.

“No one can hear you over that noise out there,” he scoffed.

This statement made her smile, almost too brightly.

“Why do I get the feeling that you don’t wanna take that chance with me?” she inquired.

She was reveling in the unsure expression he was now wearing. His lips tightened as he reached out for the whiskey bottle, put it to his mouth, and threw a huge gobful of its contents back. Smiling victoriously, she watched him cough out the fire in his chest. Taking the bottle from him, and placing it off to the side, she then pushed him back down flat.

“Raise your arms,” she bid him. This time he broke out in ridiculing laughter.

“What are you, insane? So you can sock me in the gut, steal my wallet, and run off? Give me a b—...a fucking break!”

“If I wanted your wallet, what makes you think that I’d wait this long to take it? Think I’m stupid or something?” she asked, her temper momentarily peeking through her seductive facade.

She watched as the mohawked mortal’s face went quite grim.

“No,” he murmured. "In fact, I do not."

She stared daggers into him. A slight tinge of green escaped again as she watched his fingers discreetly edging toward the sleeves of his jacket. Her muscles tensed. She inhaled. The smell was slightly sharper than before.

She was being careless again, as usual, and the last thing she wanted to do was to raise suspicions. There was always another way.

Remember your lessons.

“You know, I've been having a real shitty night,” she began, twirling her finger lazily around the neckline of his shirt. “I mean, I know you don’t care about that, but I came here to have some fun, to forget about everything. You probably do think I’m stupid coming all the way out here with you. Maybe I am. Lately, I’m not so good with predicting how others feel about me.”

Glancing at his face, she hoped that he would catch the deeper meaning in her last sentence. He did. Still, even after willingly offering him this information, there was hesitation and doubt leaking from him in a green haze. He seemed to be thinking to himself.

That stronger underlying scent still lingered, so pungent and full of indecipherable messages. It made her want to scream. Huffing loudly with resolve, she leaned forward, and gently kissed his lips.

“You’re acting like I’m some kind of big, scary monster or something,” she whispered, pouting. “What happened to “I couldn’t scare a kitten”?”

There was a twinge of something in his gaze that nearly made her laugh when she understood what it was. The whiskey had finally taken hold of him. Her inward glee was quickly stifled when she saw his fingers, again, prodding at his sleeves—those damned sleeves. They were sure to prove bothersome for her. She eyed them intently as she began to trace her fingers along his arms. Feigning a sudden interest in his hands, she moved to push them over his head. The glare he gave her was full of spite; there was no hiding it any longer. She supposed if she had not had so many lifetimes' worth of practice faking her own emotions that her face might have looked exactly the same way. Kissing his neck, she then looked into his eyes.

“Don’t you like me?” she asked, her tone seeping with longing. The mortal scowled from where he lay beneath her.

“I’m planning on making this quick,” he spat, reaching up toward her jacket. “Take this off. I want to see you.”

She pulled away from his grasp, breathing a sigh of relief when her jacket hadn't made any noises.

“You really know how to charm the ladies, huh?” she asked him. Seeing that his expression remained unmoved, she shrugged, and sighed with finality.

“Fine.”

Reaching toward her left jacket pocket, she then zipped it closed.

“You know, I’ve had this weird feeling following me all evening,” she said matter-of-factly as she carefully slipped her left jacket sleeve off. He seemed to only partially be paying attention to her words as one of his hands moved upward to entwine itself into the long, purple locks that flowed over her shoulder. He gripped them tightly.

“Yea?”

“Mhm,” she replied, now zipping up her right pocket, and slipping that sleeve off as well. “It was the strangest thing. It felt like somebody was watching me the whole time. You ever feel like that? Like if someone was onto you?”

There was a pause as she smiled at him, reaching up to caress and kiss the hand, and the sleeve, that was now tangled in her tresses.

“No, I've never feel that way,” the man muttered. His free hand began to move upward to curve around her other shoulder. Everything in her began to buzz. The air seemed to become electric as she watched him.

“There was this weird smell around me, too,” she continued on as she carefully began to ball up her jacket, still making absolutely sure that it didn’t make any noise. “Like really sharp musk or something… or sweat. I thought I was going crazy. Was trying to figure it out all night. Then you know what happened?”

She smiled when she saw his eyelids droop ever so slightly under the spell of far too much drink.

“I-is this how you warm yourself up? Giving speeches?” the foolish mortal beneath her stammered, chuckling to himself.

Aria’s eyes narrowed.

“I finally figured it out, is what happened,” she whispered ominously, ignoring his spiteful words. She felt his other hand now cautiously wrapping itself around the back of her neck. “Turns out it wasn’t musk I was smelling. It was… Well, this might sound crazy to you, but it was a grudge. Bitterness. A powerful one. An old one… ancient even.”

She laughed as she reached out with an arm, her balled up jacket gripped tightly between her fingers.

“You’d think that someone who’d held these feelings for me for so long would know by now that I could smell that sort of thing; that I could smell bad intentions, and that I know when they're following me.”

The look on the gray man’s face was absolutely incredulous. It seemed that, finally, he had realized his error in having taken in so much alcohol. Even from the start, it was clear to Aria that he had never drank the stuff before.

Idiot.

“So, I told myself: 'Those feelings couldn’t possibly be for me. Someone who really knew me would have definitely known that I could do that.' But then something happened that made me change my mind; made me ask myself one very important question, a question that I've been asking myself since I tripped back there, all over your boots... and your pockets... and your jacket. Wanna know what it was?” she murmured, leaning over to peer into his eyes. By this point, the man was no longer smiling or talking. The veil had lifted from around them, and his breath now came intensely.

She shook the jacket balled up in her hand. A strange sound came from its pockets. The gray man's eyes went wide when he realized just what that sound was—the clanking of metal.

“I asked myself: 'What in Chaos’ name could someone possibly need with that many Equestrian daggers, and a pair of earplugs?'”

She then threw the jacket a good distance away where it landed into a pile of leaves with a heavy ‘CLUNK’.

"No matter, you monster," he hissed as he made a quick reach into his sleeves, looking for what was no longer there. He glared back up in terror toward Aria's wildly grinning maw. She held out her fingers. In between them, she gripped a small pair of earplugs, and the last dagger she had pulled from his sleeve when she had caressed his arm. There was a brief beat between them before he gripped her by the hair, trying to wrench her neck; however, before he could do this, she had reached upward, curled her index knuckles inward, and swung down with all her might. The bones jammed into both of his eyes. He managed to throw her off of him whilst screaming in agony.

“You filthy witch!” he wailed.

The plume of green that exploded from him was magnificent, so fantastic that she laughed with glee, even as she scrambled back over toward him to dig her nails into the flesh of his face. Backing off a fair distance, she tossed the ear plugs far into the night, and gripped the handle of the stolen dagger.

“Looks like somepony didn’t do his research before deciding to pay a visit,” she laughed as she approached his blindly stumbling form, blade raised. “And could you have tried a little bit harder to get rid of that Canterlotian accent? Geez.”

The gray man suddenly became quite still where he stood, and to Aria’s confusion, then reached into his sleeve.

“There’s nothing there, you idiot,” she snickered, moving toward his front, and quickly grabbing hold of his collar. Just as she was about to strike, a sandy-hued glow escaped from the inside of his sleeve, and began to grow.

“What the—” she gasped just as his hand swung out from where it had previously been hidden, wielding a fresh dagger. Instinctively moving to raise her own weapon in defense, Aria’s heart leapt into her throat when she glanced at her blocking hand only to find that there was no longer any dagger there. Having no choice but to arch her body out of the way of his blade, she fell to the ground, and began to scramble away from him.

“Magic! You can use magic here? H-how…” she stammered.

As the mohawked man’s vision finally cleared up, and he caught sight of the siren crawling amongst the forest leaves, Aria attempted to bolt upward, and make a quick escape. Her feet had only taken three steps before something seemed to seize hold of her entire body, freezing it in place. She watched in horror as her arms and legs began to glow in that same tannish halo, and started taking her exact running steps—backwards. Forcing her head around to stare at the gray, mohawked man, she saw him grinning maliciously as she reversed toward him. His hand, still glowing, reached out for her. She screamed as he finally snatched her by the strap of her top, and the glowing ceased. Spinning her about, he raised the dagger, and prepared to strike. Instinctively, she opened her mouth, attempting to sing. A strange waver escaped in place of her usually raspy voice.

“Stop struggling, you creature," he hissed, trying to get a good aim. "It’s of no use.”

“Wait!” Aria protested barely managing to wrench her neck out of the way. She pulled herself from his grip as the dagger came down in the space between her collarbone and shoulder, slicing the strap of her shirt. For a second, she was too stunned to feel the sting of the gash, but as the shock of the moment began to fade away, the familiarity in its placement began to dawn on her. Looking away from the approaching stranger, she caught a glimpse of crimson dripping from a wound that was almost exactly in the space where Swift’s dagger had cut her those many lifetimes ago. She whimpered, suddenly overcome by raw emotion. Tears welled up in her eyes as she was whisked back to that horrible night before… before…

Glancing back up toward the mohawked man’s face, she suddenly couldn’t tell the difference between his features and that of Midnight Swift’s. Her mouth gawked open and then closed, but words were no longer there. A strange stammer escaped as if her throat were trying to remember what its purpose was. The vision of Swift stoked a flame in her that quickly exploded into a raging inferno. She felt a familiar tingling in that searing spot between her chest and neck. A warmness extended out toward her fingertips. There was a rush of something inside of her, like a shot of electricity. She screamed. This time, there was sound. Piercing the night air like a shrill whistle, it forced her attacker to keel over, dropping his blade, and covering his ears. She felt her energy suddenly dip, and gasped for air. Getting to her feet, lost in her furious daze, she breathed deeply, and felt the wave of warmness hit her once again. The air around her hummed as the spark of a dark melody began to echo through it. Knowing now what it was she had felt, she faced her assailant, and with confidence, opened her mouth.

You of frail and finite mind,
See yourself bigger than you should.
You dare to challenge siren kind,
In only the way cowards would.

In an instant, before he could reach again into his jacket full of tricks, Aria watched as her mysterious assailant’s face fell vacant, his mind a blank slate for the siren to write upon. That delicious haze of green began to pour out of him in mounds, and to the siren's utter joy, floated in her direction. Stuck in a space between disbelief and exhilaration, for a moment she couldn’t figure what to do until she saw her jacket still lying a ways behind her. Fighting off the bouts of exhaustion that wracked her in lieu of willing that wave of warmth through her veins again and again, she powered on, and traversed the distance to fetch the thing.

She was wandering far from him, now. Curiously, the further she seemed to move, the more difficult it became to hold onto her spell. Thinking little of this, she continued on, keeping a wary eye upon her attacker as she did so.

By the time she had reached the jacket, her body quaked, and her own heartbeat began to resound in her ears. Looking once more upon her assailant, she was terrified to find that somehow he had managed to regain enough of his will to take a few steps in her direction. She watched as he reached into his own jacket. Fear aggravated her senses. Sheer pain made her weak. Holding the incantation in the air now felt like an impossible task, and as she zipped open her jacket pocket while heaving for air, to her own horror, she felt herself let the melody die.

She gasped as he ran full on at her, the effects of the spell faded from his eyes. Confused as to what was happening, she dug into the pockets, trying to retrieve the dagger. Coughing out rasps, she found that her attempts to sing suddenly proved futile.

"No, no," she stammered to herself as she frantically drew a blade, and spun around to face him. "It was just working! Why isn't it working anymore?"

More rasps.

"What will..." she choked, as she backed away from the approaching figure. Too weak to evade him, she felt panic beginning to take over once more. "What will..."

Her voice wavered in that strange tone as she desperately searched within herself for the wellspring that had, in an instant, run dry. The mohawked man was a few steps away now.

Anger and frustration grabbed her again.

Ten steps.

The warm sensation gathered her up into its clutches. A wave of energy hit her as she inhaled.

"What will you do..."

Five steps.

The inside of his jacket glowed. She raised her dagger in defense. Again, there was no blade in her hand.

Two steps.

She felt the wellspring open up around her as he grabbed her collar. The incantation flooded her brain.

What will you do my foolish friend,
Now that things haven’t gone as planned?
I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do.
Take up the dagger in your hand.

Oh, this life’s just full of trouble.
So, why trouble with it?
Life’s just full of trouble.
So, why trouble with it?
Life’s just trouble.
Be done with it.

Trapped again, his blade mere inches away from her head, Aria watched as the man now took his unwilling steps away from her. He slowly withdrew his dagger from her face, and turned the blade toward his own neck. The siren laughed in stunned relief as the ghastly refrain powered on.

The green smog that surrounded them both brought tears to her eyes as she inhaled the scent of it. As she sang, heedless to the distress of the enchanted mortal before her, she watched as the energy was drawn toward her, and gasped in delight as it spun itself into small rivulets, aiming themselves for that burned and scarred flesh upon her chest.

Her happiness immediately fell away when the green dashed itself against flesh, and instead of satiated relief, fiery pain exploded within her. She choked, and keeled over, nearly losing her song in the midsts of her agony. Blocking off the patch on her skin with her hand, she gasped for air. A myriad of questions flooded into her mind, threatening to overpower the open wellspring of her abilities.

What in darkness' name was happening to her? Why had her singing powers returned all of a sudden, and in such a tenuous fashion that it now felt like she might die of exhaustion to try to use them? Why had they disappeared when she had made a run for the daggers in her jacket? And if she still was not able to devour energy, then from where was she drawing the power to wield her magic?

Backing away from her assailant, she felt her energy dip, once again, and the wellspring in her mind began to recede. Suddenly, it dawned upon her. Aria's eyes fell upon the gray mortal in shock. Taking one large step toward him, she felt the wellspring open up again ever so slightly. Another step, and her energy rebounded.

"You. It's you," she whispered to the mindless man, wide eyed.

Knowing now what she had to do, she again filled herself with the flow of energy, and approached the mysterious man, reaching out to grab his face.

Feel my verse, just like a vice.
Feel my rhythm hold you tight.
Wrap you in loving embrace,
And whisk you to a sweeter place.

Bidding him to kneel down before her, she gave him a wicked smile as he obediently raised the dagger, and aimed the blade toward his own throat. A part of her felt anguish at the notion that her long lost song would soon have to come to an end, but she knew that her survival was obviously more important.

Suddenly, remembering her interest in the man’s oddly captivating appearance, she reached out with a palm at the very last moment before he plunged the blade deep into his own flesh. She held the thing just a few inches away from his neck with her own, firm grip. The wellspring swelled along with her sudden thirst for information.

Not just yet! Hold on, go-getter.
Anticipation just makes this better.
Before you take your final bow,
State your intent, measure for measure.

As the refrains of her malicious chorus echoed throughout the air, she turned the man's face toward her. Her eyes bore holes into his as she spoke over the melody.

"Who are you?" she asked. The man's gaping mouth fumbled about for a moment before words escaped from between his lips.

"Starshot," he croaked. Obviously, Aria didn't recognize the name.

"Where did you come from?"

"E... Eques... Equestr—"

"Equestria. Right. Got it," she finished for him. "Now, tell me, Starshot. Why are you here, and why are you after sirens?"

"Time magic has brought me here," he croaked. "A dimensional... sh... shift. He was foolish and weak..."

"Wait a minute," Aria muttered to herself, trying to think through the strenuous task of maintaining her ever fading energy whilst holding the chorus of her melody afloat at the same time.

“Time magic? Dimensions?”

There was only one pony she had ever known to possess the ability to successfully wield those types of spells.

"Wait... a... minute," she gasped, her eyes going wide as she realized why the gray skinned, golden-eyed, magic wielding man looked so familiar. "It couldn't be."

She never even heard the sound of footsteps racing up behind her through the leaves. Peering down into her prey’s face, she shook her head in disbelief as the notes of her melody carried to a crescendo, and her fingers loosened from around the man’s clenched hand.

“... Star Swirl?”

A red fist came across the stranger’s face before he could slash himself with his own blade. In an instant, he was knocked out cold. Startled, Aria let loose of her refrain, and the air became void of everything save for the evening sounds of the forest. Spinning about, she glared at the panting, startled mess that was Muddy Wheeler as he stared down at the unconscious figure in shock. He looked up at her.

“The hell, Aria! You okay, girl? That sumbitch coulda turned a brontosaurus into church boots with that thing!”

The dour siren said nothing. Her eyes seemed to gaze right through the frantic man before her. The world around her went silent, only to be replaced with a ceaseless ringing, and the unbearable fire that sat in the spot between her chest and neck. The bursts of power she had just been feeling a few moments prior shattered into nothingness. Her entire body went weak and numb.

"Yea, I'm fine. I—” she began, reaching over to snatch up her jacket. Her voice was now nothing but painful croaks. Thinking little of this, she let off a cough, and was startled when blood spurt from her mouth, splattering onto the front of her shirt. Looking up at Wheeler in shock, she felt her knees beginning to give way.

"Mud? I don't feel so good," she grunted as she began to fall. Wheeler stepped forward to scoop her up into his arms.

"Shit... Okay. You're okay, Darlin'. I gotcha," he said trying to feign calmness. Turning about, he quickly rushed off in the direction of his car.

"Fuck. I am definitely too drunk for this."


RUN

Time seemed to slow down momentarily. Her vision dipped in and out a few times before she finally awoke to find herself laying back in the passenger seat of Wheeler’s car. Looking off to her side, she saw him sitting in the driver’s seat, frantically zipping through his phone whilst simultaneously attempting to pour water from a bottle onto a piece of paper towel.

“What are you doing?” she rasped, startling him. Taking a moment to catch his breath, and steady the water bottle in his hand, he turned to face her, wide eyed.

“Oh, shit. You’re awake! Good, I’m callin’ somebody to get you outta here.”

She looked confused for a moment.

“W-what do you mean? Just take me home.”

Wheeler gave her an exasperated look.

“Do I look like I’m fit to drive down a mountain to you?” he yelled, accidentally spraying water from the bottle all over her face. She sputtered, and sighed, too exhausted to be irritated. Her eyes then went wide as she realized something.

“Wait a minute. We’re still up here? No! No, we have to get outta here, now!” she croaked, remembering that when they had left the stranger lying in the woods, they had left him alive. “C’mon, Wheeler. If you don’t wanna drive, I’ll do it.”

Wheeler’s jaw dropped in complete confusion as he stared at the drunk and disheveled girl before him, spattered in blood.

“You… are out to lunch, Aria Blaze. Hold on a bit. I’m callin’ Cookie to come getcha," he said, trying to finish up on his phone.

Aria’s stomach sank. It seemed ludicrous at this point to still be taking what happened earlier at Cookie’s house so personally in light of the night's most recent events. However, something in her knew that she absolutely could not let the other woman see her in such a state.

“No, no. Call my house. My sisters will come, and get me,” she said, nearly begging.

“Y’all don’t have no damn car, Blaze. It’ll take forever for them to get up here. What’re they gonna do, fly?” Wheeler asked, now putting his ear to the phone receiver.

Taking a moment to note the irony of the man’s words, Aria then looked straight ahead, past the dark woods cascading down the side of the giant hill before her. The lights of the town could be seen shining in the distance. Taking a deep breath, she seemed to settle upon something in her mind. Quickly grabbing her jacket from the back seat, she opened the car door, and bolted off into the forests.

“Blaze? Blaze!” Wheeler yelled after her. He jumped out of the car just as soon as he heard someone pick up on the other line of his call.

“Cookie! Listen, I need you to get yer ass in gear, and head toward The Hole. Shit is crazier than a shithouse rat out here! Some jackass tore Aria up in the woods or somethin’. She’s lost it. Out here runnin’ around the trees like a fuckin’ coked up raccoon. You gotta come get 'er.”

Running to the edge of the clearing, he called for the siren one last time, finally acknowledging to himself that she was gone. Putting his ear back onto the receiver, he finished up with his call.

“She’s headed down toward that park to the east of the mountain, I think. You should head there, but listen, bring her sisters or whatever. She was freakin’ out about wanting them to be here a second ago. Do it fast.”

With that, Wheeler hung up on the call. Getting back into his car, he resolved himself to do what he knew he shouldn’t. Turning the car on, he placed his hand upon the wheel, and then closed his eyes. With much conviction, he began to mutter to himself under his breath.

“Listen, just in case I die, just know that I did not squeeze that chick’s t—... accoutrements on purpose. I swear, she got in the way of the peanuts, and I wasn’t payin’ attention… Amen.”

Backing out of the lot, Wheeler spun the car around to face the downhill road, and drove off into the night.

___

Aria knew she could make it if only she could hold on for just a few more minutes. The edge of the forests were in sight, and she could see a large, open park sitting just below, awash in lamplight. She hadn’t the slightest idea of how long she had been running. It was only by sheer will that her legs continued to keep moving, even though it seemed as if every body part above them had almost completely shut down.

Taking a moment to catch her breath whilst coughing up more crud that tasted of blood, she then continued on her way. Stumbling about in the near dark, Aria bided her time by thinking about all that had transpired that evening.

That scent of maliciousness had been following her the entire night. Did that mean that her attacker, this Starshot guy, had been doing the same? Spirits forbid that he had figured out where she lived. Her heart sank when she remembered that the smell had also followed her to Cookie’s house. Rage took hold as she began to imagine all of the horrible things she might do to him if he ever even thought about… She didn’t even want to consider it.

Shaking her head free of those thoughts, she figured it might be more productive to just consider the stranger, himself. He had come from Equestria, and had a Canterlotian accent, alright, but the strange thing about it was the sound of the accent. Aria recalled that it sounded odd, and it didn’t occur to her until much later that it was because his accent sounded old. I wasn't like the kind that Sunset Baconator or Twilight NARCle had which seemed to blend so seamlessly into modern human society. It was of a style that she could only assume no one in Canterlot would be speaking anymore. This, of course, would make sense if the bastard could use time magic. Regardless, it was clear that this was not the first time that the stranger had traversed into modernity, considering how much of the current style of language he actually did know. Aria found herself wondering how long he had been making these types of trips.

He had mentioned something about someone or somepony being weak before he tried to kill her. Aria couldn’t help but grimace and shake her head when she realized that there were a thousand years’ worth of Canterlotian bad blood to sift through, at least if she desired to figure out exactly which one of the sirens’ actions had caused him so much distress as to force him to traverse space and time to come to destroy them—if that was what he was trying to do. Still, if she had to guess, she knew exactly which historical event she would bet her chips on.

Trying her best not to, yet again, allow her anger at Adagio and all of her ill-fated schemes bubble up within her, Aria finally stepped off of the mountain side, and into the edge of the park clearing. Seeing pavement and benches in the distance, she quickly stumbled off in their direction.


REGRET

Aria had barely even touched the bench before she collapsed down upon it, completely prostrate. Her eyelids felt as heavy as lead, and slammed shut as her head hit the cold, wooden surface. She had only been meaning to take a breather for a moment before heading in the direction of a bus stop, but her body just could not withstand anymore strain after all of the evening’s heart-rending events.

It seemed as if she had laid there for just a moment before the sound of car wheels screeching to a halt could be heard in the back of her mind. Then came the sound of clattering footsteps. Before she knew it, she was being snatched up by the shoulders. In her daze, Aria assumed she was being attacked again, and lashed out, trying to sing. She only succeeded in sputtering up more blood before she finally heard her name being called, and a giant poof of orange waving to and fro before her eyes.

“Aria! Aria, snap out of it! Gimme that water!” she heard Adagio's voice yell off to her side.

There was a splash of coldness upon her face, and slowly, everything became clear once more. Looking up, she spied Sonata and Adagio standing before her, sweeping her hair down, swiping at the blood on her mouth with wet paper, and trying to shove water down her throat. All of a sudden, the implications of all the emotions she had been feeling seemed to gel within her head. Her exhaustion and heartbreak took over completely, and her eyes trained upon Adagio in anger. She stood up, advancing upon the wary woman.

“You…” she breathed.

“What the hell is going on, Aria? What are you doing out here?” Adagio asked frantically, looking equally frustrated.

“You! This is all your fault!” the bruised siren exclaimed. “We’re gonna die because of you! Are you happy now?”

She trailed off, noting the terrified look on Sonata’s face, and the confused look on Adagio’s.

“Aria, what in the seas are you—” the elder girl began.

Adagio halted her words when the enraged siren raised a fist against her. The fist froze in midair when she spotted, somewhere deep in Adagio’s magenta eyes, a frightened look, a look of concern, an expression of care. Was it for her?

Aria’s eyes welled up with tears, and her heart burst forth with yet more countless, nameless emotions. She suddenly realized she was afraid, afraid for herself, afraid for Cookie, and afraid for her sisters, even Adagio. In that moment, despite all that she might have blamed the elder siren for concerning their current fate, she could not deny that she also loved her fiercely. She loved them both, and the thought of an aggressive death now bearing down upon them all was nothing less than horrifying.

Falling against the curly-haired siren, she wrapped her arms around her neck, and sobbed loudly.

“Why, Adagio? Why did we go to that damn castle? Why did we have to interfere with the sisters? I hate this place so much!”

She fell to her knees, dragging her older sister down with her. Wide-eyed, the elder could do nothing but hold onto the weeping girl, her words burning into her skull. Adagio didn’t know why Aria was bringing all this up in this way, but something seemed to fracture within her as she heard it whilst taking in the horrifying visage of her sister, now helpless and drenched in her own blood. Perhaps it was something that had been waiting to break free for over a thousand years. She gathered the girl up tighter in her arms as tears began to flow from her stunned eyes. Suddenly, she could see their entire histories laid out before them in one line of crescendoing and plummeting happiness. Every crash, every defeat, every disappointment would bring them lower and lower toward this wretched state they now found themselves in, and as Adagio gazed out upon it all, she was obliged to acknowledge to herself that it had, indeed, been her fault. She had taken up the reins of responsibility all those lifetimes ago. She was the one who had used her superior powers of persuasion to manipulate her sisters into following along obediently. All this was something she had created for them all.

The elder girl's lips parted, bumbling for words that she knew wouldn't be sufficient.

“I’m sorry, Aria. I'm so, so sorry. This is my fault,” was all she could muster at first, sniffing back her tears. Turning to gaze at Sonata, she saw the youngest girl clasping her hands together, nodding encouragingly. "But I swear to you, I'm going to try to make it right. Just try to breathe, and calm down. I won't let anything else happen to you.”

There was a bit of silence, save for Aria's gasping in between her tears as the three sisters sat on the park pavement. After a while, Adagio felt the girl in her arms give a great heave, and shift to look up into her eyes. Surprisingly, she was wearing the faintest of smiles.

"I sang... like before our pendants were shattered. I actually sang," she rasped, on the brink of another bout of coughing.

"Shh," Adagio hushed her, rubbing her back, and pulling her up to her feet. "I believe you. We'll talk about that soon enough. Now, let's go quick, and get to the bus stop before those two weirdos from your job find out we left. I figured you wouldn't want to ride with them; so, I said we'd be right back. I practically had to tie the ice cream cone down with her seatbelt to get her to stay in the car. "

Adagio paused for a moment as she took a step, realizing she had made a decision that should really be Aria's to make. Turning toward her, she tilted her head to look at the injured girl's face.

"Unless you do want to ride with her," Adagio posed gently, waiting for a reply.

Aria scoffed as she wrapped her arm around Sonata who had moved in close to give her sister something to brace upon.

"Fuck, no."

An Inherited Burden

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A beautiful, curling alto echoed against the walls of the enormous chamber of a room ornately decorated in rich mahogany fixtures, and gold gilding. The late morning sun shone in from the open window, and was joined by a delightful breeze. As the gust blew in, and ruffled a lovely blue mare’s fevered fur, she relaxed, and the nervous flush in her cheeks began to fade away.

As Sonata’s song ended, she and the two vigilant figures that made up her audience were left in a dreamy silence. After a moment, the observant ponies stood, and stomped their hooves in applause. One of them, an orange-bearded unicorn stallion, did so on shaky hoof. The aged, orange earth mare that stood by his side helped to support him.

“Delightful. Absolutely enrapturing as usual, my dear,” the elder Lord Goldenstalks exclaimed. “It seems your voice becomes more lovely with each visit.”

Sonata noted how today the former Earl’s voice was particularly more weak and raspy than usual. A slick glimmer shone in the stallion’s wide eyes, one that gave credence to his swiftly failing health. The blue mare felt her heart become heavy, and her smile faltered. Taking a low bow, she exhaled a long breath, glad for the performance to be over with.

“I-I thank you, My Lord. I am most fortunate that after all this time you have yet to tire of me, especially with as legendary a voice as the Countess’—”

“Oh, n-n-nonsense!” the former Countess, Ginger, interjected with a warm smile. “Both of your voices are beautiful in their own distinctive ways, and i-i-it is better that they are not compared. After all, how should one compare an elegant rose bush to a h-happy garden patch of pretty tulips?”

Ginger looked toward her husband, and he nodded in agreement. His weakened jaw fumbled for an off kilter smile. Sonata’s cheeks, again, went red.

“You do me too much honor, My Lady,” she said with another low bow. The former Countess smiled.

“Well, you will s-s-simply have to oblige us, then. Won’t you?” she stammered. She never noticed the small grimace growing upon her husband’s face.

Suddenly, the elder lord’s hind legs gave an odd tremor, and then failed him. He stumbled down ever so slightly before being caught by his wife who quickly bid Sonata to pull a chair over.

“M-my Lord!” Ginger exclaimed. “Are you not feeling well?”

She peered into his eyes. It seemed the elder Goldenstalks could not reply. Instead, he nodded his head, his expression twisted into one of confusion and embarrassment. Sonata, who had taken many paces away from the pair, now kept her eyes trained reverently upon the floor so as not to embarrass the old lord. She said nothing. Soon, the orange mare gazed up at her with a stern look.

“I th-think that is enough for today, my dear. I do thank you for c-coming. You know how very much My Lord enjoys your visits. G-g-go now to the Earl. I believe he is in his private study at this hour. He will see you off.”

Sonata tried to hide her clear discomfort with these words. The Earl's study? Why did it seem that she was constantly put at odds with the dictates of her status? They knew she was a commoner. They knew it was less than appropriate for her venture anywhere beyond the great hall of Goldenstalks manor.

“Yes, thank you, My Lord. Thank you, My Lady,” Sonata replied meekly, keeping her eyes trained upon the floor. Slowly, she backed out of the chamber, and out into the sprawling hallway. When the door was shut, she leaned against it, and slid down to the floor with a relieved sigh.

It wasn’t that she dreaded these visits to the Goldenstalks estate. By now she was quite used to them. After all, she had been making them ever since the first time her mother and father had arranged her performance for the Earl those many years ago. Yet, to this day, the idea of performing alone before nobles, the thought of being judged, and potentially being hated, still racked her with fear and anxiety. Everyday, she tried her best to do her best for everypony she might have called an acquaintance; thus, it set her mind to worrying when she found herself amongst those who were under no obligation to see her as anything besides a worthless peasant, regardless of what her talents or passions might have been.

Still, she could not deny that the trip she made to the estate today was absolutely necessary. Lately, things had been quite difficult for her. No matter how hard she worked, nowadays it seemed that she was always coming up short pertaining to funds for herself and the farm; thus, these trips to the Goldenstalks manor for short performances for the former Earl were quite useful with providing a quick income when there was nothing else to be had. It was a shame that the elder Lord's son—the current ruler of the realm—did not have such a heart for her melodies as his father did. Considering the aging master's current state, Sonata couldn't help but worry about what would befall her should anything happen to him.

She shook her head free of these thoughts. It was a disgrace that she might think such things pertaining to the former Earl whilst he was ailing. How selfish she was being.

Running a hoof across her elegantly braided mane, Sonata stood back up, straightened her dressy, white robes, and headed down the long corridor. Upon reaching its edge, she found a waifish servant standing there, waiting and sneering. Sonata, already knowing why, stared down at the floor, away from the brown earth stallion's eyes.

This particular corridor was forbidden to most servants of the house as it contained the private chambers of the Earl's family. Sonata, being a commoner, would also typically not be suited to traverse therein. As usual, due to the fondness the former Earl and his wife held for her, she was made the unwilling exception.

"I... I was instructed to be taken to the Lord Goldenstalks’ private study," the blue mare stammered, almost wincing at her own words.

Expectedly, she heard the stallion before her let out a scoff of disbelief that caused her as much distress as he probably hoped it would. Following a few paces behind him, she trotted along more winding hallways, and up a few flights of stairs before the stallion came to a rather large, and magnificently carved, wooden door. Ordering the blue mare to stop her walking, he knocked upon the door, and waited to be addressed. A call came from inside of the room, bidding him to enter.

“Miss Sonata Dusk, My Lord,” the stallion murmured, sounding as if he were unbearably burdened to announce her name in such a dignified manner. As she listened, Sonata busied herself with straightening her mane and robe, hoping that she was presentable enough for the Earl’s company.

“Ah, yes. The farmer’s daughter,” came a low, rather bored-sounding voice from within. “Send her in.”

The stallion stepped back out of the room, and stood to the side of the doorway. His hoof extended outward to usher the mare in. A vindictive smirk spread across his face as she passed.

Upon entering the private study of the current Earl, Upright Goldenstalks, Sonata couldn’t help but allow her gaze to wander about the lavish room. There were shelved walls filled with scrolls and books of all kinds, a comfortable sitting area against the opposite wall, and in front of a tall window, a vase full of beautiful, golden-hued flowers sat upon a pedestal. No doubt the lady of the house had chosen these to brighten the room. She had a notoriously keen eye for all that could be deemed elegant.

The servant stallion slammed the door behind her, making her jump, and reminding her of whose presence she was in. Allowing her eyes to dart toward the Earl, she found him sitting at his large desk which was covered in documents and scrolls of all sorts. He used his orange-hued magic to scrawl voraciously upon a fresh piece of parchment with a quill feather pen. It was as if he had already forgotten she was there. Immediately dropping her gaze toward the floor, the wary mare performed a low bow.

“My Lord,” she greeted him, then opting to wait in silence.

After tarrying there for a lengthy amount of time, Sonata was beginning to wonder if the Earl had not seen her at all. She slowly lifted one hoof toward her mouth, planning on forcing a cough, or clearing her throat in order to draw his attention. Thankfully, before she could do so, she heard the quill stop scratching, and the sound of it clacking loudly back into its inkwell. Her confusion was once again replaced with anxiety as she could almost feel those icy blue eyes beginning to bore into her lowered head.

“The Lord and Lady enjoyed your performance, I take it,” he said matter-of-factly. His voice was calm, collected, and altogether piercing. Indeed, everything about the Earl made it seem as if he was actually made entirely of stone or ice. Sonata let loose a small gasp as he addressed her. She stammered for words, her eyes still trained upon the floor.

“I… I’m sure I would not know, My Lord, b-but I do hope so.”

“Nonsense,” the goldenrod unicorn replied. “After all, you would not be standing here in my study if they had not.”

Sonata heard the quill rising out of the inkwell once again, followed by the sound of more ruffling parchments and pen scribbling. Assuming his attention had been drawn away, she took a moment to glance upward toward the Earl. Finishing with this document abruptly, he turned and caught her gaze, much to her surprise.

“How fortunate you are that the Goldenstalks household has developed such a fondness for your voice. Wouldn’t you agree, Miss Sonata?” Upright asked her. There was something hidden behind those icy eyes. Through her fitful gaze which darted sporadically between his face and the floor, she could only imagine that she had seen spite in him. It was no secret that the current Lord Goldenstalks did not hold the same fondness toward music as his father did. The nervous mare also knew that Upright was well aware of why she continued to make these trips to the manor in order to sing for his mother and father—money. They both knew she and the Fylleion farm were dealing with hard times. They both knew that he would inevitably be made to pay her for her “troubles” in order to satiate the demands of his ailing father. It was no secret to Sonata that the Earl hated this. She could only imagine how very much—to somepony as overly practical as he—the “squandering” of funds upon singers probably seemed an unnecessary waste.

“Yes, it would seem so, My Lord. I pray that you feel the same way.”

Upright did not reply. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Sonata glanced up toward his face only to find him peering at her, his mouth barely turned up in a poorly hidden smirk of disdain.

“Come,” he commanded her, then turning his head to look somewhere beneath his desk. His magic flared.

Sonata took a deep breath, and slowly stepped forward. The sound of her hooves on the pristine wood echoed across the otherwise silent room. When she stood directly before the stallion’s immense desk, he looked up at her, and with his magic, tossed a money pouch onto the bare surface before him.

“I believe that should be sufficient,” he replied. Sonata, not wanting to seem too eager, did not move to touch the pouch until the Earl himself huffed with irritation, and extended a hoof, motioning for her to take it. Snatching it up with her teeth, Sonata then performed a low bow.

“Thnkyw, Mm Lrrd,” she mumbled, accidentally dropping the pouch onto the floor. “T-thank you, My Lord.”

She picked up the item, then bowed again, beginning to back away towards the door. By this time, Upright had gone back to pouring over his documents, scribbling here and there. Still, just for good measure, she gave one more bow as her backside bumped into the door. She quickly opened it, and practically stumbled out into the corridor. Breathing another huge sigh of relief as she leaned against the wall, the blue mare didn’t notice that the servant stallion had been standing by the side of the entryway the entire time. When she spotted him, she jumped, nearly spilling the contents of her pouch all over the floor.

“Oh! Oh, fennel! You almost startled me to death, you did!” she exclaimed, straightening her robes, and fixing her mane. Her face flushed with embarrassment. The servant stallion eyed her, unamused.

“I dare not even think it,” he replied, sarcasm dripping from his tone. He then turned to direct her to follow him back down the hallway toward the servant’s exit. “This way, if you please.”

“Uhh, y-yes. Just hold on,” Sonata stammered as she tried to hitch open the small purse given her by the Earl just enough to be able to peer inside. Holding it by one of its drawstrings, she maneuvered its contents about so that she might be able to comfortably walk whilst counting the money. “J-just a moment!”

By the time she had successfully figured a way to carry the thing, the brown stallion had all but lost his patience. Clearing his throat, and stomping his hoof, he started on down the hall without her. She quickly trotted along to catch up, the pouch jingling as it hung from her teeth. Her brow furrowed as she peered down into the thing, counting the bits as precisely as she could manage, and then recounting them just to make sure.

“Thvn, eiff, nnn,” she murmured to herself under her breath. Perplexed she repeated the count. “Thvn, eiff, nnn… Wrrt a mrrmnt.”

She grimaced. Her lovely raspberry eyes glimmered with worry.

“This isn’t right,” she murmured, accidentally dropping the purse again. “Oop! Wait a moment! We must go back.”

The brown stallion did not slow down, nor did he turn to look her way.

“I’m afraid that would be impossible. The Earl is very busy, and should not be disturbed again.”

“B-but this isn’t right. There has been some sort of mistake!” she exclaimed, snatching up the pouch between her teeth. The servant before her remained unmoved.

“The Lord Goldenstalks does not make mistakes,” he scoffed.

Irked, she let out a low, frustrated growl before stomping her hoof with finality, and turning about to race back down the hallway. Hearing her run away, the brown stallion turned about with a gasp.

“Wait! What do you think you’re doing? Come back here!” he cried, setting off after her.

By the time she burst through the Earl’s study doors, startling him into spilling ink all over a document he had been writing, the brown stallion had already caught up to her. He latched hold of Sonata’s robe with his teeth, and had begun to drag her away.

“What is the meaning of this?” Upright roared, standing and slamming his front hooves upon his desk.

“Aplgies, My Lrd!” the servant stammered through his clenched teeth as he tried to pull Sonata away. “She’s gnn mad!”

“Apologies, My Lord!” Sonata exclaimed, dropping the purse from her teeth. “I had to speak with you again. Please, give me audience! It is a very important matter! You see, it seems that there’s been a miscount of the contents of this pouch.”

She attempted to hoof the servant off of her with her hind leg to no avail. The Earl looked from one to the other, disgusted by the ruckus and the disarray they were creating. After only a moment, he grimaced, his shoulders shaking. At once, a bright beam of orange light escaped from his horn, and he stomped down hard upon the floor.

“Enough!” he thundered. Both the mare and the brown stallion went still and silent. “Spitshine? Out!”

The brown stallion gave his master an incredulous gaze.

“B-but, My Lord—”

“Out!” Upright repeated, gesturing toward the door.

Looking rather dejected, and a bit stunned, the brown stallion quickly stood up straight in as dignified a posture as he could manage after being scolded in such a way. He then turned tail, and left the room, closing the door behind him. Sonata was left standing quite frazzled and flustered in the middle of the floor. Her dismay only grew as the Earl approached her. Using his magic to pull a chair toward her, he then levitated her into its seat. Drawing the small pouch of bits off of the floor, he used his magic to stretch it open. Eyes moving continuously between the rattled blue mare and the contents of the purse, his expression remained stern and wholly unamused. After what seemed to be an eternity spent in silence, Sonata heard the Earl take a deep breath, and watched as he then levitated the pouch back toward her.

“There are nine bits in this pouch. That is the correct amount,” he murmured, turning to head back toward his desk.

“Forgive me, My Lord,” Sonata exclaimed, taking a deep breath before she powered through her next words. “I-I’m afraid you are mistaken. Th-there should be thirteen bits. That is the usual amount given to me by the former Lord.”

Upright had all but frozen mid-step with his back still facing Sonata. The blue mare seemed to shrink further and further into her seat as his head slowly turned around so that he might gaze at her with a confounded glare. Turning his body, he walked toward her, yet again.

“What did you just say?” he murmured, an almost lethal tone in his voice. Sonata gulped, wishing that she could just take her words back and leave. Still, what was done was done. If she was to be on the Earl’s bad side, she would at least have her thirteen bits.

“Th-there should be… thirteen bits… in… the… pouch?” she squeaked, her eyes now trained straight ahead into the Earl’s broad chest. Holding her breath until her cheeks turned purple, she willed herself to gaze up at his face. When she did, she found him giving her a cold, narrow-eyed look. He ground his teeth behind tightly pulled lips.

“Miss Dusk?” the Earl murmured.

“Yes, My Lord?” Sonata choked, beginning to feel an old urge to draw into herself, and forever be silent beginning to take hold of her. She attempted to cough out a tightening sensation growing about her throat.

“There has been no mistake," the stallion finished.

The Earl lowered his head so as to look Sonata straight in the eye.

“I think it would do us both some good at this point, Miss Dusk, if I were to make you aware of all the things of which I am aware. Naturally, these things concern you.” Upright turned to pace the length of his room, and then pace back.

“For example, are you aware, Miss Dusk, that I am aware that the Fylleion farm has been doing poorly in terms of keeping up enough stock for the rapidly increasing populations of both Greenwaters and Trotchester?"

Sonata bit her lip.

"Yes, My Lord, but you see—"

"Also, are you aware that I am aware that despite all of these shortcomings, you still receive the minimum payment from my estate that is required to sustain and enhance your farm to keep up with these growing demands?"

Upright traversed the floor once again, until he stood directly before her.

"Yes, I am, My L—"

"And, are you aware that I am aware of the added income that you acquire during your forays in the Greenwaters market?"

Sonata's eyes went wide, and her mouth sealed itself shut. The vice-like sensation about her throat clamped her voice box closed as she listened to the Earl's tone go very low.

"What I simply cannot seem to understand, Miss Dusk, is how you could possibly be in need of more bits when, according to my books, you receive exactly as much as is required, and then some. What do all of those bits go toward, I wonder?"

The room was silent for a while as they looked at one another. Sonata, now curled up into her seat, stared at the Earl as if on the brink of stunned tears. Clearing her throat, she managed to force out pained croaks.

"I can assure you, I wouldn't know either, My Lord. Y-you see, my mother and father have only left the physical maintenance of the farm to me. I-I'm not privy to their personal ledger besides what it takes to maintain the farm. All the other payment I receive is sent off to them to be used as they see fit."

Upright reached upward, and stroked his chin in a fashion that anypony might have said was reminiscent of his father.

"And how, Miss Dusk, is that any concern of mine?"

Sonata raised her hoof, and inhaled as if to answer before she realized she had nothing to say to this. Looking desperate, she leaned forward in her chair, half raising up to meet the Earl's gaze.

"My Lord, this land is yours. I can only do with it as much as you would allow. I am trying to expand. I am! In fact, I was going to get started today, but I need thirteen bits, My Lord, thirteen bits to pay my workers. If I can't have that much I cannot do as you wish," Sonata blurted while looking quite perplexed. She was sure that she didn't know where all of those words had just come from.

Gazing back up toward Upright who seemed to be studying her deeply, the blue mare was nearly bowled over out of her seat when she saw his horn begin to glow with magic. Peering behind him, she then caught sight of four gold bits floating upward, out of the stallion's desk, and toward her. Neatly and efficiently, they fell into her now opened and floating pouch. The drawstrings pulled tight, and at once, fell into the blue mare's lap. Her head rose to smile brightly at Upright, only to, again, be met with that icy, blue glare.

"Allow me to make something absolutely clear to you, Miss Dusk. While I may be able to tolerate the old Lord's ridiculous obsession with your frivolous, provincial pastimes, I cannot and will not tolerate your carelessness with Goldenstalks property. If you and your family continue to squander what it is that has been so graciously put under your care, then make no mistake, it shall promptly be taken away, and given to somepony who can prove themselves more... efficient. Do you understand?"

The blue mare cowered before the stallion, gulping down a lump in her throat.

"Y-yes, My Lord," she squeaked.

"Good," Upright said after a beat. "You may leave."

He turned around with an air of finality, and slowly began to head toward his desk. Rising to her hooves, her face flushed, Sonata began to straighten her robes just as she heard the sounds of energetic hoofsteps approaching out in the hallway. Before she could pull herself away from her hems, in from the hall rushed a gorgeous, yellow mare, as brilliant as the midday sun itself. She was draped in lavish purple robes, and her mane glittered with gold. In her magenta-hued unicorn magic, she levitated a fresh bouquet of golden-hued flowers.

“Good day, My Lord," she began with a sigh, not yet having noticed the other pony in the room. When her glimmering eyes landed upon Sonata as the blue mare was straightening her hems, her face at once looked utterly incredulous. Seeing this, the shaken earth mare quickly tripped onto the ground, but saved what little face she had left by rolling into a low bow.

"G-greetings, My Lady Countess!" she yelped, keeping her eyes trained toward the floor.

Hearing nothing, Sonata allowed her eyes to trail upward, only to catch the Countess' gaze shifting angrily—suspiciously even—between herself and Upright who now sat writing at his desk, looking rather disinterested. The blue mare recoiled into herself.

Everypony in Greenwaters was well aware of the Countess Goldenstalks’ impatience. It seemed as if the Earl Goldenstalks' wife—who, in every sense of the word, was perfect—could not understand those who did not meet her constant demands for perfection. In her quest to, apparently, be the most flawless and upstanding noblemare in peerage to the Canterlotian throne, she took hold of the affairs of the estate with an iron grip practically as soon as the Earl had said "I do," at the altar. On the one hoof, Sonata could not remember ever seeing the estate look more gorgeous, more perfect. Ponies came from afar just to stand beyond its gates to get a glimpse at its lush gardens and colorful courtyards. On the other hoof, all these enhancements took extraordinary pony power. The Countess' constant displeasure with almost everything anypony would do without her instruction assured that the Goldenstalks' estate staff was on rotation and replacement on a frequent basis. Anypony who worked in the Goldenstalks household could thank their lucky stars if they lasted more than a week; a month, and you were warranted a party in town by the rest of the staff.

Still, considering she would make the occasional trip to the Goldenstalks manor, or in this case, their country estate, it was apparent to Sonata that over time, the Countess’ disposition was becoming more and more inconsolable. Naturally, knowing the ways of common, country folk, it was only a matter of time before the rumors began.

Those rumors, as the sociable blue mare was made privy to whilst in the company of friends, had much to do with the Countess’ failure to give the Earl an heir. After all, her place as Countess could never be solidified until she could produce an undisputed successor to the Goldenstalks Earldom. Of course, there was speculation that stated the Earl was just too boring and bored to take any interest with the glorious creature by his side. Another said that maybe he simply kept too many mistresses to be bothered with being weighed down by marriage and fatherhood. That one made the least bit of sense since everypony knew there was nopony as lovely as Lady Adagio. Also, such a bore and by-the-books type of pony as Upright Goldenstalks couldn’t possibly have had the wherewithal to actually act upon the notion of keeping a mistress. One more rumor—the most believable one—stated that perhaps the Lady Adagio had no interest in the Earl at all. Hardly anypony took an actual intimate interest with the stallion, maybe because there was barely any magnetism there to be attracted to. It was clear from the start that the match between them was made out of necessity, and had never turned into a bond of growing desire that one would hope for such mandatory pairings. Regardless, the reality of the situation remained that, try as she might with her absolutely enthralling...well… everything, after three years of marriage, the Goldenstalks nursery remained as quiet and empty as ever. It was no wonder that the Countess, considering the ever increasing precariousness of her predicament, had become more on edge, more obsessed with perfection in lieu of her inability to be perfect in her most important duty.

Looking at her now, Sonata could see her lovely features curling into an angry grimace. Those berry red eyes seemed to go hot.

“What is she doing in here?” the Countess asked in a dangerous tone. Upright, predictably unmoved, gave a loud sigh, and continued to write. His eyes never lifted from the parchment.

“She’s here to collect payment for her visit, as usual.”

“Yes, but what is she doing in here?” the Countess retorted, any effort made to keep the composure in her voice quickly fading. “That is usually done in the great hall, is it not?”

The Earl did not reply. It was all Sonata could do to force herself not to blurt out in her usual fashion to tell the Countess that she was wondering the same thing, and that she would much rather have preferred the great hall, herself. To her own dismay, she found that her lips began to tremor, and move of their own accord.

“Mmmy… My Lady, I—” she began. However, before she could get anything more out, she saw those bitter eyes slide back toward her from where she was bent low upon the floor. They went wide with disbelief.

“How dare you? I have not given you permission to address me directly,” she hissed.

Sonata, now terrified, bowed her head so low that her forehead made a dull ‘THUD’ as it hit the wooden floor.

“Get out,” the Countess spat, and no sooner had she, did Sonata bound up from the floor. Without another word or look toward either of them, she bolted from the room, down the stairs, and down the hallway toward the servant’s exit. She didn’t stop running until she was well beyond the estate’s grand gates.

Out of breath, Sonata then stared back up toward one of the manor’s windows just in time to catch sight of the Countess peering down upon her. The beautiful, yellow unicorn grimaced, and then used her magic to close off her view by tugging a curtain over the pane.

After taking a moment to wipe the startled tears from the corner of her eyes, Sonata straightened her braid, and made an attempt to decipher what it was about her in particular that had irritated the Countess so thoroughly. After all, it wasn’t as if this was the first time that the two had met. Realizing that the thought of all this threatened to haunt and worry her for the rest of the day, the lovely blue mare shrugged off her ponderings, and then turned to secure the bits pouch she carried to her side. Taking a deep breath, she then began down the path toward the farmlands. Noticing the level of the sun in the sky, she decided it would be best to take a shortcut, and veered right once coming upon the edges of a deep forest.

Troubled Waters

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Don't ruin the robe. Don't ruin the robe.

Sonata’s work-worn hooves darted through a patch of wild flowers sitting serenely amongst the immense and ancient trees of Sardhoof Forest. As they zipped by, a streak of flowing white snagged itself upon a low-hanging branch, and tore away. The limb seemed to wave the strip of fabric at its fleeing owner as a spiteful farewell.

Oh, buckwheat. I've ruined the robe.

The edge of the woods could now be seen as well as the wide, open meadow that sat on its other side, bathed in early afternoon daylight. From this distance, one could just barely make out a tiny cottage sitting atop a hill on the opposite edge of the expansive field. There was a sizeable group of ponies standing about its quaint, crooked gate.

"I'm here!"

A few of the ponies swung about to face the direction of the forests. A couple more could be seen trotting out from behind the cottage to come have a look.

"I'm here!" Sonata yelled again as she broke through the threshold of the wood, and sprinted across the fields toward her home. Every inch of the land was familiar underhoof; thus, she traversed the distance in but a moment.

Her pace slowed as she trotted up the hill, out of breath. The thirteen or so earth ponies stared at her as she approached. Some waved, clearly happy to see her; others looked quite put off by her presence. Regardless, the lovely blue mare's infectious smile never faltered in the slightest.

"I'm sorry I'm late, everypony! I had to make an unexpected trip," she exclaimed, taking a moment to smooth the windblown strands of her mane back into the elegantly rolled braid she was wearing. "A moment, please, whilst I change."

A few in the group gave a very loud and exasperated sigh. One purple pony dawning a long, yellow braid, stepped forward, and stomped her hoof.

"Sonata, we've been waiting here for two hours! If I'm late home today, I'll right miss my supper!"

The pretty, blue mare at once felt quite guilty.

"Oh. Well, that does seem to be a bit of a problem, doesn’t it?" she began, thinking to herself for a moment. After a few seconds, she sighed, and shrugged, seemingly having come to some great decision. "I suppose I'll just have to make supper for you all this evening, then, as long as you don't mind staying after dark, of course."

A few in the gathering gave a loud cheer, much to Sonata’s surprise.

“Goodness! All that for a pot of vegetable stew, and an apple cake!” she exclaimed, genuinely perplexed. The visitors laughed to themselves, having long since learned to find the cheery mare's absent-mindedness endearing.

It was no secret to anypony that Sonata Dusk wasn't always present in mind even if she was in the flesh; however, what she lacked in the way of complexity, she made up for in loyalty and affection. That, and her cheerful disposition, made her the type of mare that most anypony found themselves wanting to be around. Indeed, ever since she had taken over as the caretaker of the Fylleion farmstead, the small, humble cottage had become something of an axis for the surrounding commoners of this countryside. Needed to borrow a good hat or robe for an important outing? Ask Fylleion's daughter. Had a lover broken your heart? That Dusk mare was a great listener. Did you have no place to stay for the night? The small cottage on the hill always welcomed the needy; the lovely, blue mare that lived there would see to it that you were treated with the utmost care.

In the same vein, everypony knew well how entertaining suppers at the Fylleion farm were. Sonata’s impromptu get-togethers were the talk of the countryside, even though the cheery, blue mare could never seem to figure why. After all, it usually only consisted of a large pot full of a meager meal, a cake or pie, a small tub of some rather weak cider, and of course—a song or two.

“Oh, sticks. Oh, fennel,” she mumbled to herself while undoing her ornate braid, and trotted off toward the cottage’s kitchen door.

Upon entering the cottage, Sonata immediately noted how quiet the empty space was. Something, again, tugged at her heart, and her eyes went sad as she made her way through the main room, and into the bedroom that was once her parents'. The entire house was at least a bit cheerier than when Fylleion had lived there. When they had first departed on their quest for land of their own as well as better seed for their farm, Sonata, thinking that they might return rather soon, felt obliged to leave things exactly as they had always been—dreary.

Then a week passed. Then a month. Then a year came and went, and by that time, Sonata had no choice but to take up the reins of control over the farm, despite how unacclimated she was to pondering over money, trade, and taxes. It was all quite exhausting for her, and usually worked to make her brain hurt. But with a little help from some of her more experienced friends, eventually, like all other things to which she had not been previously accustomed, she became accustomed to it.

By the third year of her parents' absence, Sonata had practically made the cottage her own—purely by accident, of course. The main room was cozier, filled with flowers, colorful paintings, cushions, and dolls, all made by her own hooves. Her old, beloved stuffed pony, Socks, seemed to sit gleefully amongst its more expertly-crafted companions.

The bedroom had been transformed as well. As Sonata now walked through the warm, lamplit, room that smelled of wildflowers and apple pie—which she secretly liked to eat in bed—she found it interesting how much she still missed the dark and dour stylings of her mother. Still, the blue mare had decided long ago that if she should be made to worry and fret over farm affairs which were quite stressful to comprehend, she should at least be allowed the opportunity to come home to some place that felt welcoming, affectionate, some place that felt as if it appreciated her being there. As she caught a glance of the pretty mark upon her flank whilst carefully attempting to remove her robe, she couldn’t help but be reminded of her unquestionable need for love, almost as important as her unquestionable need for song.

Clutching the bits pouch between her teeth, Sonata moved toward an enormous chest that sat at the edge of her cozy bed. Unlocking it with a key that she pulled from its hiding place beneath a nearby floorboard, she cracked the dusty thing open. The hinges creaked as the lid fell back to reveal an array of field clothing, parchments, money, and small tools. Glancing down wistfully at the coins therein, Sonata bit her lip, and wondered how she might be able to make the amount work for tomorrow evening's supper, especially since most of those coins were to be her parents’ payment for the week, and especially since she would be cooking for a small gathering tonight. For a moment, she flirted with the idea of keeping some of the extra money she might make from singing in the market in the days to come, but quickly shook the notion from her mind. She couldn't act in such a deceitful way toward Master Fylleion and Thistle. They would know, if not by the bits count she sent, then by the guilty look they would see on her face upon their return. Sonata grimaced at the thought of what an ungrateful and selfish pony she was being.

With a heavy sigh, she plopped the money pouch into the chest, and pulled out the old, worn shawl her mother had sewn for her when she was little. Taking a moment to nuzzle her cheek against the ragged thing, she then tied it about her neck. It fit more snuggly now, but still managed to comfortably hide her scar. Reaching into the chest again, she then pulled a large, straw, sun hat out, and plopped it upon her head before fetching out a roll of old bandages. Gingerly, she began to wrap them around her hind hooves. They would need all of the support they could get considering the grueling work that was in store for her today.

Locking the trunk with a sigh, Sonata headed back out to meet the others. The sight of the rather upbeat gathering of friends and acquaintances who had come together to help her in such short notice, made her feel renewed. She could tell by the looks of them that they too were feeling quite energetic, probably about the notion of supper. Sonata did have to admit that she was an excellent cook.

Stretching out her legs, and cracking her joints, she gave them all an encouraging smile, and trotted toward the cottage gate in the direction of the open fields. There would be time for merrymaking later. Right now it was time to work.

"Alright! Does everypony remember their jobs?—Because I don't," she blurted bashfully.

Everypony nodded, and passed her that same, endearing smile.

"We've cleared a field or two before, Sonata," Ryegrass chuckled, trotting toward her. "If we work without stopping, we might even have this all done by the end of the day!"

"Really?" Sonata gasped, her eyes going bright. "That would be wonderful!”

Turning to face the field, she quickly began to trot away.

"Well, then what are we waiting for?"

___

She dug her hind hooves into the soil as she bore down. The ropes attached to her breast collar pulled taut as they were met by the tree stump's resistance. Sweat poured down her brow in the heat of the midday sun.

“Heave!” she heard Dandy call from beside her, and she gave another hard tug. Her left hind hoof shook, and for a moment, her head reeled. Her empty stomach growled in protest. Seeing her falter out of the corner of his eye, Dandy’s brow knit with concern.

“Sonata, we could take a rest if you need it. You look tired.”

From where he was standing, Dandy could not see the look of determination upon the blue mare's face. Even as the pain ripped up her sore hind legs, and the sweat poured down from beneath her wide brimmed hat, she carried on. These hardships were not to get the better of her. She had seen hardships before, and she had persevered through them. If it was one thing that she learned about the good things in life, whether it be finding a family, keeping friends, or even expanding a farm, it was that none of it came without grueling hard work. If these tasks were to be done for those she cared for, then she was glad to do it.

“No, no, Dandy. I’m fine,” she huffed passing him a sweet smile. Looking out to the rest of the field, she could see the other ponies busy hoisting up more stumps or carrying them off toward the woods. “I just don’t wish to fall behind is all.”

Shaking her head free of its haze, she bore down again, never noticing the nervous expression Dandy was now giving her. He cleared his throat, and bore down as well, still eyeing her with interest.

“Yes, well, in that case, may I ask you something, Sonata?”

“‘Course!” the blue mare croaked as she struggled against the rope.

“I was wondering if perhaps lately, you’ve been considering the prospects of… marriage?”

Her hoof slipped, and she yelped in surprise as she nearly fell over into Dandy’s side.

“Oop! I’m fine!” she laughed, straightening herself. “I’m fine!”

Glancing about so as to avoid the stallion’s gaze, she cleared her throat, and fought back the flush that threatened to burn her entire face.

“Weeellll, I… You see, I haven’t really… My, this really doesn’t seem like the proper time to discuss such a thing, does it?” she laughed anxiously.

“Well, any time is a good time for this type of thing,” Dandy laughed in return. From where she stood, Sonata could see his cheeks going red as well. “I… I’m sure it would make handling the farm much easier if you would—”

“Oh, dear! The others are getting ahead again,” Sonata blurted, in a blatant attempt to cut him off.

“I… I suppose what I’m trying to ask you is if, perhaps you have ever considered me to be—”

“Berry and Clover just left those roots sticking out of the ground! I should have known they would do something like that!” the mare exclaimed again.

“Well, perhaps before I say that,” Dandy continued on, ever determined. “I should first tell you how I feel about—”

Lost in his own thoughts, the stallion didn’t notice Sonata putting all of the force she could manage against the rope, nor did he see the stump behind him beginning to wriggle loose. Before he could finish his words, there was a cracking in the earth, and the old stub came free. It managed to bowl him over as it knocked into his rear. Sonata sighed in relief—though not for having finally pulled the thing from the earth. Passing him an allayed grin, she quickly loosened the ropes from about her breast.

“Oh, look, we did it! Well, that’s done! I suppose I should go, and help the others then! Until next, Dandy!” she jabbered, forcing a laugh as she quickly darted away further into the field, leaving the poor stallion tangled in his ropes.

When she was a fair distance away, she gave a great heave. Sitting down a moment to rest, she removed her hat, wiped the sweat from her brow, and closed her eyes.

“Miss Sonata!” called a small voice from somewhere far to her left. The sound of it made her ear twitch. Taking a look, her frown was replaced with a bright smile as she saw two foals approaching. A little pink filly with a curly, yellow and light green mane took the lead. She carried a water bucket between her teeth. Close behind her followed a blue colt. Sonata raised her hat, and waved with it before plopping it back down upon her head.

“Peat! Nia! How are you?” she called out to them. Standing up, she began to walk a bit closer until the two little ones stood before her. Nia, the filly, spat out the bucket handle, and smiled up at her.

“We brought you all some water!” she yelled. The colt immediately gave her an irritated glare.

“I drew it from the well, and carried it most of the way here,” he muttered to himself.

“I said we!” the filly retorted with a roll of her eyes.

The mare couldn’t help but laugh as she now caught sight of Begonia Blossom, the foals’ mother, trotting down the hillside toward her. She was carrying yet another bucket.

Sonata held a special place in her heart for Petunia and Peat Moss, and they for her; for they shared very similar origins. The two foals, once upon a time, had been left abandoned on the roadside outside of Trotchester quite shortly after they had been born. Begonia, one of the most caring mares Sonata knew, had found them coming home from a trip to market, and not having the heart to leave them, resolved herself to taking them in. She had no husband or children of her own, and everypony could see that the two foals had done wonders for her disposition despite the absolute hoofful they both obviously were.

Looking out over the field, Sonata could see that all of the stumps had already been cleared, and a few of the ponies had even begun pulling up the weeds and grasses. There was still a few daylight hours left, and it looked as if they would be finished by nightfall. It seemed a good time to take a break.

“Thank you! That was quite thoughtful of you two, wasn’t it?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she tilted her hat back, brought her head down, and drank deeply from the bucket. The water was refreshing, rejuvenating even, and by the time Sonata lifted her head with a content sigh, Begonia was standing before her.

“Sonata, dear, you look like death!” the red-orange mare cried. “How long have you been out here? Have you eaten?”

Sonata smiled bashfully. Of course, the answer to that question was no. She hadn’t had the time, but she had been running late. What else was there to do but wait until supper?

“How are you Bea?” she laughed, attempting to change the subject.

“Oh, forget about me. I’m not the pony who has been slogging through this dreadful heat all afternoon. How is everypony?”

“You three came just in time, it seems. It looks like everypony is in good need of a break,” Sonata replied glancing around one more time. The rest of the workers, having spotted the buckets, had already begun to approach the two mares.

“Yourself included,” Begonia harped on, her golden eyes glimmering with concern.

A moment of silence passed as the mare took an opportunity to study Sonata who now looked anxiously at the ground. The blue mare knew that if there ever was a transparent pony, it was herself. The only thing that prevented others from freely reading every last thing that bothered her was her own practiced caution in telling them about the matter in the first place. She had made that mistake with Begonia a long time ago, but fortunately, the mare had indeed turned out to be quite a trustworthy—if not overly motherly—acquaintance. Still, the knowing look she was giving Sonata worked to make her nervous. What came next seemed inevitable.

“Did Fylleion and his wife send their messengers again? Their accursed collectors? Is that why you look like this? Hm?”

“No, not today, Begonia,” Sonata sighed. “And they aren’t ‘collectors’.”

“Well, then what are they, Sonata?” Begonia asked, her tone dropping into a restless whisper.

The field ponies were just now reaching them. Begonia quickly turned to her children who had been watching the two adults murmuring and whispering to each other with curious interest. She then directed them to carry their bucket off to meet the workers, so that they might not hear the two mares’ private conversation. The foals rushed off, not wanting to test their mother’s patience whilst she was wearing that perturbed look upon her face. Turning back around to face Sonata, Begonia huffed to see the mare looking quite worn down. She knew that her nagging wasn’t helping. Closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath, the red-orange mare attempted to calm herself.

“Sonata, please listen to me. Eventually, you shall have to be realistic about all of this, about what this is. Now, I haven’t known you your entire life, but from what I’ve heard, this rubbish isn’t new. Why can’t you be honest with yourself about what is taking place?”

Begonia saw that something was happening inside of her friend. Sonata began to shiver as she bowed her head. The orange mare could not tell whether it was from anger or sadness. The blue mare’s large, straw hat concealed her entire face, but could not mask the sound of her breath now coming heavy, and belabored.

“I fear for you, my dear,” Begonia continued, hoping she was getting through to her. “What shall become of you if you lose the farm? Don’t you find it strange how difficult maintaining it has become since your parents have left, and have been sending those… those scoundrels to steal from—”

“In what way, Begonia?” Sonata interrupted, her voice eerily calm.

“W-what? What do you mean?” the other mare asked, sounding quite confused. Sonata lifted her head to look at her. To Begonia’s surprise, the look upon the blue mare’s face was stern. Her raspberry eyes burned with earnestness.

“In what way do you figure the farm has become more difficult to maintain?”

There was a short pause as Begonia tried to work through her astonishment at Sonata’s apparent irritation.

“W-well, I-I suppose that I...Well—”

“Because as a pony who has been farming this land since foalhood, I will have you know that this work, Begonia, has always been ‘difficult’, and I am glad to be able to do it.”

Begonia stared at her wide-eyed.

“I-I didn’t mean to imply that—”

“Do you know what is more difficult, Begonia?—starving, lacking purpose and direction, being scorned by everypony you see."

The red-orange mare’s brow furrowed.

"And Fylleion has helped rid you of all these woes?" she retorted. "Think, Sonata. See clearly. These ponies have been using y—"

"They saved me!" Sonata screamed, her voice echoing across the fields.

All of the field ponies froze to their spots, gawking at the blue mare who now stood huffing in anger. Begonia was utterly taken aback. Her lips tightened shut, and her eyes went wide with shock.

"It is you who cannot seem to see clearly, Begonia," the blue mare began again after calming herself. Her expression was still stern. "I love my parents, and they love me. They taught me how to do something with my nothing life. And surely we can't all be fortunate enough to prance about watering a patch of summer flowers until the Countess throws her annual garden party, and snatches them all up, can we? Of course what I do looks difficult to you. You don't have to feed two towns!"

Begonia looked incensed. Her breast began to heave.

"I'll have you know that my life is equally as subject to the whims of the Earl as yours. All I meant was that there should not be any reason to have money trouble on top of everything else. The Earl does not cause this problem for you. Fylleion and his wife do, and what's more, you don't even know why!"

Sonata shook her head, now quite frustrated with the entire conversation.

"You do not understand,” she groaned, pulling the hat from atop her head with an air of finality. She then turned in the direction of the cottage, and began to walk. “I should have never opened my big mouth to you.”

“Sonata!” Begonia squawked, sounding heartbroken. “W...where are you going?”

The blue mare turned back around to face her. Surprisingly, her expression had returned to its usual state—one of unperturbed blankness.

“Well, that stew and apple cake aren’t just going to make themselves, are they? At least not in my cottage, Begonia. I can’t say about yours."

She then continued on her way. Begonia, not one to have her friendship so easily shaken, trotted forward a few steps.

“Well, put one of those apples in that big, fat, stubborn mouth of yours, and fill your stomach, will you? I know you haven’t eaten today you little foal, you!”

___


The sun had set, and a new evening was upon them. The field work had been completed just in time to see those last wisps of purple disappear over the horizon. Looking down at it from the lively cottage, everypony couldn’t help but smile at the efficient job they had done.

Sonata bustled around the kitchen humming to herself whilst trying her best to ignore the freckled, stallion following her every step.

"It's because of Dandy, isn't it?" the stallion asked, sounding ireful. When Sonata didn't reply, he huffed. "I knew it! Let me tell you something about Dandy. That herbary of his is filthy. It's full of weeds and rodents, and can barely pull in even one gold bit. Don't let him tell you any different."

In all actuality, the blue mare had barely heard anything the stallion said at all. Why should she have bothered listening when she already knew what he was on about—marriage, as usual.

"Oh, crabgrass!" she gasped suddenly, remembering that she had forgotten the coriander from her stew. "I hope I'm not out."

The freckled stallion stared at her, looking rather deflated as she pushed past him to get to the pantry.

"Sonata, have you heard anything that I've said?"

Sonata's head spun around, very nearly making her tumble from where she balanced on the edge of one of the shelves.

"Hmm? Oh, but..." she muttered, looking rather bashful, "...but I like Dandy's herbs, Pepperjack! They're delicious!"

"Sonata," the freckled Stallion sighed as the mare made her way back down and out into the kitchen. “You can’t avoid the question forever. A mare like you should be settled. Look how much worry you put yourself through handling the farm on your own.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense, Pepper. I’m not alone, and I’m not worried at all,” she lied. “Not when I have so many friends to help me.”

The blue mare picked up the spice container she had rested upon the floor, and tried to push past the stallion. Looking rather determined, Pepper furrowed his brow, and moved to block her path to the stew pot.

“Well, I want to be more than that. I love you, Sonata Dusk. Marry me.”

If her apple cake wasn’t on the verge of burning, Sonata would have positively collapsed with fretfulness. She tapped her hooves together whilst shrinking in the stallion’s midsts. She dared not look him in the eye.

“Yrs, wll… Bit of a prblm, that, inn’t it?” she stammered, spice tin between her teeth. The nervous sweat was beginning to drip down the back of her neck again as she watched Pepperjack’s lips tighten.

“Well… why—”

Feigning a sneeze, Sonata sent a cloud of dry spice billowing up into Pepperjack’s face. The stallion, in turn, began to sneeze uncontrollably, himself.

“Goodness! Pardon me! Oh, look! Cake’s finished!” the blue mare blurted, dropping the tin, and worming her way around the stallion, toward the oven. Popping it open, she handled the beautiful dessert with care. Biting down upon a rag to make sure the platter did not burn her, she moved to carry it outside to the other guests.

“Dnt wnnit tr grt cld!” she mumbled to Pepperjack before rushing away, leaving him alone and frustrated inside of the kitchen.

Moving to sit upon a blanket behind the cottage, Sonata glanced around at her guests, and smiled. It seemed that word had gotten around that she had made supper since it appeared that the gathering had now doubled in number. Fortunately, the added guests brought dishes of their own to share with everypony else which was certainly a relief, especially since she didn't have the extra money to shop at the market the following day. Hopefully there would be leftovers that evening.

Thankfully, the sporadic propositions for marriage had died down as the evening went on, and varied ponies rediscovered their affections for other varied ponies under the spell of cider. Looking around at all of the budding relationships being made, for the life of her, Sonata just could not understand why everypony kept harping on about marriage. What was so wonderful about being tied down to one source of romantic affection forever?

Suddenly, she was struck with an odd feeling of guilt for having such thoughts. She knew that such prospects were very important to some of the ponies she called her friends. Sonata could only imagine what it must be like to want that type of love so badly, and for no particular reason, be unable to find it. Begonia, that sweet—if not a bit bossy—creature had yet to find such a thing. Sonata had to acknowledge that there was definitely something that seemed wrong with the fact that all of these stallions kept insisting on prodding, and perturbing her about this type of thing when it was clear she wasn't interested and Begonia was. To her, the idea of marriage felt like something those who were sure of themselves did, and she certainly was not that. The truth remained that despite how much she had grown over the years, and despite all of these new responsibilities she had unwillfully acquired, she still felt just as unsure, imperfect, and foolish as she had whilst a filly. How could somepony like that be suitable as anypony’s wife? Besides, she was sure that her parents wouldn't exactly approve of her relinquishing the reins to their farm to some stallion they did not know. And the wishes of her parents would always come first.

Looking for some source of calm, she stared up at the open sky, losing herself in the stars. When she’d had her fill of them, her gaze fell down toward her forelegs where Petunia had managed, at some point, to wedge herself in the small nook between them. Sonata nuzzled the filly as the child jostled about, nibbling upon the last piece of cake that the blue mare had hidden away for her. Every now and then, she’d lift her head to argue with her brother who was currently dancing about, wearing Sonata’s wide brimmed hat.

“Give it! You’ve had it long enough!” the filly yelled through a spray of cake crumbs. She swiped at the hat with her teeth whilst trying to remain comfortably in Sonata’s grasp.

“If you want it so badly, then trade your cake for it!” Peat said, jutting out his tongue.

“No! You’ve already had plenty, and Miss Sonata saved this just for me!”

The filly stood up this time, and approached her brother. He still managed to keep the hat just out of her reach. With a huff and stomp of her hoof, she turned to face Sonata, a huge frown upon her adorable face.

“Miss Sonata, make him give me your hat! It’s my turn to wear it!”

"You two, stop pestering Sonata!" Begonia chided as she happened to trot past them whilst carrying dirty dishes into the kitchen.

Sonata laughed bashfully.

"They're not bothering me at all."

"I’d wager Miss Sonata never had to share anything or do what anypony else told her when she was little. Isn’t that right, Miss Sonata?" Petunia exclaimed. "I’d wager when you were all by yourself you could do whatever it was you wished!"

A few of the other ponies who happened to be sitting nearby went quiet. Begonia, having heard her daughter's words from inside of the cottage, rushed back out to give the child a furious glare.

"Petunia Blossom, that was a terrible thing to say! You apologize to Sonata right this instant!"

Sonata, who had been sitting there looking rather stunned by the child's words, eventually settled into an understanding smile. She again scooped up the filly between her forelegs, and smirked.

"It wasn't quite so simple, Nia," she said, patting the child's head. "I had to face plenty of obstacles, as well. Quite a few ponies would keep things away from me that I needed, or they'd try to take things that belonged to me, or even fight me."

Both Petunia and her brother now seemed completely hooked by Sonata's words.

"Well, what did you do?" Peat Moss asked, never noticing that Sonata's hat had now begun to dangle precariously from one of his ears. "Did you fight them? Did you take their things, as well?"

"Oh, no. Never," Sonata giggled. "But I didn't need to. There were plenty of other ways to get what I required, and stay out of trouble."

The two children now looked perplexed.

"How?" Petunia asked, drawing a thoughtful look from the blue mare.

"Well, I just..." she trailed off, not sure how to put those few lonely and desperate years of living homeless into words. "Well, what I did was..."

As she stammered, falling deep into the emotions of her memory, the sounds that escaped her throat became quite strange. They wavered, and flowed as if on the brink of song. After a moment, Sonata huffed, feeling the spot between her chest and neck beginning to swell with feeling and inspiration. The wellspring of her mind slowly opened up.

MISERY will make you

“No, no,” she interrupted herself as the tune didn’t seem to communicate what she wanted it to. “Hmm.”

Oh, you’d be surprised just what you’d eat when

“No, that’s not quite right, either.”

The distinct sounds of Sonata’s voice trying to find her song immediately drew the attention of everypony within hearing distance. Soon, shouts for her to continue echoed throughout the yard, and not being one to disappoint, Sonata took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Allowing the inspiration of old memories and current good company wash over her, she waited until a warmth extended all the way out to her legs. Knowing she had finally found her tune, she then turned to face the filly and colt.

The first lesson that I learned,
When I was very little,
Was just to flow like water,
Through troubles big and small.

What use is being rigid,
When you're stuck in the in between?
A little compromising,
Won't hurt too much at all.
You'll see you'll swiftly leave your woes behind.

As she sang, the air became electrified, and the very sky seemed to join along with her in a jovial harmony. Her voice seemed to echo throughout the fields, drawing any wandering guests back toward the cottage to hear. After all of these years, most of these ponies had already been privy to Sonata’s voice ever since she had begun singing in the Greenwaters market when she was small. However, listening to the mare’s voice now, one could not help but cede the fact that something about it had grown, and become far more powerful right along with her. Where her childhood voice would draw ponies in to sing and dance jovially to themselves, in her marehood, Sonata’s alto now commanded attention, and inspired the most unearthly sense of joy and wellbeing. It was no longer a matter of enjoying her song. Her song had become joy itself.

Getting to her hooves, she trotted about Petunia and Peat Moss before coming to a stop between them. Nudging them mischievously she began leading them through some playful hoofwork that she had performed countless times on top of her stage of old boxes in Greenwaters.

Just shift on to the left,
A nudge onto the right,
And you'll slip right through the blight.
To duck a little low,
Won't mean to lose the fight.
You will soon step into light.

Just learn to take it all in stride.
Oh, do as water does and see!

She ensnared the minds of all who heard her, and soon enough, they too began to join in the dancing and singing as if Sonata’s wellspring had been their own.

But heavy is the load on me!

Sonata ‘rounded about toward the gleeful gathering.

I'll show you how to cut them free!

Skipping up to Dandy, she nudged him, bidding him forward to dance. Caught in the midsts of Sonata's melodic web, he swiftly forgot her earlier rejection to his propositions, and obliged.

Just loosen up your middle,
And shake off all the brittle.
It's useless getting angry.
Just let your grudges fall.

Now take a look around you.
The skies are getting clear up there.
Your road no longer narrow,
When you accept the grass, the groves, and all the pathways once unseen, just...

Begonia, stomping along to Sonata's song as she watched all the happy couples dancing, happened to catch sight of Pepperjack standing a short distance away. Saddling up to his side, she swatted him coquettishly with her tail. When he glanced toward her, she let loose a jovial laugh, and tugged him off by the ear to dance.

Budge on to the left,
Little to the right,
And your woes slip out of sight.
Just bend a little low.
You can win the fight,
And you'll step into the light.

Spin out of the way,
Jump with all your might,
Roll on past. Ignore the slights,
And then you're almost there.
You have won the fight,
Reaching up to brand new heights.

Just learn to take it all in stride.
Oh, do as water does and see!

As Sonata twirled amongst her companions, lost in a world all of her own creation, her song reached a fever pitch. Gaily leaping from entranced partner to the next, she never even noticed the new face that had entered the space.

Now, flow like water just like me!
Around we go so merrily!

A pair of forelegs wrapped around her. She reared up onto her hind legs, and turned to face the stallion, but froze upon actually seeing his face. Her radiant smile only grew wider as she took in her dance partner's white fur, brown mane, and that ever so familiar mischievous grin. The buzz of her melody was halted abruptly. Feeling this, everypony turned to stare.

"Prance?" she gasped as if not believing her own eyes.

"Well, how rude," the white stallion chortled, feigning his annoyance rather poorly. "End the merrymaking the moment I arrive, will you?"

"Prance!" Sonata refrained, diving upon him at once. "I can't believe it! What are you doing here? Have you returned from Canterlot? What was it like? Did you see the unicorn court's castle? What about the alicorn enclave? What gifts did you bring me?"

Sonata prattled on as Prance, humored by her endearing enthusiasm, helped her up off of the ground.

Dandy, Pepperjack, and Begonia stood a good distance away, side by side. Watching the entire, irritating display, Pepperjack smirked to himself whilst Begonia grinned knowingly at them both.

“That absolutely irritating Lighthoof,” Pepperjack muttered to himself. “What does he have that I don’t?”

Begonia giggled, and swept past him, swatting her tail in his face once more.

“Definitely not jealousy,” she tittered. “Surely, you’ve plenty of that.

With that, she left the two stallions to their own devices. Dandy, who had been standing there looking quite perplexed the entire time, finally turned to glance at Pepperjack.

“How did we all know the words to that song?” he asked. They both blinked at one another, and shrugged.

___

Looking around the yard, it was clear to see that the festive aura had passed its zenith, and now entered its decline. Everypony had been fed, and had, ultimately, witnessed what it is they had really come to experience—Sonata’s song. The presence of Sir Lighthoof only solidified the function’s end. Everypony knew that when he was about, Sonata's attention would be solely his. Still, the aura in the air remained quite pleasant, and as the two friends stood speaking with one another, the rest of the guests began their inevitable farewells, downing their final swig of cider or gulp of stew.

Begonia Blossom stood a short distance away speaking with another mare whilst intently eyeing Sonata and her companion. Bidding the pony to wait, she hastily made her way over toward the distracted pair. Once there, she coyly walked betwixt the two, whipping her tail about Prance's face.

"Why, Sir Lighthoof," she began, looking quite unimpressed with him, "how generous of you to grace us with your presence. Of course, I didn't notice a blue moon in the sky tonight, but clearly if you are here then..."

"Hello, Bea," Prance said with a smirk. "You're looking quite severe this evening. Good to see some things haven't changed."

Now, Begonia was the one wearing a smirk. Turning to look at Sonata who stood smiling obliviously, the red-orange mare nudged her in the shoulder.

"Sonata, dear, Sugardust has asked after payment for the work today. Perhaps you should hurry along before everypony wanders off."

"Oh, fennel!" the blue mare gasped. "I completely forgot!"

With that, she bolted off toward the cottage, frantically bidding for everypony to wait out front. Before she disappeared into the kitchen door, she turned to face her two friends.

“Come inside, you two! I’ll be but a moment!”

Prance, seemingly without a care in the world, moved forward toward the warm, welcoming glow of the kitchen’s hearth, but was immediately halted by Begonia stepping directly into his path. She placed a hoof firmly against his breast, and stared up into his eyes with a troublingly somber expression.

“I’m gladdened to see you here,” Begonia murmured, suddenly lunging forward to embrace the stallion about the neck. “She needs you here now more than ever.”

Prance’s brow furrowed at these words.

“She’s in trouble,” he stated. “What has happened?”

Begonia sighed, ruffling the mane on the back of Prance’s head.

“Just stay as long as you can, Lighthoof. Somepony has to help her, and she seems to confide in you more easily. I just cannot seem to get through to her.”

Prance slowly moved to embrace the distressed mare, sighing knowingly.

“I see. I understand, now,” he murmured. There was a beat of silence. “I shall try to stay for as long as I can... and to speak with her.”

A relieved sigh escaped the mare, and she embraced him even tighter.

“Alright, alright,” the stallion chuckled. “We’re expected to be at odds with each other, do you not remember?”

He heard the mare sniff, and let loose a small chuckle.

“We are. I’m attempting to strangle you,” she laughed.

Their tender moment was short lived as the pair heard a tittering of tiny giggles coming from the cottage’s direction. Spinning about, Begonia and Prance caught sight of Petunia and Peat Moss spying on them from the kitchen window. Upon being caught, the two foals gasped, and disappeared from the frame.

“Oh, dear. Seems we’ve been found out,” Prance joked saddling up next to Begonia, and playfully making eyes at her. “I suppose now everypony will know about… us.”

Begonia gave a grand roll of her eyes, and at once, began her short trek toward the cottage.

“Feh!” she scoffed, swatting the stallion in the face with her tail as she went. “I am not quite that desperate yet, My Liege.”

___

Upon entering the cabin, Begonia found Sonata running about in a fuss, practically tearing the bedroom and main room apart.

"What in the name of—... What is going on here?" the shaken mare asked, soon joined by Prance who looked equally as stunned.

"The key!" Sonata cried from somewhere in the bedroom. "I've lost the chest key! The workers' payment is in there!"

Prance, sighing, and shaking his head, took a step toward the room whilst Begonia busied herself with rounding up her two children amongst the mess.

"How much was it?" the stallion called to Sonata.

"Th-thirteen!" she replied. "Oh, how shall I ever..."

Without wasting another moment, Prance pulled a satchel from where it hung by his ornamental blade, and headed out toward the front of the cottage. Begonia, Peat Moss, and Petunia followed close behind.

They found him doling out bits to the straggling workers waiting anxiously in the cool night air. They all seemed rushed now, eager to get home before the evening grew too deep, and the creatures of the night began their prowl. Even Begonia could sense an odd air of unrest out there in the dark as she gathered her foals closer to her sides.

As each pony collected their bits, they headed off down the road, most of them in pairs, wary about travelling the path alone. When they had all gone, and the air was silent, Prance closed up his satchel, and turned to smile at the waiting three.

"And that is that," he said, to which he then received three, pleasant smiles.

Suddenly, Begonia's grin faltered as she seemed to spy something troubling.

"Bea? What is it?" Prance asked her. Realizing she was glaring at something behind him, he spun about, and caught sight of two lone figures making their way down the path toward them.

"They wouldn't..." Begonia growled, her brow furrowing with indignation. "Children, go inside."

Peat and Petunia gazed up at their mother, now looking quite anxious.

"No, Mother! We want to stay with you!" Petunia whined, beginning to shiver.

"Who is that, Mother?" Peat Moss asked, sounding more curious than nervous.

"Inside! Now!" Begonia scolded them, rushing them into the cottage before quietly closing the door behind them. Turning about, fire in her eyes, she marched straight away past Prance—who was still looking quite confused—and went to meet the two strangers.

The pair, a dark gray pegasus stallion, and a white pegasus mare—both utterly grim-looking and clad in black—stopped once they had neared the gate. They stood unmoved, and like stone, even when Begonia rushed forward to defiantly point a hoof in their faces.

"How dare you? How dare you?" She hissed, trying not to let her voice carry into the cottage.

"Out of the way, mare," the gray stallion sighed, sounding utterly unimpressed by her anger.

"Have you no shame?" the incensed mare continued. "At this unhallowed hour?"

"We have only come to do our job, miss," the white mare stated plainly. "Out of the way, then."

"No!" Begonia stated plainly, squaring her shoulders, and planting her hooves firmly in the soil. His patience waning, the gray stallion immediately reached toward his side with his teeth to fetch his blade. As he began to strap the thing around his foreleg, the white mare rolled her eyes.

It was at that moment that Prance finally realized who these two ponies were.

"Out of the way, or we shall be forced to use—" the white mare began.

Prance, rushed forward to stand in front of Begonia, and pushed his chest directly up against the gray stallion's.

"Who do you two work for? Is it Fylleion? Where are they? Answer me!" he commanded, immediately stoking the other stallion's anger. The stranger stepped forward, preparing to raise his equipped hoof.

"Who do you think you’re shovin’, you scrawny rat!”

Prance turned to the side to give both strangers a very clear view of the emblem emblazoned upon his own scabbard, that of the royal Canterlotian court.

“That would be Sir rat, if you will, and if you don’t want to end up sharing a cold jail cell in Greenwaters with about thirty or so more rats, then I would suggest that you answer my questions.”

The two ponies seemed to recoil in unison, both of their faces dawning a frighteningly similar look of astonishment. Their eyes slid to the side to peer at one another, and then slid back in the direction of the white stallion before them.

Taking the lead with diplomacy, as she appeared more prone to do, the white mare stepped forward, and cleared her throat. She then nodded her head in a show of reverence.

“It seems we have acted with an unbecoming amount of brashness, Sir…” she stated, waiting for Prance to supply his name.

“Lighthoof,” Prance replied coldly.

“...Sir Lighthoof,” the mare repeated. “For that we must beg your pardon. I am Echo Hum, and this is Silent Wing.”

With haste, she reached to her side where her own belt hung, fixed with blade and pouches of all sorts. Reaching into a pouch, she managed to pull out a small, rolled parchment. Unfurling the thing upon the ground with her nose, she nudged it forward for Prance to read.

“We are agents of the Lock & Stock Safeguard, the most trusted and efficient private courier and safeguarding service in all of the kingdom for over two hundred years. It boasts the most well-known messengers and protectorates of equine nobility, et cetera, et cetera, and so on, and so forth. We are simply here to collect a delivery due from one Miss Sonata Dusk.”

The white mare rolled the parchment back up before Prance could even finish reading it, and tucked it back into her belt. Flipping her long, silver mane out of her eyes, she smiled at him coyly. “She didn’t make an expected appearance at the Greenwaters branch this morning, and so—”

“And so you’re here to terrorize her!” Begonia interjected, jutting her head out from behind Prance. “You pegasi are all the same: humorless, violent, hot-headed ruffians. I’d wager it wouldn’t even matter if you were being paid for this service, so long as you could frighten the timid and gentle as much as possible. Why don’t you two just fly back up to your grim, little cloud, and go buck—”

“Bea, that’s enough,” Prance chided her, nudging her back. He then turned to face the two pegasi, both looking completely unfazed by Begonia’s outburst, "You two know where Fylleion is, then?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I do not," the mare stated plainly. "We are but humble messengers. And, of course, Lock & Stock wouldn't be what it was if we were privy to all of our very important patrons' information."

"Very important...?" Prance murmured to which the mare leaned in further toward him, wearing a sly grin.

"Indeed, Sir Lighthoof. And might I add that many of our patrons just so happen to outrank your authority, the most applicable being your authority to stop us from completing our task this evening."

The white stallion seemed perplexed by all of this.

"How, then, do these so called important patrons receive their belongings if nopony is able to locate them?"

"They. Simply. Do," the pegasus mare declared with a final stomp of her hoof. Her silver eyes bore into the white stallion as if daring him to prod further. "Now, out of our way. We have a job to complete."

Begonia huffed loudly from where she stood behind Prance. Making her way out to his side, she stared down the two pegasi with her companion.

"Not a chance. There is nothing here for you tonight. You will just have to let Fylleion know that he and his wife will have to wait."

Sonata Dusk, oblivious to the confrontation taking place out in the road, had somehow managed to harness the youthful enthusiasm and effort of the Blossom children in aiding her opening of the chest. In hindsight, it seemed rather simple, really. Just a large knife, a bit of oil, two foals performing a forward somersault, a good kick from her hind hoof, and finally, the large, locked box popped right open. Grabbing up the satchel that bore the Goldenstalks seal, Sonata bid the children to wait inside, and quickly made her way toward the door.

Upon exiting the cottage, the sight that awaited her filled her with dismay. There stood Prance and Begonia hassling two straggling guests about something or other. Her brow furrowing, she, briskly made her way toward the four ponies standing in the road. It wasn't until she had reached the distance of the gate that she realized the two strangers had wings. Peering closer, a different tale began to unfold in Sonata’s head as she realized who it was that had visited her farm.

"W...what's happening here? Is something the matter?" she asked, forcing her way between Begonia and Prance. She eyed her friends suspiciously, and awaited an acceptable explanation. Naturally, it was Begonia who proved unable to hold her tongue.

“Sonata, these two just showed up in the middle of the night to harass you for—”

“For their payment. I know,” the blue mare interrupted. Turning about to face the two pegasi, she smiled politely. “I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to make it into Greenwaters this morning. Something urgent came up, you see.”

“Yes, well, that is no concern of ours, Miss Dusk,” Echo replied, unmoved by the earth mare’s explanation. “The only thing that concerns us is that our patrons receive what is due them, when it is expected.”

“I know, and I’m sorry, but—”

“Spare us,” Silent Wing stated plainly. “Do you have it or not?”

It took a moment for Sonata to catch her wits from the coldness of the two, something she figured she might never get used to. Still, she understood they were just doing their job, and nodded her head.

“Yes, I have it,” she said turning about to head back into the cottage. “Just one—”

“Sonata, what—” Begonia began, blocking her path. Sonata immediately shoved her out of the way, giving her a rather serious look.

“Just one moment,” the blue mare finished as she headed back into the cottage.

Begonia, looking rather dejected, now stood off to the side, pouting and shaking her head. In the mean time, Prance passed the pegasi pair an unamused glare. He remained silent, watchful, studying the situation as it unfolded.

In a moment, Sonata returned from the cottage toting a large sack of bits. Pushing her way past her friends, she moved to stand before the pair of pegasi.

“Here it is. The usual, yes? One hundred bits,” she said dropping the sack, and pushing it forward with absolutely no hesitation. The audible sound of Begonia gasping and Prance huffing in disbelief echoed throughout the yard. Even Echo and Silent’s eyes went wide with shock at how effortlessly she had relinquished such an exorbitant amount of currency.

“S-Sonata, are you mad?” Begonia gasped, her mind reeling. “This is what they expect of you every time? Do you realize how much this—”

“Yes, I do, Begonia,” Sonata chided her, “and I don’t care. I must do what is expected of me.”

As she was speaking to her friend, and whilst Prance was attempting to calm the air between them both, Echo Hum and Silent Wing glanced down at the heavy sack of bits upon the ground, and then toward each other. The blue mare had given up the money so easily, so willingly. It was something utterly unfeasible considering that one hundred bits was quite a costly amount for any common pony, much less a lowly tenant farmer. Still, the seemingly dedicated mare had miraculously found a way to obtain it. An identical thought seemed to occur to the both of them. At precisely the same moment, wicked grins spread across their maws.

“This isn’t enough,” the white mare stated quite plainly, drawing an abrupt silence from the three bickering earth ponies before her. All of them eyed her in disbelief.

“W-what?” Sonata gasped. “But this is exactly the amount that—”

“The amount has been doubled,” Silent Wing interrupted her. “Had you made your scheduled trip to Greenwaters this morning, then perhaps you could have received this message from the patron much earlier. You could have been better prepared this evening.”

“Mother and father want… more?” the poor mare asked in disbelief, her raspberry eyes going wider by the moment. “B-but why would—”

“As I so patiently explained to your companions before your arrival,” Echo interrupted, “we do not know, and we do not care. We are merely here to deliver messages, and to settle accounts. The message we have for you this evening, Miss Dusk, is that the account to be settled is now worth two hundred bits. Do you have this amount or not?”

All of the exhaustion and the worry that Sonata had been putting herself through for the past couple weeks now seemed to show clearly upon her face. She wilted, looking as if the life had been drained from her all at once. One hundred bits per week was already such a large cost that she could barely manage to comfortably sustain herself. How on earth would she be able to survive if double were required of her?

“No, I… I don’t have two hundred bits,” she squeaked. That horrible tightness that she despised so much threatened to clench her throat shut. “How could I possibly have so much?”

Echo and Silent grimaced. With a sigh, the white mare snatched the bits satchel up, and passed it off to Silent to carry. The look she gave the blue mare before her was very stern.

“This isn’t good, Miss Dusk,” she began as she turned to leave. “This isn’t good at all. I suppose that we shall have to let the patron know immediately that you cannot—”

“No, wait!” Sonata yelped, rushing forward to stop them. She never saw the knowing grin now plastered upon Echo’s face. Straightening her expression, the white pegasus slowly turned around, and stared at the distraught earth mare quite boredly.

“Yes?”

“I… If I were to find a way to get the other hundred, how long do you think I might have to do it?” Sonata asked, her voice wavering.

“Sonata!” both Begonia and Prance screamed in shock. Begonia stepped forward.

“You can’t possibly be considering—”

Sonata raised a hoof to silence her, keeping her eyes trained fervently upon Echo. The pegasus mare seemed to be thinking to herself.

“Well, I cannot know definitely, of course, by the very nature of our work,” she began. “But I suppose if I were to use other instances like this as an example, I would estimate perhaps another week or two. Of course, since this is a weekly payment, the bulk amount due in that time would surpass a mere two hundred bits. You must stay current with your expenses, Miss Dusk.”

The red-orange earth mare, shaking with anger from where she stood behind her friend, took a few steps forward. Her mouth hung open with repudiation.

“You crooks. You crooks! All of you! Since you two scoundrels are so fantastic with delivering messages, then perhaps you can tell Fylleion and his wife that there is no way that Sonata is going to—”

“Begonia!” Sonata screamed, at long last having lost her patience with the mare. “Stop! Just stop it! You always prance about telling me what I should do, and speaking on my behalf as if I were another one of your foals! Well, I'm not, and this matter is none of your concern. So, it would please me greatly if you would just stay out of it! I'm going to do as I wish no matter what you have to say on it, and if you don't fancy that, then you can just leave!"

It was as if she had been wounded. Begonia peered at her friend in disbelief, fumbling for words. Her eyes grew glossy and red before—perhaps to save face—she turned her head away, and sniffed. After having composed herself, she looked toward Sonata one last time.

"Well, I suppose that’s that, then. You want me to leave you alone? I'll do just that. You shan’t ever have to be treated as one of my foals again, Sonata. Good evening to you all."

With that, she spun about, and headed off toward the cottage to collect her children, shrugging off Prance's attempt to stop her. Realizing what she had done, Sonata's angry expression melted away. A lump grew in her throat as she took a step forward.

"B... Bea..." she croaked.

The red-orange mare ignored her completely as she called her children out into the road. With one final glance, she turned about, and headed off down the path. Petunia and Peat Moss followed apprehensively.

There was a beat of silence before the sound of Echo Hum sighing caught Sonata's ear, and she turned back about. A stray tear fell from her eye as she did so.

"Well, I should think I've had my portion of drama for the evening," the white mare began with a cold chuckle. "And while all this has proven most entertaining, we really must be on our way. So, what shall it be, Miss Dusk? Will you have the full payment in two week's time?"

Trying her best to fight off thoughts about Begonia, Sonata sniffed away yet more tears that threatened to fall. She passed the pegasus a determined glare, her raspberry eyes catching fire.

"I shall find a way," she stated with a sure nod of her head. For once, her voice did not waver.

Upon Deaf Ears

View Online

They wouldn’t have noticed the dark clouds rolling in overhead if it weren’t for the steady flashes of lightning. It was enough to draw both Sonata and Prance to the front windows to see what was the matter. At first, they suspected a bit of retribution by their pegasi visitors from earlier that evening. Maybe they actually had taken offense to Begonia's insults, and decided to retaliate with a bit of wind and rain for good measure. However, upon looking up at the sky, the two earth ponies took in the startling sight of a wall of cumulonimbus—far more than only two pegasi could feasibly control alone—moving through the area, headed northwest. Interestingly enough, despite the furious flashes that lit up the night, there was not one single trace of thunder. Both of them supposed that the pegasi in question, whoever they actually happened to be, had wanted to keep things as quiet as possible up there.

The pressure in the atmosphere and the ominous whistling of the winds proved to be quite disturbing to the spirit. One could almost taste conflict in the air. Furrowing her brow as the implication of it all dawned upon her, Sonata immediately set to work cleaning what remained of the mess from earlier. Prance busied himself with pouring her the last, lukewarm bowl of stew leftover from earlier in the evening. He then moved back toward the window, sat down beside it, and continued to gaze out into the late evening.

"Marmalade warned me last week, and I just couldn’t believe her!” the mare prattled on as she bustled about. Every now and then, her eyes would dart nervously toward the scene outside. “It seemed so ridiculous at the time, really. But she had told me that Duke Vision and Commander Debon Air of the Doldrums had had some kind of falling out. Supposedly, Vision insulted the commander in some way... a commander! Can you even fathom such a thing? I don't know if I believe it, myself, but Marmy's brother does work in the..."

At long last, when her head snapped around to glance at Prance, the melancholy look upon his face forced her into silence. Forgoing her cleaning—and her bowl of stew—she took a step forward.

“Prance? Are you alright?”

The stallion still didn’t notice her until, at last, she decided to lift a hoof, and wave it frantically in his direction.

“Hmm? Oh, erm. It’s nothing, Sonata. I'm just thinking.”

“Well, obviously,” the mare said with a roll of her eyes. “And what are you thinking about?"

A thought occurred to her.

“You don’t suppose that this will have anything to do with you, do you? Duke Vision is always saying something silly every now and then. But this will all blow over as usual, yes?”

"Duke Vision is a shining example of everything that is enraging about the unicorn nobility," Prance said with a tired roll of his eyes. "He has little respect or understanding for anypony that isn't unicorn. One of these days, he'll bring a war down upon himself, and quite literally, it will fall down out of the blasted sky. I'm sure of it.”

He again glanced up out of the window.

“Especially if he fancies speaking to pegasi in such a way."

"Prance!" Sonata gasped. "You mustn't say such things. You know the Duchess of Edinbridle is Our Lady's sister. That would be horrible for us if it were to happen!"

"I didn't say I wanted it to. I'm simply saying that—Oy! I told you to finish that stew, didn’t I?” Prance exclaimed as his gaze met with Sonata's forgotten bowl sitting atop the table.

"Oh! I... I'm not hungry, Prance. It's alright. I'll eat it later," she said, continuing to clean. Prance passed her an annoyed glare, rose up, and walked over to force her to her seat.

"No, Sonata. Eat it, now. You haven't eaten enough today, and you're going to make yourself sick. I'm not sleeping until you finish it all."

The look the blue mare gave him was one of utter irritation. After a moment of groaning and whining, she finally leaned forward to stare down into the bowl. Practically plopping her face into the thing, she quickly slurped its contents up in one, huge mouthful. Staring at Prance with cheeks near to bursting, she then gulped it all down.

"There," she stated coldly, holding up her empty dish for him to inspect. "Is this to your liking, Sire? Or shall I lick the bowl clean as well?"

"No, no. That seems satisfactory," Prance retorted, smirking at the hint of vindictiveness that leaked from her words. "You know, you're becoming just as awful as Bea."

The stallion knew he had made a mistake when Sonata's face twisted into a pained grimace, and her bowl went clattering down upon the table.

"Oh, Sonata, I didn't mean..."

Rising up before he could finish, Sonata moved away from the table to go sit on the mounds of cushions that lay upon the large rug in the main room. Collapsing upon them, she buried her face into one particularly large, purple pillow. Prance, feeling quite foolish, moved to her side, and lay down beside her. Resting his head upon hers, he then nudged her with his foreleg.

"Come now, Sonata. You know how things are with Bea. You two just had a small difference of opinion.”

Small. Yes,” Sonata scoffed, rolling her eyes. Prance decided it best to ignore the sarcasm.

“Once you apologize to each other, everything shall be right as rain. You'll see."

The mare snorted, lifting her head so quickly that it knocked Prance in the jaw, and set him to groaning.

"Apologize? Well, why the dirt should I do something like that for? I meant what it was that I said!" she muttered. Flipping her fringe out of her face, she looked away from the stallion's penetrating gaze. Even still, she could feel his violet eyes piercing into the back of her head.

"Are you certain?" he prodded. It took a moment more for the mare to respond.

"Well... I... I suppose I didn't mean to express it quite so harshly," she murmured, turning her head back around. She was met with a warm smile.

"That seems a good place to start. Try saying that the next time you visit her," Prance gently urged.

"Why would I need to visit Begonia Blossom?" Sonata asked, looking rather perplexed.

"To deliver the apple pie you shall make for her, of course," he retorted, taking a moment to inspect one of his hooves.

"Why would I—" Sonata began again, but quickly stifled herself when her companion gave her an exasperated glare. "Oooh, I see. Perhaps I'll do just that then."

She thought a moment.

"You shall be buying the ingredients, of course?" she asked, sliding the sweetest, widest grin in the stallion's direction. They both burst into giggles.

Sonata found it interesting how much better she felt after talking about all of this out loud. She knew that, without question, it was Prance’s uplifting presence and his lighthearted attitude that had been her motivation to do so. Gazing up at him, she couldn’t help but feel amazed by the fact that, after all of these years and all of his accomplishments, he might still have wanted to associate himself with her. As was to be expected, after he had been knighted, his visits to the Fylleion farmstead became more and more infrequent, and to Sonata’s dismay, she saw less of him each and every month. Yet, even after he had been called away, sometimes for many months at a time, it would seem that he had not forgotten her. Even with such a busy and harrowing life as his, he still managed to find a way to visit, and usually right when she needed to see him most.

Sonata sighed to herself, her smile faltering ever so slightly. If only her parents could be just a little more like him.

“Oh, stop it,” she grumbled under her breath. There she went again, being utterly selfish and ungrateful.

“What did you say?” Prance asked, nudging her in the side.

She didn’t realize he had still been listening. Her head bolted upward. Throwing a wide grin in his direction, she then leapt to her hooves.

“Come with me. I’ve a bit of flour left. Why don’t we figure out what I should do about the two hundred bits whilst I make biscuits?”

She pulled Prance toward the kitchen by the ear.

“N-no, I…” the stallion stuttered as his eyes darted back and forth between Sonata and the main room. “I really should stay put.”

“Oh, come on,” she whined, getting a better hold of him with her teeth. “Thoeth cloudth will thill be there when you geth bath!”

“No, it isn’t the clouds, it’s…” he continued on. His nervous tone of voice made Sonata’s ears stand at attention. She let go of him, and studied his face.

“Not the clouds? What is it then? Are you waiting for something?”

She’d never seen the stallion look as guilty as he did right then.

“I just want to make sure that something will… will find me…” he trailed off, realizing how ridiculous he was sounding.

Gradually, a sly grin spread across the blue mare's lips.

“I see. Is it something from her, perhaps?” she asked. The increased look of anxiety upon Prance’s face told her that, indeed, it was. “Well, that’s perfect, too. We can talk about her until it arrives, although I don't understand why it should have to be delivered at such an hour."

By the time he had finished stuttering in protest to all this, she had already turned, and disappeared through the kitchen door. Popping her head back out, she gave the white stallion a perplexed look.

“What did you say her name was?”

“I didn’t say,” Prance sighed, finally rising up to follow close behind. His gaze lingered out of the front window every step of the way.

“Oh, that’s right,” Sonata mumbled as she disappeared into the pantry. Once again, her head popped out from behind the edge of the doorway. “Wait. Why not?”

Prance could no longer help but crack a smile.

“Because you are terrible with keeping secrets, and absolutely nopony can know about it.”

Sonata frowned, and disappeared back into the pantry, but not before sticking her tongue out in the stallion’s direction.

“That isn’t true… I think,” she whined. “How is she? Have you seen her since your return?"

"Yes," Prance sighed, a dreamy-eyed look washing over him. "She's... She is... perfect."

Sonata grinned knowingly at him as she moved a few small satchels of ingredients toward the worktable.

"By Bullion, Prance. When are you going to ask her to marry you? You're an absolute mess over it," she giggled.

Interestingly enough, Prance's expression hardened into a stern one. He gazed sharply at her, and began to shake his head.

"Oh, no. Oh, no, no. That would be impossible, I’m afraid."

Sonata huffed, dropping a spoon she had lifted between her teeth back into its accompanying bowl. She gave him an annoyed look of her own.

"You always say that! Why not? I want to sing at a wedding!"

"It just... cannot happen," he said, sounding as if he wanted to end the discussion altogether.

Sonata frowned some more, making use of her time by slamming around her cooking supplies, and creating quite an irritating din in the small cookery. After watching Prance sit relatively unfazed by this for about two minutes, she stomped a hoof.

"You act as if love is something to be ashamed of! Why can't you say anything about her? If I were she, I'd be furious that you felt you couldn't talk about me!"

Prance said nothing. Even through all of this, he had managed to keep his composure. Seeing that her attempts to get a rise out of him had not worked, Sonata huffed, and turned back about to her business, raising her nose high into the air.

"It's because you keep mares all over, isn't it? I know you, Prance Lighthoof. Even that pegasus... What was her name? Echo. She caught your eye as well, didn't she?” Sonata shouted. As she continued on, her provincial accent thickened until she was practically spitting angry syllables at him.

“I can tell these things by now, y'know. S’why ye can't say names, isn't it? For fear that they’ll all run into each other whilst samplin’ fried 'taters at mark—"

"How dare you?" Prance said indignantly. He rose to his hooves, and approached the mare until she was forced back. "You apologize to me this instant, Sonata Dusk. I shall have no slander from you!"

"No!" Sonata stated flatly as she began to mix her ingredients together in the bowl. "Every blasted time you visit, you can't stop talking about her, and yet your words are always guarded. It's so silly. I don't want to hear about it anymore if you can't be open about it."

Prance frowned.

"But Sonata, you're my... Who else shall I..."

He trailed off when he realized the blue mare no longer seemed to care about his distress at all. Seeing this, the stallion eventually plopped down onto his haunches in defeat, and rolled his eyes.

"She lives in town," he muttered spitefully.

As if a switch had been flipped, Sonata immediately dropped her mixing spoon into the biscuit batter, and spun around to flash him an ecstatic grin.

"I knew it! Who are her parents? Does she have overly protective brothers or jealous sisters? Don't they like you?" she spouted whilst Prance raised a hoof to rub at his aching temples.

"Sonata..." he groaned. The sound triggered something within the mare's chest just as she was sliding a pan of biscuit dough into the oven. Barely catching some of the fur of her foreleg onto one of the hot griddles, she hissed, and quickly slammed the thing shut. Turning about one last time, her eyes met with Prance's, and, for the first time, she noticed pain and worry therein.

"Prance? Won’t you tell me what is actually the matter? Really," she asked him, quite concerned. "I'm starting to assume that something is ahoof about this mare."

He looked away from her, unable to meet the sincerity in her eyes.

"I... I'm... just worried that perhaps I'm... we're doing something... quite fooli—"

His words were interrupted by a sudden flash of berry red light, and the distinct, echoing sound of unicorn magic. Both earth ponies’ vision was blinded for a moment, and when the light dimmed, laying before Prance’s hooves was a neatly rolled scroll. Strangely enough, it was tied with a simple piece of string instead of sealed with an identifying wax emblem.

“What is…” Sonata began, taking a cautious step toward the rolled piece of paper. She watched as Prance’s eyes went wide. His gaze darted between her and the scroll before he dove for the thing. Ripping the string off, he unfurled the letter right there upon the dusty floor, and buried his nose into it.

As he read it voraciously, to the mare’s dismay, his excited expression slowly began to wilt. Worried creases grew ever deeper around his usually jovial eyes until, finally, he let off a heavy sigh, allowing the scroll to fall back onto the floor. Sonata held her breath at first, too afraid to speak. Slowly, she mustered up the courage to say something.

"Has... has something happened?" she squeaked, watching the stallion’s eyes slowly growing incensed as he thought to himself. “Prance?”

He was up at once, tucking the scroll into his scabbard, and rushing toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Sonata yelled worriedly. Following close behind, she quickly shoved herself between the stallion and the passageway. “Prance, say something!”

“Out of the way!” he yelled, trying to squirm his way around her. Sonata would not be moved.

“No! Tell me what’s—”

He grabbed her by the kerchief around her neck, and yanked her off to the side. Wrenching open the door, and rushing out into the yard, he never expected to be halted at the gate by Sonata grabbing hold of him by the tail. Turning around, he saw her gripping the thing between her teeth. Shifting her body around, the mare slid her entire weight on top of it, and took a seat, forcing Prance to do the same.

“Get off me! I have to leave!” he cried.

“No!” she screamed. “I don’t know what was in that letter, Prance, and I don’t know why you won’t tell me what's happening, but you promised you would stay here! You promised you would stay with me when you returned!"

"I can't, Sonata!" the stallion protested, digging his hooves into the dirt.

"But you must! I’m in trouble, Prance! Don’t you care at all? What about the... the two hundred bits?”

Even the distraught look in her eyes was not enough to keep the stallion's attention. He tried to squirm away from her, his neck straining forward in the direction of the gate.

“You shall have it! I shall give you all of the bits in the kingdom if you’d just move yer blasted rump off me, mare! Stop being so selfish!"

Her breath caught in her throat.

"S-selfish?" she squeaked.

She swore the sting she now felt in her heart was an actual wound.

“Why are you talking to me this way? Have you finally grown tired of me as well?” she whimpered, looking at the ground. For a moment, she considered that this might actually have been the case. Fighting back the sense of terror that now threatened to overwhelm her, she raised her head. “I… I don’t want your money. I just need—”

Something struck her in the thigh. Prance had used his hind hoof to shove her to the ground. In her disoriented state, Sonata realized she could taste dirt. It took a moment for her to catch her wits about her, but when her vision finally cleared, she saw that the white stallion had already leapt over the fence.

“Wait!” she cried as she headed toward the gate, and watched him race down the path. Her eyes began to leak tears. “Fine! Go on then! Leave! Just like everypony else! I can become accustomed to it, Prance! I can get used to anything, you know!"

She ran all the way to the top of the hill, knowing that there was no way to catch him now. Plopping down in the middle of the road, she watched until he disappeared over another mound in the distance.

The sky over the countryside had been cleared by this time, and the stars shone brightly. Still, Sonata swore that coming from somewhere far away to the north, she could now make out the faint sound of thunder.
___

She awoke the next morning at the cockerel’s crow. Jolting up in bed with a snort, she was disturbed to find that her entire pillow had fused itself to the side of her face with dry tears and something else sticky. In addition to this, beside her sat an emptied tray once filled with biscuits. A toppled pot of jam lay nearby.

“Oh dirt,” she groaned, peeling the pillow off of her cheek, and then dusting the crumbs off of her face. Moving one hoof upward to glide it across her fringe, she was mortified to find that the forelock had managed to freeze itself in the form of a pillar pointed toward the ceiling. Upon touching it, and then bringing her hoof down to her nose, she smelled, again, the strong essence of peach jam. Sighing, she shook her head. Surely, her day could not begin this way.

Even after all of these years, Sonata still found it amazing what a splash of water could do for the soul. After a quick bath down at the well, and a song from her beloved birds, the blue mare's spirits had been lifted significantly. Dawning her large straw hat and white robe, still torn on the hems from the day before, she then set out at once for her foray in town.

Her performances, once a daily routine, had now dwindled down to just one, weekly occurrence. With all the work to be done on the farm, it was inevitable that something would eventually have to give way. As cherished as this minute aspect of her life was, it seemed obvious that it would have to be the first thing to go.

Following her own good advice, Sonata had taken it in stride. Like water, she accepted, adjusted, and adapted. She prided herself on being able to do this whenever it was necessary, even in instances as distressing as having to say farewell to whatever and whomever she cared for very much.

A frown escaped her as Prance immediately came to mind. She tried in vain to forget the events from the evening before.

Rarely had she ever seen the stallion act in such desperation as he had last night, and the thought of what might have been in that letter still worried her. Pondering to herself as she began to hum—something she always did whilst pondering—it occurred to her that unicorn magic was a very expensive form of post. Whether the letter was simply sent by enchanted means, or was a message from a unicorn itself, one thing was for certain: Whoever Prance had received the correspondence from was well-to-do. She remembered how he had pounced upon the scroll frantically after it had appeared. Was it possible that it was a letter from his beloved?

Sonata gasped to herself. How deliciously scandalous this mystery now seemed. Still, she acknowledged that she was quite cross with the stallion after he had left her so abruptly, and after he had called her... called her...

"Selfish," she hissed to herself.

Even now she felt the tears threatening to burst forth. How could he, of all ponies, call her such a thing? As if she didn't already know she was a rather ungrateful pony. The last thing she needed was to hear it from him, and he knew that. Prance was supposed to be her refuge, the one pony she didn't have to be fearful of sharing anything with. Yet, it seemed that last night he hadn't even cared about their history together, or all of the ways he had encouraged her to trust him over the years, all of the ways he knew certain places and things, certain words and mannerisms could so easily leave their scars upon her.

Sonata shook her head. And even considering all this, she still missed him.

A great part of her had hoped that he would have returned by daybreak, but nopony had been waiting in the yard when she peeked through the window. Nopony knocked upon the door when she was cleaning her biscuit tray and jam pot in the kitchen. Nopony ran into her upon the road this morning until, at last, she had finally rounded the bend where the town of Greenwaters came into view.

We'll see how many dances and biscuits he gets the next time I see him.

She frowned to herself. When would she see Prance next? She hoped that it wouldn't be a whole year until she again reunited with her friend, despite how angry she happened to be at the moment.

Coming to the convergence of the roads that led into town, Sonata was surprised to suddenly spot Marmalade, a light pink mare with a cream-colored mane, making her way toward the opened gates. By her side, pulling along a large cart filled to the brim with jams and preserves of all sorts, was her brother, Rhubarb.

"Marmy!" Sonata cried, waving to the mare. She waited for them at the fork in the road, and gave Marmy a great hug when they finally caught up.

"Back so soon?" Sonata asked, looking her over. "I didn't expect to see you here for another month, at least!"

"Well, then that just tells me you haven't heard the word on the winds, have you, Blue?" Marmalade muttered, her eyes shifting about mischievously. "A mare's got to have some stability in these troubled times, doesn't she?"

"Oh, dear. More bad news from the House of Vision, I take it?" Sonata asked, tugging at the edge of her hat.

Marmalade gave a squeaky giggle. Her eyes still shifted about as she saddled up next to Sonata, and bid her to accompany her through the town gates.

"Is there! Come along, Blue. There is much to discuss!"

If there was ever a gossipy pony, Marmalade was it. It didn't matter whether the word on the street said that a war was coming down upon a noble house of old, or that the price of tomatoes had dropped by half a bit; Marmalade always proved to be ever abreast of the most current information. This, as one might imagine, proved to be an annoying trait to most. However, Sonata, being rather accepting and all too self-deprecating to ever consider spurning anypony who had shown her kindness, never seemed to mind. And it wasn't as if the chatty mare's information was wrong. As a matter of fact, it often wasn't, and even though Marmalade did inspire aggravation in those she would habitually pester, very few could say that they weren't grateful for the information later on.

As Sonata walked alongside the babbling mare, she couldn't help but allow her gaze to wander about the bustling town around her. Gradually, she realized that something had changed about the place. It took a moment, but soon it dawned upon her that everywhere she looked, upon almost every public surface, was plastered a very particular, tan-colored poster dawning the image of a rather grim-faced earth stallion. Chance chose that moment to have one of the sheets hit her straight in the face as it floated upon the wind. Placing her basket down, and filling it with a few small stones, Sonata moved the thing to be carried upon her back. Then, picking up the dirty piece of paper, she fumbling with and folded the thing in her mouth, attempting to angle it so that she might better decipher its text.

The lifeblood of the kingdom shall stop up its flow to the cruel and corrupt, the thing said.

"Wrt doeth it mean?" she asked Marmalade who had leaned over to take a look.

"I was wondering if those had reached Greenwaters as yet,” the pink mare said. “They're all over the kingdom now."

Sonata watched Marmalade as, gradually, her gaze was drawn away to something further on down the street. Hearing a large ruckus and the clanking of metal coming from her left, Sonata's head snapped around just in time to catch sight of two, large guards shouting and shoving along a brown, ragged-looking earth stallion. Despite his being pushed to the ground every other second, the stallion would relentlessly pop back up to his hooves, and shout something until, again, he was silenced.

"Goodness," Sonata murmured. "What has he done?"

The trio strained their ears to listen.

"...and is it not we who feed all three races? Is life on the land and in the sky not supported entirely upon our tired backs? And what do we have to show for it? Endless toil, worry, weakness, and the spite of the old lords of the land who grow fatter by the day on the fruits of our labor! It is time we demand what is ours! And today we must demand liberation from under the suffocating hoof of the unicorn peerage!"

Finishing his words, the stallion was pushed forward quite roughly once again. This time, when he hit the ground, a spray of the same brown posters that were plastered about town came spilling from the inside of his worn and dirty shirt. The pair of guards lunged forward immediately, one to snatch up the posts, the other to hoof the wild-eyed stallion across the mouth, shutting him up for good. Both Marmalade and Sonata winced at the sight.

"If you get caught posting those it's the jailhouse for you, I'm afraid," Marmalade whispered in Sonata's ear as they both watched the poor, bedraggled creature being lifted, and carried away by the pair of guards.

"'Course, nopony knows what happens to the ones that go about preachin' like that. They're toted off to the nearest lord, and not a soul ever hears from 'em again. That's for certain."

Sonata stared at her friend in shock.

"You mean... the Earl?" the blue mare breathed after tucking the poster haphazardly under the edge of her hat. Marmalade nodded.

"Supposedly, there's a small faction of vassals, all earth ponies gone mad, them!" Rhubarb cut in. "Thinking that they've somehow got the wits to govern themselves! Reckoning that they bloody well don't need the nobility!"

He motioned toward the poster and the image of the grim earth stallion printed upon it.

"That's their leader, there. Whatsisname again? Root... Root-something or other. I used to see him all of the time at our marketplace. One day he just up and disappeared, he did. I suppose now we know what the fool's been up to."

"But there are many well-to-do earth ponies," Sonata murmured, feeling confused. "A few of them are even nobles in the unicorn court. What about Pr—... Sir Lighthoof?"

Marmalade snorted.

"Knights and Baronets don't count. Can't pass those on to your foals, can you, Blue? You just watch. A generation from now, and those Lighthoofs will still be marching off as dutifully as ever to fight in unicorn battles."

Sonata frowned at the other mare's rather rude words.

"Well, then... W-what about the former Countess? She doesn't suffer."

Marmalade sighed, and shrugged to herself.

"I don't know, Bluey. I don't know." She seemed to think to herself for a moment. "That former Countess of yours—Lady Ginger, yes? She is quite the skittish type, though, isn't she? A few of the other earth pony nobles I've seen are almost exactly like that, some more than others. I imagine it can't be easy living in the middle like that, having to go along with most everything the unicorn court decides with barely any other race's input. Couldn't be easy seeing most of your own kind live to serve you. I'd wager those few earth nobles are a rather lonely lot, wouldn't you, Blue?"

A thoughtful silence ensued between them, so profound and thick that it drowned out the din of the town. Marmalade, wearing a small, melancholy smile, sighed.

"You can practically hear the thunder on every side of you in Edinbridle now. Debon Air's ponies moved into our airspace just this morning, you know. Old Vizzy's sure to have one hay of a time with that mess," Marmalade chuckled. The unsure twinge in the sound made Sonata's ears perk up. "I'm telling you, Bluey, something's coming. Something big!"

As if having been summoned by the pink mare's words, a rather large, armored stallion suddenly appeared in Sonata's line of sight. The blue mare's eyes went wide as he began to approach her at a brisk pace. She began to stutter as he loomed over her, reached forward, and snatched the paper from her hat. Tearing the thing up, he then moved toward a nearby wall that was plastered with them. The trio remained silent until they had continued on a fair distance. Glancing toward Sonata, Marmalade gave her a look of concern.

"You alright, Blue? I swear those brutes have absolutely no manners whatsoever! Is that how they treat a pair of ladies?" Having said this, the mare then turned her head away, hacked in a rather loud fashion, and spat disdainfully into the cobblestone. "No decorum at all!"

Looking about at all the excited, whispering ponies littering the streets, and dipping in and out of various buildings, the sight proved to be far too much for Sonata. It was confusing enough to have to manage a farm all on her own whilst considering the whims of her Lord—and what's more, her parents. How could she possibly be expected to now fit the worries of the entire kingdom into the equation as well?

Something seemed to give way in the blue mare's mind. Sighing loudly, and shaking her head free of thoughts that would only work to worry her even more, she turned to Marmalade.

"You're smart to try to sell extra, Marmy. Wish I was in a similar position. I'm afraid I haven't been as fortunate."

"Money troubles, ey?" the pink mare said, absent-mindedly kicking a pebble out of her way. "Don't I know about those. Seems there's nothing but those back at home nowadays. Wish I could help you, Blue. Really, I do, but news about jobs moves so quickly. By the time I hear anything, it's already gone."

Things were quiet between them for a moment until they managed to glance back toward Rhubarb. Noticing their gazes upon him, he rolled his eyes—more so at his sister than Sonata.

"Pub's always hiring maids. You should go there if you're in need of quick extras. Won't be much, mind you, but it can fill your stomach if that's what you're thinking. And you can work whenever you please."

"The pub?" Marmalade groaned, glaring at her brother with disgust. "Well, if I'd known that scummy place was a viable option, I would've told her that myself!"

Sonata seemed disappointed to hear that the job couldn’t offer her the amount of bits that she required to make up the difference of what she owed. Still, Rhubarb was just trying to be helpful.

"The pub..." Sonata murmured to herself.

Truth be told, she had never set hoof into a pub before, but that didn't mean she hadn't heard the stories that came out of them. Some of the tales were off-putting, sure. But others, those tales of friends made and fortunes won, were quite inspiring. All-in-all, it seemed to be a place of possibility, and if she were remembering correctly the stories about some of the mares that worked in places like these, it might also be possible for Sonata to find a different way to earn what she needed as well.

Her smile had grown bright. Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Sonata passed a grateful grin in Rhubarb's direction. She then leaned forward to give him a kiss upon the cheek, almost making him trip over his own forelegs.

“Thank you, Rhubarb! Thank you, Marm! Thank you so much!” she yelled before picking the basket up again, and racing away.

“Oy, you be careful around that place, Bluey! Many a scoundrel’s passed through it!” the light pink mare yelled before Sonata disappeared around the corner.
__

“Rozay’s Round,” she mumbled to herself, reading the large, aged sign out front of the local pub. As she approached it, she could hear very clearly the loud sounds of inebriated ponies shouting and jeering coming from inside. Feeling a little apprehensive at the notion of stepping through the darkened doorway into the dim that lay beyond, Sonata hesitated for just a moment. Gulping down her fears, she took a deep breath, and moved to enter.

Walking in the other direction, stumbling a bit more than he was trotting, came a white stallion. Exiting through the pub’s doorway just as Sonata was entering, his muzzle rammed into hers, and they both crumpled to the ground.

“Oy! Why don’t you watch where you’re—” the stallion began before his violet eyes opened, and recognized who it was he had run into. When Sonata’s gaze trained upon Prance, it immediately went livid. The sight of him looking as if he was considering crawling back into the dark recesses of Rozay’s didn't help her mood.

“You… absolute… knave!” she cried, dashing her basket against his head, sending pebbles flying everywhere. “Is this the place that I find you after you leave me so unceremoniously? And having kicked me into the dirt no less!”

“Sonata, listen to me,” Prance began after having rubbed the now sore spot atop his crown. The two of them rose to dust themselves off as he spoke. "You must trust that I would never leave you unless it was for good reason. I was going to return! I just... needed to see—"

"Your glorious, wondrous, one-of-a-kind mare. I know, I know. Out of my way, then, please," Sonata said with a roll of her eyes, almost successfully shoving Prance to the side with her strong hindlegs. The stallion, now looking quite curious, jumped back into her path.

"Just a moment. What business should a mare like you have at Rozay's?"

Sonata studied him before flipping the fringe out of her eyes.

"Well, Sir, if it were any of your business—which it most certainly is not—then I would have you know that I am here for work. Turns out I don't need your silly advice on the matter after all. I've figured things out on my own."

The blue mare straightened out her robes.

"Now kindly get out of my way!"

Prance rushed to block her once again. He stifled a laugh that threatened to escape him when he saw Sonata giving him an incredulous look.

"Sonata, you can't work here," he stated as if the idea were ludicrous. "Those maids don't make enough to pay off the amount you owe."

He seemed to think to himself for a moment, and then shrugged.

"Well, not the ones who only work out front."

"I knew it! It's in the back you say?" she asked, motioning to walk around the side of the building.

Prance, now regretting opening his big mouth, shook his head, and flailed his forelegs as he shifted into her way once more.

"No, no, no, Sonata! You don't understand! Those mares are—"

"Are earning what I need, according to you. And I intend to get my part of it!" she exclaimed.

She watched as the stallion's expression went absolutely grim. It seemed as if he weren't studying her so much as he was staring ahead into the future at the possibility of what could come to pass. A positively nauseous look befell him, and his head shook slowly. It was as if he were trying to rid himself of a horrid vision.

"Sonata?" he gulped, trying to keep down whatever it was he had drunk inside of the pub. "We're leaving. Now."

With that, he casually walked around to her rear, clasped her tail between his teeth, and began to tug.

"What are you doing? Let go of me this instant, you... you..." Sonata gasped as the tug turned into a real show of force, and her hind legs gave way. Prance continued on, wordlessly pulling her down the street as if it were the most reasonable thing a pony could do to another. All the while, Sonata scrambled and struggled to break free as she continuously swung her basket at the stallion's head. It was a strange sight, indeed, and anypony who happened to get too close or question Prance’s motive was quickly directed toward the emblem upon the hilt that the stallion wore around his barrel. The insignia of a royally ordained knight would immediately force any bold bystander into a more than willing retreat.

Once they were well enough removed from Rozay’s, Prance let her go. At once, Sonata stood up tall, and turned to face him. Tears threatened to run from her enraged eyes. She slapped him hard across the muzzle. Surprisingly, even when the stallion's expression fell slack with shock, she felt no vindication, no peace at all.

"Sonata," Prance breathed after a beat," you do not understand what it is you are doing."

"You think of me as some child as well, don't you? Some eternal filly to be forever watched."

"You asked for my help, and I am trying to help you," the stallion continued.

"Need I remind you that you are the one that left me?" Sonata screamed. She then turned tail, and began to march in the direction of the marketplace, trying her best to ignore the sound of Prance following her close behind. It wasn't working. His every, nagging word still pierced into her.

"Oh, by Bullion, you mares will be the death of me. Do you know what that place is? Do you know what some of those mares do to—"

“And, of course, no honorable pony would ever have any business there at all, would they, Sir Lighthoof?” she retorted, surprising even herself. Prance actually seemed to be thrown for a loop by this quip as well.

No longer willing to let the matter go, she spun around, and bounded toward him. Shoving him backward, she forced him into a nearby alley, in a space just beyond daylight's reach. Dropping her basket, she gave him a look he rarely ever saw. It was as if complete awareness had suddenly decided to encapsulate her. Her gaze was sharp and quite serious. She brought her face very close to his.

"What new thing do you suppose you are about to teach me, Prance Lighthoof?" she hissed at him, now reveling in the truly dumbfounded expression upon his face. She waited for him to reply. He did not. In a way, it wasn't necessary. Their gazes inferred that which was not being said.

"I know what it is you are going to tell me about those mares. In fact, I was hoping it was the case," Sonata finally murmured, taking a step back.

Now, Prance just looked sick. Pushing the hat back upon her head, the blue mare huffed, and rolled her eyes.

"I'm a singer, you silly stallion. Nothing rouses the spirit like good music, now does it? Surely, a place like that would have hired a voice like mine, and I would have made quite a bit of money for it. But you had never even stopped to consider that, had you?"

She slowly shook her head at him, clicking her tongue against her teeth.

"Of course not. All you could suppose was that I was so childish that I needed to be shielded from something. And so what if this is the way I have chosen to go about solving my problem? What power do you have to stop me?"

She turned about to fetch her basket, and leave. As she stepped forward toward the lip of the alleyway, she felt a hoof hook across her foreleg. Yelping in surprise, having nearly tripped over, her eyes darted towards Prance again. The look on his face resembled that of a spoiled colt who had just been told ‘no’ for the very first time. She watched as he raised his nose to the air in a show of authority.

“I shall not allow you to return to that place,” he murmured, furrowing his brow.

Sonata’s first inclination was to kowtow, to nod her head obediently as she always seemed to do whenever her more authoritative companions decided to throw their brashness around. But then she felt something within her shift and harden with spite. Shaking her head free of her instinct to yield, instead of wilting in the stallion’s grip, she jerked her foreleg forward, and drew him in. Something different was in her eyes now. They glimmered with a mischievous defiance.

"Be careful, Lighthoof," she warned him, her tinny voice curling in a most beguiling way.

Prance felt his ears twitch at the unfamiliar tone coming from the mare. His eyes popped open wide. She stifled a smile, noticing his reaction, and leaned in so that their noses nearly touched.

“I could have had everything of yours in a heartbeat if I so wished. Just because I’ve been too kind to ever allow you to know this doesn’t mean you can treat me the way you do.”

Holding her breath and his gaze, she waited. Never before had she ever acted so boldly toward anypony. However, at the moment, she had had quite enough of being bossed about by those who claimed they had her best interest at heart when they really cared much more about their own desires. It was just lucky for her that Prance never glanced down to catch sight of the way her hooves were now shaking. Instead, he held her gaze, and in those violet eyes, Sonata could see new understanding taking shape. It was as if Prance had seen her for who she was for the very first time.

Waiting until she could hear him gulp, Sonata released the breath she had been holding, and then backed away. She scanned him over disdainfully.

"I needed a friend out of you, Prance. Not a father."

The faintest trace of sadness flashed across her face before she decisively turned to leave, tipping her hat back straight atop her head.

"The next time you decide to pay a visit, oblige me, please, and let it be for my company, not my welfare. Your pleasure, not your obligation. And do try to restrain yourself when I again see you at that pub."

Tossing a few nearby pebbles into her basket for weight, she swung it around to sit it upon her back. Then, without a word, she walked away, leaving Prance in the dimness to ponder to himself.

The stallion gawked, sinking down to his haunches in order to think. Closing his salt and cider-glossed eyes, he ruminated upon what a mess he'd just made of things, and how he might be able to fix it all.

Singing? In a place like that? Of course he dared not say it to her now, not after her uncharacteristic show of bravado, but it still didn’t mean that he was particularly fond of the idea. Yet, the mare still seemed to be on the right track. Her voice would surely prove to be her salvation. If only there were a different venue for it.

Prance suddenly lifted his head, a thought having occurred to him.

“Lighthoof, you idiot,” he murmured to himself, then quickly popping up to run after Sonata.

He found her walking up the road, very near to the market. When he did, he slowed down to trot by her side.

"I can help! I have an idea!"

"Now, he can help me! Oh, Spirits bless his bleedin’ heart. Are you certain that you can fit me into your busy schedule, Sire? Wouldn't want to keep you from all of your far more important business," the blue mare spat, turning a corner into the market.

Seeing that Sonata remained unmoved by his statement, he huffed, and managed to block her way just as she had pushed through a throng of eager spectators that had gathered around the pile of boxes she used for her makeshift stage.

"Sonata, you shall listen to me. Lady Goldenstalks—"

Oh, no. Not her again. Smirking, the blue mare shoved him off to the side as hard as she could. Stepping up onto the boxes, she dropped the basket she had been balancing upon her back down next to her.

"No thanks, Sir Lighthoof. I've all the ears, eyes, and voices that I require right here. Isn't that right, ladies and gents?" she yelled, delighting in the uproarious applause she received right after. The sound filled her with mirth.

"Been having a bit of a hard time as of late!" she yelled. The crowd promptly replied with a forced lament. "But you know how these things go when you're dealing with stallions."

Laughter spread throughout the square as Sonata began to feel the space between her chest and neck beginning to itch. Her mind opened up as a vengeful notion dawned upon her.

"How about a little song about all of those wonderfully horrid brutes? What say you?" she called out to the crowd, even though her eyes were trained intently upon Prance. Surprisingly—or perhaps not at all—the mass roared again, longing for Sonata's song regardless of what it may have been. Prance, not bothering to look around, shook his head, and rolled his eyes.

"Sonata, don't you think you're being a bit childish—"

Ohhh, Barnie brought me flowers one fine day at half past one...

"Sonata..." Prance groaned, crossing his forelegs. His ears twitched at the sharpness of her forced melody.

'Til I looked upon my yard 'round two, and found my roses gone!
And Tin Snips would shower me with the most delightful kisses...

Sonata watched as Prance, looking rather fed up—and a bit dazed—intently turned, and made his way out of the crowd. The last she saw of him, he was walking in the direction of a nearby messenger's office.

But alas a drought befell me once I learned about his Misses!

Things went as well as could be expected for a while, of course. The crowd cheered, and eagerly began to dance after tossing gold bit after gold bit into Sonata's waiting basket. Yet, as the lively, blue mare looked out upon them all, she could feel that something was different. Something had changed. Usually, all the masses would do was sing and dance. That was to be expected, but as she gazed at them now, she watched as gradually their energy began to warp, to grow. It became tumultuous. Their spinning became chaotic though smiles remained upon their faces. They chanted her tune to each other in shouts and jeers. In the rear of the gathering, she could make out a stallion and mare beginning to prod at each other with their hooves. Soon, they were yelling at each other—and the words they were using certainly didn't sound like song lyrics.

Such a thing had never happened before. Her music brought nothing but joy to those who heard it. Thinking this a fluke, the blue mare continued on. Outright alarm didn't set in until arguments began to break out all over the crowd.

"W-what in the name of..." she mumbled to herself, breaking her song. Looking around, she was shocked to find that the mass had not seemed to notice. Instead it began to seethe and writhe. One mare pushed a stallion she had been previously dancing with, and he shoved her back.

"Now, now!" Sonata tried to yell over the ruckus to no avail. "Surely, there doesn't seem to be any need for—"

Another stallion stepped in to defend the mare, and it didn't take long for a fight to break out, then another, and another. Squealing with fright as the rumbling crowd nearly turned her stack of boxes right over, Sonata scanned the marketplace for any possible source of help. To both her utmost dismay and joy, not a moment later did she spy Prance racing back into the marketplace with gusto. He was clutching a scroll in his grinning mouth when his eyes caught sight of the trouble that she was in. There was a moment of hesitation.

“Help me!” Sonata finally screamed at the top of her lungs. In a flash, the stallion had put the scroll away, and traversed the square toward her.

"I don’t know what happened! They just—" she shouted, watching him force his way through the crowd.

“It doesn’t matter! Just jump!” he called back.

Without wasting another moment, he held his forelegs out for her. Thinking quickly, she snatched up her basket, and as the boxes finally gave way, she jumped, and landed on the stallion. They both fell to the cobblestones. Unfortunately, as she fell, her basket tumbled to the ground, spilling its contents everywhere. There was a beat as both Sonata and Prance stared at the immense collection of gold that she had managed to amass. The few in the crowd who had also caught sight of the spilled coins immediately pounced upon them. It didn’t take long for every last piece to be snatched up.

"Give it! Give it back!" Sonata screamed in utter desperation as Prance dragged her away from the roiling crowd. When they had reached a safe enough distance, he pulled her up onto her hooves, and held her so she faced him. She was still screaming wildly, trying to somehow force her way back to the mob.

"Sonata, it's alright!" he yelled. His revelatory expression had returned as he quickly leaned over to pull the scroll he had been carrying from his belt.

Still, all she could do was shout as she now watched town guards appearing from around the street corners, attempting to break the crowd apart.

"What will I do, Prance? That was fifty bits in that basket! I won’t even make a hundred bits now! And how shall I eat?"

He shook her—hard.

“Listen!”

Stunned into paying him the attention he demanded, Sonata found his expression nearly gladdened. His eyes were wide and glimmering. He shoved the scroll toward her, and Sonata took it, trying her best to care about whatever it is the stallion had deemed more important than her lost gold bits and wrecked stage. Plopping the paper down onto the ground, she unfurled it, and quickly began to read.

By order of the Right Honourable Countess of Greenwaters, Trotchester, and all the territories of ancient Sardhoof, it is hereby decreed that Miss Sonata Dusk, daughter of Our Lord’s faithful vassal, Fylleion, and friend to the House of Goldenstalks, be permitted usage of the Glow Hall as it so pleases her from this day forth until a time of her choosing, so long as it neither interfere nor interrupt any affair of His Majesty or of his Royal Court. So is it written; so shall it be done.

There was no signature, simply the very distinct wax seal depiction of the Goldenstalks coat of arms. Below it, in smaller depiction, the Glow coat of arms was imprinted to distinguish that the letter had come straight from the Lady Goldenstalks herself, the most beautiful voice in the entire kingdom, the one for whom the very same grand hall had been built and named.

Sonata could do nothing but gawk at the words. She read them over and over, almost trying to make them say something more realistic and less perfect than what they actually did. After she realized that what it said was true, her gaze slowly slid upward to meet Prance’s.

“H… how the dirt did—”

Prance, grinning smugly to himself, reached out with a hoof, and pressed it against her lips.

"You can save your voice for opening night, thank you very much."

Duets, Dissonance, and...

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Something about the fear of the unknown.

Something about an act of faith.

A prayer for blessings and good luck.

A quick supplication to the two miracle sisters.

And a thank you thrown in somewhere for good measure.

Repeat.

This was the eighth time Sonata had sung the enrapturing chant. Slow and purposeful, she still wasn't sure what part of her mind the words had spawned from, or what they really even meant. But at least it helped her to feel a bit better.

This had all seemed like a very good idea when Prance had first thrown the Countess' official notice in her face. Now, staring out at a room packed full of commoners, artisans, socialites, and nobles alike, Sonata found it quite difficult to keep in mind why she was planning to put herself through such torment in the first place.

Her level of enthusiasm had been unmatched when they had first walked into the grand hall a week ago. It was beautiful, built open and spacious, perfect for a singer's voice to carry, as would be expected. There were two levels worth of audience area: the floor space, a standing pit which was reserved for the commoners like her, and the balconies and boxes, reserved strictly for the aristocracy. It hadn't ever occurred to her at any point before that evening, but in that heated and pregnant moment directly before she went on stage, she found herself nothing short of terrified by the notion of being ogled and judged by the town's elite.

Many had attended. Filling seats had not been a problem. It seemed that, somehow, everypony already knew who she was. The commoners knew her from her exhibitions in the marketplace of course, and she could only assume that the nobles currently present knew of her by way of the House of Goldenstalks. All that had been necessary was to pay a few colts half a bit to go around town announcing her intended performance date, and they all flocked right in when the time finally came.

Still, the sight of the crowd unnerved her, and she wondered in that moment how a pony as seemingly astute as Prance could so often act with so little regard for her own self consciousness. She tried to tell herself that it was for her own good, and had always been. After all, she would have never been familiarized with the Goldenstalks if it had not been for him.

“Just like when we were children,” she muttered to herself on the odd chance that lashing out at somepony in spite might have proven to be the thing that calmed her nerves. It wasn't.

Speaking of Prance, the stallion was currently nowhere to be found. As soon as they had arrived that evening, a few hours prior to her performance, he had made a hasty escape to somewhere unknown. It baffled Sonata as to why he would do such a thing, but every time she would feel her annoyance by her friend's behavior flare, she'd subsequently remember how odd he had been acting as of late.

Ever since the evening he had run out on her, the stallion's behaviour had become increasingly erratic, his mannerisms quite grim. Nowadays, his brow usually remained furrowed, even when he and Sonata were making light conversation. He would often disappear from the cottage late at night when he thought Sonata was asleep, and if he did not return home inebriated, he would usually return furious. Sonata could never admit it to him, much less herself, but she dreaded Prance during those moments. She dared not speak to him or be caught in his presence for fear that he might lash out at her in frustration or anger.

The culprits were the scrolls. She had a nagging sense that this was the case. Ever since that first night, they had not stopped appearing, neatly rolled pieces of finely pressed paper, tied with a simple string, and appearing in a flash of berry red magic that smelled of roses. It had only been a week, and Sonata was certain that the stallion had already received at least thirty. The way they made the room perpetually smell of sweet musk after they had appeared made it easy to conclude that they had come from a lady, probably his mysterious, nameless mare. She wondered if everything was alright between them. Perhaps they were going through a rather nasty lover's quarrel.

Then again, perhaps it was herself that proved to be the problem as she was much more inclined to believe. Perhaps the scolding she had given Prance the week prior had inadvertently made him feel guilty for ever having left her. Maybe she was now standing in the way of Prance and his dreams, whether it be in some far off land, or in the warm embrace of his lover. Maybe she was being utterly selfish by asking him to stay with her.

Sonata frowned, and shook her head free of these thoughts. Now was not the time for them, and all they were managing to do was make her more anxious. Looking out at the crowd through the stage's enormous red curtain, she could see that the parterre had already been filled by those familiar faces from the marketplace. Sliding her gaze upward, to her dismay, she could also see that the balcony seats had also almost been completely filled by dour-faced nobles—all except for one, glaringly empty space. That space was reserved for the guest of honor who had yet to arrive, Sonata's unexpected patron, Lady Goldenstalks. She could imagine the Countess would be late this evening, what with all of the far more important issues taking place in the kingdom at the moment.

The rumors of conflict to the North were no longer just rumors. Debon Air's pegasi, having blocked off Edinbridle's sunlight all week, had finally incurred the wrath of Duke Vision in kind. It didn't take long for a spat to transform into a series of armed clashes between local unicorn and invading pegasus forces. Meanwhile, more and more earth ponies of Vision's realm, stuck suffering in between the two powers, had become increasingly drawn into the hushed world of the earth pony rebels who dared defy the unicorn monarchy.

Sonata found it interesting how Lord Goldenstalks had not yet sent any reinforcements to aid Vision. But then she thought on Vision's horrid disdain for non-unicorns, and the Earl's actions seemed to make a bit more sense. With the knowledge that Lord Goldenstalks' mother was an earth pony, Sonata could dare to conclude that perhaps he might have wanted to see Duke Vision fall, even if his wife, Lady Violet Vision, was Lady Adagio's sister.

Bringing her mind back to matters at hoof, Sonata took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and for the ninth time, sang her chant. Immediately, her nerves were calmed. The slowly, curling melody proved heady. It wrapped itself around her brain, and filled its every corner, leaving very little room for anxiousness. Lost in her own world, Sonata never noticed the light hoofsteps resounding from behind her. A smile threatened to escape her until, suddenly, she heard a second voice break through her solitary reverie with a gorgeous, harmonizing hum.

Her heart skipped a beat. That voice was familiar. No, not just familiar—famous. Her head snapped around as she hoped beyond hope that her eyes would not see who she knew was the owner of those distinctly husky vocals. To her complete dismay, they did. Approaching to stand before her was Lady Adagio herself.

Instantly, Sonata's mind drew a blank save for the sound of her own internal screaming. Her body instinctively curled into a low, trembling bow. She watched as two pristinely manicured hooves came to a stop directly in front of her nose.

“M-my Lady,” Sonata gasped, gulping down the lump that had risen into her throat. She remained silent, not quite sure of what to say next. Considering the unpredictability of the Countess' mood, it didn't seem too bad of a decision to make.

"That is a beautiful tune you were singing," the Countess confessed, slightly amused. "Where did you learn such a lovely thing?"

Sonata fought down the urge to reply with a scream, and instead took a deep breath.

"I-I thought of it myself, My Lady."

"I see," the silken voice came again, now sounding intrigued. "And is this so for all of your tunes?"

"Yes, My Lady. I only sing what comes to me," Sonata replied. She realized that her responses were rather short and concise. It seemed to make sense that she could not incur any inadvertent wrath from the Countess as long as she didn't stray far from the path that the Lady's questions were carving.

"What comes to you..." Lady Goldenstalks murmured thoughtfully.

There was a drawn out silence during which Sonata could only think to nod her head. After a moment, she watched as the two pristine front hooves took a small step backward to allow her some room.

"Rise," ordered the Countess. Before the entire word had even left her lovely lips, Sonata was already up. The Lady's regal eyes studied her thoroughly. So much so that Sonata felt compelled to look away.

"I must apologize for my shortness with you when last we... met," the lovely unicorn declared, much to Sonata's shock. "I'm afraid I had not been feeling very well that morning."

"M-my Lady," Sonata stammered, her face instantly going red. "There is no need at all to apologize to the likes of me. You've already helped me far too—"

"Your financial troubles are the least of my concerns. That is not why I did this," the Lady interrupted.

Both Sonata's and the Countess' lips drew in tight. Gazing at her, Sonata could sense that the unicorn had said something she had not meant to.

Appearing to catch herself rather quickly, the Countess raised her head, cleared her throat, and rung the sudden tightness out of her shoulders.

"I, like my husband's father, am a lover of beautiful music. You, Miss Dusk, are one I have deemed to be exceptional at making it, more so than anypony else I have ever heard. This performance, as far as I'm concerned, is long overdue and much deserved. It is here at Glow Hall that your voice shall e'er find a home, and it is here that I should hope you would stay so that I might be able to watch you evolve... so to speak."

There was something intriguing about the way she said these words though Sonata could not put her hoof on what. It was almost as if there were a deeper meaning to them, something that the Countess was not telling her. Still, in her currently flustered state, she could manage to do nothing more than bow in reverence.

"I'm sure I do not know what to say after receiving such a compliment from the greatest voice the kingdom has ever known. My Lady, you do me too much honor. How could I ever repay—"

"Sing beautifully. That is all," the Countess chirped. When Sonata rose one last time, she was met with the slightest of smiles gracing the unicorn's face. "And I have absolutely no doubt that you shall."

With that, the Lady tipped her head to the side, and allowed her body to turn in the same direction. With one graceful twirl, she spun about to depart, leaving Sonata standing alone and awestruck behind the towering, red curtain.

Soon after the Lady had gone up to take her seat in the center of the balcony, the lamps were dimmed. Sonata's breath quickened. It was time.

Trying to come up with a reason not to panic—especially in Prance's absence—Sonata took a moment to ponder to herself. She thought on how stressed and worried she had been over the past week, and how difficult earning enough funds had been for much longer than that. Now, before her lay the opportunity to never have to worry about such things again. She had free reign over Glow Hall, and the ears of all the rich nobles that would hear her. By some miracle, Lady Goldenstalks, the same mare who had scolded her so harshly a few days prior, had now decided to bless her with the opportunity to practically reach into the aristocracy's overstuffed purses, and pull out as many bits as she pleased. If she did well tonight, it could mean a whole new, far easier life for her. Could she really squander such an opportunity?

"Most certainly not," she muttered to herself. Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath, and then slowly made her way out from behind the curtain.

She nearly wilted where she stood in center stage, even though the entirety of the commoners' area broke out into cheers. Despite the comfort she received from gazing down upon all of their adoring faces, Sonata still could not help but be drawn to pay far more attention to the skeptical, shrouded, cloaked, and fan-veiled visages of the aristocracy. Try as she might to ignore them, old visions of Prance’s mother gazing down upon her in disgust replayed over and over in her mind.

Her legs began to quiver, and her silence drew out long so that it became odd for the audience to behold. As if only to make matters worse, a small snickering and hum of whispers began to spread across the balcony. As she stood there, sweat beginning to trickle down the back of her neck, all the poor, blue mare could bring herself to do was to stare directly at the Countess. The beautiful unicorn was seated comfortably, chin raised, with a smile upon her face. It annoyed Sonata that one could never quite tell the meaning behind the Lady's smile, and whether or not she was projecting pride, smugness, or spite. If she weren’t so mortified at that moment, Sonata would have surely felt something akin to resentment.

Always the nobles.

Why did it seem that she was never wrong in her assumptions of them? Many of them were harsh and cruel in their judgements on the valor and worth of commoners like her, and she hated herself for giving them ample opportunity to supplement these absurd notions.

Spite blossomed within her now, and as she stood there, Sonata couldn’t help but train all of those feelings onto Lady Goldenstalks whose berry red eyes continued to glare daggers down upon her from where she sat behind the balustrade. Had everything she just told her backstage been a lie, something to force her guard down so that this sting of shame might hurt that much more? Why the dirt would she do such a thing? Did the Lady hate her? And if so, why?

Sonata held her breath. She felt her face going hot as she seriously considered backing off of the stage. Just as she lowered her head, and moved to make a hasty retreat, the oddest noise came echoing down from the balcony. It was the deliberate sound of a single hoof against wood. Somepony, besides those standing on the bottom level of the hall, was stomping for her. Raising her eyes upward again, she looked around to see who it was that dared do such a thing on her behalf. Her ears darted about, listening for the source of the sound until, finally, both they and her eyes trained once more upon the Countess. Sonata gawked.

There the beautiful mare stood, stomping for her, faster and faster. Her smile was bright and clear as day. Slowly, in accordance with the pony of highest stature, the whisperings of the upper level quieted down. Soon everypony else had also gotten to their hooves, beginning to stomp in kind.

Stuck in a moment of pure astonishment, Sonata didn’t notice her muscles beginning to relax, or her breath now beginning to flow more easily until something in the back of her own mind called out to her.

Now, Sonata! Do it now!

Snapping back into awareness, she faced the audience, full of fresh confidence. At once, she felt the wellspring in her head open up. Perfect words poured forth into the forefront of her mind, preparing to leap from her tongue. Taking a deep breath, her eyes trained upon those in the balcony—the Lady, especially. She then stepped forward, and opened her mouth.

_____

Things moved quickly after that evening. Naturally, her performance had been one for the books. For the next few months, all anypony who had attended could talk about was how Sonata had miraculously managed to make the aristocracy get up and dance, something a commoner had never before been able to accomplish. It was a thought that still managed to make Sonata smile to herself, even all of these months later. This wasn't to say that her performance had been completely without its faults—those faults being the two ponies who seemed to have not been deeply moved by her song. The first was Prance who ended up never showing that evening. The second was Lady Goldenstalks, the one pony in the room who, instead of getting lost in melodic euphoria, sat staring pensively at Sonata throughout her entire performance. For all intents and purposes, the beautiful unicorn seemed to not have been moved by her song at all. Still, Sonata found that she could not remain angry at either of them when they both managed to dutifully attend each and every one of her following performances. Even if the Countess never did end up smiling and dancing, and even if both she and Prance always happened to disappear ten minutes before the performance's scheduled conclusion, it was enough for Sonata that they both always showed.

The amount of funds she had amassed after that first night’s performance was massive. In no time at all, she had paid off what she had promised to her parents—by way of the Lock & Stock Safeguard, of course. Never once did she wonder why Echo Hum and Silent Wing—that ever grim pair—seemed so overcome with contentment when they arrived to retrieve all two hundred plus bits of it. This was of no concern to Sonata, however, since one weekly performance at Glow Hall was enough to bring in more than what was required to not only support her parents, but to return onto Lord Goldenstalks the extras she had earned from his household during her visits. And even after all this, there was still more money left to repair the cottage, to pay ponies to help work more of her fields, and to keep herself well fed, indefinitely. Surely, even in these increasingly unstable times, things seemed to be looking up for her.

And the times did prove unstable, indeed. In those very same weeks following Sonata's first performance at Glow Hall, the world around her seemed to churn and upheave just as her own life had.

Prance, after weeks of increasingly bizarre behavior—and cryptic answers to Sonata's probing questions about what might have been causing it—was called for duty to aid in dealing with the conflict in the North. He was sworn to protect the sanctity and stability of the kingdom-at-large after all, and so, for the months that followed, had been making sporadic trips into town to meet with the Lord Goldenstalks so that they might discuss what should be done about their warring neighbors.

Those long, lonely days were subsequently put to foul use considering Sonata's own penchant for self consciousness. The stallion's growing restlessness over time, his unhappiness even, made her anxious. It didn't take long for her increasing paranoia to lead her to believe that Prance had desperately wanted to get away from her for some reason she had yet to settle on. Perhaps now that everything was comfortable for the farm, he felt there was no longer any reason to stay. Perhaps after all of her hard work, he had concluded that she had not needed as much help as she let on in the first place. Maybe he was just bored of country ponies and their country ways, and longed for his mysterious mare lover in town. Whatever the reason might have been, Sonata felt a growing urge to express her worries to the stallion. She needed him to know that if his happiness would require his absence, that she did not wish to be the pony that stood in the way of it.

This particular morning was bright and beautiful. Sonata had risen early—as she was prone to do by habit—to get to work on an apple pie. There was no particular reason to be making an apple pie today, of course, other than the fact that now she had the free time in which to do it, and that it also kept her mind off of the fact that Prance had, once again, gone missing. A pie every other day seemed a great way to fill those spaces that would usually be packed full of worry and fret otherwise. Sometimes she would keep the pastries for herself, but more often than not, she would use them as excuses to visit her countryside acquaintances. She was certain that in these times, none of them ever minded the unexpected company, especially if it afforded them the opportunity to catch up on news and gossip. Today, this apple pie would be going to Begonia Blossom who Sonata heard had been suffering from poor sleep as of late.

Her brow furrowed at the thought of the orange-red mare. Ever since the evening that Sonata had scolded her so harshly, things between them had never quite returned to what they had been before. No matter how many explanations, pies, and apologies were given her, it seemed that there still remained in Begonia's heart a stubborn barb of resentment that refused to be pulled loose. Her words with Sonata were no longer quite as flourished or laced with emotion. Their visits, while growing longer with each go, still remained a far cry from what they used to be. It was a difficult thing to accept, the tarnishing of a friendship. Still, ever hopeful, Sonata tried to remain positive. Maybe today would be much better.

Kneading out the pie cover dough upon a newly made worktable which sat inside of her newly painted cookery, Sonata never once heard Prance entering the room over the sound of her own thoughts. He walked up behind her just as she was pressing the edges of the pie together, and bending down to tote it to the oven. She gasped, and dropped the pan back onto the counter when his hoof landed upon her shoulder.

"Prance!" she squawked, pressing her hoof against her chest. When she pulled it away, it left a flour print in her fur. "You nearly startled me to death!"

"Sorry, sorry!" Prance croaked. He yawned loudly whilst the mare turned to pop the pastry into the spotless oven. "I would have returned before you woke, but the Duke figured it would be a good idea to discuss, and then repeat his ideas on diplomatic strategy for the rebellion in Edinbridle this morning. I swear he's managed to become even more neurotic ever since he ascended to that title."

Sonata paused for a moment, confused by Prance's usage of the title "Duke" to refer to Lord Goldenstalks. She didn't imagine she would ever get used to that, but regardless, what was done was done.

The Earl and Countess Goldenstalks were no longer an Earl and Countess. Thanks to the expiration of some old and distant relative, they had recently taken on control of a wide expanse of land directly north of their realm, bordering Lord Vision's. In kind, they had been made Duke and Duchess. There had been much fanfare and a big to-do about it all. The pair had even traveled to the unicorn court in Canterlot for their peerage ceremony. Supposedly everypony who was anypony had attended. Marmalade had even told Sonata that the revered, young alicorn sisters, Celestia and Luna—the only alicorns to be born of this age—had made an appearance at the ceremony as well.

Knowing by now that it was pointless to question Marmalade, Sonata had wanted to consider this news a good omen. To be in the presence of a natural born alicorn was already so rare. Out of anywhere in the whole wide world, they only existed in the hills on the far side of the ancient mountain in Canterlot, and had been there since time immemorial. The fact that not one, but two alicorn foals had miraculously been born so that ponies of Sonata’s time might have been granted the privilege of witnessing them grow just seemed an added blessing for this age. However, looking at the way the tides were now turning, Sonata couldn't help but feel that perhaps the alicorn sisters' presence was simply a harbinger of trials and tribulations to come. Perhaps extra goodness was required in the world in order to balance out the darkness everypony seemed to feel coming.

Chaos was brewing below the surface. Something foul had hatched, and let forth its spray of poison into the world, and it seemed possible to trace its genesis all to that one argument between a bigoted unicorn duke and a hot-headed pegasus commander. The dread of war and rebellion, desperation and delusion seized many hearts and minds over a mere matter of months. Every pony on land and in the sky had a common hunch, a universally shared sense that insisted horrible things would surely come to pass. There would be a shift, both messy and chaotic. That much was certain. Then things would no longer be as they were before. Whether this inevitable change would be for better or worse was something that nopony had yet to predict. All anypony could do was to simply wait it all out, and hope that when the bottom inevitably fell out from beneath them, it would not be for too long.

In some small way, Sonata Dusk could not help but feel slighted by the universe. Why was it that when one heaping pile of worry was dealt with, an even larger pile seemed to be waiting in the wings for her? War? Rebellion? Really? What in the dirt was she ever supposed to do with news of that nature? It hardly took any effort at all on her part to come to the conclusion that, for as long as she could manage, she wanted to have no part in any of it, not Vision's silly battle, not any earth pony uprising, and not whatever foulness was sure to come from all of that negativity and conflict.

She grimaced at these thoughts, trying to fight off the voices in her head that told her that this time, she really was acting selfishly. Just because she had yet to be touched by all of these upheavals in the world didn't mean that those whom she cared for had not.

She finally turned to face Prance. He smiled coyly at her.

"Another pie? Who's it for this time, I can only wonder?”

Sonata shot a snide smirk in his direction, and turned back around.

"Begonia," she muttered, busying herself with wiping her hooves clean. She didn't see Prance's smile falter, but still she knew that was what it was doing, even with her head turned.

"I see. Splendid! She can always use your visits, especially nowadays."

There was a brief pause in the conversation as the stallion waited for Sonata to finish with her work. When she looked idle enough, he spoke again.

"Come sit with me by the well. Just for a little while. We haven't done it in so long."

He nudged her playfully in the side, coaxing her to look at him again. It was only then that Sonata caught a strange flash of something, some undecipherable emotion in his eyes. What was that? Sadness? Some type of guilt? He seemed barely able to look at her directly. The expression was almost too forlorn. It startled her. Nervously, she nodded her head. Would this be the day he told her he had tired of her? Would this be the day he finally said he would be leaving for good?

"Yes," she replied, her voice no louder than a murmur. She followed him silently out of the cottage's back door.

The air was cool. The great oak remained steadfast and still where it had always been. As the gentle breeze blew, the grasses bowed, dancing to and fro. It was serene. Even Prance's face—at least what she could see of it out of the corner of her eye—seemed supremely calm. He sat beside her, eyes closed as if deep in thought. Turning her head slightly to get a better look, Sonata couldn't help but notice how much more defined the tired creases and shadows beneath his eyes had become. She was sure it was all her doing, intentionally or not. She mustered up some courage, and opened her mouth to speak.

"I've been having sour dreams," he muttered before she could even get a word out. Trying to readjust her mind to the unexpected outburst, Sonata gulped a few times, cleared her throat, and peered at the stallion.

"Y-you have? Imagine that! Begonia has been having bad dreams as well," she sputtered, her eyes wide with curiosity. "What about? Sometimes I have these horrible dreams about drowning in a giant bowl of bitter dandelion stew, and the only way for me to escape is to eat my way ou—"

"Nonsense," he stated, almost spitting the words out spitefully. His brow was now furrowed with frustration. "The first few minutes are of incoherent babbling, wild laughter. For a moment, I see a creature, something that resembles a dragon or a snake with legs, but not quite. It's terrifying. It laughs, and never makes any sense when it speaks."

The stallion's violet eyes popped open. The look in them seemed to hint at delirium

"Then, always after the snake creature disappears, I have terrible visions. Visions about those that I love. Bad things, impossible things happen to them." His voice lowered to a wary hiss, almost as if he feared that somepony—or something else—might hear him. "It’s always the same dream. It always seems so real."

Sonata instinctively shrank away from him. Her mouth gawked open and shut, not knowing what to say.

"Wh... What do you think is causing it, Prance?"

The stallion shook his head.

"I suspect it is residual of being so near to the battle. There is an extraordinary amount of aggressive unicorn magic and willpower floating about. This quarrel between Vision and Debon Air has already become more big and aggressive than anything ponies have seen within a few centuries. Perhaps the spreading ill will of Edinbridle's unicorns is able to cause..."

His voice trailed off. Now he looked even more perplexed, and had begun to shake with frustration.

"You're probably right," Sonata murmured, saddling over to nuzzle against him for comfort's sake. "You always seem to know best about—"

"But not here," Prance interrupted, staring at her.

"Eh? W-what do you mean?" Sonata asked.

"The only two places where I don't have the dreams are when I'm on the Fylleion farm or at Goldenstalks manor. Why is that?"

Sonata momentarily seemed to be lost in thought.

"I'm quite certain I wouldn't know, Prance. I find this all far too confusing. I can't help but feel terrible for you."

Prance's eyes closed again, this time as if in defeat. Seeing that her attempts at comforting him were proving fruitless, Sonata decided that perhaps it would be best to change the subject.

"Your... Her. Is she well?"

She felt hopeful when the stallion's eyes popped open again, the tiniest of smiles upon his face. There was a moment during which he seemed to be fumbling for words. When he could not find any, he settled for a heavy sigh.

"There... there is something I must tell you, Sonata."

Suddenly, all of her previous fears from earlier that morning came rushing back to mind.

"Yes?" she squeaked. The look she gave him was pitiful, a failing attempt at mustering courage. "What is it?"

"I... You... you are most dear to me. Do you know that?" the stallion remarked softly, unable to look at her.

Sonata seemed befuddled.

"I know... But what makes you say such a thing at a time like this, I wonder?"

There was a pause as Prance gulped loudly.

"In the case that something should... should ever happen, will you promise me that you shall do your best to stay well and to be happy?"

"Hap... happen?"

Sonata shook her head in confusion until suddenly it dawned upon her. This was it. This was the conversation, the one where he tried to find a way out of her world. Well, if that was the case, far be it from her to stand in his way. Lowering her head so that Prance might not see the fat tear that promptly escaped from her eye, she gave him a weak nod.

"I promise," she sighed, and with that heavy breath, she felt her heart collapse. Her body went cold. She was sure that what she was feeling was the same as what a flame felt after being doused in water. Still, she knew that this too was just another stone that she would have to maneuver around. It wasn't impossible, was it? Not for her.

"We had better head back," she mumbled in a flat tone. Bounding to her hooves, she began walking rather mechanically toward the cottage. "My pie shall burn."

____

He sat doing what he always seemed to be doing nowadays: pouring over papers that had been strewn about her sitting room floor for months. With each visit to Goldenstalks manor or quick trip beyond, the piles would grow bigger and bigger. When he had tired of reading, he would simply just fall asleep next to the mounds upon the floor.

His work was beyond her, so she would never ask questions about any of it. Sometimes she would just sit silently with him arranging flowers or carefully sewing new cushions with her teeth as she spied on him out of the corner of her eyes. He would remain unmoved, increasingly tired-looking and pensive. That was the way he looked right now as Sonata bustled about the cottage, preparing to head down the road to Begonia's.

After she had put on her kerchief and hat, she gathered the pie up into a clean cloth that could be carried by the teeth. She noticed that his eyes never followed her as she approached the door. To her, each step lasted an eternity, and came with fond memories of moments the stallion and she had spent together. As she stared at him, she tried to burn the image of him sitting like that into her mind for fear that it might be the last one she would ever see. More than anything, she wanted to run and embrace him, to tell him how much he meant to her, but something stopped her from doing so. Perhaps it was the fear that she might come off as weak or clingy. Maybe she was afraid she might shame him into remaining where he was no longer happy, and that was the last thing she wanted.

Pushing open the cottage door, she cleared her throat until she had caught his attention.

"I'm off."

The words escaped from her mouth in a small croak.

When he smiled at her, the melancholy in his eyes was clear as day. He nodded his head, and stared almost as if he too were trying to burn her image into his own mind.

"Safe travels, Sonata," he murmured.

With that, she crossed the threshold, and slowly closed the door behind her.

____

She found Begonia working in her enormous garden which was just as well since it was the perfect place to sit and talk. The children were up by then. With their spirits lifted by Sonata's presence, they now spent their time playfully chasing each other around the yard. The foals never seemed to notice how the two mares sat quietly before one another at Begonia's garden table, both forlorn, and both trying their best to pretend everything was just fine. It took a while before Sonata decided to lead with conversation.

"I saw the Duchess' servants walking down the path toward your cottage last week. Did she have another party?"

Sonata held her breath as she cut a piece of pie for her friend. What an utterly horrid way to force a conversation. Yet, to her surprise, Begonia's face broke into a tiny smile. She huffed a laugh, and stared into the slice of pie before her.

"Of course," the orange mare jibed, her voice cracking and tired. "Now that she is Duchess, it seems she cannot help herself. Every two weeks on the dot, another party. My garden shall surely be bare before the season's out."

Leaning down toward the pie, Begonia took a polite nibble from it.

"I could have never imagined one pony might love posies so much."

Sonata forced a small laugh as she cut herself a piece of pie as well.

"Anyway, it is well enough if she were to uproot the entire thing, and haul it all away," Begonia muttered, letting off an unintentional growl. She immediately looked apologetic for having said this.

"Come now, Begonia. You don't mean that," Sonata clucked. "Flowers are your passion. You love them!"

Things went deathly silent as the blue mare watched Begonia's eyes shut. When they opened again, her gaze had gone distant.

"I can barely stand the sight of them anymore. I keep dreaming that the flowers talk to me, whispering madness. I keep dreaming that they uproot themselves, and begin crawling all over me. And then that horrid, flying lizard creature just watches, laughing and laughing..." the orange mare trailed off. Sonata froze, realizing immediately what her friend was telling her.

Begonia’s gaze moved toward her foals who were playing rather close to the rose bushes now. Her brow twitched with worry.

"I would think little of it if the children had not begun to dream the same things. I try to keep a straight face for them, and tell them it's nothing. But they're growing quickly. They're smart children. They know that something is wrong. And I can't explain to them..."

Sonata nodded her head trying to think of what she could possibly say to her friend to comfort her.

"Prance says it may be residue from being so close to negative unicorn will," she added, urging her friend to finish her pie. "Maybe if you were to get away for a little while..."

Begonia nodded. It seemed that she needed to believe such a thing now more than ever.

"Lighthoof is smart. He's probably right," the orange mare murmured. Catching her second wind a moment later, she forced herself to sit up straight and feign strength.

"How is Lighthoof anyway? Still busy as ever, I imagine," she inquired with a smile. Now, it was Sonata's turn to look bitter.

"Very much so," the blue mare replied. Begonia's grin faded.

"Still acting strange, then?” she added, tapping her hoof against the table. "Still disappearing in the middle of the night, is he?"

Sonata nodded.

"He always says it's to travel to Goldenstalks manor or to town."

Begonia scoffed.

"Oh, that Lighthoof. Don't you fret about it, Sonata. It's probably just a mare. You know him," she chortled, taking an enthusiastic bite out of her pie. The look on her face made Sonata smile. For a moment, it almost felt like old times between them, before the dreams, before Debon Air, and before the two hundred bits.

"You're probably right, Bea— I mean... Begonia," Sonata stammered. She dropped her gaze guiltily toward the table. The quiet that followed was embarrassing. Sonata forced in a deep breath, and resolved herself to ending it.

"Sorry," she muttered to her companion. It took a moment, but soon she heard Begonia sigh.

"Bea. You can still call me Bea, my dear," the orange mare beamed.

Sonata, rather stunned, glanced up into her eyes to catch her smiling warmly. She returned the grin, feeling far calmer, happier. The sun seemed to shine a bit brighter now. The sky seemed a bit bluer. Not wanting to ruin the moment with more of her own babbling—for fear that she might say something foolish—she decided it would be a good time to take her leave. Raising up slightly off of the cushion, she nodded her head.

"I should get back," she proclaimed, trying to hide the fresh cheer in her voice. "I sang for Glow Hall two evenings ago, and really must clean my robe today."

As she reached down to fetch her wide brimmed hat from where it lay beside her, she saw Begonia jump forward anxiously out of the corner of her eye.

"Wait!" Begonia yelped, much to Sonata's surprise. Startled, the blue mare took a step backward.

Looking apologetic, Begonia forced herself back down to her seat.

"Don't leave. Not just yet. Please."

Slowly, Sonata retook her seat, eyeing her friend worriedly. Begonia, feeling rather self conscious, shot an embarrassed smile in Sonata's direction.

"I haven't been telling you this every time you've come to spend the day, but... Th-the dreams don't come when you are here," she whispered, eyeing her garden cautiously. "When you are here, we don't suffer when we sleep. Won't you please stay? Just a little while longer. F-for the children. So that they might sleep a bit. I-I shall keep you company."

Sonata could barely hide the worry that plastered itself upon her face. She nodded, her brow furrowed with concern. Begonia didn't seem to mind it. When she realized Sonata would not leave, she was instantly filled with a surge of energy. Reaching forward, she happily moved to cut them both another slice of pie.

____

Night had fallen by the time Sonata returned to her cottage. It turned out that Bea was in more dire straights than she was willing to let on. She told her that she had wanted her around so that Petunia and Peat Moss might be able to rest. However, most of the remainder of Sonata's visit consisted of watching Begonia sleep for hours under the shade of a young sapling whilst the children continued playing in the yard. Begonia was exhausted, and it had been made utterly clear that she had not been getting much, if any sleep. Even after staying well into the night, Sonata was glad to have done it if it meant she could bring her friend some small semblance of peace.

It wasn't until she had reached her hoof up to touch her cottage's front door that the entire morning spent with Prance came rushing back into her mind. At once, she began to tremble, noticing that through the window, she could not see any lamps lit inside. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward, and pushed against the door.

“Miss Sonata Dusk!” came a familiar voice calling from her rear. Quite shocked to be having somepony sneak up on her this wretchedly late at night, Sonata spun around, squealing. It took a moment for her to recognize the strangers by the gate as Echo Hum and Silent Wing, the two pegasi from Lock & Stock.

“I do wish everypony would stop sneaking up on me that way!” Sonata yelped, pressing a hoof against her chest. Echo and Silent looked completely and utterly unmoved by the earth mare’s distress. Taking a step forward, the white pegasus reared up, and casually leaned her body against the fence post.

“It’s midweek, Miss Dusk. Our patron is expecting a delivery from you.”

Recalling that she had, indeed, done a performance at Glow Hall two evenings before, Sonata slowly began to nod her head, and slumped down in relief upon the grass.

“Right! The money! Of course! Slipped my mind again, it did. Pardon me,” she laughed nervously. “Things are just so unpredictable and distracting what with the North, and the rebellion, and the… singing...”

She trailed off when she noticed that not only did the two pegasi not care one lick about what she was saying, but that they both also looked extremely exhausted and short on patience, almost as if they too had missed a night or two of sleep. Peering at them in the light of the moon, she could even make out the dark rings encircling their eyes as they glowered at her.

“Right. I… I’ll just go, and fetch it then,” Sonata murmured, turning about to face her door.

Knowing she had not the luxury of worrying over Prance any longer, she pushed her way into the darkened cottage, and turned to face the main room.

It was completely empty, void of all signs that Prance had ever been there. His papers were gone, his trappings were gone, and he had even managed to pull the room together neatly before his departure. Sonata’s heart sank. What she feared most had finally come to pass.

Making her way through the room, she peered about, searching for some small sign that she was perhaps mistaken when, suddenly, her eyes caught a glint of something somewhere in the dark. She turned her head to see that there was an item lying on the floor in the shadows beneath the window sill. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it was a rather ordinary-looking scroll. Thinking Prance had accidentally left it behind, she reached down to pull the thing closer, and then unfurled it in the window's light. Squinting at the writing it contained, she realized that she had seen this style of script before.

"You are in danger! It has to be tonight! I shall wait for you by the fountain," she read out loud.

The message was very short, succinct, and quite mysterious. Also, the scroll smelled of roses. Thus, Sonata immediately recognized it as yet another message from her, Prance's nameless, faceless lover. Yet still, she wondered why the writing seemed to strike her as familiar. Where, oh where had she seen it before?

Picking up the scroll between her teeth, Sonata momentarily looked up and out of the window to catch the two pegasi now roaming about her yard. By the looks of it, they were pacing the length of the cottage, eyeing things thoroughly, digging through the bushes, and acting quite strangely, to put it plainly.

Sonata, at first taking the pair's behavior as par for the course, thought nothing of it. She turned, and headed toward her bedroom, scroll clamped in her mouth. Her mind was still struggling to recall its author.

Very curly lettering. Very regal. She's well learned.

Her eyes squeezed shut. The image of somepony specific now sat at the very edges of her mind. She never even noticed Echo and Silent beginning to edge their way toward the cottage's front door as she honed in on that image in her head. As soon as they both stepped into the dim, main room, it dawned on her, clear as day.

"Lady Goldenstalks'," she gasped to herself. "The Duchess!"

When she heard a hoof accidentally trip over a nearby cushion, she spun about. Flustered and wide eyed, she spotted the two pegasi edging forward, eyeing her suspiciously.

"Is something the matter, Miss Dusk?" Echo inquired, leaning slightly to one side. "You look as if you've seen a spirit!"

"Obv cours—" she accidentally dropped the scroll "—Of course not! That's the silliest thing I've ever heard in my life! I just… I just ah… had forgotten where I put the payment for a moment. That's all.”

She picked up the scroll, and quickly bustled off toward her bedroom. "Jss wait a moment. I’ll be rght back," she said through her teeth.

Peering at the two from behind the corner of her bedroom door, Sonata could see them now searching through her things more aggressively. It was clear that they were on a mission of which she was not privy to. She wondered what it might be and prayed that her increasing paranoia was wrong in assuming that—

“Miss Dusk?” Echo called again from the main room. Sonata drew her head away from the door with a gasp.

“Y-yes?” she shrilled.

“We were both wondering if you had seen that Sir Lighthoof recently.”

Sonata clamped her hooves over her mouth to contain her panicked squeak.

“Uhh… N-no! He has been very scarce around these parts as of late, what with the conflict to the North, and whatnot. Yes, I imagine he is far… far away by now.”

There was an odd silence. Sonata could almost hear the gears whirring in the heads of the two pegasi.

“W-why do you ask?” she prodded further, fighting off the fear of what the answer might be. “Is something the matter?”

“That is classified information I’m afraid,” Echo replied, unexpectedly popping her head in through the bedroom door to glare at Sonata directly. The blue mare, trying to save face, bolted to her hooves, and raced over toward her chest—but not before sliding the Countess' scroll behind a nearby potted plant.

Cocking a brow at the earth mare’s jumpy behavior, Echo pushed further into her bedroom.

“We’d just like to have a chat with him. It has something to do with a new patron we’ve acquired. Thus, it is rather important—Pardon me. Would you mind very much if I...”

Almost as if she owned the place, Echo barged her way past Sonata as she was reaching for the handle of the large chest. The white mare reached forward to shove the lid open herself. Poking her head into the large box, she began to dig around within it. Sonata dared not say anything in protest.

“Hmm,” the pegasus hummed to herself, her brow furrowing with disappointment when she did not find whatever it was she had been looking for. Even still, she reached into the chest one more time, and removed the large sack that Sonata used to hold gold bits.

“Thish ish yer payment I assume?” Echo inquired, clutching the satchel in her teeth. Sonata nodded slowly. She then watched as the white mare turned around, slammed the lid of the chest shut with her hind hoof, and walked toward the door.

Her first inclination was to not say anything, to just keep silent until the two intruders left her alone. But by and by, Sonata felt something familiar igniting in the pit of her stomach, and rising up into her chest. It was the same feeling of defiance she had felt when Prance had dragged her through the streets of Greenwaters those few months ago. Who did these pegasi think they were? She had gone through so much to work, maintain, and keep her home. For these two to take it upon themselves to barge their way in, and tear it apart seemed highly disrespectful. Slowly, her lips parted, and before Echo had even stepped out of the room, a slew of words spilled from Sonata's mouth.

“Now, wait just one moment. I should think that if you two feel so free as to invade my home without permission that I would at least have the privilege of knowing why. Why are you asking after Pr— Sir Lighthoof, and what does it have to do with rummaging through my belongings, hm?”

She instantly regretted saying anything, even more so when she watched Echo freeze mid step in the bedroom doorway. The pegasus slowly turned around to stare at her, a venomous look in her eyes. Sonata gulped down a lump caught in her throat. The lump seemed to hit her stomach at the same time and with the same force with which the satchel in Echo’s mouth hit the floor.

“Do you know what I've always found quaint about provincial earth ponies such as yourself, Miss Dusk?" Echo began slowly, a lethal quality in her tone. "You have very little to worry about. Ponies such as yourself rise up in the morning, trot about watering weeds or—I don't know—pounding things with large, blunt stones or whatever it is that you do, then you send your wares off to the rest of the kingdom. And the rest of your time is spent wisely keeping your bumbling... simple... mouths... shut. Very little troubles, very few cares, very quaint. Wouldn't you agree, Miss Dusk?"

Sonata felt her cheeks going hot with indignation even as she began to tremble.

"Th-that's not tru—"

"Thus, the reason eludes me, Miss Dusk, as to why you would think yourself so..." the mare snorted disdainfully, "complex as to be made privy to matters as important and sensitive that they should concern safeguards to the kingdom's elite as well as a royally ordained knight."

"Just a moment! Th-this is my cottage, and you have no right to—"

Echo pushed the blue mare back against a wall, and brought her face very close so as to drive her point home.

"There is a price that comes with being the bearer of burdens such as ours. There are those who would do bad things, very bad things to ponies who know what we and your Sir Lighthoof know. Are you certain, Miss Dusk, that you are willing to relinquish all that you have recently regained in life—your friends, your farm, your well-being—for nothing more than one selfish, foolhardy inquiry?"

Sonata, too stunned to speak, cowered in the mare's piercing, silver line of sight. Seeing the earth pony so shaken, a sly smile spread across Echo's face. She leaned in closer until their noses touched.

"I shall ask you once more, Miss Dusk, and do take into consideration all that you hold dear before you reply. Do you know the whereabouts of Sir Prance Lighthoof?"

It took all of Sonata's effort to keep her voice box from clenching shut as it used to in her childhood. Steadily, she shook her head. Her lips stammered, searching for any word that would come.

"N-no... G-gone," she squeaked, wishing more than anything for the pegasus to just leave her be.

There was a brief pause as Echo studied her face, searching her eyes for a lie. With a heave, she backed away from the shaken earth mare, and turned to fetch the satchel from the floor.

"For your sake, I hope you are speaking the truth," she cautioned before leaving the room to rejoin her companion.

It took a moment before Sonata could regain her composure—not to mention the feeling in her legs. When she did, she rose, and moved to peer around the bedroom door just in time to catch Echo tossing the satchel to Silent Wing.

"Nothing of worth in the bedroom... or her," Echo muttered, practically pounding the cottage's door open with her front hoof. Silent Wing snickered to himself as he tied the satchel to his belt.

"Should have let me try. Bet I could get somethin' out of her," the stallion chortled, even whilst Echo rolled her eyes, and shook her head.

"Ugh" she groaned, unfurling her ivory wings. "Let's fly. We've much ground to cover before night's end. Remember, he wants the entire countryside done by morning. You go West, I shall head East."

"Right, right. All business, no fun with you, ah, Hummy?" Silent Wing continued, trying and failing to hide his wide grin. He spread his enormous wings out wide, and darted off into the sky. His laughter echoed throughout the evening, and easily worked to infuriate his partner. Steadying her nerves, Echo took a deep breath, and began to flap her shining wings.

"...shall kill you one day," she grumbled before she too jettisoned into the night.

____

When Sonata was quite certain that they were gone, she released the breath she had been holding, and moved out into the living room. Seeing that the pegasi had left the door open, she quickly moved to slam the thing shut.

No sooner had she collapsed onto the floor, breathing a heavy sigh of relief did she hear a heavy, frantic knock coming from the cottage's back door.

"Ohhh, what is it now?" she groaned, her head tilting backward, and making a loud 'THUD' against the wall. Wearily, she stood up, and made her way into the kitchen. She grumbled to herself the entire way.

"Mercenaries be damned," she hissed as she moved to the back door, and pressed her hoof against the wood. "One more unexpected visitor, and I swear I shall—"

The door swung open to reveal two ponies standing outside in the dark. One of them was completely hidden within a billowing, black cloak. Sonata gasped as she gazed directly into the other pony's familiar pair of glimmering, violet eyes.

"Prance!" she hissed, an overflowing sense of joy suddenly coming over her. She leapt forward, wrapping her forelegs about his neck, and pulling him in close. "I thought you'd gone forever!"

"No, Sonata, I—"

"I thought it was the dreams, or the North, or that mare of yours."

"Sonata, listen to m—"

"Those two pegasi came back! They tore the cottage apart looking for—"

"Sonata!" Prance yelled, pressing his hooves against her shoulders, and shaking her. It was only then, in that quiet space that Sonata finally noticed the wild, frantic look in his eye.

"You already know, don't you?" she breathed.

"Yes," he replied sternly. "And I have to ask a favor of you, my friend. The greatest favor I've ever asked of anypony."

"Name it," Sonata replied, her head nodding rapidly.

It was then that Prance motioned toward the cloaked figure who, up until that moment, had been standing to his rear in complete silence.

"Hide her... Just until I return," he urged. The desperation in his voice was clear.

"H... 'her'?" Sonata asked, taking one wary step toward the cloaked pony.

There was a tiny voice in the back of her mind that insisted that she go no further, that she grab Prance, pull him into the cottage, and promptly lock the door behind them both. But like the stubborn and curious mare that she was, she paid it no heed. She was drawn forward by the pristine, yellow hooves of the stranger, the perfect posture that could be seen even whilst draped in thick, dark fabric. Her heart began to beat faster and harder in her chest. Another step. Her eyes moved upward. She could see pristine curls hanging down out of the cloak's hood, gorgeous, orange ringlets that were quite familiar to her. One more step, and finally she stood before the figure. Beneath the hood, a pair of serene, berry red eyes, stared down into her. By and by, the stranger pulled their cloak back. Sonata's breath caught in her throat. She shook her head, not wanting to believe what she was seeing.

"N... n-no," she stammered as Lady Goldenstalks herself took one step toward her.

"Miss Sonata," the Duchess began in that beguiling tone that she was known too well for. In one curt movement, she reverently bent her head in Sonata's direction.

The sound of her voice sent a shiver up Sonata's spine. In a flash, the earth mare was on her belly, in the dirt.

"Y-your Grace! How can I—... What should I—..."

Sonata's voice trailed off into nothing when she felt a hoof gently curl beneath her chin, directing her gaze upward. Her eyes connected instantly with the Lady's. Therein, Sonata saw resolve and even a bit of shame.

"I think you would agree, Miss Sonata, that under the present circumstances, there is no longer any need for such formalities."

Without another word, the Lady lifted the blue mare back up to her hooves. Sonata, her face now gone all hot, trembled at the sensation of the golden unicorn's touch. Unable to meet the Duchess' gaze again, she settled for staring at her mouth. To her surprise, the perfect pout curved upward into a faint smile.

"Call me Adagio."

The In-between

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The air was heavy. To Sonata, the silence between them proved unbearable. It was no consolation that the Lady's ruby eyes burned into her so acutely that finding fascination in the wood grain of the floor seemed fitting. Now and then, when she would muster the courage to speak, Sonata would discover that a glance at the mare's beautiful face made her throat clench, her voice dissipate. It seemed impossible that she might converse with such a pony as one would a friend. Perhaps things would be easier if she tried doing what she usually did around nobility—groveling.

"Please do me the honor of having a bit of tea with me, My L—Pardon me—Ad-a-gi-o?" It still felt utterly wrong to be calling her that. "Surely, you must be quite on edge."

There was a beat of silence.

"And what has led you to believe that I am 'on edge' as you say?" the Lady retorted in that calm, curling manner of hers.

"Oh, I'm sure I wouldn't know," Sonata giggled nervously. "I suppose I only assumed that with everything—"

"Perhaps you shouldn't," the silken voice came again with an air of finality.

Nodding to herself as if to agree that she was being a fool, Sonata then rose to her hooves, and passed the Duchess the most forced of grins. "Quite right, as usual! Quite right! I suppose I shall just go make a pot for myself, then. After all, my fortitude is surely nothing when compared to yours, yes? Yes!"

Something glimmered in the Lady’s eyes as she scanned Sonata over. “And who is it that told you I wouldn’t like tea? I would love some." A tiny smirk creased her lips.

By this point, Sonata felt perfectly puzzled. “O-of course you’d love some tea. What in the dirt was I thinking? How could I possibly sit here enjoying my own whilst you watch? I’ll fetch us both some, then!”

Seeing that she was sounding increasingly deranged, she turned to trot into the kitchen. Realizing she had not bowed before she made to leave, the blue mare turned about, and bent over so quickly that her face slammed into the floor. It was then that she remembered the Lady's request that she stop bowing in the first place. Some good advice, it seemed. "Oww," she squeaked, a shiver of pain running through her entire body. Too mortified with herself to attempt looking again toward the Duchess, she rose up, turned once more, and shuffled away. Once in the kitchen, she plopped down onto the floor to lament her own clumsiness.

“Spirits. What is wrong with you, you foolish mare?” she scolded herself, burying her face into the nook of her forelegs. When she had made herself feel sufficiently horrible, she stood, and headed toward the hearth to heat some water. The warm, crackling fire proved enticing. She sat down before it. Closing her eyes, she focused on clearing her mind of all the trouble she had unexpectedly become part of.

The Duchess? Had Prance gone completely mad? Didn't he realize the danger he was putting her in by bringing Lady Goldenstalks here of all places? How could he find it in himself to do this after everything he told her in the fields?

She shook her head. In her heart of hearts, Sonata knew that he wouldn't have done it if it wasn't important, or if he wasn't sure if she, his closest friend, would be safe. Perhaps this had something to do with the war or maybe even...

A foal.

Sonata gasped. If the latter were true, then she felt even more keen on aiding them. Far be it from her to allow a child to grow up unhappy or endangered just as she had before the farm. In fact, Sonata felt so convicted about this that she found it simple to convince herself it, indeed, was the reason the two ponies had decided to run.

One could do only so much stalling to avoid others before said "others" began to feel shunned. Sonata dared not dwell on how Lady Adagio might react if she were to feel even the least bit slighted. Thus, with great hesitation, the earth mare made her way back out into the sitting room, teapot dangling from her mouth, cups and saucers carefully balanced atop her back.

She trotted in to find the Lady casually moving about the main room, exploring the trappings of Sonata's home. The noble mare had shed her cloak, revealing a fine, deep violet robe. Its sparse train flowed like water over the floor rug. By and by, she happened upon Sonata's collection of dolls where they were arranged atop the fireplace. The unicorn smiled, appearing intrigued.

Sonata's eyes went wide as she watched the Duchess reach out toward the little linen creatures. Placing the pot and cups down upon the tabletop, she rushed to block her advancing foreleg. The Lady snatched her appendage away, quite startled. "Oh, please don't, Adagio, My Lady. Those are quite filthy. Only a tangle of old rags," Sonata urged.

The Lady eyed her over, and at first it seemed as if she might yell. A smirk cracked her lips instead. "A tad overprotective of a 'tangle of old rags,' are you not?" she countered, her smile growing even wider.

The earth mare's eyes shifted repeatedly from left to right. Her cheeks went purple.

Naturally, a full minute of watching this reaction only worked to irritate the Lady. She cocked a fine brow, and frowned so precisely that it seemed as if she had practiced doing it her entire life. "You are just going to stand there gawking at me, aren't you?" she sighed.

Sonata could manage only a withering grin.

The Duchess rolled her eyes, and turned away. Her curly tail smacked against Sonata's nose. The blue mare couldn't help but marvel at how it felt like silk, and smelled of roses.

"I was going to tell you that your dolls were charming, not that it would very much matter to you," the Duchess muttered, taking her seat upon the cushion at the tea table.

Sonata could only stare. She was positive that Lady Goldenstalks had long tired of this, but it was something that just could not be helped. She had never seen a pony shine and flow as the Duchess seemed to. Every little move she made came slowly, calmly, as if her actions were part of some large, inconceivable plan of her own making. Sonata couldn't help but wonder why a pony so guarded, cunning, and full of regal promise should have wanted to act upon desires so forbidden that she now found it necessary to hide from retribution in a peasant farmer's dusty little cottage on the edge of the woods. This type of thing didn't seem to suit her at all.

Lady Adagio had been Prance's lover all along.

Sonata felt sick even thinking the words. Still, they would not stop echoing across her mind. Surely, considering the gravity of these circumstances, she had managed to evade the wrath of Silent Wing and Echo Hum by chance alone. It didn't take a sage to realize that the two had used her due payment as cover for the new "errand" they were completing on behalf of Duke Goldenstalks.

The Duke... He knows.

Her mouth went dry as she imagined what might happen if they were caught. The Duke and Duchess were royal peers, potential successors to the unicorn throne. By taking the Lady as a lover, Prance had not only committed a sin. No, this was beyond sin. This was treason.

Sonata couldn't fathom what the Duke would do to Prance if he got the chance. As for herself—a simple vassal's adopted street urchin of a daughter who, by the way, was not exactly on the Duke's amicable side—it would surely be the gallows. Worse yet, it would be some magical punishment conjured up by the most sadistic of unicorn wizards. Perhaps shrunken in size and crushed like an ant? An eternity trapped in stone?

Sonata was lost so deeply in her thoughts that she never noticed her front hoof wandering upward to hover before her neck. Her back slid against the wall, down toward the floor.

Gone undetected was the now agitated look upon Lady Adagio's face. At once, the Duchess loudly cleared her throat, snapping Sonata from her trance. The earth mare fell hard onto her backside. Her gaze darted about. "Wh-Huh? Yes, My Adagio Lady!" she blurted, earning only another contemptuous glare from the unicorn in return.

"Pardon me," the Lady began. "Whilst I have no doubt that your ruminations are all quite intriguing, I simply can't help but wonder whether you had expected me to pour my own tea." A hoof moved to rest beneath her comely chin. "Is it different for you all? I presumed pouring drink for a guest was common practice."

"Oh!" Sonata yelped. Bounding to her hooves, she rushed over toward the little table to snatch up the teapot. Carefully, she poured Lady Adagio a cup whilst the yellow mare's eyes wandered off over her head to save Sonata the embarrassment of her gaze. The earth mare then filled her own cup, and when she had finished, took a seat opposite the Lady.

"There you are, Your Graaaa—Adagio," she declared. "I hope you are fond of lemon balm."

Indeed, she did. These leaves had proven quite costly when she had procured them from Dandy on the week before. She had even given the stallion a kiss upon his cheek, hoping for a discount. Thankfully, it had worked. Nevertheless, it would be a shame if so much was spent just for the odd chance that Lady Adagio might sputter the liquid out all over her floor. "And I must apologize again for the state of my home. As I told Prance, those two... whatever they are tore it all up just before you arrived."

The Duchess caught her spoon up in a glow of magic. She stirred the cup whilst scrutinizing its contents. Her mouth was formed into a slight grimace. "Pegasi mercenaries," she muttered, "a dreadful bunch, indeed. Particularly those who are deemed worthy enough for employment by Lock & Stock."

Sonata blinked. "But I thought they only delivered important messages and packages, and guarded very important ponies."

At this, the Duchess scoffed. She raised her cup in magic, and allowed it to hover before her lips. "Is that what they're calling it nowadays?" Barely managing to take a tiny, unfulfilling sip before catching the befuddled look Sonata was wearing, the Duchess then sighed and rolled her eyes. "Listen to me. Those pegasi are some of the best private warriors for hire in the kingdom. The only warriors more skilled are those who are royally ordained, and very few of the king's warriors are pegasi. Their kind aren't fond of following unicorn orders unless they are paid very well for doing so. Anypony who hires pegasi like that from a place like Lock & Stock is one who wishes to assuredly keep another well watched and pinned beneath their hoof." The next sip she took from her cup was now long and satisfying. She didn't notice Sonata's brow creasing.

"Pinned beneath..." Sonata mumbled to herself. "But why would mother and father..." These thoughts, far too disconcerting for her to want to dwell upon, melted away when she spied a bright smile edging its way across the Duchess' lips. Soon her question was wholly forgotten, and as the noble mare lowered her cup, Sonata sighed in relief.

"Quite lovely, Sonata. Well done," Lady Adagio tittered.

Sonata felt her cheeks go red at the sound of her name being called without title. It sounded far more personal that way. "Th-thank you, My Lady, Adagio." Grinning from ear to ear, she leaned down to take a sip from her own cup. She had been right about the tea. After a few cups she found that it did work to calm her nerves. This, however, had another adverse effect in that it also made her profoundly aware of the silence in which the two of them were now sitting. Eyes darting back and forth between the Lady's face and her fifth, half emptied cup, Sonata decided she should commit herself to being a better hostess. Surely, she could think of something to say that wasn't so trivial that noble wouldn't care for it. Surely, her nerves wouldn't get the better of her so much as to make her speak something completely ridiculous.

"You probably shouldn't drink too much, if you don't mind my saying, My Lady," Sonata stated without prompt. "Lemon balm may not sit well with those who are expecting."

There went the Lady's tea, spat up all over the floor just as Sonata had feared.

"Pardon me?" the noble mare exclaimed, wiping stray droplets from her lip. "Just what the jewel are you implying?"

By this time, Sonata's face had drawn into the most painfully forced and terrified of tea time smiles. She wasn't sure of exactly what it was she had done wrong, but figured it would be best to find out.

"So sorry, Myladagio," she peeped, immediately getting to her hooves. "I can make you a different tea! Which would you like? If I'm recalling it correctly, I believe dandelion tea is very good for fluid retention in—"

"I'm not pregnant, you little imp!"

Sonata's eyes grew wide. Her lips drew in tight. Slowly, she retook her seat.

"Oh," she squeaked. Instinctively reaching out toward a nearby empty saucer, she then pushed the plate toward the Duchess. "Biscuit?"

The thing nearly tumbled off of the table amidst her delirium. Lady Adagio's face drew up into a confused and slightly frightened sneer as she stared from the empty dish to Sonata's hysterical expression.

"Dear Bullion, Lighthoof has left me in the care of a madmare," she muttered below her breath.

Drawing the deepest of breaths, Sonata's mouth didn't quite open again as much as it unhinged itself, and fell ajar.

"I... I just assumed that you and Prance were running because... well... you know."

This statement seemed to make the Duchess ease back into her seat. Her brow crinkled as she stared at Sonata, not in anger, but in contemplation. Lips trembling, it seemed as if it was taking all of her strength to work up the mettle to speak. After a moment, she sighed, and shook her head.

"I... I don't think I am able, actually," she divulged, now looking rather melancholy. Sonata blinked.

"To run? Oh, but Your Grace, you must! If the Duke were to catch you now, then—"

"To bear foals. I... I don't suspect that I can have them."

Their eyes locked.

"B... but that cannot be," Sonata snorted as if the idea itself were ludicrous. This garnered yet another perturbed look from the noble mare.

"And why not?" the Lady probed.

"Well, because, Your Grace, you are... well, you are perfect. You're everything a noble lady should be. Everypony knows that." Sonata knew she was sounding horrible by the scathing air now gathering about Lady Adagio's face; yet, she just couldn't stop her mouth. "Surely there must be some mistake."

When she heard the Lady sigh, and watched as she moved away from the table to stand near the fireplace, Sonata gazed down into her empty cup, feeling very much ashamed of herself. She decided that perhaps it would be best to leave the lovely unicorn to her own devices. Still, some large part of her could not resist the urge to at least attempt an apology first.

"I'm sorry, My Lady. It was a foolish thing to—"

"Have you ever felt torn between wanting something, and wanting its complete antithesis?" the Lady inquired gently, her eyes never straying from the flickering fire. Sonata, at first stunned by these words, and then subsequently confused, forced herself to ponder on the question for a moment.

"I'm afraid I don't quite understand what it is you mean, Your Gr—"

"Adagio," the Duchess corrected her, sternly this time.

"A-Adagio," Sonata stammered with a quick nod.

There was a beat of silence during which Sonata could have sworn that she witnessed the Duchess silently fall apart only to quickly put herself back together again. The unicorn let off a ragged breath.

"Part of me wanted so badly for things not to have concluded with him in this manner."

Sonata's brow furrowed.

"But Prance is most certainly—"

"With the Duke, I mean," the Lady clarified, her eyes momentarily going soft. "Once upon a time, I wanted to make him happy. I would do anything for him if only he should ask it of me. If there were even the smallest chance that it would make me grand in his eyes, I swear to you, I would do it. And all for the hope that he might show me a little more affection, a little less frigidity, be a little more free."

Her voice trailed off, and her eyes closed. She shook her head, perhaps to ring it free of delusions that she now knew were untenable.

"All he cares for is adhering to his duties. 'An heir, an heir. By Bullion, when shall you give me an heir, Miss?'" Adagio scoffed, purposely mocking the Duke's deep and regal vocal. "Could you fathom that at first I thought that sort of life was tolerable? When we were first married, all I desired was the comfort and power that his title could provide for me. But in the end..."

The Duchess shook her head.

"Duties, indeed. I imagine it would have made him quite happy if I could do as he did, and live up to mine. Alas, I came to see that the one thing he and his realm demanded of me most, the one thing that would make him feel complete... is the one thing that I could never give him."

The unicorn straightened out her shoulders, and stood tall. Raising her chin, she huffed with an air of authority.

"Thus, I went looking for what I suspected I was missing somewhere else... and found it in Lighthoof. More so than I could have ever hoped for. I love him; I do. And yet, some part of me still wishes so very badly for things to have been different. Some part of me still wants to believe that there was something... somepony for me at Goldenstalks manor."

Her head finally turned about so that she might look at Sonata. Her eyes seemed to plead for her understanding.

"I don't know why it is that I'm telling you all of this. It is all rather perplexing, yes?"

The entire time she had been listening to the Duchess, Sonata couldn't help but feel that floating below her somber tale was a notion that she did in fact understand quite well.

"It isn't confusing at all," she began. "I feel that way all of the time. I've spent years tending to my parents' farm whilst they were away, sending them funding for their upkeep, which was very difficult to obtain, mind you. Life would undoubtedly be far easier if they were home, and I do miss them both very much, indeed."

Sonata's hoof wandered upward to tap against her lip.

"And yet, sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I become aware of what it sounds like for nopony to be yelling, nopony is scolding me. I actually get to eat the pies and cakes that I bake."

The earth mare seemed blithely unaware of the expression of cheer that had slowly begun working its way across her own face. However, what she also did not seem to notice was the troubled look now spreading across the Duchess'.

"I can hear the earth clearly, and even though things are difficult, things are still good. That's when I begin to wish that they would stay away just a day longer. Always just one more day."

Sonata looked down at the floor. Guilt had descended upon her like a brick.

"Part of me wonders whether I keep sending them the money because I know that they require it, or because I know that they shall have the means to stay away longer if I do." Her eyes trailed upward to meet the Lady's. They glistened in the firelight. "But I do miss them. I really do."

There was another silence, quite heavy and drawn out. The two mares seemed to study each other deeply. For a moment, there was a flash of something between them, very faint, but profound enough to make them both jump back into awareness.

The Duchess shot a sly grin in Sonata's direction.

"You make good company, Sonata. Now I understand what Lighthoof sees in you."

The earth mare beamed.

"Well, I suppose that is good! Better late than never, yes?"

The Lady smirked, and turned again to face the fire.

"Indeed. And to think, I always just assumed you were some sort of blithering idiot."

"What?" Sonata squawked.

"Yes, the type of adorable, brainless mare who accidentally wins the heart of everypony she comes into contact with," the Duchess continued.

Sonata tapped her hooves together. Failing to stave off a guilty smile, she tried to recall, to no avail, whether or not she had received any marriage proposals that day.

"I'm not brainless," she whined.

Adagio seemed to catch her quip.

"I despised you at first," the Lady hissed.

These words, so filled with venom, made Sonata shrink back into her seat.

"I hated you for not only being beautiful, and for having a beautiful voice. I hated you for the freedom that you possessed, the freedom that, until now, I had always been afraid to claim for myself. I remembered you once from childhood when I saw you singing atop those boxes in the Greenwaters market. You seemed so happy. Your joy was contagious, and your liberty..."

The Duchess shook her head once again.

"The way you were allowed such intimate contact with the Duke and his family seemed so unfair. Why should one have the privilege of noble company without the due sacrifice of their own freedoms and desires? Yet, still, for years, every time I would pay a visit, there you'd be alongside Lighthoof. Utterly confounding. When we finally came of age, I was always quite certain that you had been the reason the Duke could not love me enough."

It took a moment for Sonata to catch onto what the Duchess was implying, but when she did, she scoffed as if it were the funniest joke in the world.

"Wait a moment. You thought the Duke... and I?"

She guffawed, and after a long time, her laugh began to take on a mocking quality, one that proved to agitate the Lady.

"And why not?" the yellow mare snapped, finally spinning about, her eyes ablaze. "A pretty country mare, full of life, and perhaps a bit of ambition, with a voice that brings joy to everypony who should hear it. Always catching you alone with him at odd hours of the day and night. What is so shocking about concluding what I had? And surely some pretty, little, provincial pony such as yourself has had endless practice with—"

"Your Grace!" Sonata shrieked, hooves pressed firmly against her cheeks. "I would never!"

"Oh, don't pretend to be so innocent either, you little... bird," Lady Adagio hissed, plopping down to sit, and placing her hooves upon her sides. "It would have been so easy. Admit it! You should admit to me that I had a right to worry! Do it!"

"No!" Sonata sassed, completely forgetting her decorum in the noble's presence. Her tongue jutted out viciously, too fast to give her time to recall just whom it was she was sticking her tongue out toward.

"Oh, thear," she sputtered whilst watching the Duchess' expression grow incensed.

"Did you just tell me 'no,' little imp?" the Lady trilled, getting up to her hooves again.

Sonata drew back, quite sure that a few of her dolls would soon come sailing across the room toward her head.

"Well, what else should one think when they walk into their husband's study first thing in the morning to find some mare straightening out her hems in his presence, hm?"

Sonata thought to herself again. That scene from months ago replayed itself in her head, once how it really happened, and the next how Lady Adagio might have witnessed it. Her eyes went wide.

"Ohhh... Oh... Oh, dear."

"Quite right," the Lady clucked with a vindictive nod of the head. "Always smiling and bouncing about the manor, canarying your disgustingly happy, little field pony canticles in his face."

"But My Lady, I've never sung for the Duke in private," Sonata rebutted. "Only the former Lord and Lady. Maybe a guest or two, and much of it happened in your presence."

Lady Adagio seemed to study her, still looking quite skeptical.

"Yes, well, I suppose. Upright never was one for songs, was he?"

Sonata smiled, and shook her head. In all actuality, she was trying her best not to giggle at the mention of the Duke's name.

It seemed that the Lady, again, was able to read her mind. At once, Sonata feared that the unicorn might lash out in anger.

"Well, not everypony in the world can possess such glorious names as we, can they?" the Duchess laughed. Gradually, the amused look upon her face became quite pensive. "Hmm. Sonata. How did you say you came by that name? Did your parents gift it to you for your love of song?"

Sonata shrugged, and shook her head.

"No, Miss. No one gave it to me. I've always just sort of known that Sonata Dusk was my name. Ever since the beach—"

Lady Adagio's eyes went wide. She spun about to stare at Sonata.

"W-what did you say?" she breathed.

"Nopony gave me my name," the earth mare repeated, sounding quite proud of herself. "I've always been Sonata Dusk. Ever since I woke up on the beach in—"

"A beach, you say?" the Duchess blurted again.

Sonata apprehensively shook her head, now certain that the Lady looked as if she might faint. The unicorn's hind legs gave way, and she came plopping back down onto the floor.

"This memory of the beach... That wouldn't happen to be your earliest recollection, would it?"

Now, Sonata's expression grew wary. She wondered what significance this fact could possibly hold.

"Why, yes. Yes, it is. But why do you ask, My—Adagio?"

The golden mare said nothing at first, seeming far too stunned to reply. Eventually, after gazing about the room in a daze, her eyes again landed upon Sonata.

"This is my earliest recollection as well. Waking up on a beach on the shores by the Glow Estate."

"You mean, you aren't a Glow?" Sonata gasped. "I always wondered why it was that you looked so different from the rest of them! I just supposed it was some sort of fluke!"

"No, no. My full name is Adagio Dazzle. That was the name I remembered as well."

As the Lady spoke, an eerie feeling began to encapsulate Sonata. It was similar to the flash that snapped between them earlier, except this time it was stronger, more lingering.

"That and something else," Lady Adagio continued. "Something I can barely remember now. It was like some sort of—"

"Melody," Sonata interjected. "A melody was in my ears as well. But the words... I can't seem to remember them anymore... My Lady... how..."

Her voice trailed off into nothingness. They both sat there, stark still. Tempered breathing was the only sound that broke the silence of the room.

"Sonata," the Duchess began, her voice barely above a whisper, "do... do things ever happen whilst you sing, sometimes subtle, sometimes not? Things that you didn't suppose should happen so perfectly timed... Strange things."

Slowly, Sonata's jaw dropped open as she tried to put words together, but before she could, a sudden rustling of leaves came from somewhere outside in the yard. The sound shook both mares from their shared entrancement. Purpose and drive instantly overtaking them, they quickly leapt to their hooves. Adagio trotted over to the window to pull the shades a little more whilst Sonata hurried to make sure that the main door was locked.

"We should put out the fire," Sonata quavered. But before she could rush over to the small pail of water sitting by the fireside, Lady Adagio had already gone to scoop it up in her magic.

"Go and inspect the lock on the other door," the unicorn commanded. "I shall tend to this."

Nodding her head, Sonata raced off tow