Fluttershy gently blew on her hooves as she rubbed them together, trying to coax a little warmth back into them. All pegasi had some natural resistance to the cold, but it was mostly focused on their wings, so hooves were still the first part to become chilly. Trotting through several miles of snow on a cold winter's night didn't exactly help either.
Risking a little more light, she turned up the dial on her portable lantern. The flame lapped up the additional gas, doubling in size and providing a fresh surge of warmth.
This was not where she was supposed to spend Hearth’s Warming Eve: freezing in a small, dilapidated barn—barely more than an abandoned shed really—while half the town celebrated at Pinkie's party and the other half were snug and warm at home with their families. This was not a night to be spent alone and cold.
Though, assuming her message got through, she at least wouldn’t be alone much longer.
After leaving her home in the clouds to come live on the ground so many years ago, Fluttershy had practically become a hermit in her own home. It had taken years of slow and careful help from her friends for her to gain the confidence to make a proper life for herself. But there was one pony whose very existence had helped to draw her out of her shell far more than the others knew. A pony who didn’t push her to grow, but rather was someone she was willing to grow for.
It had started with blushing glances in the marketplace. Feelings shared through gestures rather than words. He was handsome, yet not proud. Strong, yet not boastful. But it was his kindness that had won her over.
One Hearth’s Warming, knowing she had no family in town, he had arrived at her cottage—small wrapped present and flask of hot cocoa in hoof—to share the holiday with her. It became a tradition. An intimate little party for just the two of them. Away from their families and the noise of the town parties to sit in comfortable silence and exchange simple, heartfelt gifts.
They could always exchange gifts publicly, of course. There was nothing wrong with that and most of the town did anyway. But when it was just between the two of them, somehow it had always felt a little more special. Like a shared secret. And so, with no impure intent, a secret it had become. From sliding gifts under the table to meeting up away from everypony else, their small holiday traditions were quiet and discreet, just how Fluttershy liked things.
And it was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
The door creaked open on failing hinges, rusted metal squealing like some sort of alarm. A small flurry of snow drifted through the gap, followed by a hulking red form wrapped in a purple scarf.
“Big Macintosh?” Fluttershy whispered, her heart in her throat.
"Sugar Belle didn't see you leave?"
"Eenope. Your family?"
She shook her head. "They left early for Pinkie's holiday party."
The joy she felt at seeing him warred with the guilt she felt at the same. His perfect body closed the door, though it did little to keep out the cold. Ever the gentlestallion, he offered her his scarf, but she declined. She knew those colors. She knew who it had come from and she feared her heart could take no more pain.
Settling on a compromise, Big Mac sat down and leaned his warm bulk up against her side. She caught a whiff of his scent. Even in the depths of winter he smelt of apples and loam. A strong, earthy scent; not unlike her animals. It was familiar, comforting. But she couldn’t dismiss the notes of baked goods that clung to him like armor, keeping her at a distance.
An old shack was no place to meet, but he was married now, and that changed things. What had been a casual secret now held the possibility of scandal. And it wasn't fair to Sugar Belle. To his wife. Her heart ached at the word, but it was the truth of the matter. She had missed her chance.
“Strange place t’meet.” Fluttershy glanced up at his voice. His gaze wandered over their ramshackle quarters, taking in the strands of moonlight that passed through the fractured roof like silver streamers.
“I… I suppose it is.”
“Fair bit from town.”
“Not likely anypony’d come out here.”
He knew. Of course he knew. Any pony with half a brain would understand what she meant by asking him to come out here rather than just meet her in her home. A married stallion and a single mare? Meeting in her home while his wife waited at his? It was just asking for trouble.
But at the same time, she needed closure. One more meeting, away from prying eyes, to finally lay everything to rest and accept the truth.
Fluttershy felt her soul shudder as the finality of their meeting set in.
This was to be their last Hearth's Warming together.
They would see each other at parties and during the year, but it wouldn’t be the same. That ever-present hope that someday, somehow she’d muster up the courage to push their relationship to something more would be gone. Lost forever because she’d been to slow, too hesitant, and a quicker mare had beaten her to the prize. It was enough to make her wish that the multi-pony loving herds in her foreign novels were real. She’d settle for a share of him, if to have any at all. But with that merely a fantasy, the only practical option would be to accept that any lingering affection he held would never be any more than that.
She often wondered if he even felt the same way. Did his stomach do flips whenever they were alone together? Did he feel that deep yawning ache in his core when they were apart? Or did he just think himself a good friend, humoring the oddities of his semi-reclusive neighbor?
Apparently, her feelings were stronger than his. After all: Sugar Belle.
“Thank you for coming.” It was barely a whisper, but in the nearly silent night her voice carried all the same. He nodded, always having a way around words.
“I suppose I’ll go first then.” Fluttershy stood to go retrieve his present when she felt a strong hoof on her shoulder.
“No. Wait. Let me.”
She hesitated. This was… different. She always presented her gift first. There was no formal agreement, but it was tradition. Then again, perhaps it was for the best to change things up. To make their last time all the more memorable.
She sat back down and Big Mac rose, removing a small gift from behind him.
It was a simple wooden box. Unwrapped, but sealed with a ribbon. Fluttershy gave the crimson bow the slightest tug and it easily fell apart. Her pulse quickened as the box’s springs, no longer bound, lifted the lid in a smooth and fluid motion.
Fluttershy gasped as her heart stopped.
On a bed of red velvet sat a mane clip, silver with a pea-sized inset ruby and emerald. Intricate engravings depicted ancient pegasi patterns while the gem’s facets glittered with captured lamplight, reflecting back in Fluttershy’s wide unblinking eyes.
In the distance, music started playing. Was that one of Vinyl Scratch’s mixes, or was that heavy pounding the beat of her own heart? Fluttershy couldn’t tell.
To any, this would have seemed a marvelous gift. A beautiful and expensive piece of jewelry. But in traditional pegasi culture, it meant so much more. A mane clip, of this old design, presented in this way, was an incredibly intimate gift. One only given to a pony who was beyond friends, beyond even family. Why, if there’d been a second one in the box, it’d be practically tantamount to-
Her breath caught and the world slowed to a standstill as Big Mac lowered himself to his knees and tilted the box, allowing the clip to slide forward. There was a second, hidden beneath the first. This one a more masculine model; gold with pink diamonds and a single sapphire.
He didn’t even need to ask the question. The gesture spoke more than words ever could. One was a gift, but two were meant to be shared. No one would give this exact gift in this exact way without knowing exactly what it meant to a pegasi. Fluttershy’s face glowed in the lamplight as a gambit of overwhelming emotions fought over whether she should go pale or flushed.
“Big Mac… I… would you really…” She had to fight to get the words out, so choked with emotion as joyous tears brimmed in her eyes.
He nodded. “Eeyup.”
A dark slash of guilt cut through her joy. “But… but Sugar Belle…”
His eyes twinkled like stars as a smile eclipsed his usually reserved expression. “Her idea.”
The giant of a pony leaned down, his warm breath sending waves of fog across her face as he lowered himself to her level. “I ain’t good with words,” he began, “So I’ll keep it short. Would you like to join me? Join us?”
Fluttershy felt as though she were having a panic attack. Her breath came in short raspy gasps, her heart pounded in her ears like a bass drum and a thousand screaming thoughts fought for dominance in her mind. Was this real? Really, truly real? It had to be a dream, or a trick. Not only did he want her as well, but Sugar Belle was okay with it? Even more, she desired to share him too? Yet there he knelt, waiting for an answer, nothing but simple genuine honesty in his face.
She forced a deep breath and the fog began to clear. A single thought stood out, slowly growing clearer than the rest and with it came a feeling. A sense of wonder and joy, of magic and miracles, as her one truest wish came to life before her.
“Yes,” she said, more firmly and resolutely than anything she’d ever said before in her life putting the force of her entire soul behind the words. “It’d make me the happiest mare in the world.”
Already out of words to express herself, she abandoned them, and instead chose to rush forward and embrace the stallion she loved. He returned it, eagerly.
On a day she feared she’d lose her past, she was instead offered a bright and shining future.
It was the greatest Hearth’s Warming gift she could imagine.