The Shadow of a Doubt
There was light before the rain began
And there was hope behind the suffering joke
Lies come, lies they go, even the sun is tired
Under the surfaces, there is a benevolent drone
Do you feel it?
Every quiet little emotion was legible here.
Row upon row of eyes stared up at her, some respectful and attentive, others disinterested and sleepy. Some were daydreaming, mulling over their private hopes and fears, others scribbling on stacks of notes, eyes alight with that familiar mania of the studious.
“…And so, if we apply Starswirl’s fourth law, we can see that the social resonance coefficient increases by an exponent of ‘n’ plus one for each member of a social circle.” Twilight Sparkle flipped a page of her notes over with an idle tendril of magic, straightening her reading glasses with a second. “Okay, so we’re done with platonic magical reinforcement. On Tuesday, we’ll be covering Goldmane’s theory of magical potential energy; make sure you hang on to your notes, this’ll almost certainly come up on your midterms and the calculus gets pretty heavy.” She paused for a moment, realising her voice had sunk into a peremptory, rote-learned drone. “Any questions?” She did her utmost to inject a note of interest into her tone.
A young mare in the front row raised her hoof.
“Professor…” The mare stumbled nervously over the title; Twilight had flatly insisted that they did not refer to her as ‘Princess’ during lectures. “How do you go about calculating if somepony is actually part of a social circle? Is there some kind of tipping point between ‘acquaintance’ and ‘friend’?”
Twilight nodded. “Good question, Viola. Now, I won’t pretend that this has always been a precise science, but Canterlot University conducted a study two years ago, in conjunction with the Trottingham Thaumatological Institute, and they drew a correlation between endorphin release in the focal unicorn, and…” Her voice tailed away. The lecture theatre was dimly-lit, and the dusty silence felt suddenly oppressive. She closed her eyes for a second, struck by perspective. Was this what friendship had been reduced to?
Twilight was a rationalist, an empiricist, but although she may have called her time in Ponyville a period of study, it had been infinitely more. Had all those wonderful, irreplaceable days been simply for the sake of science? When Rainbow had finally been accepted by the Wonderbolts, had it been a studious interest that had sent tears of joy and loss streaking down her cheeks? She remembered all too clearly the day Rarity had been offered a designer’s contract in Canterlot, and the day she, Twilight, had opened the letter offering her the professorship at Canterlot University’s Department of Magical Studies. Had that overwhelming pang of pain and change been born of something more than rationalism?
She remembered closing the door to Ponyville library for the last time—almost a year ago—and shaking the hoof of her vivacious young replacement, not trusting herself to speak beyond a choked wish of good luck. The answer was painfully obvious: they could pick out all of friendship’s stitches and reduce it to biology and chemistry, but no matter how far they could explain it with the tools of science, friendship would never be a science in itself.
Then, she was back in the present; she was a professor again. The sudden prickling heat in her eyes had gone, and she was no longer lying in the meadows around Ponyville, laughing at one of Pinkie Pie’s silly songs. Those days were gone, and to try wishing them back into being seemed futile, almost ungrateful. The young mare, Viola, was looking up at her in concern, taken aback by her sudden lapse into silence.
Twilight shook her head slightly. “I… I’m sorry.” She opened her mouth, unsure of herself. She wanted to tell these ponies that friendship was neither art nor science; it should not be something dragged under the microscope and subjected to futile studies. Then again, she reflected, it had been months since she had been with all five of her friends. It was not for want of trying, but they all led such busy lives these days. Rainbow was touring up and down the country, Rarity’s schedule of designing and carousing left her little spare time. Virtually all of Applejack’s time was taken up with the dual responsibilities of maintaining the farm, and caring for her young son. Looking back, little Russet’s naming ceremony had been the last time the six of them had spent more than a few hours together. Maybe, Twilight thought morosely, her studies were the only part of that old friendship left to her now.
She knew that the thought was unwarranted and unpleasant, but she could not regret it; it provided a safe, rational place to wrap up her fears and hide them away. “Anyway,” she continued, shuffling her notes and clearing her throat sharply. “In the study, we defined the tipping point for ‘friendship’ as the moment when endorphin production exceeds…”
The remainder of the lecture passed uneventfully, although Twilight fancied she caught a few whispers, flitting around the room as she set out the week’s assignments. Many of the students seemed a little restless, and Twilight could hardly blame them, given the immediate prospect of a Friday evening immersed in Canterlot’s famous nightlife.
“So, if you can get your essays handed in by Tuesday,” Twilight called over the sudden rumble of fifty students rising to their hooves. “Good work on your Lunar Cycle essays, everypony. All in all, your technique’s really starting to improve.”
She stowed her notes in her saddlebag, before slinging it over her back. The design was Rarity’s, naturally; a recent gift. Once, such a gesture would be a simple act of generosity between friends. Now, there was the unspoken knowledge that such designs reposed in the windows of upper-city boutiques, bearing price tags spiraling into hundreds of bits. It was remarkable how times changed, yet some ponies remained quite the same.
Twilight felt the taut muscles of her back relax a little as the front door to the Department of Magical Studies swung shut behind her. She stepped out onto the university’s driveway, a river of gravel snaking down to the cobbled Canterlot street. The sun was setting and the city was swaddled in an amber haze, the burnished golden rooftops of its numerous towers catching the light with a blinding glimmer. A pleasant hubbub filled the air, as every point on the spectrum of Canterlot society spilled out for the evening. Students, business-ponies, off-duty guards and decadent young aristocrats all rubbed shoulders on the glimmering marble cobblestones.
The alicorn halted, almost unwilling to pass out through the university gates, watching the figures wander by, catching bursts of laughter and the momentary low rumble of passing carriages. The evening atmosphere of Canterlot was not one that she immersed herself in regularly; the plethora of bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops held little attraction. Privately, she told herself that the atmosphere of revelry was unbefitting for a princess, and that her students might think less of her if they saw her tasting the city’s fruits alongside them. The near-physical pain that rose in her stomach at the sight of every laughing, close-knit group made a liar of her. A tight little knot of hurt and guilt grew in her chest for every time she saw a dress or bag of Rarity’s design.
She knew that she should be happy for them all. The birth of Applejack’s son had given the mare a new lease of life, Rarity had reached the pinnacle of the society she had always observed so reverentially, Fluttershy’s animal shelter was going from strength to strength, and Rainbow Dash was living out her life’s dream up and down the country. Even Pinkie Pie, whilst remaining in Ponyville, now owned her own shop and wore her confectioner’s hat with pride. If she was honest with herself, Twilight was delighted for them, overjoyed to see them make such successes of their lives. Yet, somehow, she could not free herself from that selfish little wish that everything had simply remained as it was.
Something was missing now.
So, she would pass into the crowds as always, cross two streets, turn left and find herself at her own front door. She would ignore the music and the babble, perhaps write a few letters, plan her next lecture, maybe schedule a lunch with Fluttershy for some indeterminate future weekend. As a princess, she could naturally have taken up residence within the castle, but it would have felt like a further degree of separation. The ability to return to her own little house, well away from the pedestal of royalty, made her feel more like a part of the world.
Why can’t you just let this go? You’re still friends with them all, you just don’t see each other as much these days. Things change, ponies move on. Why are you the only one who can’t accept that?
She shook her head slightly. She could not answer herself. All she knew was that, now, something indefinable was missing. A horrible sense of missed opportunity seemed to creep over her, but she forced herself to concentrate upon the real world, and to dispel the past.
Determinedly, she strode forwards through the gates, and out onto the streets of Canterlot.
“Well… hello there, darling.”
The voice issued from behind her, and whilst Twilight froze, she did not jump in shock. That half-laughing, ladylike voice was far too familiar. She spun around, eyes widening with surprise. “Rarity!”
Her assessment proved accurate. The alabaster mare leaned nonchalantly against the marble gatepost, a broad grin spread playfully across her lips. Bathed in the setting sun, she was nothing short of immaculate. She wore no dress, but an elegant low-fitting tiara clung close to her forehead, its delicate silver spirals vanishing back into her mane and curling around the base of her horn. Once this year’s Summer Sun Celebration arrived, it would be ten years to the day since Twilight had first met her, yet it did not show one iota on her face, except perhaps in the faint evidence of laughter crinkling in the corners of her eyes. Time had mellowed her, and lent her a warm, calming air which had mostly superseded the occasional bouts of manic melodrama that had seized her from time to time.
For some reason, Twilight felt the slightest sting of tears, but made no effort to check them. She wanted to tell Rarity how perfect the timing of her surprise visit was, how a friend was the most welcome, valuable sight in the world at that moment, and how the weight that rested in the pit of her stomach was quite suddenly conspicuous only by its absence. It really was remarkable; for a pony who had spent half of her life with a muzzle buried in books, words deserted her so very easily. Instead, she bridged the gap between herself and Rarity at a canter and caught her friend in a tight hug.
“Oof!” Rarity giggled warmly, returning the embrace. “It’s good to see you again too, dear.” It had only been two weeks since they had last met for lunch, but even now, it felt like years compared to their daily idle get-togethers back in Ponyville.
As she pulled away, the unicorn pecked friendly kisses against both of Twilight’s cheeks; the action parroted the affectations of Canterlot high society, but still, the affection felt sincere. Twilight felt the bridge of her nose heat up a little at the unfamiliar gesture, but she returned Rarity’s grin. “Oh Celestia, I didn’t expect to see you here!”
Rarity waved an airy hoof, watching the crowds part around and pass them by. “Oh, you know how it is. I was supposed to attend some silly garden party, but I simply couldn’t face one more fusillade of cucumber sandwiches and obsequious little colts.” She shrugged, suddenly grinning. “You know, two-thirds of the ponies at those parties are absolute cucumber sandwiches themselves: no taste or substance, and yet they still manage to crop up at every high-society event.”
Twilight giggled. “I’ll have to remember that one; Celestia’s bound to appreciate it.”
Rarity smirked. “Just remember to cite your sources, dear. So, I decided to go on strike for a night. I called on poor old Fancy to go in my place. Naturally he obliged; goodness only knows he owes me a few favours by now.”
Twilight raised her eyebrows. “Does he now?”
Rarity tutted, cuffing the alicorn gently on the shoulder. “Don’t be so louche, dear,” she reproved, smirking. “I simply mean that I’ve been able to put him in touch with any number of indispensable contacts, thanks to the famous faces who pass through my boutique. As I’m sure you’re aware, this city is all about who you know.” She suddenly grinned. “I mean, why else would I be here? An up-and-coming lady like myself must keep up her royal connections; they’re simply invaluable!”
Twilight burst out laughing. More than the joke itself, the knowledge that she had a friend at her side, with whom she could freely banter and laugh without fear or decorum, constituted a rare luxury.
They were making their idle way through the crowds now, chatting about this and that, neither mare with any particular destination in mind, content to simply enjoy the atmosphere and one another’s company.
“So, is the professorship treating you well?” Rarity posed the question nonchalantly, but a slight edge in her voice suggested that it was not a throwaway one.
Twilight smiled, but she feared it did not have quite the conviction that was warranted. “It’s fascinating,” she replied. “I’ve got one colt working on his PhD dissertation: absolute genius, never seen anypony work with potions like him. He’s already made some incredible breakthroughs in the field of antidotes; I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t see a Neighbel Prize within the next few years.”
“And the undergraduates?”
The alicorn shrugged. “Teaching undergrad’s the same as it’s always been. I… Rarity, to tell the truth, it’s a little depressing.” She did not know why she had voiced her concerns aloud, but there was no taking it back now.
Rarity met her gaze, her eyes searching. “Whatever do you mean, darling?”
Twilight meant to reply in some roundabout way, but the words tumbled out before she could stop herself. “I… I did this. Every time I see friendship or love reduced to calculus and algebra I die a little inside, but I was the one who pioneered the field. I drew the connections between friendship and magical power; I pinpointed the alicorn-neuron interface and drew up all the formulae. I turned friendship into a science… maybe that’s why I… I…” She broke off with a tiny groan, halting on the pavement. They had paused in front of a bustling restaurant, wrought-iron tables dotted across the cobblestones, alive with buzz and chatter.
She looked up, and saw that Rarity had turned to face her, looking stern. “Twilight Sparkle, I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard anything so silly in all my life. Do you… do you think that what you did has somehow… devalued friendship?” She shook her head. “That’s nonsense. You did what Princess Celestia knew you would from the start: you turned friendship into something that could be studied and explored. If it has an effect on something so empirical as magic, then I daresay it ought to be explored. But you haven’t turned it into a science. It’s still the wonderful, strange, unfathomable thing it’s always been, but now it’s just easier for scientists to get out the right numbers for them to plug into their equations. That’s the thing about science: it doesn’t care about implications, it cares about facts. It leaves the meaning to those of us who pursue our friendships the traditional way, and doesn’t erode it in the slightest.”
Twilight’s lips twitched. “Somepony once told me that was the wonderful thing about science. It doesn’t ask for your faith; it just asks for your eyes.”
“Exactly,” Rarity nodded. “Twilight, you’re one of my best friends. In truth, I might even call you my best.” Her gaze was searching and almost afraid, as if fearful of what Twilight’s response might be. “Just because you understand why I feel like that, because you can reduce it to endorphins and social contracts and all the rest of it, does that make it less valuable to you?”
“I… oh, of course not, Rarity…” Twilight mumbled, meeting her friend’s eyes with a small smile. “Do… do you really mean that?”
“I should think so, darling,” returned Rarity with a small grin that appeared, for some reason, equally nervous. “To tell you the truth,” she continued, suddenly looking more serious, “this is exactly why I came to see you. Something’s bothering you at the moment, Twilight; you aren’t yourself. The last time we met, you seemed positively gloomy. You cover it up and stow it away and put that brave face on in the mornings, but something’s the matter, even if you can’t put a hoof on what it is. Call it… intuition, if you will.”
Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but her brain drew a blank. She could not deny the truth in Rarity’s words.
“Now,” Rarity continued, “I don’t mean to suggest that I know what’s concerning you, but I have a proposition. Please, for me, take the evening off tonight; let me show you this city, and simply relax. You’ve always worked too hard, and a little bit of freedom can perform miracles.” She suddenly grinned, as if at an entertaining prospect. “Besides, I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t taken so much as a breath of this city’s nightlife since you came here, and I feel honour-bound to enlighten you.”
“I…” Twilight faltered, but could not refuse. In truth, she did not want to refuse. Her friend’s offer had a certain allure to it, and she could only agree that a night spent outside the confines of her own walls might clear her head a little. “I don’t suppose I have any choice, do I?”
Rarity smirked broadly, giving a smooth, self-assured curtsey. “Oh, none whatsoever, your Highness.”
Twilight giggled, and was visited by a sudden urge to prod the grinning unicorn with a playful wingtip, but resisted. Many of the ponies seated at the restaurant were gazing interestedly in her direction. She knew that she was something of a reclusive princess, and thought with a dark resignation that her foray into Canterlot would doubtless grace the tabloid media the following morning. Un-princesslike behaviour in public would only worsen the problem, and decorum dictated that she retain her image. For some reason, the knowledge caused a hard knot of sadness and resentment to bunch together in the pit of her stomach.
“Let’s go,” she muttered, jerking her head in the direction of another street.
Rarity seemed to sense her friend’s change of mood, and doubtless drew a connection with the interested faces turned in their direction, because she complied immediately.
Unicorns darted through the crowds, magically tending to the imitation fireflies that filled Canterlot’s streetlights. As the two friends wandered between shops and houses, the amber of the dusky streets gradually faded into a soft yellow as lamp after lamp flickered into life.
Twilight felt herself relaxing once more; the crowds made her all but invisible to interested eyes, and the pleasant sounds of the living city were somehow soothing. She closed her eyes for an instant, listening to the clip of hooves, the low babble of voices, the snatches of distant music and the rumble of passing carts. She sighed, turning to look at Rarity, who did not notice her gaze for a few moments. “It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?” she asked, relieved to hear that a little life had re-entered her tone.
Rarity turned, catching the alicorn’s gaze and taking Twilight a little aback. Even in this low light, the vibrant azure of her eyes was disarming. Framed by her heavy black lashes, they seemed almost to generate a glow of their own. “I knew you’d love it, if you’d only give it a chance,” she said, her smile broadening. “There are so many places you simply have to see!”
It seemed as if Rarity had abandoned her attempts to pin down the source of the doldrums Twilight had found herself in, and Twilight could not suppress a small sigh of relief. Even so, now that she was walking the unicorn at her side, that indefinable pain seemed both comforted and somehow magnified. She could not bring herself to be sad with a friend at her side, nor did she have any concrete reason to be so. Yet somehow, a creeping sense of missed opportunity seemed to lap at her hooves whenever she looked back on her days in Ponyville, and walking stride-for-stride with an embodiment of that past only intensified the discomfort.
Perhaps it was simply change; those idle Ponyville summers, broken up by a light sprinkling of adventure, had been nothing short of an idyll. Surely it was natural to miss the loss of such an existence. Even so, what Twilight had felt gnawing at her for these last months could hardly be described as loss; it was closer to frustration, as if at a foolish blunder or some cruel misfortune.
However, it was a mystery that she could dwell upon at another time.
At that moment, she was glad to leave such ephemeral worries behind. She was content to simply spend the evening in this most agreeable company, and explore a world that she had inhabited, without truly setting foot in, for the past year.
The atmosphere seemed to billow around them in its own, immeasurable way. Every face had a story. In the wanderers who wandered by, Twilight caught babbles of celebration, of drowned sorrows, of love and pain and purpose. Rarity kept up a near-constant commentary, pointing out shops, clubs and restaurants with the excited vigour of rediscovery. It was remarkable: Twilight had spent her adolescence in this city, but her only experience of the place after sunset had been the irksome snatches of music and raucous voices that had drifted up to her ivory tower in the castle. She recognized every street, although each was suffused with some unearthly quality. It was as if the city held two worlds: one belonged to Twilight, the other to Rarity. This introduction felt like an act of trust on Rarity’s part, or perhaps one of generosity. Once immersed in this world, it was quite unlike anything else.
They found themselves cresting a street bedecked with strings of paper lanterns like shimmering bunting. Street vendors bellowed their enthusiastic declarations, and the urgent thud of electronic music shuddered enticingly from a bouncer-flanked double door to their left. A silver sign on the building’s roof announced itself as ‘Forelock’s’.
Rarity gestured enthusiastically towards the bar. “Twilight, you simply won’t believe this place; everypony who is anypony can be found here at one time or another.”
Twilight bit her lip. “Oh… I don’t know, Rarity.” She indicated the line of fifteen or more ponies waiting for entry, stretching back into the street. “It’ll take us forever to get in, won’t it?”
Rarity chuckled dryly. “You have to understand the way this city works, my dear.”
She trotted along the outside of the queue with an elegant, confident gait, motioning Twilight to follow her. The alicorn was visited by a momentary vision of a sweaty-faced and harassed-looking Rarity, clutching a croquet mallet between her teeth and swaying on the spot. It amazed her how far the mare had come, and how effortlessly she now wore the city and her status within it like an elegant accessory.
Rarity met the bouncer’s gaze with a demure smile. He turned to his fellow, nodding minutely. “Miss Rarity.” He acknowledged her with a calm professionalism.
“I brought a guest tonight, Thumper,” Rarity said, indicating Twilight with an airy wave of her hoof. “I trust you won’t object.”
The bouncer caught sight of Twilight, and blinked in shock, hastening to stand a little straighter. “Oh, I… Of… of course not. Welcome, Princess.”
Twilight wished with all her heart that she could react as effortlessly as Rarity, but despite her years of acclimating to the role expected of her, being treated in such a deferential, almost reverential manner still set her teeth on edge. “I… thank you,” she blurted out, feeling her cheeks colour uncomfortably.
“I’ll let the staff know you’re here,” gabbled Thumper, who seemed a little awestruck by the sudden appearance of nothing less than a princess of Equestria. “Naturally th-this is rather unexpected, but we’ll be sure to provide you and your guest with the full VIP treatment; I’m sure tonight will be quite an event.” Twilight could not help but notice that, quite suddenly, Rarity was her guest, and not the other way around. The treacherous flexibility of the city’s hierarchy was painfully obvious, made even more so by the expressions of mingled surprise and irritation on the faces of the ponies waiting in line only feet from her. Still more unsettling was the likelihood of being treated like some kind of celebrity; in all honesty, the ‘full VIP treatment’ did not sound at all appealing.
Rarity seemed to have read Twilight’s mind. “That won’t be necessary, Thumper,” she cut in hastily, throwing Twilight a reassuring smile. “My friend and I simply wish to enjoy a night out together. A private table will be amply sufficient and I have every faith in your discretion.”
Thumper gave a quick, professional nod, taking the hint and altering his attitude without further ado. Even so, as they were ushered inside, Twilight could not help but wish that she could, just for tonight, be her old unicorn self. It was strange to realise how a pair of wings could leave her feeling so tethered.
Whatever her private grievances, she could not deny that Rarity was quite correct about this place. The bar was busy but not uncomfortably packed, the babble of conversation just audible over the complex electronic music which made the air shudder. Twilight caught sight of some faces in the crowd that even she recognized. The quiff-maned editor of Clothes Horse magazine appeared deep in conversation with Sapphire Shores, who in turn was surrounded, as always, by a gaggle of eager admirers.
However, none of the patrons caught Twilight’s attention for long. The middle of the room was dominated by a circular bar, which was set in the centre of the dance floor, and entwined around the building’s true centerpiece. It rose up to the ceiling, and was quite obviously magical; an ephemeral, hovering column comprised of dozens of perfect, glossy cubes, each one drifting independently through the air in its own lazy, rippling spiral. The mass seemed responsive to the music, twisting itself into helical shapes in time to the rhythms and exuding a glow which always seemed to match the colour of the strobing lights. Twilight felt her breath catch slightly; she had seen works of abstract magical sculpture before, but never anything of this complexity or finesse. The spellwork that must have gone into such a creation was quite staggering.
“Darling?” Twilight jolted a little; the undulating structure was oddly hypnotic. She realised that she had halted, and turned to catch Rarity’s eye, grinning embarrassedly. Rarity smiled in return, clearly relishing Twilight’s wonderment. “This place really is quite something, is it not?”
“You could say that,” replied Twilight, a little breathlessly. Part of her felt that old urge to analyse, to pick apart the spells that bound the fascinating sculpture together, but for once the need to know seemed overshadowed by an alien thrill, leaving her free to wonder. The music seemed to worm its way inside her skull. It felt intrusive, but not unpleasantly so, if such a thing were possible. She bathed in the sensation, letting it wash her clean of the tensions and routines of her daily work. Rarity's silvery fur dappled in the shifting lights, and the unicorn swayed idly on the spot, matching the irresistible beat. For an instant, Twilight could not look away; in every sense, her friend seemed every bit as captivating as the magical sculpture that twisted slowly above their heads.
Twilight blinked, feeling her stomach turn over unpleasantly, as if at a painful memory. She pushed the thought almost angrily to the back of her mind, and forced a smile, following the other mare once more. Thumper led them up a flight of glass steps, unhooking a barrier made from lilac velvet rope, allowing them access to a secluded mezzanine that overlooked the dance floor. A few other ponies were seated at the tables up here, all of them quite obviously influential figures, although Twilight recognized no faces; diplomats, civil servants, the pivotal but anonymous cogs of any social system.
The mares were led over to a glossy table by the mezzanine’s edge, and Twilight inhaled a long breath as she sat down; they were on eye level with the upper layers of the strange, enchanting cube structure. It spread out a little as it rose towards the ceiling, and Twilight felt almost as if she could reach out and brush its outer edge with a careless hoof.
The unearthly sense of this place redoubled, as she watched the mass of shapes pulse and ripple. She expected Rarity to sit down opposite her, but instead the unicorn moved to settle on the plush velvet bench-seat beside her.
Twilight’s surprise must have showed on her face, because Rarity paused, her cool composure momentarily giving way to a filly-like nervousness. “I… You don’t mind, do you, dear?”
“Oh, of… of course not.” Twilight smiled reassuringly, motioning Rarity to sit down.
Since when does she feel the need to ask permission?
Twilight cast around in her head, trying to break this sudden intrusion of formality. A thought suddenly occurred to her, preceded by a nervous giggle. “I hope you don’t expect me to dance!”
Rarity chuckled, and Twilight knew that they were both remembering her previous forays into, for want of a far looser term, dancing. “Darling, you don’t mean to tell me that you’ve been a princess for all these years, and nopony ever taught you to dance?”
The alicorn shrugged. “Well, I had to learn the formal dances, waltzes, that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s really… appropriate here. Besides, you know me: you’ve got more rhythm in one ear than I have in all four hooves.”
Rarity laughed again, and this time the sound was more warm and pleasing, leaving behind a little of its demure refinement. “Well, ponies have always complimented me on my wonderfully rhythmical ears,” she teased. “But honestly, don’t put yourself down. If you have coordination enough to fly, a simple thing like dancing shouldn’t prove much of an obstacle.”
Twilight smirked, but could not quite bring herself to agree. Instead, she glanced down at the bar. “Shall I go and get some drinks?” she enquired.
“No need, darling,” Rarity replied, waving a hoof towards nowhere in particular. “Waiter service, and besides, the drinks are on me tonight.”
“Oh, Rarity, I—”
“Twilight, I insist.” The forceful phrase was delivered with a disarming gentleness. “I was the one who coaxed you from the lure of your house, and besides, my contracts ring a little hollow when I have nopony with whom I can share their fruits.”
“I… Thanks, Rarity,” Twilight mumbled, smiling shyly. As ever, Rarity’s peace of mind seemed dependent on maintaining her generosity, even in this small act of giving. Twilight supposed it kept the unicorn anchored, despite her successes, providing her with one immovable point around which to build her Canterlot-dwelling self, lest she drift away entirely.
For a few seconds, they sat back, letting the music wash over them. The conversation had lulled a little awkwardly, as if both mares were waiting for the other to speak and set down the tone of the evening’s mood.
“Do you ever…” The truncated question seemed to blurt from Rarity’s lips against her better judgment, trailing away before she could complete the sentence.
Twilight met her eyes. “What is it?”
“Oh, nothing, dear. A silly thought, nothing more.”
“Go on…” Twilight asked in a faux-plaintive voice, widening her eyes and trying not to smile. “I like silly thoughts!”
Rarity blushed a little, and Twilight felt suddenly taken aback by her own playful, coy behaviour. She did not speak, however. Her friend seemed momentarily frozen in indecision. “Do… do you ever think about Ponyville?” Rarity asked suddenly, the question tumbling out as if making a hasty escape.
Twilight leaned back a little, startled slightly by the question. “Oh… of course I do, Rarity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
The answer felt oddly inadequate.
You know what she really means. You know.
Once again, that painful twist in the pit of her stomach; that same sense of resentment engendered by every interested gaze, every deferential word. Once again, she pushed the meaningless thought aside. She did not know.
She did not know.
“Why?” she asked, quickly. “Do you… do you miss it too?”
Rarity’s expression was illegible, as if she had tested certain dangerous waters, and was evaluating her results. “Naturally I do, darling,” she responded at length, her voice barely audible over the music, her tone measured, distant and as difficult to read as her eyes.
“Good evening, Princess. And to you too, Miss Rarity.” Both mares turned, starting slightly. An unflappable-looking young stallion stood stiffly by the table, mane immaculately asymmetric, notebook clutched in a magical grip. “Can I get you some drinks?”
“Oh!” Rarity seemed to take a microscopic instant to compose herself; Twilight could almost see the facets of careful refinement locking back into place. “Yes, thank you. I’ll have a strawberry daiquiri, if you would be so kind.”
“Of course. And for you, princess?”
“I’ll… I’ll have the same, please,” mumbled Twilight, scarcely concentrating. Her heart was fluttering as if she had just brushed against the locked door of something best left hidden.
“So…” she spoke a little hastily as the waiter walked away. “How’re the new lines working out?”
“Oh, spectacular, darling.” Rarity was her vivacious self once more, and made no indication that their previous, stilted exchange had so much as taken place. “Dobbinhams have just put in a truly generous offer for my summer bonnet collection, and the interview requests are still flowing in quite nicely.”
“That’s wonderful, I’m so happy this has all paid off for you.” Twilight settled back against the velvet back of the seat. She was all too aware of the unspoken agreement with which they had engineered the change in their conversation’s flow. However, she did not wish to dwell on it; tonight was for enjoyment. To her surprise, the music seemed quite compelling, if a little alien to her tastes. Her more analytical side enjoyed picking apart the complex percussive sequences, but the more instinctual parts of her simply wanted to move along with the rhythms and let go of her academic side for a few wonderful hours.
“Is Sweetie Belle getting along alright?” Twilight asked. Samples of a warm, clear female vocalist had risen above the tightly-woven drums, reminding her of the ambitions harboured by Rarity’s younger sister.
The fashionista nodded. “Oh, as well as could be expected. She’s simply thriving at that place up in Trottingham. The pamphlets called it the best performing arts school in Equestria, and… well, I took it for an idle boast, but they certainly seem to have delivered upon their promises.”
“We’ll have to go and see her perform one of the nights,” Twilight enthused. “She’s still with that band, right?”
“Oh yes,” Rarity replied sardonically, with a slight shake of her head. “Symphonic metal. I ask you. Then again, they’re still strictly local. I’ve thought time and time again that her true talent lies in the classical world, but I shan’t be the one to stifle her, and besides…” She shrugged. “Teenagers.”
Twilight winced, thinking of the difficulties she had faced in trying to deal with Spike’s adolescent angst, which had been made still worse when accompanied by the discomfort of growing out his burgeoning adult wings. “Oh, I’ve lived that as well; say no more.”
Rarity clearly realised to whom Twilight referred. “How is the poor dear? Still settling in?” As a twenty-foot-tall lizard with an unfortunate tendency to instill fear into the hearts of those who had not met him, Spike had become something of a logistical difficulty in recent years. It had only been down to Celestia’s considerable resources and generosity that he and Twilight had been able to remain in reasonably close proximity. She had employed a team of unicorns, led by herself and Luna, to renovate the voluminous central cavern of Canterlot Mines into a place both large enough to accommodate Spike’s draconic stature, and pleasantly furnished enough to satisfy his more equine tastes.
The project had caused something of a stir in Canterlot, culminating in a number of demonstrations outside the palace by mobs comprised of a predictable mixture of the fearful and reactionary. However, Celestia had wisely organised a number of informal public appearances for the dragon which had, over time, largely quashed such fears. Indeed, many ponies could sleep more soundly in their beds, knowing that the Royal Guard could count a dragon amongst the roster of their city’s defences. Anything, it seemed, could be made mundane by time.
Even so, it had been a difficult period for both Spike and Twilight; Spike had never before been met with fear or prejudice owing to his species, and for some time the experience had left him rather more tacit and somber than his former, easygoing self.
“He’s…” Twilight faltered a little. She still visited Spike when she could, several times a week whenever possible, but she was painfully aware that, like her other friends, such visits had decreased in frequency of late. He was no longer a baby. Twilight’s whimsical, gem-loving little brother had been all but swallowed up by experience, his playfully sardonic nature maturing into a measured and rather cynical wit.
Lately, each time she caught sight of his angular silhouette gliding over the city in the evenings, it seemed to leave a pang of guilt behind in Twilight’s chest. “He seems to be doing alright,” she replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “Obviously it’s not the same as the library, poor thing, but he’s making the best of it.” She smiled to herself. “In fact, I expect he’s doing better than that, considering he’s down in the old gem mines; what’s a library next to living in a world of endless snacks?” She poured a theatrical tone of mock-wonderment into the last words. Once again, Rarity laughed a laugh that did not hold the slightest hint of Canterlot refinement, and Twilight joined in, unable to stop herself. The opportunity to release her emotions from their bonds of diplomacy and decorum made laughter seem beautifully easy and uncomplicated.
“Darling, I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to be able to laugh,” Rarity burst out, perfectly mirroring Twilight’s thoughts. “Honestly, it becomes such a silly social cue. You learn how to laugh, you learn when to laugh… you end up forgetting why you laugh in the first place.”
“Oh, I know,” Twilight replied, her grin fading a little as she leaned across conspiratorially. “Whenever I have to talk to bureaucrats or diplomats or Celestia-knows-what else, it always feels like such a charade. You use the right words, in the right tone, you laugh when you’re meant to… it’s just a game really, isn’t it?” She shook her head, half amused, half saddened. “I just hope we don’t get too good at playing.”
“That’s why nights like this are so invaluable,” Rarity murmured, moving a little closer so Twilight could hear her over the music. “You’ve been seeing so little of us all lately, but when we’re together, we can be ourselves. It’s the only time we can be ourselves, and I truly believe that it’s what keeps us from losing ourselves along the way.” She touched Twilight’s hoof with her own. When the alicorn did not resist or show signs of discomfort, she took it between both of her forehooves. “Don’t be a stranger, Twilight,” she sighed. “Every last thing this city has to offer isn’t worth that. Not for a second.”
Twilight’s eyes filled with tears. She could not for a moment think of an adequate response, and more powerfully than ever, resentment and shame rose like bile in her throat. The rumbling, hissing sounds of shunting trains passed across her memory; she had made a terrible, terrible mistake. A necessary mistake.
More forcibly, she corralled the memory back into its secluded, repressed corner of her brain.
“Rarity, what if—”
At that moment, there came the chink of glasses and the clip of hooves. The young waiter had returned to their table, magically bearing two cocktail glasses.
“I… Thank you,” Rarity said, her tone demure once more, instantly discarding the quiet intensity with which it had momentarily been suffused. She did not jump this time, but quickly released Twilight’s hoof beneath the table, leaving it to fall back limply against the alicorn’s side. Twilight echoed her gratitude in a distant voice, trying to remember the name of whatever in Equestria she had ordered. The waiter departed, after bowing respectfully in Twilight’s direction.
Rarity must have noticed Twilight’s expression at the gesture of deference, because as soon as the waiter had departed, she rested her hoof over her friend’s once more in a comforting gesture. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it?” she said softly.
“It means we can’t be ourselves,” Twilight replied, her voice flat and brittle. “I’m a princess. You’re one of this city’s top fashion designers. Even when we’re together, ponies are going to watch, they’re going to recognize… they’re going to remember. We can’t just be two friends out for the evening; not really.”
“Do you…” Rarity broke off, as if plucking up the courage to ask a painful question. “Do you regret it? Twilight Sparkle; princess, professor, rising star. Do you wish it had all never happened?”
“I…” Twilight paused. She needed to answer. She needed to answer truthfully. “No… No, I don’t wish that,” she replied at length. “It’s an honour; it’s a privilege. I’m practically a daughter to Celestia, and I’m teaching and researching in the kind of academic post I’ve always dreamed of. I’d have to be the most ungrateful pony in the world to regret it, but still… there’s something.” She kneaded her forehead with her free hoof, trying to dispel the insubstantial fear that swirled like a migraine behind her eyes. “There’s just something; something’s missing. All those days in Ponyville… it was the happiest road I could ever have wanted to walk, and I knew that surely the destination would be somewhere even better. That’s what I told myself; I always felt so sure that the ending would be perfect. But now that road’s come to an end, and sometimes, I feel like…” She sniffed. For the third time that evening, tears sprung into her eyes, but this time they spilled over, rendering her next words choked and indistinct. “Sometimes, I… I feel like… this isn’t the ending I’d hoped for.”
Rarity’s eyes were wide, glittering with sympathetic moisture and reflecting the strobing light as it danced from colour to colour. She rested her other hoof on Twilight’s shoulder, the gesture somehow beyond simple comfort. Twilight felt a sudden thrill of fear, as if someone had threatened to throw her back into a hideous place; a place she knew she could not bear. She smelled smoke on the air, although her nostrils were filled with nothing but the scent of Rarity’s heady, intimate perfume.
Rarity’s gaze was searching, sympathetic and almost apprehensive, as if waiting for some sign or affirmation. “Twilight… I’m so sorry, my darling.” Twilight half-registered the possessive pronoun; it seemed to refine Rarity’s eternal throwaway endearment into something more soft and personal. “Oh Celestia,” the mare continued, withdrawing her hooves and moving back a little, the better to look at the alicorn. “I never realised you felt that way… Do you know what it is that’s missing? What is it that you’d hoped for?”
Twilight half-opened her mouth, thinking. Her words had slipped out in a painful moment of unguarded emotion, but where had they left her? Try as she might, her shields of rationality had returned to her, and they could not easily be brushed aside to expose more than the sliver of truth that had already been thrown to her. “I… I’m not sure,” she eventually conceded, hiccoughing. “I thought it w-was just those days in Ponyville that I missed, but… I’ve already said; it doesn’t feel like l-loss so much as… regret.” She distractedly picked up the tall cocktail glass before her, magically taking a gulp without truly tasting it. “Oh, I just don’t know.”
“Well then,” Rarity resolutely met her reddened eyes. Behind the unicorn’s sympathetic gaze was a strange hint of nervous excitement. “You know I’ll help you in any way I can, don’t you, Twilight? Two heads are better than one; whatever it is you’re missing, whatever chance you feel you didn’t take, I want to help you pin it down. I firmly maintain that there’s rarely such a thing as too late.” She held out a hoof to Twilight. “You can tell me anything,” she murmured.
Twilight looked down at the unicorn’s outstretched hoof, then up into her wide eyes. For a few moments she did not move, and Rarity’s nervous smile faltered a little. Then, Twilight darted forward, ignoring the proffered hoof and pulling her friend into a close embrace. Rarity gave a happy little murmur, reciprocating the hug.
“Thank you, Rarity,” Twilight whispered, hoping that Rarity could hear her over the rippling music. Twilight’s heart was dancing against the walls of her chest; her shields of rationality had cracked again, relieving her once more of the dull, oppressive weight that so often accompanied logical thought these days.
Were all ponies so wonderfully soft, or was it simply a product of the care Rarity took to ensure her coat’s glossy perfection? The sensation reminded Twilight a little of the clouds beneath her hooves on the day of her visit to Cloudsdale, but less yielding and infinitely warmer. What was that fragrance? Unobtrusive but intoxicating: woodland and wild flowers. Rarity was murmuring soft comforts in her ear. Twilight wanted to laugh and she wanted to scream.
Then, they had broken apart without fuss or preamble. After all, she was a princess and Rarity had her ladylike reputation to maintain. Public displays of emotion attracted attention, and worse still, could plant seeds of speculation and interpretation in the tabloid rumour mill.
“Are you alright, darling?”
Twilight blinked as if jerking awake, and turned to meet her friend’s eyes. She knew the fur of her cheeks was stained with tears, but no fresh ones flowed. “I’ll be okay,” she said in a small voice, bestowing a watery smile upon the unicorn.
“You will.” Rarity’s words sounded like a promise. Then, suddenly, she grinned. “Come on, dear. Let’s dance.”
Twilight gave a shaky laugh, taken aback by the non-sequitur suggestion. “Are you serious?”
Rarity’s grin broadened. “Deadly. I want you to enjoy yourself; I don’t want you to spend your evening cooped up at a table!”
“Rarity…” Twilight took a deep breath, unable to quite fathom why she needed to ask this question. “Why did you bring me out tonight? Do you just want me to relax, or… are you trying to help sort my head out? You knew something’s been bothering me. Do you just want me to have a good time, or did you plan that we’d end up talking about these things?”
“I want you to be happy.” The answer came without hesitation. “So… I suppose you could say that I’m equally guilty of both motives. Naturally I want to take you away from all of that stuffy decorum for a few hours, heaven only knows we both need it, but… if some friendly company can help you get to the bottom of whatever’s causing you all of this stress, then I’m more than willing to provide a sympathetic ear.” She shrugged. “I made no specific plans, I merely decided to see where fate decided to lead us. So…” Rarity got to her hooves and beckoned to the alicorn, smirking once more. “A dance, your Highness?” She chuckled, obviously realising how at odds her anachronistic gesture was with the pulsing electronic music.
Twilight stood, attempting to give off an air of reluctance, although her smile rather ruined the effect. “I hope you know I’ll be terrible.” She injected a tone of dire warning into her words.
“Twilight, dear, even if I have to teach you step by step, I simply refuse to be dissuaded!” The unicorn pouted, a faux-pleading expression on her face. “For me?” She tipped her head a little to the side, the diamonds adorning her forehead glimmering hypnotically.
The alicorn rolled her eyes, but let out a nervous giggle, trying her hardest not to blush. “Oh… alright then. Only for you, Rarity.”
Rarity laughed, looking almost teasingly back over her shoulder as she walked slowly over to the stairs. “You know I wouldn’t have it any other way, darling.”