The Shadow of a Doubt

by Ardensfax

Part Two

The Shadow of a Doubt

Part Two

“Oh Celestia…” Twilight felt a laugh escape her as they trotted out into the bustling night, the cold air seeming to freeze the beads of sweat on her shining coat. Her breath rose rapidly in her throat, half from exertion and half from exhilaration.

“See, darling?” Rarity’s cheeks were glowing; she too looked delighted, but did not appear in the least fatigued. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It was certainly something,” Twilight confessed. “Takes some getting used to, but…” She shook her head; a faint ringing buzzed in her ears and every sound seemed somehow diminished. “…Wow.” Neither mare had opted for any further drinks. Rarity clearly wanted to show her friend the city with a clear head, and Twilight had a vague sense that to let herself become tipsy tonight would likely be a poor decision.

“And I said you’d get the hang of it, didn’t I?” Rarity chided playfully as they began wandering lazily along the pavement.

“You’re a good teacher,” mumbled Twilight, remembering how the unicorn had stood at her side, requesting that she relax and not wave her hooves around quite so much. Under Rarity’s watchful eye, however, she had gradually grown more comfortable. It had simply been a matter of tuning out the observant crowds and focusing only on the mare swaying gently at her side. Then again, doing so could hardly have been described as difficult, Twilight reflected with a slight pang of discomfort. “Besides,” she said hastily, “I know I made a fool of myself; all those ponies were staring at me.”

Night had fallen in earnest, and Twilight wondered how long they had spent on the dance floor at Forelock’s. It had seemed like minutes, but the star-flooded sky told her otherwise. Rarity smirked, grinning at Twilight in the sudden glare as they passed under a streetlamp. “Darling, they were staring at you for two reasons. Firstly, you’re Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria, a position which would tend to… attract attention, shall we say?” She winked, and Twilight grinned sheepishly, for once too skittish to be concerned by the prominence of her status. “And secondly,” continued Rarity, the bridge of her nose colouring a little, “you looked quite unutterably beautiful.”

Twilight blinked, too disarmed to even blush. She met Rarity’s eyes, but could detect no hint of laughter or mockery there. “Me? Next to you?”

“Naturally,” replied Rarity. Once again, Twilight tried to detect some hint that Rarity was simply engaging in playful, exaggerated flattery, but could find none. The unicorn tripped over her next words, her composure slipping slightly. She recovered herself quickly, however, and smiled. “Princesshood becomes you,” she said quietly. “But it’s more than that… you weren’t thinking. You weren’t analyzing or worrying, you weren’t pondering any consequences. You were just… just letting yourself be happy. For you, happiness is all it takes for you to outshine any other mare. It makes you… radiant.”

This time, Twilight’s cheeks did heat up, at the sincerity in Rarity’s voice as much as her words. They were still making their steady path through the thronging, peripheral crowds. Nopony noticed them now: the dark cloaked them, and the night held its own distractions. Twilight mulled over Rarity’s words, toying with them in her mind. She had not the faintest idea of how to reply. How could one reply to such open, beautiful sincerity? Stammered thanks or platitudes would serve only to devalue the moment.

“You make me happy.”

Twilight could have clapped a hoof over her mouth. The words had spilled from her, quite unintended, without any apparent source or purpose. What did they even mean? Beyond that they were quite, quite true, Twilight could not say.

Maybe truth was enough.

Something indecipherable in the air had changed between them. Rarity sighed, although the sound was not an unhappy one. It sounded as if she had been reprieved, or somehow vindicated. She smiled across at the nervous princess, craning her neck over to nuzzle at Twilight’s cheek. Rarity’s smile seemed a little sad. It mirrored the regret that now glinted so close to the surface of Twilight’s mind. “You’ve still got so much to see,” she said quietly.

Twilight could not repress a faint shiver. The castle rose before them, its gold and alabaster silhouette blooming over their heads. A million chill pinpricks shone along her back as the night stroked at her coat, still beaded with perspiration from her earlier attempt at dancing.

Canterlot’s mountain air felt strangely electric. The snatches of song and laughter immersed her, decadence and aristocracy dueling and melting together. In this city, the night was an escape; their actions mattered little. The façade of servility and duty remained when they were seen, but here they were faceless, milling particles in a reveling mass. They were quite, quite free.

And it hurt.

Twilight closed her eyes, letting Rarity’s fragrance besiege her. Maybe it had not been necessary; the sacrifice she had made all those years ago, for the good of them both. Maybe there was no need for this exile to continue.


Where had that word sprung from? She had her status and her tenure, she still saw her friends. She could hardly be described as a hermit, and yet…

They had halted outside an elegant little café, situated snugly upon a street corner. Most of the patrons were seated outside in the temperate night, and a band stood on a wooden dais in the open air, weaving a soft, jazzy melody out into the dark. Rarity was still smiling that little, secret smile. The singer’s voice was low and smoky, her eyes leisurely sweeping the passing crowds.

“We’ll breathe in all these winds of change, and we’ll fall a million miles tonight…”

Twilight remembered. She could do nothing but remember; remember the decision she had forced herself to make.

She turned almost sharply to look at her friend, but was taken aback to find Rarity’s gaze already fixed upon her. The unicorn’s eyes shone to rival the gems on her forehead. Neither of them spoke. Before them, the music rose and swelled as the singer drifted almost lazily into the chorus.

“We’ll fly above the clouds, where the air’s too thin to think of falling back again…”

Rarity had moved a mere inch closer, but she seemed suddenly to fill Twilight’s vision. “Do you remember when we said goodbye, Twilight?” she asked, the words barely breathed. “When I left for Canterlot, that evening at Ponyville station?”

Twilight’s heart was hammering; she felt a deep-rooted residual fear, but also a sense of wonderment. It felt as if she had plucked up the courage to look into the eyes of a terrible creature, and seen something beautiful in its gaze.

“…When we fly above the clouds, we’ll see the shadow of a doubt, an eternity away upon the ground.”

“O-of course I remember… we were all there.” Twilight’s breath shook a little. “You were the first to leave; w-we were all so sad…”

“You came to say goodbye to me,” Rarity murmured.

“Of c-course I did—”

“Twilight… we both know that wasn’t all.” The unicorn touched Twilight’s withers with a calming hoof. “You kissed me…” Her words trailed away, as if they were part of a longer, as-yet incomplete sentence.

Twilight looked away, biting her lip a little defensively. “So did Pinkie Pie,” she mumbled.

“Not the way you did.” The whisper sounded almost sharp, cutting through Twilight’s prevarication. On the dais, the singer retreated a few paces, lapsing into silence as a bright, fervent violin rose and shouldered the song’s melody. “You were crying; it was like you wanted to say so much more than just goodbye, but something stopped you. You never could hide emotion, darling. It wasn’t just sadness in your eyes, it was as if you were in agony, but you didn’t dare say a word about it. You just wished me luck, you said your goodbyes; you turned to walk away, but…” She drew in a shivering breath.

Twilight knew perfectly well what had happened next.

The temperate June air, the smoky tang of the evening trains and the sting of bitter tears. A hesitation, then an impulsive forward motion, the sudden sensation melting and warm and infinite. Then, the blowing of a whistle, the compartment doors beginning to slam. Time had run out. A swift separation, then a hasty, flustered farewell. That strange, numb sensation in the pit of her stomach as the carriages pulled away.

The next time they saw each other, weeks had passed: both had surrendered to acceptance. A tacit consensus formed between them; an agreement to silence made in silence. Neither brought the subject of that parting intimacy back into the light, and over time it rested just outside of conscious acknowledgement, gradually becoming buried under layer upon layer of life. On Twilight's part, this burial had been a deliberate act of self-preservation. The unconscious training of Canterlot high society had taught her how feelings, emotions and even memories could be repressed and ignored for the sake of demeanour and decorum. Such techniques had any number of applications beyond galas and speeches.

“All these years.” Twilight looked away from Rarity’s eyes, her voice almost bitter. “Why bring something like that up now?”

“Because something’s been preying on your mind.” There was no hint of uncertainty in Rarity’s tone, although her nerves seemed quite clearly strained; her ears were flat against her head, and she seemed almost to be shivering. The bridge of her nose glowed a delicate pink, an entirely more ladylike shade than Twilight’s blotchily darkened cheeks. Twilight fancied that if she reached out to touch Rarity’s soft-furred chest, she would feel the unicorn’s heartbeat quite plainly. The thought was an oddly agreeable one.

“It’s only been getting worse for you these last few months,” Rarity continued, “and I’ve tried to tell myself… oh, I don’t know what. That you missed Ponyville, that you were tiring of having your personality and behaviour dictated by your title, or simply that nostalgia was keeping you trapped in the past. I don’t doubt that all of those are the case, but it’s something deeper than that. You told me yourself: it didn’t just feel like loss… it was closer to regret, and sometimes, in quiet moments, you have a nagging sense in the corner of your mind that maybe this isn’t the ending you’d hoped for.” Twilight had turned back, almost grudgingly, to meet her friend’s blushing gaze. “I told myself I was being presumptuous or arrogantly self-centred, bringing the source of all this tangled nonsense back around to myself, but…” She sighed, breaking off with a helpless gesture.

Twilight did not speak. She felt as if a dam had broken inside her. Every emotion and memory she had so carefully filed away had burst as one from their cages and she knew there was no going back. She could not lie to herself for one second longer.

She could no longer rationalise the pangs and flutters that rose in her chest when she met Rarity’s eyes, nor the pain and regret that so often followed in their wake.

It all stemmed back to that one impossible choice. A choice between two wrong answers, or so it had seemed at the time. It had felt as if the tug-of-war conflict between desire and duty would tear her apart; surely suppression had been her only option, but even for her, it could never be a permanent solution. For years, she had been trying to seal earthquake fissures with wallpaper and paste, but only now did she recognize how rapidly she was beginning to splinter.

“You’re right,” Twilight choked, her cheeks burning and her tone one of defeat. “Of course you’re right, I just… oh, let’s go.”

Even as she gestured along the road, those last words felt as if they had sprung from the lips of another. Twilight did not know what their purpose might be, only where her instinct was leading her. She felt quite calm, although she could feel her heart pounding as if she had just run a mile. Rarity complied without question, and together they made off through the crowds, up the steep street in the direction of the palace district.

They walked shoulder-to-shoulder, although neither mare spoke. Rarity seemed to understand Twilight’s need for silence; perhaps it mirrored her own. They passed snatches of music, shouts and rattles. Lanterns of every colour duelled with the streetlamps above them, mingling with the scents of chili and spice that rose from vendors’ stalls.

She isn’t angry.

For some reason, the thought possessed Twilight. It filled her with a warm emotion that was not happiness; the thoughts whirling inside her felt far too convoluted to express in such blunt terms as ‘happiness’ or ‘sadness’. Perhaps it was a spark of hope.

All that time ago, it’s still hurting you. What if it’s been doing the same to her? You knew it could never happen for so, so many reasons, but you couldn’t just let her walk away. You had to make everything so complicated, didn’t you?

Twilight closed her eyes against the sudden flare of inwardly-directed anger. She felt the sudden impulse to take Rarity’s hoof, to offer some sense of unity or identity in the milling crowd, but as both mares’ forelegs were engaged with walking, to do so was quite impossible. Instead, she contented herself with nestling her cheek against the side of Rarity’s neck as they walked. For a second, Twilight expected to be shrugged off with an admonitory gesture, but the unicorn let out a miniscule murmur of contentment, wordlessly resting her chin on top of Twilight’s head.

She isn’t angry.

But if she’s not angry, then what? You need to untangle this mess you’ve created. You need to do the right thing tonight, no matter what the consequences are.

Gradually, the palace loomed larger above their heads as they passed beyond the endless clubs, bars and restaurants. The crowds had thinned here, beyond the attractions that kept them conglomerated, the bustle waning to the friendly clip of passing hooves. They were more exposed to passing eyes now; as if at a wordless signal of caution, the mares separated, although they still walked shoulder-to-shoulder.

Twilight could not say for how long they walked, but she knew now where her instinct had led them. They had turned from the main streets, leaving the paved roads and thronging ponies behind. Underhoof lay grass instead of cobblestone, the city’s sounds fading to a hum in the distance. A protective tunnel of lantern-hung trees enclosed them, the path branching off between the trunks here and there, a garden or glade barely visible at the end of each. The path Twilight’s memory guided her to wound downhill a short way until it reached a large walled courtyard whose ground lay thick with exotic flowers and ancient trees, deserted but for a flock of small birds which took fright at their approach. The smell of nostalgia seemed to rise from the very grass.

The place was infinitely wilder than the palace’s neatly-manicured lawns and flowerbeds, yet somehow all the more elegant for its organic nature. Twilight had spent what had felt like half her foalhood in Canterlot’s gardens, curled up between the roots of trees with a good book and a sense of contentment that seemed so elusive elsewhere. Unlike the sweeping lawns of the palace, anypony could freely visit these gardens, each one publicly maintained in the memory of some great hero or inspirational figure of the city’s past; however, on a night like tonight, few would choose to seek out such peace.

Twilight doubted that Rarity had set foot in these upper-city gardens since her arrival; they were a serene backwater, the kind of hidden jewel that an up-and-coming fashionista would have had no reason to seek out, and would have been unlikely to stumble upon. Tonight, the unicorn had shown Twilight a new facet of the city she inhabited; Twilight wondered if perhaps she could return the favour.

Rarity gave a miniscule gasp as she halted, taking in the garden’s mass of wild colour. She craned her neck forwards, the better to indulge her eye for beauty, although her shoulder remained in light contact with her friend’s. Emerald-green paths of grass wound between the polychromatic plants, dotted with wooden benches and illuminated by faux-firefly lanterns. At the garden’s far end, a low fence revealed that it was built into the mountain’s cliffside, and in daylight would have afforded a spectacular view over the miles of countryside below them. Cloudsdale hung, shimmering like an unnaturally radiant star in the distance, superimposed over the true stars which were gradually winking into life.

For a few moments, they stood perfectly still, heads growing clearer after the hubbub of the street.

“This place makes me feel safe,” Twilight said in a small voice.

You understand this place. You just need something you can understand tonight.

“It’s beautiful,” Rarity replied simply.

“I…” Twilight turned to look at her friend, the back of her throat suddenly burning. “I guess this was never going to stay buried forever, was it?”

Rarity shook her head. “Of course not, darling.” She sighed quietly. “I’m just… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything sooner. As the train pulled away I told myself over and over that I wouldn’t simply let it lie there between us, but…” Her eyes were downcast. “Life gets in the way, doesn’t it? It just felt too presumptuous to drag up something so delicate in such an inelegant, blunt way.”

“Rarity, I should be the one apologising,” Twilight mumbled, the horrible sting still constricting her throat. “I was weak. I was… I was a stupid, indecisive idiot. I didn’t give the first bit of consideration to how you felt; I wanted to protect us both, but I was just too—” Twilight realised that she was babbling and broke off. Rarity looked up, almost shyly, and their eyes met. “Sorry,” Twilight said, her voice nearly as inaudible as Fluttershy’s. “We need to talk about this; I should have explained it all in the first place when I still had the chance. Shall we… do you want to sit down?”

Rarity nodded, resting a gentle hoof on Twilight’s withers. “I want to understand you, my darling,” she said quietly. Slowly, cautiously, she took a half-step forwards and kissed the alicorn softly on the cheek. The motion was slow and cautious, as nervous as a young filly’s first tentative kiss. Twilight froze, a shivering breath escaping her. Rarity’s alabaster lips lingered against Twilight’s skin for an instant, the unicorn’s heady, nebulous scent enveloping her. Woodlands and wild flowers.

Cheeks a little pink from the frisson that had passed between them, the mares picked their way along a grass pathway, their fur dappled by the flickering yellow lights. Twilight felt suddenly a little fatigued, but almost pleasantly so, as if she had finally felt able to stop after running for hours on end.

Twilight halted by a bench near the bottom of the garden, overlooking the moon-spotted countryside and pleasantly enclosed by a crescent of white calla lilies. The odourless flowers appealed to Twilight in that instant; to obscure Rarity’s perfume, to dull any part of her, would have seemed somehow offensive. The alicorn settled back against the smooth wooden planks, and Rarity followed suit, although now she kept a few inches of deliberate distance between them, perhaps in a gesture of respect or sudden uncertainty.

Twilight opened her mouth to begin her explanation, but found that she could not bring herself to meet Rarity’s gaze, and spoke instead to the grass.

“Living in Ponyville was like a dream. I never quite believed it could end, even though it always seemed too good to be true. Especially in those last few years, when we all knew our lives were pulling at us, that we’d have to go our separate ways sooner or later, even though none of us mentioned it until it started happening. The time felt so precious; my little brother, my four friends…” she looked up shyly, momentarily meeting Rarity’s eyes, “and my best friend. I don’t know how that happened,” her voice sounded almost pleading, “I never deliberately chose between the five of you, but with you it was just so natural. I never felt like I needed to speed up or slow down with you; we just lived at the same pace.”

Twilight stretched her wings a little awkwardly, still not meeting her friend’s gaze. She suddenly felt acutely aware of her limbs, fixing her gaze on a snail making its unhurried progress across a flower beneath them. “But, after… you know, the whole princess thing… I thought I might lose you.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Lose me? Darling, why in Equestria would you think such a thing?”

The alicorn bit her lip. “Because… Oh Rarity, I knew how much it would have hurt you. I knew how you dreamt of this city; the recognition you deserved so much, the fulfilment, a chance to let your art flourish. You worked so hard for this life, day in, day out, and there I was catapulted straight to the top of it all. Celestia thought I deserved it, but I just happened to be born with a few more sparks of magic than most unicorns. It was nothing but an accident of birth, but…” She snorted. “I guess that’s how royalty works; it’s never been fair and it never will be. Every time you’d all wave me off, when I took my carriage into Canterlot for some garden party or ceremony, I was usually too much of a coward to meet your eyes, in case I saw hurt or anger there.”

For a moment, Rarity said nothing. Then, silently, she held out a hoof. The motion was a request, not an insistence. Twilight accepted gratefully, cradling the unicorn’s forehoof between her own. “Twilight,” Rarity murmured, “do you honestly think Princess Celestia chose you simply because you were good at magic? You’re so much more than that, and you know it as well as I do.” She gestured towards her friend’s wings. “Believe me when I say you deserve every last feather. When I saw you on the day of your coronation, you just looked so happy, and we all knew you deserved that happiness. What kind of friend would I be to begrudge you that? Naturally I felt a twinge of jealousy to see you rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, but what in Equestria did I stand to gain from such silly feelings? I suppose I’d grown up a little since that whole business with Fluttershy’s modeling, because even if it hurt a little, that didn’t make me any less happy for you.”

Twilight smiled a little sadly, finally meeting Rarity’s eyes and repressing a sudden powerful urge to embrace the mare. A cloud of moths danced in the nearest lantern’s halo, throwing themselves fruitlessly against the glass. “I never saw that hurt; not one jot of it. I was so scared that we’d drift apart, like I was leapfrogging over all your years of hard work, just for a magic spell. But… we didn’t; you didn’t let it get to you. You didn’t hold it against me. I was so grateful for that.”

The alicorn felt her cheeks darken. She knew that ordinarily her next words would render her tongue-tied and stammering, reducing her to the stumbling bookworm that no amount of life as a princess could ever quite train out of her. She understood their significance, the years for which they had been hidden or suppressed, and the certainty that, if she continued speaking, their friendship would be forever altered, one way or another. At that moment, however, she could not keep them bottled up inside her head for one second longer. Saying them now felt almost easy compared to keeping them locked away. She held the unicorn’s gaze, doggedly forcing herself not to look away, no matter how her face burned.

“Rarity, after the coronation, when we started seeing more of each other, when I knew you weren’t going to let what had happened sour our friendship… that was when things started to change for me.” She heard Rarity’s breath catch momentarily, although she could not say what emotion the sound reflected, instead choosing to plough onwards. “I’d catch myself making excuses to meet up with you, booking days at the spa, visiting the Boutique just to watch you working. Seeing you create made me feel so… oh I don’t know how to explain it; your eye for beauty, the way you made the fabric flow so effortlessly, it was like another language, but you let me pick up a few stray words here and there.”

Twilight shook her head, feeling as if her fur might catch alight. She realised that she was shaking a little, and that Rarity’s hoof was now clasped to her chest. The unicorn smiled a small, tender smile, gently coaxing her to continue. Twilight took a deep breath, unconsciously moving a little closer. “You knew just how to soothe that paranoid old librarian inside my head. I felt calm when you were there, and sometimes I felt that maybe I did the same for you. I started noticing all the little things, that look you get in your eye when something inspires you, the way I’d feel so nervous and aware of myself when I spoke to you, the way your coat glimmers a little blue when the light catches it just right…” She blinked rapidly, biting her lip to cut short the flow of words. “Sorry, I-I’m babbling, it’s just… I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, but I wanted to be more. I wanted to be more than just a friend to you.” Determinedly, she retained eye contact with her friend, watching a gradual flush creep over the unicorn’s cheeks. Rarity’s gaze was soft, her expression inscrutable.

“It was just so gradual, I felt all the… symptoms, but I couldn’t even see what was happening until…” Twilight shook her head once again, gritting her teeth as if at an unpleasant memory. “The day you told me you were leaving. That was what made me realise how I really felt, that was what cut through all the excuses and the passive pain and stupidity. When you told me, it felt like…” She closed her eyes for a second, momentarily unable to choose the right words, soundlessly gesturing to her own chest. “It felt like I’d been stabbed, because right then I could see what had happened to me for the first time, I could see how deep I’d gotten myself, and I knew I could never act on it.”

An odd expression had settled upon Rarity’s face. A light colouration graced the bridge of her nose, and whilst her smile had faded, a tenderness still suffused her gaze. At Twilight’s last words, her eyes widened a little and she leaned forwards, her gaze searching and almost fearful. She rested her free hoof against Twilight’s side and the alicorn leaned into the contact, seeking solace in closeness. “Whyever not, Twilight?” Rarity asked quietly. “I…” She blushed still deeper. “I would have liked for you to tell me, dear…”

“Would you?” A hard, bitter edge now rose in Twilight’s voice. “Would you really?” She broke away from Rarity’s gaze, fearing her eyes may reveal too much. Beneath the painful catharsis of confession, a miniscule bubble of irrepressible excitement rose in the pit of her stomach. There was no anger or hurt in Rarity’s tone; everything about her attitude, from her words to her physical closeness, indicated that no affront had arisen from the feelings Twilight had bared to her. Nevertheless, Twilight knew she must continue; Rarity deserved the whole story. The implications of sharing this confession would wait until later.

This is your fault. You shouldn’t have to admit to these feelings to justify the way you acted. If you tell somepony you want to be more than a friend to them… that should be for its own sake. It should be its own reason, not an explanation for something else.

She knew. Whether she admitted it to herself or not, she’s known for years. Of course she did; it’s Rarity, she can read anypony like a book.

If only you could read yourself so clearly. After that mess at the station, if you’d just acted as if you’d never liked her as anything other than a friend, that would have been forgivable. But you didn’t; you convinced yourself of it as well. You lied to yourself so thoroughly, you hid away all of those memories, all of that love, because you couldn’t take the pain.

“I felt so selfish,” Twilight continued, silencing the snide voice of her own regret, “so wrong… I… I was scared. Of course I was scared; princess or no princess, I’ve always been an awkward, stumbling little bookworm with the social skills of a foal, and nothing’s ever going to change that. Everything about you, the way you understood ponies, the way you just empathise so effortlessly, all that elegance and grace.” Twilight stretched a wing wistfully, glancing askance at the flared primaries. “These didn’t make any difference; how could I ever measure up to you? Besides; Blueblood, those months with Caramel… you were searching for your prince. I’ve always been taught that evidence is the key to the truth, and I didn’t have any reason to think you’d be interested in a princess.”

Twilight smiled, although much like her voice, it was bitter and humourless. Rarity had opened her mouth to respond, but Twilight ploughed recklessly onwards. Speaking so candidly felt like drawing poison from an infected wound, and to stop now would be nigh-impossible. “And what if by some miracle you’d felt the same way? Or been willing to try? Where would that have left us?” She shook her head. “You were leaving for Canterlot, leaving for everything you’d ever wanted. How could I force you to make that choice? I know how hard it was for you to leave us behind, I couldn’t bear making that any more difficult for you. Besides, you know what they’re like in this city, all the aristocrats and high fliers, they’re the ones you needed back then to launch and support you, just like all newcomers here. Imagine if it got published that we were…” She broke off, blushing to her ears, realising how deep her conjecture had led her.

“I couldn’t be so selfish,” she said, her voice now small and choked, “I couldn’t hurt you like that, but I couldn’t let you go. I had to do what was right, to let you leave without any more regrets, no matter what pain it caused me.” With a flare of magic, she plucked a pure white lily from its stem, turning it in mid-air before her sparkling eyes. “But I couldn’t take the pain,” she whispered. Her teeth clenched momentarily and she felt a ripple of magic pass up the length of her horn. The flower tore itself apart with a sharp hiss and the fragments fell, smoking a little, into Twilight’s lap. Rarity jumped a little, taken aback by the violent action.

“I was so close to letting you go,” Twilight whispered, enunciating each word with great care, measuring her tone to keep herself moving relentlessly onwards. “So close to doing the right thing. I said goodbye to you, I told myself to walk away. I tried so, so hard to just walk away, but…” Her voice tailed away. Both mares knew what had transpired instead. “The worst of both worlds,” Twilight choked. “No clean break, no confession, n-nothing I could console myself with. Just… just a big, stupid unanswered q-question…”

Finally, Twilight succumbed to tears, turning away to hide her face from Rarity. The unicorn, however, did not seem content to let her conceal herself. Without hesitation, Rarity slid across the bench and pulled Twilight into a gentle embrace. The alicorn felt her friend’s forehooves close around her, although her vision swam with moisture. She buried her face into Rarity’s shoulder, gratefully reciprocating the hug and shaking with spasmodic, rhythmical sobs. The unicorn cradled the princess, cooing wordless reassurances, shyly nuzzling the top of Twilight’s head.

It felt to Twilight as if all the years of suppressed pain were bleeding from her, as she held Rarity close under the lanterns in the chill mountain air. The unicorn was unfathomably warm, her breaths and murmurs enveloping Twilight every bit as much as her scent. The alicorn looked up into her friend’s face, hiccoughing and still shivering, tears collecting in the fur of her cheeks. “I’m so s-sorry…” she choked.

“Don’t you dare be sorry,” Rarity whispered, leaning her forehead gently against Twilight’s. The intricate metal patterns of her tiara felt pleasantly cool as they rested against Twilight’s sweat-beaded brow. Tentatively, Rarity began to nuzzle at Twilight’s cheeks, timidly kissing away the tears that had settled beneath her eyes. “Oh Celestia, you’ve been sorry for far, far too long…”

Twilight felt her breath catch, a sob paralysing itself in the back of her throat and melting away. She pulled Rarity closer, forehooves latching into the indentation of the mare’s back, cloud-soft alabaster drowning her. “I locked it all away,” Twilight muttered feverishly, spitting the words out between fresh sobs. “It hurt too much; I’d stolen that first taste, I’d managed to lose you and let you down in one stroke, and there was no way I could live with that. You learn tricks here. It’s like you said… you learn when to laugh, you learn what to say and when to say it. It’s not so hard to take that next step, to lock out feelings and memories, to train yourself over and over until you start to believe it.” She gave a harsh, bitter laugh. “As if you can keep something like that buried forever. It’s been near the surface for months now, all it took was for somepony to…” Her voice tailed away. Rarity had experienced tonight by her side; it needed no explanation.

Twilight rested a hoof on her friend’s cheek, anxiously meeting her gaze with bloodshot eyes. “So, that’s… that’s what happened,” she finished lamely, aware of how anticlimactic the words sounded. Without the impetus of her explanation to drive her on, she suddenly felt fully aware of herself, aware of the sweat beading her coat, aware of the way she was entwined around her friend. As the dreamlike sense of unreality retreated, an awareness grew of the feelings to which she had just admitted, and of exactly what she had just told this mare. Now that cathartic momentum had evaporated, a prickling heat of intense embarrassment stole over her body. She looked down, pressing her forehead into Rarity’s neck to avoid meeting the mare’s eyes.

Rarity seemed to sense Twilight’s tension, for she made no move to release her. Instead, she fell to stroking the princess’s mane in long, calming sweeps. The night had fallen fully, the final blush of the sun nowhere to be found in the starlit western sky. The rainbow rivulets that fell from the distant Cloudsdale’s foundations seemed to glow with some internal luminescence, and but for a sprinkling of cottage lights, the countryside spread at the mountain’s foot may as well have not existed. The garden felt suddenly like an oasis, hanging in the moonlit sky, its lamplight holding back the dark.

“It’s alright,” Rarity purred, still stroking Twilight’s mane. The scent of wild flowers engulfed her in its gentle grip. “It’s alright, my darling…”

Nothing mattered. Twilight closed her eyes, the stress draining from her body as she willed the embrace to simply never end. Breaking apart meant facing the mare to whom she had confessed so much. She did not want to confront the question which was now all that remained, the only unknown that still hung in the air between them.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Rarity whispered. “The way things play out; the way the dice fall.” She let out a long breath which flowed over the nape of Twilight’s neck, lavender fur standing on end in its wake. “When does respect turn into friendship? When does one start to care or fear for another? Where does that care turn into something deeper? I don’t doubt you’ve graphed it all out at one time or another, plugged all the numbers into the formulae and drawn up your tables and textbooks.”

“Just because you can explain something with science doesn’t make it a science.” The words fell with a reassuring ease from Twilight’s lips, a little muffled by the fur in which her muzzle was still buried. “Everything can be explained, but we’ll all be worse off if we ever understand some things…”

Rarity let out a low, wordless purr, resting her lips momentarily against Twilight’s forehead in a gesture which was almost motherly. “You made things… complicated for me,” she said quietly. “You’re right; my heart was set upon finding a handsome prince to sweep me off my hooves, or at least a nice colt with whom I might settle down. I desired a relationship which would not consume every part of my life and leave me free to indulge my creativity. A… a middle ground, you might say; no great passion, no trivial dalliances. A perfect and orderly home. I’m sure you realised a long time ago that I desired a clean-cut fairytale; I don’t know what it says about me that I didn’t comprehend the non-existence of such a thing at a far younger age. Certainly, I considered my eye drawn exclusively in the direction of stallions. Perhaps my mind or gaze may have wandered once or twice during my spa sessions with dear Fluttershy, but I considered it simply a product of the sauna’s heat and paid it no great mind. Even when you and I grew together in those last days, when I began to see you as my closest friend, I never considered… never allowed myself to consider you in any other light.”

Twilight’s muscles stiffened a little, although whether in anticipation or fear she could not say. Her brain, for once, felt weak and uncomprehending. She wished to be possessed of Rarity’s empathy; to read ponies as effortlessly as she breezed through tomes of advanced magical theory. Illegibility of any form had always scared and frustrated her, but the eyes of others had never betrayed their secrets plainly to her.

Rarity’s stroking hoof had fallen to rest against the side of Twilight’s neck, the pressure-point of cool smoothness almost tantalising. “Then… oh, you just had to kiss me, didn’t you?” The playful, faux-admonitory sentence seemed at odds with the low, heated intensity in the unicorn’s voice. “Some sensations, no matter how troubling, are simply too delicious to ignore. On the train to Canterlot, all I could do was remember. I told myself I would forget, that I was confused or concerned by what it might mean for our friendship, but forgetfulness was not a luxury afforded to me.”

Twilight shifted her position a little, easing life back into her numbing hind legs, but felt not the faintest desire to pull away from their embrace as Rarity continued to speak. “When I realised what you were about to do, that split-second impulse, it had already happened. I could feel all of that fear, all of the need you keep buried away, the beauty that opens its eyes when you just stop thinking for a few wonderful moments. It was like tasting a glimpse of you; the real you, the you I’d started to see through the cracks that opened in those last weeks. I’d started to fall through those cracks, and that evening, on the platform, I just… I let go.”

Twilight felt as if a balloon were expanding inside her chest, tentative hope, delight and nerves playing together in a stirring mass. “A kiss was always just a kiss for me.” Rarity’s voice had almost failed, falling to a whisper. “A tool, if you will. A means of displaying affection or attraction, an act which served a social function, but that kiss... It felt complete; the feel of you, your breath, your tension and passion… all of a sudden, for a few seconds, you were my princess.” Rarity slipped her forehoof under Twilight’s chin, gently raising the princess’s head to meet her eyes. “All of a sudden, you made things so very complicated.”

The wind had changed, a gentle chill suffusing the air. Twilight felt it run like a strand of silk drawn across the nape of her neck. “I…” Her mouth seemed suddenly very dry. “Do you still…” Steeling herself, she closed her eyes, afraid to meet those of her friend. Darkness paved the way to unreality, leaving a trail of courage in its wake. “I know I’m too late; years too late, but… I could still be your princess, if you’d like.” Twilight’s heart accelerated as the half-unbidden words escaped her. She felt Rarity shift against her, and opened her eyes, almost against her will, to meet that piercing sapphire gaze.

“Well, your Highness, if I might ask one favour of you,” Rarity purred. She leaned back a little, the better to level her appraising gaze upon Twilight. She paused for a moment, as if weighing up the situation. “Kiss me.” The words were sudden, and sounded almost challenging; a playful gauntlet delivered with perfect offhand nonchalance.

Twilight froze, heart jumping almost painfully, trying to force herself to obey. Her lips felt very dry; Rarity was gazing at her with a demure expectancy, a delicate blush gracing her cheeks. Only her eyes and half-parted lips betrayed an undercurrent of heated anticipation in the mare. Her forelegs were draped over Twilight, one entwined around her waist, the other resting against the side of her neck. The ease of her sensual elegance left Twilight feeling unsubtle and clumsy in her actions.

Come on, Twilight; she wants this! You’ve done it before, it’s easy.

I’ve done it once before; what if I mess it up now? What if I get it wrong?

Oh… just shut up and kiss her!

Screwing up her courage, Twilight closed her eyes and leaned blindly forwards. For a horrible moment, she thought she had missed and would simply encounter fur. Then, she felt Rarity’s pouted lips mould against her own, soft and heated. The sudden contact robbed her of her breath, wrong-footing and alarming her. The unicorn murmured assent, leaning her head a little to the side; Twilight tried to follow suit, but could not fathom where her teeth were supposed to fit in this intricate connection.

Oh Celestia, oh Celestia, what do I do?

She felt the muscles of her back and forelegs tense with something close to panic, drowning out any triumphant euphoria that may have accompanied the contact. She could not move; her lips felt stiff, unyielding and inadequate against Rarity’s fluid warmth. Was she supposed to breathe through her nose or mouth?

Just do something!

It was too late, however; Rarity pulled gently away from the kiss, although she did not release Twilight from her embrace.

“I’m sorry!” Twilight squeaked, feeling more embarrassed than she could ever remember having felt before. Her cheeks shone a shameful scarlet. “I just… I couldn’t think.”

“Darling.” Rarity’s voice was gentle, the voice of a mare extending a guiding hoof. Twilight could not look at her; first kisses were not supposed to go like this. “You thought about it far too much. The last time you kissed me, you didn’t think for a second; you just acted. You didn’t think about the mechanics of it, or the implications of it, you kissed me because you wanted it.” To Twilight’s surprise, she smiled. The expression bore an enticing glint of something more than tenderness.

In a swooping motion, Rarity pressed her lips against the side of Twilight’s jawbone. Almost against her will, a little shivering gasp escaped the alicorn. “I want you to relax, my darling,” Rarity purred. Twilight felt her heated lips edge gradually downwards, before sweeping a trail of kisses over the side of her neck. She squirmed involuntarily, chewing her tongue as Rarity toyed with the sensitive skin, the tip of her tongue lingering for a moment after her lips pulled away.

Twilight’s eyes drifted closed. Her cheeks still glowed a furious red, but the flush was now born of delight as much as embarrassment. For the first time, the last half-hour’s magnitude truly struck her; finally being honest with both herself and her friend, confronting the feelings she had kept locked away for so long, had been all her mind could dwell on. Now, however, she understood what admitting those feelings might mean, and finally allowed herself to believe the impossible: that Rarity felt the same for her. The veil of abstract unreality seemed to lift, and comprehension struck her with the force of a charging buffalo. The mare entwined around her was Rarity, the mare who had haunted the corners of her mind for years, that impossible, unattainable creature. She let out a gasp as Rarity darted higher, exploring behind Twilight’s ears with a skillful tongue, teasing sensitive spots that Twilight had never even realised would elicit such sharp sparks of pleasure.

The alicorn felt her muscles loosen; as the tension drained from her, her wings bloomed slowly outwards, unfurling unabashedly wide. The involuntary action drew a nervous giggle from Twilight, who felt unaccustomed to baring such intimate emotions so plainly. Rarity let out an approving murmur. “That’s right, darling,” she whispered, lips brushing against Twilight’s ear as she spoke. “Oh, Celestia, I want you to feel…”

It suddenly occurred to Twilight that they were sitting in a public garden; anypony could happen by and catch sight of her so entwined, wings so compromisingly flared. However, as Rarity nuzzled warmly at her cheek, drowning the alicorn in her enticing warmth, such mundane things as passers-by seemed suddenly not to matter.

Twilight did not know how it happened, but suddenly Rarity's lips were a hair's breadth from her own, the night's biting cold duetting with the heat of their bodies. Twilight felt her eyelids flicker as Rarity's satin-soft coat caressed her chest. The flirtatious mare was toying exquisitely with her, grazing her mouth gently down over Twilight's chin before returning her delicious attentions once more to Twilight’s neck, catching a patch of supple skin delicately between her teeth. The alicorn let out a low gasping murmur, trapped midway between surprise, reproach and delight. Instantly, the bright sharpness melted into warmth as Rarity resumed trailing slow, lingering kisses over the curve of her neck.

"Please do forgive my impropriety, Princess," purred the unicorn, although her seductive self-assurance left no doubt as to who was in control of the situation.

"R-Rarity…" mumbled Twilight, trying desperately to maintain a coherent train of thought. "What if… what if somepony sees?"

That indescribable tongue was now flowing, liquid-like across the base of her horn, sending a strange pattern of pleasure dancing like melody through Twilight's mind. "Oh, a wonderful scandal, I'm sure," murmured Rarity, entwining herself a little closer around the alicorn. "If you'd like, I can stop…"

Twilight made no such request, instinctually tracing a shivering finger of magic down the curve of her friend's back. She offered no effort to withdraw her extravagantly flared wings, letting them speak for her state of mind. The thousand little sounds of the night-time city rumbled on around them, yet they were somehow separate.

Suddenly, Rarity's face was level with Twilight's. "All these years… Promise me you won't be a stranger again, Twilight," she whispered. "No matter how the end of the road looks, promise you'll walk it with me."

Twilight hesitated for a second. Her heart was hammering, her cheeks a heated burgundy at this strange, alien intimacy. She tried to speak, but her eyes were full of tears and a mass in her throat constricted her words. She understood that Rarity was offering so much more than a mere escape from solitude. "I… I p-pr…" Her voice faltered, too choked for true coherence. She felt a shiver run through Rarity's body, some unspoken acknowledgement, or perhaps an expectation; the mare's calm face filled Twilight's vision, and the alicorn saw black-stained tear tracks trailing down from her friend's eyes. She knew that Rarity understood. Rarity always understood, with that quiet intuition that let her read every nuance and intricacy of emotion that escaped the less empathic.

Twilight kissed her.

She had not intended to do so; she knew no conscious impulse or premeditation. She would have preferred to offer some form of signal or warning, or simply to have let Rarity retain the lead in their little tryst, but her conscious mind had apparently deserted its post for one wild, wonderful instant. She needed this mare; sense, decorum, fear and consciousness be damned. The first she registered of her own action was Rarity's molten little moan of longing, the sharp clench of warmth in the pit of her stomach, and the soft, yielding heat of her friend's lips.

It was not a refined, princess-like kiss. It was a slow, unabashedly savoured, open-mouthed affair. Twilight felt a half-acknowledged fear for an instant, hoping against hope that Rarity would not object to such a kiss, but her peripheral worries were allayed in a delightful haze as the unicorn took the lead, catching her tongue in a decadent, exploratory dance. Twilight had grown used in recent years to keeping her emotions in check, to being refined and elegant in every word and action. The sense of release was thrilling, and she found herself close to hoping that somepony would happen upon the scene, only to find their princess kissing another mare in such a lewd, intimate way.

Twilight knew all too well that she was less than accomplished in the field of kissing; it was not something that could be picked apart and studied piece by piece, especially not midway through the act itself. Her brain was trapped halfway between ecstasy and that old panic, although now the latter served to fuel her, not hinder her. Some part of her brain still processed and analysed, although it did so unobtrusively, the questions floating half-noticed in her addled mind.

Did it matter that the tips of their horns were touching, or that her forehooves were simply wrapped awkwardly around her friend's back? Should she be concerned by the hammer-blows dancing in her chest, or the involuntary murmurs of affirmation rising in her throat? It did not matter. Now was surely not the time to answer such questions, and Rarity did not now seem to care one jot about her partner's inexperience. The syrupy bite of the cocktail still lingered teasingly on the unicorn's tongue as Rarity continued to guide her, the kiss seeming, paradoxically, to both cloud and heighten Twilight's senses.

The alicorn had a vague sense, born of long evenings alone in her library's romance section, that now was the time to break apart in perfect understanding and to make their confessions and promises. However, in truth, neither mare yet felt the faintest inclination to stop. Rarity's mane was falling from its elaborate styling, tickling Twilight's face. The lavender mare could feel Rarity's tears against her cheek, and their every point of contact prickled with heat. Rarity had regained full control of the situation, reaching down with a gentle forehoof to caress Twilight's hind leg, the smooth tip dancing expertly across the outermost stars of her cutie mark.

The cold surface of the bench pressed against Twilight's luxuriously spread wings as she lay supine, more passive now, content to lightheadedly accept the slow, suckling ministrations that Rarity seemed so glad to offer.

This is much better, isn’t it?

Oh, hush.

After a few more delicious moments had elapsed, Rarity pulled away from the kiss with a tiny parting whine of pleasure. She gazed appraisingly down at the reclining princess, her mane beautifully disheveled, her tongue still hanging with a deliberate sensuality from between her parted lips.

"Darling," she purred, grinning down at Twilight. "Oh, a thousand times over… that was worth every last second of waiting."

Twilight could not stop herself from smiling broadly back; in truth, she wanted to laugh. She wanted to keep this glorious sense of weightlessness for the rest of her days, and if that meant spending the rest of her days kissing Rarity, then that seemed a perfectly agreeable state in which to spend a lifetime. "Oh Celestia," she breathed, half-laughing. On reflection it felt strange, using the name of her friend and equal in such a way, but it remained a natural impulse even after so many years. Besides, in that instant such things did not matter; she was content to drink in Rarity's smile. Nopony had ever smiled at her like that before, with such unabashed desire flashing in their eyes.

She let her head fall lazily back onto the cold bench, grinning. Waves of something close to shock crashed over her; the night’s events had not yet sunk in. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day, she would understand. She had as much time as she wanted in which to understand.

“That was wonderful,” she whispered.

Her newfound lover nodded slowly, biting her lower lip with a deliberate, slow sensuality. “So, your Highness,” she purred, “might I have the honour of calling you my princess?”

Twilight met Rarity’s eyes in silence for a moment. “Your princess…” she repeated, savouring the shape of the words. Her smile widened, and she infused her voice with the pretentious Canterlot tone which hung on the air of every high-society ballroom. “I think that arrangement would be quite satisfactory, my dear subject.” The last words were drowned in giggles. Doubting the feasibility of any further vocal response, Twilight pulled her marefriend into a fresh kiss.

When, breathless, they broke reluctantly apart, laughter still bubbled in Twilight’s voice. “If I’m your princess… what does that make you?“

Rarity smiled, nuzzling Twilight’s cheek. “I have no idea, quite frankly. I suppose we shall find out.” She leaned still closer. “So, my darling…” she murmured. “Would I be accurate in suggesting that this is something close to the ending you had hoped for?”

Twilight smiled a sad little smile, feeling her eyes sting at the words. She nodded soundlessly, stroking Rarity’s luxuriant curls with a free hoof. “If only…” Her words faded away into an oddly absolute silence. She did not need to finish the sentence.

Then, the bubble in which they were cocooned seemed to burst. A cold, leaden mass slid down and settled in Twilight’s belly; it did not quench her delight, but seemed to throw its context into sharp relief.

Twilight slid out from under Rarity’s heavenly softness, drawing a low moan of protest from her lover, and walked a few feet to the very edge of the cliffside garden. She gazed out into the darkness, head a little bowed.

“I used to love fairy tales when I was a foal,” she said quietly. “One kiss could make everything better, it could make all the problems in the world just go away.” She let out a long, low breath, pushing it out into the emptiness before her. “We won’t be able to keep this quiet. You know that, don’t you?”

She felt a warm kiss press against the nape of her neck, and jumped a little, so silently had Rarity approached her. “Whyever would we want to keep this quiet?” the unicorn purred, her voice molten.

Twilight closed her eyes. “It’d be a scandal; you said it yourself. You know what the upper circles of this city are like.” She reached back, resting a hoof on Rarity’s shoulder. “The papers will all explode. One of the city’s top fashionistas and Equestria’s newest princess caught together? You saw what it was like: the staring, the whispering, the intrusion? It would all become so much worse, and I’d hate myself for dragging you through that.”

Rarity practically purred, touching her lips to the side of Twilight’s neck. “Darling… who cares?”

Twilight was caught off guard by the uncharacteristically prosaic turn of phrase; she had expected an elegant soliloquy.

“Maybe once upon a time it would have mattered,” Rarity continued soothingly. “In my early days here, I was yet to be established. My career was a fragile thing; if the boat had been rocked by such a revelation back then, it might easily have capsized. But now? I’m not invincible, but I daresay I am above the petty touch of the gossip magazines. And as for the attention?” Rarity shook her head. “Who cares?” she repeated. “You’re worth it; you’re worth it a thousand times over.”

Twilight blushed, wordlessly reaching out a wing to drape over the unicorn’s back. Rarity accepted the grateful gesture, nestling against the princess’s side with a wordless hum of contentment. “You know Celestia and Luna will be on our side,” she continued. “Our friends, too. Everypony who matters to us will support us; you know that as well as I do. Why bother about what the cucumber sandwiches think?”

“You’re right.” Twilight nodded, gazing out into the nothingness, her eyes settling upon the glowing marble of Cloudsdale. “Even if you weren’t… Oh, it wouldn’t matter.” She smiled, feeling a shiver pass through her. “Besides, it’s not like we’re trapped in the crowds all the time. I don’t see any cameras now, do you?”

“Now that you mention it, I don’t believe I do.” An enticing grin stole over Rarity’s lips, and she rested a hoof against Twilight’s cheek. “But I saw you today; you don’t like it. You don’t like being treated as royalty, facing all the stares and the whispers. It makes you uncomfortable. If we go public, all of that would only get worse for you.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Twilight whispered forcefully.

“I understand that, dear, of course. But…” Rarity coyly curled a lock of her mane with an errant tendril of magic. “Who says we have to go public right away?”

The alicorn turned, her interest piqued. “You mean… we keep it a secret?”

“Oh, I don’t for a moment think we should keep our friends in the dark, nor the princesses, but…” Rarity’s mischievous grin widened. “It would be rather fun to keep our little affair de coeur a strictly secretive one, would it not?” She playfully flicked Twilight’s nose with the tip of her mane. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t find such dalliances a little exciting?”

Twilight blushed deeply. Several years worth of library evenings had left her with some idealised and second-hand experience of the thrill and mystique of an illicit romance. To be offered that experience so directly left her a little nervous, and more than a little interested. An insistent bubble of desire rose in the pit of her stomach and she clasped Rarity closer with her wing, stroking a tendril of magic down the mare’s neck. “You know we’ll be caught one day, don’t you?” she whispered, her voice uncharacteristically smoky.

“Oh, of course, my darling,” Rarity murmured. “But this way just seems infinitely more indulgent than merely announcing our…” She stole a brief kiss from the corner of Twilight’s lips. “…Our situation. And besides, when the story does break, it seems only fair to give the glossies something to get their teeth into, doesn’t it?”

Twilight giggled, tracing circles in the fur of Rarity’s chest with an idle hoof. “You know, Rarity, I quite like the sound of all this…”

Suddenly dominant, the silvery mare clasped Twilight’s chin in a magical grip, the magical field caressing yet firm. Rarity smirked, flirtatiously biting her lower lip as she turned the alicorn’s head to face her. Twilight felt her wings twitch outwards, and she forced back a tiny moan.

“You’ll be my princess,” Rarity whispered, eyes half-lidded and seductive. “And me? I’ll be your little secret…”

Twilight could scarcely imagine a more agreeable secret to keep. She would have quite liked to tell Rarity so, but an instant later, her tongue was otherwise engaged. It was a compromise she felt entirely willing to make. On the other side of the fence, the mountainside fell away beneath them; they stood on a borderline between the city and the empty sky. A perfect meeting place.

Twilight turned her body to face the unicorn, committing her fullest attention to the slow, languid kiss. One of her wings was still wrapped around Rarity’s back, and she flared the other to drape over her neck, caressing the snowy fur with the edge of her primary feathers. Rarity giggled warmly at the pleasurable tickling sensation, her forehoof idly buried in Twilight’s mane. For the life of her, Twilight still could not fathom how Rarity could predict her movements so effortlessly, or react to her inexpert ministrations with such graceful ripostes.

“I really need to practice that more,” Twilight mumbled sheepishly, rosy-cheeked and panting a little as their lips finally parted.

“You were lovely, darling,” Rarity reassured her warmly. She rested her forehead against Twilight’s, smirking as she teased a soft tendril of magic over the curve of her back. “But if you really feel you need the practice, I might just be able to assist you…”

Twilight grinned, her ears turning bright pink. This kind of treatment would take some getting used to.

Then again, she reflected, they had all the time in the world.


Twenty minutes later, an idle passer-by might have caught sight of a princess and a dressmaker wending their way home, ambling through the thronging streets.

They made no contact, but a small, secret smile graced the dressmaker’s face. The princess’s cheeks were pink, her expression a still a little shell-shocked. Beyond a few murmured words, they did not speak; it seemed as if their conversation was, for the moment, exhausted.

“Well, my dear, thank you for a lovely night out.” She let out a long, relaxed sigh, glancing sideways at Twilight. “It was certainly eye-opening for me.”

The front gate of Twilight’s garden had clanged shut behind them. The alicorn chuckled at the mock-formality. “Hey, it was your idea; I should really be thanking you.”

They reached Twilight’s door, halting. Her house was an elegant red-brick affair, neat and self-contained without the faintest extravagance of royalty. The only indication that the place belonged to a pony somewhat beyond the ordinary was a wide glass dome built into the roof, from which the barrel of a large and elaborate brass telescope protruded up into the night sky.

“You finally got that thing installed then?” Rarity gestured upwards.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe the hassle the crane guys put me through, but it is so worth it.” She scuffed a hoof awkwardly against the doorstep. “I, um… would you like to come in for a coffee?”

Rarity smirked, raising her eyebrows ever-so-slightly. “You know, that is a tempting offer.”

Twilight suddenly realised the connotations of her words, flushing scarlet and raising an apologetic forehoof. In truth, she had simply hoped to spend a little longer with Rarity, and had spoken without thinking. “I-I didn’t mean—I just… I didn’t want to say goodbye just yet.” She flushed a little deeper at the admission, hoping her words did not come across as childish or clingy.

She met Rarity’s eyes nervously. The mare smiled an altogether softer smile. “A coffee sounds lovely, my darling.”

Twilight grinned sheepishly back, absent-minded dispelling the magical lock that held her front door closed. She still had a lot to learn.

Rarity trotted indoors with a murmur of thanks, and Twilight hung back to close the door behind them.

Outside, the night wore on. Shouts and snippets of distant music shivered on the breeze. Before Twilight shut the door, she rested against the frame for a moment. Her eyes roved over the crowds passing outside her gate, over the spires of the university and the parapets of the palace. In some small way, the city felt different now. Warmer, more wild, deep and enticing.

Twilight could not deny that tonight was the ending she had hoped for, and yet, somehow, it did not feel like an ending. Tonight was the first chapter, not the epilogue.

It was the perfect night for secrets to be shared.

And, surely, she still had those bottles of Baltimare vintage tucked away in the cellar?

Smiling to herself, the princess let the front door swing closed with a small click.