The brakes of the train screeched to a halt as it pulled in at the station. Amidst the steam from the undercarriage, a mare stepped out onto the platform.
Her outfit was overdone for a mere train trip. A tight yellow suit fitted around her slender white frame and was set off by the jaunty sun hat she sported atop her mass of purple curls.
Rarity clutched the small case she had brought along with her in her magical aura as she scanned the platform. Despite the grace and ease with which she composed herself, her eyes gave her away. Fear was written in their every glance. Time had not been kind to this mare, now past her prime, her beauty remained only in tatters of what it once was. As a youth, Rarity had always glowed, a healthy sheen enveloping her body. She now appeared lack lustre, and the skin which she worked so hard to maintain was beginning to show evidence of her ageing.
Self consciously, Rarity manoeuvred her head so that the sun hat shaded her face more fully. It was then that she spied a young colt who was evidently manning the station. He couldn't have been more than 18, a spattering of freckles lined his cheeks and crossed his muzzle. A red hat was strapped onto his head which made him appear more ridiculous than officious. Rarity cleared her throat gently and began an elegant trot towards him, being sure to hold her head at the angle she practiced when she gazed into her looking-glass.
Despite the trajectory of her trot, she turned quite suddenly as if to avoid the colt and coquettishly flicked her tail so that it brushed against his forelegs. The colt jumped a little in surprise, he had been lost in a daydream and had not noticed Rarity for a moment. He stepped back, thinking he had been in the mares way when he saw her tilt her head a little and give him a sidelong glance.
"Oh, pardon me sir, I didn't mean to brush you."
The colt swallowed hard as he looked into her glimmering eyes, half closed in an attempt to make them more alluring. "That's quite alright, ma'am."
Rarity feigned a gasp. "Please! I am not quite that old yet, am I? You may call me, Miss." She fluttered her eyelashes exaggeratedly.
"T-terribly sorry, miss." The colt stammered a little as he felt himself blush. "Uh, can I help you with anything?"
Rarity giggled. "You certainly can. You see, this is my first trip to Manehatten. Could you point me in the direction of this address?" Rarity handed the colt a piece of paper which he took with a smile. As he read the destination his smile disappeared and he glanced at Rarity in a confused manner.
"You're sure this is where you're headed?"
Rarity forced a look she hoped could be described as charming while she struggled to keep down the anxiety rising within her. "I certainly am." She forced out a chuckle.
The colt regarded her curiously a moment longer. "Well then I best call you a cab, it's quite a way from here..." He turned to leave only to be cut off.
"Oh no! You mustn't do that!" Rarity checked herself, that exclamation had come across a little too vehemently. She quickly regained her practiced pose and put on her best coquettish eyes. "I mean, I simply adore walking, particularly in new and interesting places, I simply can't imagine wasting an opportunity like this!"
"But ma'am it's really no neighbourhood to..."
Rarity coughed. "Miss." She corrected with a mild glare. The colt was taken aback. Rarity shook her mane lightly and smiled again, "now if you would please be so kind as point me in the direction of the address, I may be on my way."
The colt reluctantly gave in. "As you wish, miss. Keep heading west for about 20 minutes and turn down onto..."
Rarity double checked the address.
It was evident now why the colt had been confused. Rarity stood in her tailored outfit on one of the dirtiest backstreets of Manehatten. Before her stood a four storey high apartment block with peeling yellow paint adorning its facade. The bottom most wall had several graffiti tags scattered along its length, a dark stain against one part of the wall where a leaky pipe ran down. The road itself was littered with all manner of rubbish and a puddle that hugged the curb glowed in the sun with a shimmering oil stain upon its surface.
A bearded stallion loitered against the lightpost on the street corner and leered at her. Rarity felt his gaze upon her and shivered, finally deciding that she had no choice but to enter through the beat up door before her, lest some nasty fate befall her on this dingy neighbourhood walkway.
The hallway had carpet that felt slightly sticky under hoof. And the walls rising beside her were adorned with chunks of crumpled plaster that no pony had ever thought to fix. The smell of cigarettes and a faint hint of urine pervaded the lower floor. Rarity held her breath and felt a strange coldness come over her as though she may faint. She bit her lip and cursed her weakened nerves as she ascended the stairwell.
Rarity paused and felt a wave of happiness come over her as she heard that voice again. How long had it been? Almost three years now... Too long.
"Rarity!!! It is you!"
Rarity did not hesitate as she bounded up the last few steps to the second floor, she heard the thudding of excited hooves moving down the stairwell above her and then, she came into sight. She looked radiant and dazzling. A rose amongst thorns in this filthy building, somehow the muck surrounding her had no effect on her, as though she were immune to it.
"SWEETIE!!!" Rarity leapt forward and into the welcoming hooves of her baby sister. For a moment, Rarity too transcended the filth they stood amongst.
The two hugged each other for what seemed like an eternity, but a happy one. Rarity sobbed quietly into her sisters hair, it smelt of jasmine. She gripped Sweetie Belle to her as though her life depended upon it. Sweetie Belle did not protest for a moment. "It's been too long!" Rarity uttered dramatically. "Come on, lets get out of this awful hallway so I can get a good look at you!" She sniffed as she reluctantly pulled away from Sweetie Belle and gave her the first genuine smile Rarity had offered in a long while.
Sweetie wiped a tear from her eye and nodded with a laugh. "Agreed!"
"Well, it's not much, but its home. And you're very welcome in it!"
Sweetie Belle turned back to Rarity from the curtain she had just pulled open and gave off a dazzling smile. She had become a beauty that could truly rival her older sister. Her pink and lilac curls flowed in large wild bunches around her eyes and neck, her tail a great long strand that separated out into two voluptuous waves. Sweetie Belle's eyes shimmered intensely and her movements were full of natural grace. But her beauty was unlike Rarity's in one very fundamental way. There was nothing overtly seductive about Sweetie's looks, where Rarity's beauty had always been somewhat superficial, Sweetie Belle seemed to shine from within. She was pure and innocent. Even despite her current living circumstances, Sweetie had maintained her filly-like naivety.
Sweetie laughed. "Rarity, take a seat and for goodness sake! Stop staring at me like that!"
"I can't help it. You're simply dazzling, Sweetie." Rarity took a seat on a low brown leather sofa. It was rather worn down, but clean and comfortable, much like the flat that housed it. One could hardly call the place tidy, but it was by no means dirty. The decor was simple, but slightly too cluttered. Piles of sheet music sat idly upon every surface available. A guitar was precariously positioned against the leg of the sofa. On the mantle piece was a vase full of pansies which was surrounded by various bottles of alcohol.
"You still look just as beautiful as ever." Sweetie beamed as she sat by Rarity who was now eyeing off the alcohol. Her concentration broke.
"Oh come now!" Rarity feigned bashfulness. She was never one to turn down a compliment and Sweetie Belle knew this all to well.
"I mean it. You haven't aged a day!"
"Don't be ridiculous." Rarity gave off a fake laugh.
Sweetie grabbed at her sisters forehooves and gave off a small squeal. "Oh Rarity, we have so much catching up to do! You have to tell me all about what's happening in Ponyville!"
Rarity felt an involuntary twitch in her left eye. She forced a smile. "Ponyville? Why, who wants to hear about that old place!" She leaned away from Sweetie Belle and blinked rapidly trying to steady the sudden nausea pouring over her. "Oh no, I want to hear all about my baby sister who's living in the big city! Manehatten!" Rarity tried to focus on Sweetie and laughed a little. "Who'd have ever dreamed it?"
"Rarity?" Sweetie Belle grasped her sisters shoulder. "Are you okay? You don't look very well..."
"Nonsense, I'm... I'm just tired from my journey..."
Sweetie Belle bit her lip in concern. "Of course. You just lay back. How selfish of me... How about I get you a drink?"
Rarity felt her tongue begin to itch at the word. "Under normal circumstances I would never drink at such an hour, but I believe just this once I should be fine..."
Sweetie Belle smiled as she regarded her weakened sister who fell into a dramatically fatigued position, her right forehoof stretched out to cover her eyes. "Do you like Scotch?"
"Scotch is fine..." Rarity tried to speak hesitantly but the urge within her for a drink was scorching. She felt saliva pulse around her tongue as she heard the tinkling of the alcohol pushing the ice within against the glass. "Thank you dear." She sighed as she took the glass and drained it whole, savouring each drop.
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. She'd never seen her sister drink like that before. "You must be really thirsty..."
Rarity laughed. "I've never handled travel well. Now, darling. You simply must tell me how you ended up here! What in Equestria is going on? One second you were destined for stardom and luxury and now I found you here..."
Sweetie Belle pulled an uncomfortable face.
Her special talent had turned out to be singing. This came as no great surprise to most ponies that knew Sweetie, for she had always had a wonderful voice. What no pony expected was the invitation she received to study music at the Royal Canterlot Conservatoire. Age 14, Sweetie Belle left home to pursue a dream career as a mare of the stage. Her studies had been quite successful and Sweetie was highly regarded at the Conservatoire for her skills, her tutors certain of her future stardom.
It was customary for Sweetie Belle to come back to Ponyville on all her holidays, but during her second year of study, Rarity made the decision to fulfil her dream and move herself to Canterlot.
Rarity could still remember the last week they spent together. They attended two operas that week and a fashion show held by Sapphire Shores. They had dined at all the finest restaurants and attended the charity ball where Fancy Pants had been reunited with Rarity. But shortly after Sweetie Belle's return to school, she had been invited to perform at a special function in Manehatten and had never returned. After a month, a letter of resignation from the conservatoire arrived with no return of address.
"My life changed course, that's all. But it's been for the best."
"What do you mean? Why didn't you come back?"
"I found something better than a career, Rarity. I found a life!" Sweetie Belle glowed as she spoke, her eyes focusing on something outside of this room, something beyond physicality.
"You fell in love?" Rarity didn't really need to ask, Sweetie Belle grinned again as she squeezed her sisters hooves and simply nodded dumbly. Rarity sighed dejectedly, she wished she could share her sisters enthusiasm, but Rarity had been left with no illusions about romance. "I see..."
"I can't wait for you to meet him!"
"Nor can I." Rarity gave her Sweetie Belle a half smile, and promised internally that she would try to be supportive of her sister.
"Oh, I just remembered, I left some washing up on the roof. I'll only be a minute, you sit back and relax!"
Sweetie Belle rushed away, still grinning.
Rarity glanced at the bottles on the mantel again. "At least now I can be sure that Sweetie hasn't become an alcoholic..." Rarity sat bolt upright. What if he lived here too? That hadn't occurred to Rarity before now, that Sweetie Belle may not be entirely alone here. Of course she had expected some friends to be buzzing around... But a stallion?
She froze. The voice behind her was deep and evidently belonged to a stallion. But just as the voice knew her, she knew it. Only Rarity couldn't recall where from. It was as though it were calling to her out of a past life...
She waited for the voice to speak again, but it did not. Hesitantly, Rarity turned. She couldn't fathom why she felt so apprehensive...
"What are you doing here?" A vague maliciousness rang in the voice.
"I... I'm visiting my sister. I... What are..." Rarity felt faint again.
The voice did not belong to a stallion. Standing at the threshold of the room was a taller and leaner version of a dragon Rarity had known several years ago. Rarity felt herself pale as a thousand memories washed over her.
"Told you I'd only..." Sweetie Belle paused as she came into the room carrying her washing behind her in a bundle of sparkling green. She seemed as though she might have smiled, but she caught the tension in the air too soon.
After a moment of awkward silence, Rarity coughed a little. "What a pleasant surprise this is! Why, it's almost as if we were having a reunion!"
The smile she faked was latched onto immediately by Sweetie Belle who was anxious to the lighten the mood. "Right? Isn't it lovely to see Rarity again, Spike. It's like old times!" She nudged him lightly and laughed. "Who'd have ever thought we'd be meeting again like this though..." Her eyes sparkled as Spike turned and gave her a knowing smile. Rarity's eyes switched from Spike to Sweetie, her heart sinking as she became undeniably aware of the chemistry between the two. Spike curled an arm around an entranced Sweetie Belle as they turned to look at Rarity who forced another smile.
"Somehow, I always knew you two would end up together!" Rarity watched her blissful sister blush in sweet delight as her gaze never left the towering Spike. "And what a lovely couple you make too." Spike shot Rarity a look that caused her to twitch uncomfortably before breaking into a forced chuckle as she decided to focus on Sweetie Belle, but soon found that the weight of Spikes eyes were not as easily lost. Releasing a heavy sigh, Rarity twirled around and came to rest on the couch again, with her back to the pair. "You must excuse me, I'm still quite worn out."
Sweetie Belle moved forward as if to go to her sister, but Spike held her back and leaned in to whisper something in her ear which caused her to nod and leave the room.
Spike however did not move, much to the agony of Rarity. Neither spoke for what seemed an eternity. Rarity felt her brain throbbing with new found anxieties as her last encounter with Spike sprang back to mind. Was he recalling that day as well?
Rarity hoped desperately that he were not. Maybe he'd forgotten about all that... Forgiven her? Maybe they could just move on. But why was he with Sweetie Belle, of all ponies, why her sister? And why were no explanations given?
"So you're the reason she never came home?" Rarity's voice was suddenly deeper and more at ease, her forced glee washed away by a sudden frankness.
Spike stared at the back of the unicorn sitting before him. Her suit had become creased and slightly spoiled on her walk over from the train station and a few idle hairs had begun to fall from the neat style she had arranged under her hat earlier today. In many ways, she was the same Rarity he had developed such an endearing crush over as a child and yet in other ways she was not. Somehow, the mare before him was so far removed from the ideals of the younger Rarity. As she sat now she came across as some pony defeated and worn out. Her beauty and elegance had become a mask, and an easily recognised one at that.
"I would have thought you'd be thanking me."
Rarity gasped and her eyes narrowed as Spike came around to face her. "How dare you! I lost my sister because of you! I lost everything, I..." She paused as she saw Spike's eyes narrow on her now. With a slight gulp she bit her tongue.
"I'll ignore what you said just now. And before you ask, Sweetie Belle doesn't know anything about all that business, and I intend that she never does." He paused to give Rarity a warning look before both of them pulled smiles onto their faces as Sweetie Belle's hoof steps drew nearer the room.
"Dinner will be ready soon,do you mind setting out the plates for me Spikey?" She smiled sweetly as she walked over and nuzzled the dragon lightly. He gave off a short sigh before glaring in Rarity's and direction and following Sweetie out of the room.
Rarity sat alone on the couch blank faced. Unconsciously she listened to Sweetie Belle chattering away to Spike as a spoon could be heard scraping at a pan and dishes clattered onto the table.
What did all of this mean?